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How millions of Russians are tearing holes in the Digital Iron Curtain

Destruction in the Ukrainian town of Borodyanka as the Russian invasion continues. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

RIGA, Latvia — When Russian authorities blocked hundreds of Internet sites in March, Konstantin decided to act. The 52-year-old company manager in Moscow tore a hole in the Digital Iron Curtain, which had been erected to control the narrative of the war in Ukraine, with a tool that lets him surf blocked sites and eyeball taboo news.

Konstantin turned to a virtual private network, an encrypted digital tunnel commonly known as a VPN. Since the war began in late February, VPNs have been downloaded in Russia by the hundreds of thousands a day, a massive surge in demand that represents a direct challenge to President Vladimir Putin and his attempt to seal Russians off from the wider world. By protecting the locations and identities of users, VPNs are now granting millions of Russians access to blocked material.

Downloading one in his Moscow apartment, Konstantin said, brought back memories of the 1980s in the Soviet Union, when he used a shortwave radio to hear forbidden news of dissident arrests on Radio Liberty, which is funded by the United States.

“We didn’t know what was going on around us. That’s true again now,” said Konstantin, who, like other Russian VPN users, spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld for fear of government retribution. “Many people in Russia simply watch TV and eat whatever the government is feeding them. I wanted to find out what was really happening.”

VPN downloads in Russia surged after websites were blocked

Daily downloads of the 10 most popular VPNs spiked in the days after Russia invaded Ukraine and imposed draconian restrictions on information about the military campaign.

Daily downloads in Russia of the 10 most popular VPNs jumped from below 15,000 just before the war to as many as 475,000 in March. As of this week, downloads were continuing at a rate of nearly 300,000 a day, according to data compiled for The Washington Post by the analytics firm Apptopia, which relies on information from apps, public data and an algorithm to come up with estimates.

Russian clients typically download multiple VPNs, but the data suggests millions of new users per month. In early April, Russian telecom operator Yota reported that the number of VPN users was over 50 times as high as in January, according to the Tass state news service.

The Internet Protection Society, a digital rights group associated with jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, launched its own VPN service last month and reached its limit of 300,000 users within 10 days, according to executive director Mikhail Klimarev. Based on internal surveys, he estimates that the number of VPN users in Russia has risen to roughly 30 percent of the 100 million Internet users in Russia. To combat Putin, “Ukraine needs Javelin and Russians need Internet,” Klimarev said.

A digital rights group has ties to jailed leader Alexei Navalny. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

By accessing banned Ukrainian and Western news sites, Konstantin said, he has come to deeply sympathize with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian the Russian press has sought to falsely portray as a “drug addict.” He was recently compared to Adolf Hitler by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “I loved him as an actor, but now I know Zelensky is also brave because I’ve seen him talk on Ukrainian news sites with my VPN,” Konstantin said.

Not only does widespread VPN use help millions of citizens reach material laying out the true extent of Russian military losses and countering the official portrayal of the war as a fight against fascists, say Russian Internet experts, it also limits government surveillance of activists. Russian officials have sought to curtail VPN use. A law in 2017 resulted in the banning of more than a dozen providers for refusing to comply with Russian censorship rules.

In the days before the war, and in the weeks since then, Russian authorities have also ratcheted up pressure on Google, asking the search engine to remove thousands of Internet sites associated with VPNs, according to the Lumen database, an archive of legal complaints related to Internet content. Google, which did not respond to a request for comment, still includes banned sites in search results.

The Russian government has been reluctant to ban VPNs completely. Policing such a ban would pose a technological challenge. In addition, many Russians use VPNs to access nonpolitical entertainment and communication tools, popular distractions from daily hardships. Last month, when asked on Belarusian television if he had downloaded a VPN, even Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov conceded: “Yes, I have. Why not?”

Since the war began, more than 1,000 Internet sites have been restricted by Russian authorities, including Facebook, Instagram, BBC News, Radio Liberty and Voice of America, according to a survey by a VPN technology tracker. The last independent Russian media outlets were forced to shut down, and those in exile that are offering critical content, such as the popular news site Meduza, have also been banned.

Today, even calling the Russian “special operation,” as Putin has forcibly dubbed the invasion, a “war” risks a sentence of up to 15 years in jail. Free speech has effectively disappeared, and even teachers who question the invasion are being reported to the authorities by their students.

“People want to see banned content, but I think they’re also genuinely scared,” said Tonia Samsonova, a Russian media entrepreneur based in Londond. “No matter your attitude toward the government or the war, every Russian knows that if the government knows too much about you, it’s potentially dangerous. So a VPN is so useful even if they aren’t critical of Putin.”

Katerina Abramova, spokeswoman for Meduza, said online traffic at the site declined only briefly after it was banned by Russian authorities in March. Traffic began surging from unlikely countries like the Netherlands, suggesting that Russians were utilizing VPNs that made them appear to be abroad. “VPNs won’t start a broad revolution in Russia,” she said. “But it’s a way people who are against this war can stay connected to the world.”

Natalia, an 83-year-old Muscovite and former computer operator, asked her adult daughter to help her download a VPN on her laptop shortly after the war started. She feared that the government would ban YouTube, preventing her from seeing her favorite program, an online talk show about technology news. The Kremlin has yet to block YouTube, though Russian Internet experts say the probability remains high.

Yet as the war progressed, Natalia found herself also looking at banned news sites, including Radio Free Europe, to stay informed, even as friends around her bought “totally” into the government line that Ukrainians were Nazis and Russia was facing an existential threat from the West. “People now just believe lie after lie. I feel so isolated,” she said.

A satellite image shows the Moskva ship that sank at sea last month. (Maxar Technologies/Associated Press)

Natalia said, for instance, that she has been able to read foreign news stories suggesting there were significant Russian casualties in the sinking last month of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. But the Russian press has reported only one official death, with 27 soldiers declared “missing.”

“Parents are just getting one answer from the Ministry of Defense that your son is missing,” she said. “Missing? Don’t you really mean dead? But they’re not saying that. They’re not telling the truth.”

Although downloading a VPN is technically easy, usually requiring only a few clicks, purchasing a paid VPN has become complicated in Russia, as Western sanctions have rendered Russian credit and debit cards nearly useless outside the country. That has forced many to resort to free VPNs, which can have spotty service and can sell information about users.

Vytautas Kaziukonis, chief executive of Surfshark — a Lithuania-based VPN that saw a 20-fold increase in Russian users in March — said some of those customers are now paying in cryptocurrencies or through people they know in third countries.

In a country used to hardships, Russians are good at creative workarounds. Elena, a 50-year-old Moscow tour operator, said she has managed to tap into her old Facebook account by repeatedly signing up for free trials with several different VPN providers to avoid payment. “We do what we have to do,” Elena said.


(c) 2022, The Washington Post


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