Walk into a typical Moscow newsroom and chances are good that half the people in your field of vision will be logged on to Zhivoi Zhurnal, the Russian incarnation of the American blog-hosting service LiveJournal. But these journalists aren’t just slacking off. In a country still searching, sometimes desperately, for the trappings of a civil society, they are navigating what promises to be its launchpad.
In Western media, blogs in developing countries are often portrayed as a counterweight to state censorship. Not here. From organizing flash mobs that poke fun at the rudeness of Moscow’s babushkas to making or breaking political pundits’ careers, bloggers are becoming a lively alternative to mainstream media. The question is whether the site represents an electronic upgrade of the traditional political discourse that once flourished in Soviet-era kitchens or an entirely new platform for grassroots organizing.
The Russian-language community on Zhivoi Zhurnal, or ZheZhe for short, got off to a typically Russian and intellectualized start in early 2001, when Roman Leibov, a literary scholar and social critic, launched the first Russian-language blog. His initial entry: “Let’s try this in Russian. What a funny little thing…” Today, of a total of 12 million users on LiveJournal, some 700,000 post in Cyrillic, making them second only to English speakers. ZheZhe is no longer the only blog service, but according to a study by the Yandex search engine, it is still by far the most popular.
LiveJournal founder Brad Fitzpatrick first visited Moscow last October when his company, Six Apart, announced a partnership with the Russian media company SUP-Fabrik, which would service the enormous Cyrillic sector. What struck him was the social magnitude of ZheZhe and the serious content of its journal entries. In America, “LiveJournal is lots of people writing to ten people [each, and] reading each other,” he told me. In ZheZhe this is magnified into thousands of readers. What for Americans is an electronic diary accessible to a few chosen acquaintances became, for Russians, a platform for forging thousands of interconnected virtual “friends.” And Fitzpatrick believes it has potential as a tool for activism. “I really appreciate what it is as a political platform.”
Anatoly Vorobey, a Russian programmer who blogs in English and Russian out of his home in Jerusalem, worked on the LiveJournal team while being one of its best-read bloggers. For him, a big part of ZheZhe’s uniqueness is in the math. “Even a user who doesn’t have a thousand friends, he still, on average, reads fifty to sixty people–more than an American user,” he told me. “Now multiply that by hundreds of thousands of people, and that leads to the unique media sphere that we are witnessing today.”
While there is more to ZheZhe than its politicized blogs, their scope and centralization make them a force to be reckoned with.
“In a country where the parliamentary speaker says that Parliament is not the place for political discussion, it’s natural that you get a phenomenon like politicized ZheZhe,” said Ilya Yashin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party’s opposition youth movement.