Early on Tuesday morning, my Web site, Agentura.ru, which covers the activities of Russia's secret services, was shut down by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. My technical staff and I were forced to reset the site's server every 15 minutes, but it didn't help: the site was down for the most of the day.
This came later than I expected: many independent Russian news and analysis Web sites faced attacks and disruptions on Sunday, the day of Russia's parliamentary elections, in which the party favored by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, United Russia, suffered an embarrassing setback at the polls, even after engaging in widespread voting fraud.
In total, 14 sites were victims of DDoS attacks, including those of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the newspaper Kommersant, and Golos, the country's only independent election watchdog. Those Web sites were attacked as early as 6:40 on Sunday morning, according to Alexei Venediktov, Ekho Moskvy's editor-in-chief, and remained offline for the entire day. According to information-security experts at Yandex, Russia's largest search portal, more than 200,000 computers were turned into "slaves" for the DDoS attack, in which a targeted site receives so many requests for access that it simply shuts down. It is a simple, cheap, and effective way to disrupt a Web site, at least temporarily.
The attacked sites responded by migrating elsewhere. For example, the news portal Slon.ru and the Web site of the newspaper Bolshoi Gorod moved their content to the Web site of the television channel Dozhd. For their part, Ekho Moskvy and Golos used blogs on LiveJournal.com; when LiveJournal later came under attack, Golos switched to Google Docs to publish its data on electoral violations.
Putin's announcement in September that he, and not Dmitry Medvedev, would run for president in March prompted a backlash of renewed political activism among the Russian middle class. Many everyday citizens, along with journalists and activists, joined the ranks of volunteer election observers from the country's political parties for Sunday's parliamentary elections. They tried to prevent ballot stuffing, and documented violations with cell-phone cameras. The large-scale hacking attacks were clearly intended to prevent the news of these violations from getting out. Almost all the Web sites attacked on Sunday intended to publish Golos' data, which included video footage of ballot stuffing and photographs of banners for United Russia, forbidden on the day of elections.
The disabling of my Web site was part of the second wave of attacks. This phase had a different objective: instead of suppressing information about election fraud, the goal was to eliminate reporting about street protests against the election violations. On Monday, the small Web site Epic-hero.ru was attacked, apparently for announcing the first large-scale demonstration, at Chystie Prudi, a square in the center of Moscow. On Tuesday came an attack against Agentura.Ru, and on Thursday, an attack temporarily crippled the Web site of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that published Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was murdered in 2006 after years of reporting about Russian abuses in Chechnya.