YouTube, as the most popular Russian medium, presented the Kremlin with the challenge of creating a functioning, state-controlled alternative. Despite the hope in RuTube, it shows that access to global and uncontrolled platforms is crucial for Russians.

Since the early 2000s, the Kremlin has firmly believed that television is not a mass medium but a powerful weapon and must therefore be controlled by the government. In the late 2010s, the Internet overtook television as the most popular medium in Russia. It was also the moment when Russian-language YouTube became political: well-known bloggers started producing political content, opposition politicians became popular YouTubers. Eventually, even mainstream journalists migrated to the platform in a development triggered by the isolation of Covid-19 as demand for Russian-language content on YouTube skyrocketed.

Andrei Soldierov and Irina Borogan are Russian investigative journalists critical of the regime and live in exile. You are co-founder and publisher of The project monitors the activities of the Russian secret services.

The Kremlin understood the challenge and focused its best efforts on creating a viable alternative to YouTube. The Kremlin pinned its hopes on RuTube, a project funded by Gazprom, which is controlled by Putin’s close friends. The project is led by Alexander Zharov, the former head of the Russian censorship agency Roskomnadzor, who was appointed CEO of Gazprom Media in March 2020. Celebrity bloggers have been offered financial incentives to switch to RuTube, but few have followed the offer.

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Soon the two most popular liberal media – Radio Echo Moskvy and TV channel Dozhd (TV Rain) – were closed. Russian censorship also blocked international media such as ВВС and Deutsche Welle, as well as independent Russian media such as Meduza, Mediazona, Doxa, Echo Moskvy and TV Rain. Our own website,, was blocked on March 18, and a criminal case was opened against us the day before. Russian censorship also blocked Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. On March 21, its parent company Meta was labeled an “organization that carries out extremist activities.”

The disappearance of so many popular liberal media outlets left an irreplaceable void in the Russian media landscape, but thankfully it didn’t last long. Video bloggers and journalists continued to leave the country, and most of them kept their YouTube channels active. YouTube became the main battleground for information. The Russian government was reluctant to block YouTube, and that gave Russian users time to adapt and install censorship bypass tools. The other platform that was not blocked was Telegram, and Russian journalists did not miss this opportunity to speak to their audience either.

Some journalists launched new channels on YouTube, but many had already used their personal YouTube channels more intensively in 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown and had sizeable audiences at the time of the war. Most of them also had their channels on Telegram, which became an important source of information and gossip for Russians. Apparently, the demand for information is huge: we launched our Telegram channel just a month before the start of the war, and a week after February 24, our channel agenturaru had 58,000 subscribers.

With 1.17 million subscribers, it has become the flagship of independent Russian broadcasting on YouTube, rivaling the news channel of exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Since the beginning of the war, the channel has focused on events in Ukraine. For many Russians, Popular Politics has become an alternative to TV news. They watch the channel live like they used to watch TV, in the morning.

The first months of the war have clearly shown that access to global platforms is absolutely crucial for the Russians. During the first two months of the war, Russian censors repeatedly attacked YouTube, threatening to block the service entirely, but held back. And in those first few months, many Russians had a valuable time learning to source their news on YouTube. They also used this time to install VPNs to bypass blocking of independent media and social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This knowledge could come in handy when YouTube and Telegram are actually blocked.

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