On December 19, 2011, LifeNews, a website of yellow journalism and Kremlin propaganda, published a report with a photograph of the former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, with the headline, “Lifenews Publishes Secret Talks of Nemtsov.” The site boasted that they had acquired more than six hours of audio recordings of Nemtsov’s phone calls and posted nine of the recordings online, including those in which Nemtsov made candid and sometimes embarrassing comments about his opposition colleagues. How did they get these recordings? There can be only one answer. Nemtsov told us back then that the Russian security services had tapped his cell phone conversations and then someone leaked the recordings to harm him. Nemtsov was subjected to SORM.
Three years later, on February 27, 2015, late in the evening, Nemtsov was walking with his girlfriend across the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin wall. They were heading over the bridge, away from the Kremlin, when they reached a stairwell that runs down the side. A man appeared behind Nemtsov and opened fire, shooting four bullets into his back. Nemtsov died instantly. The shooter escaped in a passing car.
Two days later we joined the crowds gathering in the center of Moscow to honor Nemtsov’s life and memory. It was a cloudy and somber afternoon. People carried flowers—white roses, yellow chrysanthemums, and red carnations. In contrast to the boisterous protests of recent years, the crowd was quiet; almost nobody spoke of the killing or showed their anger. Some carried Russian flags with a black ribbon in a sign of mourning; others brought placards that said simply, “I do not fear.”
The wiretapping of Nemtsov in 2011 and his murder just over three years later are two strands in a larger narrative about Russia today, one that was well understood by us and thousands of others as we expressed sorrow and rage for his loss. The interception of his calls and their release was an attempt to unnerve Nemtsov and send a message to Putin’s opposition. The killing of a charismatic politician near the Kremlin wall was an attempt to send a message to fear to everyone. Both events spoke volumes about how the Kremlin has wielded power in recent years and, in particular, how Putin has confronted the rise of the Internet.
Fear—and self-censorship caused by fear—were for centuries essential to the system of government in Russia, from imperial times through the Soviet period and into the present. The leaders often dealt in the currency of threats and intimidation. Since 1999 we have chronicled the activities of Russian secret services, publishing many of our findings in our 2010 book, The New Nobility. For years we’ve been trying to understand the main impact of former Soviet KGB officers’ presence in today’s corridors of power. We believe it has come to dominate the way Putin views the world. He and his colleagues from the security services brought with them the old mindset that threats existed and had to be countered. First and foremost they had to fight any threat to the stability of the political regime, which meant any threat to their hold on power.
This mindset came into full bloom in 2011 when Putin announced he would return to the Kremlin, touching off widespread protests by voters who felt insulted and angry at how the decision was made, apparently without their participation. The subsequent uprisings, lasting well into 2012, brought tens of thousands of people to the streets and were the largest public protests in Moscow during his presidency and the first really mass demonstrations against him in a dozen years. For Putin, the sense of threat resided in something invisible and ubiquitous in the prosperous Russia he had presided over since 2000: the Internet. The vibrant digital channels that existed, especially in Moscow, proved vital to mobilizing the demonstrations that echoed off the Kremlin walls.
On the surface, the system the Kremlin created was technically advanced and well-orchestrated, with special roles assigned to different actors. Parliament was tasked with producing a flow of repressive legislation. Pro-Kremlin hacktivists and trolls were hired to attack and harass liberals online. The security services were given the nod to spy on and intercept the opposition. Roskomnadzor was handed the power to censor and filter the Internet. Friendly oligarchs were asked to bankroll and take over media companies, both traditional and new media, to bring them to heel and to take over Russia’s Internet companies when necessary to strengthen the Kremlin’s hand with services that were popular among tens of millions of people. Finally, to provide surveillance equipment, manufacturers were selected, both domestic and international. What Putin brought that tied it together was an outlook of unabashed paranoia that saw enemies all around.
In practice Putin’s tactics were never fully exploited. The Internet filtering in Russia turned out to be unsophisticated; thousands of sites were blocked by mistake, and users could easily find ways to make an end-run around it. At the same time, very few people in Russia were actually sent to jail for posting criticism of the government online. This is a far cry from the frequent and brutal persecution of people in China and Turkey, for example, for their opinions. Even with all the mechanisms available, relatively few new media organizations were actually closed down; many more were simply brought to heel. Those media that were blocked were left alone, their offices not raided by police nor their journalists sent to prison; Russia did not need to be as repressive or technically sophisticated as, say, China. Putin did not need to carry out mass repression against journalists or activists; he could get results just as effectively by using the tools of threat and intimidation, which is what he did. He carried a big stick, but he didn’t always use it.
Putin could be remarkably effective with the threat of the big stick. Russian Internet freedom has been deeply curtailed. The thriving Internet companies, many of them started in Russia from scratch in a free and open Internet environment, agreed to work under state censorship without creating much of a fuss. When invited to talk to Putin, they were so intimidated that they avoided raising the issue of sustaining Internet freedoms. When the security state, acting largely in secret, planned to install intrusive surveillance equipment in Russia, thus creating back doors to the messages and content of the entire country, the ISPs hardly murmured a complaint. There was also little resistance when the state imposed four blacklists of Internet sites.
The Putin approach is all about intimidation, more often than actual coercion, as an instrument of control. To intimidate, legislation was drafted as broadly as possible, the restrictions constantly expanded; companies, ISPs, and the media rushed to the Kremlin to ask what was now allowed. The authorities threatened to block entire services like YouTube—and the Internet giants came running, offering technical solutions, often at their own expense. More often than not this intimidation was aimed at pressuring individuals to do what the Kremlin wanted rather than attacking a whole network or company. When the authorities wanted to control VKontakte, they ousted its founder. They twisted arms more often than they cut wires.
Putin’s system is effective as long as people are certain the Kremlin is in control, that the stability of the political regime is unperturbed. Intimidation is essential in this environment, and it sends an unmistakable message: we are watching you, we are in charge, and there is no way to hide from us. But during a crisis of confidence, an upheaval, or an emergency, the dynamic is transformed. In a crisis a tidal wave of content is generated and shared in real time. A single message can be copied by millions, and here the Putin system of control cannot cope. It is built to zero in on a few troublemakers, not millions of average users. It cannot easily comprehend mass action. In times of instability it is average users who spread the information, and the Putin system then breaks down.
There was a larger failure in the Putin strategy. He was accustomed to dealing with hierarchy and organizations that could be coerced by going after the bosses. But networks have no tops; they are horizontal creatures. Everyone can participate without authorization. The content is generated not by the companies that operate websites and social media but by the users. Putin and his team never fully grasped this, either.
The Internet today is the printing press of the past. Just as the invention of a printed page once enabled a free flow of ideas, so now simple tools like VKontakte and Facebook, widely used every day by average people in Russia, have created an environment in which information cannot be stopped. The British historian of the Civil War in England, Christopher Hill, described this in The World Turned Upside Down, a work devoted to the radical thinkers of the time. He explained why the Revolution caused such a “fascinating flood of radical ideas”: “During the brief years of extensive liberty of the press in England it may have been easier for eccentrics to get into print than ever before or since. Before 1641 and after 1660, there was a strict censorship. In the intervening years of freedom, a printing press was a relatively cheap and portable piece of equipment. Publishing had not yet developed as a capitalist industry.”
Today the Internet is the everyman’s platform. To control it, Putin would have to control the mind of every single user, which simply isn’t possible. Information runs free like water or air on a network and is not easily captured. The Russian conscript soldiers who posted their photographs taken in Ukraine did more to expose the Kremlin’s lies about the conflict than journalists or activists. The network enabled them.