One sunny June day in California, Rustem Adagamov was rushing without his glasses on when he literally ran into Russia's president. "I simply didn't see Dmitry Medvedev," Russia's most influential blogger says, "and I bumped right into him."
Adagamov, 48, uses his blog to report on a range of grievances, including the arrests of opposition members and "unparalleled police brutality." Each day, his blog gets around 600,000 page views, making it more widely read than many of Moscow's daily newspapers. Adagamov has even made fun of Medvedev on his blog by posting photographs of cups bearing the portraits of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the caption "They all lie anyway" printed in bold.
Acts like these make it all the more astonishing that Medvedev agreed to submit to an interview with the Kremlin critic. And that's not all: The president also invited Adagamov to accompany him to California for a meeting with Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple.
Medvedev, 44, is an avowed fan of the Internet, writes his own blog and uses Twitter. The president, for example, recently wrote an article -- entitled "Forward, Russia!" -- that garnered global attention for its ruthless analysis of Russia's economic backwardness. But instead of distributing it via a government newspaper or state-run television, he had it published on Gazeta.ru, Russia's best-known online newspaper. And, just last week, Medvedev halted a controversial highway construction project near Moscow via video blog.
Although Medvedev calls for "openness at all levels" from his government and Russian authorities, many among the country's power elite view this as taking things a bit too far -- especially when it comes to the Internet. Medvedev's own chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, recently called a meeting in response to a writer at Gazeta.ru who had laid into Putin and Medvedev because she was upset about how their motorcades were blocking traffic.
Russia at the IT Crossroads
The FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, wants to force Internet service providers to remove undesirable websites. A law also requires these providers to install hardware at their own expense that allows the FSB -- with a judge's authorization -- to keep track of the websites people visit and the e-mails they write.
Some service providers have even started proactively censoring users themselves. Companies such as Scartel, for example, block portals belonging to Kremlin critics, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.
In this battle over the Internet, there are two camps. The issue is about the future course Russia will take and about how much freedom it will allow its 142 million citizens. Some believe Russia should take its cue from the liberal West. But others think it should follow more in the footsteps of authoritarian regimes like China, which is trying as hard as it can to control the Internet -- and, with it, its citizens.
For his part, Medvedev sees information technology as the "key to the development of democracy" and the Internet as the "most important resource" in reaching his primary goal: modernizing his massive nation.
Where Google Is Not King
Russia's Internet companies have been playing a prominent role in this process. They've been able to stave off foreign competition so far and, lately, they've even started expanding into the West. This April, the investment company Digital Sky Technologies (DST) -- owned by start-up investor Yuri Milner and gas and metal magnate Alisher Usmanov -- increased its share in Facebook to 10 percent and purchased the ICQ instant-messaging system from the American company AOL for $188 million (€148 million). ICQ has over 40 million active users, many of whom are in the West.
Hammocks and bowls of fresh fruit lend a touch of Silicon Valley to the open-plan offices of Yandex, Russia's champion among search engines. "We respect Google," says Yelena Kolmanovskaya, who co-founded the company 13 years ago, "but we're simply better." Today, Yandex has more than 2,000 employees and controls around 65 percent of the Russian market. Likewise, no other search engine in the world is growing faster. Google, which controls around 70 percent of the global market, is stagnating in Russia at a meager 22 percent.
Sixty million Russians now regularly surf online, an increase of 15 million over last year. For many, the Internet serves as a release valve, a place where members of this well-educated but overly controlled society can let off some steam. Likewise, nearly 50 percent of Internet users in Moscow have a blog, as do 7.5 million people throughout the country -- a figure nearly double what it was a year ago.
The Fifth Estate
Since the Kremlin has brought almost all major television stations under its control over the last decade, and since newspapers and magazines have low circulations -- and are often owned by oligarchs with close ties to the government -- it has been left to the bloggers to exercise the checks-and-balances function traditionally performed by the media. Even tabloids such as the Komsomolskaya Pravda have praised bloggers as the "Fifth Estate."
Indeed, these days, it's usually bloggers -- rather than members of the traditional media -- who expose scandals and give voice to grievances. Blog reports by a student on conditions at a nursing home near Moscow, for example, led to the firing of its corrupt director. And, this spring, when a Mercedes belonging to a high-level manager at the oil giant Lukoil sped into a car in the opposite lane and killed two women, crime scene photographs published online exposed police attempts at a cover-up.
"Russia's bloggers are simply the most serious," says Brad Fitzpatrick, the American founder of LiveJournal, an online service that allows people to set up their own blogs. And there's no doubt that bloggers in Russia are more influential than they are anywhere else.
This degree of influence was one of the factors that led Adagamov -- whose online moniker is "Drugoi," or "the Other" -- to give up his comfortable life in Norway as the creative director of an advertising agency five years ago and move to Moscow. Still, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to work as freely here as he was able to in the past.
"President Medvedev isn't a bad guy," Adagamov says, "and I appreciate his openness." But he remains skeptical as to whether the president will ultimately succeed in pushing through his ideas about the Internet. As Adagamov sees it, "the Internet is the last free territory -- but it won't stay that way for long."
Russia's Anti-Internet-Freedom Crusader
One of Russia's sharpest-tongued opponents of online freedom is Robert Schlegel, who comes from an ethnic German family. Like Adagamov, Schlegel owns an iPad and writes a blog. But, unlike Adagamov, the 25 year old is not one of the "Others." Instead, he belongs to "Nashi" (literally "Ours"), a pro-Putin, Kremlin-controlled youth organization. Since leaving a position as a Nashi spokesman in 2007, Schlegel has served as a member of parliament for Putin's United Russia party. At the moment, he is working on a new Internet law that would introduce a type of electronic passport for every user, making the Internet as easy to control as the other forms of media that have been amenable to promoting government interests.
Schlegel dreams of someday becoming a minister. In the meantime, he gives instruction to young patriots as they film video clips for YouTube at Nashi's summer camp on Lake Seliger, halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Nashi members are notoriously fervent Putin admirers. Some time ago, the critical daily newspaper Kommersant even accused the group of having carried out cyber attacks that paralyzed its website.
Last year, Schlegel even suggested allowing newspapers to be shut down for "defamation" and lobbied for a strict limit on the proportion of foreign films shown in Russian movie theaters, in the belief that: "Many media sources abuse their freedoms."
Which Path Will Business Pursue?
Alexander Mamut, Russia's most powerful Internet oligarch, will have to take a stand somewhere between Adagamov and Schlegel, between the progressive blogger and the conservative Internet regulator. In 2007, Mamut -- whose wealth is estimated to be $1.5 billion, according to the American business magazine Forbes -- bought a majority share of LiveJournal. Nearly half of all Russian blogs operate on the blog-hosting site, including those of Adagamov and his adversary Schlegel.
The question, of course, is: Which side is Mamut on? The magnate, who refuses to grant interviews on political topics, will only say: "Russia needs to finally learn to cultivate its people instead of its raw materials."