Billions for Russian propaganda


Estonia’s government plans to increase VAT on journalism from five percent to nine percent. Priit Hõbemägi, the editor-in-chief of Postimees newspaper, said when commenting on the news that “The increase in sales tax comes at a time when Russia is investing more and more money in influencing the mindset of Estonian people with propaganda, false facts, and other methods, and it is the media that plays an important role in identifying, refuting, or exposing them.”

In fact, just days before the decision to increase VAT for journalism, it was announced that the Institute for Internet Development (“Институт развития интернета” or ИРИ for short), which is affiliated with the Russian presidential administration, will distribute 20 billion rubles in grants for the creation of “patriotic content” in 2023.

Screenshot from the Institute for Internet Development’s website: “Current competitions Competitive selection of national blog content.”

Firstly, the amount. So, 20 billion rubles, that’s about 220 million euros (1 euro = 88.96 rubles). For comparison, the Russian Film Fund will distribute 12 billion rubles or 131 million euros this year. A BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle costs 85 million rubles (930 thousand euros), and the most modern T-90M “Breakthrough” costs 300-330 million rubles (3.3 million euros) on average. Russia’s population in 2022 is 143,054,637 people. That’s about 1,500 rubles or one and a half euros per inhabitant.

What is 220 million euros in the context of Estonia? In this year’s budget, 243 million euros are earmarked for salary increases. And the budget for family allowances has increased by 177.1 million euros. From next year, 41 million euros will be allocated for the transition to Estonian-language education. 1.5 euros per Estonian resident is 2 million euros.

What will be done with these billions?

On June 2, 2023, ИРИ published the results of the competition for the creation of “national content” under the leadership of Aleksei Goreslavsky. 10 billion rubles will go to 163 projects (last year there were about a hundred of them, more than three billion rubles in total). Among the titles like “Ramzan. Ahmat – Power of Russia” (“Рамзан. Ахмат – Сила России”), “Russian Code. Sovereign Future” (“Российский код. Суверенное будущее”) and “Russian heritage. Homecoming” (“Русское пастелие. Возвращение домой”) there is a documentary film about the fate of the architectural monuments of Donbas. In addition, the grant was awarded to the film “Prepared for the Front” (“Сделано для фронта”), which tells the story of entrepreneurs who help at the front, “Women Z” (“Женщины Z”), which tells the story of women in the armed forces, “OUR’s” (“СВОи”) and project “Those who left, how are you?” (“Уехавшие, как вы там?”).

With money from ИРИ Premier Streaming produced the film “Color of History” (“Цвет истории”), a colored chronicle of the Great Patriotic War. Film director Alexander Hant directed a project about “heroes of our time” called “Russian Odyssey” (“Россия-Одиссея”). The program “Let me say!” (“Дайте казать!”) received support from authors on YouTube.

Screenshot from Premier Streaming site “Colour of History”, colored chronicle of the Great Patriotic War.

The Internet Development Institute provided funding for the production of TV presenter Anton Krassovsky’s programs and for the release of the program “Beautiful Russia blah-blah-blah” (“Прекрасная Россия бу-бу-бу”) on the national channel TV RT.


Who decides?

The winners of the grant contests are confirmed by the members of the ИРИ Council, which includes Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of Russia Sergei Kirienko, Head of the Department of Public Projects of the President of Russia Sergei Novikov, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Culture Elena Jampolskaya, Aleksei Goreslavski and Editor-in-Chief of RT Margarita Simonyan. As revealed by a streaming platform employee and confirmed by a Moscow screenwriter, Novikov is a long-time associate of Kiriyenko (they worked together at Rosatom). He oversees the production of Russian films and TV series under the presidential administration, according to an employee of the streaming platform and confirmed by a Moscow screenwriter.


The Institute for Internet Development’s website: Collegial bodies of competition participants.


Meduza reveals the details

Russian authorities spend tens of billions of rubles every year on propaganda films, TV series, media projects and video games – for so-called “patriotic content”. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a very large part of it has been dedicated to the glorification of war, with the share of “patriotic content” also growing rapidly. The main and generous sharer of the colossal sums spent on propaganda is the Internet Development Institute. It is headed by Aleksei Goreslavsky, a former pro-Kremlin media executive and participant in the 2014 crackdown of the portal.

A producer who cooperated with the Internet Development Institute describes the current situation as follows: “After the war, private companies ran out of money for creativity, but ИРИ only got more money. Now everyone goes to them for money – both Putinists and those who a year ago put white doves on their profile picture and then realized that they have to make a living.”

The Internet Development Institute was created in 2015 to “create a dialogue with the government between all participants in the Internet ecosystem”. The project was initiated by the then Director of Electronic Communications of Russia Sergei Plugotarenko and his friend and colleague Sergei Grebennikov, who was then the head of the Regional Center for Public Internet Technologies. The founders of ИРИ were also the Ministry of Education and Science, the Internet Initiatives Development Fund (IIDF) initiated by Putin himself, as well as German Klimenko, the infamous former adviser to the President of the Russian Federation.

A 10-year Internet development program was commissioned by Putin in May 2015. By autumn, the program was ready – and according to RoskomSvoboda, an independent organization that investigates Internet censorship, it turned out to be “extremely ambiguous”. Among other things, the terms “cyber borders” and “digital sovereignty” were mentioned, according to RoskomSvoboda experts, Russia does not serve Internet development.

Everything changed when Alexey Goreslavsky, the former top manager and a pro-government leader of the Rambler&Co media holding company, arrived in the administration of the President of the Russian Federation. The institute soon announced a competition for the production of “national content”, clearly defining the topics of the projects: “heroes of our days and reasons to be proud”, “stable development of the country” and “protection of national interests”.

Screenshot from the Institute for Internet Development’s website: Alexey Goreslavsky, General Director of the Institute for Internet Development.

Moral of the story?

Those who support Putin’s policies and continue to work in Russia, as well as those who left the country due to war or mobilization, can equally claim the institute’s money. “They are diverse: they now have peaceful projects with “proper family values” and there are tracks to advance war-related national interests. They have everything happily side by side and useful,” speculates one employee of the Russian streaming platform about the working principles of ИРИ. “60% patriotic, 40% social,” a member of the institute’s competition committee describes the ratio of applications: “Out of a hundred applications, eight are for anti-bullying projects in schools, five are for historical figures, in addition to ten applications in which (Russia’s Secretary of Defence Sergei Shoigu’s son-in-law) Aleksei Stolyarov participates.”

“They (ИРИ management) are not interested in making war films,” claims one of the producers who cooperated with the institute. “Besides, when something like this was proposed to them, they said: we don’t want to talk directly about the war, our society is already tense, we want to do something uplifting.”

This is a screenshot from the Institute for Internet Development’s website: latest in production – Sci-fi comedy, war film, and comedy.

People who are currently working with ИРИ (or who have done so in the past) explain their motivation in different ways – but most often they talk about money. “Was it possible to continue without the cooperation of ИРИ? Probably yes, no one forced me to. Could I get a job at the Dixie store instead? Probably yes. Do I want to do this? Probably not. I have a certain number of dependents, they need to be fed,” argues a Rambler & Co. employee in a conversation with the authors of the study.

By the way, among the Baltic States, it is Estonia that gives a large part of the advertising money to Russian propaganda. And the volume of advertising in the Estonian media is currently at the level of 2006 – about 100 million euros.