Review: “The Red Web” by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

May 31, 2016

Ilya Yablokov

Between 1999 and 2014, President Putin had precisely two meetings with Internet businessmen – very different meetings that highlight how the Internet came to be seen as a threat.

Red WebIn late April 2016, former State Duma deputy and current senator Elena Mizulina suggested that, much like drunkenness, the use of the Internet should be recognised as an aggravating factor in sentencing. As is often the case with Senator Mizulina’s legislative initiatives, the whole thing is pure scandal and provocation, but particularly troubling was her assertion that the administrators of any online platforms – social networks included – are personally responsible for the content posted thereon, and that they must immediately delete, say, any suicide-related comments. The regularity with which such stories materialise in the Russia of the 2010s speaks volumes: the authoritarian Russian state has launched a gradual all-out offensive on the Internet in an attempt to colonise a realm which, until recently, enjoyed complete freedom of expression. And yet this state of affairs may be less gloomy than can seem at first glance.

In The Red Web: the Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and The New Online Revolutionaries, special services experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan demonstrate how, over the course of the post-Soviet period, from the advent of the Internet to the events of late 2014, novel communication methods constantly conflicted with the Russian special services’ perceptions of a dramatically changing world. The perceptions, that is, of the heirs to the Soviet KGB, who, in the seemingly liberated decade of the 1990s, suggested that all ISPs should be forced to participate in the so-called Law Enforcement Support System (SORM), thereby facilitating surveillance of Internet users. This initiative provides us with a crucial key to understanding the sheer speed with which the Internet is becoming ever more highly regulated in Russia.

In post-Soviet Russia, there was simply no radical rethinking of the role and legacy of the Soviet-era secret services

In post-Soviet Russia, there was simply no radical rethinking of the role and legacy of the Soviet-era secret services. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed some special services personnel to remain where they were; in the meantime, others – such as Filipp Bobkov, head of the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, and Evgeny Kaspersky, founder and director of Kaspersky Lab – migrated into the business world. The abrupt transition from a socialist to a market economy made it possible – well nigh obligatory – to adapt very quickly to the new conditions. What was needed was a hybrid system: one that both restored the old system of contractors at the earliest opportunity while still integrating into international information flows.

The roots of the 1990s-era SORM can thus be traced to the old KGB’s pervasive system of monitoring telephone communications. In the first part of the book, the authors examine how crucial surveillance and interception technologies were developed in sharashkas (“prison camp[s] that held scientists who were put to work using their expertise for the state”) and in secret research institutes. After the collapse of the USSR, these institutes remained under the control of the security services, and certain technologies were perfected.

For example, speech recognition technology, developed in the Stalinist sharashkas in the late 1940s and early 1950s, remained the subject of special services-regulated research throughout the entire Soviet era. As the authors indicate, the financing of what were now private research companies was resumed after a brief post-1991 interruption, and everything returned to its previous course. Svetlana Davydova, who was arrested in 2015 on charges of treason, called the hotline of the Ukrainian embassy and was quickly recognised and detained. The decades-long experience of listening in on the population came to bear on the case.

But, as Soldatov and Borogan point out, the technological gap between the Soviet/Russian secret services and their Western (and even Eastern-Bloc) counterparts was only too evident. The book quotes KGB officers as admitting that the East German Stasi possessed far more advanced technologies than the KGB. In the post-Soviet era, the incapacity to process large volumes of information in a high-quality manner meant that Russian special services began to purchase hardware from American companies. And yet the technological gap is a comparatively minor component of the problem.

The Internet is a completely new information space, and the rules of existence and communication in that space are still in the process of being formulated, meaning that the security services must engage in a kind of “internal colonisation.” The processes that occur over the course of geographic colonisation, whereby novel cultural norms are imposed upon a newly assimilated populace, are difficult to replicate online. How is it possible to colonise and structure a space without isolating it from the outside world? Attempts to do so have been made, but most have proven unsuccessful. Instead, Russian state and quasi-state organisations fund Internet trolls in an attempt to exert their own influence and suppress dissenting discourses.

The primary challenge to this colonisation is that thrown down by the individual personality. The book cites a great many instances of individuals (bloggers, programmers, entrepreneur-enthusiasts) who somehow found ways to counter the colossal state machine and its infinite resources. The example of RELCOM, the first Internet company in Russia (it was inaugurated even before the USSR had ceased to exist), speaks volumes. During the coup attempt of August 1991, RELCOM users amassed information about troop movements and relayed it in real time to other network members. Long before Twitter and Facebook, then, people were already bypassing all censorship restrictions and successfully getting vital information across to end-users.

Fast forward, and geotagged photographs taken by Russian soldiers and uploaded to vKontakte served as evidence of Russian military involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – and this even after the exceptionally loyal Boris Dobrodeyev (son of Oleg Dobrodeyev, chief of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company) became the social network’s CEO. The role played by famous blogger personalities in the history of the Internet’s development is undoubtedly a conspicuous one, but the leading roles are played by “rank-and-file” anonymous users, who are extremely difficult to influence or control when integrated into horizontal structures.

The book discusses two of Vladimir Putin’s encounters with Internet market players, the second coming fifteen years after the first

In light of which, as the authors note, the Russian regime deploys the tried-and-tested method of pressuring service providers and major market players, and imposing its own rules of the game upon them. The book discusses two of Vladimir Putin’s encounters with Internet market players, the second coming fifteen years after the first. At the first meeting, which took place in 1999, the Internet activists and entrepreneurs conducted themselves in comparatively relaxed fashion, with Yandex founder Arkady Volozh even filching a pencil (which would subsequently be sold at online auction). But by 2014 the picture was altogether different. Putin had just branded the Internet “a CIA project,” and the country had witnessed a spate of Internet-restricting legislative initiatives, so the mood was far from joyful, with years of hard work and companies’ financial standing at stake.

The method deployed by the Kremlin in its attempts to bring the Russian Internet to heel is one predicated on threat, hanging invisibly over both ISPs and ordinary users. The threat of being dragged into criminal proceedings – or, indeed, of losing one’s business – serves to activate what is perhaps the most commonplace survival mechanism in today’s Russia: self-censorship. Precisely this readiness to submit to state pressure – and thus to install SORM “black boxes,” and to block sites containing material deemed “unacceptable” by the authorities – is direct evidence of a willingness to cooperate, in order (theoretically, at least) to avoid trouble. As with journalism, where it is up to reporters and producers to make key calls regarding the “appropriateness” of a story, the decision to block a particular site rests with the ISP rather than the special services. What can be said, and what cannot, is actually determined by citizens and businesses themselves, leaving the special services to deal with other matters.

This is perhaps the book’s most interesting revelation, shedding light as it does on the instruments used to manipulate contemporary Russian society. And yet, Soldatov and Borogan give the reader certain grounds for optimism as well. At a recent meeting with film industry representatives at the House of Cinema, Dmitry Medvedev was able to access the banned filesharing website RuTracker due to the fact that, in spite of the legal requirement to do so, the provider failed to block it. The disobedience of a minor provider; the desire to preserve the spirit of online freedom; the opportunities generated by the digital revolution; Russia’s integratedness into global information flows – all this leaves us with hope that the Internet won’t become a new colony of the Russian regime, and that, quite conversely, it will remain a font of liberty, an instrument of democratisation, and a catalyst for openness. To keep that hope kindled, you need only read The Red Web.


Ilya Yablokov is a Teaching Fellow in Russian at the University of Leeds. He received his MA with distinction from Central European University (Budapest), and a PhD in Russian Studies from the University of Manchester (Manchester).

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