The Kremlin is rewriting Wikipedia

Despite long-running disagreements, Russian authorities have not yet blacklisted Wikipedia as they have dozens of other media. (Image: Wikipedia)
Despite long-running disagreements, Russian authorities have not yet blacklisted Wikipedia as they have dozens of other media. (Image: Wikipedia)

Summary

  • A new version of history is taking shape

WIKIPEDIA had faced trouble from the Kremlin before, with Russian censors threatening it almost from the start of the Ukrainian war in 2014. But it was only in late 2023, with the appearance of glitzy ads across Moscow, that a serious plan to replace it became clear. RuWiki, as the censors’ project is known, is mostly a straightforward copy of Wikipedia. But the most sensitive moments of history have been left out or rewritten. The Kremlin’s ideologues hope that millions of Russians will now embrace these new versions as the truth.

The RuWiki project might be called Orwellian, if only the British author were not himself occasionally censored. The entry on “Nineteen Eighty Four," for example, omits the regular site’s description of Winston Smith’s Ministry of Truth, where historical records are “corrected" (though Smith’s job does get a mention elsewhere). Elsewhere, RuWiki’s rewriters hack their way through the sensitive zones of Putinist ideology: LGBT rights, oral sex, Soviet history and the war in Ukraine.

Russian atrocities in Bucha, near Kyiv, in 2022 are reimagined as a “Ukrainian and Western disinformation campaign". Kherson, a Ukrainian city being destroyed by Russian bombs, is mentioned without a word about the war. The execution of nearly 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn in 1940 is rewritten to cast doubt on the archive documents proving it was done by Soviet secret services. There is no entry on Putin khuylo!, a derogatory chant mocking the Russian president first heard on Ukrainian football terraces in 2014. And all references to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was killed in prison in February 2024, are altered to describe him as a mere “blogger".

A forthcoming analysis of the site by Mediazona, an independent Russian media outfit, shows the vast majority of the new edits are being made during weekday working hours. They reckon that shows teams of paid writers are doing the edits, unlike Wikipedia’s volunteer model.

Earlier versions of the RuWiki site were open about how much was changed and when. In late 2023, it was possible to see that a full 158,000 symbols had been erased from an original Wikipedia text about Russian human rights. An entry on “Russian freedom of speech" was 205,000 symbols lighter. The article on “censorship" was also 71,000 symbols shorter. But recent versions of the site hide such statistics, likely due to negative media publicity.

Despite long-running disagreements, Russian authorities have not yet blacklisted Wikipedia as they have dozens of other media. For the time being the two exist side by side. But the heavy investment in RuWiki suggests that Wikipedia’s days are numbered. Sergei Leschina, a member of the original Russian Wikipedia team, who left in 2015 following earlier attempts at censorship, says the Kremlin views such resources as bricks in a Chinese-style wall around the truth. The Russian internet is slowly being cleaned of foreign sites, he said, and local search engines and AI models will soon be compelled to prioritise the new fake history. “The Russian internet isn’t yet built like the Chinese one," he says, “but it’s the direction we are heading, and quickly."

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved. 

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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