How everyday Russians are breaking through Putin’s 'digital iron curtain'

Russians are using messaging apps, VPNs and other tools to evade censorship. None are perfect, but more are coming.

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Russians have few options for freely finding and sharing information online.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Nu, Pogodi,” translated into English as, “Well, Just You Wait!” is a Russian children’s cartoon about a wolf and a hare. In each episode, the wolf desperately chases the hare — often injured and tricked by the hare’s friends along the way — but never catches him. The Soviet-era cartoon was the USSR’s Tom & Jerry.

Today, the allegory has become coded language for some Russians’ feelings about the Russia-Ukraine war and the government’s censorship of pro-Ukrainian narratives. Screenshots from the cartoon are shared as memes, with the hare a stand-in for free speech, and the Kremlin the wolf.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russians have fewer options for freely finding and sharing information online. Facebook parent company Meta was ruled guilty of “extremist” activities, Facebook and Instagram were banned, TikTok was limited to only show Russian content and Twitter access was restricted.

When Moscow passed a law declaring any media countering the Kremlin’s narrative as “fake news,” most Russians lost access to accurate reporting about the war in Ukraine. But some Russians, especially young people, are finding workarounds. Some no doubt support the Kremlin and just want access to the internet they're used to. But others are finding coded ways to speak out about the war on the social media apps that remain functional in the country, using VPNs and Tor browsers to access Western media sites, and maxing out what little freedom they have on remaining non-Russian platforms like Telegram.

“When Russia increases their censorship, people just move to smaller, lesser-known apps or VPNs,” said Valentin Weber, a cyber-research fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s just so many loopholes. Endless possibilities.”

A digital iron curtain

Despite the bans and blocks of many Western social media apps, Russians still have access to homegrown options like VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki (OK), which are the platforms most similar to Facebook in the country. OK is more popular with older users and women, while VK is more popular with men.

According to Sensor Tower, downloads for both apps were up 16% in the second week of March when compared to the same period of time last year, likely because more popular apps like Instagram are no longer available.

Talk about the war in Ukraine on VK and OK is incredibly limited, with words like “war,” “invasion” and “assault” banned in the context of the conflict. The Russian government is also known to trump up charges for things that aren’t explicitly illegal, but displease the government. Speaking out in any explicit way about the war on VK, OK or any other native social media app is still a risk that carries jail time.

Instead, Russians use historical metaphors — which change often as the government catches on — to speak about the Kremlin in coded terms. “Nu, Pogodi!” is one example. Russians have also been using images of the cover of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” switching the words so it reads “Special Operations and Peace.” In many ways, Russian discourse on VK and OK mirrors that of the Ukrainian and Russian government publicly — a war fought with memes.

“The more stringent the censorship becomes, the more such tricks are going to be used,” Weber said.

Russian censorship is a deliberately decentralized process. Much of the existing research on censorship in authoritarian regimes focuses on centralized systems like the Great Firewall of China, so many analysts explain Russian censorship by comparing the two. China has a highly sophisticated, top-down system of algorithms and police which combine to form a network focused mostly on censoring unfavorable content in real time. Russia, on the other hand, employs a web of FSB agents, criminal hackers, the courts and public rhetoric to inspire self-censorship through a culture of fear.

Nu, Pogodi! - Long compilation - 3 Hours (HD)

A centralized censorship mechanism is resource-intensive. A decentralized one less so. But the war in Ukraine has raised the stakes, and now Russia is moving closer to the Chinese model by exercising broad, outright bans on certain companies and content.

“Russia is headed toward an approach that is closer to the Chinese approach in terms of creating a wall around communications in the country,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation Legal Director Corynne McSherry.

In some cases, Roskomnadzor has announced outright bans of platforms, as with Facebook and Instagram, while others have been discovered through leaked block lists. In some cases individual residential ISPs block sites under threat of enforcement, while DNS manipulation and TCP/IP blocking is also common. The government is also known to work with advanced technology companies to help track and censor online activity, as was the case with Nvidia, which may broaden the scope of online censorship beyond what can be detected by network tracking data.

Data from the Open Observatory of Network Interference shows that the Russian government is both throttling and blocking various platforms. Some blocks are unevenly applied, observed on some networks and not others, while different ISPs block content with varying techniques. This leaves Russians constantly changing the tools they use to evade censorship. It also leaves them fearful that tools that are relatively safe to use one day may be less safe or unavailable the next.

Last apps standing

Telegram is one of the few social media apps left standing, which is fitting — the platform was literally created so that people could converse without censorship from authoritarian regimes, by two Russians who fled the country after fighting with the Kremlin over data privacy. According to Sensor Tower data, 2.7 million Russians downloaded Telegram between Feb. 24 and March 20. Downloads have increased by 17% overall since the start of the war.

It’s unclear why Telegram has not been banned in Russia, but there are many theories. Some consider the platform too popular to fail, despite the fact that Instagram, too, was incredibly popular before it was banned. Others point out that there is plenty of Russian propaganda on Telegram and that users understand misinformation of all kinds proliferates on the site. This may allow the Kremlin and its supporters to dismiss pro-Ukrainian content.

Notably, the Russian government attempted to block Telegram in 2018, lifting the ban when it reached an agreement with Telegram to “help with extremism investigations.” It is unclear how this agreement is enforced.

Signal, meanwhile, is gaining on Telegram fast. The app has been downloaded 425,000 times total in Russia. From Feb. 24 to March 20 alone, downloads increased 286%. Daily active users have increased 81%.

WhatsApp data shows a more peculiar picture: 37% fewer Russians downloaded the app on the App Store last week than they did in the first week of the war. During the same period of time, there was a 15% increase in downloads on the Google Play store. This may have something to do with confusion over the ban on Facebook and Instagram.

Though other Meta platforms were banned for what a Russian court decided were “extremist” activities, WhatsApp was made an exception “due to its lack of functionality for the public dissemination of information.”

Peering around the curtain

Perhaps the most common — and risky — method of censorship evasion in Russia is the use of Tor browsers and VPNs, which help encrypt users’ web traffic. Both Instagram and Facebook have had Tor browsers for years, while Twitter created its own after access was restricted in the country. But OONI data shows that Russia has throttled or blocked access to most of the Tor browsers for major social media and websites whose original sites were already banned in the country.

The usage of VPNs, however, continues to increase. In the Russian iOS App Store on March 24, seven of the top 10 most downloaded apps were VPN apps. In the Google Play store, four of the top 10 were VPN apps. Cloudflare, which isn’t a VPN but makes it harder for ISPs to monitor online activity, is in the top five most popular apps on both platforms as well.

But there’s a host of potential problems. Different VPN apps come and go as Russia continues to tighten its restrictions, and not all VPNs are created equal. Many of the VPN apps that rank highly on both stores do not make any commitment about data sharing, and metadata like device IDs and locations can reveal a person’s identity. Russians are currently switching between different tech tools every few days to access blocked content, and each time must reevaluate how private the tool actually is. To make matters worse, scammers are known to take advantage of this climate, rolling out fake Tor browsers and VPNs loaded with malware and viruses. And even if someone is able to find a secure VPN, not get scammed and make it to the unfiltered World Wide Web, just one accidental post, comment or like can blow their cover.

“VPNs do not necessarily make you anonymous,” said Alexis Hancock, the EFF’s director of engineering. “I’m just hoping most people understand the risk, even though they’re pushed up against a wall right now.”

Developers and technologists are continuing to devise tech solutions for the Russian people, and people censored by authoritarian regimes worldwide. One that has attracted significant attention since the war began is Lantern, a U.S. company that has created a peer-to-peer network that evades blocks and throttling. It helps Russians access blocked sites like Facebook and Instagram without depending on international network infrastructure like Tor addresses and VPNs do.

Lantern has been dodging the Chinese government for years, and the company said usage has increased 100,000% worldwide since the start of the war (according to its own statistics — and it’s unclear how many users the platform originally had). According to Sensor Tower, Lantern saw 283,000 installs in Russia in March, accounting for 72% of Lantern’s worldwide downloads that month.

As the war continues, censorship will likely only intensify. Two documents published by Russia's digital development ministry in early March seem to suggest that Russia may want to disconnect from the World Wide Web entirely, something which Corynne McSherry from EFF calls the “Russia Wide Web.” Russia has reportedly been working for years to create what experts have called a "splinternet," something akin to China's system of online censorship. As Russians lose access to information at home, those outside the country have resorted to cold-calling Russian citizens to tell them what's going on in Ukraine — a low-tech but effective way to reach around the digital iron curtain.

As Russia's walls grow higher, the network of tools to dig tunnels underneath them grows — and more are sure to come.


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