Re-imposing totalitarian information control in Russia

The internet, Russia's last source of information free of state control is now under threat. Seizing  control of internet freedom could be the next step in the re-imposition of totalitarianism in  Russia.

Over the past decade, while proud KGB spy Vladimir Putin has held power, there have been two alarming trends. 

First, the Russian government has taken control of all the traditional mass media organs. The Russian counterparts to ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The LA Times and The Washington Post are all directly owned and operated by the Russian government.

Second, one after another -- starting with legislator Galina Starovoitova and continuing to most recently include human rights activist Natalia Estemirova -- the Russian government's critics have been murdered.  Needless to say, these killings have not been reported on the traditional mass media, much less has any complicity by the Kremlin been alleged.

The Kremlin's response to Western criticism of this neo-Soviet media crackdown has been singular:  "Don't worry," we're told, because "the Russian Internet remains free and vibrant" and it picks up any slack left by the traditional media.  Most recently, Russian "president" Dmitri Medvedev repeated this claim while being interviewed by CNN's milquetoast-in-chief, Fareed Zakaria, who let it pass without a word.

To put it bluntly, that claim is a shameless lie.

According to the latest data (Russian language link) from the Levada Centre, the least incredible of Russia's various state-influenced polling agencies, as of January of this year less than one in three Russian families had a home computer.  That means that more than two-thirds of all Russian families cannot get their news from the Internet even if they want to because they lack the basic hardware. They must rely entirely on state-dominated television and state-controlled national newspapers.  What's more, when asked whether they can access a computer at work the percentage increases only slightly.  59% of Russians say they never have access to a computer either at home or at work.

As for that sliver of Russians who do have a home computer, the percentage with daily access to the Internet drops still further.  A truly stunning 16% of respondents told Levada they use the Internet every day.  The other 17% of Russians with home computers can only afford Internet access on a weekly (8%) or even more occasional basis. And the data shows that it is heavily skewed towards more highly-educated Russians, meaning that ordinary Russians have virtually no access to the Internet at all. A whopping 74% of Russians never use e-mail, while just 12% use it more than once a week.

According to Medvedev, 40 million Russians use the Internet actively. According to the actual facts, the number is barely half that. A whopping 84% of Russians are for all practical purposes cut off from Internet news.

There are two simple reasons for this lack of Internet access.

First, it costs too much. With an average wage of about $3/hour, double-digit inflation and Internet access fees comparable to those in the West, ordinary Russian families simply can't afford to divert precious resources needed for food, shelter and medicine to luxuries like browsing the Internet.

And second, it is under siege.  The Kremlin has unleashed bands of thugs to terrorize and harass bloggers, and where that has failed it has arrested and prosecuted them.  It has given the secrete police carte blanche authority to raid online information and expose its critics, and it has implemented special legislation which essentially makes anyone criticizing the Kremlin guilty of high treason.

In such an environment, it's hardly surprising that most Russians have little interest in seeking out the truth about their government, and even less surprising that government leaders enjoy Soviet-like approval ratings in polls.

The consequences of this kind of ignorance in an industrial nation are not hard to predict.  Russia does not rank in the top 130 nations of the world for adult lifespan and it has a similarly lowly place on key competitiveness rankings.  It's the same sort of results produced by the USSR, which imposed a similar chokehold on information.  The USSR couldn't survive it, and neither can Russia.

Once cornered with this overwhelming data, the Kremlin's apologists try a change of tack.  Yes, the proclaim, but Russia has the fastest growing Internet population in Europe!   In other words, caught in one lie they ask for leave to tell you a second.

Indeed, Western data confirms that Russia's Internet population has been growing as its GDP has been expanding at a much-touted rate.  But talk about Russian growth is extremely misleading.  It is like a man who earned $1/hour last year bragging that his wages have increased by 50% this year.  What does it matter, if he is still starving in wretched poverty?

Western data also confirms that Russia also has the lowest level of Internet penetration in Europe, well less than half that of the next-lowest country.  But you won't hear the Kremlin's apologists talk much about that.  The population increased by 27% last year, but that was on a base of just 17 million in a country of 140 million. It was an addition of less than 4 million users, just two percent of Russia's gigantic population.

And what's more, the Western data itself is seriously misleading because, as the CIA acknowledges, the data doesn't consider depth of access. In other words, though 18 million Russians accessed the Internet at some point in 2008, the number of hours they spent doing so was miniscule compared to the similar number of Italians who went online (in a country one-third the size of Russia).  If man hours of Internet access per capita were compared, Russia would take on the appearance of an African banana republic.

The only serious chance the Putin dictatorship has of holding on to power over the long haul is if we in the West continue to allow ourselves to be misled by the Kremlin's propaganda, as we were for so long by the lies spewed forth by the USSR.  Russia is rapidly descending into a renewed totalitarian nightmare, and we need strong leadership to prevent being enmeshed in yet another protracted conflict with the Russian bear.

Kim Zigfeld blogs on Russia at La Russophobe and writes the Russia column for Pajamas Media. She can be reached by e-mail at