The Internet’s Impact on Russia

Over the past ten years Russia has witnessed an enormous growth in the use of the Internet. According to official Russian government sources, the number of regular Internet users in 2010 was 66 million, or 46 percent of the population. More reliable public opinion polls indicate that among adults eighteen years and older 38-43 percent (44-50 million people) use the Internet “regularly” (at least once a month).

For comparative purposes, it is interesting to note that 240 million Americans are regular Internet users (out of a population of 311 million). Among American adults eighteen years and older, 40 percent (46 million) use the Internet once a week in the States, while 31 percent (36 million) use it daily. The gap between our two countries is beginning to close.

According to an analysis by Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who compiled these statistics, the number of Internet users in Russia has increased by a factor of four since the first survey of Internet usage was taken in the winter of 2003-04. Aron notes that there are almost eight times more weekly users today than seven years ago and the number of daily users has grown by a factor of ten!

Polls tell us that in Russia today 94 percent of the population watch the news on government-controlled television, while only 9 percent get the news from independent sources on the Internet. What is important to highlight, however, is that the Internet is a more popular source of news for younger adults, people who live in Moscow, those with higher education, and wealthier elites. The other interesting insight is this: those who use the Internet regularly are more politically engaged in Russia. After studying this data, Leon Aron has concluded that there are two nations in Russia today – the “television nation” and the “Internet nation.”

Does It Help To Build Civil Society in Russia?

Analysts whose judgment I trust, like Leon Aron, are convinced that the Internet “is the backbone of civil society in Russia.” During the Soviet period, there was an underground network of dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s that printed and circulated samizdat (literally, self-publishing) — publications that included banned books of fiction and nonfiction as well as reports on the violation of human rights and religious freedom. This literature provided interested Soviets with uncensored information and paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform efforts.

The Internet has lead to the creation of a new phenomenon in Russia, and in other emerging nations, that Aron labels as nyetizdat. While samizdat was read by thousands of Russians, nyetizdat is being read by millions. The Internet has become a powerful tool in Russia for freely disseminating information and for creating a forum for national debates on issues affecting average Russian citizens.

A major topic on the Internet today in Russia is government corruption. There are numerous sites where corruption is discussed openly and where Russians are encouraged to report cases of attempted bribery — with the promise of anonymity. It has also become a place to post petitions and organize protest rallies.

Some observers have noted that the Internet may be a double-edged sword. Masha Lipman from the Moscow Carnegie Center has written: “There are no obstacles to expressing yourself against the authorities online, and people love to grumble and get angry. But there is no action behind it . . . This is very convenient for the government: people let off stream verbally, and there is no energy left for action.”

The one area where Russians have been active and engaged so far in Internet-related activity relates to their newly-gained consumer rights. The Federation of Russian Car Owners, for example, has brought out thousands of drivers to protest rising import duties, gas prices and police bribery for fabricated traffic violations. While civic engagement is at a very low level in Russia today, especially among the young, the Internet will likely become a major factor in changing this.

NOTE: This essay is largely based on Leon Aron’s Spring 2011 issue of Russian Outlook, “Nyetizdat: How the Internet is Building Civil Society in Russia.” Aron’s quarterly Russian Outlook is one of my favorite information sources about Russia.