The YouTube Conundrum: Why Russians’ Love for the Platform Poses Challenges for the Kremlin

By Justin Ling

In December 2020, Vladimir Putin conducted his year-end press briefing as usual. Despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic affecting Russia and the rest of the world, the president maintained a positive outlook, announcing the allocation of 350 billion rubles ($4.8 billion) to provide social benefits to individuals, families, children, medical professionals, and students.

Two weeks following this event, approximately 1,000 miles away, the opposition’s Anti-Corruption Foundation released a video on its YouTube channel. Alexei Navalny showcased what he termed “Putin’s palace,” which he labeled “the world’s largest bribe.”

In an extensive presentation lasting almost two hours, Navalny detailed the luxury features of the grand estate located on the Black Sea coast. Among its opulent amenities were a sofa valued at 2 million rubles, a vanity also priced at 2 million rubles, and a dining table worth close to 4 million rubles. The compound featured walls adorned with gold leaf, a private cinema, a hookah lounge lined with velvet, a casino, and even a room dedicated to Dance Dance Revolution. Navalny explained that the lavish property, funded by Putin and his rich associates, represented over 100 billion rubles ($1 billion) extracted from Russian state funds – resources that could have benefitted the public, including families, children, medical staff, and students.

The video in the Russian language went viral, quickly exceeding all previous records set by Navalny and his Foundation by accumulating over 100 million views in just a few weeks, with an additional 32 million views following, almost matching the population of Russia itself.

The Foundation’s presence on the largest video-sharing platform in the world had notably increased over the past year, especially as Russian citizens were confined indoors and as the government ramped up its suppression of the independent media.

“Twenty years of complete government dominance have transformed television into a never-ending cycle of shameful propaganda, falsehoods, and censorship,” Navalny declared in a 2020 video. Displayed behind him were multiple television screens showing various segments featuring Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent broadcaster on the Russia1 channel.

In December of that year, Navalny started his video updates with a shocking opener: “Hi, it’s Navalny. I know who tried to assassinate me. I know their residences, their places of work, and their real names.”

Collaborating with investigative group Bellingcat, Navalny impersonated a Kremlin official to elicit a confession from one of his potential murderers. The supposed agent revealed how his team smeared Navalny’s underwear with the nerve agent Novichok. Navalny captured this admission and shared it on his YouTube channel.

In a subsequent video, Navalny further explains the assassination attempt using a display with photos of the involved individuals, operation maps, and red strings linking the details.

In Western countries, Navalny was primarily recognized as an opposition leader. To some, he was a controversial figure, yet he emerged as the principal rival to Putin after other contenders were either killed or incarcerated.

Leading up to his imprisonment in 2021 and subsequent death in February 2024, Navalny transcended his role as just a politician. He became the figurehead of a media network larger than himself.

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Despite increasing autocratic tendencies in Russia, with heavily controlled elections and media, YouTube remains one of the few accessible US social media platforms. This platform serves as a critical pathway for reaching the Russian populace, potentially influencing future developments in Moscow, provided the creators can evade Kremlin censorship.

“With minimal resources, we managed to create a formidable rival to Putin’s propaganda TV,” states Vladimir Milov. “Although we’re not yet ahead, we’re quickly catching up.”

Vladimir Milov, an ex-deputy minister of the Russian government and close ally of Navalny, is also a YouTube content creator. Currently exiled in Vilnius due to legal charges in Moscow, Milov was sentenced in absentia to eight years for spreading “war fakes.” He now shares frequent updates on economic and financial topics with over 500,000 subscribers, often garnering around a million views per video. Leonid Volkov, another Navalny collaborator at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has amassed 165,000 followers. Dasha Navalnaya, daughter of Alexei Navalny, runs a channel where she engages with GenZ Russians about their national conditions.

Above that, independent media have found a second home on YouTube as well. Meduza, an independent media organization that had to decamp to Latvia after being declared a “foreign agent” under Russian law, has nearly 800,000 subscribers. The BBC’s Russian service, which left the country amid a 2022 media crackdown, broadcasts regularly to its 2.5 million subscribers.

Cobbling together the analytics across these various channels, Milov says these opposition YouTubers have about 10 million to 15 million dedicated viewers inside Russia—while another 20 million viewers may stumble across their content from time to time.

“Our message gets through to the Russian people,” Milov says. “We are serving as a very effective alternative broadcasting tool that really competes with Putin’s propaganda.”

VCIOM, a pollster loyal to the Kremlin, has found that a plurality of Russians still prefer to get their news from heavily censored Russian television, but their trust in the format has plummeted, from nearly 50 percent in 2016 to just 25 percent today. Meanwhile, trust in online news has jumped by roughly the same degree.

Meanwhile, as Western programming becomes increasingly scarce, many Russians are turning to YouTube for their main entertainment source, particularly for children’s content. According to data from Socialblade, eight of the 10 most-subscribed Russian YouTube channels are aimed at young viewers.

This shift has led many Russians to lose faith in state-approved TV news, increasingly favoring online media, and turning to YouTube for entertainment. This has brought tens of millions of viewers directly to the doorstep of the opposition.

While most Russian YouTube users may be seeking content to keep their children occupied, the platform’s use has significant advantages, according to Milov. He described YouTube’s recommendation system as a “magical black box.” Milov noted that many of his followers do not watch his videos but listen to them instead. As Russians let YouTube’s algorithm select their next video while they engage in everyday activities like cooking dinner or folding laundry, it enhances the likelihood that his voice will be heard by Russians who have never encountered his content before.

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Milov stresses that YouTube isn’t just a one-way service: Because it allows users to comment and chat anonymously, it provides an extraordinary chance for regular Russians to express themselves without fear of censorship.

“The amount of our feedback is enormous,” he says. “Just myself, alone, I literally get messages, every day, from at least hundreds of people from across the country. When something serious happens? Thousands.” Sometimes, Milov says, his first indication that something terrible has happened in Russia is seeing just how many unread messages he has in his YouTube inbox.

Milov says this feedback reinforces the idea, supported even by Kremlin-approved pollsters, that opposition to the war in Ukraine is growing. But it also provides some important details and nuance. “So this is like, I would say, an enormous focus group, with which you can also communicate. You can ask them questions back.” He chuckles, thinking of the notorious Russian security and intelligence agency: “You know, the FSB would kill for this kind of information.”

“Obviously, the question is, why didn’t Putin shut down YouTube?” Milov says. “It’s easier said than done.”

In recent years, Moscow has deployed an array of strategies to cow and kill independent media and the open internet in Russia. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have been blocked altogether. Independent media like Meduza, TV Rain, and The Insider have been declared “undesirable” or labeled “foreign agents.”

Through it all, YouTube has survived.

Milov says the Kremlin was too slow to move on YouTube. By the time Moscow was banning other popular Western platforms, the Google-owned video platform had become indispensable to everyday Russians. “They kind of let the genie out of the bottle,” Milov says.

“YouTube is mommies showing cartoons to kids, teenagers are watching music videos, people are watching comedians, elderly folks watching old Soviet movies, which are widely available there, and so on,” he says. “And you shut it all down? So you have these empty evenings now, from this point on.”

Unable to disrupt YouTube, the Kremlin tried desperately to compete with it.

Moscow had ambitious plans for Rutube, essentially a struggling imitation of YouTube, which was reintroduced in 2020 after integrating with Gazprom’s media division, a major state-controlled energy company. Despite the efforts, the “top videos” on the site only show modest view numbers, some reaching just several thousands.

VK, often seen as Russia’s version of Facebook, has seen relatively more success with its video-sharing features, populated heavily by pro-Kremlin content providers. Yet, even its most successful channels garner just a fraction of the viewership of the top Russian-speaking YouTube channels.

“It’s like a big room, but it’s empty,” comments Milov on these government-supported platforms.

Unsuccessful in silencing online dissent, Milov suggests that Putin has adopted a more confrontational approach. Merely days before my visit to Vilnius, assailants, targeting Leonid Volkov who is the former chairman of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and chief of staff to Navalny, ambushed him outside his residence. Equipped with hammers, they brutally assaulted him. It is believed by Lithuanian intelligence that the attackers were following commands from Russia. A week subsequent to the assault, Volkov appeared on YouTube, arm in a sling, declaring, “I am not going to stop—although I will gesticulate less in the coming weeks.”

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Milov emailed me upon my arrival, expressing regret that due to new security measures, he could no longer give me a tour of his personal broadcast studio.

In November last year, the YouTube channel Volgograd Watch released a video addressing the complex query: “When will the mobilized be returned?”

The channel’s followers were curious about when Russian conscripts might be able to return from the front lines. The channel’s host, Evgeny Kochegin, shared numerous links directing viewers to anti-war organizations and advice on evading draft obligations. Kochegin, having evaded conscription himself, was convicted in absentia for spreading what was termed “fake news.”

Living in exile, Kochegin continues to assist others in avoiding military service, leveraging his YouTube platform, where he has accumulated around 30,000 subscribers. Despite his efforts, in May, Kochegin encountered setbacks when YouTube restricted access to his video for viewers in Russia.

Agents Media, an independent news agency in Russia, analyzed several notifications concerning the removal of anti-war and human rights content on YouTube channels. The agency gained access to correspondence from YouTube’s legal department, which included threats to disable entire channels. One specific email to the Olim Info station mentioned a breach of Russia’s Law #149-FZ, warning that failure to delete the specified content could lead to Google blocking the channel.

As perGoogle’s transparency report, from 2022 onwards, the Russian government has sent Google numerous requests to remove content, tallying nearly 67,000 requests under the banner of “national security,” over 200 for criticizing the government, and one for election law infringement.

From Moscow alone, over 1,000 requests cited the same Law #149-FZ, targeting the removal of nearly a million content items such as channels, videos, or comments. Google confirmed compliance with over 80 percent of these requests.

Anopen letter from May, endorsed by significant Russian NGOs and Reporters Without Borders, urged Google to reject these Russian government demands. The letter expressed severe concerns about Google’s seeming assistance in enabling Russian censorship, particularly against platforms promoting human rights and anti-war narratives.

In a public declaration, a representative from YouTube conveyed that when there’s a suspicion that legal demands are being utilized to suppress dissenters, the platform will contest such applications. This is exemplified by incidents where Russian judiciary has imposed fines on Google for non-compliance.

YouTube has discontinued access to over 12,000 channels and in excess of 140,000 videos related to the Ukrainian conflict for breaching its guidelines. This includes channels linked to pro-Putin advocates, Kremlin-backed media, and releases from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The representative from YouTube, however, sidestepped queries regarding the platform’s prompt compliance with the demands under Law #149-FX.

Russian activists consistently prepare for possibilities of legal challenges from Moscow or direct blockages by the government. Milov remarked, “They will not destroy us by merely closing one avenue and forcing another to align with the government. We’ll find a way through.”

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One proposed solution is to address the issue at its source: through television.

Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, an organization known as the Denis Diderot Committee started urging key satellite TV providers to stop broadcasting Kremlin-supported propaganda across Russia and Europe, suggesting they broadcast legitimate news instead.

“The ultimate aim of our project is to deliver alternative media options into the Russian TV network that aren’t influenced by the Russian state,” Jim Phillipoff, a member of the committee, explained to WIRED at that time.

Two years later, the committee achieved a significant victory. Satellite provider Eutelsat accepted the challenge posed by the committee and struck a deal with Reporters Without Borders to transmit 11 channels of independent Russian news and programming into the area, with the possibility of adding another 14. This initiative is named the Svoboda Satellite Package—the Russian term for “freedom.”

Phillipoff informed WIRED recently that their broadcasts have reached 4.5 million households in Russia, and an additional 61 million households across the region. They are aiming to expand this outreach by obtaining more slots on various regional satellites.

Although currently rebroadcasting some existing channels, Philipoff mentioned that they have also developed several new channels themselves, some of which feature content from dissident Russian YouTubers. They have been consulting with Volkov to assist in disseminating content from the Anti-Corruption Foundation and other opposition entities. Further, they have considered collaborating with eQsat, another initiative focused on distributing digital news files via satellite, as reported by WIRED last September.

In Russia, television is dominated by Kremlin influence, and despite Google’s compliance with blocking content as directed, Svoboda is dedicated to fighting against this censorship, states Phillipoff.

“Our project’s primary aim is to bypass this control,” he explained.

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