Home Tech Russians love YouTube. That’s a problem for the Kremlin.

Russians love YouTube. That’s a problem for the Kremlin.

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 Russians love YouTube. That's a problem for the Kremlin.

Milov emphasizes that YouTube is not just a one-way service: because it allows users to comment and chat anonymously, it provides an extraordinary opportunity for ordinary Russians to express themselves without fear of censorship.

“The amount of feedback we receive is enormous,” he says. “I alone literally receive messages, every day, from at least hundreds of people from all over the country. When something serious happens? Thousands”. Sometimes, Milov says, his first clue that something terrible has happened in Russia is to see how many unread messages he has in his YouTube inbox.

Milov says this feedback reinforces the idea, supported even by Kremlin-approved pollsters, that opposition to the war in Ukraine is growing. But it also provides some important details and nuances. “So this is, I would say, a huge discussion group, which you can also communicate with. You can ask them questions.” He chuckles, thinking of the famous Russian security and intelligence agency: “You know, the FSB would kill for this kind of information.”

“Obviously the question en, why didn’t Putin shut down YouTube? says Milov. “Easier said than done”.

In recent years, Moscow has deployed a series of strategies to intimidate and suppress independent media and the open Internet in Russia. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have been blocked completely. Independent outlets such as Meduza, TV Rain and The Insider have been declared “undesirable” or labeled “foreign agents”.

Despite everything, YouTube has survived.

Milov says the Kremlin was too slow to act on YouTube. By the time Moscow banned other popular Western platforms, the Google-owned video platform had become indispensable to ordinary Russians. “They kind of let the genie out of the bottle,” Milov says.

“YouTube is where moms show cartoons to children, teenagers watch music videos, people watch comedians, old people watch old Soviet movies, which are widely available there, and so on,” he says. “And you turned it all off? So from now on you will have these empty afternoons.”

Unable to disrupt YouTube, the Kremlin desperately tried to compete with it.

Moscow had high hopes for Rutube, a long-suffering YouTube clone that relaunched in 2020 after a merger with the media arm of state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. If the site’s “top videos” section is to be believed, it hasn’t worked: some had racked up view counts in the thousands.

VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, has fared slightly better with its video-sharing platform and is littered with pro-Kremlin stations. But even its most popular channels have only a small fraction of the largest Russian-language YouTube accounts.

“It’s like a big room, but empty,” Milov says of these Kremlin-backed alternatives.

Unable to compete with his online critics, Milov believes Putin opted for a more direct strategy. Just a few days before my arrival in Vilnius, thugs appeared in front of the house of Leonid Volkov, former president of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Nalvany’s chief of staff. Armed with hammers, they savagely beat him. Lithuanian intelligence believes the arrested men were operating under orders from Russia. A week after the attack, Volkov was back on youtubewith his arm in a sling, “I’m not going to stop, although I will gesture less in the coming weeks,” he said.

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