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.

"Couldn't load image" screenshot

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) www.youtube.com

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 1.1.1.1, 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.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins