For many Russian computer scientists, the fallout from the invasion of Ukraine spelled disaster. For others, it was an opportunity.
Amid Western sanctions and a flood of Western companies leaving the Russian market, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin makes a moving statement call to the country’s IT community in April, urging them to “fear nothing”, stay in Russia and help build a new, sovereign internet.
Vladimir Zykov was one of those who answered the call.
“We heard Mishustin, and we did,” said Zykov, project manager for IT company Digital Platforms, which was behind the creation of NashStore, a self-proclaimed Russian alternative to Google Play.
NashStore is one of a host of domestic tech analogues seeking to replace Western companies driven out of Russia by Kremlin bans or international sanctions.
Experts, however, doubt that domestic alternatives are viable in the long term – or that Russia’s current IT sector can muster the know-how to create a “sovereign internet” that can operate on its own terms.
“It’s just a bunch of bull**** propaganda,” said Mikhail Klimarev, the head of Russia’s Internet Protection Society, which is linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Other analogues that have been introduced include RuTubeRussia’s response to YouTube; Tam Tam, a copy of the Telegram messaging app; and Rossgraman app that describes itself as the Russian version of Instagram. All of them experienced significant dental problems.
While Google Play still works in Russiaa, Alphabet, owner of Google Play, has suspended all payment-based services for its platforms in Russia, which means that Russian users have been unable to pay for apps since march. Applications for sanctioned Russian companies are also unavailable.
Mishustin order The Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media will create a national equivalent of Google Play by June 1.
That, Zykov said, opened the door to NashStore (“Our Store”), which is described as “sanctions-proof” on its website.
“Our goal is to create a multifunctional and convenient app store,” Zykov told the Moscow Times. “We are only at the very beginning. But you can already see that our platform is designed to be more modern than Google Play.
NashStore was launched on May 9, the day of patriotic celebrations in Russia marking the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.
Digital Platforms lists five departments among its partners, and Mishustin’s order means officials have been keen to see alternatives to Google Play take off.
But ties with the state also have drawbacks.
Just half an hour after launching in May, NashStore went offline amid a DDoS attack in which the company claims over a million bots have flooded its servers. Zykov said NashStore was targeted because of state support, but he was grateful for the disruption — any publicity, he said, is good for business.
Perhaps more importantly, NashStore faces competition from other Russian companies – also with state support – looking to create a similar product.
An app store called RuMarket was opened in April, and Russian internet giant VK spear RuStore the following month in conjunction with state lender Sberbank, cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab and tech giant Yandex.
With the participation of large Russian companies, RuStore seems to be chosen by the government as the official Russian alternative to Google Play.
Zykov said the Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media dropped NashStore in favor of rival VK without any warning.
“It’s an unpleasant story, I don’t understand why they did that,” he said.
The government introduced legislation in the State Duma earlier this month that would mandate the creation of a Russian app store and force it to be installed on all smartphones and other electronic devices.
The legislation has been fast-tracked as an amendment to a new data protection bill and will likely be signed into law in the coming weeks.
But even if tech companies can get state support, they don’t necessarily have the know-how to successfully bring products to market, at least not quickly.
Instagram’s replacement, Rossgram, was founded after Russian media censor Roskomnadzor blocked access to the American company in March – but the application has still not been launched.
RuStore remains in beta testing and is not expected to be fully launched until the end of the year, according to the head of the VK Vladimir Kirienko.
On the opening day of NashStore, users were prompted to download the application through Yandex Disk, a cloud sharing platform, but the company’s developers did not purchase a business account from Yandex , meaning downloads were capped at 1,000 and hundreds of potential customers were unable to access softwares.
Even those who managed to sign up found their choices limited.
There are only a handful of foreign apps on RuStore and NashStore, and there’s no way to download social networks like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook that are considered extremist in Russia. The limited selection of foreign apps on NashStore includes Singapore’s Likee app and the US-produced Folder Player.
“The issues for foreign developers are a bit deeper because they have to register in Russia and do a number of things,” Zykov said, referring to legal requirements to store user data on Russia-based servers. .
Significantly, alternatives like NashStore are only available on Android devices because it’s too difficult to sideload software not authorized by Apple on iPhones. Nash Store asked the Russian parliament in April to pressure Apple to allow such sideloading on its smartphones, but no legislation was forthcoming.
The future of NashStore is also insecure on Android phones.
In fact, to function properly, expert Klimarev said Russia’s digital analogues might find it necessary to independently produce every component of its digital infrastructure, from microchips to operating systems.
“To recreate Google Play, you would need integration with the Android operating system,” he said. “Anything else would be a pitiful imitation.”