Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

Google’s Russian Threat

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Fortune Magazine) — Arkady Volozh, CEO of Yandex, Russia’s largest online-search company, is playing with a set of nesting dolls (for real!). Instead of the traditional folk decoration, though, these figurines are outfitted with the names of Internet companies doing business in Russia. The first and biggest doll has Yandex emblazoned on its belly in bold red and black letters. A smaller doll bears the Google logo, followed by one representing Rambler, Russia’s other homegrown search engine. “We were charitable with these dolls,” Volozh says. “If we had been honest, we would have left the second doll blank and made Google third. We’re that much bigger than them.”

Having conquered search in Russia, Yandex is setting its sights on the U.S. The Moscow-based company is opening Yandex Labs not far from Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Volozh says he’ll staff the office with 20 or so engineers to index Web pages for a Russian audience and keep abreast of technology developments that bubble up in Silicon Valley. Volozh certainly will be going after some of the same tech superstars Google recruits, but some wonder whether Yandex has grander ambitions, including a play for some of Google’s U.S. market share. One possibility: grabbing part of the growing market for image searches.

Volozh denies that he’s chasing Google. In fact, Yandex, which got its start in the late 1980s, long before Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had even met, arguably has the superior search technology. Yandex’s search algorithm is rooted in the highly inflected and very peculiar Russian language. Words can take on some 20 different endings to indicate their relationship to one another, and “while this makes the language precise,” says MIT linguistics professor David Pesetsky, “it makes search extremely difficult.” Google fetches the exact word combination you enter into the search bar, leaving out the slightly different forms that mean similar things. Yandex has found a way to catch them all.

As a result, Yandex controls 56% of the search market in Russia (compared with Google’s 23%), boasts an impressive two-thirds of all revenue from so-called search ads, and draws more than three billion hits a month. Last month Firefox dropped Google as its default search engine in Russia in favor of Yandex, putting Yandex on track to conquer still more of the market.

And Yandex (short for “yet another indexer”) continues to innovate. While some of its services are similar to offerings available in the U.S. (blog rankings, online banking), it also has developed some applications that only Russians can enjoy, such as an image search engine that eliminates repeated images, a portrait filter that ferrets out faces in an image search, and a real-time traffic report that taps into users’ roving cellphone signals to monitor how quickly people are moving through crowded roads in more than a dozen Russian cities. Says noted venture capitalist and Yandex board member Esther Dyson: “What I love about Volozh is that he’s never been complacent.”

Volozh has aspired to run a transparent operation from the beginning, stocking his board with reputable folks like Dyson and forgoing the favor-seeking that is common in Moscow. Indeed, the fact that the SEC gave Yandex the green light to list on Nasdaq says a lot, according Nasdaq managing director Paulina McGroarty. “It shows that the management was ready to show the world that they have that stamp of approval,” she says.

Changing plans
The financial crisis derailed Yandex’s IPO plans, but it has helped the company stay clear of some of the Kremlin-connected oligarchs who had wanted to buy in: Industrialist Alisher Usmanov was set to take a 10% stake in Yandex, but the meltdown of the Russian market has forced the controversial businessman to rethink his investments.

Volozh says his company is cash-flow positive, and as a result it doesn’t need to raise more money right now. Yandex’s growth certainly has been impressive: Revenue has doubled every year since 2000, and last year reported sales topped $300 million. According to Volozh, Yandex has turned down repeated buyout offers from Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500), Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and Google. (The companies declined to comment.) Analysts value the business at about $6 billion.

While Yandex may not be interested in serving American customers, Google is definitely eager to increase market share in Russia, which boasts the fastest-growing Internet population in Europe. Google struggled when it first began making Russian-language search available in 2001, largely because its technology failed to take into account the complexities of Russian grammar. Its market share for much of the decade hovered at a tepid 6%. Then, in 2006, Google hired a few dozen Russian engineers to address the language issues, and its market share jumped instantly. With its huge potential for growth, says Alla Zabrovskaya, who heads public relations for Google in Moscow, “Russia is a pivotal country for Google.”

As the market leader, Yandex has momentum on its side, but Volozh believes the company’s real edge in Russia is its local roots. “We can joke in Russian, which Google can’t do,” Volozh told Fortune during a meeting at Yandex’s California offices. Two years ago, for example, Yandex hosted a televised live chat with then-President Vladimir Putin. The company insisted that the President answer users’ most popular questions and forgo the Kremlin’s usual scripted format. “When did you have sex for the first time?” was one of the most popular, and Putin had to respond. “I don’t remember, but I certainly remember the last,” he quipped. “I can pinpoint it down to the minute.”

The home-team advantage should help Yandex maintain its market share in Russia, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the company. If Yandex were to stumble, that would be a disappointment to Russia, which, despite its highly educated population, has few successful homegrown tech companies to root for. And Volozh might even have to order a new set of nesting dolls.

Blogging For Truth

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Bearing cigarettes, crackers, and salami, Krig42 returned to Tskhinvali on August 15th in search of the truth. The city, which came under heavy Georgian fire the night of August 7th before the Russians retook the city three days later, had instantly become the center of a propaganda battle between the two countries.

In the first hours of the war, Russian officials announced that 1,600 South Ossetians had been slaughtered by bloodthirsty Georgians; two days later, the count stood at 2,000. Tskhinvali, they said, lay in ruins. Georgia disputed the tally and claimed that Ossetian militias were engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, burning and looting Georgian villages in South Ossetia. Tskhinvali, they countered, was not as badly damaged as Moscow claimed. Russia shot back with claims of genocide; Georgia filed suit with the International Court of Justice. In an attempt to find some measure of objectivity, Human Rights Watch waded into the conflict and found that the death toll seemed to be exaggerated: the head physician at the city’s hospital said they had treated only 273 wounded and received forty-four dead bodies, believed to be the majority of Tskhinvali’s dead.

Krig42 (the blogging alias of Russian journalist Dmitry Steshin) had seen much of this chaos firsthand. On assignment for Komsomolskaya Pravda, he arrived in Tskhinvali hours before the fighting started and had been supplementing his daily reporting with vivid frontline posts on his personal blog. His press pass accorded him journalistic authority while his LiveJournal gave him the room to describe a confusing and maddening war as he saw it, and the blogosphere—apparently hungry for just such unfiltered war stories—responded enthusiastically, making Krig42 one of the most popular bloggers in Russia.

The Russian blogosphere, meanwhile, was abuzz with speculation over the Tskhinvali charges: Had the city really been leveled? How many people had really died? And who, exactly, killed them? Just after midnight on the day Human Rights Watch published its findings, Krig42 finally weighed in:

To all you people blowing hot air about the totally destroyed or barely touched Tskhinvali, I report: I shot thirty rolls of tape and made my own “virtual tour” of Tskhinvali. I rode through it on an armored personnel carrier from north to south and from west to east, filming continuously. I filmed basements where people died. I filmed people exhuming the grave of a woman and two children, buried in the garden. I filmed a car in which two kids burned alive. I filmed the rancid cellars of the city hospital. I think these should make an impression on you.

Steshin even found the elderly doctor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who clarified her version of the casualty story. “Could there possibly be 2,000 dead?” she told him in her broken, heavily accented Russian. “If you’re counting the entire district, then yes.” Though exhausted from traveling, he pledged to stay up and post his virtual tour online by morning. It was, he said, “a personal response to the base claims of Human Rights Watch. These fuckers thought there weren’t enough casualties in Tskhinvali.”

Almost two weeks out, the cement of the war’s narrative is starting to set, and Russian journalists, especially those who were there, are frantically blogging to make sure it sets right. It’s not always clear, though, whom they are fighting. A recent poll found that only 2 percent of Russians sympathize with Georgia. Visitors to Krig42’s blog, ambivalent last week, have been punctuating their comments on the picture of the charred, disembodied leg of a dead Georgian soldier with smiley faces.

By almost all measures, the Kremlin’s media campaign has been successful. But there are still naysayers out there, especially in the West, and, in the face of such chaos and international outcry, Russians are hungry for a unanimous, objective, exonerating verdict. They are also, however, suspicious of what they see as propaganda, both at home and abroad. “Russia,” journalist Michael Idov wrote, “is a society of conspiracy theorists. In fact, the notion that politics is mere theater and policy is determined via backroom collusion is so central to the Russian worldview that “theorist” is perhaps too weak a word. Russia is a society of conspiracy axiomists.”

Combine a culture already suspicious of all things political with the natural, magnifying outlet of the free-for-all blogosphere, and you get Russian bloggers searching desperately for the necessarily elusive key to the riddle of this war. Obviously, the thinking goes, evidence on the ground is being manipulated for political purposes. Obviously, says the rare Georgian sympathizer, we’re only being shown the wrecked streets and not the rest of the city. Or, says the Russian nationalist, the West wants to minimize the death toll in Tskhinvali so that Saakashvili can escape the war crime charges he so desperately deserves.

It is not, however, a question of looking for the skew-factor of media bias, as it would be in the West. In Russia, the question is more essential: What truth are they trying to hide from us? As Moskovsky Komsomolets correspondent Irina Kuksenkova put it in an interview after her return from the war—which she greeted, incidentally, drinking champagne and watching the firefight from the roof of the Alan Hotel where Mikhail Romanoff was later holed up with the Russian press—“There’s only one truth. There can’t be two truths.”

Evgeny Poddubny, a TV correspondent for TV Center, revived his dusty blog to present his eyewitness account of the war after his nine-day stay in Tskhinvali. “I will tell you what I saw there with my own eyes. At first, I didn’t want to write about it in my LiveJournal,” he wrote, “but after I returned to Moscow and read the stuff being said online, I just couldn’t keep silent.” He then plunges into a self-consciously flat account—“I tried to keep the descriptions as dry as I could”—detailing the war’s progression, paying careful attention to timing and tank formation, as if his precise telling will finally deflate all the conspiracy theories whirling about the blogosphere. Poddubny’s blog isn’t as rhetorically compelling as Steshin’s, but he, too, resorts to graphic imagery to make his points:

An elderly man approached us and, with a gesture, invited us into his house. We walked into the bedroom, he brought us over to the bed – a big double bed – pulled back the cover, and there were his wife and daughter, both burned and headless. Many have said, you guys are only telling us when you could show it.

And so he does.

“Of course, I didn’t include everything,” Poddubny writes at the end of his long, painstakingly detailed account. “I have to gather my thoughts…But!” he adds (and here the paths of journalistic strivings for objectivity and conspiracy theorizing diverge):

But! Georgia made the first military move! Russian forces entered South Ossetia 16 hours after the beginning of Operation ‘Clean Earth’! There was not one Western camera crew in Tskhinvali until the moment that military operations ceased! The Russian air force hit military infrastructure!

Krig42, on the other hand, more gingerly treads the line between skeptical journalist and conspiracy theorist. When Krig42’s videos finally went up on Tuesday, he showed – truly showed – the eerie moonscape of Tskhinvali: A long, rumbling drive down Tskhinvali’s Moscow Street, the early evening sun planing through the trees, falling on rubble. Broken glass still in the panes, black shadows of fires long extinguished climbing up the outer walls. The muzzle of an AK-47 pops briefly into view. An occasional grandmother hobbles along, but otherwise the street is deserted.

There is a clattering reel of a shabby, ill-equipped basement, identifiable as a hospital only because the video titles it as such. A deserted town square. Another video, called “A dead body, briefly,” just one second long, snaps a quick shot of a body in a wide muddy road as trucks detour around it.

Riding along Moscow Street, Steshin offers no commentary. All you hear is the wind and the personnel carrier trundling along. The post is titled, simply, “Watch. Count the ruins, if you want.”

Blogging From The Front

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

At 6:19 p.m. this past Saturday, Russian journalist Mikhail Romanoff added a two-line post to his personal blog from the chaos of Tskhinvali: “They’re shooting like fucking mad over here.” Eighteen hours and a couple posts earlier, he was blogging from the basement of the city’s Alan Hotel, where he was holed up with Russian journalists and peacekeepers. “Interfax is here, REN-TV, Channel Five,” he wrote. Romanoff, a twenty-something native of Yakutia who works for the New Times of Moscow, had come to South Ossetia to track the rising regional tensions two days before the fighting broke out, leaving a prescient post – “I’m off to volunteer for the Georgian War! Ciao!” Now he was stuck. “I had planned to leave tomorrow,” Romanoff blogged from the besieged hotel. “I ordered a car for five a.m. It’s unclear if it’ll come. Hell, nothing is really clear anymore.”

Like most Russians his age, Romanoff is an active user of LiveJournal, a sort of blog-meets-social-networking site that has become a vital outlet for meaningful political discourse in a country where the mass media has been happily gobbled up by the state. Some blog for their friends, others have wider followings with thousands of commenters, putting them at the top of rankings done by Yandex, Russia’s search engine.

Though many Russian journalists at the front reported that access to many Russian websites had been shut off by the Georgians, LiveJournal was still accessible because of its .com suffix, rather than the suddenly problematic .ru suffix. And so, even as a geopolitical nightmare unfolded around him, Romanoff continued to blog. When he wasn’t posting himself, Romanoff would phone his entries in to his friend Ilya Yashin, head of the youth branch of the liberal (and defunct) Yabloko Party, who would then post for him. While young Russians love their LiveJournals like Americans love their Facebook, Romanoff’s dedication to keeping his LiveJournal humming from the trenches is stunning.

He’s not the only one who did so. Take Krig42, the right-leaning, WWII-obsessed LiveJournal alter ego of Dmitry Steshin, a political correspondent for the tabloid-y Komsomolskaya Pravda. Steshin’s LiveJournal dwarfs Romanoff’s brief “I’m alive, I’m scared, don’t believe your TVs” posts, however. Trapped in Gori when the fighting started, Krig42 had been blogging feverishly up until his escape yesterday morning over the Georgian border into Armenia. His terse, vivid entries recall the frontline journalism of Vasily Grossman and Mikhail Koltsov, and have boosted his blog’s Yandex ranking nearly 300 spots in the last day alone. A sample from August 9th, the day he decided it was time to get out:

“I went outside. Everything is deathly silent; there is booming somewhere on the outskirts. Georgian troops are lounging along the walls. Gori’s city square is piled up with the garbage of war: ammo transportation boxes, crates, bandages. Packs of NATO MREs, but with Georgian labels. Fuck, this is someone else’s war. ‘What am I doing here, on this side?’ I ask myself again. All for the sake of fucking objectivity…The soldiers try to strike up a conversation with me. Mutely I slide past them – it’s better than pretending to be a sorry-looking Englishman.”

Later, he meets David, a Georgian his age, who invites him into his home for tea. David has rushed home from his construction job in Thessaloniki to get his elderly parents out of Gori, but they won’t budge:

Men were swarming outside of David’s house. There was a Georgian veterans’ recruitment station nearby. Even invalids on crutches showed up…With his huge hands, David pushed me into the last (or second-to-last) refugee van. Everyone who could had already left last night on ‘more comfortable buses like the Icharus.’

In muted, shocked prose, Steshin describes a ruined country. There is rubble everywhere, buildings turned to funeral pyres. His van waits out a gunfight in someone’s yard before being mobbed by a crowd of refugees. People stream south, roads jammed. Just before midnight on the day he fled for Tbilisi, he posted a picture he took from the hill overlooking Tskhinvali, three hours before the war broke out there. A wooden cross, a sunny valley below: “Tskhinvali,” he wrote, “which no longer exists.”

He describes how his friend, also a journalist, traveling unarmed and unmarked, gets out of a truck to find himself staring into the muzzle of a machine gun. Behind it is a female Georgian soldier. “I’m a journalist!” he yells. She lowers the gun and “folds in half,” shot dead. Another colleague, Sasha Sladkov of Vesti, a state-owned news program, is wounded while hiding in a roadside ditch.

Romanoff posts an ode to Grigol Chikhladze, a soft-spoken Georgian photographer who worked for the Russian language edition of Newsweek. Although Romanoff barely knew him, he is pretty shaken up by Chikhladze’s death. (“I knew Gia only casually,” Romanoff wrote, “but you don’t need much time with him to realize that you’re talking to a solid, intelligent and kind person. He was riding with the Georgians, but fell behind and was gunned down by the Ossetians.”)

Steshin also posts the wartime observations of his colleagues. There’s a triumphant sense of camaraderie here as journalistic competition falls away in the hell they’re all witnessing. Via Steshin’s LiveJournal, in a post that was picked up across the Russian blogosphere, Moskovskiy Komsomolets special correspondent Vladimir Sakirko recounts how his friend, journalist Alexander Kots, was wounded:

Someone yelled ‘Incoming! Incoming!’ Two Georgian jets hit the column of troops with a couple of rounds. We fell to the ground. The battle began. One Georgian plane was hit. We decided to stay close to the center of the formation, started moving and ran into the film crew of ‘Vesti’ – Sasha Sladkov and the guys. We thought that, by lunchtime, we’d get to the city with the troops. But that didn’t last long. The shooting was getting worse and worse.

Crawling through the bushes with a few other officers, they come under fire again.

We fell to the ground. On one side, a battalion was repelling an attack; on the other side, firing soldiers. And we lay right in the middle. I raised my eyes towards Sasha, and he’s suddenly so pale. ‘Is everything okay?’ I ask him. ‘No,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘D’you get nipped?’ I reached for his hand and saw blood. We had no bandages, nothing. You couldn’t raise your head, bullets spraying from both sides. All we could do was wait.

As the official Russian press trumpets the Kremlin’s line—something to the tune of “March on Tiflis” and “Georgia is America”—the Internet sings a different, more conflicted song. Much has been made of the liberals’ flight to the Web, but it is by no means a liberal haven. Online, one will find as many people cheering for Karadzic as for Obama. What is surprising is that, in the face of the near unanimity of official press coverage, there is a very lively debate going on in the Russian blogosphere. Commenters debate questions that the Kremlin has already answered for them: Who really started this war and what does it mean for Russia’s geopolitical future?

To be sure, there are plenty of people advocating “showing Georgia who’s boss” in a way that resembles sodomy, plenty of people who echo nationalist fears of American meddling, bias, and double standards. But there is also a good number of more introspective commenters who are critical of Russia’s role in the conflict. And for all the bloggers going crazy over Saakashvili’s embarrassing dive on Monday (he was roundly reviled as unmanly on various LiveJournals), mostly everyone is horrified by the images coming out of Georgia and Ossetia, which these young journalists, thrust by fate into war, are readily providing them. Take Steshin’s ghost photograph of Tskhinvali before the war. Though it is a tacit condemnation of the Georgian forces that first attacked Tskhinvali before the Russians arrived to finish the job of leveling it, Steshin is more stunned by the enmity between two cultures that used to adore each other. He arrived in Gori hours before the war because he wanted to hear the Georgian side, and he comes away feeling that they too have lied. “Everyone,” he wrote after his escape, “got what he deserved.” Although his commenters ask, he’s unable or unwilling to assign blame. He’s too caught up in the horror.

“When the shooting died down, the troops began to move forward,” Vladimir Sakirko continued on Steshin’s blog. “Nearby, I saw a severely wounded major and I crawled up to him. I look and I see that there’s a wound the size of an eyeball on his forehead. There’s liquid dribbling out of it and you could see the pulsating of his brain. His arms and legs were battered. I rooted around in his bags and found two packets of gauze. I bandaged Sasha as well as I could…”

Sasha survived, but the commentators, usually ready to debate to the death, were shocked: they all wanted to know what happened to the wounded major. These young Russians, who missed the traumas of Chechnya and grew up in a largely prosperous decade of cell phones and iPods and petrodollars, are suddenly faced with a nationalistic war, and, like the generations before them, they are drawn in by its pathos. It’s as if these images hit a cultural switch: the politics dissolve as the drama of war looms large. For all their country’s recent wealth, it is still actively haunted by World War II. Now the press is filled with first-person “I was in the trenches” press accounts, even close-range video interviews with wounded journalists lying on gurneys—the kind of stuff one rarely sees in the West. This fascination with the warrior-journalist is especially notable in Russia, ranked the world’s third-most dangerous country for reporters (after Iraq and Afghanistan), where journalists aren’t encouraged to go poking around in dangerous places. War, however, is sacred, and the Russian blogosphere is singing mournful hosannas. Krig42’s entries, for example, occasionally verge on the melodramatic but his commenters cheer him on for his “objectivity,” “accuracy,” and, most of all, “heroism.”

For his part Krig42—he never acknowledges that he is, in fact, Dmitry Steshin—keeps a stiff, heroic upper lip. Having slogged across the border to Armenia, he writes: “I’ll just rest a bit and head to Tskhinvali.”