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Moving on with Meduza: Transnational Russian-language Media and Freedom of Speech in Russia

An interview with Editor-in-Chief Ivan Kolpakov

In an exclusive interview with Vlad Strukov, Ivan Kolpakov, Editor-in-Chief of Meduza, discusses the current editorial trajectory of the online media outlet. Watch the full interview below, or read excerpts from the interview that reveal what it means to be an independent media active on the Russian market – economically and politically, as well as in terms of audience participation.

Ivan Kolpakov is the Editor-in-Chief of, a Russian-language media outlet based in Riga. Since its establishment in 2014, Meduza has become one of the leading independent Russian media outlets.

Vlad Strukov is an Associate Professor in Film and Digital Cultures at the University of Leeds.


Vlad Strukov: Could you identify two or three pivotal moments in the making of Meduza that helped it to develop to the way it is now?

Ivan Kolpakov: The first point concerns the content: we are trying to combine traditional investigative journalism and reporting with new formats. We have been doing this ever since we launched the project in 2014, which was a tough year for Russian and European history, but a good time for starting a new Russian-speaking media project. Six months ago, we started with videos. We are not trying to make viral video clips but sophisticated journalism. Further, a couple of months ago we started making podcasts, which is a huge thing in the US and Europe, but in Russia the market is non-existent. So we are trying to become pioneers and leaders in this sphere in Russia.

The second important thing is the way we think about ourselves as a media and as a brand. When we started in 2014, we decided that Meduza is not going to be a website media. We started from creating an application for iOS. It was the first time in the history of Russian media when somebody created an application first and a website afterwards, even if the website eventually became our main channel. We consider Meduza to be a multiplatform media. This means that we do not see channels of distribution as buttons for making traffic to the website, but instead we want to create a brand everywhere simultaneously: in the applications, on the internet, on Facebook, on Vkontakte, even in messengers.

And thirdly, I think one of the biggest problems of Russian journalism is that we have a huge lack of journalism focusing on general interests. How does post-Soviet journalism look like? There are two main streams. The first stream is business journalism, which is top Russian journalism. In the 1990s the major media was Kommersant, ten years later it was Vedomosti, then RBK. All of these are business media and this means that they talk to an audience which consumes business news, which again implies the use of a special language. The other mainstream form of media are tabloids. — There is Komsomolskaya Pravda, Argumenty i Fakty and LifeNews. — Even the main stream television speaks to you using tabloid language. So there are these two points and an empty space in the middle.

In Meduza we are trying to build the media in the middle. We are trying to reconstruct the language of media and to speak to our readers using all the new practices that have appeared on the internet in recent years. That is why I think we are successful especially among the young audience.

VS: You described Meduza as a media outlet that exists in the Russian media market. Could you confirm whether such market actually exists in Russia, and describe it: Who drives it? Who regulates it? What does it consist of?

IK: It is not a market. The media market was destroyed during the last ten ‒ fifteen years. The monopoly is taken by the state. If we’re talking about television we have two independent TV channels – or two and a half, I would say – TV rain, RBK and RTVi. There is a small range of independent media and they include some important regional media.

VS: As you are such a technologically infused media, how would you describe people that work with you? What kind of categories would you use? Are they IT-personnel, journalists, lifestyle specialists?

IK: When you are a media today, it’s impossible not to be a technological company. For example, we have ten people out of fifty doing technological stuff, which is a lot. It takes a lot of resources to make applications, to constantly support them and to develop all your channels of distribution. Fifteen years ago journalists would go to a tech company and tell them that they wanted to make a website. Company would make the website and journalists would use it without any developments for years. Nowadays, you need to develop these things every day – and we’re not talking only about the website.

So I think Meduza is also a technological company. But we call ourselves journalists and everyone who isn’t making advertisements in Meduza is a journalist. — When we started it was absolutely clear that we need to create a special space where programmers and design people can meet with journalists to discuss new projects together. Usually our coders and our design people are involved throughout the process. They take part in everyday editorial meetings. — They always have what to put on the table. Sometimes they bring topics, sometimes they suggest to make a project, a game or something like this. —

 VS: How do you work with your – I don’t even know what to call them – viewers, readers, users, fans, audiences? About ten years ago there was this hype about user-generated content. Is this something Meduza is developing? Could you tell us about an instance when you found a fantastic guy somewhere and you brought her into Meduza as a freelancer or something like that?

IK: This is a really good question. We started Meduza in really difficult circumstances in 2014. There was the information war, right? What does it mean from the reader’s perspective? It means that the agenda is depressing and negative all the time. If you’re an average consumer of the so-called liberal Russian-language media you are getting news about prosecutions, stupid laws that were made by our previous Russian parliament. But if you switch to the television, it’s the same or even more scary. Because what kind of news can you see on television? The world is a disaster; ‘migration crises happening everywhere’, ‘Muslims are conquering Europe’, ‘the institute of family is being destroyed by the LGBT people’, ‘Russia is being surrounded by enemies’ and so on. According to these programmes, the world is not really a good place because there is no truth and everyone is bad. This is the ideology of the current regime. It’s hard to consume this kind of news as your mood depends on this.

And what is the consequence of this depressing and negative environment? Apathy! People don’t want to consume news at all. Trump boosted media in the USA. Putin doesn’t boost media in Russia, because he has existed since 1999; he became a president when I was at school. People just prefer not to read, not to watch, not to listen. And I totally understand that. I wouldn’t consume Russian news if I wouldn’t be a journalist. So our first and hardest goal was to bring back interest to news, especially among young people who are not interested in news at all.

Our answer to the question of how to return readers to news is – and it’s a very popular word among media people – engagement. So we started creating a community around Meduza. We started from reconsidering the relationship between media and readership. Because the problem with American media and why they didn’t expect Trump to happen is that the US is a huge country and there is a left liberally-biased media, a huge part of which are in the same relation with their readers as newspapers in the middle or beginning of 20th century: the media is on the top and below are the masses consuming it.

In Meduza we started from the idea that we’ll try to make this distance smaller. We started creating an infrastructure to actually have an opportunity to communicate with people. We started with newsletters. We have this extremely popular everyday newsletter which is called Evening Meduza [Vecherniia Meduza] and we call it the shortest newspaper in history.

Meduza itself is a fact-based media and we do not publish opinions because propaganda always uses opinion journalism. However, Evening Meduza is exactly the space where we talk to our readers directly and editors of Meduza can say what they think about different stories.

Then we have this platform project where you can push a button and send ideas to the editorial team and we also have this chat under every article. It is literally a chat, this is the place where you can talk to other readers, with the author of the article or the editor, or with me. It is so important that we do not save these conversations because everything is saved on the internet and, you know, ‘Big Brother is watching you’. It is a kind of a snapchat idea, it’s just happening, you just have a real chat.

We get a lot of relevant, smart letters with ideas, critiques, topics, and they are really helpful. We really know our readers. For example, one day some school boy from some Russian city – not Moscow – contacted us and offered to code something. We have small resources and, as we always have something to code, we said ‘yes’ and he made a couple of projects for us. Another example is the school of journalism for journalists from post-Soviet countries called The Farm, which we started last year. We invited 54 people from the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus, from everywhere. Eventually, one girl from Belarus became a journalist in Meduza.

VS: This takes me to my last question about Storm, a professional conference for journalists. You’re clearly working at the grassroots level but you’re also working with professionals. What is the point of such activities for Meduza?

IK: Firstly, we wanted to make something offline, and secondly, we have an ambition to be the leader of the market in many ways. And even if we are not the biggest media on the internet and also not the biggest media on the internet in Russia – though we are not far away from the leaders – sometimes we act like a mainstream media. This year the conference is dedicated to new things happening in the media, podcasts, videos, virtual reality…. I understand that nobody creates virtual reality projects in Russia, even we are not producing these projects. But let’s pretend we have a real media market and we are making world level journalism – because we are trying!

VS: Ivan, thank you very much for your inspiring conversation.


The interview took place as part of the international seminar on Russia and freedom of expression ‘Media, Capital, and Culture: Institutional Spaces in Between’, organized at the Aleksanteri Institute on 19 May 2017.The seminar was jointly organized by the Culture Cluster of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies ‘Choices of Russian Modernization’, Russian Media Lab research project, and the Leeds Russian Centre ‘Russia[n] in the Global context’.

Reference info: Interview with Ivan Kolbakov by Vlad Strukov, 19 May 2017, University of Helsinki (Aleksanteri Institute), at the seminar ‘Media, Capital, and Culture: Institutional Spaces in Between’. Transcribed and edited by Roosa Rytkönen and Vlad Strukov.

Media Managers on the Effects of State Regulation

May 12 2017
Written by Marina Galkina

Russian media managers see the state’s increasing attempts to control the media as the main trend in communications in Russia. The restriction of and influence on media companies’ activities take place not only through direct political influence, but also by means of economic policy (e.g., import substitution, state support).

How will the state support the media industry and how is the media legislation likely to change? These were among the questions we asked leading media companies’ top-managers in the project “The Russian media as industry of production and transmission of digital content”. The project was carried out in 2015-2016 by the Department of Media Theory and Economics of the Faculty of Journalism of Lomonosov at Moscow State University. About 50 top managers of the largest Russian media companies representing different segments of the industry took part in the expert interviews.

Eighty-five percent of the top managers considered that state regulation of different media segments will change during the next 5−10 years. Top-managers noted several different areas where strengthening of the state influence on media could take place. Qualitative analysis of the respondents’ answers shows that they considered influence coming from both political and economic factors. Political factors affecting media regulation concern both external and internal policy.

Firstly, there are limitations related to protecting the domestic media market as a reaction to the current geopolitical situation and economic sanctions. For example, the Foreign Investments to Media Act adopted in 2014 and put in force in the beginning of 2016 limited the share of foreign investors in any Russian mass media company to 20%. Furthermore, it prohibited foreigners from founding mass media organizations or companies in Russia. According to the respondents, in addition to preventing the administrative influence of foreign owners to Russian journalists, these changes can limit mass media freedom and competition in the media market. Several respondents believed that limiting foreign investments in mass media would also affect glossy magazines and entertainment segments in the future.

The respondents’ assumptions made in 2015 proved to be correct. In the summer of 2016, the State Duma discussed the possible adoption of an act preventing foreigners from measuring the channels’ audiences. De-facto, this would mean prohibiting the activities of one single company, TNS (included in the Kantar group, a research division of the British holding WPP), whose ratings both television channels and advertisers use.

Secondly, top-managers identified goals related to the promotion of state interests. As the system of informational support of a country and its citizens is a part of the defence system, respondents believed that the state will address these issues. This does not imply direct regulation and control of all the media content in the country, but it does mean granting some media (TASS, VGTRK) relative priority and exclusive rights to state information. According to the respondents, the state is likely to continue to actively create and promote its own information resources. This can be seen in the state’s increased participation in the internet news presentation. For example, Moscow city government, according to one of the respondents, “has arranged a crazy number of web-sites” and district papers and began to produce journalistic content regarding its own affairs. Thus, the city government changed the agenda of Yandex news and other news aggregators. Overall, media representatives see themselves as reacting to media-political decision-making in a “state-driven media policy” (Vartanova 2012), instead of viewing themselves as active agents in the sphere of media policy.

The third direction concerned the implementation of journalists’ liability for information distribution. The respondents considered that the state would strengthen its control over information distribution by journalists. The consequences of this were mixed; on the one hand, this would, according to the respondents, lead to less false information. On the other hand, the respondents believed that the state control would become more pronounced. These prognoses have partially been proven to be accurate. For example, the editing managers of the largest independent Russian media holding RBC were fired in May 2016. Multiple informed sources claimed that the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with RBC’s publications was the reason behind this action, particularly with respect to investigations regarding Putin’s relatives and the “Panama papers”.

Fourthly, the interviewed media managers mentioned combating extremism and terrorism. Nowadays, the prohibition (or limitation) on distribution of extremist information or information unsuitable for certain age groups can be considered as one the main restrictions for the media. Respondents considered that such restrictions would be strengthened. This has already been seen in practice; a bill regarding banning propagation of suicide has been suggested to the State Duma. The bill was drafted as a response to material encouraging teenagers to commit suicide in the social media site VKontakte in the spring of 2016. The bill suggests adding to the Russian Criminal Code a new article 110.1, which would set forth liability for propagating suicide by means of persuasion, bribery, fraud, formation of attractive representations of suicide, including via mass media and the Internet.

At the same time, technical developments undermine such restrictions. According to some respondents, this fight of the government is a wasted attempt to control what “already cannot be controlled”. For example, an oppositional media website,, was banned in March 2014 upon the demand of the General Prosecutor’s Office due to materials and appeals to illegal actions and participation in non-approved mass events. However, is still available thanks to mirror-pages.

In contrast, when it comes to economic factors, the respondents assess the possible strengthening of state regulation positively. The respondents singled out the following directions of the economic regulation.

  1. State support of federal and regional media (primarily, the print media) in the form of grants and subsidies.
  2. Import substitution could, according to the respondents, positively influence the advertising market, as “new trademarks will need promotion, the audience will get used to paying for this, and the legislation on protection of intellectual property will actually start working”.
  3. Restrictions on foreign investments may have a positive effect; according to many respondents, income from taxes on advertising of media co-owned by foreign investors will increase the budget funds. At the same time, respondents agree that the state restrictions should consider both general tendencies of the market as well as tendencies in consumer priorities.

According to legislation amendments and responses of the media top managers, protection of the domestic market and promotion of the state interests are important elements of the state media policy. No other important actors can be singled out on a political level; the media market players react to the ready solutions provided by the state, but cannot influence or determine the “issues”. Thus, the media industry maintains its reactive role.

Further reading

Galkina, M. & Lehtisaari, K. (2016). Прогноз изменения государственного регулирования российских СМИ. In: Mediascope 4/2016.

Vartanova E. (2012). The Russian media model in the context of post-Soviet dynamics. In: Hallin D. & Mancini P. (Eds.) Comparing media systems beyond the Western world. NY, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 119–142.


Marina Galkina is a Researcher at the Problem Research Laboratory for Integrated Studies of Current Issues of Journalism, Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Seminar “Media, Capital, and Culture: Institutional Spaces in Between”, May 19th, Helsinki

Media, Capital, and Culture: Institutional Spaces in Between

May 19th 2017, 10:15-17:30
@University of Helsinki, Aleksanteri Institute, 2nd floor (Unioninkatu 33)

Please pre-register by Monday, May 15th at

This workshop calls attention to the cultural and economic policies which condition and govern, directly and indirectly, individual and collective entrepreneurship and freedom of expression. Focusing on the Russian-language culture and media, the workshop analyses the interaction between institutionalized networks and how they impact freedom of expression in the neoliberal economic context. The workshop aims to explore how creative professionals working in media and cultural institutions negotiate political agency, cultural diversity and social critique in the age of digitalization, transnational mobility and global consumption. Russian-language culture and media offer a productive framework for exploring questions of official and unofficial discourses, hybrid identities, transgressive border-crossings, convergent intellectual and communication technologies. Nowadays, these complex questions need to be reconsidered in terms of Russia’s role in cultural globalization. The workshop brings together scholars of Russian culture, theoreticians of media and cultural and media practitioners.

The seminar is jointly organized by the Culture Cluster of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies ‘Choices of Russian Modernization’, Russian MediaLab research project, and the Leeds Russian Centre (Russia[n] in the Global context).

Image: courtesy of Sergey Elkin, Moscow-based visual artist



10:15-10:30 Opening words: Sanna Turoma (University of Helsinki, Finland) and Vlad Strukov (University of Leeds, UK)

10:30-11:45 Panel I: Hybridization of Culture, Media and Politics

Saara Ratilainen (University of Helsinki): Collaborative Media and Cultural Practices in Russian Cities Vlad Strukov: Gamification of Russian Politics: Where Media and Culture Converge
Discussant: Ilya Kalinin (Saint Petersburg State University, NZ Debates on Politics and Culture, Russia)

11:45-13:00 Break

13:00-14:30 Panel II:
Re-considering the Impact of Legislative, Technological and Educational Developments

Mariëlle Wijermars (University of Helsinki): The Russian Internet ‘Blacklist’ Law – Five Years on: The Curtailment of Freedom of Speech Online

Vera Zvereva (University of Jyväskylä, Finland): Targeting Youth: New Media State Propaganda and Popular Culture

Susan Ikonen (University of Helsinki): Popular History Books and Russian Book Market Discussant: Olga Shevchenko (Williams College, USA)

14:30-15:30 Panel III Pioneering Media and Cultural Practices: Meduza and the Success of Russian Media Abroad Ivan Kolpakov (Editor-in-Chief of Meduza, Riga, Latvia) in conversation with Vlad Strukov

15:30-16:00 Coffee

16:00-17:30 Panel IV: New Emerging Spaces for Media, Arts and the Market (Roundtable discussion)

Moderator: Sanna Turoma
Participants: Andrey Bogush (Artist), Liisa Roberts (Artist), Ilya Kalinin, Ivan Kolpakov, Vlad Strukov

Interview with Galina Miazhevich

by Roosa Rytkönen

Galina Miazhevich is a Lecturer in Media and Communication in the University of Leicester, UK. She was a visiting fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute in March–April 2017.

Could you tell a bit about your work relating to Russia and media?

I’ve been working on post-Soviet media for a number of years and have done two post-docs on the matter: one on the representations of Islam as a security threat in the Russian, British and French contexts at the University of Manchester and another independent project as a Gorbachev Media Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. The latter project focused on the issues of censorship and press freedom in the post-Soviet space. We organized a series of Gorbachev Press Freedom lectures, with several prominent media personalities and practitioners as invited speakers, including the director general of the BBC. It was an interesting time to discuss these topics also in the UK, due to the debates on how media regulation should proceed in the country.

My research approach is qualitative as I’m coming from the field of media and cultural studies. I study indirect indicators of media management and freedom of speech, looking at what can and cannot be expressed in the official and unofficial media. This includes not only texts but also visual images, as when I explored political satire memes in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It’s important to understand the meanings generated at the grassroots level. For example, when reading online forums right after major events, the wealth of information one can get there is remarkable. For a number of years, I’ve been studying the Eurovision Song Contest, and discussions around it are not only about the music, but about the relationship between the East and the West, homosexuality, antisemitism, camp culture…

How do you see the state of freedom of speech in Russia currently?

It’s a very difficult question and becomes more sensitive with every new election cycle. One can see the tightening of regulations, as in the case of the internet recently. These changes need to be placed in the context of wider processes. A number of years ago someone said that the Russian media follows the Belorussian path. Belarus is known for quite stringent controls and it seems that Russia is following this model.

At the same time, there is another kind of development, as one can see in the diversification of the products offered to the public. You can see a variety of voices and different programmes being aired…it seems that there is a creation of a more diverse and less clear-cut scene, where there is a wide choice for the public. However, the choice is more related to entertainment. They are trying to go for this hybrid type of management, with entertainment and consumption, and less straightforward expression of ideologies or something directly related to politics.

At the same time, it seems that even TV series try to promote some messages or core values. There are many very well-made TV dramas that go back to different periods of the Soviet times, not maybe exactly romanticizing the era (even though they are semi-nostalgic), but utilizing it to create some kind of common space that the audiences can identify themselves with. There are also all these TV presenters from the Soviet era, which creates a kind of feeling of stability and continuity.

Talk show Projectorparishilton is an interesting example. The show was halted for five years and only recently re-vived. The hosts discuss, in a satirical way, topical news, which is not necessarily an easy issue for the establishment. The question is why this programme re-emerged right now? When you talk about Russian media you can’t just talk about strict regulation and ‘contained’ voices, but you need to look at dynamics and nuances, and place them in the wider context to understand why these programmes or trends are appearing. As some scholars argue, even in a very tightly controlled media environment there might be different voices (at times, accidentally) coming through. And then the question is, ‘why is that?’ Whether it was accidental, whether it is a sign of genuine disagreement or maybe it was done on purpose to demonstrate diversity or act as a safety valve. The situation with Russian media is not clear-cut and is therefore interesting for a media scholar. For example, internet management is much more complex and poses challenges, but at the same time provides a rich field for analysis and identifying trends.

Do you have any predictions concerning the future of media freedom and freedom of speech in Russia?

It’s very difficult to predict the future. Some of the trends we observe right now, such as diversification and hybridization, will persist. However, it’s difficult to say what the developments will be like concerning the attitudes to journalists, their ‘intimidation’ and corresponding self-censorship. It’s going to be interesting to compare the management of journalist practice within the country and abroad: I’ve also been studying Russia Today, which is a ‘product’ for the external audiences and has a different idea of the journalist practice. Another idea that comes to my mind is that because Russia is such a huge state with different regions, there might be some developments concerning the regional media. Some of these, including TV broadcasting and radio, aren’t so strictly regulated and they have the ability to produce good quality content. Whether the establishment will tolerate this is interesting because some of the regional media are more popular than the mainstream ones. So one can see these different levels of management concerning production for external, national and regional audiences.





Upcoming presentations by Mariëlle Wijermars

Mariëlle Wijermars, post-doctoral researcher in the Russian MediaLab project, will be presenting the following papers at two upcoming conferences:

‘Website Blocking as a Means of Silencing Non-Systemic Opposition: The Russian Internet ‘Blacklist Law’ – Five Years On’
Workshop ‘Telecommunication Politics in Authoritarian Contexts’, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, 9-10 May 2017

‘New Media and the Expression of Alternative Views on the Past in Russia: The Russian Revolution as a Social Media Feed’
Workshop ‘Trauma Studies in the Digital Age’, University of Amsterdam, 10-12 May 2017


Russian MediaLab at BASEES!

Russian MediaLab is attending the BASEES 2017 Annual Conference (31 March – 2 April 2017, Cambridge, UK) with a panel “Fields, Forums and Freedom of Speech in Russia and Moldova.” The panel will take place Saturday 1 April at 16:00-17:30.


Saara Ratilainen (University of Helsinki) ‘Russian Urban Online Magazines and New Platforms for Civic Discussions’
Dmitry Yagodin (University of Tampere) ‘Russian Cultural Diplomacy through Social Media on the Example of Moldova’
Katja Lehtisaari (University of Helsinki) ‘Media Policy in Russia: Processes and Outcomes’

With discussant comments from Vlad Strukov and Markku Kangaspuro as the Chair.

More information:

Seminar “Active Media Spaces: Dialogues on Russian Media, Culture and Institutions” in St. Petersburg 19.-20.1.2017

The seminar’s panels concentrated on the current developments of Russian media landscape, addressing both institutional and grassroots tendencies. One of the seminar’s highlights was the roundtable “Media Literacy and Media Education in Russia Today,” which introduced the viewpoint of St. Petersburg-based journalists and media professionals to the research community.

Yana Prussakova (, Valery Nechay (Ekho Moskvy), Diana Kachalova (Novaya Gazeta) and Mikhail Tyurkin (Rosbalt) participated in the panel discussion on media and journalism in Russia.

Seminar: Active Media Spaces: Dialogues on Russian Media, Culture and Institutions, St. Petersburg 19-20 January 2017

The seminar discussions concentrate on the existing as well as new emerging fields and forums for freedom of expression from new generation online platforms to hybridized cultural and media institutions to semi-legal or sub-cultural media practices such as hacking. What kind of media agency and authority is promoted though these fields and forums and how they are regulated? The programme includes a roundtable ”Media Literacy and Media Education in Russia Today”, which brings together media professionals and academics. The official seminar language is English, but questions can also be raised in Russian.

Venue: The Finnish Institute in St. Petersburg (Ul. Bolshaya Konyushennaya 8)

Thursday 19 January 2017

13:00 Start of the seminar: welcome words

13:30-15:00     Panel I

Anna Litvinenko (Freie Universitet, Berlin): User Comment Sections on Leading News Websites in Russia: Results from a Comparative Study of 15 Post-Soviet Countries

Markku Kangaspuro (University of Helsinki): My History Exhibition and Russian Identity

15:30-17:00 Panel II

Marina Galkina (Moscow State University): Media Foresight in Russia: Changes and Challenges

Valery Nechai (Ekho Moskvy, St. Petersburg) and Dmitry Goncharov (HSE): Censorship in Russia: How Russian Twitter Sees It

Svetlana Bodrunova (St.Petersburg State University): Discussions About Migrants on Twitter: Russia in Comparative Perspective

17:00-18:00 Discussion with Margarita Kuleva (HSE, St. Petersburg): St. Petersburg creative field and new spaces of expression (via Skype)

Friday 20 January 2017

9:30-11:00 Panel III

Vlad Strukov (University of Leeds): Transgressive media: Towards a re-consideration of Russian media

Jussi Lassila (University of Helsinki): Sputnik i Pogrom: Oppositional Nationalism and Alternative Media in Russia

Saara Ratilainen (University of Helsinki): City Magazines and the Politics of the Platform

11:15-12:45 Panel IV

Liudmila Sivetc (Univeristy of Turku): Three Stories about the Roskomnadzor

Katja Lehtisaari (University of Helsinki): Media Policy and Social Media in Russia

Kamilla Nigmatullina (St.Petersburg State University): Local media in Russian Cities as a Tool for Creating Local Communities

14:00-16:00 Roundtable: Media Education and Media Literacy in Russia Today

Diana Kachalova (Novaya Gazeta, St. Petersburg)

Valery Nechai (Ekho Moskvy, St. Petersburg)

Nikolai Donskov (Saint-Petersburg Humanitarian University)

Mikhail Tyurkin (Rosbalt, St. Petersburg)

16:00-16:30 Closing Discussion

Political Capital and Room for Manoeuvre in Todayʼs Russia

Jussi Lassila
Oct 18 2016

Russiaʼs political situation does not provide much hope for the countryʼs democratic development in the near future. As the Ukraine crisis evolved into a serious international crisis since 2014, the Kremlinʼs hardened stance towards dissent voices became tangible. Indeed, from the viewpoint of Russian domestic politics, the annexation of Crimea can be seen as a pinnacle of the authoritarian counter-strike that the Kremlin implemented after the mass protest movement of 2011-12. And, as the data of President Putinʼs public ratings demonstrate, it was the Crimea which ultimately recovered the declining legitimacy of the regime.

Russiaʼs political and societal development is an irrevocably moving target, not least because of its growing dependence on one man. Thus, it is challenging to provide estimations on what will happen if there will be no more Putin. Will there be more freedom, or is Russia moving towards a new militant authoritarian regime for which Putin is simply paving the way? In terms of the data concerning Russiansʼ weak trust in societal and political institutions except the president, we can certainly assert that changes will happen when the major political instance of trust is gone. At the same time, Russiaʼs deepening international isolation and declining economy keeps the target moving. Russiaʼs latest parliamentary election in September demonstrated that under the current presidential authoritarianism the role of Duma will be even more symbolic than in the previous term preceded by the mass protests. Now the major headache for the regime was an extraordinarily low turnout. While it is generally important for authoritarian regimes to keep people away from politics, it is equally important to demonstrate the regimeʼs popular support. In this regard the regimeʼs election performance was not very convincing.

It is the regimeʼs popular support which becomes intriguing in the situation of declining economy. Since the previous avenues for improving cosumerism are deteriorating, the Kremlinʼs hardened authoritarian stance, media propaganda against the West as well as budgetary prioririties for the sake of military at the cost of social and education sectors can be seen as central means in legitimizing the current political line with the help of a war mentality. However, as the turnout of the parliamentary election showed, the given mobilization appears to be sparse for demonstrating active support for the regime. On the other hand, this support should not be too active either.

The same kind of chop and change can be seen in the regimeʼs attitude towards numerous patriotic and nationalistic volunteers in the case of Crimea and Ukraine. After the period of patriotic and nationalistic euphoria of 2014 it appears that by 2016 all independent-like actors of the pro-Donbass issue have been marginalized. In other words, the period of patriotic mobilization of 2014 has returned to the stage of de-mobilization. In terms of the latter, it is the Russian official state media which has been the central tool of this intended de-mobilization; keep the peopleʼs minds mobilized for the regime but de-mobilized in terms of any independent nationalistic manoeuvres that the state propaganda might signal. A further challenge is the time; for how long people are willing to stay de-mobilized along with the official propaganda. What will be after Ukraine and Syria?

I would argue that it is the Kremlinʼs uncertainty which largely explains the existing plurality and dissent in the Russian public discussion left for the Internet. Of course, in light of arrests of bloggers, lawsuits and of closing various websites one could say that the regimeʼs control over dissenting voices is becoming more systematic. Yet, the existence and activity of the oppositionʼs front man, Alexei Navalʼnyi, on the web – not to mention the obvious harm that his numerous corruption revelations have caused for the Kremlin – raise interesting questions. It seems that the Russian court has hitherto appeared to be an ineffective tool of his political elimination in light of numerous lawsuits against him. Or, perhaps the regimeʼs inability to silence him via court shows some positive signs of creeping autonomy of Russiaʼs legal system.

Whatever the case may be, recurrent lawsuits and other forms of administrative violence demonstrate that Navalʼnyiʼs exclusion from the official political participation is not enough for the Kremlin. While having 1,66 million followers on Twitter and being the most cited blogger in Russia in September 2016 (53 000 references to his blog in a month), the Kremlin has good grounds to be dissatisfied with his marginalization from political participation. The dilemma is that Navalʼnyi is simply too big for a smooth elimination. And anything which appears to be less smooth for the Kremlinʼs status-quo is a risk which should be avoided.

It remains an open question whether Navalnyiʼs political capital is big enough for the Kremlinʼs political risk in silencing him against the worsening economic and social situation. As a mirror image for the regimeʼs dependence on Putin, a problem for Russiaʼs opposition is its visible reliance on Navalʼnyi and his political capital.

Seminar: Russian Media Today, 2 May 2016

Side Event of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day at the University of Helsinki Main Building, Auditorium XIV, Unioninkatu 34

The seminar focuses on freedom of expression and its limitations in Russian media from the perspectives of academic research and journalistic practices. Special attention is paid to the existing practices and new forms and modes of expression and media regulation in the context of changing political conditions and public discourses. The speakers are scholars of Russian and East-European media, culture and society and experienced journalists from Russia and Finland.

12:00-14:00 Session I
Chair: Markku Kangaspuro (University of Helsinki)
Dmitry Yagodin (University of Tampere): Social Media and Freedom of Expression
Katja Lehtisaari (University of Helsinki ): Freedom of Speech and Media Regulation
Saara Ratilainen (University of Helsinki ): ”Quality Media” vs Amateur Media

14:00-14:15 Coffee

14:15-16:30 Session II
Chair: Jussi Lassila (University of Helsinki)
Nikolai Donskov, Journalist, University Lecturer, St. Petersburg
Valerii Nechai, First Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Radio Ekho Moskvy, St. Petersburg Branch
Kerstin Kronvall, Foreign Correspondent, the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE

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