By Olesya Dmitracova
MOSCOW, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Free and open debate has become a rarity in Russia's media which is mostly controlled by the state or business moguls.
In a country where three high-profile journalists have been murdered since 1991, many believe speaking out can cost you your life.
So many independent thinkers escape to a virtual space free of vested interests where anonymity goes hand in hand with a worldwide reach -- personal online journals or blogs.
"In the West, you don't need to look for some additional place where you can discuss politics, books, different events," blogger and sociologist Ekaterina Alyabyeva said.
"Civil society is exactly where that happens. In Russia, that doesn't happen anywhere because our press, our media don't give their readers an opportunity to talk back."
Today's bloggers follow the tradition of the Soviet dissidents who found an outlet for their opinions in samizdat, the clandestine printing of anti-government material.
The tight control over the media once exercised by the ruling Communist Party collapsed after the end of the Soviet era but Russian President Vladimir Putin has halted and reversed the trend to greater press freedom.
The Kremlin has tightened controls on the media, especially the main television stations, and this, combined with its domination of the political scene, has fuelled Western concerns that Russia is entering a new period of authoritarian rule.
Putin, who is due to step down in 2008, has said he neither can nor wants to curb media freedom.
However, the perception that this is indeed what is happening is driving more and more Russians to the Internet.
Russians are the second-largest group of bloggers on the popular U.S.-based blog-hosting site, livejournal.com. Some 680,000 registered livejournal (LJ) users write in Cyrillic script and are considered mostly Russian speakers.
Alongside debate on government policies, LJ blogs by Masha Gaidar and Ilya Yashin, both well-known leaders of liberal political movements, often advertise protests or debates.
"(Political activists) want to see whether they can manipulate this flexible reality and then transfer it into the actual reality," Alyabyeva said.
Unlike more intimate U.S. blogs, Russian cyber-journals often involve thousands of bloggers and focus on issues like politics or literature.
"Blogs are a new kind of journalism. It is journalism of opinions rather than journalism of facts," says 25-year-old blogger Elizaveta Dobkina.
Just how dear Russians hold the freedom of expression provided by blogging became clear during the controversy sparked when Russian online media company SUP bought a licence in October to become the main provider of LJ to Russian users.
Many bloggers have linked SUP's managers to the government and worried the Kremlin would be able to read and censor their blogs or obtain their personal information from SUP.
Such links are extremely difficult to prove in Russia where government transparency is still a relatively novel idea, but the widespread fears exposed an undercurrent of anxiety among those who wish to speak out and challenge government policies.
"One of the strange things about this transaction is that people are making all sorts of wild speculations about it," SUP director Andrew Paulson told Reuters.
An American who has lived in Russia for 13 years, Paulson said Russian LJ had "a unique, gloriously vibrant community very much specific to Russia".
The purchase of the Russian LJ licence was aimed at improving services for Russian bloggers by adding features that are available to speakers of other languages to gain more users and boost profits, he said.
But some LJ bloggers remain sceptical.
"Is it possible to opt out of this feature?" wrote Russian-speaking blogger aleck. "I just do not want any of my files ... being located outside the U.S."
Another blogger, keisinger, said: "I do not wish to get any help from SUP. Is it possible for me to not have anything to do with them?"
Dobkina said people were less inhibited online but dangers similar to those facing Soviet dissidents still existed.
"It's very relaxing and very liberating because you feel like no one can find you.
"(But) I think it is absolutely clear that given the right technology ... anyone can read all posts," she said.
Russia's secret police service, the FSB, did not reply to a formal Reuters query about their ability to obtain information on Internet users.