Following the collapse of the Soviet regime, Russia seemed poised to develop a robust public sphere. For the first time in history, it appeared as though Russians would soon enjoy an independent press, unfettered political discussion, and uncensored literary and artistic activity. This unprecedented moment coincided with the global digital revolution, in particular the advent of the Internet — a resource whose immediate mobilization by wealthy political influencers epitomized the fragility of Russia’s newly liberated media commons.

This project investigates the encounter of the mainstream with the fringe, of ideologues and idealists, of dazzling creativity and rank commercialism in post-Soviet Russophone print, television, Web 1.0, and radio media. Our sourcebook centers on objects like the surrogate currency displayed above this text. This “ticket,” representing 100 shares in Sergei Mavrodi’s notorious Ponzi scheme company MMM, perfectly encapsulates the intermixing of politics, media, and mythology so typical of the era. With the aid of state-owned television channels that gave extensive airtime to MMM's highly relatable ads, Mavrodi defrauded tens of millions of Russians — and even successfully ran for the Russian State Duma — before declaring bankruptcy in 1997. Why did so many people prove so susceptible to Mavrodi’s outlandish claims? Why was a media that had only recently recovered its integrity following decades of lies and censorship so willing to bolster MMM? And, besides explaining Russians' lingering distrust toward joint-stock companies, what does the story of MMM have to teach us about Putin-era media culture?

By preserving, interrogating, and (re-)interpreting key artifacts from the “long 1990s,” which began with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost’ in 1986 and ended with the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000, our curated collection sheds light on a remarkable, if short-lived, period in recent Russian history. It also offers insight into a present rife with conspiracy theories and “alternative facts,” the strategic deployment of kompromat, and sophisticated international cyber-trolling — all phenomena with origins in the crucible of post-Soviet media.