Much of the resulting coverage depicted Moscow’s crackdown on the two Silicon Valley platforms as just another part of the government’s broader assault on freedom of expression. But focusing on that aspect, as accurate as it is, risks missing a bigger story. The Kremlin has made a strategic decision to decouple the Russian Internet — popularly known as the Runet — from the rest of cyberspace.
To be clear: The Kremlin doesn’t want a Russian version of China’s “Great Firewall,” or to seal off the Runet entirely from the outside world. Instead, Vladimir Putin wants his subjects to rely on Russian-made services and applications, to communicate via Russian social media platforms, to watch videos on Russian-made platforms and to search for information using Russian-provided services. That way, he hopes, they will be dependent on the version of reality the Russian authorities are keen to promote.
The Russian authorities have already made domestic search engine Yandex the default choice on smartphones sold in Russia. Starting next year, according to guidelines already issued by the Ministry of Education, Russian teachers and school administrators will be able to communicate with parents and children only through Russian social media platforms. The Kremlin is also encouraging the development of a Russian alternative to YouTube. Officials are placing their hopes on RuTube, a project funded by the Gazprom media group, which is controlled by Putin’s close friends. (Russian policymakers seem oblivious to the fact that one RuTube already exists — a YouTube channel controlled by American drag queen RuPaul Charles.)
No one should mistake this as an effort to give Russians more options by developing local platforms. The real intent of the campaign comes through clearly from the man who was chosen to lead the RuTube project: Alexander Zharov, the former head of Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Internet censorship agency. The Kremlin has been laying the groundwork for its push for some time; Roskomnadzor ordered regional Internet service providers to report on Google infrastructure inside Russia back in 2020. At a meeting with Russian editors in February, Putin hinted that he was willing to consider banning some global platforms — but that he would do so only once the country had domestic equivalents. That moment has almost arrived.
There’s an ominous historical precedent for the Russian president’s current strategy. In our 2015 book “The Red Web,” we described how the young Russian physicist Vladimir Fridkin invented the first copying machine in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, shortly after Joseph Stalin’s death. For a while, everybody was happy with Fridkin’s invention, and the authorities considered putting his devices into mass production.
But soon the KGB issued an order to destroy Fridkin’s photocopier, and the prototype was smashed to pieces. The logic of the secret policemen was evident: They were worried that people could use the device to share information outside of Communist Party control. Fridkin’s invention was killed out of fear that knowledge could become free.
The Communist Party paid a high price for this decision later, when the party was forced to turn to buying Xerox machines abroad. But the Soviet Union paid an even bigger price by losing its wider technology race with the West.
In the 1990s, Russia adopted many Western technologies. That in turn enabled the astonishing rise of the Russian tech companies such as Yandex, Kaspersky Lab and many others. Now, in turn, it is the very success of these companies that makes Putin’s entourage confident it can afford to bank on isolation once again.
The Soviet experience of technological autarky was a disaster. Could the Kremlin figure out a way to make it work this time? Putin seems to think so. The Russian authorities have made huge progress in introducing domestically produced cutting-edge surveillance technologies, including facial recognition systems, which they have successfully used to identity protesters.
These days, Putin doesn’t need to smash the Internet equivalent of Xerox machines; he has a certain number of Russian alternatives he can exploit, at least for a time. But if the Kremlin succeeds in cutting Russia off from global cyberspace, it will ultimately pay in terms of lost development. For that is one consistent lesson from Russian history: The country has always modernized by interacting with the outside world, not by isolating itself.