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A Dramatic Change in the Russian Media Landscape: Yandex Displaces Pervy Kanal as the Most Visited Outlet

As Russia has grown much wealthier over the past decade, Russians have started using the internet in ever-greater numbers. The pace of this change has picked up noticeably over the past few years, and it would appear that Russia has reached a sort of “tipping point” in terms of internet penetration. Not everyone is one the internet, but a very large segment of society is and this group is large, wealthy, and self-confident to an extent that it can increasingly drive the conversation. The days when state-run television networks such as Pervy Kanal, Rossia, and NTV totally and utterly dominated the media landscape, and when the opposition had to content itself with a few small-circulation newspapers and the Echo Moskvy radio station, are over. More importantly, unless the Kremlin launches a truly draconian internet crackdown, they aren’t coming back.

A recent story in Vedemosti highlighted some of the huge changes that have occurred in Russia’s media landscape just over the past few years. I wanted to translate a few choice quotes from the story and then offer a bit of commentary

In April 19.1 million people visited Yandex each day, and 18.2 million watched Pervy Kanal a study from the analytical company TNS has estimated. The study was comprised of a sample of 12-54 year olds in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. “Pervy” is the most popular Russian station and has always been the most popular media resource in the country, but the internet-portal beat it for the first time.

The differences between the audiences of all television stations and the entire internet is rapidly shrinking. According to the estimate of TNS [the company who published the study] in April 2012 about 30.5 million Russians used the internet every day, about a million less than the number who watched television.

In 2011 advertisers spend about 41.8 billion rubles on internet ads (56% more than in 2010) or about 16% of their overall budgets. Television, as before, got more than half of advertising budgets, while the share of newspapers fell.

The graph is titled “a new instrument of influence: how Yandex’s share has risen”

The 5 lines are, in order, Pervy Kanal,Rossia 1, NTV, STS, and Yandex

As you can see for yourselves, Yandex’s rise is precipitous and its audience has more than tripled just over the past 4 years (which, for the record, includes a sharp economic downturn). The television stations, meanwhile, haven’t suffered any dramatic setbacks, but they have suffered small declines in viewership during the same time frame. As computers become ever-more affordable, and as smartphones continue to disseminate more widely among the Russian population, I would expect the dramatic growth of Yandex and other popular websites to continue.

Now, of course, Yandex is only one site, and as the Vedemosti story itself makes clear, most Russians still use state-run television stations as their primary sources about news and current events. However, it’s hard not to be impressed by the rapidity with which Russian society is embracing the internet and you don’t need a particularly active imagination to envision what sort of impact this is going to have on the way the country is governed.

Now “being on the internet” does not automatically translate into “being against Putin” or “being liberal and democratic.” If you spend any time on the Runet, you will very easily come across all sorts of nationalist blather of varying degrees of nastiness. Indeed even though I consider myself a rather reasonable and accommodating person, someone whose decidedly non-interventionist views put me rather outside the American mainstream,  I have personally been excoriated dozens upon dozens of times by sundry Russian users of blogs and forums and have been called “a Lithuanian prostitute*” a “Baltic provocateur” a “not particularly clever CIA operative” and basically any other kind of insult you can imagine. So while it should be obvious it bears repeating: the internet is not a panacea for “authoritarianism” nor is it a shortcut directly to “democracy.”

The growth of the internet in Russia is a game changer, however, in the sense that in comparison to television it is vastly less amenable to centralized control and direction. The Kremlin is not necessarily as primitive and backwards as it is often portrayed in the West, if you look at the people inhabiting it they’re not uniformly Neanderthals, indeed many are quite clever and crafty, but it does have a mania about maintaining ‘control.’ The Kremlin will let people blow off steam, even march through Moscow angrily denouncing Putin, as long as it feels it remains firmly in control of the overall direction of events. The internet is simply far too inchoate a medium to properly control, and the Kremlin is either going to have to come to terms with this or prepare for a massive and unprecedented crack-down (if such a crack down is even logistically feasible – I sincerely doubt the Kremlin could pull this off even if it wanted to).

During the last two decades of the Soviet Union’s existence there was a massive change in the underlying social reality despite the appearance of political stability and the fact that the same cast of tired old men hung on to the reins of power.  Much the same could be said of Russia over the past 12 years: despite the mask of continuity, behind the scenes much of the country is undergoing a rapid transformation. I don’t think that the current system will collapse as dramatically as the Soviet, largely because its fundamental economic institutions are much more resilient and adaptable but also because Russian society itself is firmly against any “revolutionary” rupture, but no one should be fooled into thinking that Russia is “stagnant.”