This fall, the sputnik.ru portal, which was supposed to become the first state Russian search engine, stopped working. The closure of the project, conceived as a competitor not only to Yandex, but also to Google, was accidentally discovered by its few users. Open Media tells how the success of the presidential administration in clearing the information space and ineffective management buried a resource in which the state managed to invest more than 3 billion rubles in six years. From our text you will learn:
✔️ Why Sputnik bypassed Rambler in an unofficial competition for the right to create a national search engine
✔️ How Rostelecom removed from the Sputnik project its creator, businessman Vyacheslav Rudnikov, when he refused to sell his stake tens of times cheaper than the real value
✔️ The main task of the project, led by godfather Rogozin Jr., was to influence the news picture of the day, not allowing unnecessary topics to be included in the top. This was called "safe internet".
✔️ How the state financed the search engine for more than 3 billion rubles through loans and public procurement
Administrative resource plus censorship: how Rostelecom launched Sputnik
Six years ago, the state corporation Rostelecom announced at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum that it was starting the development of the first state search engine - sputnik.ru.
“The main task and uniqueness of Sputnik is to create a point of access to the digital infrastructure of society and the state ... We believe that it is not so much the completeness of the issue that is critical for the user as the absence of inaccurate information,” the then vice-president told Vedomosti in 2014 -President of Rostelecom Alexey Basov.
The start turned out to be spectacular: in the first week of sputnik.ru's work, more than 2 million people visited, to whom the resource was offered a news aggregator, a service for information on utility bills “My House”, a search for medicines and pharmacies, as well as an online TV and TV program. At that time, the shares of a likely competitor to Yandex dropped significantly in price, the former official of the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications now proudly recalls. True, as explained by Open Media, Yandex shares fell in price on the New York Stock Exchange at the end of April 2014, almost a month before the announcement of the launch of Sputnik, and on the Moscow Stock Exchange they began to be traded only in June of that year ...
In the following years, there was little news about Sputnik, and after 6 years, its few users noticed that the search portal was no longer functioning, and Rostelecom had to admit that the project was closed.
High-ranking officials and former top managers of the project told Open Media why Rostelecom was unable to disperse Sputnik and how much this project cost the state.
Why did the state need a national search engine and why it was not Rambler, but Sputnik
“We believed that we could create something really grandiose, at first there were many ideas that now seem trivial, but then they were innovations, for example, the introduction of a target,” one of the developers of the search engine explains the reasons for the deal with the state company. - Yes, Google and Yandex already existed, but the Internet was developing rapidly, and we would still have time to take our market share! "
Rostelecom said in its press release that it had acquired a controlling stake in the project launched by the "enthusiasts". The search portal sputnik.ru was created in the mid-2000s by the KM-Media company of businessman Vyacheslav Rudnikov, known for developing the electronic multimedia Great Encyclopedia of Cyril and Methodius.
As one of Sputnik's developers now recalls, the government showed interest in the project long before the loud presentation at the SPIEF. He says that back in 2008, Sputnik became interested in the presidential administration, and according to its employees who communicated with the project management, the initiative came from Dmitry Medvedev himself, who was then president. This is confirmed by the ex-official of the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications: according to him, the idea to create a state-controlled search engine belonged to the president.
"Medvedev loves innovations, gadgets," the former official reminds, "and he was the main driver of the project's development."
“Then the war began in Georgia, from everywhere it sounded like Russia attacked little Georgia and about the atrocities of the Russians - this is an absolute hell for the Kremlin! - one of the former employees of "Sputnik" explains the motives of the officials. “Then the idea arose in the presidential administration that it was necessary to somehow filter the news that a search engine gives out to Russians.”
Another interlocutor of Open Media, who previously held a high position in the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications, confirmed this and added that the Kremlin was trying to negotiate "filtering news" with the leadership of Yandex, but there proposals to censor content "were perceived negatively and did not cooperate."
Yandex then went out on an IPO, their reputation was important, and Ilya Segalovich (the founder of Yandex. - OM) was not ready to go for it, the ex-official recalls, - then the Kremlin understood that it was necessary to have its own search portal, and began to look for suitable developments of domestic companies. "
One of these "developments" is the search engine of the KM-Media company. Its main owner, Vladimir Rudnikov, has been engaged in business in the field of real estate, IT and computer technology since 1991, creating the R-style group of companies. Back in 1996, his company created an electronic encyclopedia of Cyril and Methodius, digitized the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, and in 1998 established one of the first Internet portals in the country - km.ru. “So Rudnikov was quite famous in the industry when he was invited to talk [about Sputnik] to the presidential administration,” an acquaintance of the businessman explains.
They invited, of course, not only him. At that time several companies presented their projects to the officials of the presidential administration: the developers of the search engine Aport, ABBYY, Mail.ru and Rambler.
The latter company, according to one of the participants in the competition, did not offer a new development, but an already operating Rambler-search. True, they wanted $ 200 million for their product, and this, according to officials, was too expensive, says the source of Open Media.
At the time, Sputnik was priced 27 times cheaper. At the same time, he was one of the leaders in the competition for evaluating information search methods, only slightly inferior in terms of technical indicators to the Yandex service, and the remaining 13 participants were seriously lagging behind the leaders, says one of the former Sputnik developers.
“In fact, we were no worse than Yandex, only we had fewer servers,” he explains. “We were quite well known in our industry, so there are no questions about why they chose our product. We didn’t pay anyone to present our project in the Kremlin, it was really a good product ”.
He says that then all the applicants were tested by the AP specialists, and the presentations of the projects were evaluated by Vladislav Surkov, who was then the first deputy head of the presidential administration. Once Dmitry Medvedev was personally present at the presentation, behind him was the final decision on the choice of a search engine, recalls the ex-official of the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications.
“Of course, we understood that we were talking about some kind of information filter,” says one of the then top managers of KM-Media. - But there was almost no talk of politics at the meetings, rather, about the safe Internet, about the need for a search engine for schools, for children. We saw it solely as a business project and not an attempt to tighten the screws. "
Rudnikov told his acquaintances that he did not perceive cooperation with the AP in this vein, he was interested in huge opportunities for development - the integration of the Cyril and Methodius encyclopedia and Sputnik, the creation of educational services with him, and, of course, the prospect of making good money. “He really wanted to create a 'kind and safe for children' search engine, without any dirt. And I hoped that Rostelecom would be able to install Sputnik in all Russian schools and other educational institutions, ”says an acquaintance of the businessman.
As follows from Sputnik's business plan, which was at the disposal of Open Media, its creators expected to receive the first profit in 2014 - 100 million rubles. According to their plans, by this time the traffic of the search portal should have reached 10 million, which would have allowed the company to earn 6 billion rubles in 2015 through advertising.
For comparison: 6 billion rubles is the level of consolidated revenue of Yandex in 2012, and in 2015 the company received more than 58 billion rubles from advertising (with a total revenue of 60 billion rubles).
“Now that company could be worth billions of dollars,” an acquaintance of Rudnikov laments. - In the beginning, there was insane enthusiasm, people were spending time and money to somehow adequately present the project to the Kremlin. It took almost two years to negotiate the deal. And here it was not only about money, for Rudnikov such innovative projects as space flight are a dream. "
How to buy "Sputnik"
Rostelecom bought a stake in KM-Media in 2012, but never said how much it cost. The state corporation valued the entire company at $ 7.5 million and accordingly paid Rudnikov $ 5.6 million for 74.99% in it, a person familiar with the terms of the deal told Open Media.
Then KM-Media was renamed Sputnik. Rudnikov had 19.51% of the shares in the company, and he transferred another 5.5% to his cousin Vasily Vasin.
The partners were very pleased with the deal. “They understood that Rostelecom, that is, the state, would invest in development, use administrative resources to promote the search engine,” explains Rudnikov's acquaintance. “And if something went wrong, the businessmen had a blocking stake.”
However, as it turns out later, this did not help businessmen to keep the company in their hands.
How Sputnik became state-owned
In 2015, partners and relatives of Rudnikov and Vasin quarreled and began to divide the business. As a result, Vasin, along with several other business partners, accused his cousin of withdrawing assets from their common company, KS-Trust, to firms under his control. It was about several office buildings in Moscow worth hundreds of millions of rubles. Rudnikov became a suspect in a major fraud case and was placed under house arrest. After 14 months, the court released Rudnikov, considering the charge unproven. However, during this time he managed to lose his share in Sputnik. It happened like this.
While Rudnikov was under arrest, Sputnik actually ran Rostelecom. Alexey Basov, who was then vice president of Rostelecom, was appointed the curator of the first domestic search engine. It was he who, in the winter of 2015, unexpectedly arrived at Rudnikov's mansion in the village of Novogorsk near Moscow, says a person close to the Sputnik leadership. By that time, the businessman had already spent six months in his house under arrest.
“Rudnikov was in a deep depression, he believed that his partners had set him up, he did not expect Basov to visit,” his acquaintance recalls. - And he also came not alone, but with two lawyers from Rostelecom. Rudnikov, of course, was surprised and did not even immediately understand what they wanted from him. " Basov behaved politely, but assertively, laughed a lot and made fun, recalls the interlocutor of the editorial office. According to him, Basov had previously hinted to Rudnikov that “it would be nice if he sold his share,” but that evening he made a specific offer. According to the recollections of the interlocutor of "Open Media", Basov pressed on the fact that the company "is heavily indebted and still does not earn anything." Indeed, according to the loan agreements that the correspondent of Open Media saw, the project actually took out loans for hundreds of millions of rubles - from Rostelecom itself. Rudnikov refused to sell his share.
“He was offered a ridiculous amount, about two million rubles, - says his friend. - Of course, Rudnikov refused, because he valued his share at an order of magnitude more expensive. The ex-official of the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications agrees that, although the project by that time, contrary to the business plan, had not yet reached recoupment, the businessman's share could cost about 200 million rubles, taking into account equipment, brand, development team and other resources.
Another former official confirmed to Open Media that the management of Rostelecom "got in touch" with Rudnikov and offered him "an amount of no interest."
What happened next, Rudnikov's acquaintance calls a "raider takeover", and the former official calls "an attempt to establish full state control" over the company. "