How big are social media in Russia


Tamina Kutscher

Tamina Kutscher is editor-in-chief at Before that she was an editor and project manager at n-ost.

Anton Himmelspach

Anton Himmelspach is editor for political science at

Is it all propaganda ?!

How free is the media in Russia? In the frequently cited index of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders lists Russia in 148th place - out of 170. Again and again, new laws or legislative changes cause criticism that the Russian government continues to restrict media freedom. Are there any independent media in Russia at all? What role does state television play? And what is society's idea of ​​journalism anyway? A critical insight into the Russian media landscape in ten questions and answers.
A broadcast of the main television station Pervyj Kanal about the presidential election 2018. (& copy screenshot:

1. Is it true that television plays such a big role? And what does the expression "zombie box" mean?

The Russian media landscape has to be imagined as a giant cream cake: the cream is state television, the thin bottom is all the rest. This is how Martin Krohs, founder of the German-language Russia portal explains. In fact, state or state-owned television dominates the Russian media landscape: Perwyj Kanal (German First Channel), Rossija 1 and NTW - these are the names of the three largest channels that have a significant influence on the formation of political opinion in Russia and enjoy the trust of viewers: half According to a survey by the independent Levada Center, all Russians trust the information provided by these channels. And almost 90 percent of all citizens get their information mainly from television. "Russia", wrote the Berlin political scientist Sergey Medvedev in an edition of the Russia-Analyzes, "is a television nation." At least since the early 2000s, the Kremlin has been relying on control over the power of images. In the 1990s, there was a brief period of independence for many broadcasters. But shortly after Putin came to power in 2000, the government again secured the media as an instrument of power.


The development can be shown particularly clearly by looking at the fate of the NTW station. Established after perestroika in 1991, NTW was a pioneer and beacon of independent TV broadcasters in Russia. In the noughties, armed and masked units suddenly stormed the editorial offices. Numerous allegations were made against the media holding of NTW owner Wladimir Gussinski, including breach of banking secrecy - and dropped again after he had sold the station in 2001 to the media holding of the majority state-owned energy company Gazprom. In 2007, Gazprom-Media finally held 100 percent of NTW. The smashing of NTW is still in the Russian media scene like a shock in the bones - especially since it also served as a blueprint for other media (see point 9 below).


It was similar with the ORT station - only that it was never entirely independent even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, too, 51 percent of the station was owned by the state, the rest belonged to various banks and corporations, including. of the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. After Berezovsky opposed the political elite, billionaire Roman Abramowitsch bought his ORT stake from him in 2000, and Berezovsky fled abroad. Abramowitsch renamed the station - in reference to the Soviet era - in Pervyj Kanal and also changed the content.

Today the Pervyj Canal is majority-owned by the state (partly through cross-shareholdings), the rest of the shares are shared by the state-owned media holding Nationale Mediengruppe and the oligarch Roman Abramowitsch, who is also considered to be close to the Kremlin. Not only the entertainment but also the news broadcasts on the Pervy Canal are extremely popular with viewers. In a survey by the Levada Center, 72 percent of television viewers said they see them regularly. The broadcaster positions itself as the main television channel and has the highest advertising revenues and government grants.


Finally, there is the media holding WGTRK. Founded in 1990, the WGTRK has been massively expanded nationwide over the years, today it includes several television, radio and Internet media, as well as almost 100 regional media companies in Russian Federation subjects. In this way, the owner, namely the central government in Moscow, secures influence on regional reporting. With Rossija 1, the WGTRK also holds the second largest Russian broadcaster, which in 2013 reached 98.5 percent of Russian households and in 2016 for the first time higher ratings than the Pervyj Kanal.

Spokesman for the Kremlin

Television acts as the Kremlin's mouthpiece on almost all political issues; it is the Russian government's central communication tool. Again and again, information leaks out, the presidential administration regularly sends thematic plans to the individual broadcasters. Control tightened, especially after the opposition protests in winter 2011/2012 and after the so-called Ukraine crisis in 2014. The reporting of the state broadcasters almost always corresponds to the official rhetoric. This also means that the state and state-related channels repeatedly refer to parts of the Russian opposition as the "fifth column".

Well-known television faces

The presenter Vladimir Solovyov, who, among other things, has his own program on Rossija 1, is known for verbal attacks. He recently described Russian citizens who followed the opposition politician Alexey Navalnyj's call to protest in Moscow in July 2017 as "a bunch of Assis", "swanky assholes" and "an eternal two percent shit". [1] Dimitrij Kisseljow, presenter of the popular Sunday news program Westi Nedeli on Rossija 1, is also known for his harsh rhetoric against the opposition and liberal values. For this reason, critics call him the "chief propagandist of the Kremlin". [2] A counterexample is Vladimir Posner. The popular moderator of the Pervyj Kanal is famous for his interviews, in which he expresses his own critical positions. Posner repeatedly makes censorship an issue - he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle in 2015 that his interview partners were selected under strict control and that his format could in principle be discontinued at any time at the request of the government.

The state is currently the most influential player in the television market. The independent TV broadcaster Doschd, for example, can now almost only be received as a pay-TV channel via the Internet and therefore only has a viewership of a little more than 70,000 subscribers.


"Sombirowanje", zombieization, describes the effect that television has in Russian society not only as a medium of information, but also as a means of manipulation. Critics sarcastically refer to the television itself as the "zombie box".

2. How does this control from above affect the job description of the journalist?

The above-mentioned TV presenter Vladimir Posner said in the same interview with Deutsche Welle that there is no independent media in Russia and therefore no journalism as a job description, only a few journalists. The reason for this is that the state can simply close the media if it wants to. However, this is the self-critical look of a famous television man. Many in the Russian audience, on the other hand, are not bothered by the content, as they often have fundamentally different expectations of journalism. The idea that journalists should spread certain messages dictated from above among the masses still comes from socialism. This idea of ​​journalism is very different from Posner's or certain independent media outlets. Nonetheless, a 2017 survey by the Körber Foundation showed that 76 percent of all Russians surveyed think that it is the task of the media to support the government in its work and to support its decisions.

3. What about print media in Russia? What role does the internet play?

In contrast to the almost ubiquitous state television, print media are consumed very little - although they are widespread in terms of numbers: around two thirds of all media registered in Russia are newspapers and magazines. Newspapers, for example, are read by only 5 percent of the population every day or almost every day, 13 times less than in 1990. More than half of Russians never or almost never read newspapers. The magazines cover an even smaller group.

The most popular newspapers are tabloids: Argumenty i Fakty (Eng. Arguments and Facts) weekly, with a - according to their own account - sold circulation of over 2 million copies and Komsomolskaya Pravda (daily, up to 655,000 copies). Both are considered close to the state, Argumenty i Fakty belongs to the Moscow city administration.


The often loss-making print media are often dependent on regional administrations - and this is reflected in the choice of topics as well as in the way they are presented. The journalist and blogger Alexej Kowaljow, founder of the media-critical blog Noodleremover (Eng. "Noodle remover") describes how much the editorial work of such newspapers is controlled by the administration. The editorial offices receive weekly guidelines on what needs to be highlighted and how. In Moscow, for example, the rule "three Moscow, three Sobyanin" applies, according to which in every text about Moscow the city leader Sergei Sobyanin must only be mentioned in positive context and at least three times. These guidelines are particularly important when it comes to controversial issues such as: B. the Moscow redevelopment program.


However, there are also print media that report critically. However, the readership of independent newspapers and magazines that offer thorough analysis of economic and political issues is manageable: According to surveys, it is between 1 and 2 percent of the population.

The number of such media has fallen in recent years, as has their circulation. The reasons are primarily financial difficulties, which are mostly related to the fact that advertising revenues are falling: On the one hand, because companies are simply spending less on advertising overall due to the ongoing crisis. On the other hand, because they are careful not to be associated with critical media.

In order to save costs, many sheets have given up the print edition and only appear online. In 2017 the Kommersant publishing house discontinued two major print magazines: Kommersant-Dengi (German money) and Kommersant-Wlast (German roughly government and power) and replaced them with the new online edition Kommersant-Weekly. In the same year, the opposition weekly magazine The New Times became a purely online medium - according to editor-in-chief Yevgenia Albats because of financial difficulties. (For more details on media financing, see point 7 below)

4. What does "independent" mean when you talk about Russian media? And is the media landscape really that black and white?

Of course not. Russia's media landscape is complex and dynamic. The media seldom falls into a clear black and white grid, and there are many factors to consider when assessing independence. The mere fact that a medium is owned by a private person or a private company does not say anything about whether it also reports independently. For example, the Moscow newspaper Nesawissimaja Gazeta (German: Independent Newspaper), which now belongs to the entrepreneur Konstantin Remchukov, is basically not as independent as its name and structure suggest: Their positions usually do not differ from the official ones. Critical voices can also be found occasionally in state-related media. The radio station Echo Moskwy, which belongs to the state-affiliated holding company Gazprom-Media, shows numerous opposition voices - and is therefore an exception among the state-owned media.


There is no clear separation between so-called independent and controlled print and online media. Even for a state-related or state medium, it is not impossible to publish, for example, an in-depth analysis of the economic situation, which also puts the activities of the government in a bad light. The extensive structural independence of the medium, in turn, does not preclude certain topics from not being examined for specific reasons (journalists' safety, fear of closure, etc.). Time and again, independent journalists, too, cite self-censorship as a major problem for media workers in Russia.

5. What is the situation like in the regions? Are there also independent media out there?

Yes, especially in the regions there are many media that are largely independent. Usually these are small online resources and sometimes they are difficult to distinguish from activist projects. Nevertheless, they are often extremely well informed and do important research on site. Often they are the only regional sources that bring independent positions critical of the government., for example, describes how a regional government works and examines the activities of the governor of Vladimir Oblast and the members of the regional parliament. The online medium from Yekaterinburg is considered to be one of the leading non-governmental and critical online media in the Urals region. Such media have often been founded by political activists. The focus is also on information about civil society activities, demonstrations and actions.

What these different regional media have in common is their limited reach. However, many believe that this is precisely why they should report more critically. The greater the range, the more endangered the freedom of the medium.

6. What about social networks? Are they perhaps even more important than any other media, at least in terms of independent reporting?

In fact, blogs and social media are playing an increasingly important role in Russia, a country with restricted media freedom (see in more detail below, point 9). The YouTube channel of the opposition politician Alexej Navalnyj, for example, has more than 1.5 million subscribers. A well-known blog is by Ilya Varlamov. In his photos and texts, like many other bloggers, he ironically addresses those things that rarely appear in the major media: such as urban life or criticism of the demolition of old buildings.

Many critical voices use social media such as VKontakte, Facebook, or the Messenger Telegram as a free platform with a high reach for critical opinions, comments and analyzes. Many independent journalists in particular have several thousand followers and subscribers there.

In addition, at least hardly anyone has been legally prosecuted for Facebook posts in Russia. As far as the Messenger Telegram is concerned, attempts have already been made to control it more closely, as a dispute between the media supervisory authority Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in the Field of Communication, Information Technology and Mass Communication) and VKontakte and Telegram founder Pawel Durov showed ] Durow has since left Russia and lives in Berlin.

In fact, private individuals have already ended up in prison for allegedly reposting "extremist" content on Vkontakte. [4] A basis for such decisions is the controversial Article 282 of the Criminal Code, which is directed against the "stirring up of hatred and enmity as well as the humiliation of individuals or groups" and which is considered by critics to be the rubber paragraph of Russian criminal law. [5]

7. How do media critical of the Kremlin finance themselves?

Such media are currently financed primarily through subscriptions and donations. They can hardly generate any noteworthy advertising income, also because it could be detrimental to business for companies to advertise in critical media (see above, point 3).


A change in the Media Act passed by the Duma in November 2017 could be fatal for the financial situation of these media. The hastily passed law provides that the media can be stigmatized with the status of "foreign agent" - a term from the Stalin era that is associated with "enemies of the state". Civil society organizations have been able to get this label since 2012 if they receive money from abroad.

Now the law has been expanded to include the media: Foreign broadcasters such as Deutsche Welle or Voice of America are affected - but not only. The law is formulated so vaguely that the independent media remaining in Russia can suffer too. [6] And not only those who receive direct funding from foreign donors: For example, a medium can be declared an "agent" if one of its employees takes part in a journalism conference that is financed by a foreign donor. Or because subscription or donation income comes from abroad. In addition, "foreign agent" websites may be blocked without a court order.

Does this mean the end for independent media? Not at first: First of all, it depends on how the new law will be implemented in the next few years. Although it offers a whole arsenal of instruments that can silence independent voices, it is currently uncertain whether these instruments will actually also be used against Russian media. So far, nine US media outlets have been declared "foreign agents", including the foreign stations Golos Ameriky (Voice of America) and Radio Swoboda (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)

8. State media are not affected by the new media law?

Absurdly enough, the media law can basically also be applied to state or state-affiliated media: theoretically, for example, the state foreign broadcaster Russia Today (RT) could be prosecuted for receiving advertising income from foreign customers. But this will most likely not happen: RT primarily reflects the official view of the Russian government and receives state subsidies, in 2017, for example, six billion rubles (around 86 million euros). In total, state media received around 74 billion rubles (around one billion euros) in subsidies in 2017.

One of the beneficiaries is the aforementioned top dog in the media landscape: the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company WGTRK (see above, point 1). The state news agency TASS receives subsidies, as does Erste Kanal - the largest state-controlled television station that plays a central role in the Kremlin's political communication (see point 1 above).

9. There is always talk of the "control" of the media. What do you have to imagine by that?

Control usually does not work directly, but indirectly: for example, through laws that can be applied against individual media like rubber paragraphs (see above, point 7). Or through state-affiliated companies or entrepreneurs, such as the NTW television station (see above, point 1).


The takeover of a critical medium by a system-compliant oligarch or a company is more common: For example, with the (now pulped) weekly Itogi and the news platform, in 2001 at NTW (see above, point 1) and most recently with the investigative business medium RBC . After they were taken over, many journalists left the respective editorial offices and sometimes founded new platforms. The best known is - an internet portal headquartered in Riga, Latvia. The medium was founded in October 2014 by Galina Timtschenko, who was previously editor-in-chief of for many years. In 2014, against the background of the annexation of Crimea, had linked to an interview with a representative of the nationalist Ukrainian organization Right Sector. According to a ruling by the authorities, this would lead to "sowing national discord" and Timchenko was dismissed. However, many observers assumed that the link to the interview was only a pretext to realign a medium that had already become unpopular.


Because journalists are evidently expected to observe "traffic rules" and not to cross "solid lines". These terms from the road traffic regulations come from Jelisaweta Golikowa and Igor Trosnikow, who had worked for the state news agency TASS before they finally became the new editors-in-chief of RBC in July 2016. [7]

Such "traffic rules" and "lines" are also likely to be the main reasons for self-censorship. The media supervisory authority Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in the Field of Communication, Information Technology and Mass Communication) monitors whether journalists adhere to such unwritten rules. It has around 78,000 media operating in Russia in its register.

The supervisory authority has existed since 2008 and is assigned to the Ministry of Communication and Mass Media. Her tasks include media and internet monitoring. In addition to the register, Roskomnadzor indexes black lists with illegal media and content. Among other things, the authority added the opposition portals, and to these lists and has been blocking their websites in Russia for years. These media are still accessible in Russia: via VPN, proxy or simple mirrors. However, since 2017 there has been a ban on circumventing government-induced blocking of websites using VPN, proxy or anonymization software. Most journalists and private individuals continue as before after such a restriction has been passed - such laws are often applied arbitrarily and this is precisely where their threat lies.

10. Is it all propaganda ?!

All propaganda, that is certainly not true for the Russian media landscape. Especially since the borders are not always easy to draw, and independent voices can also be heard on state channels. And vice versa. Nevertheless, with television almost completely close to the Kremlin, propaganda also dominates. It has significantly more reach than any other medium. Rubber paragraphs, which could limit or end the work of individual media at any time, affect the climate just as much as a whole series of once critical media that were "realigned" in terms of content after being sold to state-owned owners. Even critical media workers are not unaffected by such measures: many of them cite self-censorship as a major problem. [8] This does not detract from the merits of the numerous courageous and independent journalists who live and work in Russia. On the contrary.

The contribution was made with the collaboration of Leonid Klimov.