In a country with a seemingly insatiable appetite for information denial, Russia’s September 20 announcement that it would not block YouTube to the millions who rely on it came as a bit of a surprise.
Maksut Shadayev, minister of digital development, ultimately responsible for Russian internet policy, and a prominent parliamentarian Alexander Khinshtein, who has always been very close to the security services, assured the public that the government was not about to shut it down (unlike all independent media and some other foreign-owned digital services, like Facebook and Twitter.)
“It can be said that the issue of blocking YouTube and WhatsApp is not on the agenda,” Shadayev told reporters during a Q&A session at the Kazan Digital Week forum.
Khinshtein, in turn, promised that YouTube would not be blocked until Russia built a full-size substitute, admitting there is no adequate alternative to YouTube.
His remarks reveal an acute vulnerability: a Russian analog to YouTube has not yet been created, and Khinshtein is not the only one asking what has caused the embarrassing delay.
On the surface, all the conditions were there: Russia is one of the very few countries in which local internet platforms compete successfully with global platforms. The country developed its own search engine, Yandex, at roughly the same time Google was launched. Vkonakte (later shortened to VK), Facebook’s Russian language analog, has always been much more popular in Russia than the original.
But numerous attempts to launch a video hosting service that would replace YouTube, a service seen as unfriendly and that blocks Kremlin media, have failed.
The Kremlin has been encouraging Russian tech companies to design a workable replacement for YouTube since 2014 when Western sanctions were imposed following the annexation of Crimea. Since then, several local services have emerged but failed to win over bloggers and users.
The latest attempt took place at the beginning of September when VK (majority-owned by a state-run insurer) launched VK Video, a new hosting service. But despite a big advertising campaign, VK Video fell flat. Most Russians still prefer YouTube.
One of the primary reasons for this failure is the Kremlin and, in particular, its career policy. Putin and his friends are now over 70 years old, and many have grown-up kids.
But succession and talent selection are not a game that Russian elites are any good at. It has always been a nightmare for bureaucrats to find replacements for the old guard; what to do about their children’s inevitably high expectations; and whether or where to find new blood (real competition has always been out of question.)
Stalin simply killed off his bureaucrats in droves; his successors used a regional approach, bringing to high positions people they knew from their region they had come from – Gorbachev brought his entourage from Stavropol, Yeltsin recruited his people in Sverdlovsk, Putin imported officials and secret agents from St Petersburg. When the Russian leader stayed too long in power, like Brezhnev, his old friends, and their kids gummed up the system to such an extent it became dysfunctional.
Putin has been in power even longer than Brezhnev (23 years versus 18) and faces the same generational problems.
He is apparently aware that he cannot entrust key government positions to the kids of old friends. But he has been willing to put some in charge of internet giants. And it is this policy that has failed the Kremlin in a crucial area at a crucial time.
In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, VKontakte (now VK), the most popular social media network in both Russia and Ukraine, changed hands. The Kremlin was upset that VK founder, the young prodigy Pavel Durov, had refused to share data on VK users in Ukraine with the FSB.
Durov left the country, and in September 2014 one Boris Dobrodeyev was made the new CEO. He was a scion of the Russian media establishment; his father, Oleg, was head of the television colossus, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company.
The younger Dobrodeyev was chosen, according to the official version, because he fancied himself an expert on video content. For several years, he tried hard to build a popular video service within the VK ecosystem. It didn’t help.
In 2021 Boris Dobrodeyev was replaced by a scion of yet another important family – Vladimir Kirienko, a son of Sergei Kirienko, first deputy head at the Presidential Administration.
Under Kirienko junior’s leadership, VK toiled away at the elusive YouTube challenge. This spring, the company started building the company’s nationwide content delivery network as a replacement of Google’s infrastructure – with the same goal – to get ready to become a YouTube substitute when the time comes to achieve the Kremlin’s goal of blocking Google’s video service.
And in September, when VK officially launched VK Video as an alternative to YouTube, the company elevated another son of another Kremlin insider – Stepan Kovalchuk, a great-nephew of Yuri Kovalchuk, a billionaire banker, and a very close friend of Putin. Stepan will now lead all VK social media and media content projects, including VK Video.
Perhaps this will prove transformative for VK Video, and perhaps Russia’s elites will finally deliver a solution to satisfy the regime. Perhaps. The evidence to date suggests that throwing yet another scion of yet another Kremlin family into the project may fail to achieve internet service popularity.
If not, there are many other sons with Kremlin connections willing to enter the fray
Andrei Soldatov and Irina Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.