: The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia

CHAPTER 15 Information Runs Free

CHAPTER 15

Information Runs Free

Along with the pressure on global platforms such as Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, the Kremlin also wanted to ratchet up the pressure on two very popular Russian platformsthe social network VKontakte, with massive user groups of thousands of people involved in political events, and the search engine Yandex, which carried news headlines on its home page that had become essential daily reading for millions of Russians. Both enjoyed widespread use beyond Russias borders in the former Soviet Union. When Russian authorities set out in 2014 to win the hearts and minds of Russian-speaking populations at home and abroad and to persuade them to accept the Kremlins version of the conflict in Ukraine, controlling these two home-grown platforms became crucial.

The year began in confusion for VKontakte. On January 24 Pavel Durov, the primary founder, sold 12 percent of the companyhis shareto a friend, Ivan Tavrin, CEO of MegaFon, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in Russia, and offered odd explanations for the sale in a post on his page on VKontakte, saying that what you own, sooner or later, owns you. Reclusive, Durov communicated almost entirely with the outside world by posting on his page. In the same post, however, he stressed that he would remain CEO of VKontakte. Its my responsibility to [take] care of and protect this network, he wrote.

VKontakte was modeled after Facebook, and Durov even chose the same fonts and colors, blue and white, for his network, but with a more primitive design. The network itself is a strange mix of contradictions: although a user is required to provide a genuine identity to register with VKontakte, the network has been famous for years as a safe haven for pirates, and many used it as a source of watching movies and listening to music for free.[1] It was Russias most popular social network in 2012, earning over $15 million in net profit that year.

VKontakte was caught in the middle of a conflict over control of the company between two of its biggest shareholders, both oligarchs: Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov. Sechin was a personal friend of Putin; Usmanov was a pro-Kremlin oligarch who had gathered a vast media empire of formerly liberal news outletshe started with Gazeta.ru, then acquired Kommersant, and later turned to the Internetand absorbed LiveJournal.com, the most popular blogging platform, as well as Mail.ru, the most popular e-mail service, and was believed to want to acquire some of Yandex too.

When caught in the squeeze between the two oligarchs, Durov was feeling the pressure personally. Some shareholders reportedly launched an internal investigation at the behest of one of the oligarchs into Durovs business expense accounts, for reasons that were unclear.[2] In spring 2014 the pressure took its toll on Durov, who was still only twenty-nine years old. His moves became frantic. On March 11 he posted, Seven Reasons to Stay in Russia, in which he wrote, In recent months the topic of emigration from Russia has become fashionable. But I go against the trend, and here are my seven reasons to stay in the country. He listed low taxes, talented people, beautiful girls, and so on.

On April 1, out of the blue, Durov announced he was resigning as CEO of VKontakte. Then, two days later, he disavowed his resignation statement, and four days after that he posted a new message, lamenting bitterly the situation inside the company. He said he had filed a lawsuit to try to get back on the board of directors.

Whereas Durovs previous posts had largely been about the companys internal ownership conflict, the posts that he put up on April 16 carried a more ominous tone; they potentially applied to everybody who used the network. The first was posted at 9:36 p.m.:

On December 13, 2013, the FSB requested us to hand over the personal data of organizers of the Euromaidan groups. Our response was and is a categorical No. Russian jurisdiction cannot include our Ukrainian users of VKontakte. Delivery of personal data of Ukrainians to Russian authorities would have been not only illegal, but a treason of all those millions of Ukrainians who trust us. In the process, I sacrificed a lot. I sold my share in the company. Since December 2013, I have had no property, but I have a clear conscience and ideals Im ready to defend.

He then posted a scan of the FSB letter, exactly in the same manner as he had in December 2011, when he refused to cooperate with them about the protests in Moscow.

The second posting, two hours later, declared, On March 13, 2014, the Prosecutors office requested me to close down the anticorruption group of Alexey Navalny. I didnt close this group in December 2011, and certainly, I did not close it now. In recent weeks, I was under pressure from different angles. We managed to gain over a month, but its time to stateneither myself, nor my team are going to conduct political censorship. Freedom of information is the inalienable right in the post-industrial society.

On April 21 Durov was fired as chief executive. He learned the news from journalists. He claimed he was fired because of his public refusal to cooperate with the authorities. The next day TechCrunch, a website, asked Durov in an e-mail about his future plans. Im out of Russia and have no plans to go back, he wrote back. Durov left the country.

With Durov gone, the company was firmly under the control of two loyal oligarchs; the Kremlin had managed to repeat the tactic it had used earlier with traditional media, like Gusinskys Media-Most in the 2000s. This time it was even easier, as there were neither journalists to demand a personal meeting with Putin nor users who might turn out for demonstrations on Moscows streets. At this time the Kremlin believed they fully controlled the VKontakte company and its networkthey foresaw no surprises. What the Kremlin miscalculated was that a social network is different from either television or newspapers. Although journalists generate the content in traditional media by working in the editorial office, users, often widely dispersed, create the content on social media, and they dont care who owns the network.

These legions of dispersed users would soon prove VKontaktes strength.

On April 24 Putin fired a shot that had wide reverberations for the second-largest Internet company in Russia. He was in St. Petersburg at a media forum organized by the All-Russia Peoples Front, an ultrapatriotic, populist movement Putin had launched in haste in 2011 to corral political support from the provinces and other quarters when his United Russia Party, largely made up of bureaucrats, lost the respect of many voters. The new Peoples Front, consciously evoking symbols and names from the Soviet era, had a modern political purpose for Putin: to counter the liberal-minded, Westernized intelligentsia of the big cities.

It was a staged event in the round, and in the middle of the discussion a pro-Kremlin blogger, Viktor Levanov, addressed Putin with an unusually long statement about the Internet. Levanov first attacked the United StatesIt is an open secret that the United States controls the Internetthen went after Google specifically. Why cant they build servers here? he said, echoing the Kremlin line. I do not want my personal data and information about politicians that run my country to go to the United States.

Putin weighed in and answered as he had before, referring to Snowden and NSA, saying that the servers should be relocated to Russia. Then Putin asserted that the Internet began as a special CIA project. And this is the way it is developing.

Next Levanov did something unexpected. He asked a question about the Russian company Yandex, one of the most recognizable brands and popular websites in the country. It is not quite clear what Yandex is: on the one hand we know it as a search engine; but on the other hand it is a kind of media, because all the time, every day the top five news items Yandex collects from other sources are viewed by millions of people. Meanwhile, Yandex does not have a media license and cannot be held liable under the law as a media outlet because it is a search engine.[3]

This was not a casual allegation. By raising the question of whether Yandex was a media organization, the blogger was aiming a knife at its heart. Forcing Yandex to register as media would make the company subject to Russian media legislation and libel law, under which, if the media gets two warnings from the government, it could be closed down. Until this point Yandex had operated outside this control.

Putin eagerly pursued the theme. He claimed that Yandex, when it was formed, had been forced to accept Americans and Europeans in its companys management. And they had to agree to this, he said. He also lamented that the company was partially registered abroad. Then Putin bore down on the real culprit he had in mind: As I have said, this was all created by the Americans and they want to retain their monopoly.[4]

His message was ominous, suggesting that one of the most successful Internet companies in Russia was under American control, which in turn controls the Internet. Putin had already warned with great fervor in his Crimea speech about traitors and fifth columns, and now his comments seemed to suggest there was something wrong with Yandex having foreigners around.

The next day Yandex NV, the Dutch-registered parent company of Russias search giant, fell 16 percent on the NASDAQ, and American investors rushed to Moscow to talk to Yandexs management.[5] Yandex responded to Putin by saying that international investors participation was normal for a tech start-up and that, as a public company with a 70 percent free float, no single shareholder could exert pressure.[6] Yandex reminded Putin that Russia was one of the few countries where domestic Internet brands were stronger than global ones.

In early May a worried Yandex recruited to its board German Gref, CEO of the huge state-owned Sberbank and who is thought to be personally close to Putin.[7]

It soon was evident that Putin had not idly raised questions about Yandex. In May Andrei Lugovoi, the parliamentarian who authored legislation making it possible to block Ej.ru, Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, and Navalnys blog in March, announced a new initiative to force Yandex to register as a media company.[8] It was an unmistakable threat.

In a week the Russian Investigative Committee, an increasingly powerful law enforcement body, sent representatives to Yandex.Money offices with a search warrant.[9] The pretext for the warrant was a criminal investigation conducted by the committee against Alexey Navalnythe committee alleged Navalny had stolen money he had gathered via the online service Yandex, money intended for his campaign for Moscow mayor the previous autumn. But the raid was a shocking development and went way beyond the reasons cited for the search warrant. Yandex was one of the most famous Russian companies and inspired pride in Russia. Its profitability came not from oil and gas, the traditional sources of Russian wealth, but through building a business based on technology, and here, in this field, Russian engineers successfully competed with American companiesYandex had a bigger share of the Russian search market than Google.

Many people felt uneasy about Putins eagerness to target the pride of the Russian tech business. Russian high-tech companies often had foreigners on their boardsit was a ticket to world markets and foreign investments, and for years it signaled success. Now the Russian president had made foreign board members look suspicious, almost as if they were agents of a foreign state.

The campus of Kaspersky Lab headquarters in Moscow fills two modern semitransparent buildings, surrounded by green lawns and the shimmering surface of a nearby reservoir. The tableau suggests nothing more than an ambition to be like Google or Applea big multinational, respected everywhere. Kaspersky Lab is one of Russias most recognizable brands. On the day Irina went there in May 2014, children frolicked on the grass in front of the companys green and red corporate logo. Andrey Yarnikh, head of government relations, said it was the day employees could bring children to the office.

While Irina was walking around with Andrey Yarnikh, a big black SUV braked suddenly behind them. A man of medium height and graying wavy hair, wearing a bright shirt and jeans, jumped out of the car and approached them. It was Eugene Kaspersky, founder and CEO of Kaspersky Lab.

Hi, he greeted Yarnikh and shook his hand.

Hi Genya! said Yarnikh. And then Kaspersky disappeared even faster than he emerged.[10]

Yarnikh explained that Kaspersky didnt like formality either in conversation or clothes, and in the early years of the company, when the laboratory was a relatively small entity, he used to kiss all female employees and shake hands with every man he met.

But this placid surface concealed anxieties behind the glass walls of the headquarters. Putins remarks about foreigners at Yandex made its way through Kaspersky Lab like a bolt of lightning. Although based in Moscow, Kaspersky boasts that 400 million people worldwide are protected by its cyber-threat and antivirus products. At one point a foreign investment firm, General Atlantic, owned part of Kaspersky Lab.[11] And in February 2014 Kaspersky had established an international advisory board and recruited several Americans, including Howard Schmidt, former cyber adviser to Presidents Bush and Obama. If having Americans involved in an Internet company was going to be a problem, then Kaspersky, like Yandex, would not be immune to scrutiny.

Kaspersky Lab has offices everywhere, from Australia to Germany, South Africa to the United States. Just like Yandex, Kaspersky Lab is registered abroad, in the United Kingdom.[12] And just as Volozh built Yandex, when Kaspersky built up his company, he didnt exploit government connections and has not been promoted by the state.

Kaspersky was a complex and sometimes obscure figure in the world of the Russian Internet. When the first digital attacks were made on the media, he looked the other way. But then he came to the rescue of Novaya Gazeta. At other times he took positions that showed sympathy for the Kremlin approach to the Internet. For example, in February 2011 Kaspersky Lab joined the Safe Internet League, an Orthodox-dominated NGO that promotes Internet censorship under the pretext of protecting children from harmful content.[13] The League advanced weird ideas of creating white lists of sites approved in advance by them, and cyber druzhinas (from the Russian word that means the feudal princes armed guardsmen) patrolling the Internet.[14] The League has been working closely with Roskomnadzor.[15]

On the day Irina visited, people at Kaspersky were debating Anatoly Karachinskys decision to move his software company, Luxoft, out of Russia. It prompted a natural question about whether any large international companies could stay. Irinas sources in the company said that many people at Kaspersky Lab regarded Putins words about the Internet and CIAand the offensive on Yandexas a hidden threat. They wondered what to do.

In the center of Moscow a modern office building was erected in 2007 at a time of massive renovation around the city. The building, which houses Silver-City, a business center, has all the hallmarks of that period: all glass and concrete, with ugly rectangular forms that hark back to the 1970s, defined in outlandish orange stripes. It was at this building on June 10, 2014, that Putin was to meet with the leaders of the Russian Internet for the first time in fifteen years; the last and only previous meeting was in December 1999.

Back then people spoke openly in front of Putin and were not afraid to oppose what they saw as the governments power-grab to control the Internet. They did not fear Putin in those days, and by the end of the meeting Putin had supported those who objected to the government intrusion. At that time the Internet was new, and so was the hodge-podge of entrepreneurs who met with Putin. A decade and a half later the Russian Internet had grown into a $143 billion annual business, employing over 1.3 million professionals, generating 8.5 percent of Russias gross domestic product and accounting for 2.5 percent of all its trade.[16] In those same years Putins government had imposed surveillance on the Internetthe SORM black boxes and, ultimately, filtering and censorship.

The security at the meeting was strict, and journalists were admitted only with special identity cards issued just for this event. Before Putin arrived, there was a session about the future of the Internet. It was more like a wake. No one jumped up and shouted about the lack of Internet freedom. In fact, the subject of state control over the Internet was never mentioned; rather, it was evident that Putin, not yet in the room, held the upper hand. This reality weighed heavily on those who were present, including Volozh, the founder of Yandex, who had also been present fifteen years earlier and walked out of that meeting with the pencil. At this very moment Volozh was feeling the Kremlin pressure on the business he had built, and everybody knew it.

They could see a powerful reminder in the chair marked VKontakte. In the chair was not Durov, the founder; instead, there was Boris Dobrodeyev, then deputy chief executive of VKontakte, whose presence underscored the growing clout of the Kremlin. Dobrodeyev is a scion of the post-Soviet media establishment; his father, Oleg, is head of the television colossus known as the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company.[17] When Dobrodeyev sat in the chair, it was a sign that other chairs could also suffer the same fatethe founders could be replaced. The blogger Leviev, who had invented Alexey Navalnys big red button, was present at the meeting because his company was broadcasting it. When he saw how Durovs chair had been filled, he immediately thought of the peril that faced Volozh and Yandex. Yandexs business, all its circulatory system, is in Russia: data centers, offices, the staff. Yes, there are offices abroad, but it is a drop in the sea, insignificant. If Volozh was to say something wrongit will be very easy to take his business away, he told us later.

Putin was late, as usual, and when he did arrive, he didnt immediately enter the conference room; rather, he was shown a small exhibition of Internet start-ups in the hall. He was escorted by Kirill Varlamov, who had grown up in Ekaterinburg, graduated from the local technical university, and joined Uralmash, the mammoth metallurgical factory, as an engineer. In the early 2000s he founded a small software company and soon moved to Moscow. In 2011 he caught the eye of some people at one of Putins pet projects, the Agency of Strategic Initiatives. It was launched when Putin was prime minister and was designed to be a high-tech incubator, just like a much-publicized effort by Medvedev known as Skolkovo. Varlamov joined the agency, which proved to be a wise decision; he was introduced to Putin. In the same year, when Putin formed the All-Russia Peoples Front, Varlamov joined. He was included on a list of nearly five hundred people who were prominent Putin political supporters, most of them celebrities; he was the only one with an Internet background. After Putin was elected president, Varlamov was made the head of a state-funded venture capital fund, giving him power over the budget available to Internet start-ups. By then Medvedevs Skolkovo was in clear decline. Varlamov maintained a key position at the All-Russia Peoples Front.

Russia had produced an entire generation of bright entrepreneurs in the first years of the digital revolution, but Putin was not interested in them. He wanted, most of all, someone loyal. Varlamovs appearance at the June meeting signaled that Putin had triumphed. Varlamovs fund had even organized the meeting, and when Putin appeared, Varlamov sat on his rightthere was no doubt that Varlamov was the star of the show. Volozh, who was a genuine Internet legend in Russia, looked uneasy. He was exceedingly cautious and repeated his line that there are very few countries in the world where the local Internet companies dominate, and these companies became prominent not because of protection but because they were left alone.

The sole question about repressive measures on the Internet was raised by Dmitry Grishin of Mail.ru, Russias leading e-mail service. An engineer by training, Grishin, thirty-five years old, was nervous as he looked at Putin. He began by saying that most Russian software advances had happened because the state left the inventors alone. And we have this mentality, he said. We have this mentality that we count on ourselves. He added that contacts with the authorities seldom lead to good things, and in principle, if you can hide, it is better to hide.

Putin sternly interrupted him. Its wrong, he said, shaking his head. First of all, you cant hide from us. The remark said everything about the state of the Internet in Russia: it had grown immensely, had enabled appeals for freedom, and yet there was no place to hide.

Grishin reddened and said excitedly, We often hear that all Internet users are from another planet. But we do love our country; we want to help to make it comfortable to live and work in. And we understand that the Internet has grown and it is now an integral part of the society. Therefore, in principle, we understand that the regulation, its necessary. And often the ideas in the regulation, they are very correct. But, unfortunately, sometimes it happens that realization, in general, is frightening. And it would be great to develop some sort of process that allows us not only to listen but also to be listened to. It would be very, very important![18]

It was a polite appeal but, in its timidity, reflected the reality of Putin and the Internet. The entrepreneurs and businessmen were not challenging the Kremlin; there were no new proposals that day, no confrontations. Some of those present were worried that a discussion might have been started about a project called Cheburashka, to create a purely domestic Internetinaccessible from abroadnamed after a popular childrens cartoon character. The project was suggested by a Russian senator in April, but, thankfully, it did not come up.

The real beneficiary on June 10 was Putins political machine, the All-Russia Peoples Front, and Kirill Varlamov. The genuine Internet market leaders were invited not to talk to Putin but to lend legitimacy to a government-funded pet project. And they did.

Although Yandex had once resisted pressure from the Kremlin, now it gave some ground. On September 12, 2014, Yandex announced that the company had agreed to formally register three of its online servicesYandexs cloud service, its social network Moi Krug, and its mail system. They were put on a special list at Roskomnadzor consisting of online services required to keep users metadata for six months and to provide remote access to this data for the Russian security services. Mail.ru and VKontakte were also included on the list.[19] The scope of SORM had just expanded.

Yandex also attempted to tread carefully in the minefield of the Ukraine war. In March the service started offering different maps of Ukraine for Russian and Ukrainian users. The Russians would see a map showing Crimea as part of Russia, while a user in Ukraine would see the peninsula as still part of Ukraine. Yandex explained it by saying Crimea would be shown according to the official position of the country in which the map was viewed.[20]

The Kremlin pressure to control the Internet was not always visible. It did not always appear in black-and-white threats. Sometimes the battle was waged in the mists. Those who believed in keeping the Internet out of the hands of the state tried to survive any way they could. Andrei Kolesnikov learned the game firsthand, and he was a very good player. CEO of an NGO that had been set up in 2001 to oversee Internet domain names, Kolesnikov has a long history with the Russian Internet; in 1992 he was one of eight people who signed the agreement that established the domain .ru. He was present at the meeting with Putin in December 1999, and he also attended the meeting with Putin in June 2014, though this time he was not invited to join the panel.

Kolesnikov was the first Russian expert to join ICANNs governing bodies, and he was acutely aware of the Kremlins ideas about the Internet and what the Kremlin thought of NGOs as a whole. To avoid interference, he devoted a lot of time to attending public meetings on Internet security and offered repeatedly to be a technical expert to people who were in charge of setting policy on the Internet. His position was fragile. When Andrei visited him in September 2014, Kolesnikov argued with great fervor that repressive laws were, in fact, in a parallel reality, and they had no impact on the Internet at all. After half an hour of wrangling, he insisted that what the authorities had done to the Internet was entirely immaterial: Look, did it affect your morning coffee?[21]

But the next morning brought disturbing news. The business daily Vedomosti exposed a Kremlin plan to gather the Russian Security Council, the advisory group to the president on security, in three days to discuss the option of shutting the country off from the global Internet in case of an emergency.

The centralized structure of the Russian Internet has led the authorities to believe that this was entirely possible; international traffic could be cut off either by the operators that control cross-border fiber-optic cables or at the Internet exchange points, where the international traffic joins the national Internet.

Even two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian telecommunications remain largely centralized. Russia is connected to the outside world by fiber-optic cables, most of them laid by five Russian national operators, with the state-controlled Rostelecom enjoying the largest Internet backbone network in the country. Russia has only a dozen Internet exchange points (compared with more than eighty in the United States).[22] And nearly half of the Russian Internet traffic passes through one of them, MSK-IX. The MSK-IX itself is based on the premises of the M9 phone exchange, which is owned by Rostelecom. (In January 2015 Rostelecom took over the MSK-IX, too.)

The geography of Russia doesnt help. Although most of the worlds Internet traffic is passed via underwater cables, Russia connects with the West through the terrestrial cross-border fiber-optic cables laid from Moscow to St. Petersburg to Helsinki and Stockholm, and only recently did Rostelecom lay cables in a new direction, from Moscow to Frankfurt, Germany. In the east there are also some lines to China, Japan, and Iran, but overall the connections to the outside world are sparse.

Although it didnt get as much attention, the Security Council also wanted to talk about a second optionto hand over the powers of administering Russian domains from Kolesnikovs center to the government. If approved, it would mean that all Russian domains were under direct government controlor, rather, direct control of most websites in the country.

This time the initiative was not approved, but the message was strong and clear.

In 2014 Putin had one big secret he wanted to keep: Russian troops were in Ukraine. The Russian security services hunted down people around the country who tried to expose Putins secret, relying on the same technology the secret police had used almost seventy years earlier.

On April 17, 2014, Svetlana Davydova heard something on the street in the city of Vyazma, about 150 miles west of Moscow, and grabbed her phone. She was a mother of six children and pregnant with the seventh. She knew that outside the small town the Russian military intelligence service had a base, and she had just overheard talk at a bus stop that small groups of officers were being sent to Moscow and then Ukraine.

At that moment Russia was backing an undeclared war by Ukrainian separatists. Davydova had no access to secret information about the military unit; she simply overheard what people were saying on their cell phones at the bus stop. She was very interested in events in Ukraine and personally opposed to the Russian military presence there. She told her husband, Anatoly, what she had heardand what it might mean. Then she wrote down what she knew.

That day, around 2:00 p.m., she called a hotline to the embassy of Ukraine in Moscow on her cell phone. She told the embassy she had information about the deployment of Russian military intelligence officers to Ukraine, and not much more. Nine minutes later the first secretary of the embassy called her back and asked her to provide details. Davydova relayed all she knewjust rumors she had heard on the street.

Davydova didnt know it, but the FSB was monitoring the hotline, and the Russian security service had recorded her voice during the call to the embassy. The FSB immediately went to work to identify who she was. They had no difficultyDavydovas phone number was easily traced.

Then nothing happened for a while. Davydova was not questioned about the call. The war in Ukraine grew more intense.

Six months later Davydova gave birth to a baby girl. In two months, on January 21, 2015, there was a knock at the door of her apartment, and when Anatoly opened it, a group of special operations soldiers dressed in black burst in. The group was led by a top FSB official sent from Moscow. Davydova was detained, taken away, and the officers searched her small apartment, taking her computer, notebooks, and other materials as the family looked on. Davydova was brought directly to Moscows Lefortovo prison, the main prison the FSB used for high-profile investigations and detentions. She was frightened and worried, not least of all about the two-month-old baby she had been torn away from.

Six days later she was charged with treason, which can carry a sentence of twelve to twenty years in prison. She was told that her call to the embassy of Ukraine had been intercepted. She was given a state-appointed lawyer who advised her to plead guilty. Overwrought with emotion and scared, at first she complied.

For the FSB it was not enough to have just a guilty plea, however; they needed to prove she had made the call. For this the security service needed a sample of her voice to compare with the recording of the call. But Davydova refused to give the voice sample.

At this point, in early 2015, her case gained widespread attention in Russia, and human rights activists visited her in Lefortovo, a common practice. When they came to the prison to see her, the FSB illicitly made a video, without telling her or the activists. Then the FSB reached back to technology that had been created and perfected since 1949 in the work at Marfino and Kuchino. From this video recording they compared her voice on the intercepted phone call.[23]

Davydova was not a spyshe was a housewife. But she was caught up in something largerthe secret services were repeating practices of wiretapping and examining voices, all in an effort to keep the lid on a closed society, to lock up information, even if it was just a rumor a housewife had overheard at a bus stop.

After two weeks in prison and a public outcry, Davydova was released, and the charges were later dropped.

In the summer of 2014 Russian and Ukrainian journalists started to find dozens of profiles of Russian soldiers on VKontakteand many who had been posted to Ukraine had added to their pages photographs from their posting. The Russian military commanders were not aware the soldiers were posting boastful comments and photographs, identifying their units and their geographic positions.

The pictures and comments exposed the lies that Putin had been spouting about the war. Journalists in Russias northwestern city Pskov, bordering Latvia and Estonia, found online, on VKontakte, profiles of soldiers from a paratrooper base in the region. The soldiers, who had visited their pages for the last time on August 1516, posted photographs from Ukraine.

Then the soldiers disappeared. There were awful rumors that dozens of Pskovs paratroopers had been killed in an ambush in Ukraine. On August 22 journalists found a new post on the VKontakte page of one of the soldiers, Leonid Kichatkin:

Life has stopped!!

Then, a bit later: Dear friends!!!!!!!!!! Leonid was killed [] funeral[]s Monday at 10am in Vibutah. Whoever wants to say goodbye to him, please come over. My phone number 8953254066. A wife[,] Oksana[.]

Soon the post reporting the tragedy was removed and replaced by a cheerful post depicting a family celebration. When journalists called the number, a male voice on the phone answered that he was Leonid, alive and well.

But journalists attended the funerals and found the two new graves, and one of them bears the inscription: Leonid Kichatkin, 30.09.198419.08.2014.

When two TV Dozhd journalists and a Novaya Gazeta reporter went to the Pskov cemetery, they were attacked by unknown men in balaclavas, and a local parliamentary deputy was beaten up because he had exposed the postings in the local newspaper. But it didnt prevent other leaks about Russian soldiers in Ukraine, and VKontakte turned out to be indispensableboth for the soldiers posting and for those who would be reading. The soldiers chose VKontakte because it was easy to use and was there, always online. On July 23 a Russian soldier conscript from Samara in southern Russia posted photographs of his artillery pieces on VKontakte, with the words, All night we were shooting at Ukraine. It went viral.

The Russian seizure of Crimea in early 2014 was carried out bloodlessly by soldiers wearing no insignia. It was relatively clean and swift and heralded as a new kind of warfare. But the two graves in Pskov shattered this image of a bloodless new kind of warfare. The reality that soldiers were being killed on the battlefield in Ukraine exposed the cover-up and deception about Russias role in the violence in the Donbass. The losses, inevitable lies, and cover-ups didnt work in large part because Russian soldiers as well as their relatives and friends kept posting on VKontakte.

After all the Kremlin efforts to control information, the information about Ukraine freed itself. The primary source of sensitive data on the violence in Ukraine was not journalists, nongovernmental organizations, opposition leaders, activists, or even bloggers; it was soldiers. Inexperienced young men, who had been schooled by state-sponsored television propaganda, were electrified by it and went to war, boasting of their exploits.

The network enabled the information to move freely, unhindered, to millions.


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