Russia uses DIY software behind cyber iron curtain

Vladimir Putin’s War in Ukraine brings to life a Cold War imitation game, adapted for the 21st century.

At that time, Soviet apparatchiks ordered factories to manufacture shameless imitations of Western cars, game consoles and cameras for their own citizens.

Today, just days after Instagram and Facebook were banned in Russia last month and its parent company Meta designated an extremist organization, two quick-witted entrepreneurs unveiled Rossgram.

The app, whose tagline reads “Made in Russia, with love”, has yet to launch but is aimed at the 80 million Instagram users cut off from the Silicon Valley service by the Kremlin ban. It’s an almost identical clone of the American social network, with likes, followers, large photos, and even a similar shade of hot pink in its logo.

But Instagram isn’t the only app facing extinction in Russia, and Rossgram is far from the only local imitation. The combination of tech companies pulling out of Russia, government efforts to control the spread of information, suspicion of foreign software, and Western sanctions is creating a country isolated from the information tools that much of the world runs on. modern world.

In its place, do-it-yourself software is appearing behind the Cyber ​​Iron Curtain. Last month, Putin ordered government agencies and companies operating critical infrastructure to remove foreign software by 2025. Companies were told to use Russian technology or risk losing government contracts. And a host of domestic imitations of foreign computer programs have now sprung up.

The country is trying to institute a form of digital autarky never seen in China.

Alena Epifanova, an expert on the country’s technology policies at the International Order and Democracy program of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said reducing Russia’s dependence on foreign software is not a new idea.

“We’ve seen an understanding of these addictions and vulnerabilities for many years, and we’ve seen some attempts to overcome this addiction, but what’s been done has certainly not been enough,” she says.

Epifanova adds that this effort is partly the result of domestic lobbying by Russian tech companies such as Kaspersky to give themselves an edge.

But there’s a problem: for the most part, Moscow just isn’t very good at it. There are many Russian versions of popular Western computer programs such as MyOffice, an alternative to Microsoft’s Office; RuTube, a YouTube equivalent; and Aurora OS, an alternative mobile operating system to Google’s Android. In November, Gazprom’s media division unveiled Yappy, an in-house alternative to TikTok.

None have been particularly successful, and even those with a decent user base, like Russian social network VKontakte, have lost ground to their Western counterparts in recent years.

However, since the Facebook and Instagram bans, VKontakte’s Russian-listed shares have soared due to weaker competition, while its main London listing has been suspended for a month. The company gave businesses training on how to transition from Instagram and Facebook.