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Russian journalists find a bit of freedom online

The internet gives Russia's press a means to report on topics mainstream media won't cover.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev internet
Dmitry Medvedev holds a video conference via the internet in his Gorki residence outside Moscow on Oct. 30, 2009. The Russian president is said to be web-saavy. (Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW, Russia — Marina Litvinovich remembers the day in 2001 when she sat down with Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president, and taught him how to use the internet.

“I taught him how to use search engines, to look at the press,” she said, peaking out from behind her laptop at her makeshift office in a Moscow cafe. “I told him it’s like a huge database — I figured he would understand what that is.”

Putin, a former spy, went on to become Russia’s most powerful politician. Litvinovich, now 36, left her position at the Foundation of Effective Politics, a Kremlin-linked think tank, and joined the opposition, becoming one of the country’s most influential bloggers along the way.

Today she runs, overseeing a team of three that tirelessly scours Russia’s growing blogosphere to find the most popular and controversial political subjects of the day.

“We try to gather things that you won’t find in the press,” Litvinovich said. “We hope to pick out the important themes and help that become the thing that people talk about.”

In a country dominated by state-controlled television and an oft-compliant print media, the internet has become an essential source of information, and the last one free of government control (Litvinovich says Putin didn’t take to the web). Blogs have even begun to influence the agenda. But many are beginning to wonder how long that will last.

Russian internet use has skyrocketed in the past decade. Whereas just 6 percent of Russians regularly used the internet in 2002, over 43 percent do so today, according to the Public Opinion Foundation, an independent Russian pollster.

A study released last month by internet research firm Comscore found that Russians are the world’s most active social networking users, with visitors spending an average of 9.8 hours on social networks monthly, more than double the global average. One of the most popular sites is LiveJournal, the Russian blogging platform of choice.

“The internet is like a god today,” said Zoya Svetova, a journalist with the New Times, Russia’s leading — and, since the closure of Russian Newsweek for financial reasons in October, only — opposition magazine. “It’s a free zone where people can say what they want.”

“In Soviet times we had samizdat,” Svetova said, referring to the self-produced and distributed dissident writing of the Soviet era. “Now the internet is like samizdat, but with a huge print run.”

One of the main reasons Russia’s journalist community united so quickly and loudly after the brutal beating of Oleg Kashin earlier this month was the journalist’s active online presence, his friends said.

“Everyone in the community from the ages of 20 to 35 knew him,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, a journalist with Ekho Moskvy, a prominent radio station, and the Russian representative of Reporters Without Borders. “When he was beat up, everyone thought, ‘This could happen to me too.’”

Kashin’s blog and Twitter feed are often more absurd and biting than his reporting. Friends like to note he was instrumental in giving prominence to a rumor that made its way around the Russian blogosphere last month, alleging that Putin’s estranged wife, Lyudmila, had been cloistered in a monastery in the northern city of Pskov.

“This can be totally untrue (or true),” Kashin wrote. “I’m writing this post to say that information about the marriages and divorces of high officials, famous politicians and others — this is socially important information, and any obstruction of its propagation is the same sort of hidden censorship that is accepted in other forms of relations between the leadership and the press.”

The subject grew to become the second most popular ever on (the first is a discussion of Putin’s alleged lovechild with Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva).

Both, however true or absurd, are forbidden topics in the mainstream press. A tabloid owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev was shut down two years ago after reporting Putin’s alleged affair.

“The internet is the most free place for discussion,” Dzyadko said.

The medium is starting to make its mark. A number of topics born on the internet — the most high profile being car crashes involving Russian officials — have already gotten nationwide coverage. On Thursday, the head of the Audit Chamber was forced to respond to a well-known blogger’s investigation into a multi-billion dollar theft at the oil pipeline monopoly, Transneft.

If the internet is the most free, then television is the least. “We know there is a blacklist of forbidden subjects and people,” Dzyadko said. Russia’s three federal channels are state-controlled, with a close relationship to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief idealogue. Images of President Dmitry Medvedev holding meetings and Putin visiting dairy farms regularly top the agenda.

Enter TV Dozhd (Rain TV), a new television channel that found its start on the internet, which has been broadcasting since April via its website and through a long-form deal with YouTube.