Last May, as Russia was hit with the first wave of coronavirus infections, state-run television portrayed a healthcare system ready for battle. Newscasts showed doctors in white protective suits fighting to save patients’ lives, mobile hospitals being built to treat influxes of patients, Moscow laboratories ramping up virus testing, and musicians singing in an online concert to thank medics for their work.

But a very different picture of the situation emerged online. On May 8, journalist Irina Shikhman released a documentary on YouTube in which doctors and nurses from hospitals across Russia complained of shortages of protective suits, masks, and goggles. In tearful interviews recorded over video calls, they described being underpaid, neglected, and harassed for speaking out, despite working on the frontlines of the pandemic. After the chief physician of a hospital outside Moscow asserted in the video that his medical staff had all the personal protective equipment they needed, one of his physicians responded with a video showing single-use bodysuits being washed and hung to dry in the hospital laundry room. The hour-long video, titled “The Virus of Silence,” has garnered an impressive 4.2 million views since it was posted, and it earned the 36-year-old journalist a prestigious independent Russian media award.

With the country’s major television networks firmly under government control, in recent years, YouTube has emerged as a key platform for independent journalism, political activism, and vibrant public discussion in Russia. Alexey Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition leader, has amassed millions of followers on the platform, through videos exposing the hidden wealth and corruption of the country’s leadership. “In Russia, public debate isn’t possible on television or in mainstream print media,” Lyubov Sobol, a top member of Navalny’s foundation, said in December. “Today, YouTube is our main platform for communicating with our supporters.” 

In 2017, the internet overtook television as the main source of news for Russians between 18 and 25, according to the Levada-Center, an independent polling institute. While about two-thirds of Russians still get up to speed on current events through television, the other third, made up primarily of younger people, rely on online outlets and often on YouTube. The video hosting site is Russia’s third-most popular platform behind Google and the Russian search engine Yandex, and, as of last October, it had nearly 80 million monthly users across the country, according to the research firm Mediascope. “YouTube doesn’t just give access to unfiltered news, it also serves as a town square for political and intellectual debate, civic organizing, and political mobilization,” said Sergey Sanovich, a scholar at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, who studies digital propaganda in Russia.

But this online ecosystem is increasingly at risk. As the government continues to clamp down on civil society, it is censoring content, blocking access to websites it considers dangerous, and fining and arresting social media users who post controversial material. Efforts to restrict parts of the internet have intensified even more since protests broke out over Navalny’s imprisonment in January. The editor-in-chief of an independent news website was sentenced to 15 days in jail for retweeting a joke referencing the rallies. A visiting instructor at a leading university in Moscow received a similar punishment for retweeting a call to join the demonstrations. Such crackdowns underscore why Russians are flocking to YouTube in the first place. “They go there for the truth,” Shikhman remarked, “or at least for an alternative point of view.”

After decades of censorship and government propaganda, Russian journalism flourished in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A host of new television channels, newspapers, and magazines appeared, featuring different points of view. But when Putin came to power nine years later, the state began to reassert control. Many journalists were forced off the air, critical reporting disappeared, and television became a powerful tool for promoting the government agenda and solidifying support for Putin. With the economy booming, the changing media landscape didn’t spark much public debate. But between 2002 and 2020, Russia dropped from 121 to 149 in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Meanwhile, the Kremlin allowed a handful of smaller independent news outlets to continue operating.

Russian television ultimately devolved into what some now characterize as a zombie box. News reports toe the government line, spread conspiracy theories, and repeat outlandish claims. In 2014, Channel One ran an interview with a woman who alleged, without evidence, that a three-year-old boy was crucified by the Ukrainian army during the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, political talk shows feature screaming matches and the occasional fistfight, and, in the rare event that anti-government rallies are shown on television, protesters are portrayed as unruly provocateurs financed by Western countries to weaken Russia. No matter how loud things get, the pro-Putin line always prevails.

Russian YouTube journalism first took off in 2017, when a sports reporter named Yury Dud, now 34, decided to launch an online interview show featuring musicians, actors, and politicians. “Television in Russia is completely dead, but there are still very, very many people in the country who have brains,” Dud quipped at the time. Before long, his program had millions of viewers. Often wearing his signature ripped jeans, Dud provoked guests with questions about their finances, private lives, and what they would say to Putin if they were to meet him. In one interview, a popular rapper bragged about having slept with over 100 women; in another, a rock musician revealed that he spent $250,000 on a new set of teeth. Once Dud had built a dedicated following, he turned to hard-hitting documentaries, taking on topics such as Stalin’s purges, Russia’s devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the 2004 deadly school seizure in the southern Russian town of Beslan. Today, he is one the country’s leading journalists, and his channel has over 8.7 million subscribers.

Since Dud, a number of other prominent reporters have migrated to YouTube. This includes Leonid Parfenov, a star TV journalist whose trailblazing weekly news show was shut down in 2004 due to censorship, and Alexey Pivovarov, a former member of Parfenov’s team, whose YouTube show has earned praise for in-depth reporting on Covid-19. Journalist Karen Shainyan, who is openly gay, has cultivated an audience for his compassionate interviews with LGTBQ celebrities and supporters. His show, “Straight Talk with Gay People,” is exactly the kind of YouTube production that would not air on government-controlled television. Russia does not allow gay marriage, and a 2013 law prohibits disseminating “homosexual propaganda” to minors — which, in practice, includes almost anything that casts same-sex relationships in a neutral or positive light.

Irina Shikhman’s ascent to serious political journalism was somewhat serendipitous. Born in the Siberian city of Tomsk, she made a name for herself interviewing actors and singers on a popular TV program. Eventually, she moved to Moscow, where she landed a job co-hosting an entertainment show on one of Russia’s three biggest government-controlled channels. In 2017, she was contacted by a former colleague from a production company financed by the Moscow city government. Moscow Media wanted to expand into YouTube, and Shikhman was offered her own show.

Of the handful of programs Moscow Media launched, Shikhman’s was the most successful. “Let’s Talk” started off on a light note, but as it gained traction, conversations turned to corruption, women’s rights, and Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Shikhman ran documentaries about the horrific conditions in Russian prisons, rampant domestic abuse, wildfires in Siberia, anti-Putin protests, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite being openly critical of the government — including the mayor’s office — Shikhman insists Moscow Media never censored any of her programming. She doubts that city officials were paying close attention to her YouTube channel, and, once her show became popular, it may have been too late to intervene.

“It’s not that I am sitting by the door with a suitcase all the time, but I realize that, if I take it upon myself to talk about things that the government doesn’t want known, anything can happen.”

At the start of 2020, Shikhman parted ways with Moscow Media and began running the YouTube show on her own. Today, it has over 1.6 million subscribers, and its most popular video, featuring a stand-up comedian known for his barbed political satire, has been seen more than 7.5 million times. After Shikhman released “The Virus of Silence,” doctors across Russia came forward with complaints. Several months later, the hospital physician accused of disregard for his staff’s safety was replaced. Shikhman is proud of her work but worries about retaliation. “It’s not that I am sitting by the door with a suitcase all the time, but I realize that, if I take it upon myself to talk about things that the government doesn’t want known, anything can happen.”

While authorities have so far tolerated YouTube journalists, they certainly haven’t allowed them to work without obstacles. It’s common for pro-Kremlin bots to bombard videos with dislikes and negative comments, to suppress their popularity, and government surrogates often target journalists directly. After Shikhman released her documentary, she came under attack from Vladimir Solovyov, a popular host on state television, who recently branched out into YouTube. He spent parts of two episodes of his online show venting his anger about “The Virus of Silence,” depicting it as an anti-Russia smear campaign financed by an exiled oligarch. “They are trying to say that everything is bad here,” bristled Solovyov. “There are entire organizations whose only job is to say that our doctors don’t have anything, that our doctors are being hurt, that they don’t have any personal protective equipment, that we are lowering the statistics.”

The ideological gap between Shikhman and Solovyov reflects what Denis Volkov, deputy head of the Levada-Center, sees as deep divisions within the country’s media ecosystem, and, in turn, in Russian society more broadly. “We have two diverging groups that are growing increasingly at odds with each other in terms of their understanding of what is happening,” he noted. “Young internet users and elderly television viewers have diametrically opposed views of what is going on.”

Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times/Redux

While the Kremlin has so far largely put up with journalism and activism online, there are fears that Russia’s digital space will be more heavily policed in the wake of opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment and the subsequent protests.

A lawyer by training, Navalny first became known as a blogger and activist, and, in 2011, he founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation to investigate government graft. Plowing through official documents and financial data, Navalny and his team uncovered kickbacks and shady schemes at major state companies and government bodies, resulting in the cancellation of millions of dollars’ worth of dubious tender requests. In 2013, he ran for mayor of Moscow and came in second with a strong 27% of the vote — despite media coverage and campaign resources skewed firmly in favor of the Putin-backed incumbent. The Kremlin took that as a warning: When he later tried to run for president against Putin, he was barred from the ticket. Over the past decade, Navalny has fought criminal charges, spent brief stints in jail, and was under house arrest for nearly a year. 

YouTube has played an important role in the activist’s ascent.In 2017, he put out a video accusing then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of secretly amassing an empire of mansions and yachts financed through an elaborate scheme of bribes. Medvedev dismissed the video as “absolute lies produced by a political con man. After its release, mass protests erupted across the country. After Navalny ignored a court order to take down the video, authorities raided the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and went after its leaders with fines and criminal charges. The video stayed up, and, as of late January 2020, it had been seen more than 42 million times.

Then, in August of last year, Navalny fell dangerously ill while flying back to Moscow from Siberia. The plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, and the activist was rushed to a local hospital and evacuated to Germany two days later, where he spent nearly three weeks in a coma. While he was recovering in Berlin, German investigators determined that he had been poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. In December, while still in Germany, Navalny published a two-part YouTube investigation into his poisoning, tricking an alleged state operative into revealing that he had tampered with the activist’s underwear. (The Kremlin has denied involvement in the attack and has not investigated it.) These two videos had a combined 50 million views.

In the immediate aftermath of all this, Navalny made the decision to return to Russia. Upon his arrival, he was arrested and taken into police custody for violating the parole terms of an earlier case. The next day, with Navalny in jail, his team released what would become his biggest YouTube sensation to date: an investigation into a secret palatial residence allegedly built for Vladimir Putin that is estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

While Putin denied that he or any family members own the residence, the damage was done. In the weeks following Navalny’s arrest, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in cities and towns across Russia in support of the opposition leader. According to OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors arrests, over 11,000 protesters were detained around the country, and many were violently beaten. On Feburary 2, Navalny was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Unlike China, where the digital space has always been tightly controlled and reliant on local technology, the internet grew organically in Russia for many years. There was little government regulation, and American companies, such as Facebook and YouTube, seized a large share of the market. That started to change in 2012, when mass demonstrations erupted against Putin across the country. Online platforms played an important role in mobilizing protesters, and the government took notice, toughening penalties for hate speech and blocking online content it deemed extremist — including opposition websites. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of Russians convicted on charges of extremism quadrupled, though that number has since been drastically reduced. 

This tightening has continued in recent years. Legislation passed in 2019 imposed fines and short jail terms for online comments deemed to contain misinformation or insult the state — vague charges that leave wide room for interpretation. Dozens of social media users have been targeted since then, according to SOVA, a group that monitors extremism and xenophobia. There is often no apparent logic to which cases authorities decide to pursue. “It’s all about selective use: to ignore in some cases and to come down hard in others and to gradually teach people to be afraid,” said Kirill Rogov, vice president of the Moscow-based think tank Liberal Mission Foundation.

So far, the government has refrained from a blanket crackdown on YouTube, seemingly fearing a public backlash. Pulling the switch on Western social media platforms could threaten to turn previously apolitical YouTube watchers, upset over losing access to their favorite show or a child’s beloved cartoon, into angry members of the opposition. “A significant percentage of social media users are neutral politically, but they will stop being neutral if you take away their right to use the platforms,” Rogov said. He also added that, for now, authorities don’t perceive social media as an imminent danger to the regime. “As long as there is no direct threat,” he said, “there’s no reason to ban it.”

To shift emphasis away from foreign platforms and tech, parliament passed a law in 2019 mandating that all computers, smartphones, and tablets sold in Russia come preloaded with Russian-made software. Other legislation passed last year gives authorities the right to block Western social media platforms over their treatment of Russian content and to impose fines if companies refuse to remove material that the state considers harmful. “What they are trying to do now is find a way to put so much pressure on global social media networks that they start censoring their content based on requests from the Russian government,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA group. (Just last week, the Russian government bungled an effort to censor Twitter, blocking its own websites in the process.)

“It’s not just about controlling YouTube or Facebook, they want the very foundation of the internet to be Russian: physical infrastructure and software.”

The desire to take back control from foreign platforms is a big reason why the Russian government is at work on a so-called “sovereign internet” — a digital infrastructure that could operate independently of the World Wide Web. Last year, it was reported that Russia’s leading internet providers had, in parts of the country, already installed the necessary technology, deep packet inspection, to let the government reroute traffic, in order to block or slow specific websites. Another piece of this project is creating a proprietary national domain name system, essentially an address book of the internet. These efforts are part of what Alena Epifanova, a researcher of the Russian internet with the German Council on Foreign Relations, calls a “strategy of sovereignization,” which authorities claim is key to national security. “It’s not just about controlling YouTube or Facebook,” Epifanova elaborated. “They want the very foundation of the internet to be Russian: physical infrastructure and software.”

Given the difficulty, experts question the government’s ability to successfully create and implement a parallel internet. And moreover, authorities are cautious about pulling the plug on the existing one. “We have to be realistic, it’s clear that if it [sovereign internet law] comes into force, this will create big problems; it will take some time to reconfigure everything,” Medvedev, who is now deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, told reporters in January.

“Technologically, everything is ready. On the legislative level, all the decisions have been made,” he said. “But I would like to stress one more time: it is complicated, and we really wouldn’t want it to happen.”In the meantime, the country’s digital journalists are using the freedoms still available to them. On YouTube, they continue to report on opposition protests, Putin’s alleged wealth, and Navalny’s prosecution. And more investigative projects are regularly appearing. For her part, Shikhman realizes that the future of her show and of YouTube journalism in Russia is uncertain. “We will keep looking for holes, as long as it is possible,” she said. “You cannot say anything for sure in our country.” But for now, she is happy to continue working and was optimistic when fellow journalists recently informed her of their own plans to launch a show on YouTube. “Welcome to the club,” she told them. “It’s a lot of fun here.”