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Looking for Free Speech in Russia? Try YouTube

MOSCOW — Mainstream television in Russia, stage-managed by the Kremlin, barely mentions Pussy Riot, the anti-Putin punk band, or Aleksei A. Navalny, the country’s most prominent opposition figure. Forget about hearing much feminist talk, or humor at the expense of the government or Russia itself.

“The entire social, political part of television is controlled by the authorities,” said Leonid G. Parfenov, an independent news anchor who has been shut out of state TV since 2004 for being too critical of the government. “For that reason, you cannot consider this television journalism — it is just propaganda, they are just employees of the presidential administration.”

Yet voices that the government would mute are heard regularly by tens of millions of Russians in another format: YouTube.

For more freewheeling opinions and commentary — particularly from those critical of President Vladimir V. Putin — YouTube has become the leading way to reach Russian audiences. In particular, it is challenging — if not supplanting — state TV as a source of information for the young.

Pussy Riot earned an international reputation for a guerrilla performance in a Moscow cathedral that landed its members in prison. But the band’s critiques of Mr. Putin and — worse, for many Russians — its reputation for sacrilege and denigration of the Motherland have ensured that it remained all but invisible on state media.

But an interview with the band member Nadya Tolokonnikova by Yuri Dud, an acclaimed sports journalist turned internet star, has garnered almost eight million views on YouTube. In the excerpt above, Ms. Tolokonnikova recounted a meeting with Madonna, whom she described as a “crocodile” best kept at a distance.

Mr. Dud, 32, has attracted more than 5.3 million subscribers, not least by interviewing people barred by federal channels, and by posing questions to Kremlin favorites that no one on state TV would dare to ask.

He asked Nikita Michalkov, a movie director known for his nationalist views and friendliness to Mr. Putin, why the government had subsidized his many box office flops.

Soon after Mr. Navalny was barred from the 2018 presidential election, Mr. Dud (pronounced “dude”) interviewed him at length.

Not all of his fare is so weighty; Mr. Dud’s most popular interview, with more than 24 million views, involved a long discussion about penises with a young woman who is an Instagram celebrity in Russia.

Mr. Navalny himself is a YouTube force, having created the nation’s most successful, overtly political channels.

His exposé contending that Dmitri Medvedev, the prime minister and former president, had parlayed government work into a fortune, has been viewed more than 30 million times and helped to drive the biggest street demonstrations in recent years.

Fifteen years after being banished from state television, Mr. Parfenov, 59, hosts two YouTube shows.

One is a personal diary, in which Mr. Parfenov, dressed in a garish shirt, opens a bottle of wine and holds forth on topics ranging from travel to art to the Soviet-like cult of the Russian military.

The second uses archive footage to explore Russian history.

In the segment above, Mr. Parfenov described the rage for gold teeth just after World War II, when, he said, years of privation meant that “almost all Soviet people needed prosthetic dentistry by the age of 40.” The “worker peasant majority” had to settle for stainless steel, which looked “modest and inelegant” to the Communist elite, fueling a black market for Czarist coins to be converted to gold crowns.

“Such a job can be done only through one’s connections, by backstairs influence, if not in an off-the-books manner,” Mr. Parfenov said.

Danila Poperechny, 25, whose success as a stand-up comedian started with his YouTube videos, has toned down overt politics, although he still mocks the government and encourages subscribers to participate in some demonstrations.

It would be almost impossible for any broadcast channel to show Mr. Poperechny, given his profane monologues. His blatant misogyny would probably cause censors less concern than his politics.

In the clip above, Mr. Poperechny lampooned how the main state TV news program might cover him, mocking the mannerisms of TV anchor Dmitri Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s chief propagandists.

Viewers 45 and older, people raised in the Soviet Union, tend to believe what they hear on state TV, Mr. Poperechny said — unlike the YouTube generation.

For urban viewers aged 18 to 44, YouTube reaches 82 percent of the audience monthly, a recent study showed, roughly the same as the two main state channels, Channel One and Rossiya 1.

A survey by the independent Levada Center last year found that a majority of Russians rely on television as their main news source, except for the youngest cohort, aged 18 to 24. The more educated and urban the population, it found, the more people trusted the internet for news, especially on sensitive issues like the economy and antigovernment protests.

“The TV just brags about how wonderful Russia is and points out the mistakes of others,” Mr. Poperechny said, but younger Russians are harder to manipulate. “We can now go abroad, get experience in other countries and see how they live.”

Some quirky shows owe their success to focusing on topics that federal channels either ignore or denigrate, like feminism.

On Nika Vodwood’s Nixelpixel channel, she talks to the camera directly on issues like her sex life, combating domestic violence, not shaving her legs and masturbation.

In the clip above, Ms. Vodwood says that feminism improved her sex life because it allowed her to set boundaries about what she would and would not do — tame talk by Western standards, but fairly radical for Russian media.

Ms. Vodwood, 25, receives death threats and worries that her support for L.G.B.T. rights could fall foul of Russia’s laws barring gay propaganda. A mini-community has sprouted online that attacks and mocks her, but her more than 460,000 subscribers allows her to attract a few advertisers.

Free-speech advocates fear that Russia will try to follow the Chinese model of heavy state internet censorship, and the Kremlin has taken initial steps in that direction.

But some critics say that the main threat to Russian YouTube stems from its own success. New money, shows and advertisers are pushing aside the homespun channels that have made it an important outlet, threatening to marginalize serious content, especially politics.

Celebrities like Xenia Sobchak, a Russian reality TV star, journalist and failed presidential candidate, are piling onto YouTube with more tabloid-like fare. No shortage of popular channels explore tech, movies, music, fashion and the like.

“TV is coming to YouTube because they need the creativity, the market — they want to control it,” said Nikita Likachev, the editor of TJournal, an online magazine that covers all things internet.

Globally, You Tube has faced criticism for failing to curb extremist and violent content. But at least for now, this particular slice of YouTube hosts a far broader range of discussions about Russia than state TV does.

Mr. Dud recently completed an arduous road trip across the frozen Far Eastern region of Kolyma, once known for its harsh labor camps, and posted a documentary on it.

At the end of the video, watched by more than 14 million people so far, Mr. Dud discussed how Russians have not fully exorcised the fear inculcated by Stalin’s legacy. State TV does not foster such introspection.

“Some of those who have made it all the way to the end of our video,” he said in the segment above, “will say, ‘Dud, why the fixation on Stalin? Why do you mention him so often?’ ”

Mr. Dud answers, “This all is not about our past, it’s about our present.”

Despite concerns about YouTube’s becoming more commercial, it remains the most viable platform for those who would candidly analyze present-day Russia.

“The opposition has nowhere else to live if not on the internet,” Mr. Parfenov said.

Source: NYT > World

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