On March 1, after a week of horror in Ukraine, reports came out that Russia’s censorship office had threatened to block Russian Wikipedia. A 32-year-old who asked to be called Alexander soon made a plan to download a local copy of Russian-language Wikipedia to keep with him in eastern Russia.
“I did it just in case,” he told me over Instagram Messenger before sharing that he and his wife are “working on moving to another country” with their two dogs, Prime and Shaggy. (Instagram has been blocked in Russia, but many continue to access it using virtual private networks. On Monday, the Russian government officially declared Facebook and Instagram “extremist organizations.”)
Alexander is neither a regular Wikipedia editor nor a die-hard enthusiast, but he wants a source of information based on reliable and neutral sources, and independent of the Kremlin. He likes reading Wikipedia to learn about all sorts of topics—from the frivolous (Mozart and scatology) to the complex (geopolitics)—and he considers Wikipedia more trustworthy than the Russian media. After complaining about his crumbling life and disillusionment with his country, he was quick to share a note of sympathy for Ukraine: “I almost feel ashamed to discuss the struggles that we have in Russia these days.”
Alexander wasn’t the only Russian citizen to make a local copy of Wikipedia. Data suggests that after the threats of censorship, Russians started torrenting Wikipedia in droves. Currently, Russia is the country with the most Wikipedia downloads—by a landslide. Before the invasion, it rarely broke the top 10, but after the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, it has kept a solid hold on first place.
The 29-gigabyte file that contains a downloadable Russian-language Wikipedia was downloaded a whopping 105,889 times during the first half of March, which is a more than 4,000 percent increase compared with the first half of January. According to Stephane Coillet-Matillon, who leads Kiwix, the organization that facilitates these downloads, Russian downloads now constitute 42 percent of all traffic on Kiwix servers, up from just 2 percent in 2021. “We had something similar back in 2017 when Turkey blocked Wikipedia,” he said, “but this one is just another dimension.”
Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia that anyone can torrent. The closest thing to the sum of human knowledge that has ever existed, it can be compressed into a tiny flash drive you can stash in a pocket or slip into a drawer. Russian-language Wikipedia’s information, which would fill approximately 667 encyclopedia volumes, can weigh an ounce and fit in your palm, and it can provide assurance that no matter what internet restrictions or VPN blocks the Kremlin puts in place, you don’t lose access to free information.
Despite the threats, Russia hasn’t blocked Wikipedia so far. (Kremlin censorship agency Roskomnadzor specifically warned it might ban Wikipedia because the Russian-language article about the recent invasion of Ukraine didn’t align with the Kremlin narrative.) But some fear it’s coming. President Vladimir Putin has enacted a draconian law that gives 15 years in prison to journalists whose narratives differ from the Kremlin, prompting CNN, the BBC, and other outlets to suspend their broadcasting. Microsoft, Apple, and Google have all pulled services in political protest, and Russia has banned Facebook and Instagram. Russia’s hostility toward the media goes beyond its recent warning: In recent weeks, a top Russian Wikipedia editor was arrested for distributing “fake, anti-Russian content.”
Considering all of this, Alexander knows that if things get much worse, downloading Wikipedia could get him in trouble, but he joked to me that he knows exactly what to say if authorities question him: “I can explain everything! Literally everything!”
Russia censored Wikipedia back in 2015 due to articles it deemed objectionable, like “Cannabis Smoking” and “Charas,” a hashish form of cannabis. Roskomnadzor sent a letter asking for the “Charas” article to be removed, and Wikimedia Russia refused. In response, Roskomnadzor blocked the whole site for about a day. The Kremlin even appears to edit Wikipedia itself, as documented by long-standing Twitter bot @RuGovEdits, which tracks edits made from Russian government computers.
The Wikimedia Foundation has been outspoken in recent weeks about its support for Ukraine and free knowledge, first releasing a statement calling for a peaceful end to the conflict in Ukraine and then another regarding the takedown request received by the Russian government.
Wikipedia can tell you the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and each of the 124 notable fictional worms. But for all its sprawling beauty, it’s largely useless for the 4 billion people without internet access. “Wikipedia can only thrive and improve when it is accessible to as many people as possible,” Jorge Vargas, director of regional partnerships at the Wikimedia Foundation, told me in an email.
To that end, Wikipedia routinely makes a dump of its databases available publicly, which Kiwix compresses into an archive so it can be more easily shared. The entirety of English Wikipedia, from “List of Informally Named Dinosaurs” to “Floor” to “Skunks as Pets” and everything in between, is 87 GB with pictures or 47 GB without. Russian-language Wikipedia is even smaller, continuing 1.8 million articles compared with English Wikipedia’s 6.4 million.
Ever since its early days, the online encyclopedia has made efforts to be an offline encyclopedia. There was Wikipedia on DVD in 2006, a “WikiReader” device released in 2009, print-on-demand books in 2008, a printed version of Wikipedia as an art installation in 2015, and various apps throughout the years.
Kiwix has been in operation for about 15 years. Stephane Coillet-Matillon told me over video chat that he suspects Russia’s recent spike in downloads is even more profound than the data suggests. “Many people in Russia are using a VPN or Tor browser, which hides their location,” he said. This allows them to bypass certain internet blocks from the government, but it also means Kiwix can’t get accurate statistics about how many times Wikipedia has been downloaded in Russia. Another complicating factor is that there are a few other ways to download Wikipedia’s contents besides Kiwix.
Coillet-Matillon told me that he saw similar spikes after government-led Wikipedia censorship—Turkey in 2017, Venezuela in 2019, and China a few different times—since Kiwix began data collection in 2012. “If you live in a place with unreliable internet, downloading Wikipedia is the best way to ensure access,” said Coillet-Matillon. People can use a VPN to circumvent government restrictions, but not if a government blocks all access to overseas IP addresses.
While English Wikipedia is Kiwix’s most popular download, the service has all sorts of other files, like TED Talks, PhET science simulations, Khan Academy content, and more. In recent weeks, it has worked to develop resources on combat medical care in the Ukrainian language, which it hopes to release to provide vital information to battlefronts.
“Reaching readers in parts of the world with limited internet access is a strategic priority for the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia movement,” said Vargas. One of the ways the Wikimedia Foundation works toward this goal is by financially supporting Kiwix, which gets about 80 percent of its readership from the global south. “In comparison, 75-80 percent of Wikipedia’s readership is in the global north, so we’re a good complement,” said Coillet-Matillon. Other Kiwix cash flows come from donors and hot spot sales.
Kiwix is an ad-free not-for-profit whose main services are free to use, but there’s one service for which it charges, and it’s a favorite among doomsday preppers. Customers can use a Raspberry Pi computer to power a local Wi-Fi network that can broadcast content to multiple devices. So if the end of the world has happened, you have a trover of information to help you rebuild a post-apocalyptic society. You can figure out setup by yourself for free or fork over $15 to buy the prepared image, ready to go, from Kiwix. Access to all of Kiwix data, like TED videos, the Gutenberg library, and Stack Exchange, costs $29. (Coillet-Matillon finds doomsday prep to be “a very American thing.”)
The organization is small: Coillet-Matillon told me that Kiwix has four staff members and about a dozen active volunteers. “When we started, we were aimed at schools in rural areas of Africa. But now, our work is making it to refugee camps, to Antarctica, and to prisons. We’ll go everywhere—everywhere,” said Coillet-Matillon.
Kiwix has brought Wikipedia on to tiny villages in the Ecuadorian Andes, on cross-country cycling trips, to classrooms in West Africa, on submarine missions deep underwater, and to 200 countries—even North Korea. An organization called Flash Drives for Freedom collects flash drives and SD cards, loads them with Korean-language Wikipedia and other cultural artifacts, and smuggles the tech into North Korea to be distributed via a system it dubiously calls “a healthy black market.” An astronaut edited Wikipedia from outer space, and researchers have brought the online encyclopedia to the bottom of the planet, where internet connection is even worse.
Joshua Montgomery, a theoretical cosmologist, spent several summers as well as an 11-month stretch living at the South Pole to do research. “The South Pole Station only has internet for a few hours a day, at pretty awful bandwidths,” he told me in an email. After he spent his first summer in the South Pole without Wikipedia, he knew he needed things to change. When he returned in 2018, he set up a Kiwix server on a Raspberry Pi for the group to use as both an invaluable scientific resource and a way to settle inevitable arguments that happened during noninternet hours. Nicknamed “Wiki on Ice,” it’s still in operation today.
One recent afternoon, I decided to download Wikipedia for myself. I first downloaded the Kiwix offline browser and then clicked the 46 GB file that contained all of English Wikipedia except for the pictures. After an hour and a half, when the massive download was complete, I opened the Kiwix browser and was met with a clean Wikipedia interface with all 6 million articles in English Wikipedia. I started clicking from hyperlink to hyperlink, and after I finished learning how cottage cheese is made, I navigated to Mozart and scatology, the article that delineates the prolific composer’s proclivity for poop jokes, and I thought of Alexander.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.