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.

Thousands-strong street protests–organized by Yashin, among others, using ZheZhe–are just the start. A more telling incident was that of Alexandra Ivannikova, a woman accused of killing an Armenian cabdriver who was allegedly trying to rape her. In a campaign organized on ZheZhe, right-wing organizations flocked to her defense, sparking a heated debate on illegal immigration, ultranationalism and the right to bear arms (Ivannikova’s weapon was a kitchen knife). She was unexpectedly cleared of all charges in a retrial. Today, those on both sides of the Ivannikova issue admit that it showed how powerful ZheZhe could be as a grassroots tool.

Konstantin Krylov, a nationalist ideologue who frequently makes Yandex’s top ten list of Russia’s most popular bloggers, called ZheZhe the chief instrument in rallying some 3,000 people for the Russian March 2006 in Moscow last November. The demonstration was seen by some as evidence of the growing threat of ultranationalism, while others viewed it as a viable opposition force to the government.

“In Russia, one of our chief challenges is building a civil society,” Krylov said, “a horizontal system of connection between people, which can mobilize them at the right moment in the interests of society.” And there is evidence that ZheZhe is already doing this. In December, for instance, an obscure religion news site reported that an Orthodox priest and his family perished in a fire in a dilapidated Tver village–allegedly the victims of drunks against whom the priest had launched a campaign. After a few ZheZhe repostings, the news went national. Where larger national events are concerned, like the Kondopoga ethnic riots in September, ZheZhe serves a more complex function. By incorporating on-the-spot witness accounts with emotional reaction and collective comment, ZheZhe allows its readers to identify more readily with the story’s subjects.

With Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections slated for December 2007 and March 2008, respectively, a burning question is what impact, if any, will ZheZhe have. Despite a delicious urban legend that many prominent political blogs have a secret government editor who directs the content, most experts dismiss the possibility of direct government involvement. But the more likely rumor claims that some influential political bloggers are no strangers to kickbacks from the government or other powerful interests. Some bloggers close to the government admitted that in order to insure that certain news is spun a certain way, or that certain items get leaked, money does change hands. (No one would give any examples for the record.) Ivan Zassoursky, a marketing director at SUP-Fabrik and a media expert, speculates, “Can you give someone money to organize a demonstration? Sure you can. So why can’t you give someone money to write something on ZheZhe?”

Whatever the extent of ZheZhe’s real political impact–and many bloggers dismiss the scope of its involvement–its structure shows that there is a lot more at work here than simply circumventing state censorship. In that sense, it’s interesting to compare Russia’s blogosphere to bloggers in Egypt. Shohdy Naguib Surur, a Moscow-based Egyptian dissident and on-off webmaster of Al Ahram Weekly, says the differences in the online community in Russia and Egypt are striking. First of all, there are fewer people with access to the Internet in the Arab world. Secondly, in Russia, “we had our glasnost already.” What ZheZhe seems to illustrate is that a crucial aspect of civil society is not just the freedom to report on what you see but the ability to get people inspired enough to react. Russians are already notorious for their centuries-old communal spirit–or sobornost. ZheZhe might be one of the technologies that will finally get them to act on it.