Is Russia Turning into a Digital Dictatorship?

Amid the absence of free media and the complete control of Putin’s regime over television, the Kremlin is trying to create a monopoly on information. YouTube, in its turn, seems to be the only communication medium between the Russian opposition and the general public — Russian citizens representing different strata of society. 

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which are sometimes totally unknown and not attractive to ordinary Russian citizens, Vkontakte being long fully controlled by the KGB, TikTok being controlled and censored by China, and Instagram is focused chiefly on non-political content, YouTube is a platform that covers different needs for different target audiences. Being not only a medium for video content but also a place to find like-minded people, YouTube becomes a platform for public discussion, as far as possible, in Russia. 

The Russian segment of YouTube offers all possible content, from aggressive state propaganda to channels that position themselves as oppositional — but critical narratives may be shared for both. YouTube algorithms target their videos to the perfect slice of Russian society — this is how the ideas become viral. Being primarily targeted to users who know Russian or to some areas of Russia, these messages often remain unknown to a broad audience. 

Thousands of anti-regime videos on oppositional (or “oppositional”) channels are either mirroring the Kremlin rhetoric in the “softer” light or pushing their agenda. After a year of a large-scale war, all the relevant movements’ prominent and credible experts (from the academic field to typical “talking heads”) articulating messages that are worthy of attention — all of them are now represented on YouTube, and this is the defining feature of Russian media space. 

The HWAG team does not seek to evaluate these channels themselves and their motives, and whether their position and objectives may coincide with Ukrainian ones. Our new project is aimed to introduce the English-speaking audience, who cannot consume Russian content directly due to either the language barrier or the peculiarities of YouTube algorithms, with materials and statements that we find worth your valuable time and attention.

The discussion “Forget about draft notices. Everyone will be drafted into the army. Serfdom.2.0” on channel Michael Nacke (1,15 million subscribers) — a YouTube channel created by a Russian independent journalist, who is now based in Lithuania.

Speaker: Michael Nacke, Russian blogger, and journalist, who used to work for Latvia-based Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain), which positions itself as oppositional. Now, Nacke is based in Lithuania. 

The discussion trigger is the Russian new conscription law, which implies digital draft notices and a unified register for all persons who are liable for military service. This means, now the Russian regime has a much bigger potential to replenish its armed forces to wage a war against Ukraine. 

As the implementation of this bill means that every person in Russia who is liable for military service (men and women), may now potentially join the Russian military or become a violator of the law, the speaker compares modern Russia with the digital Gulag. 

Here are some key points of the speech:

The Russian State Duma passed a bill aimed at preventing the avoidance of military service by Russian citizens. This bill introduces digital draft notices, which change the entire process of conscription and mobilization in Russia. All persons liable for military service are already added to the digital state register and from now will receive draft notices even if they delete their accounts. The draft notice requires appearing before the recruiting office, which entails joining the Russian Armed Forces and a high probability of fighting in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war.

Now, if a person liable for military service fails to appear at the recruiting office within seven days, he or she will face various limitations, such as a prohibition on going abroad, obtaining a driver’s license, or conducting any operations with their property. After seven days, they become draft dodgers, and their civil rights are suspended until they arrive at the recruiting office. In such conditions, Russian citizens turn into half-serfs, as criminal responsibility may be imposed on them, and all recommendations on avoiding draft notices and mobilization become irrelevant.

Even if a person tries to turn off notifications or delete their account on the public services portal, it will no longer matter. The police may forcibly bring them to the recruiting office, and they will face limitations of civilized rights. The situation is becoming increasingly harsh, and there are concerns that confiscation of possessions may be the next legislative initiative. The Russian government is determined to increase the number of military personnel, and they are willing to sacrifice anything for this goal, including the constitutional and legal rights of their citizens. Terms and categories of law are no longer relevant in Russia. 

Using the metaphor of modern serfdom, Michael Nacke describes Russian society as victims of the regime, which is now capable of continuing war as long as needed. Now, the mobilization campaign is much harder to sabotage since the police may forcibly bring people to the recruiting offices. 

“More and more harsh legislative initiatives will appear. They can start confiscating possessions and whatever.”

In the video, military service and participation in the Russian-Ukrainian war are portrayed as „the only choice left” for Russians. Collective responsibility for war crimes and the possibility to protest against the regime are not mentioned.  

“Now, Russia creates death lists in which you are likely to end up”

Michael Nacke once again enshrines the popular narrative of the Russian opposition: Russian dictatorial regime imprisons and sacrifices Russian citizens for its strategic goals, which makes Russians victims of the Russian-Ukrainian war as well.

“Russia is unable to recruit volunteers, but it will increase the number of its military, and Russian authorities are ready to sacrifice anything for this. I don’t talk about constitutional rights or legal rights. All those who still think in these categories, I envy them”

Here is some place for your reflection: