#100 Friends and Blasphemers
June 29, 2017
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An online diary used by American teenagers finds a strange and terrifying enemy.
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, This is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: Okay, so Alex...
PJ: I have a story for you today.
PJ: It’s a story about LiveJournal.
ALEX: (sighs) LiveJournal.
PJ: So I... So... LiveJournal obviously popular early aughts blogging platform based on the idea of like signing onto the internet and putting your diary on the internet. Which I remember when like, as a high school student I was like, "That is nuts. I would never do that." And what I didn’t realize is like, actually it was like fairly social. Like people were writing and they were like, becoming friends with other people who were writing.
ALEX: Uh yeah I was a frequent denizen.
PJ: You were?
ALEX: Oh yeah I was all over it. I I um... I started my LiveJournal in 2001…?
PJ: What was it called?
ALEX: Uhh. It was just- It didn't have like a name...
PJ: It had a name. Did it not have a URL? It was just...?
ALEX: Oh uh... it was… This is so embarrassing. All right here we go…
ALEX: It's- It's happening. Um...
PJ: I like that you tried to convince me that it didn't have a name.
ALEX: Well it's not like it was like- it was like, "The Unlocked Secrets of Alex Goldman’s Psyche."
PJ: What was the name Alex?
ALEX: The URL was- It was, um.. It was a- It was a portmanteau of the word “blasphemy” and the word “ephemera.” So it was “blasphemora.”
ALEX: Yeah it's- it's super embarrassing.
PJ: What was your self image that, that was what you were... Why did that appeal to you?
ALEX: Um.. I was going to college to be a journalist. I was convinced I was going to be an iconoclastic, uh, madman in like the style of like Lester Bangs and Hunter Tho- Hunter S. Thompson. Like I thought I was gonna be, um, just this person who had really strong opinions about things and expressed them in very concrete ways..
PJ: So what type of stories did blasphemera concern himself with?
ALEX: Oh god. Um...
PJ: I'm just going to look.
ALEX: Don't look please don't look. Please!
PJ: It’s still up?
ALEX: No it's not. No. Just don't look. Come on dude. Don't look! Seriously! Oh God don't look! Oh I feel like I'm going- I'm gonna die.
PJ: Why? I don't know if I can find it.
ALEX: Oh thank God. Oh Nooooooooo! (laughing)
PJ: I think I found it. Oh you're so young. There's a picture of you and Sarah. Here is like a thing that you wrote in 2009 that at least shows that your personality is static. "Hilarious name for an actual person: Doodoo Topaz."
PJ: Alright you wanna hear September 15th 2008 how you were doing at 4:02 PM?
PJ: "So hey. Dear diary. I know this place is basically my emotional chamber pot where I drop all my MacGuffins and let them coagulate into sadness stew, but all those internet people who read this are really important to me. Not like you know I want to send you Xmas cards but at least you tolerate it and sometimes comment on it thereby validating my wish to exist. Thanks for helping me exist. I’m sorry I got fat. I’ll try to slim down." Is that a Wesley Willis lyric?
PJ: And then somebody said, "I like reading about your life and feelings. I hope mine aren’t too irritating to read. You seem like a good egg. And then you said, "The thing I like the best about jive urinal" - funny joke Alex - "..is that I get to piece together personal histories through their verbal subterfuge and those brief, precious moments of candor."
ALEX: Yeah see. That's- That’s what I- That is a perfect distillation of everything terrible about me.
PJ: But you're also being nice to somebody. "In your case it’s especially riveting. I wonder though as you grapple with something that I too seem to grapple with, which is sort of a bottomless negativity and lack of faith in other people, if you think this will ever work itself out." And then somebody else said , "You still rule!"
ALEX: (laughing) “Have a cool summer!”
PJ: Did you have- Were your Li- Were the people you were talking to on LiveJournal.. Were they people from school or were they people you didn’t know?
ALEX: They were mostly people I didn’t know. I mean, like, so, we all thought of ourselves as profoundly literary.
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX: And there was like this boosting of one another.
PJ: I’m basically picturing like a bunch of like 15 year old boys wearing tweed jackets and like fake mustaches dressed up as professors having a book club.
ALEX: Were it only that I were 15, but I was 20- I was 21.
ALEX: Um. I mean.. I think about the connections that I made at that time. I think about, like- They like burned bright in a way that I don't feel like I replicate in my current life. Like, we were all so.. We were all like just leaving our homes for the first time, our parents’ houses. We were all pretty lost. Like eh- There was something um.. That connection was like extremely important to me.
ALEX: Alright. Come on. Let's just close it up. We can close it up now. Go ahead and close it up. You can close it.
PJ: Okay, so the actual reason why I brought you here.. So I wanna talk to you about this: Okay, how much do you know about what happened to LiveJournal after you stopped using it?
ALEX: Here's what I know: While I think user numbers dwindled in the United States, it became really, really really popular in Russia.
PJ: That is also what I had always heard. It’s true but it’s like so insufficient to what actually happened. Like, the same way like Russia somehow is just like- seems to be like infiltrating many strange parts of American society. Like, Russia ate LiveJournal in a way that is wild. Um. Can I tell you the story.
PJ: Okay so, I talked to this journalist named Alexey Kovalev. He lives in Moscow. He says like, he still remembers when LiveJournal got to Russia. It was like, world’s most exciting website, and he knows when it was because he was part of the first group of people to get on.
ALEXEY KOVALEV: I've been an active LiveJournal user since 2003--2003. Eh, at the time when it was a, a invite-only based blogging platform. So you had to know someone, uh, to send you an invite code to start an--an account.
PJ: And did it- Was it- At that point was it like, um-- Was it kind of cool?
ALEXEY: Oh yeah, surely, Yeah. Uh, it was the kind of thing that, uh, you- You were part of an elite club.
PJ: What’s it called- What’s LiveJournal.. Wha- What does it translate to in Russian?
ALEXEY: ZheZhe! “Th- The Journal of Life.” [CHUCKLES].
PJ: Okay, so, Alexey says like, in the very beginning, his experience of LiveJournal was very similar to your experience, Alex. Like, he made friends with other nerds online. Sometimes they’d meet up in person. He actually met his wife through the site. But things take a really different turn for one big reason:
NEWSPERSON 1: In Russia today the clear winner of the Russian presidential election, Vladimir Putin, began to establish the Putin era.
NEWSPERSON 2: Vladimir Putin, the career spy, talks about establishing what he calls "a dictatorship of the law."
So Vladimir Putin’s first year in office, 2000. 2001 he immediately starts shutting down the media.
NEWSPERSON 3: Publication of the newspaper Svodnia was suspended and the editorial staff of the magazine Toge was fired….
PJ: Even NTV, which is like the big independent TV network, that gets taken over by the government-run oil company Gazprom. And so for Alexey and like all of his online journalist friends, they're just watching as all the places they used to write either disappear or get taken over by Putin.
ALEXEY: They literally micromanaged the uh- the media. They, uh, call up the editors in chiefs of, uh, TV networks, and tell them what- what to cover, from which angle, what not to cover, etc. So you could- You couldn't just go to a T.V. station to- to express yourself. Uhh. So the web was the only place.
PJ: There was this one LiveJournal user who was just super pissed at the Kremlin. This guy named Alexey Navalny.
ALEX: Is this a different Alexey than the one you've been talking with?
PJ: Yeah, so, this is Alexey Navalny. And Navalny decides he’s gonna use his LiveJournal as a weapon against the government.
ALEXEY: Like, look, there's, like, the-th- There's this crazy corruption going on in-- these state-owned companies in Russia. And, people are just wasted billions and billions of rubles on these projects that are going nowhere, and getting miraculously rich in the process.
PJ: Everybody knows that the government's corrupt, but he wants to use his LiveJournal to expose exactly how it works, like how people get paid and how much money they're taking. And he has a plan to do this. So first step: he buys stock in the big government run oil company.
PJ: Gazprom. And he's like, "Okay, I'm now a shareholder of Gazprom, and so I'm entitled to see a bunch of financial documents. Send 'em on over."
ALEX: Oh! (laughing). That's brilliant.
ALEXEY: And he s- started like, posting, uh, documents that he was entitled to as a shareholder in-- in these companies.
PJ: Oh wow. And he’s putting them up on LiveJournal?
ALEXEY: Yeah! Yeah!
PJ: This LiveJournal starts picking up thousands and thousands of readers who tune in every week to see which corrupt government agency Navalny's gonna get the documents of. And so it's becoming this big thing, and the government is like, "Huh, we do not like this."
PJ: And so if you're the Russian Government, here's what really sucks about this: You can't shut down LiveJournal. Because it's a US company. The servers are based in the US. IF you want to stop LiveJournal you are going to have to go to war with the website and that is what they do this massive war between an autocratic Russian government and a bunch of geeks with online diaries.
The details of that war after the break.
PJ: Welcome back to the show. Okay, so the Kremlin wants to destroy LiveJournal, but they already have another problem. Besides the fact that it’s based in the U.S., it is very quickly becoming a super super popular website in Russia, like, millions of Russians are opening accounts. It’s one of the top sites. Everybody loves it. And so, what they have to do is they have to find a way to ruin it.
ALEXEY: They started s-s- infiltrating LiveJournal. Uh. They-
PJ: What do you mean infiltrating?
ALEXEY: Uh. With pro-Kremlin comments and blog posts.
PJ: So like the kind of thing that people were talking about in the U.S. during the election? Like- like --paid political operates showing up and- eh and just writing, like-
ALEXEY: Yeah. "Putin is great." uhh, uh, th- these people would say. And they were paid for it.
PJ: These trolls were coming from a Kremlin office called the Kremlin Federal Youth Agency. It was a propaganda wing, and messing with LiveJournal was like an entry-level propaganda job in the Russian Government. So, Putin sticks all these people on paid trolls on people's blogs.
PJ: Did everybody have a sense immediately of like "Oh gee a bunch of like really pro-Putin people just showed up all at the same time.." like, did you kind of know what was probly going on?
ALEXEY: Yeah it was really, really obvious.
PJ: Emails actually leaked out later that had the rates that these guys were getting paid to troll Alexey and his friends. It would be 85 rubles for a comment, and then a bonus: 200 rubles if you could trick somebody into arguing with you.
ALEX: (laughs) That's so funny because I think of it as just being pure noise. I think of it as the equivalent of those people who, um, who hack fa-, who trick fax machines into just printing out a bunch of ink until they run out of ink. It's like they're trying to distract people in such a way that they're like, "Well it's not worth engaging."
PJ: Yeah. Alexey calls it "black noise." But, it didn't matter, actually, because, LiveJournal was growing and growing. There were all these Russian who were coming to it because they were depending on LiveJournal instead of the government for really crucial information.
ALEXEY: My favorite story from 2010... There was, uh, like a- a massive catastrophic heat wave in Russia. And, uh... There were wildfires uh, around Moscow, and uh, all of Moscow was engulfed when- in toxic smoke.
PJ: Actually, the videos are still online. Can I show you one of 'em.
PJ: Just look at this. These guys are like driving through it.
ALEX: Oh my god!
PJ: Right. Like it looks like a movie about people driving through the sun.
ALEXEY: And, it was actually one of the first times when, uh, people, uh, realized that the government cannot help them because it’s just really not equipped to. And uh people start buying like fire hoses and organizing on LiveJournal, and going to these, uh, wildfire sites and putting fires out, helping the victims.
PJ: That's so cool.
ALEXEY: -Uh- Yeah.
PJ: So the other thing that all this does is it makes the government look terrible. Like all these people on LiveJournal are being heroes and the government's being left behind. And so this one really young guy from Putin’s political party, he has a bright idea.
ALEXEY: Uh, and he it thought, "Why don't I just, you know, jump on the bandwagon?"And he's- he and his, uh, pro-government friends went to a place outside Moscow where there weren't any wildfires. So they set a bush on fire.
PJ: Oh my god.
ALEXEY: Yeah. And pretended to put it out. So..(laughs).
PJ: (laughs). That is so dark.
PJ: And so this guy made a video to show how brave he and his friends are. Alexey actually sent it to me afterwards. Can I just- Can I show it to you?
PJ: Okay so uh we are in a forest.
ALEX: Th-We're..(laughs) It sort of looks like someone turned a fog machine on in the woods.
PJ: I know it’s like such a tiny fire and there’s so many men putting it out.
PJ: So the dude in the video, he posted it online.
ALEXEY: And they were- Two seconds after he posted this, he was exposed by activists who were actually keeping a- an online map of all the active fires around Moscow. And they said, "Dude. Nothing's on fire in that entire region."
ALEX: And what did they do? Was it a scandal? Did they get caught out or is it impossible to scandalize folks in like, a propagandistic country like that?
PJ: Uh, well the guy who actually orchestrated the whole thing, he ended up being elected to parliament.
ALEX: Of course. Of course he did.
PJ: So... Russian government still controls all of the real world. But LiveJournal is this one little place where, when they go on, like, things do not turn out well for them. And so you'd think they'd keep trying to destroy it, but, they'd like, stop posting on it. And instead the exact opposite happens. All these really high level Russian politicians start their own LiveJournals. And that's actually where things get really ugly. Like this is where things turn bad. Because, one of those politicians, his name’s, Andrey Turchak.
Turchak's reading LiveJournal one day, and he finds this post by a journalist named Oleg Kashin. And the post is not nice. Kashin is talking about how the only reason Turchak's governor is because his rich Dad is friends with Putin, and it's guys like Turchak who are destroying federalism in Russia. And- and then Kashin really insults Turchak.
ALEXEY: He used a- an epithet like “Yeah if, uh- This guy is just a piece of shit. He's not a, eh, he's not a real politician."
PJ: The literal translation is "covered in shit."
ALEX: [laughs] That’s a pretty sick burn.
PJ: Yeah. And so Turchak within minutes of Oleg’s original post is in the comments, and in his comment, he’s like, "Young man, you have 24 hours to apologize. You can do it here. You can do it with a separate post. But the countdown has begun.”
PJ: And so what actually happens next is there's a video. There's security camera footage. So it's a little bit hard to see. But, here. This is nighttime in Moscow, where Oleg lives.
PJ: He’s by his apartment. It’s black and white, but like you can see that’s him walking.
ALEX: Can you turn it toward me?
PJ: Yeah here. So this is him walking. He’s getting approached by this guy.
PJ: The guy taps him and he’s holding what looks like a bouquet of flowers. He pulls an iron rod out of the bouquet and just starts beating him.
ALEX: Oh my god.
PJ: This other guy comes up. He starts beating him.
ALEX: Oh this is so brutal...
PJ: Um an- and this was like- Like Oleg is certain that these guys were sent by Turchak. They'd been sent by the governor.
ALEXEY: He hired hitmen and paid them several million rubles to get this, uh, this guy beaten with the, uh, specific instructions to break his fingers, so that he knows that, uh, uh, what to type and what no-not to. And that's- that's what they did with a- with an iron rod.
PJ: He ended up in a coma. He had to have one of his fingers amputated.
ALEX: Oh my god, that’s horrible.
PJ: But weirdly like, political violence, like, what happened to Oleg, that's not the kind of thing that eventually defangs LiveJournal. In the end, the way the Kremlin is able to finally beat LiveJournal, it's like, it's depressingly simple. So here's what happens:
One day a Russian businessman shows up and makes a surprisingly generous offer to buy LiveJournal from its American owner. The site gets sold, and now it's a Russian company. And so now, all the censorship laws that are applied to Russian newspapers are applied to LiveJournal. Big anonymous accounts are banned, and people who say the wrong thing on LiveJournal, they're fined or they're thrown in jail. And so people stop saying the wrong things on LiveJournal. They leave. The final death blow was actually delivered just this past winter.
ALEXEY: LiveJournal became a Russian hosted website.
PJ: Like, moved the servers out of the U.S.?
ALEXEY: Uh yeah. It's- it's owned and, uh, managed by Russians and hosted in Moscow.
PJ: Which I assume means that...
ALEXEY: All of your data are available to, uh, the Russian Security Services.
PJ: Russian Security Services have access to everything now. Like they have Oleg's blog, they have Alexey's blog, they have other Alexey's blog. But also, like, they have like, like George R.R. Martin has a LiveJournal. Russia has George R.R. Martin's LiveJournal. They have your LiveJournal. Like, blaspherema exists in a place where if like, Putin for some reason really wants to read it, he can.
ALEX: So they just can walk in and do whatever they want on the servers there.
PJ: Yeah. But the silver lining according to Alexey is that while nobody he knows is writing on LiveJournal anymore, they're all still writing. Like, they're writing things that the government doesn't like. It's just, they do it in English language papers, or they do it on their own personal websites. Actually, Navalny, the guy who bought the shares in Gazprom, and had the anti-corruption blog, he's now the leader of the opposition party in Russia. The Kremlin just banned him from running for President. So dissent still exists, it just- it doesn't exist on LiveJournal. I actually- I asked Alexey, like, if he even still had his own LiveJournal just cause I- I wanted to see it. And he said he absolutely could not show it to me.
ALEXEY: My personal one is in private mode now.
PJ: Oh, Okay.
ALEXEY: So you- you cannot see it.
PJ: And is that for reasons of journalistic safety or is it for reasons of like LiveJournals are embarrassing?
ALEXEY: I mean if you eh-you-uh- If you look back at eh-uh at things you posted online, uh, fifteen years ago (laughing) and all, eh, all of it is still online. So, uh, couple of years ago I just put it in private mode just to save myself the embarrassment.
PJ: You know, in the end the thing that's really interesting to me is what these guys were posting in a way, it was like blasphemy but it was also like ephemera.
ALEX: Get the fuck out of here.
ALEX: I hate you so much. I can't believe you did that.
PJ: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and Damiano Marchetti. We were edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Matt Lieber is an all-mango fruit basket. You can visit our website at replyall.limo. You can find more episodes of the show on Spotify. We're also on Apple Podcasts, and anywhere else that you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening.