Why Wikipedia's Millionth Russian Page Is Worth Celebrating

Why Wikipedia's Millionth Russian Page Is Worth Celebrating

In the early hours of 11 May, a volunteer somewhere wrote the millionth substantive page on the Russian-language edition of Wikipedia. Crossing the 1,000,000-page mark is mainly a symbolic one, an aesthetically and cognitively pleasing number for us ten-fingered mammals, but it seems as good a time as any to take stock of the importance of Russian Wikipedia, the only major version of the encyclopedia serving a readership that does not live in a liberal democracy.

Russian Wikipedia crossed the million-article mark at some point around 0300 UTC on 11 May.

Russian Wikipedia crossed the million-article mark at some point around 0300 UTC on 11 May.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the Russian-language section of Wikipedia is a roaring success. In terms of size, Russian is the sixth largest edition of the online encyclopedia (measured by number of content pages, excluding redirects etc), outdone only by Western European languages. In terms of traffic, Russian is now the third most accessed (measured in views per hour), only the English and Spanish sites are busier. In both cases, Russian has outpaced world languages like Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi, and Portuguese. In Russia, wikipedia.org is the 9th most visited domain, and the site gets similar traffic levels from former Soviet states where Russian remains a lingua franca.

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Secondly, we need to acknowledge that Wikipedia is a thoroughly political animal, as is the entire Wikimedia/Creative Commons ecosystem in which it operates. The encyclopedia takes the anarchic ideals of the free software movement, and ports them to the wider cultural sphere (something I have argued in detail before). The subversive nature of Wikipedia does not lie in its language, political vision, or rejection of institutional norms, but in its status as a flourishing cultural counterexample in which ideas cannot be owned, the law can be repurposed and used against institutions, and code and knowledge circulate as free speech.

Political establishments in the developed world have sometimes struggled with this brand of politics, hence the skirmishes with Anonymous, Wikileaks, and Occupy, but the Western political order is flexible enough to welcome Wikipedia as one of the fruits of Internet culture.

Not so in Russia. After a slight political thaw during the Medvedev presidency, the Russian political order is at its most rigid in years. Putin returned to the Kremlin on 7 May 2012, and the year that has passed has not been a good one for political freedoms in Russia. Most telling is the return of the Soviet-style show trial, which was dusted down a few years ago during the political annihilation of oligarch Khodorkovsky, and in the last year has been used with Kafkaesque gusto against blaspheming punks, a dead lawyer, and an anti-corruption blogger. The state has also clamped down hard on NGOs, co-opted the Orthodox Church into an increasingly political role, and steadily chiselled away at Internet freedoms. I say “the state,” but it is anything but monolithic. Putin mediates between an amorphous blob of rival clans, a tangle of overlapping lines of patronage greased by petrodollars and endemic corruption. In one sense, Russia is governed by a hive mind, albeit one directed by a set of signals from the top of the food chain.

Maybe this is why Russians are so good at Wikipedia, the slightly lawless working environment is familiar (Medvedev called it “legal nihilism”, Wikipedians call it the fifth pillar), but unlike in real life, the chaos of Wikipedia is channelled into something quite productive.

Muscovites protest on 6 May, the eve of the one year anniversary of Putin's return to the presidency.  The Kremlin struggles to maintain legitimacy among urban populations plugged into global flows of information (Image: Alexei Navalny's Livejournal)

Muscovites protest on 6 May, the eve of the one year anniversary of Putin’s return to the presidency. The Kremlin struggles to maintain legitimacy among urban populations plugged into global flows of information (Image: Alexei Navalny)

I don’t want to fall into the trap of psycho-analysing Russia from afar, so let me simply say that the Russian state does not like Wikipedia. Unlike any other mainstream source of information in Russia, Wikipedia does not owe the state anything. The success of such a project was so unfathomable to the authorities, that at one point the planned response was to create a state-sponsored rival to Wikipedia, written entirely by experts. The fact that the agency involved thought that building a state-sponsored Encyclopedia Britannica from scratch would be a winning formula indicates that the Russian state struggles to incorporate web 2.0 (and all that) into its worldview.

Of course web 2.0 (to use a phrase that is now deeply unfashionable) doesn’t really care about the Kremlin worldview, and goes about its business regardless. But collaborative production is not just something that happens, it is a staunchly territorial movement, and that became clear last July when the Russian State Duma was getting ready to vote on legislation that would force ISPs to filter websites with certain types of harmful content (related to drugs, suicide, and child pornography). Russian Wikipedia had a 24-hour blackout in protest against the law, similar to the blackouts held on English-language sites against SOPA six months previously.

Wikimedia is part of a wider community of liberal Russian Internet activists, some which is marked by formal membership of a user movement, some of which is more tacit. In January 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation received a million-dollar donation from Pavel Durov, the head of the Russian social network VK (which is like Facebook but with filesharing capability). Durov is a very interesting character, an impulsive libertarian who once gave his main investor the finger, via a twitpic. A staunch vegetarian with a strong views on alcohol, smoking, education, and governance, he is not the pliant whipping boy the Kremlin wants in charge of the country’s largest social network, so his days in charge there are probably numbered. Under a different set of circumstances Durov might have donated his money to one of the many opposition groups trying to modernise and liberalise Russia offline, but he gave it to Wikimedia, a cause which is political, but not too political.

If Durov does lose control of VK, Russian Wikipedia might well be next in the firing line. The first shots have probably already been fired, with a slew of drug and suicide related pages added to a blacklist of banned websites. The takedown notices bore all the bureaucratic hallmarks of the censorship process: incoherent, contradictory, and of unclear origin. The response from Wikipedia’s Russia volunteers was defiant, pages would be reworded more delicately but not blocked, what Kevin Rothrock has described as a “suicide mission” against the censors. The most militant response may have been from Jimmy Wales himself, who wrote that “being blocked is always preferable to collaborating with censors […] We are not weak, we are very powerful. Catering to the demands of weak and cowardly politicians – the kind who fear the spread of knowledge – is not the Wikipedia way.”

Whatever the outcome of a Kremlin-Wikimedia showdown, the world’s largest Russian encyclopedia will continue to pursue its thinly veiled political mission, which extends far beyond the borders of Russia. Across Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, millions use Russian as a second language ahead of English, and in many of these places the local language Wikipedia is underdeveloped or flawed. Aside from that, many readers and editors are Russian speakers who have emigrated elsewhere. As hinted at by the work of Mark Graham, diasporas play a major role in the writing of Wikipedia articles. While the Kremlin might not like anything too grassroots, it has an acute appreciation of soft power, and is unlikely to do anything that would leave the Russian-language narrative in the hands of Russians living in Britain, Israel, and the States. The Kremlin would be more likely to try and co-opt that narrative, with paid editors toning down sensitive content. But regardless of how they might mangle articles and troll the talk pages in the future, they will never be able to escape the fact that Wikipedia offers a counterexample of what Russian society might one day look like, evidence that there is nothing in the Russian soul that precludes it from democracy, civility, and success.

TL;DR…

  1. The Russian edition of Wikipedia is one of the most successful. Of the major Wikipedia language communities, Russian-speaking users arguably enjoy the least political freedom.
  2. The Russian government is apprehensive of Wikipedia’s independence, but editors have repeatedly shown political backbone in the face of the confrontation, including a blackout in protest against Internet censorship and the refusal of takedown requests.
  3. Wikimedia’s allies in Russia include the open source software community and the Russian Pirate Party. The most influential individual supporter is probably Pavel Durov, the head of Russia’s largest social network VK, but he appears to now be the target of a Kremlin campaign.
  4. Russian Wikipedia provides an important service to countries in the former Soviet space where Russian remains a lingua franca over English.

Updates:

In an apparent act of deja vu, the Russian Wikipedia page for cannabis has once again been placed on the list of banned websites.

This article was originally posted on 7 May in anticipation of the million-page mark, and updated on 11 May once that threshold had been passed. — Lui (@yablochko)