CHAPTER 8 Putin Strikes Back
Putin Strikes Back
The first attack came surging through the Internet on the evening of December 3, 2011, just before the parliamentary election. The target was LiveJournal, Russia’s top blogging platform. Along with Facebook, LiveJournal was the favorite place for protesters to find political news and discussion. With an austere and simple design, LiveJournal had been used widely by Russian bloggers and journalists, and it featured well-established figures with thousands of followers. When the attack came, Anton Nossik, who was media director at SUP Media (which owned LiveJournal), was in Moscow, monitoring the servers based in Nevada. They were hit with a distributed denial-of-service attack, or DDOS, in which a server is so overwhelmed by requests for access that it simply shuts down. The method is crude, like jamming a radio broadcast, but can be effective. At 8:12 p.m. Nossik wrote on his blog, “The pre-election DDOS-attack on LiveJournal continues. At this minute our servers are bombarded by dump requests with the speed of 12–15 Gbits per sec. The goal of the attacking is clear. It’s banal Soviet jamming, and it has the same task: to prevent the uncontrolled exchange of information.”
The next morning, on Sunday, December 4, beginning shortly after 6:30, the onslaught expanded to fourteen independent Russian news media outlets. Hackers went after websites of the radio station Echo Moskvy, the newspaper Kommersant, the news website Slon.ru, TV Dozhd, and, inevitably, Golos, the election monitor. The radio station’s servers remained offline for the entire day.
The attack on Slon.ru, the website of Natalia Sindeeva’s media empire, began at about 7:30 on Sunday morning, but it was not until 9 a.m. before the website’s programmers reacted to it. At first they tried to solve the problem themselves by asking the hosting provider to cut off foreign Internet addresses trying to access the site. This fixed the problem for a short time, but then the volume of traffic increased and the attackers changed tactics, and the server went down again. The Slon.ru programmers then turned to a protective system, known as Qrator, designed to mitigate such DDOS attacks by monitoring traffic and filtering it.
The Kremlin had tried to pressure Golos and others, repeatedly, not to report election violations to the public. Once they did so, a wave of cyber attacks began, apparently intended to stop the information from spreading. The attacked sites responded by quickly migrating elsewhere. Slon.ru, Bolshoi Gorod, TV Dozhd, Echo Moskvy, and Golos all switched to Qrator’s servers, where they were shielded somewhat from the DDOS attacks. Still, the active attack phase continued into the evening of December 4, and Slon.ru alone was bombarded by 200,000 to 250,000 bots: an attacker would use a botnet, a network of zombie computers, to send a high volume of fake requests to the targeted sites with the aim of producing a server overload, which would then cause the site to crash.
On December 5 the initial wave of attacks subsided. But Echo Moskvy was still bedeviled by the hackers, who shifted to a different tactic, poised to strike again. The attackers aimed to seize the moment when the site would start to fail and possibly emerge from its protected state. About one hundred bots attempted to send difficult requests to the Echo Moskvy site, still under protection at Qrator. Under constant bombardment, Echo Moskvy and Golos distributed their news and other content on LiveJournal.com. But at the same time, LiveJournal remained under attack too, and Melkoniants, the brains behind Golos, switched to Google Docs to publish the Golos data on electoral violations.
On December 6 Ilya Klishin’s Epic Hero site was attacked, apparently for announcing the demonstration at Chistie Prudi Boulevard. On December 7 a DDOS attack then shut down our website, Agentura.ru. Our technical staff were forced to reset the site’s server every fifteen minutes, but it didn’t help: we were down for the most of the day. On December 8 an attack temporarily crippled the website of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The assaults on Epic Hero, Agentura.ru, and Novaya Gazeta were part of a second wave. This phase had a different objective than the first: instead of suppressing information about election fraud, the goal was to eliminate reporting about street protests.
Who was behind the take-downs? The phenomenon of crude DDOS attacks was not new; it first appeared in Russia in January 2002, when hackers paralyzed, for a day, Kavkaz.org, the website of Chechen separatist fighters. In that case the perpetrators were students in Tomsk, a medium-sized city in Siberia. Evidently the local FSB branch was fully aware of the attack, putting out a press release that defended the students’ actions as a legitimate “expression of their position as citizens, one worthy of respect.” Since then Russian “hacker patriots,” as they are called in the press, have launched similar attacks aimed at the websites of independent media in Russia as well as at government agencies in Estonia, Georgia, and Lithuania. Russian government officials always deny responsibility for these attacks, but in December 2011 Konstantin Goloskokov, one of the “commissars” of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement, admitted to the Financial Times that he and some of his associates had launched cyberstrikes on Estonia in 2007 after Estonia had angered the Kremlin with a decision to move a Soviet war memorial out of the center of Tallinn. It seems entirely plausible that DDOS attacks aimed at Putin’s adversaries were organized not by the security services directly but by hacktivists encouraged by the Kremlin.
The most prominent Russian expert on cybersecurity, Eugene Kaspersky, might have been expected to lend a hand to find out who carried out the attacks, but at the outset he didn’t seem interested. In fact, he denied that attacks on the media the day of the elections had ever occurred. On December 5 Kaspersky wrote a blog post suggesting that some of the websites could have been “victims of their popularity” and had failed to cope with tens of thousands of simultaneous requests from people who are interested in politics. He repeated the same point a day later. But then, on December 16, he disclosed that he had been given log files from New Times magazine, one of the targets. Looking at these, he finally acknowledged the fact of the massive DDOS attack but claimed, rather ambiguously, “Something tells me that neither the opposition nor the Kremlin-Lubyanka are interested in such attacks.”
Kaspersky has never denied his KGB background, and the picture of him as a young officer in uniform is available on the Internet. He grew up in the small town of Dolgoprudny, north of Moscow, where he excelled in math and physics at school. Instead of entering the prestigious Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, located in his hometown, he joined the High School of the KGB to study cryptology. After leaving the KGB, he built his company, Kaspersky Lab, from scratch, and has constantly cooperated with the FSB in investigating computer crimes. When thugs kidnapped his nineteen-year-old son in 2011, it was the FSB that helped release the young man in five days without harm.
The early December cyber attacks were ferocious—but ultimately proved futile. Alternative pages for posting information about the electoral violations were quickly established on social networks. When LiveJournal, the most popular blog platform in Russia, suffered an unrelenting assault, users turned to Facebook, which became a central clearinghouse for collecting information related to the protests.
As a tool for spreading news about the protests, Facebook was more popular than the local social network, VKontakte, a Russian replica of Facebook. For the protest on Bolotnaya Square on December 10, Facebook got more than thirty-five thousand people signed up, compared to some sixteen thousand who signed up on VKontakte. Facebook was simply the first network the Russian intellectual elite, experts, and journalists joined to be in contact with their friends and colleagues abroad. VKontakte, though enjoying great popularity, lacked this elite appeal.
But VKontakte did not escape the authorities’ attention. Alexey Navalny, the popular anticorruption blogger, led a user group of protesters on VKontakte, and on December 7 Edward Kot, a moderator of the group, discovered that their group seemed to be blocked, with no new posts allowed. When he complained to VKontakte, he got a reply an hour later from Pavel Durov, the somewhat mysterious founder of VKontakte. Durov, then twenty-seven, explained to Kot that Navalny’s group had reached a set limit of 1,634 posts in a single day, then added that VKontakte’s technical team was, at that moment, changing algorithms for them.
Twenty minutes later the group was unblocked. Kot was so impressed that he posted a thanks to Durov. Durov replied, “Ah, all’s fine. In the last days the FSB has been asking us to block protest groups, including yours. We didn’t comply. I don’t know how it will all end for us, but we are up and running.”
When Kot asked whether he could post this, Durov agreed. Kot published a post on his page on LiveJournal. The next day, December 8, Durov published a scan of the original written FSB request. In the document a general, chief of the FSB branch in St. Petersburg, asked Durov to “cease the activity” of seven online groups related to the protests. The day after revealing the document, Durov was summoned to the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office. He refused to come, posted information about the summons to the prosecutor’s office, and again refused to close down the groups.
Next, the 1990s technique of kompromat was tried against the protest movement. On December 19 audio files of nine tapped phone calls of Boris Nemtsov were posted on the pro-Kremlin website Lifenews.ru. The tapped conversations were very candid assessments of the other opposition leaders, and they were embarrassing. Nemtsov told us that the conversations had taken place in the run-up to the December protest rallies. “Their goal was simple,” he recalled. “They wanted to divide us in the run-up to the rally, but the opposition didn’t fall for it.” The episode didn’t have any lasting impact on Nemtsov’s standing inside the opposition.
All these gambits—the first Kremlin counteroffensive—largely flopped. The combination of intimidation and direct pressure from the security services, deployment of the Kremlin’s youth movements, DDOS attacks, phone tapping, and everything else simply didn’t work in the new circumstances of tens of thousands of angry citizens linked together by social media.
Five days after the demonstration on Bolotnaya Square, on December 15, Putin held his annual television call-in show, called the Direct Line, broadcast live by three Russian television channels and by Russia Today in English as well as by three major radio stations. The call-in show was aimed to demonstrate Putin’s confidence that he would win the upcoming presidential election. He answered questions for an unprecedented four and a half hours, displaying a relaxed, self-confident mood. He smiled and laughed a lot during the long hours of the broadcast. He was on stage in a large hall; the audience was stacked with his supporters, members of his United Russia party, and the like.
When he was repeatedly asked about the protests, Putin seemed a little annoyed, but he never lost his cool. He came to the show prepared. Rather than take any personal responsibility for what had inspired the protests, he blamed them on self-centered political jockeying for the upcoming presidential elections. Then he offered to install real-time online video cameras at all polling stations to deter violations in the future. Both answers were intended to tamp down the protesters’ fervor. But Putin showed that he completely misunderstood why the people were protesting. “You know the thing about the fraud, about the fact that the opposition is dissatisfied with the election results, here there is no novelty,” he declared. “The opposition exists for that purpose. It struggles for power!” In other words, all the complaints about fraud were just critics whining and pursuing their own interests.
Alexey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo Moskvy, who had been at Bolotnaya Square, fired back, “You are speaking about the opposition, but, believe me, there was not only the opposition on Bolotnaya. You are replying to the opposition in your answer, but what could you tell to these newly outraged people, angry with the unfairness—they believe their voices got stolen?”
Putin didn’t understand what Venediktov had told him. His mindset, formed in the Soviet KGB, led him to think that political dissent can only exist because of an organization, and an organization requires ringleaders and money. Putin said that according to his information, the protesters were students who had been paid to attend, and then he blamed the West for sending them and recalled the popular uprisings elsewhere, the dreaded color revolutions. “We know the events of the Orange revolution in Ukraine,” he said. “By the way, some of our opposition leaders at that time were in Ukraine and officially worked as advisers to the then-President Yushchenko. They are transferring this practice to Russian soil.” Again Putin sought to portray the opposition as some kind of external, self-interested conspiracy: making allusions to Boris Nemstov, who had served as an adviser to Yushenko in the mid-2000s.. What he failed to see was that the demonstrations were not driven by a plot but were the result of a spontaneous, independent, popular movement.
Finally Putin made a striking comment on the symbol of the protests, the white ribbon. “Frankly, when I looked at the television screen and saw something hanging from someone’s chest, honestly, it’s indecent, but I decided that it was propaganda to fight AIDS—that they had hung, pardon me, a condom up.”
If he thought that would discourage the protesters, Putin clearly miscalculated.
What happened at Bolotnaya Square injected enthusiasm and drive into the protest movement, which then solidified and gained new leadership. Activists, journalists, and opposition politicians formed an organizing committee. There would be more protests. One of the leaders was Olga Romanova, forty-five, who had worked as a journalist for twenty years. Romanova, an attractive blonde, was remarkably versatile, able to talk equally to an intelligent Muscovite professor or an ordinary, everyday person from a nearby shop. She was prominent in the 1990s when she had covered the Russian economy in the newspaper Segodnya. Since then, her career had risen, and in 2004 she won the Taffy, the most prestigious television award in Russia, for her work as a presenter. Her fortunes changed in 2007 when her husband, Alexey Kozlov, a businessman, was prosecuted on a fraud charge that he and his wife described as a vendetta by a well-connected former business partner. Olga tried desperately to win her husband’s release, forming the organization Rus Sidyashaya, or Russia Behind Bars, which united relatives of businessmen in jail. She spent her time visiting prisons all over the country and wrote a blog named after the Butyrka prison in Moscow, detailing harsh conditions in Russia’s prisons. She became the Federal Penitentiary Service’s worst nightmare.
Now she volunteered to open an account in her name at Yandex Money, the largest online payment service in Russia, in order to collect donations to support the protests. The organizing committee agreed. With Romanova in charge, it meant that nobody would question where the money went, given her unblemished reputation for integrity. The money would be safe from government pressure too; any attempt to intimidate Romanova would clearly be futile. The account at Yandex Money became known as Romanova’s Purse.
On December 20 Yandex published on Facebook a new application that facilitated crowdfunding through Facebook for Yandex Money. Yandex said it was pure coincidence that the new crowdsourcing app was rolled out at the same time as protesters were raising money for the next rally.
The next big protest rally was scheduled for December 24 on Prospect Sakharova. Ilya Klishin renamed the main protest event page on Facebook, with the cover photo depicting a wide image of the Bolotnaya crowd and the slogan, “We Were on Bolotnaya and We Are Coming Back,” and on the side carried a picture with the words, “We Are for Fair Elections.” Organizers announced they needed 3 million rubles, about $100,000. Romanova soon collected more than 4 million rubles online and immediately posted a detailed report of how the money would be spent.
Meanwhile Grigory Okhotin’s OVD-Info, the project to track detentions, got its own website, two hotline phones, and help from the opposition movement Solidarity and the oldest Russian human rights group, Memorial, which provided lawyers to visit police stations, offer legal support, and collect information. “In two days, I along with my friends made a simple website to gather all information about the detainees and their whereabouts. We also found ten volunteers to monitor the situation,” Okhotin said.
Now if a protester was detained, he knew where to call to get legal help and support.
Prospect Sakharova is an eight-lane urban thoroughfare in the center of Moscow, originally built for the 1980 Olympics, with unusually wide sidewalks. In later years stark Soviet-style office buildings were erected along the thoroughfare, dominated by the sixteen-story semicircular complex of Vnesheconombank, with cold, white walls and brown-tinted windows. There, on December 24, the air was frigid, but the wide street was jam-packed with demonstrators, over one hundred thousand people, shoulder to shoulder. Just as with Bolotnaya, the crowd was made up of the intelligentsia and urban middle class. This time many carried stylish placards and posters that had been printed for the occasion. Some bore posters depicting Cheburashka, a beloved, furry Russian cartoon figure who in these posters was in demonstration mode. Other posters featured the reviled head of the Central Election Commission in a wizard costume, manipulating ballot papers. There were also new protesters, middle-aged men in dark jackets suggesting that the demonstrations’ audience was growing.
Novelist Boris Akunin, author of popular nineteenth-century detective stories, addressed the crowd. “Do you want Vladimir Putin to become president once again?” he asked the crowd. “No!” they roared back. Sergei Parkhomenko was also on the stage, taking photographs. He was particularly impressed by a surprise arrival, Alexey Kudrin, a former finance minister and deputy prime minister, who had resigned only in September but remained close to Putin. Parkhomenko posted on his Facebook page that Kudrin had stood on the stage for three hours in the bitter cold to have a chance to address the crowd. He spoke out against the election fraud, and for a moment the protesters seemed to glimpse their first defector from the Kremlin team.
The crowd eagerly waited for Alexey Navalny, who had been released from jail three days before. Widely known for his blog, few were familiar with him as a public speaker. In a black trench coat and a gray scarf, he at first held back on the large stage, standing under the broad banner declaring, “Russia Will Be Free.” Finally, Romanova announced Navalny. Navalny was excited by the numbers of people who came, but he was also very angry. He went to the edge of the stage and grabbed the microphone in the manner of a rock star. His face was projected on the large screen on the right of the stage.
In his remarks, Navalny savagely attacked Putin as a “small, cowardly jackal.” His voice rising to a howl, he said, “I can see that there are enough people here to seize the Kremlin. We are a peaceful force and will not do it now. But if these crooks and thieves try to go on cheating us, if they continue telling lies and stealing from us, we will take what belongs to us with our own hands.” He led a chant: “We are the power!”
The crowd had been curious about Navalny, but they were taken aback by his aggressive rant. Faces were creased by confusion. The crowd had been full of anticipation before he spoke, but his blasts left them uncertain. They may have agreed with the substance of his criticism, but his tone was unexpectedly harsh, puzzling more than a few in the audience.
Navalny didn’t notice. He had never seen such big crowds before; he had missed Bolotnaya Square because he had been in jail. He was, primarily, a creation of the Internet and his sharp skills as a blogger. His only real experience speaking to rallies up to this point had been the annual Russian nationalist marches, to five or six thousand people at most, and it was there he had developed his shrill voice. He shouted into the microphone, “Watching Bolotnaya on TV in jail, we feared that you would never come again. But you have come! You’ve come! And next time there will be a million!”
On December 27 Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s gray cardinal and first deputy chief of the presidential administration, was ousted and replaced by Vyacheslav Volodin. For years Surkov had been in charge of dealing with the opposition, either through the informal pact with the middle classes, micromanagement of media, and pressure on Internet companies, or through funding of pro-Kremlin youth movements. Surkov’s strategy had failed to stop the protests.
Volodin, forty-seven, stocky and tense, with high cheekbones and a scowl that rarely turned to a smile, was different from the smooth gray cardinal. Unlike Surkov, he was not trained by the oligarchs, and he didn’t pretend to play the game of politics. Surkov loved to present himself as a skillful, worldly master of intrigue who in his spare time wrote songs for rock bands and a book under a pseudonym and then made sure everybody knew the real author. By contrast, Volodin built his career on the rules of the Soviet bureaucracy. He was active in the Saratov Institute of Mechanization of Agriculture in the 1980s, joined the Communist Party, and married the daughter of the former first secretary of the local party committee. In the 1990s he quickly rose through the ranks of Saratov’s administration to the position of deputy governor and then moved to Moscow. In 2003 he was made vice speaker of the State Duma from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. He was known to be tough and ruthless.
On December 31 the protest organizers announced plans for the next big rally, to be held on February 4, 2012. The FSB once again tried its old methods. On January 4 an FSB officer called Ilya Klishin’s mother in Tambov and summoned her to an interrogation. The same day his father got a call from the local branch of the Interior Ministry’s department for countering extremism. Klishin urged his mother not to go to the interrogation and posted information about the summons online. His father had received a written request, so he went to talk to the Interior Ministry, meeting a police colonel there who told him that his son could face criminal charges of inciting ethnic hatred because, a week earlier, he had been in Kazan, the capital of the republic of Tatarstan, where Klishin met with local activists. “In a way my parents were, if not depressed, but shocked by all that, and their first reaction was to advise me to keep away from all political affairs. But I tried to explain to them that it was meaningless, and all I did was absolutely legal, so I had nothing to fear,” recalled Klishin. After that, the security services never called Klishin and his parents again.
The presidential elections were set for March 4, 2012. The opposition called for demonstrations, and although some were held, they seemed to be losing momentum. The opposition had no candidate for the presidential elections, but this was only part of the problem. However much the United Russia party was unpopular and fraud was used on its behalf during the parliamentary elections, Putin personally was popular—the most popular politician in the country. The Kremlin wanted and expected to be able to secure a fair victory, so there was no point in mobilizing protesters to join as election observers, as was the case in December. The video cameras Putin had promised were duly installed at polling stations all over the country.
On the night of elections Navalny was based at a club, Masterskaya, the same place where, four months earlier, Grigory Okhotin had launched the OVD-Info website. When we arrived that evening it was already dark outside. Putin had won election to a third term on the first ballot by 63.6 percent. On our way to the club we passed by groups of drunk strangers clearly unfamiliar with Moscow’s streets, probably heading to Putin’s victory rally near the Kremlin. It was known that pro-Kremlin movements bussed people from the regions to the city to cheer their winner.
At the first floor of Masterskaya two muscled and forbidding guards dressed in black stood, their arms crossed over their chests. When we said we were journalists from Agentura.ru, they waved us in, to the second floor. Masterskaya occupied a building of the former Soviet public baths and had two large rooms with high ceilings on the second floor, previously the baths for women and men. On this night one of the rooms was for Navalny’s personal use, and the second was filled with journalists and activists; nearby a small theater hall had been turned into a makeshift television studio. The mood was downbeat. Navalny avoided answering questions from journalists that evening and just issued brief statements.
Barely two hundred meters from the club Putin took to the outdoor stage near the Kremlin to savor his triumph. He started thanking the cheering crowds for support, and a tear appeared in his eye.
The next morning came a new type of cyber attack. According to the Internet security firm Symantec, experts suddenly identified a surge of spam e-mails, widely disseminated. The messages seemed to be promoting a rally against Putin, but they were also carrying malware, disguised as an attachment. The body of the e-mail had just one sentence, indicating the attached document: “Instructions for your actions in the rally against Putin.”
Symantec detected the malicious document as a Trojan, a disguised weapon. In this case the attachment contained malicious macros that dropped onto the user’s computer and loaded a hidden piece of software, called Trojan.Gen. It then would overwrite any files with the common extensions of .doc or .exe or .zip. Once it had destroyed all such files, the software would run code to cause the computer to crash.
The attack, however, was far from successful. The e-mail looked odd to many recipients, so they didn’t open it. And they knew that real news about the protest movement was spread on Facebook, not by a randomly arriving e-mail.
Two weeks later the first deputy director of the FSB, Sergei Smirnov, admitted that the authorities had not yet found a means to deal with protest activity organized through social networks. At a meeting of the regional antiterrorist group operating within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Russia, China, and other nations in Central Asia, Smirnov referred directly to the challenge: “New technologies [are being] used by Western special services to create and maintain a level of continual tension in society with serious intentions extending even to regime change…. Our elections, especially the presidential election and the situation in the preceding period, revealed the potential of the blogosphere.” Smirnov stated that they needed to develop ways to react to such technologies and confessed that “this has not yet happened.”
Putin’s victory left the protesters feeling depressed. Their leaders decided to go to the streets the day before Putin’s inauguration, May 7. The protest was called the “March of Millions,” reflecting the organizers’ ambition and desperation. Some protest leaders went to Russia’s regions, seeking to recruit as many people as possible for the march. But this was different from previous protests: the organizing committee was disbanded, Akunin and Parkhomenko were not among organizers, and Romanova did not collect money for the march.
Nevertheless, on May 6, thousands turned up and marched down Yakimanka Street to Bolotnaya Square. But then it turned ugly. To get to Bolotnaya Island from Yakimanka Street requires a right turn. The rally was sanctioned by the authorities, which meant that the crowd was required to pass through security gates manned by policemen, always a bottleneck for every Moscow demonstration, but this time it was worse because the number of security gates was unusually small. The way forward was limited by a line of heavy trucks across Yakimanka Street, and there was no way out; the only option was to wait in long lines for the security check. Soon the protesters found themselves clamped between the police trucks, the line of security gates, and the Moscow River, pressed from the rear with nowhere to go. Muscovites loved to bring children to the protest rallies as a way to show it was all peaceful, and May 6 was no exception. Sergei Lukashevsky, the director of the Sakharov Center, took his three children, daughters of eight and thirteen years old and his fifteen-year-old son along with two of his son’s classmates.
The organizers tried to talk the police into relieving the congestion, to widen the passage ways, but to no avail. We stood on Bolotnaya Square, close to the stage, when someone started shouting, “Sit down, sit down, it’s a sit-down strike!” It was a desperate move by the organizers. Navalny sat, along with Nemtsov, his friends, and supporters. The police considered it a provocation. Soon we saw some people move around the security gates. Fighting started, and the crowd poured through yellow portable toilets next to the gates. Lukashevsky saw that it was clearly not the place to be with children and hastily retreated to a bridge nearby. We took to another bridge, where we met our friend, journalist Mikhail Shevelev, who in 1995 had helped publish Parkhomenko’s story in Moskovskie Novosti. Usually an easygoing fellow with a sense of irony about any trouble, now he was deadly serious and afraid—he had brought with him his thirteen-year-old son.
Finally Navalny broke through the security gates and made it to Bolotnaya Square and then to the stairs leading to the stage. From the stage Sergei Udaltsov, another protest leader, chanted “We won’t leave, we won’t leave!” Policemen went after him and grabbed him almost immediately. Navalny saw it and asked for a megaphone. Someone handed him one, and Navalny started to check it. Two policemen approached him, declaring, “We are taking you.” Navalny shouted, “What? Why take me? I didn’t do anything! Just a second!” He tried to climb the stairs to the stage, and at once the policemen grabbed him. “Why are you taking me?” he asked, then he turned to the crowd and shouted, “Don’t disperse! All stay here!”
As it happened, Navalny was wearing a microphone and being shadowed by a camera crew for a possible television documentary. When he was detained, the microphone was transmitting and caught his words with the police. The conversation was tense. The policemen twisted his arms behind his back and raised them high and hard to make him bend over, the way dangerous criminals are transported within Russian prisons. Navalny told them it was extremely painful and in a quiet voice said, “You are breaking my arm!” The policeman agreed that he was indeed going to break Navalny’s arm, and Navalny said, through clenched teeth, “I’ll send you to jail then.” Navalny was then forced into a paddy wagon.
The whole thing was transmitted from the microphone he was wearing and soon posted on YouTube, which inflamed the public.
The Kremlin responded forcefully to the protest. Twenty-seven people were arrested and accused, more than two hundred investigators were deployed. The police searched the protest leaders’ apartments—Navalny, Udaltsov, Kseniya Sobchak, Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, and Pyotr Verzilov.
Putin was inaugurated as planned on May 7 in a grand ceremony at the Kremlin. For the protesters, the clashes the day before proved a disaster. Mutual accusations and arguing followed. The Kremlin blamed the opposition for inciting violence on Moscow’s streets. The protesters did try other options: the famous Russian writers—among them Akunin, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Dmitry Bykov, and Lev Rubinstein—invited Muscovites to “a walk with writers” on Moscow’s boulevards, and thousands joined them, protesting how the Kremlin had responded on May 6. Navalny launched the Russian version of the Occupy movement idea—he took his supporters to Chistie Prudi, and they occupied space near a monument to the Kazakh poet Abay. They lasted only five days: on May 15 police pushed out dozens of the most committed activists. By then the protests gathered no more than a few thousand supporters.
A month after Putin took office for a third term, the Kremlin finally found a way to crack down on social media. On June 7, 2012, four members of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, introduced legislation to begin a nationwide system of filtering on the Internet. The pretext was to protect children. It included a single register of banned sites, which was really, in simple terms, a blacklist.
The principle of Internet censorship was hardly a new one for the Russian authorities. For five years regional prosecutors had been busy implementing regional court decisions requiring providers to block access to banned sites. But this had not been done in a systematic, nationwide way. Websites blocked in one region remained accessible in others. The arrival of a single register made it possible to close down sites across all of Russia, all at once.
Irina Levova worked as an expert for the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, the only organization the Ministry of Communications and Internet companies trusted as a negotiator. She had fought vigorously against the blacklist. When the law passed a second hearing in the Duma, on July 10, she urged Stas Kozlovsky, a leader of the Wikipedia community in Russia, to stage an online protest. Kozlovsky conducted surveys with the Russian Wiki community, and when he polled, 80 percent of them voted for the protest. For the whole day the work of the Russian Wikipedia was suspended, its pages went blank, and the main page of the site carried a banner with the claim that if the law is approved, it “could become the basis for real censorship on the Internet.”
Unfortunately the protest had no impact. The legislation was quickly passed, and Putin signed it into law July 28, to take effect November 1.
The new blacklist panicked Internet companies, and on August 2 they got an invitation to meet with the presidential administration. Among those who came were three high-ranking managers of Yandex, including the CEO, Arkady Volozh, and Marina Zhunich, a government relations director for Google Russia, along with Levova. They walked into the complex of the buildings on Staraya Ploshad, to a building right on the square, a big six-story neoclassical edifice with giant windows, the same building Velikhov had visited in 1982 to talk to Yuri Andropov about the personal computers. It had housed the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Soviet times and now was occupied by the presidential administration, a powerful bureaucracy.
They were shown to the fifth floor. The building had been expensively renovated, but the Soviet grand style was carefully preserved, with carpets in the corridors, wooden panels on the walls, and Soviet-style white telephones in the elevators. The Internet-industry representatives were brought into a large room with four monumental chandeliers. The curtains had been carefully drawn across the windows. Vyacheslav Volodin, the gruff-talking first deputy chief of the administration, personally greeted the gathering, along with officials from the State Duma and the Council of Federation.
The Internet companies had rushed to the meeting because of the technicalities of the new law, which stipulated that websites must be blocked at the level of an Internet protocol address. As thousands of sites can use the same Internet protocol address, the companies wanted to explain to the authorities that this idea was not wise. Volodin declared at the start of the meeting, “In present circumstances the filtration is necessary and inevitable, but we should work on details with the industry.” He made sure from the beginning of the meeting that the question of filtering was not open to question or debate.
It didn’t take long for the Internet companies to abandon the uncensored Internet and cross the line into accepting a censored Internet in Russia. Facing a fait accompli, they focused on specifics. Zhunich had a good reason to be worried: blocking an IP address meant that any video found inappropriate on YouTube, for example, could lead to blocking the entire service. Soon the talk turned to technologies that allow blocking of particular pages, not sites, and Volodin suggested forming a working group to talk technicalities. The Internet companies were passive, just as they had been when SORM was introduced more than a decade earlier.
After the meeting Levova hastened back to her office and immediately started to search for technologies that could block pages instead of sites. The answer she found enraged her. The only choice, it appeared, was “deep packet inspection,” a very intrusive technology, which allows an outsider to filter Internet traffic but also gives that outsider a way to penetrate into the content and effectively conduct surveillance.
Most digital inspection tools only look at the “headers” on a packet of data—where it’s going and where it came from. Deep packet inspection, or DPI, allows network providers to peer into the digital packets’ message or transmission over a network. “You open the envelope, not just read the address on a letter,” said an engineer dealing with DPI. It allows ISPs not only to monitor the traffic but also to filter it, suppressing particular services or content.
In late August 2012 the Russian government’s Ministry of Communications, along with some of the Russian Internet companies, concluded that the only way to implement the blacklist was through DPI. “As an example, they spoke of YouTube, to be sure that the particular video could be blocked, instead of the entire YouTube service. And they agreed on this mechanism. It was DPI,” Ilya Ponomarev, a member of the State Duma who enthusiastically supported the introduction of the blacklist, told us.
DPI drew concern from leading privacy groups over how governments would use this highly intrusive technology. Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, the leading British nongovernmental organization in the area of privacy, declared, “DPI allows the state to peer into everyone’s internet traffic and read, copy or even modify e-mails and web pages: We now know that such techniques were deployed in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. It can also compromise critical circumvention tools, tools that help citizens evade authoritarian internet controls in countries like Iran and China.”
The system in Russia was tested in September, even before its official launch in November. Several prosecutors requested that access to a controversial video, “Innocence of Muslims,” be blocked in different Russian regions. On September 27 the three largest mobile and Internet service providers—MTS, VimpelCom, and MegaFon—restricted access to the inflammatory video. VimpelCom blocked access to websites that posted the video, which made YouTube as a whole inaccessible in seven Russian regions. But MTS and MegaFon succeeded in blocking access just to the video itself thanks to DPI that had been already installed on their systems.
For a number of years the ground had been carefully prepared to reach this point. For commercial reasons, DPI technology had been introduced in Russia in the mid-2000s. It was needed then to control torrents—streams of data often used by pirate file-sharing—which can hog all available bandwidth. DPI technology helped mobile operators in Russia resist those users who would take up so much bandwidth. In a few years all the biggest DPI technology vendors had a presence in Russia: Canada’s Sandvine, Israel’s Allot, America’s Cisco and Procera, and China’s Huawei. By the summer of 2012 all three national mobile operators in Russia had DPI at their disposal: Procera was installed by VimpelCom, Huawei’s DPI solutions are in use in MegaFon, and MTS bought Cisco technology.
At the same time, the Russian authorities didn’t miss the remarkable capabilities DPI would open up for surveillance. On September 27 Russia’s largest information security conference, held at the international exhibition center Krokus Expo, featured a panel on “SORM in the Environment of Convergence.” The talk was intended for professionals, and the room was filled with the chiefs of SORM departments at mobile operators and the Moscow city phone network as well as representatives from surveillance equipment manufacturers. DPI quickly emerged as one of the hottest topics of the discussion. Many in the room seemed certain that the only way to guarantee legal interception in the new era of cloud computing and communications was DPI technology.
However, there was a legal issue. DPI devices are manned by the employees of the Internet providers or mobile operators—private companies. But the SORM boxes are at the full disposal of the FSB. Still, the idea of connecting SORM with the operators’ DPI seemed not to bother anybody in the room.
Television remained a battleground over the protests. The government’s channels bombarded audiences with special programs attacking the opposition. Several of them were titled, in serial, “Anatomy of the Protest.” One, aired in October 2012, accused one of the leaders of the opposition, Sergei Udaltsov, of preparing a coup d’?tat. Udaltsov’s apartment was searched, and a criminal prosecution was launched against him.
But television brought a new approach to the opposition as well. Back in June the protests’ organizers had promised to create a council of the opposition that would represent all political forces opposed to Putin and would be a vehicle for carrying out discussions with the Kremlin. On September 21 Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief lieutenant, and Yuri Saprykin, both deeply involved in the protest activities, paid a visit to Mikhail Zygar, the editor of TV Dozhd. The council was to be selected by democratic means—an election—on October 20–22. Volkov and Saprykin suggested organizing a series of debates on TV Dozhd—online and uncensored.
Zygar was struck by the idea. “We didn’t have then the feeling of danger, we thought we need to respond to the expectations of people,” he recalled. He worried whether it would at all compromise the television channel’s principles and whether it would be seen as propaganda for a political force. But he answered his own questions by saying there were so many different people from so many different forces that it would be impossible to be captured by any one of them. The opposition ran from liberals to nationalists. Zygar decided they would broadcast the debate at midnight, far from prime time, so only really committed people would watch it. The debate project came together very quickly—in a day or two.
The debates on TV Dozhd started on October 1 and lasted for almost three weeks. It proved to be a huge success for the channel. “Our evening news traditionally got the highest rating. And now we saw, wow, our rating rise higher at midnight,” said Zygar. Saprykin, who was a cohost on air, recalled that there was a chance that all hell would break loose with so many different views. But contrary to that fear, the opposition was allowed a voice on television, “and nothing awful happened,” he said. Russians got their first political debate since the 1990s.
The Kremlin seemed to ignore both the shows and the opposition council.
Then, on November 1, the Ministry of Communications launched the single register of banned websites—the blacklist. And then even more pressure was put on the activists. Nossik was summoned for an interrogation on November 16 because he had helped launch the website of the opposition council’s elections; in response, in November he left LiveJournal. The same month Lev Gershenzon left Yandex.ru, explaining that he was in charge of Yandex News and for years tried to improve the algorithms of selecting the news while also fighting the pressure from the authorities. But by the end of 2012 he realized that algorithms, however sophisticated and clever, could not resolve a new problem—that it had become increasingly difficult to see differences among the various reports of various media, most of which had started to present a uniform and identical picture. Here the technology was helpless.
The protests convinced the Kremlin that the approach to the Internet developed in the 2000s, a combination of DDOS attacks and trolls, didn’t work when tens of thousands of people went to the streets. So the Kremlin decided to put the Internet under control by technical means, through filtering. It was essentially a nationwide censorship, but the Kremlin didn’t copy the Soviet example, when censorship was conducted by a government body, Glavlit, with representatives in every Soviet publication.
The actual day-to-day business of Internet filtering was not assigned to FSB officers nor to the officials of Roskomnadzor, a relatively small government agency with no more than a few dozen personnel tasked to deal with the Internet. Roskomnadzor selected what should be censored, but it fell to ISPs and telecom operators to implement the blacklists. To make the system work across the country, the filtering system required a lot of people, and there are thousands of ISPs in Russia. The specialists needed technical training, had to comply with orders, no questions asked, and they had to protect the secrecy of operations because Roskomnadzor deemed the blacklists of banned websites secret.
Russia had plenty of such specialists.
- CHAPTER 8 Putin Strikes Back
- Chapter 5. Preparations
- Chapter 6. Traversing of tables and chains
- Chapter 7. The state machine
- Chapter 8. Saving and restoring large rule-sets
- Chapter 9. How a rule is built
- Chapter 10. Iptables matches
- Chapter 11. Iptables targets and jumps
- Chapter 12. Debugging your scripts
- Chapter 5 Installing and Configuring VirtualCenter 2.0
- Chapter 13. rc.firewall file
- Chapter 14. Example scripts