By Eto Buziashvili and Andy Carvin, for @DFRLAb
Member-only pages, restrictive content policies, and a lack of transparency: Runiversalis is a wiki in name only
Runiversalis (руни.рф), a newly launched Russian analog of the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, is an attempt to spread Russian propaganda and disinformation in the guise of a wiki. Beyond using the underlying software architecture employed by Wikipedia, it’s a wiki in name only.
Since Russia’s February 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has doubled downed on censorship and its assault on free speech in an attempt to prevent factual information about the war from spreading to domestic audiences. The Kremlin has banned and blocked Western websites and social media platforms, and passed a law that imprisons a person for sharing “fake” content about Russian troops, among other measures. Despite these efforts, some Western platforms like YouTube remain available in Russia, while Russian citizens routinely employ virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass official restrictions and access content in the West.
Wikipedia is among the online platforms that Russia has threatened to silence. In the spring of 2022, Russian censor Roskomnadzor fined Wikipedia RUB 4,000,000 (around USD $66,000) for not deleting articles about Russia’s war in Ukraine, which Kremlin propaganda refers to as a “special military operation.” On July 20, Roskomnadzor obliged Russian search engines to “inform” users that Wikipedia violates Russian legislation.
“Runiversalis — the encyclopedia of common sense”
Amid Russia’s attempts to silence Wikipedia within the country, a new Telegram channel named Runiversalis (Руниверсалис) announced the launch of the project. The August 18 announcement included the motto, “Runiversalis — the encyclopedia of common sense.” The authors of the announcement claimed to be “former editors and administrators of Wikipedia.”
The channel was created two days prior to the announcement; at the time of writing it had more than 2,200 subscribers. But the announcement itself has been viewed by more than 88,000 Telegram users, demonstrating how it has been widely promoted across other channels and platforms. One notable individual singing its praises was Duma State Deputy Anton Gorelkin, a politician with a long history of advocating for Russian government control of the internet, who wrote a celebratory announcement on his Webstrangler Telegram channel and offered insight on the site’s future plans:
What we talked about so long ago has finally happened: the Russian Internet has its own universal encyclopedia, which runs on a wiki engine, but does not depend on the policies promoted by the Wikimedia Foundation.
Meet Runiversalis, a project developed by former editors of Russian Wikipedia. The encyclopedia is located on Russian servers and declares respect for the requirements of the legislation of the Russian Federation and our traditional values. This means that any attempts to give the articles a left-liberal and Western-centric bias will be thwarted.
Now the project is forming a staff of editors and is in the process of filling it. The authors transferred the content of the Russian Wikipedia to themselves, cleaning the articles from propaganda and malicious content, and in the future plan to create a completely standalone version that does not require inserts from third-party projects and is available for download and use by everyone.
I wish the authors of “Runiversalis” success, and I will closely monitor the fate of this project.
While the initial Telegram announcement took place in August 2022, the Runiversalis website was registered on June 9, 2022, according to a WHOIS search. A screenshot history provided by DomainTools suggests that the page launched that day showing the default Russian-language page of MediaWiki, the same software used to operate Wikipedia. “Main page — there is currently no text on this page,” the default page stated in Russian.
A manifesto by the creators of Runiversalis claims that the editing process of the encyclopedia entries is carried out in accordance with Russian legislation and “with respect for traditional values, from the position of which the content and structure of the articles are constructed.” It continues by saying that Runiversalis obeys Russian laws, not “the United States ones (and this, in particular, means that there will be no fake absurdities about what is happening in Ukraine).” The manifesto mentions “traditional values” — a major theme in Kremlin propaganda — more than once in the announcement. It cites LGBTQ-related topics as an example, noting that “homosexuality” will not be covered “under pressure from LGBTQ lobbyists,” and that Western media “imposes propaganda of homosexuality as a norm.” Prior to the launch of Runiversalis, Russia announced plans to build an online surveillance system that will hunt down “homosexual propaganda” and other topics it deems inappropriate on the Russian internet.
Ripping off Wikipedia, with a heavy dose of propaganda
The Runiversalis interface is similar to Wikipedia, as they both rely on MediaWiki software for their underlying content management system. At the time of writing, there were nearly 9,000 articles published on Runiversalis, but they are no longer accessible to the general public. According to Gazeta.ru, the site shut down soon after launch, with would-be visitors getting 403 server errors; it is possible the site experienced a Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack. On August 25, the platform reappeared, though it locked itself down to registered users only, preventing unregistered users from accessing any content. At the time of publishing, the homepage reads in Russian, “Authorization required: You must be logged in to view other pages.”
Prior to the lockdown, the main page included multiple thematic sections that were very similar to Wikipedia’s homepage, including Article of the Day, In the News, I Knew It!, and Image of the Day. One major difference was the inclusion of a new homepage section on Russia’s “Special Military Operation,” the term used by Russia to describe its invasion of Ukraine; it also includes a new “Quote of the Day” section.
Runiversalis is produced to serve as another channel for spreading Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. As mentioned above, one of the main thematic sections displayed on the homepage is dedicated to Russia’s “special military operation” — the Kremlin-cemented propaganda term to describe Russia’s 2022 re-invasion in Ukraine.
The site’s primary article about the war, “Специальная военная операция России на Украине” (“Russian special military operation in Ukraine”), is based on Kremlin propaganda narratives. It parrots propaganda terms introduced by the Kremlin, such as “denazification and demilitarization” (“демилитаризация и денацификация”) when describing the reasons for the invasion. The article spreads the Kremlin’s long-standing false narrative that Ukraine was killing its own citizens in Russian-occupied Donbas, and that Russia decided to liberate them following requests from Donbas separatist leaders. Citing official Russian sources, the article lists Ukrainian army losses, yet avoids including information about Russian losses. The entry also talks about economic damage done to Ukraine, but does not mention the same about Russia. A subsection about civilian deaths displays United Nations estimates without any mention of who is responsible of the killings. The vast majority of citations in the article lead to Kremlin-owned and pro-Kremlin online outlets.
Another thematic section displayed on the main page of Runiversalis is “I Knew It!” (“Я так и знал!”), a variation of Wikipedia’s “Did you know” section, which normally contains trivia that can be found within Wikipedia articles. The Runiversalis equivalent, however, contains “trivia” such as “American politicians, political scientists, and journalists admit that United States turned into empire of lies” and “Swedish historian traced the history of Russophobia from Charles the Great to Ukrainian crises.”
Meanwhile, the Runiversalis homepage also contains a Quote of the Day (“Цитата дня”) section. It featured a quote attributed to Guy Mettan, a pro-Kremlin Swiss journalist:
In order to justify their biased attitude towards Russia, Russophobes put forward an argument that is indisputable at first glance: there is no smoke without fire, and if something is wrong, then the Russians started first…. There are many examples when hatred of Russia raises a lot of smoke in the Western press and government circles, although Russia itself is far from fanning any kind of flame. It’s just that the anti-Russian conditioned reflex is so well developed that Russia doesn’t even need to take any action to provoke it.
Mettan previously promoted conspiracy theories about Ukrainian bioweapons.
Runiversalis is no Wikipedia
Despite being powered by the same wiki software, there are crucial differences between the editing models and principles behind Wikipedia and Runiversalis. Wikipedia has transparent editing policies and editorial oversight. As it notes in an article called “Reliability of Wikipedia,” its articles are “written and edited by volunteer editors who generate online content with the editorial oversight of other volunteer editors via community-generated policies and guidelines.” Wikipedia is decentralized, with countless volunteers around the world who have authored tens of millions of articles in dozens of languages; literally anyone can become a Wikipedian. And Wikipedia entries are built on consensus rather than dictated from above. In short, it is one of the most democratic platforms on the internet, as well as the most utilized reference work in human history.
Runiversalis, in contrast, is a propaganda website masquerading as a wiki, using the stylistic trappings of Wikipedia to give it a veneer of credibility. It does not provide editing options for the general public; when the site still allowed user registration, a message would appear after registration, informing the user, “You do not have permission to create this page.” It openly acknowledges it operates under Russia’s restrictive media laws, and officially professes a worldview embracing “traditional values,” explicitly referencing anti-Western and anti-LGBTQ viewpoints. Its headlines and narratives mimic Kremlin propaganda verbatim. Runiversalis is yet another attempt by supporters of the Kremlin to whitewash the history of modern Russia and Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Runiversalis is no wiki, and it is certainly no Wikipedia.
By Eto Buziashvili and Andy Carvin, for @DFRLAb
Eto Buziashvili is a Research Associate, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Andy Carvin is Managing Editor at the DFRLab.