How Russia is Creating its Own Alternative to Wikipedia
June 25, 2024
  • Yuriy Marin

    Digital Media Producer and Journalist

Journalist Yuriy Marin discusses the Russian state’s long-time struggle against Wikipedia, where recently the Kremlin has had some success. Still, the complete shutdown of the Russian Wikipedia is unlikely.
At the end of March, Ukrainian Yuriy Lushchai was killed in action near Bakhmut. He was the administrator of the Russian Wikipedia and one of the most active members of the community that built it up. Over 15 years, Lushchai, a professional historian, made more than 86,000 edits and himself wrote about 200 articles – mainly on the history of Kievan Rus’. He joined the Ukrainian army in January 2023, yet this did not stop him from continuing to work on the site: the last edit was dated March 25, 2024.
The Wikipedia logo. Source: Wiki Commons
Thanks to Lushchai and the Wikimedia RU nonprofit, the Russian-language segment of Wikipedia is among the 10 most active, surpassing the Spanish and Chinese ones in terms of the number of articles. For users from Russia, the encyclopedia remains one of the most visited sites and perhaps the only popular resource that has escaped censorship. The usual methods of control, like changing owners, blocking a site or slowing it down, were not used against the Russian Wikipedia.

However, this does not mean that Wikipedia faces no problems in Russia. The fight against it began long before the full-scale war with Ukraine, though the state’s efforts proved unsuccessful for a long time. Recently, its methods have become tougher, and there is much to suggest that the free encyclopedia will soon cease to be such.

The reason for the growing pressure may not only be the site’s popularity, but also the authority of Wikipedia as a source for search results in Yandex and Google. At the same time, the service is based on the principle of open editing of information, which rightly leads to skepticism about its credibility (see, for example, the article about the “Ghost of Kyiv,” which was later recognized as a propaganda myth).

Paradoxically, this is what keeps the resource from being completely blocked: firstly, the Kremlin appears to be using Wikipedia to promote its own narrative; secondly, if it is blocked, the Wikipedia community will lose many participants from Russia, and people outside the country who are critical of the state will be left alone to edit articles in Russian.

The deceased Lushchai, though a Ukrainian citizen, was an emphatically neutral author, but he may be replaced by less professional editors.
“The authorities consider it a much more constructive approach to create an analogue of the free encyclopedia under state control and later pressure search engines to remove links to Wikipedia from search results.”
This practice is considered acceptable even in Western countries.

Western experience

Russia is far from the first state to try to control Wikipedia. The idea of the free flow of information has made the site a target for regulators from a diverse set of countries.

The problem was not always specific materials. Rather, officials were angered by the idea of a self-regulated community itself, and they tried to create accountability for content, forcing the Wikimedia Foundation to pre-moderate any edits to avoid lawsuits.

The notorious US bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would have made copyright problems for Wikipedia, while the Online Safety Act passed in 2023 in the UK requires checking the age of users before displaying content, which Wikipedia has refused to do.

Pressure can also be put on Wikipedia authors. The information disclosed by Edward Snowden about the mass surveillance of ordinary citizens by US intelligence services includes separate protocols on the collection of information about the activities of Wikipedia editors. This information became the basis for a joint lawsuit by the Wikimedia Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the National Security Agency (NSA), but in 2023 the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

War of clones

Yet the main strategy for squeezing Wikipedia out of its de facto monopoly position with regard to online encyclopedic information is to create a more pliant analogue that would be just as complete and relevant but willing to edit content based on requests from the authorities.

The Creative Commons Deed, under which Wikipedia operates, allows content to be copied and adapted even commercially, provided that attribution is given and the modified content is distributed under the same conditions as the original. Various organizations use this license, creating so-called “forks” – i.e. completely copying all the content of the encyclopedia on a given date and publishing it under a new name.

There have been some amusing incidents. Take the notorious site (it has not worked since 2018), which made a complete copy of Wikipedia content and then, using a primitive algorithm, replaced all the words starting with “wiki” (in Russian: “viki) with “encyclo,” hoping to turn “Wikipedia” into “Encyclopedia.”

But every word with “wiki” was affected, giving rise to ridiculous neologisms like “armored encyclo” (instead of “armored cars”; in Russian it went from “broneviki” to “broneentsiklo”) and “Bolsheencyclo” (instead of “Bolsheviks”; going from “bolsheviki” to “bolsheentsiklo”), as well as the especially memorable “encyclongs” (instead of “Vikings”). The latter has become a household name as a collective term for all forks of the site.

At first, this practice was common in scams (banner ads were placed on copies of Wikipedia in the hope of monetizing random traffic). Meanwhile, big projects were built on the idea that articles should be written by professionals, not anonymous users.
“For some time, the electronic version of the Great Russian Encyclopedia was seen as an analogue of Wikipedia, but the former’s articles are clearly inferior to Wikipedia in both completeness and relevance.”
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia was published from 1926 through 1990. After 2002, the encyclopedia's data was partially included into the Great Russian Encyclopedia. Source: Wiki Commons
For example, the article about Nobel laureate Konstantin Novoselov consists of only three paragraphs (unlike the much more detailed alternative on Wikipedia).

The Znanie society, revived by presidential decree in 2015, tried to find a middle way. In the spring of 2023, it launched the Znanie.Wiki site, using MediaWiki, the same technology platform as Wikipedia.

Supposedly, the encyclopedia is written by volunteers who register for the project and complete a training course on creating articles. As of May 2024, it had 28,000 articles. The article about Novoselov was even more complete than in the Russian Wikipedia, yet it did not mention that in 2022 the physicist signed an open letter condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Finally, at the beginning of this year, former Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky unabashedly proposed “copy-pasting” the entire Russian Wikipedia onto the Znanie.Wiki platform, citing the completeness and neutrality of most Wikipedia materials, with the exception of a small portion of “enemy slander.” According to Medinsky, it would be hard to catch up with Wikipedia and now is not the time to create new content from scratch.

By that point, a full-fledged race had begun to replace one of the most popular foreign sites on the Russian internet. Besides Znanie.Wiki, the resource Runiversalis deserves mention, which decided to directly copy content with the exception of materials on topics sensitive for the Kremlin, such as the special military operation. It is characteristic that “problematic” content appears to be purged manually and occasionally overlooked: the Runiversalis about Novoselov completely copies that on Wikipedia, including the mention of the letter condemning Russia’s actions.
Vladimir Medeyko, who headed the Wikimedia RU nonprofit, in 2024 left for Ruwiki, a state-backed Russian analogue of Wikipedia. Source: Wiki Commons
According to Runiversalis’s own statement, its database already contains more than two million articles, making it bigger than the Russian Wikipedia. Nevertheless, the outlook for the project remains ambiguous – after two years of operation, the site has neither a high search ranking (based on the activity and size of its audience, demand for content, etc.), nor other advantages such as a strong team, tangible financial resources and visible backers among state officials.

At first, the project did not advertise its authors at all – Regional Public Center for Internet Technologies (ROCIT) Chair and Duma Deputy Anton Gorelkin unveiled it on his Telegram channel. Later, Gorelkin’s colleague at ROCIT, Pavel Frolov, began to appear in the media as the head of Runiversalis, making it seem like the site was the initiative of the ROCIT and was not supported by anything bigger.


Another clone, called Ruwiki (“Ruviki” in Russian), launched in January 2024. It also copied the database of Wikipedia articles, but it stands out for a much more serious approach, bright visual style and professional team, headed by a former director of the Wikimedia RU nonprofit, Vladimir Medeyko.
“The appearance of a key figure in the Russian Wikipedia community at the head of a pro-state project came as a real shock.”
Medeyko actually announced this at a roundtable on AI at the Russian Internet Forum, where he was invited as a representative of Wikipedia. By that time, it turned out he had already been working on the Russian analogue of the free encyclopedia for a long time, even though he remained the Wikimedia RU director and did not advertise his participation in the state project. For this he was immediately fired from Wikimedia RU.

The troubles of the Russian chapter did not end there: Stanislav Kozlovsky, who replaced Medeyko as head of Wikimedia RU, was labeled a “foreign agent” six months later, and the organization itself had to be closed.

The launch of Ruwiki was accompanied by an active advertising campaign, the most striking element of which was a branded train in the Moscow metro. The organization also opened an office in the center of Moscow and began hiring full-time editors, implementing the stated principle of professional verification of materials, which is meant to separate it from Wikipedia.

Ruwiki has not disclosed the sources of its funding, however, based on indirect evidence, it seems that the sponsor of the project is the state bank VTB, which often supports important national projects.

Russian post-truth

An analysis of the differences between articles in Wikipedia and those in its Russian analogues shows that their creators are not trying to create a completely alternative view of the world but rather just correcting several areas that are most important to the state.

The biggest one, of course, remains the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The main article in the Russian Wikipedia differs from its counterpart in Ruwiki, Runiversalis and Znanie.Wiki in several respects, including the title (the latter two use the official name, the “special military operation”), the interpretation of who is involved (the Russian resources emphasize the active support for Ukraine from NATO, the US and the EU) and assessments of the warring sides’ strength and losses.

Other differences relate to the topic of mobilization in Russia (the Russian encyclopedias refer to it as just “partial,” in line with the state narrative), as well as attacks by Ukrainian forces on Russian territory (Ruwiki calls them terrorist attacks, and Runiversialis war crimes) and the actions of the Russian army in Bucha.

The mass murder of residents of this city outside Kyiv has become one of the biggest conflicts in the information war, with the Russian Wikipedia article titled the “Bucha massacre.” The Kremlin considers Bucha to have been staged to discredit the Russian army, and in the Russian resources it is referred to as the “Bucha incident“ and the “provocation in Bucha.”

Meanwhile, the relevant articles on Ruwiki and Runiversalis describe the recent terrorist attack at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall as a mass murder of civilians organized with the participation of Ukrainian special forces, while the responsibility of IS-Khorasan is referred to as the “US version” and is given much less attention than the “Ukrainian trace.”

In addition, the Russian encyclopedias give no details about the detention of the accused terrorists or the investigative methods used, which were exceptionally cruel and meant to send a message.

The Ukraine war is not the only area where the Kremlin has felt the need to promote its particular view. The descriptions of the latest episode in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – including the interpretation of the reasons for it and the role of Russia in its resolution – differ (in the article in Ruwiki, Russia is mentioned three times more often than in the Wikipedia material), as do the articles about what is known as “Putin’s palace“ in Gelendzhik.
Ruwiki describes Alexei Navalny as a public figure, lawyer and video blogger, while in Wikipedia he is a politician and opposition leader.
Finally, an important difference is the absence in the pro-state online encyclopedias of links to resources banned and recognized as “foreign agents,” such as Meduza and RFE/RL, among others present in Russian Wikipedia.

As a rule, search engines attach particular value to links provided in encyclopedias, so in the long term a ban on mentions could significantly harm independent media, which would receive less search traffic.

What is the outlook for the Russian Wikipedia?

The closure of the Wikimedia RU nonprofit, which supported the Russian Wikipedia, will certainly not affect the work of the site for some time (the American Wikimedia Foundation continues to provide technical support for the site). However, some sections will gradually begin to lose relevance, as one of the key tasks of the Russian chapter was organizing the work of editors and holding competitionsfor writing articles and supplementing materials.

For example, one of the last events before Wikimedia RU was closed was the Film Science (Snimay nauku) competition to replenish Wikimedia Commons (a subproject of Wikipedia with photos and videos for articles), with a prize fund of RUB240,000 from the Science (Nauka) TV channel. Another priority was the development of Wikipedia in other languages spoken in Russia – for example, Tatar. With the closure of the nonprofit, these competitions stopped.

However, much more important is whether Ruwiki, Znanie and Runiversalis will be able to offer real competition in answering the most common queries of encyclopedia users (for example, the article about the show The Boy’s Word [Slovo patsana] was the seventh most popular material of 2023).

If the Russian analogues handle these tasks no worse than Russian Wikipedia, then the most likely scenario will be that regulators mandate that links to the international encyclopedia are displayed below Russian ones in search results and subsequently removed altogether.

Acquiescence can be expected both from Yandex, which recently came under the control of a management linked to the Kremlin, and from Google, which has more than once made compromises with the Russian political leadership.

Blocking Wikipedia – assuming there is a high-quality alternative – would most likely impact the quality of content on the Russian Wikipedia. Having to use a VPN to access the site would mean a loss of readers, as well as authors and editors with different points of view (at the moment, the encyclopedia’s rules completely prohibit editing via VPN), which ensure the necessary balance and objectivity.

Still, it would not be a complete shutdown – the experience of the encyclopedia being blocked in Turkey (from 2017 to 2019) and China did not leave their language segments without authors and visitors. The Turkish Wikipedia contains more than 600,000 articles, and the Chinese one almost 1.5 million. Both continue to be replenished daily.
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