CHAPTER 7 Revolt of the Wired
Revolt of the Wired
The mass protests that broke out in the Middle East in early 2011, known as the Arab Spring, struck Moscow as a threat to the Kremlin too. On January 14 the president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia after twenty-three years in power. On February 11, following waves of huge demonstrations, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt resigned after twenty-nine years in office. Ten days later, on February 22, the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, flew to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, a republic in the North Caucasus. The visit was not announced in advance. At the airport he was met by FSB director Alexander Bortnikov, and they went together to an urgently convened meeting of the National Antiterrorism Committee, which consisted of leaders of the security and law enforcement agencies. In the past Bortnikov had always chaired committee meetings, but this time Medvedev personally took the chair at the head of the table, with Bortnikov on his right. His face was gloomy; he spoke very slowly, emphasizing each word. He started by describing the situation in the North Caucasus and then turned to the Middle East. “Look at the current situation in the Middle East and the Arab world. It is extremely difficult and great problems still lie ahead,” he said. “We must face the truth. That scenario was harbored for us, and now attempts to implement it are even more likely. In any case, this plot will not work.” He was suggesting that a Western conspiracy was afoot, aimed at instigating protests to overthrow the Russian regime.
Putin, then prime minister, was even more emotional. On March 21 he visited a Russian ballistic missile factory, and one of the workers asked him about Western airstrikes aimed at toppling Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin retorted that it was just another example of the United States resorting to armed force. He then compared the Western air strikes to a medieval crusade, a comment with deep echoes in Russia’s historical memory: one of the early crusades, in the thirteenth century, was directed at Russia. Although it was repelled, the mention of crusades for many Russians evokes fear of being invaded by Western hostile forces.
Putin had long harbored a suspicion that the United States was working on technology that would allow it to topple political regimes on the soil of the former Soviet Union. The “color revolutions” of the early part of the decade in Georgia and Ukraine were seen in the Kremlin as the direct result of an American effort to interfere with regimes closely allied with Moscow. Putin’s fear was uncomplicated: a revolution needs crowds, and authoritarian regimes had often successfully suppressed traditional means of mobilizing people, like trade unions and opposition parties. But the new method championed by the United States would bring to the streets youth movements organized from scratch. To counter this threat, the Kremlin attempted to straitjacket any political opposition groups that might use street demonstrations or occupy government buildings in protest. The Kremlin also launched pro-Putin youth movements, whose role was to fill the streets in case of a crisis.
Beyond this, the Kremlin also saw the Arab Spring as another threatening step toward American hegemony. It was not lost on Putin and his people that the events in Tunisia and Egypt were widely characterized as Facebook and Twitter revolutions. Putin and his entourage became worried that this time the United States had found a truly magic tool that could bring people to the streets without any organizing structure: the Internet. Anxious political masters in Moscow took careful note of a speech by Alec Ross, adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on June 22 in London, in which he declared that the “Che Guevara of the twenty-first century is the network.” Two of his points were particularly threatening to the Kremlin: the Internet acted as an accelerant for the Arab Spring, and the Internet facilitated leaderless movements. Ross said that “dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part—but not entirely—because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.” For people with a KGB mindset, this was a serious warning that the security services could easily miss the right moment and fail to identify the ringleaders, as there were no leaders of protests in the digital revolution and a crisis could break out swiftly. Soon social network technology was made a priority target for the secret services, primarily the FSB. But it was strange new territory they did not fully understand.
Yuri Sinodov, thirty years old, had been a spacecraft engineer by training but made his career in the new world of digital media. He cofounded Roem.ru, a website specializing in web enterprises and social networks. By 2011 the site became the most insightful source in Russia on social networks and Internet companies. Sinodov was the owner and editor-in-chief of the site.
On April 28, 2011, Sinodov received a phone call from the FSB in which an officer from the FSB’s Information Security Center asked him to disclose the identity of a journalist who worked for him and had written a posting on the popular social media site, Odnoklassniki, or Classmates, about an obscure legal battle involving a private company. The FSB officer said that all he wanted was the name of the journalist, but Sinodov didn’t give it up. Instead, he asked the FSB for official confirmation that they had made the request. He soon received it in the form of an e-mail from “email@example.com” that arrived with the FSB crest and was signed by Sergei Mikhailov, the head of one of the sections of the Information Security Center. Five years later, in the aftermath of the DNC hacking scandal in December 2016, the FSB arrested Mikhailov. He was accused of spying for the Americans and thrown into Lefortovo, the famous KGB prison.
Sinodov then contacted the Directorate of Internal Security of the FSB, asking them whether this interest in his journalists was legal. The reply he received came again from the Information Security Center, which made the original request, this time signed by a first deputy director, establishing that the request was legitimate and was purely for reference. Sinodov still did not reveal the name. He next asked the General Prosecutor’s Office, which is separate from the FSB, whether the request was legitimate. Now the response was different: the procedure in question breached a law titled “On Operative-search Activity,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said, and the Directorate of the Information Security Center had been informed that it was not permitted to make such requests.
Sinodov immediately published his correspondence with the FSB and the General Prosecutor’s Office on his website. “I thought I had no right to publish FSB letters without the response from the Prosecutor’s Office, and now I’ve got it,” Sinodov recalled thinking at the time.
Sinodov believed that the FSB’s interest in his employee may have been an example of private firms using FSB officers to investigate leaks of confidential business information. This kind of working on the side—essentially corrupt moonlighting—was known to happen. “I think the company referred to in the post was trying to trace leaks of unofficial information about it,” Sinodov said. “The FSB itself has no interest in this. It is not a question of any national significance; it’s the company’s problem.”
But Sinodov’s story exposed something much more important than moonlighting. The FSB is divided into two large parts. The operations departments consist of counterintelligence, intelligence, counterterrorism, and other activity, whereas the support side of the organization includes such things as creating and providing special technical equipment and meeting other material needs. It was long believed that the Information Security Center belonged to the second part, but the FSB letters Sinodov published showed that the center was situated in the first, in the operations part, which is the most proactive, involved not only in the technical protection of computer networks but also in active operational surveillance, clandestine activity, and intelligence collection on the Internet. From this discovery it was clear who inside the FSB was working on social networks.
On the corner of Lubyanka Square and Myasnitsky Street is a blockish, looming structure that was once the KGB’s Computation Center, now housing the FSB Information Security Center. The center was initially responsible for protecting computer networks and tracking down hackers, but it had been greatly expanded. The duties now went beyond just protecting the government’s networks but also encompassed monitoring the Internet and the media closely. To do this the center used special analytical search software systems developed by Russian programmers. One of the software systems was “Semantic Archive,” used by the security services and Ministry of the Interior to monitor open sources and the Internet, including the blogosphere and social networks.
In 2011 the Semantic Archive team developed a special module for forums and blogs. It looked like a simple table on a screen with space to add names of specific blogs. When a user added the names, the system searched a wide swath of sources—not only the Internet but also such things as Russian law enforcement databases, court records, corporate records, blogs, and social networks—producing a report identifying links and connections, such as whether certain people went to the same school or were partners in a project, and sifting other places and events to tie them together.
The Semantic Archive engineers acknowledged there were drawbacks. Only a few dozen officers could use the module at a time. It was not only Semantic Archive that suffered from this problem; a lack of computing capacity crimped the security services from using these systems more widely. The size of the software packages, usually designed to suit a single department of about twenty- to twenty-five people, explains why the FSB and Interior Ministry bought dozens of different systems from different companies. Moreover, Russian programmers had not been able to overcome other problems. First, the monitoring systems were developed for searching structured information, such as databases, and only afterward adapted, some more successfully than others, for semantic analysis of the Internet, in which information can be more free-flowing. Second, the systems were designed to work with open sources and were technically incapable of monitoring closed accounts on Facebook or Twitter, so they could not be used to identify users and authors of posts on Facebook and elsewhere. Yet that was information the security services wanted. For that the FSB had to pick up a phone and call Sinodov.
As the planned presidential election in 2012 drew closer, both Putin and Medvedev were reluctant to say which of them would run. Both hesitated, and hesitated again. Time worked in Medvedev’s favor because Putin was losing popularity among bureaucrats and the elites. Sources inside the security services told us that even the FSB’s loyalty to Putin begun to waver as a group of generals attempted to contact Medvedev.
The reason was not political but generational. By 2011 the Russian bureaucracy at all levels was chock-full of Putin’s people—appointed in the early 2000s—who clogged channels of promotion. Putin’s friends and appointees occupied jobs in government, the news media, and state-controlled corporations. There was no upward mobility and no hope for any among a younger generation. The crisis hit even the security services, where all senior positions were occupied by those Putin selected from among people he personally knew from his time in the FSB in the 1990s. Tensions and mistrust between senior and midlevel officers caused a paralysis of leadership, and the friction between the different generations engendered passivity among midranking officers.
Medvedev’s inner circle exploited this frustration. In December 2010 Medvedev signed a law that stipulated a retirement age of sixty instead of sixty-five for military and other state jobs. Many in Moscow wanted to believe it was a sign that Medvedev wanted to get rid of the old guard, Putin’s generation. In the spring of 2011 every move by Medvedev, every media appearance, was closely examined for signs of whether it meant he would venture to challenge Putin.
In these months Natalia Sindeeva, the owner of TV Dozhd, was desperately trying to get her channel on cable distribution networks. Finally her friends in the television industry told her that the only thing that might help the channel was to put Medvedev on the air.
The opportunity presented itself in mid-April. It was a difficult time for Sindeeva. She had just killed a short, critical poem about Medvedev that had been written for a very popular satire show on the channel Citizen Poet that often wickedly lampooned politicians, just as Kukly had in earlier years. Sindeeva had pulled the piece on grounds that it insulted the president personally. The authors of the show left the channel in protest, and Sindeeva came under a storm of criticism from liberal circles for imposing direct censorship.
Then, one day in mid-April, technicians from Digital October, a mix of digital startups, new enterprise incubators, and a conference center, which occupied space at the former chocolate factory on the other side of the wall from TV Dozhd, came to Sindeeva’s producers and asked for help. In a week they planned to host a closed meeting of a presidential council on modernization and innovation, to be chaired by Medvedev. Digital October had no cameras to record the event and asked TV Dozhd to lease them some cameras for the meeting. When Sindeeva learned about it, she at once sent an e-mail to Natalia Timakova, a spokeswoman for Medvedev. She had known Timakova for years and addressed her informally. “Natasha, we need Medvedev to come to our channel!” she wrote. Then she listed her arguments: the channel was all about innovation and modernization, the core of Medvedev’s political agenda.
Timakova responded the same day. She wrote that Medvedev would come, adding, “You will have ten minutes.” In two days the presidential bodyguards sent officers over to check out the premises, a signal to Sindeeva it was for real. It is not entirely clear what prompted Medvedev to accept the offer—the channel’s reputation or the flare-up over Sindeeva’s decision to kill the piece critical of Medvedev.
On the morning of April 25, the day of Medvedev’s planned visit to TV Dozhd, Sindeeva pondered how to dress for it. She had never met Medvedev before and worried she would look much taller than him—Medvedev was quite short—so she abandoned formality and high heels. Instead, she chose blue jeans with holes, a white shirt, and flats.
The door from the Digital October to the premises of TV Dozhd led to the kitchen, then a long corridor, and a large open space, with the brick walls of the old factory exposed under high ceilings. In the kitchen hung a big portrait of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil tycoon who had been imprisoned during Putin’s first term. Timakova arrived and walked with Sindeeva along the short route through the kitchen to be taken later by Medvedev. She saw the portrait and turned to Sindeeva, “Is it correct that you want to meet Medvedev in this outfit and you have no intention to remove the portrait of Khodorkovsky?” Sindeeva made no apologies for the jeans and said, “Look, if you want us to remove the portrait, we can do that, but it would be very odd as it has been here for a long time.” Timakova said nothing, and the portrait stayed on the wall.
Finally Medvedev walked in, Timakova introduced Sindeeva, and then Medvedev saw the portrait. He smiled and said, “Well, it seems I found myself in the right place.” Sindeeva thought it was refreshingly informal. Medvedev charmed Sindeeva, and she showed Medvedev all the offices of the channel, introduced her journalists, and had Medvedev sit at the news anchor desk. At the head of the desk was the editor, Mikhail Zygar, with his co-anchor, four other journalists, and Sindeeva. All the other TV Dozhd personnel gathered behind to listen to the president. Medvedev seemed relaxed and spoke at length of the future of Internet technologies and Internet television. When Zygar asked whether he was going to run for president, Medvedev didn’t answer; instead, he laughed and spoke of his plans to teach at the university after his presidential term ended.
Instead of ten minutes, the visit lasted forty-five and was broadcast live. “We were so charmed and inspired by him,” Sindeeva recalled. “We all liked him,” said Mikhail Zygar. When he left, TV Dozhd’s employees and journalists applauded. “It was clear—he is a normal guy!” said Sindeeva. After the visit she wrote to Timakova, “Could you pass on from us some sort of message—let him believe in himself. Normal people will support him.” The visit changed things dramatically for the channel: officials and politicians started accepting invitations to appear on air, and the channel was included in cable television distribution packages, making it available to millions of people across Russia.
Medvedev was presented as a symbol of the new economy, or “modernization”—the economy of computer and information technologies. His most widely known personal initiative was the launching of the Skolkovo technopark eleven miles west of Moscow, a place to foster new start-ups and advanced information technology projects, modeled after Silicon Valley and funded by government contracts. Medvedev had visited Silicon Valley and Stanford University, wearing jeans and using his iPad. The Russian middle classes greeted Medvedev’s project as a welcome sign that he was committed to a new economy to compete with the old commodities industries, which were permeated by corruption.
Medvedev’s time also saw a flowering of initiative and creativity in Moscow, especially in public spaces. Modern art galleries and critics were courted by the Moscow city authorities and invited to realize their dreams in parks and old Soviet factories, which were being turned into modern exhibition centers. City authorities renovated Gorky Park. For twenty years the park looked like an out-of-time symbol of Soviet style, shabby and full of abandoned old attractions, but soon it was turned into a Russian Hyde Park. People crowded into European-style caf?s, free WiFi was available throughout the park, and no chaise lounge remained empty. The middle class spread out in Moscow; they rode fancy bicycles, enjoyed the proliferation of free WiFi networks, marveled at modern, Westernized fonts on public signs, and everywhere there were IKEA chairs in parks and public areas.
The people hanging around the former chocolate factory, a new hipster mecca, clearly placed a bet on Medvedev. But his manners and interest in new technologies, so charming for Sindeeva and the journalists of TV Dozhd, didn’t make him more of a democrat. If he dared to make a bid for power, as Sindeeva urged in her e-mail to Timakova, it would not produce an open challenge to Putin in a democratic election; rather, it would mean using turf-war methods to outsmart Putin and force him to quit. For a while the Red October generation turned a blind eye to Medvedev’s rhetoric about the Arab Spring, his background, his initiatives in fighting extremism that effectively silenced dissent in the country, because he was their “normal guy,” the guy who could get rid of Putin.
On August 1 Putin visited a camp on Seliger Lake where his pro-Kremlin youth movement assembled. Inevitably he was asked about his plans for elections, and he didn’t respond. Nobody understood why Putin and Medvedev could not decide who would run for president. Both teams tried to push their candidates toward announcing, and Pavlovsky, who had once been a Putin spin doctor, said that “silence of the president and prime minister costs the country dearly.”
But still they hesitated.
On Saturday, September 24, 2011, there was a stir in the seats at Luzhniki, Moscow’s vast sports arena, which was filled with members of the establishment, the people of Putin’s era, as Putin walked to the podium. Spread out in front of him was a sea of government officials and bureaucrats, famous sportsmen and celebrities, all attending the second day of a party congress for United Russia, Putin’s party and the dominant force in parliament and the corridors of power. As the foot soldiers in the party of power looked on from the stadium to a stage decorated with a bear and the Russian flag, a question lingered: Would Medvedev run for president again? Or was he just a puppet, a temporary stand-in for Putin? The Kremlin functioned in such an opaque manner that no one was really sure.
Putin took the stage with a swagger of self-confidence. He leaned on the podium, offered a few pleasantries, then declared that he and Medvedev had settled things among themselves years ago. He spoke slowly and seriously. Putin said that people had wanted him to lead the party ticket in the coming elections for parliament and president, but perhaps it was best to leave that to the current president, Medvedev.
Then Medvedev took the stage. After a long, detailed policy speech, he finally came around to what everyone was waiting for: he was in fact endorsing Putin for a return to the presidency, that he was not going to run again.
The applause from the party people was long and enthusiastic. The real power was coming home to the Kremlin—again.
One of Medvedev’s close advisers, Arkady Dvorkovich, was watching on television. He let everyone know of his disappointment on Twitter. “Well, nothing to be happy about,” he wrote.
The moment was the first tremor in what would become a wave of discontent in Russia. The boisterous democracy of Yeltsin’s era had all but died by this point. The Putin party, United Russia, was gray and unremarkable, without any serious ideology other than loyalty, made up of legions of bureaucrats, politicians, and those who depended on them. But unquestionably United Russia was boss. It had no serious competition for power.
On the day of the party congress Zygar, the editor of TV Dozhd, was in the city of Perm attending a theater premiere. When the Moscow office called with the news that Putin was returning, he was sitting with his wife at a caf?. It was already cold and snowy in Perm in the Ural Mountains, 725 miles east of Moscow. Zygar went out on the street. In shirt-sleeves in the cold, he made round after round of calls on his cell phone to his producers, journalists, technical personnel, then to the anchor and the chief executive of the channel, Sindeeva. It took almost two hours. His first instinct was to react professionally, to cover the news and only later to think about his personal feelings of melancholy.
At 11:21 p.m., broadcasting from Moscow, TV Dozhd launched a special edition of their show Here and Now. The show was aired under the heading “The Third Term: The Next Twelve Years with Vladimir Putin,” and it opened with the words that the “castling” was over—a chess reference to a special move, allowed only once in a game by each player, in which the king is transferred from his original square to another. The announcer said ominously, “Putin returns to the presidency.” The guests on the show talked about illusions they held that Medvedev might have remained and how they lost these illusions. The mood at the studio was gloomy.
Elsewhere in Moscow emotions poured out on social media, a torrent of surprise and disappointment. “Well, the first twelve years went by fast,” wrote Yuri Saprykin, editor-in-chief of the magazine Rambler-Afisha. When his friend Svetlana Romanova pointed out that Putin could serve as president until 2024 and she would be Yuri’s age by then, he replied, “Svetlana, some spent all their lives under Ivan the Terrible, or under Stalin, twenty-nine years,” then added, “those who survived.”
Much of the disappointment was about symbols. The sense of loss was not about Medvedev personally—after all, he was part of Putin’s machine. But many felt they had lost a chance to exit the past toward something new and promising. There was also a vague feeling of being insulted, that it was wrong in a democracy for two guys to decide who would be in power, to have worked it all out in advance, as Putin had implied. Wasn’t it rather condescending of Medvedev and Putin to just declare who would be the next president of Russia? Weren’t the voters supposed to have a say?
On the same day Boris Nemtsov, a longtime leader of the opposition to Putin who had earlier been a deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, held a party congress in Moscow. It was a small party of three well-known politicians, and they were all critical of Putin. The congress was convened to decide what line the party should take at the upcoming parliamentary elections. Nemtsov heard of the news of Putin’s announcement when he was at the congress, and he was furious. “The form is mocking,” he declared of the Putin-Medvedev job swap. “The Russian people were just told that these two—whether Dolce and Gabbana, whether Socrates and Spinoza—thought it would be like that, period. In principle, it’s all about the arrogance and humiliation!” He claimed that Putin’s decision was the worst scenario for Russia. Nemtsov was under constant pressure, and surveillance. In fact, a video had just recently been posted on YouTube of a meeting he held in a Washington, DC, coffee shop with an American rights activist and a Russian environmentalist. The video had been recorded just a few weeks earlier—and its appearance was an ominous signal that he was being watched, even on US soil.
On September 25 a rally of the still-small political opposition to Putin was scheduled at Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow; it had been approved before Putin and Medvedev’s announcement. For five years the authors had attended almost all of these small rallies by the opposition in the city. Once again, on this day it seemed that we already knew all the participants. Only a few hundred people came. The leaders of the opposition sensed the mood of helplessness we all shared. Ilya Yashin, a twenty-nine-year-old opposition activist, declared somewhat desperately to the crowd, “Yes, there are very few of us. But yesterday the last romantics lost their illusions about the thaw, liberalization, or democratization, modernization…. Many people today are starting to think about how to leave the country. People are counting how old they will be in twelve years. People don’t want to spend their life under Putin. But I ask you, and your relatives and friends, not to leave our country. We should not give it to bastards!”
One of the few individuals who was not afraid to go public with criticism was Alexey Navalny, the blogger who had been trying to expose corruption in Russia and had gained a wide following, not the least for his courage. Navalny was blunt, posting on his blog evidence of all kinds of crooked and dubious deals. He called Putin’s party the “party of crooks and thieves.” The words went viral.
The scheduled December 4, 2011, parliamentary elections were approaching, and Putin’s United Russia Party was poised, once again, to take the lion’s share of seats. But something unexpected happened in November as the elections drew near. The progressive, urban intelligentsia, who had studiously kept out of politics for a decade, was angry about Medvedev being dumped and began to express disgust with the party of crooks and thieves. They knew there was no way the party could win the elections fairly. This impulse gave rise to a dozen or so online groups devoted to monitoring the December 4 elections to make sure they were fair and legitimate. These groups included Grazhdanin Nabludatel, or the Citizen Observer; RosVybori, or Russian Elections; Liga Nabludatelei, or League of Observers; and others. In Moscow alone eleven thousand people volunteered to be observers in parliamentary elections.
The loss of Medvedev was a spark, and more sparks followed. In earlier years the middle class had quietly accepted a broad trade-off: Putin brought prosperity, and the public remained passive and didn’t participate in politics. This began to shatter. Now the urban middle class was angry. However, they lacked experience and coordination; they needed someone to turn their anger into a national campaign for fair elections.
They found this person in thirty-year-old Grigory Melkonyants, a short, mercurial man who looked as Armenian as his name. A committed, restless workaholic who spoke a thousand words a minute, Melkonyants was deputy director of Golos, the nation’s only independent election watchdog organization.
Melkonyants had been waiting for this moment for years. He had been observing Russian parliamentary elections since 2003, patiently gathering and analyzing data about voting. He understood how the system worked and how to identify fraud. In the presidential election of 2004, which Putin won handily, he had arranged a special phone hotline to gather information about fraud from polling stations across Russia. Then, in the spring and summer of 2011, Golos upgraded the system. Most significantly, he created an interactive digital map to mark all questionable activity and violations in campaigns and during elections. All the data would be in one place and could easily be posted by volunteers. Melkonyants also decided to program a unique web platform to display and visualize the data rather than use an already-available commercial product. In the summer of 2011, when the map project was ready to go online, one of the largest websites in Russia, Gazeta.ru, offered to cooperate and put the map on their website, where millions of people could see the results. It first went up in September 2011.
The authorities noticed the map right away, and they were not happy. Realizing it was a simple tool that could make fraud at polling stations all too visible, they attempted to create their own replica of the map, but no one trusted their version. The pro-Kremlin hacktivists also tried to compromise the Golos map by feeding it false information. The attempt was rudimentary, however, taking existing reports of improper activity and just changing the name of the party and resubmitting it—so crude that Melkonyants caught it right away. Then, on the eve of the December 4 election Gazeta.ru came under pressure and took the map’s banner down from its website, but several other news organizations lent a hand to keep it visible, including TV Dozhd. The map remained up for millions of people to see.
But the Kremlin still had a few tricks to play. The night before the parliamentary elections, at twenty minutes past midnight on December 3, Lilia Shibanova, the head of Golos, landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on her way home from Warsaw. Her mood was grim. The previous day a court charged Golos with violating Article 5.5 of the Administrative Code, which forbids publishing voter polls less than five days before elections. Just a few hours earlier, as she was en route to the Warsaw airport, the NTV television channel, now a pro-Kremlin outlet, aired a program attacking Golos.
She went through passport control, and everything seemed normal. At Customs she selected the green corridor, with nothing to declare, and suddenly customs officials waved her into their room. They thoroughly searched her luggage and then announced that her laptop was to be confiscated for a search because there could be some sort of illegal software. Outraged, Shibanova started to make calls, and customs officials changed their explanation, telling her they were seizing her laptop “for collection of operative information.” Shibanova refused to give up the laptop without her lawyer present and spent the night in Sheremetyevo. The reason for this spectacle was clear to her and her people. Her deputy Grigory Melkonyants posted on his Facebook page:
I really hope that everything will be ok with Lilia Shibanova, she is at the airport (Sheremetyevo, F). Personal inspection, seizure of computer stuff. The task is clear, to divert attention from December 4.
Shibanova was able to leave the airport around midday the next day and was forced to leave her laptop with Customs.
Despite a cyber attack on December 4 intended to disrupt the project, the Golos map displayed massive fraud in the parliamentary election.
Ilya Azar saw it at firsthand. Working as a correspondent for the news website, Lenta.ru, he decided to go undercover in hopes of exposing the people engaging in election fraud by a method known as “the carousel”: the fraudsters would venture from polling station to polling station, stuffing the boxes for United Russia, Putin’s party. Forty people in Azar’s group were each given 10 ballots, already marked for United Russia, for each polling station, as well as a false identity document giving them the right to vote. They would then visit polling stations, show a simple tram ticket at each, which was enough to be given one ballot paper, fill that out, and then add the ten additional papers they had brought, stuffing about 3,080 ballots for United Russia by evening. Azar gained access to the group by a source he knew who was a courier in a small Moscow company. Azar was promised 1,000 rubles, or about $30, to take part.
When he witnessed the fraud at the first polling station, Azar blew the whistle, and police detained the fraudsters. He then posted a story to his website entitled “Carousel Is Broken,” and the whole scam fell apart.
Azar’s story immediately went viral in Russia and caused a sensation. The revelation of such blatant fraud incensed the thousands of election observers who had volunteered, galvanized by their disgust over the dumping of Medvedev. Now they were really furious. At the same time, reports of fraud in the election poured in from most of the regions. Golos published seven thousand reports of infringements at polling stations across the country. The anger reached a crescendo when Russia 24, a state television channel, aired election results from the Rostov region in southern Russia. As expected, United Russia was in first place with 58.99 percent of the vote. The Russian Communists, who were quiet allies of Putin, got 32.96 percent. Then each of the other parties picked up a small piece of the pie as well, and when all the votes were tallied up, the sum was astonishing: 146 percent!
The day after the elections, December 5, anger boiled over into the streets. People were upset by the brazen stealing of the election and gathered at Chistie Prudi, a tree-lined boulevard in the center of the city. Thousands showed up, without any serious organizing. Lev Gershenzon, an editor of Yandex News, brought five colleagues from Yandex. They had all been election observers and spent hours and hours at the polling stations. They felt angry and cheated by the election. When they looked around at the crowds, they were surprised to see so many people in the same mood of fury and despair. “The mood was very depressed, this feeling of desperation,” Gershenzon said. “We did not expect that there would be so many people.”
The police responded with arrests. More than three hundred people were detained, including the blogger Alexey Navalny and the political activist Ilya Yashin.
Navalny at once tweeted from the police van. “I’m seated with folks in an OMON bus,” he said cheerfully, referring to the riot police, notorious for their brutality. Navalny had been on Twitter for two years and had tens of thousands of followers.
Police kept detaining protesters and took them away to stations all over the city. Grigory Okhotin, a thirty-one-year-old journalist who witnessed the arrests, was stunned by the numbers of people hauled away, many of them friends who were completely unprepared for such an experience. He then went with his brother to a club nearby where there was free WiFi. His detained friends began posting on Facebook about whom was arrested and where they were being held. Then Okhotin and his brother decided to drive around the city to see whom he could get released. He started posting what he learned on his own Facebook page, using the hashtag OVD, meaning, in Russian, the police station.
Soon, it looked like this:
#OVD-news: OVD Fili-Davydkovo: nineteen people
#OVD-news: OVD Yakimanka: eight people
#OVD-news: in OVD Dorogomilovo there are twenty-five people. Names of some of detainees: Bulgakov Anatoly, Bulgakov Dmitry, Shipachev Dmitry, Chernenko Artur… Ermilov Egor, Balabanov Victor, Lozovoi Dmitry, Polyansky Timur, Balabanov Igor, Yudin Sergei, Kapshivy Dmitry
Okhotin and his brother posted their first report on who had been detained that night on the website of the magazine Bolshoi Gorod. From that moment everyone concluded that Okhotin was in charge of detentions all over the city. “I started getting calls from complete strangers and was sent messages, ‘We are detained, we are here and there.’ And it occurred to me that all this information could be centralized,” he told us. Over the next two days the Okhotin brothers launched the website OVD-info, which became a public forum for sharing information about Russian citizens detained during protests.
The next day, December 6, the court sentenced Navalny and Yashin to fifteen days in jail. Muscovites went to the streets again, this time gathering at the Mayakovskaya Metro, on Triumfalnaya Square.
In the crowd was a slim, tall, twenty-four-year-old man with light-brown hair and gray eyes. He was already well known in Moscow creative circles: Ilya Klishin. He had come to Moscow from the provincial city of Tambov to study foreign policy at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. However, he was soon deeply involved in social media and marketing.
In 2010 Klishin took offense at an article by a pro-Kremlin publicist attacking his generation for being idle “hipsters”—young people who were incapable of thinking about anything other than their iPhones, bicycles, and sneakers. Klishin wrote an article in reply, “Hipsters Strike Back,” claiming that his generation was indeed interested in politics. Then he and a friend launched a small website, Epic Hero, concerned with politics but cast in terms of the hipster subculture, which they both embraced. Epic Hero became very popular and gained such wide notice that even Medvedev’s staff had invited them to work on the effort to build a Russian Silicon Valley. On December 6 he went to the square to write about the new face of political protest. Among those in the crowd there was a rumor that the next big demonstration would be in four days and held at Revolution Square, very close to the Kremlin.
Very late that night Klishin got home and opened his laptop. He started searching for anything he could find about the next rally at Revolution Square. He found only a short news piece on another website that permission had been granted for a demonstration of three hundred people on December 10, but that was all.
Klishin went to Twitter and posted a question: “Is there any event on Facebook for December 10?”
A reader of Epic Hero wrote back, “No. Let’s start the event.”
Klishin launched his event—for a rally at Revolution Square—on Facebook, sending the link to his friends and journalists. Finally, exhausted, he went to sleep.
The next morning, December 7, when he opened the computer, Klishin found that more than ten thousand people had RSVPed yes for the event.
At the same time, several other journalists and activists were also using Facebook to trade ideas about what should come next in the protest movement. Among them were Yuri Saprykin, a well-known columnist, and Sergei Parkhomenko, at this point a host on Echo Moskvy, the popular liberal radio station. In the 2000s Parkhomenko felt restless, as did many journalists of his generation. He had only his weekly Friday program on Echo Moskvy to run, and it was not enough for his energetic character.
He was among those who sat down on the evening of December 8 at a restaurant, Jean-Jacques, popular among the Moscow intelligentsia. Some opposition politicians were there as well as journalists and activists. All the discussion revolved around how to persuade the Moscow government to give a permit for a larger demonstration. Late in the evening they got a phone call from Nemtsov, who said the Moscow authorities were ready to talk—and someone should go to City Hall immediately.
Parkhomenko was the only one with a car, so he volunteered. He brought with him Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former member of parliament who was also in the opposition, and two activists, who were formal applicants for the meeting. Parkhomenko brought with him his iPad so he could be in contact with the other group members, who were dispersed over the town, with some, like Saprykin, sitting in the office of Lenta.ru.
Parkhomenko and Ryzhkov were met at the lobby of City Hall and were shown to the fourth floor to a large office where they saw a tall man in a suit with his face strikingly reminiscent of a young Leonid Brezhnev—it was deputy mayor Alexander Gorbenko, in charge of information policy. The talks dragged on for hours. Parkhomenko was carrying an iPad and constantly posted updates on Facebook in a closed chat with his group. “My page on Facebook was my major instrument in the talks,” Parkhomenko recalled.
He showed the city officials that thousands more people wanted to attend the rally and demanded permission for them to attend. When a young woman, a club manager, wrote on Facebook that she was scared but would nevertheless go to the protests, her posting was rapidly liked by thousands. Parkhomenko showed it to the city officials. He told them he was not a leader of the movement, just a messenger. The people in Moscow who had become so agitated didn’t need a leader or organization to tell them what to do or where to go; they got it all from social networks. When, during the meeting, he saw that the number of people RSVPed to the event had hit twenty thousand, Parkhomenko showed the iPad to city officials.
Eventually they agreed to give a permit for thirty thousand for December 10 but insisted that the protest site be moved away from the Kremlin—it could not be as close as Revolution Square—and they offered Bolotnaya Square, not far away, but separated by the Moscow River from the Kremlin. Everybody agreed, and Parkhomenko took a photo of the document and posted it on his Facebook page around 10 p.m. on December 8.
Klishin immediately changed the location for the protest on Facebook.
In the months to come this decision was to be the constant source of confusion and mutual accusations. The most radical protesters argued that such a big demonstration didn’t need official approval, causing the protest to lose momentum when the leaders agreed to move the event to Bolotnaya, which was not so close to the Kremlin. The more moderate protesters were convinced that Muscovites were not ready for violent clashes with the police.
Bolotnaya Square is on an island. The Moscow River runs on one side, and a small canal on the other. The Kremlin is located across the river. On Saturday, December 10, more than fifty thousand people crowded onto the island. Nothing so large had been seen in Moscow since the dying days of the Soviet Union. Those who could not make it watched it live on TV Dozhd.
The protesters were the heart of the new Russian middle class, people who usually were found in the restaurants and caf?s of Moscow but were now on the island with placards and slogans. The crowd was also sprinkled with the usual assortment of radical anarchists, journalists, and human rights campaigners who had attended demonstrations and marches over the years. But this time they were swallowed up in the mass of completely new faces, most of whom were attending a protest for the first time in their lives. Many of them held placards such as “Get our elections back” and “Putin must go.”
Lev Gershenzon, the head of Yandex News who had earlier stood up to Kremlin efforts and who brought his colleagues to the first protest after the fraudulent vote, took with him his seventeen-year-old daughter, Liza, who had with her a placard with big red words on a white sheet: “Give us back our voices,” it demanded.
The protest on Bolotnaya Square marked something completely new in Russian society. It was not political parties, trade unions, or charismatic leaders that drove Muscovites to demonstrate by the tens of thousands; those who went to Bolotnaya were not ready to support any political group or party. The crowd responded enthusiastically to popular thriller writer Boris Akunin who, in a speech, called only for the restitution of Muscovites’ right to elect their mayor and a rerun of the election in the capital.
The protesters were galvanized by anger over the election fraud, which had been exposed by new technologies on the web, and they were mobilized through social networks. In a country that was for centuries defined by hierarchical order, by a power vertical, it was remarkable to see citizens united by horizontal methods.
The protesters had also enthusiastically embraced a symbol: the white ribbon. It was originally proposed by a user on LiveJournal, Russia’s top blogging platform, and it went viral, with thousands taking it up—white ribbons appeared on user pics on users’ blogs and social media. Soon people took the white ribbon offline and began displaying them on their cars too.
This new experience also led to something very unusual for Russia: the protesters demanded transparency, which the Internet made possible. The activists posted the results of their talks with city officials immediately, and the organizing committee of the protests, formed after Bolotnaya, broadcasted its discussions online. The leaders reported all their moves—from choosing the new place for the next protest to collecting money—openly online. Navalny and Yashin were not at Bolotnaya because they were still sitting in jail, but crowds of people visited them every day, singing songs outside the police stations. Navalny’s charisma and optimism changed people’s attitudes to such detentions; it became almost fashionable among hipsters to be detained.
For Putin and Medvedev, the rally at Bolotnaya Square was just what they had feared—a mass protest just outside the walls of the Kremlin. And it was facilitated by Facebook and Twitter, technology made in the West.
Many protesters on Bolotnaya Square were puzzled by the sight of an unfamiliar aerial vehicle with propellers circling overhead—some even thought it might be a UFO. The mysterious device was a radio-controlled aircraft, manned by Stanislav Sedov, a thirty-five-year-old drone enthusiast and highway engineer by training. A few days before the protest he had suggested to a friend, Ilya Varlamov, a well-known blogger who founded an agency for citizen journalism called Ridus, that they try to film the crowd from a drone. They got unofficial permission to launch the drone with a camera. How they secured this permission is not clear, but it was widely reported that Ridus was itself set up with the approval of the presidential administration. Perhaps the Kremlin wanted to get evidence of how few people went to protests.
On Bolotnaya, Sedov launched the little device from a protected police site. The police even chased away curious observers so they didn’t get in the way of the launch. When Sedov had his drone in the air, it became clear immediately that many more people had come to the demonstration than expected. The photographs became the very best evidence of the enormity of the crowd.
Almost immediately the pictures from the drone were posted online. The revolt of the wired was under way.
- CHAPTER 7 Revolt of the Wired
- 4.4.4 The Dispatcher
- About the author
- 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