Russia invests in a homemade Wikipedia, in the hope of blocking the original

The Bell

Russia launched the Ruwiki platform this week, the latest Wikipedia clone it hopes will secure an audience at home. The success of the project may determine the fate of Wikipedia itself inside Russia. The authorities would like to block the site, but can’t while it remains overwhelmingly popular throughout the country. The same story applies to YouTube.

  • Ruwiki, Russia’s possible answer to Wikipedia, started beta-testing this week. It currently has its own version of all 1.9 million Russian-language entries on Wikipedia, which will form the basis of a new online encyclopedia created by a separate team, as The Bell learned from a source familiar with the platform. This isn't a new idea: all Wikipedia clones in the world are developed this way. There are more than 1,000 of them worldwide, with about 150 in Russian. The Mediawiki engine is freely available for anyone to use, just like the encyclopedia’s entries and data. 
  • The project's creators call it a site for people seeking “balanced, accurate information.” In that sense it is less confrontational than other Russian wikis, which directly promise “protection against Russophobia and gay propaganda.” However, the future development of the project should see greater differences from Wikipedia emerge. This year the team is promisingpersonalized content, podcasts and videos.
  • Ruwiki is not the first, but looks like the most serious attempt to create a Russian wiki clone. The project is led by Vladimir Medeyko, a former director of the non-profit Wikimedia RU, which is the Russian regional organization for Wikipedia. Other directors at Wikimedia RU accused Medeyko of a conflict of interests. Ruwiki has not admitted where the money is coming from for Ruwiki, but claims that its investors are not linked to the state. However, two sources told The Bell that the funding comes from leading state bank VTB. One said the bank is hoping for it to be a commercial success and that if the site gains traffic, it can generate advertising revenue.
  • The idea of “import substitution” for Wikipedia has been around for years. In 2010, Russia’s Press Ministry pledged to set up a rival project, called Znaniye (Knowledge) and in 2016, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev even approved a working group to create a Russian online encyclopedia. Since the start of the war, several projects (12З) have been unveiled, but none have proved popular.
  • A state-backed Wiki clone is needed in order to make it possible to sideline the original. The current Russian-language Wikipedia has about 12,000 regular editors, and many of them live outside of Russia and tend towards having opposition views. Russia’s register of banned sites already includes more than 120 Wikipedia articles, mostly to do with the war in Ukraine. If Ruwiki or another pro-Kremlin project can prove its worth, we can expect the original Wikipedia to be banned. Dmitry Peskov, for example, already talkedabout this as a possibility. At the moment, this is a long way off: Ruwiki has 261,000 visitors a month, compared with 130 million using Wikipedia’s Russian-language pages.
  • However, blocking Wikipedia in Russia could cause greater problems than blocking independent media sites. Like any other blocked site, Wikipedia will still be able to be read via a VPN. But it would be impossible to edit it from within Russia – due to frequent hacker attacks, VPNs and proxies are banned from editing Wikipedia. Thus, if Russia blocks the original, it will lose thousands of writers and editors based in Russia, leaving only Russian-speakers living outside of the country to write and edit Russian-language articles.

Why the world should care

Despite all the blocks and restrictions currently in place, it's impossible to seriously suggest that Russia is isolated online — certainly not in the way that China is, for instance. While being a long way off the Beijing model, the Kremlin is trying to walk down that path. Blocking YouTube and Wikipedia are the next two big steps.


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