THE BELL WEEKLY: Will Russia block Telegram, again?

The Bell

Hello! This week we look at Russian officials’ attempts to get more control over Telegram, the most popular messaging app in the country. We also provide a snapshot of a new The Bell investigation into one of the major Russian winners from the mass departure of foreign firms.

Russian officials target Telegram over Moscow concert hall attack

Russian officials spent the first week after 144 people were killed in the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack looking for links to Ukraine and debating how to censor the Telegram messaging app, which has long served as a substitute for state news media in Russia. Among the ideas were proposals to block selected channels and impose criminal liability for taking part in “anti-Russian chats.” Telegram is too popular to block completely, with more daily users than VKontakte and YouTube, so Moscow is unlikely to go down that route. However, it’s clear that the authorities want to exercise greater control over the platform.

  • Russian officials have had plenty to say (1, 2, 3) about who was responsible for the massacre at Crocus City Hall last month. According to the authorities, the main culprits — those who ordered and financed the attack — are Ukraine and the West. There was also a fair amount of blame apportioned to Telegram, with investigators claiming that the messenger was used to recruit the terrorists and as the platform on which preparations for the attack were discussed and finalized.
  • Following the attack, State Duma deputy Anton Gorelkin said Telegram had “insufficient control over compliance with its rules.” Gorelkin is traditionally the first port of call for any Kremlin initiative relating to online censorship. His comments were made, of course, on his own Telegram channel. The app is the key social media platform for Russian politicians and officials. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov joined the chorus pointing the finger at the app, urging Russian-born Telegram founder Pavel Durov to pay close attention to the platform as it “increasingly becomes a tool in the hands of terrorists.” Durov responded by saying that Telegram had stopped “tens of thousands of attempts” to send messages to Russian users calling for terrorist attacks. He also promised to step up the fight against extremist propaganda.
  • But that wasn’t enough for hardliners in Moscow. “We can see that the messenger’s managers only took the necessary measures after a wave of widespread public indignation,” grumbled Orelkin on Friday. He called on Telegram to open an office in Moscow. Fellow lawmaker Oleg Morozov said that a mechanism for automatically blocking Telegram channels according to key words might be required. Deputy Duma Speaker Anna Kuznetsova proposed creating a “mechanism to block destructive content in messengers.” And RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said it was time to introduce liability “for taking part in anti-Russian, terrorist chats.”
  • Despite the calls, the authorities clearly do not want to block Telegram completely. “We can confirm that there is currently no need to restrict Telegram’s work in Russia,” a representative of Russia’s media censor, Roskomnadzor, told Interfax. There are two reasons for this. First, Durov’s platform is much more accommodating of requests from the authorities than Meta or Discord, both of which are blocked in Russia. Since 2021, it has deleted 256,000 items at Roskomnadzor's request. Second, Telegram is just too popular — it lags only VKontakte among social media users (on some metrics), and is the largest messenger. Reinstating the ban (Russia officially blocked Telegram between 2018-2020, though it was hugely unsuccessful and the platform easily got round half-hearted attempts to restrict access inside Russia) would surely upset the platform’s huge audience in Russia. 
  • Both Russia and Ukraine are similar in that over the past two years Telegram became far more than a simple messenger. It’s now the main platform for people on both sides to access news and find out what’s happening in the war. 
  • Russia appears to be Telegram’s second biggest market after India. It had 84 million users in February (almost 70% of the population aged over 12). Only Yandex, Google, YouTube, WhatsApp and Vkontakte had more. In terms of average daily reach (which has doubled since Jan. 2022 to almost 60 million people), Telegram is clearly ahead of both YouTube and VKontakte. Some 20 of the 30 biggest Russian Telegram channels are dedicated to news and politics.
  • In Ukraine, 72% of residents regard Telegram as their main information source. Since Russia’s invasion, the number of users of the platform has grown eightfold. By the end of 2023, Telegram channels outstripped TV as the most popular information source in the country. Almost all public communication from Ukrainian government departments and politicians takes place on Telegram. President Volodymyr Zelensky posts there frequently and various military units and departments also have active channels.
  • Can the Russian authorities exert an influence on Telegram? On the one hand, Pavel Durov’s company is registered in Dubai and has no formal relationship with Russia. On the other, Russia remains the leading market for Telegram’s advertising platform. The company itself is still in debt and does not disclose its investors.
  • In Ukraine there are fears that Russia already exerts significant influence over the platform. They point to the company having servers in Russia and having blocked opposition-led protest channels. There were also cases when the platform blocked channels that had allowed Ukraine’s military to receive data about the results of its attacks on Russian targets, according to Forbes Ukraine. However, this also works the other way. In the EU, for instance, Telegram restricts access to Russia Today and Sputnik, which are banned by local authorities.
  • Experts say that while the blocking of opposition channels in Russia is an isolated phenomenon, the technical capability to limit channels with an “unfriendly” agenda does exist. “If Roskomnadzor demands it, Telegram is quite capable of simply hiding some channels from users in Russia,” one expert said. This could easily be used to block channels run by “foreign agents,” for instance, a source told The Bell. 
  • Telegram is always being asked to restrict something from competing authorities and sides, a source close to the platform told The Bell. “But Telegram is deeply opposed to that, it’s against censorship,” they said. “Telegram still has certain principles and red lines. I doubt that ‘foreign agents’ are in any danger. But some Ukrainian channels for Russian users could well be blocked,” another source told The Bell.

“Telegram does not take part in political censorship. We only restrict content that violates our terms of use. For this reason, opposition channels on Telegram are not blocked, but channels linked to ISIS are,” Telegram told The Bell in a statement.

Why the world should care

Despite its lack of transparency and its vulnerability to the Russian authorities, Telegram remains the main source of uncensored independent information for Russians. If the authorities assert their control over the messenger, it could be a bigger blow for freedom of speech than a block on Google or YouTube.

How a car salesman became the biggest winner of the corporate exodus from Russia

The Bell has published a major investigation into Alexander Varshavsky — a car dealership owner who now controls the Russian assets of Volkswagen and Hyundai and is one of the biggest winners of the mass departure of foreign firms from the Russian market.

  • Alexander Varshavsky and his business partner Kamo Avagumyan came top in our ranking of the “New Russians” — those getting rich buying up the assets of firms quitting the country. Volkswagen and Hyundai used to account for one in every three cars sold in Russia before the war. The companies had combined annual revenues of 617 billion rubles ($6.6 billion) in 2021.
  • Using financial records, open source data and interviews with Varshavsky’s associates and former business partners, the investigation shows how the Avilon dealership, founded by Varshavsky, traded on his connections with the Moscow elite to build fancy showrooms and a 21-storey business center in the capital, as well as win a stream of lucrative state contracts to supply Western-made cars to Russia’s security services. 
  • As his Russian business empire grew, Varshavsky, a naturalized American citizen, was arrested while traveling to the US in 2014 — a turning point at which he went all-in on his Russian connections, a former business partner told The Bell. He “realized that he was not welcome in the US,” they said. At this point, and with the geopolitical standoff between Moscow and the West escalating, Varshavsky started to look for opportunities to cash in on the tense political atmosphere and turn the world of sanctions to his advantage.
  • His connections and mindset put him at the right place at the right time to capitalize after Russia invaded Ukraine and scores of foreign firms started leaving the country. In 2023, an Avilon-linked business closed a deal for VW’s former Russian assets for 125 million euros — a more than 90% discount on their pre-invasion valuation — and later secured a deal for a symbolic 10,000 rubles ($110) to buy Hyundai’s production facilities.
  • However, buying the assets proved to be the easy part. Both companies had relied on foreign supply chains and extensive partnerships with their parent companies. With those now destroyed it is unclear how Varshavsky intends to restart production.

Why the world should care

Russian businessmen with the right connections have bought up Western assets at extremely low prices over the last two years. But in many cases, the firms they are buying aren’t the same as what they were before the war. Varshavsky has had trouble finding new international partners, even among Russia’s friends in China, a former business partner told The Bell.


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