On July 6, Russia’s Attorney General ordered the federal censor, Roskomnadzor, to block more than a dozen “nationalist websites,” including the popular publication Sputnik & Pogrom. Prosecutors say Egor Prosvirnin’s website propagates “ideas of nationalist and religious hatred,” “threatening public safety” and “inciting extremism.” Roskomnadzor added Sputnik & Pogrom to its Internet blacklist, though state officials never identified specifically what content published on the website qualifies as hate speech. Meduza reviews how Russia’s biggest nationalist publication ended up banned.
The Attorney General ordered the federal censor to block more than a dozen “extremist and terrorist” websites. Officials say they compiled the list while routinely monitoring the Internet for illegal content. A representative for the Attorney General’s Office told Meduza that prosecutors discovered more than a dozen nationalist websites publishing illegal hate speech. In addition to Sputnik & Pogrom, the authorities blacklisted Russian Sector, Right View, The Nation and Freedom Committee, The Russian Imperial Movement, and a LiveJournal blog belonging to a user named “rusnazi8814.” The Attorney General also targeted several websites affiliated with ISIS.
“[All] these online resources propagate ideas of ethnic or religious hatred, threatening public safety, and inciting extremism,” the Attorney General said in an official statement. But the agency’s press service has been unable to identify any specific content that led prosecutors to determine that these websites have published illegal hate speech. Officials at Roskomnadzor, meanwhile, have referred such questions back to the Attorney General, saying only the prosecutors can explain why they ordered these nationalist websites blocked. Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov stated laconically, “The websites are of an extremist and nationalist nature.”
For the past five years, Sputnik & Pogrom has been one of Russia’s leading nationalist resources. It started out in 2012 as a public community by the same name on the social network Vkontakte. The creator, a man named Egor Prosvirnin, later launched his own Web resource, positioning it as “a website for Russian nationalists.” Sputnik & Pogrom stood out thanks to the sharp writing of Prosvirnin and other authors, and thanks to its cutting-edge Web design. The site became known for long-read texts about contemporary ethnic conflicts and historical events relevant to Russian nationalism.
In October 2013, Sputnik & Pogrom adopted a paid subscription model. Prosvirnin won’t say how many subscribers the website currently has, but there’s evidence that it’s a popular resource indeed: according to the service SimilarWeb, Sputnik & Pogrom had 1.4 million visits in June 2017. The publication vocally supports Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, Sputnik & Pogrom even held a crowdfunding drive to collect money to buy an armored personnel carrier for the separatists. That spring, the dissident journalist Oleg Kashin even did some reporting for the website.
Sputnik & Pogrom has faced the threat of extremism charges several times already. In 2015, the website published an article about the “goals and tasks of Russian nationalism,” including the need to “crush Ukraine” and establish a “Russian ethnic state.” Police opened an extremism investigation, but the case ended “without finding a thing,” Prosvirnin claims.
Prosvirnin says he’s certain that the Attorney General’s actions are tied to Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign. He told Meduza that Roskomnadzor hasn’t received any recent complaints directed at Sputnik & Pogrom, saying that no one from the censor’s office contacted his newsroom. “I’ve been waiting for this [the website being blocked] for a long time now, and now it’s happened because Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign has gotten underway. Now they're starting to block basically everything and clear out the media ahead of the 2018 coronation,” Prosvirnin said.
Sputnik & Pogrom’s creator says the Russian government deliberately blocked his website together with resources belonging to Islamists and radical nationalists. “This is a classic Soviet propaganda tactic, where you combine ‘Islamic terrorists,’ ‘Sputnik & Pogrom,’ and ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ — all separated by nothing but commas — to create the impression that they’re all one in the same,” Prosvirnin claimed.
Sputnik & Pogrom will try to continue operations by moving to a new domain. Prosvirnin says he hopes to maintain the website’s readers. In accordance with a new law signed by President Putin on July 1, however, officials at Roskomnadzor have promised to block any copies of “mirror” sites that redirect to Sputnik & Pogrom. “In that case, we’ll rename the site Putin & Medvedev. Let’s see them obey an order from the Attorney General to block a website called Putin & Medvedev,” Prosvirnin said.
This isn’t the first time Russian censors have blocked an opposition website without specifically identifying the site’s supposedly illegal content. On March 13, 2014, the Attorney General ordered Roskomnadzor to block the opposition news site Grani.ru for “inciting mass riots.” The media outlet tried to appeal the decision in court, pointing out that Roskomnadzor never identified the specific content that supposedly called for mass unrest. A representative from the Attorney General’s Office told the court that prosecutors reviewed Grani.ru and concluded that “most of its content” contained illegal information about participating in unsanctioned public demonstrations. That was enough for the court, and the judge threw out Grani.ru’s lawsuit. To this day, the only way to access the website in Russia is through a mirror site.
Grani.ru wasn’t the only opposition website blocked on vague extremism charges on March 13, 2014. The Attorney General also brought the hammer down on Kasparov.ru, Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal, and Alexey Navalny’s LiveJournal blog.