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A NPR Great Read of 2015
The Internet in Russia is either the most efficient totalitarian tool or the device by which totalitarianism will be overthrown. Perhaps both.
On the eighth floor of an ordinary-looking building in an otherwise residential district of southwest Moscow, in a room occupied by the Federal Security Service (FSB), is a box the size of a VHS player marked SORM. The Russian government’s front line in the battle for the future of the Internet, SORM is the world’s most intrusive listening device, monitoring e-mails, Internet usage, Skype, and all social networks.
But for every hacker subcontracted by the FSB to interfere with Russia’s antagonists abroad — such as those who, in a massive denial-of-service attack, overwhelmed the entire Internet in neighboring Estonia — there is a radical or an opportunist who is using the web to chip away at the power of the state at home.
Drawing from scores of interviews personally conducted with numerous prominent officials in the Ministry of Communications and web-savvy activists challenging the state, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan peel back the history of advanced surveillance systems in Russia. From research laboratories in Soviet-era labor camps, to the legalization of government monitoring of all telephone and Internet communications in the 1990s, to the present day, their incisive and alarming investigation into the Kremlin’s massive online-surveillance state exposes just how easily a free global exchange can be coerced into becoming a tool of repression and geopolitical warfare. Dissidents, oligarchs, and some of the world’s most dangerous hackers collide in the uniquely Russian virtual world of The Red Web.
The Red Web
Copyright © 2015 by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan.
Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™, a Member of the Perseus Books Group
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Book Design by Cynthia Young
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The red web : the struggle between Russia's digital dictators and the new online revolutionaries / Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 97811-61039157418 (electronic)
1. Internet—Political aspects—Russia (Federation) 2. Information society—Political aspects—Russia (Federation) 3. Internet—Access control—Russia (Federation) 4. Electronic surveillance—Russia (Federation) 5. Freedom of information—Russia (Federation) 6. Russia (Federation)—Politics and government—1991–
I. Borogan, I. (Irina) II. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
"Information wants to be free."
—Futurist Stewart Brand
"This is not a phone conversation."
—a Russian expression meaning a wish to discuss something in person because somebody else might be listening
1. The Prison of Information
2. The First Connection
3. Merlin's Tower
4. The Black Box
5. The Coming of Putin
6. Internet Rising
7. Revolt of the Wired
8. Putin Strikes Back
9. "We Just Come Up with the Hardware"
10. The Snowden Affair
11. Putin's Overseas Offensive
12. Watch Your Back
13. The Big Red Button
14. Moscow's Long Shadow
15. Information Runs Free
About the Authors
In an otherwise residential district of southwest Moscow, a nineteen-story gray-and-white high rise, surrounded by a modest fence, could at first glance be mistaken for an average apartment block. But there is something odd about it: Only twelve of the floors have windows.
This building is the heart of the Russian Internet: phone station M9, containing a crucial Internet exchange point known as MSK-IX. Nearly half of Russia's Internet traffic passes through this structure every day. Yellow and gray fiber-optic cables snake through the rooms and hang in coils from the ceilings, connecting servers and boxes between the racks and between floors. Google rents an entire floor on M9 so to be as close as possible to the Internet exchange point of Russia. Each floor is protected by a thick metal door, accessible only to those with a special card.
On the eighth floor is a room occupied by the Federal Security Service, or Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or the FSB, the main successor organization to the KGB, but the FSB's presence is evident on all the floors. Scattered among the communications racks throughout the building are a few electronic boxes the size of a video player. These boxes are marked SORM, and they allow the FSB officers in the room on the eighth floor to have access to all of Russia's Internet traffic. SORM stands for the Russian words meaning "operative search measures." But the words imply much more.
SORM boxes once intercepted just phone calls. Now they monitor e-mails, Internet usage, Skype, cell phone calls, text messages and social networks. It is one of the world's most intrusive listening devices, and it is the Russian government's front line in a monumental battle for the future of the Internet. The battle has stakes for everyone who ventures into the digital universe.
This book is a journey through this conflict as it has unfolded in Russia during recent decades, a quarter century of tumult from the Soviet Union, which sought to put information in a kind of prison, to the emergence of a new Russia. The book shows that in some ways, Russia did not break entirely with its Soviet past; the SORM boxes, invented by the KGB, have been constantly updated ever since and are used to this day against political opposition. In other ways, however, Russia has become an entirely new country of digital revolutionaries who have learned to thrive on free information at their fingertips, communicate on social networks, and read headlines about the world. In 1991 Russia inherited a dysfunctional and broken communications system with barely a connection abroad, and today it stands in the top ranks of those developing countries that are wired to the world. In a global survey by the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of those questioned in Russia said they had online access, compared to 63 percent for China and 87 percent in the United States.1 The book is an investigation into these two great forces—surveillance and control on one side, and freedom on the other—and what happens when they collide. It does not yet have a definitive ending.
But the significance of these events extends far beyond Russia, and not only because the Kremlin has repeatedly attempted to change the global rules of the Internet, to build national frontiers in what today is a wide open space.
We have interviewed dozens of participants in the events described and examined thousands of pages of documents. In a nation with a strong tradition of secrecy, even today, it is very difficult to find the truth or people to talk about it. This wall of silence became more pronounced after President Vladimir Putin returned to power in 2012 in the face of popular protests and tightened the flow of information by new laws and practices of censorship and intimidation.
Part I of the book covers the Soviet collapse and the nearly two decades leading up to the Moscow protests of 2011–2012. Part II takes a closer look at some of the forces driving the conflict and what has happened since Putin's return and the outbreak of violence in Ukraine. As co-authors, we wrote the book together and refer to ourselves in the narrative by our first names. We researched and wrote this book not only as journalists but also as insiders and participants in the events we chronicle, as well as products of both the last of the Soviet years and the digital revolution itself.
Chapter 1. The Prison of Information
In January 1950 Abram Trakhtman, a thirty-two-year-old major of the Ministry of State Security, a forerunner of the KGB, faced a personal crisis that threatened his entire career in Stalin's secret police. For days he had sat alone in his office, located in a three-story, red-brick building in northeast Moscow.
The building on the compound was first erected in 1884 for a Russian Orthodox Church seminary. In the early 1920s, after the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of an officially atheist state, the seminarians were expelled. The seminary was turned into a prison for adolescents. Then, in the 1940s, it was transformed again.
The building stood on the outskirts of a small village, Marfino, which had just one cobblestone road. Bus no. 37 from city center stopped there twice a day. In 1947 the village was suddenly surrounded by newly erected walls and transformed into a Soviet secret research facility. It was named Object Eight and known informally as the sharashka of Marfino. A sharashka was a prison camp that held scientists who were put to work using their expertise for the state. They could not leave, but their conditions were better than the rugged prison camps of the Soviet gulag. At Marfino the rooms were filled with convicted and imprisoned engineers, mathematicians, and linguists who were working to help the secret police find ways to provide secure telephone technology for Joseph Stalin.
Down the corridor from Trakhtman's office was a large room, a former church cupola that had been subdivided so it looked like a half-moon chamber. On the ceiling the original church paintings were still visible, but down below it was crowded with radio and telephone equipment.
Trakhtman, thin-faced, with round, owlish eyeglasses and a head of naturally curly hair, was reluctant to go to the round room just now, even though he knew his subordinates were waiting for him.
Abram Trakhtman was the chief of the acoustic laboratory.
He wore a green uniform with gold shoulder straps and a cap with a blue crown. The blue had been embraced by Russian secret services since the days of the tsars. An engineer by training, Trakhtman had enjoyed a very successful career up until January 1950. He was born to a Jewish family in a small Ukrainian town in the Pale of Settlement. He survived the pogroms, made it to Moscow, and entered the Moscow Communications Institute, graduating just before World War II. He then joined the Central Research Institute of Communications, where he was noticed by Alexander Mints, a prominent Soviet physicist and radio engineer highly regarded by the Soviet authorities. Mints made him part of his entourage, and Trakhtman earned two Stalin Prizes during the war.1
When the Ministry of State Security decided to launch the Marfino project in 1947, Mints was asked to lead it, but he declined.2 Trakhtman got the job, which he eagerly accepted. He was given his own laboratory. He always wore the gold insignia of his Stalin Prize on his uniform. Yet now Trakhtman found himself in a dangerous situation—just when he thought he was on the verge of advancement.
Only two months before, Trakhtman's laboratory had achieved a major success. They helped catch a government official who was providing sensitive secrets to the Americans. The laboratory consisted of five people; three of them were inmates, including the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his close friend Lev Kopelev. (Solzhenitsyn was later sent off to a labor camp.) A gifted philologist, Kopelev was a big, flamboyant man with thick black hair, a black beard and mustache, and large, expressive eyes—a real firebrand. It was Kopelev who had identified a Foreign Ministry official who made a phone call to the US Embassy in Moscow, thereby revealing the existence of an undercover Soviet spy who was headed to New York to steal atomic bomb secrets. To accomplish this, Kopelev had analyzed the recording of an intercepted phone call and fingered one of five suspects. The suspected caller was arrested. Kopelev, excited by this success, thought he had created a new scientific discipline and gave it a name: phonoscopy.
With Kopelev by his side, Trakhtman made contact with a high-ranking general and won permission to establish a new research institute that would work specifically on speech recognition and speaker identification. Excited, Trakhtman told Kopelev that they would have a promising future together and asked Kopelev to think about what kind of equipment they would need for the new institute. A location for the sharashka was found in the center of Moscow.3
But January 1950 was an unfortunate time for an engineer with a name like Abram Trakhtman, even within the state security apparatus. A year before, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda had accused Jewish theater critics of unpatriotic behavior in an article edited personally by Stalin, and the Soviet press launched an orchestrated campaign against "cosmopolitanism," which was essentially an attack on prominent Jews.4 The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded, many of its members arrested, and Jewish newspapers and publishing houses were closed. The campaign then turned into something akin to a witch hunt, with Jewish doctors being accused of poisoning Soviet leaders. In 1950 the anti-Semitic campaign reached the ranks of state security. Just a few days after Trakhtman had secured the general's approval, he was told that the building chosen for the new sharashka was not sufficiently secure. Then he was told that Marfino's prisoners could not be moved to this building because it was too risky to have them in the center of Moscow. It was clear to him that his plans were being deliberately and repeatedly delayed. Days passed without any decisions being made. Trakhtman was rarely seen in his laboratory, the half-moon chamber. His subordinates concluded that he was afraid to address their questions about the fate of the new project. They were right.
Finally Trakhtman was told he would not get any convicted engineers for his new sharashka. Despairing, Trakhtman tried to raise the stakes. He refused to be a director of the new institute without his prisoners and declared that the entire project was doomed without them.
That was a mistake. The general who had given him permission for the new institute proceeded to cancel it. Trakhtman was stripped of his rank of major and expelled from Marfino. In late January he went back to the compound one last time.
After much anxiety, he walked into the laboratory and then turned to Kopelev and said, "Now, strictly between us—it's impossible to be a director of the institute with such a name," meaning a Jewish name like Trakhtman. He then squeezed Kopelev's hand, smiled sadly, and left.5
With his ambitious plans for a new sharashka destroyed, Trakhtman soon relocated to another top-secret facility, working on missile guidance systems, a part of the Soviet space effort. For Trakhtman, research on speech recognition was over. The most promising project of his life was ruined.
But the general did not forget about Trakhtman's subordinates at Marfino's acoustic laboratory. They remained locked up at Marfino for another three years until December 1953, when eighteen prisoners were transferred from Marfino to a sharashka outside of Moscow. It was called Kuchino, another compound of the security service, and the talented Lev Kopelev followed them in January 1954. The compound was controlled by the Soviet secret police and intelligence service, which was renamed that year the Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti, or, simply, the KGB.
Kuchino, about twelve miles east of Moscow, was set on an old prerevolutionary industrialist's estate. It became the KGB's main research center for surveillance technologies, including the all-pervasive Soviet system of phone tapping and communications interception. From this day forward, speech recognition research and telephone wiretapping were bound together, funded and directed by the KGB.
The Soviet secret services wanted to make sure they could properly intercept any call, and identify the person who made it. They wanted to make sure that information in the Soviet Union—all kinds of information, including communications between people—was under their control. Long before the term was fashionable, they determined that they wanted to be the dictators of data.
When Vladimir Fridkin graduated from the physics department at Moscow State University in December 1952, he earned a diploma with honors in physics. A thin-faced but earnest young man, he could not land a job in physics, despite months of searching. He was repeatedly turned down. He knew the reason: he was a Jew, and the anti-Semitic campaign launched by Stalin had erased all the advantages Fridkin might have expected with his degree.6
He gave up hopes of becoming a nuclear physicist and finally landed a job at the Scientific Research Institute of Polygraphic Engineering. The institute occupied a few miserable barracks in the rear of a large factory in the west of Moscow. When Fridkin first opened the door of his small office, it was almost empty—there was nothing but a table and chair. It was an inauspicious beginning: he could hardly carry out scientific research in the barren little room.
Instead, he went every day to sit for hours under a green-shaded lamp in the vast, high-ceilinged reading room of the Lenin Library near the Kremlin. The library held the largest collection of books, documents, and dissertations in the country, in hundreds of languages. One day, while there, he discovered an article written by Chester Carlson, an American physicist, about the process of electrophotography, or, more simply, photocopying.7
There was nothing like photocopying in the Soviet Union. Fridkin was intrigued by the possibility that he could build a Soviet copying machine. First, he went to the institute's department of electrical equipment and asked them to get him a high-current generator. Then he went back to the physics department where he had studied at the university and obtained sulfur crystals and a photographic enlarger. In his small office he experimented. He tried to make a copy of a page, then of a photograph. One day he succeeded in duplicating an image of Mokhovaya Square, a well-known landmark in front of the Kremlin. When the director of the institute saw this he exclaimed, "You do not understand what you invented!" The director immediately ordered the institute's designers to take what Fridkin had done and transform it into a single machine that could make photocopies. When they managed to do this, the first copying machine in the Soviet Union was born. It was box-like, more than three feet high and two feet across, with two cylinders on the top and the high-current generator attached. It was named the Electrophotography Copying Machine No. 1.
Even though the machine was primitive, nobody doubted the significance of the invention. The institute director called the ministry—in the Soviet centrally planned economy, a government ministry oversaw every such institute. Soon the minister himself came to the Institute of Polygraphic Engineering to see the machine, and he was so impressed that he ordered it into mass production. A factory in Chisinau in the Soviet republic of Moldova was selected to produce the new machines, and a special electrophotography research institute was established in Vilnius. At twenty-four years old, Fridkin was appointed deputy chief. He was featured in a television show praising the Soviet achievements in science. He was also paid a bonus for his accomplishment.
Although Fridkin felt much better, he still wanted to be a physicist. At last, in 1955 he was given a job at the Institute of Crystallography. When he moved there, his copying machine followed him. For two years his colleagues at the institute came to his room every day to use his machine to copy articles from foreign journals. Fridkin became a very popular person in the institute. Then, one day in 1957, a nice young woman from the KGB section walked into his room. Fridkin had known her. She had a pretty face, wore plain clothes, and Fridkin often spent time drinking tea and chatting with her. But she brought bad news. "I have to take away your device and destroy it," she said. Fridkin asked whether she knew that this was the first copying machine in the Soviet Union. "I know, but people who come over to you can copy some prohibited materials," she replied.
The first copying machine in the Soviet Union was smashed to pieces, and the parts were taken to a dump. One critical part of it, a slab of mirror, was salvaged and put up in the women's restroom. Fridkin's institute did not carry out secret research, so the decision to destroy his machine was not protecting anything at the institute; rather, it reflected the broader and deeper paranoia of the Communist Party. The party maintained a stranglehold on power and a chokehold on information. It could not tolerate the possibility that Fridkin's invention might be used to freely make copies of unapproved documents and allow them to be easily distributed.
In a few years the factory in Chisinau ceased production. Fridkin knew that the quality of the machines produced by the Chisinau factory was not very high. But it was hardly a reason to stop making them. Later, when photocopying became routine in the West, the Soviet Union bought Western Xerox machines, but its attitude to information remained unchanged. The few photocopiers that were brought from abroad were kept under lock and key in party offices or in the Academy of Sciences. In many factories and institutes a special staffer operated the photocopier under the watchful gaze of the KGB. It happened in Fridkin's institute too. He seethed with anger at the sight of the photocopying machines in his own institute being locked in the prison of information.
Stalin died in March 1953, and the brutal, totalitarian system of mass repression slowly began to relax. The mood in Soviet society started to change. Many gulag prisoners were released and returned home by 1955. In February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, made a speech at a closed session at the 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalin's crimes. The "secret speech" lasted four hours. In a few years Khrushchev loosened state controls in a period that became known as the Thaw. Dozens of different freethinking groups blossomed in the Soviet Union, including Moscow intellectuals, artists and writers, all kinds of nationalists, and Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate, known as "refuseniks." It was a time when many were optimistic, especially young people who yearned for better lives after the deprivations of war and Stalinism. But the Thaw did not last. In 1964 Khrushchev was ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who effectively ended reforms. In the autumn of 1965 arrests of intellectuals and writers began in Moscow and Ukraine, and censorship tightened. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 effectively marked the end of the Thaw.
But one feature of the period did not disappear. The circulation of uncensored information became an essential part of the dissident movement, if not its main goal. This included the circulation and copying of manuscripts, known as samizdat, or self-published, and it covered a wide horizon of material: banned works of literature, social and political commentary, open letters, Solzhenitsyn's novels, and, from 1968 to the early 1980s, the Chronicle of Current Events, which reported human rights violations in the Soviet Union. Soviet dissidents didn't have Fridkin's machine nor a Western-made Xerox. They hammered out their works on carbon paper with a typewriter known as the Erika, made in Eastern Germany, which could produce only four copies at a time.
In the Soviet Union the state had always held the upper hand when it came to distributing information. All other sources, like independent media or the church, were outlawed. "A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer," Lenin wrote in 1901 in the fourth issue of Iskra, the main Bolshevik newspaper. The Bolsheviks wanted newspapers to organize and mobilize the masses, not to inform them. They could not tolerate an independent press after the 1917 revolution: from their point of view it was impossible to let the enemy—a capitalist, free press—present an alternative worldview to the masses. Stalin repeated Lenin's words in 1923 in an article, "The Press as Collective Organizer," in Pravda.8
A Library Journal Best Book of 2015
A NPR Great Read of 2015
"[Soldatov and Borogan] pull at the roots of the surveillance system in Russia today, and their research leads them quickly to the paranoid society of the Soviet Union." -The Wall Street Journal
"A well researched and disturbing book by two brave Russian authors." -The Economist
"A gripping book about of the internet and its censorship in post-Soviet Russia... Having covered technology and the security services from the start of their careers in the 1990s, the two Russian journalists have accumulated expert knowledge few can match. And yet they have written a book not for geeks but for anyone who wants to understand how their country works." -Financial Times
"A masterful study of the struggle between the Kremlin's desire to control information and the unruly world of ordinary digital citizens." -The Guardian (UK)
"Soldatov and Borogan, two young journalists, dogged and nervy, are detectives, tracking down players on all sides...A high-tech adventure." -Foreign Affairs
"Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan's The Red Web could not be more timely. It is a meticulously researched and highly readable history of Russian online communication, from its birth in the twilight of Soviet power to the flourishing social networks and varied blogposts of today." -Daniel Treisman, Digital Russia
"[An] excellent, highly readable tale of the ongoing struggle to control digital life in Russia. ...[Soldatov and Borogan] have gone on to become foremost experts on the Russian secret services, and count among the country's few remaining practicing investigative journalists." -Los Angeles Review of Books
"Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two of Russia's top investigative journalists specializing in espionage, have given us a thrilling account of the online war between Russian surveillance and digital protesters. ... A superb book by two brave journalists. It deserves to be widely read because it asks profound questions about freedom and the future of the internet." -International Affairs
- "Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are two of Russia's best-known investigative journalists...Soldatov and Borogan are storytellers as well as, occasionally, protagonists. This set-up works well, making The Red Web even more engaging...The Red Web elegantly blends technology, history and politics."—Survival
- On Sale
- Sep 8, 2015
- Page Count
- 384 pages