LJ, SUP, Putin, the Kremlin, and its creatures. – it’s worse than i could have possibly imagined. i’m SO glad i’m out of there… 8P
LJ, SUP, Putin, the Kremlin, and its creatures.
December 3rd, 2007
Well. There goes LJ.
You will by now have seen that, whilst the innocent slept (or listened for the Shipping Forecast and obsessively monitored flood warnings and bulletins from the Environment Agency and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency), 6A announced the sale of LJ to that oh-so-unremarkable, common or garden ‘international media company’, SUP.
Yawns all ’round, what?
It may conceivably – don’t snigger too audibly, please – it may conceivably be a sheer coincidence that the sale was announced on the same day that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, quite unexpectedly, saw his myrmidons achieve an excellent showing in Duma elections so unfree and so blatantly rigged that they would have embarrassed Robert Mugabe. But the – ah – coincidence is instructive all the same.
For who, you may ask, are SUP? Ah. Thereby hangs a tale.
I suppose we all know who Mr Putin is. Vladimir Vladimirovich is a nekulturniy Chekist bastard, is who he is. The past fortnight or so in the UK has, famously, seen the transformation of the PM from Stalin to Mr Bean. But this is as nothing to the past few years in which, from the mask of Dobby the House-Elf, the new Stalin has emerged in the person of Mr Putin. The grandson of Stalin’s (and Lenin’s) personal chef, Mr Putin is an old KGB thug, and currently presides over the re-enslavement of his fellow Russians – when he’s not profiting from the assassinations of Aleksandr Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya and the gaoling of Garry Kasparov (whilst preserving plausible deniability in a way that would have been the envy of Henry 2d when FitzUrse and the lads offed Tom Becket).
I believe it was Simon Heffer who noted recently that it was a tragedy, with daily emerging consequences, that the fall – or eclipse – of Communism was not followed by its own Nuremburg tribunals, as befell its twin, Nazism. Had that transpired, perhaps the Bear That Walks Like a Man would not again be ramping about, red in tooth and claw. But this did not transpire, alas, and there have been consequences.
Amongst these consequences is the rise of that class of base, vicious, moneyed thug to whom we politely refer, collectively (ah! Collectivisation, comrade!), as the ‘Russian oligarchs’: in fact, they are a kleptocracy at best, and most commonly (there’s a mot juste for you) a kakistocracy. It is not by any means easy to determine, in assessing these gentry, who amongst them are (or fondly believe themselves to be) pulling the Kremlin’s strings, and who are Mr Putin’s puppets, but this is in practise a distinction without a difference.
Mind you, LJ’s announcement is concerned in the main with twee reassurances that the sale will not affect Frank, the mythical goat. (Yes, I know. You might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.)
But what, pray, has any of this to do with the sale of LJ to SUP?
Mr Mamut is described by Six Apart in its news release at its homepage as follows: ‘SUP is a Russian online media company founded and led by Andrew Paulson, an American entrepreneur living in Russia, and Aleksandr Mamut, a well-known Russian financier.’ How anodyne.
But there is rather more to Mr Mamut than appears in that release.
The Washington Post, 28 October 2007
Some Russian Internet experts say a turning point came in 2004, when blogs and uncensored online publications helped drive a popular uprising in Ukraine after a pro-Moscow candidate was declared the winner of a presidential election. Days of street protests in the capital, Kiev, led to a new vote that brought a pro-Western politician into the presidency.
Today, the Kremlin is ready with online forces of its own when street action begins.
The Kremlin is also increasingly allying itself with privately run online outlets that foster a new ideal for life in today’s Russia, one that is consumerist and uncompromisingly pro-Putin.
The main champion of this ideal is 28-year-old businessman Konstantin Rykov. The pearl of Rykov’s media empire is the two-year-old Vzglyad (‘View’) online newspaper, which features a serious-looking news section with stories toeing the Kremlin line and a lifestyle section that covers the latest in luxury cars and interior design. Surveys rank Vzglyad as one of Russia’s five most-visited news sites.
‘Rykov is a man who created a good business on the government’s view that it has to invest in ideology,’ said Anton Nossik, an Internet pioneer in Russia now in charge of blog development for Sup, an online media company. Nossik said that Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s domestic political adviser, organized private funding for Rykov’s projects.
Kremlin officials deny any involvement. ‘It is a general habit of everyone to connect every popular occurrence and success with the Kremlin,’ deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said when asked about Rykov. ‘In reality, it is not so.’
In an interview, Rykov would not comment on his investors. A framed portrait of Surkov hung above his desk; Rykov is running for parliament on the list of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party in elections slated for December.
‘The Vzglyad newspaper has created this appearance of a state publication for itself since the very beginning,’ Rykov said. ‘And from the perspective of business and selling ads, that’s very good.’
Allies of the Kremlin have also begun buying some of the companies that have helped make the Internet a bastion of free expression in Russia. Gazeta.ru, long the country’s most respected online newspaper, was sold in December to a metals magnate and Putin loyalist.
And last October, Sup, which is owned by Alexander Mamut, a tycoon with ties to the Kremlin, bought the rights to develop the Russian-language segment of U.S.-based LiveJournal. The segment, with half a million users, is Russia’s most popular blog portal.
‘Mr. Rykov is pro-Kremlin. Mamut and Sup are pro-Kremlin. The social networks are all being bought by pro-Kremlin people,’ Ruslan Paushu, 30, a popular blogger who works for Rykov, said in an interview. ‘Everything’s okay.’
And the Beeb, from as long ago as 28 March 2000
Head of the supervisory council of MDM-Bank[,] he is also very well-connected politically. He is the non-staff advisor to the head of the presidential administration, and is considered a great friend of the ‘family’ of Kremlin insiders, including Boris Berezovsky.
He has also been involved in various political scandals, including allegedly laundering money through the Banks of New York and bribing politicians.
And there’s this from the International Herald Tribune, on 25 October 2006:
First, take a reclusive oligarch who made his fortune by financing murky privatization deals in the 1990s but remained loyal to the regime. Then, throw in some elections, for which the regime would require media assistance. Have the oligarch buy some lucrative media asset enshrined by the Russian intelligentsia. Finally, find a controversial figure to run it.
Russians have been eating this cake ever since former President Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996 was at stake. A decade later, the consolidation of Russian media in the hands of people and institutions affiliated with Kremlin has been almost completed.
By 2006, the number of Russian blogs hit the 1,000,000 mark. Surprisingly, most of them are hosted on a popular American service LiveJournal, not on a domestic blogging service.
There are quite subtle explanations for LiveJournal’s popularity: Many Russians would not trust a Russian company to handle their personal information like passwords and credit cards, nor would they want to be subject to Russia’s draconian legal system and ‘dialogues’ with the secret services.
Therefore, when a two month-old Russian start-up with the funky name of Sup (‘soup’ in English) announced last week that it would take over the Cyrillic segment of LiveJournal from its American parent, the Russian blogosphere exploded with buzz.
Plenty of speculation about the Kremlin’s vicious plan to control and censor the blogosphere flooded the Internet. In a country that still mourns over the recent murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of its most critical voices, many think that a crackdown on bloggers is long overdue.
What’s so pernicious about the deal is that it replicates the very Kremlin model that poisoned the rest of the Russian media.
All ingredients are in order. The oligarch (Aleksandr Mamut, one of the few oligarchs who made a smooth transition between the regimes, owns Sup); the upcoming 2007 and 2008 elections; the independent media asset with tremendous popularity; and the controversial figure in charge (Sup’s chief blogging officer is Anton Nossik, the father of the Russian Internet and, among other things, a former associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s spindoctor).
Sup already announced the creation of an ‘abuse team.’ Typically, abuse teams monitor, warn and suspend blogs that post inappropriate content; prior to the deal, this function was performed by LiveJournal’s American abuse team.
Given Sup’s roots and potential ideology, one can hardly expect that the scope of discussions allowed on the Russian Internet will increase.
If history is anything to judge by, the days of the Russian blogosphere buzzing with critical opinions are numbered. Unfortunately, a simple solution of migrating to another blog service would only disrupt the existing communication networks that have made LiveJournal so popular.
The truly extremist bloggers represent very tiny and rather isolated communities, which will easily migrate elsewhere.
But thousands of more mainstream bloggers, who have filled in the void left by the disappearance of independent media, will become divided, some of them falling for the Sup offer, some of them migrating to other services, and some of them stopping to blog altogether (a trend that has started after Sup’s announcement). Thus, with the direct or indirect assistance from Sup, the Kremlin will manage to burden and, perhaps, even reverse the process that has made opinion-sharing in Russia so easy.
Who would be to blame for destroying a viable and vibrant public forum and turning it into another Kremlin-medicated sanatorium? Nossik, Sup’s blog boss, who increasingly resembles Ivan the Terrible killing his son in that famous Repin painting, should top anyone’s list of suspects.
The reliably and expectedly puerile announcement-‘community’, lj_2008, have published a FAQ designed rather to conceal than to reveal these grave issues. I have taken the liberty of rewriting it as follows:
SUP is an international online media company in the pocket of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
What was SUP’s relationship to LJ before acquiring it?
Do not ask these questions, comrade.
The Sale of LiveJournal
Why is SUP buying LJ?
The Vozhd wishes it so.
Why is Six Apart selling LJ?
KGB FSB have negatives.
Next Steps for LiveJournal, Inc.
Why is this a good deal for LJ users?
Because the Party is the vanguard of the proletariat.
What happens to Six Apart employees working on LJ?
After re-education, they will be assigned to labour.
Is this acquisition effective immediately?
Remember Estonia in 1940? Latvia? Lithuania?
Will LiveJournal be hiring new staff?
Senior Party members have nephews also, comrade.
Will LiveJournal have a new product strategy?
There is a Five Year Plan.
LiveJournal Advisory Board
What is the LiveJournal Advisory Board?
The Party Congress, comrade. The term ‘nomenklatura’ is not permitted.
Will LJ’s policies around the Terms of Service and Abuse policies change?
As the FSB directs.
Will my personal information remain in the USA
Of course, comrade. The copies in the Lubyanka are merely copies of your dossiers.
What assurances do I have that my data will not be stolen or misused?
Are you questioning the Party, comrade?
What improvements has SUP made to LJ since it acquired the Russian license?
The dictatorship of the proletariat has resulted in unparalleled harvest and production! Everyone is working like a Stakhanovite!
I have some ideas on how to improve LiveJournal, Inc. Who can I talk to?
Simply speak into the lamp on your desk. Yes, that one. We are watching and listening most carefully.
Who will collect Paid account fees?
The FSB or your block leader or local commissar will call ’round with details.
What are LiveJournal, Inc.’s plans with respect to LJ open source initiatives?
‘Open source’ intelligence is very important to the First Chief Directorate.
So this is what it has come to. Six Apart have effectively sold LJ to Vladimir Putin* and his puppets. Even as you slept, your paid accounts may have helped fund the disappearance or murder of a dissident, or another transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Teheran (surely you do not imagine that there is any distinction in practise between private and privy, State, funds in Messrs Putin’s and the Oligarchs’s re-branded Soviet despotism).
And LJ imagines that I am concerned with the mythical feelings of a fictional anthropomorphised goat?
* Oh. And those of you who’ve spent the past year with the vapours, certain that every change at LJ was made to appease American Nonconformists of the social right? I trust that you feel appropriately silly now that the FSB are reading your mail.