How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On the morning of Sunday March 10, thousands of people gathered in the center of Moscow to protest proposed new legislation cracking down on Internet freedom. They waved placards saying “Save the Internet, Save Russia,” “Isolation—It’s Death,” and “NO to Digital Enslaving.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who was watching the protests on his TV, was unpleasantly surprised. “One of the speakers at the rally claimed that the Kremlin wanted to press a button and switch the Internet off,” he told the Russian wire agency Interfax. “It is absolutely wrong! Why aren’t they concerned that somebody on the other side of the Atlantic will press this button?”
Peskov was echoing official propaganda, which claims that the new legislation is essential to stop the United States from cutting Russia off from the Internet. But the protesters have good reason to believe that it is the Kremlin, not some Western conspiracy, that is endangering their Internet access.
In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it a crime to publish “fake news” or “disrespect of the authorities” on social media. Another proposed bill on “digital sovereignty” aims to provide the Kremlin with the ability to cut off Russia, or a particular Russian region, from the global Internet. The two bills deal with different things—content and infrastructure—but they both have the same goal, one that Putin has wanted to achieve for two decades: depriving the people of the means to start a revolution.
In 1991, Putin and his comrades from the KGB were traumatized by the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union. They didn’t want any more surprises. As early as 1999, Putin proclaimed that his goal was political stability—the preservation of the regime. Putin’s advisers suggested a simple solution to the threat of revolution: controlling the means by which they thought people organized. During Putin’s first term, the government brought trade unions, opposition parties, and independent TV channels to heel. But when, in the early 2000s, a series of popular protests, known as color revolutions, started in several of Russia’s neighbors—Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine—it became clear that the Russian government had targeted the wrong things. The Kremlin came to believe the color revolutions were the product of youth movements started from scratch, following—so Moscow thought—a political toolkit designed by the U.S. State Department to deal specifically with countries like Russia.
Ever since, the Kremlin has been locked in an imaginary arms race with the State Department. Every unexpected political change in a neighboring country—and in Russia itself—has been seen as a manifestation of the constantly evolving tactics of the Americans. In 2011, when Muscovites took to the streets to protest Putin’s return to presidency, the Kremlin saw the prominent role of Facebook and Twitter in organizing the gatherings as another cunning move by Washington, which had apparently found a way to use the Internet against autocracies. Social media’s role in the protests offered a stark warning: the security services could easily fail to prevent a revolution, as protests organized on Facebook have no leaders and no offline organizations that government agents could infiltrate and disrupt.
For the last six years, the Kremlin has been trying to find a solution to the Internet problem. The government has passed a barrage of repressive Internet legislation, including blacklisting banned websites and making it a crime to mock the official line on social media, with no apparent effect. Sensitive information, such as reporting on the Russian military presence in Ukraine and Syria and exposés of Kremlin officials’ corruption, remains available online.
The Kremlin hopes that the latest two bills will make a breakthrough. The so-called fake news law should help eliminate content that could provoke unrest, and the draft digital sovereignty law gives the government control over Internet traffic within Russia and across its borders. The law would require Russian Internet exchange points, through which Internet providers exchange traffic between their networks, and Internet service providers to report to a government agency about how they direct traffic and to install special equipment provided by the Kremlin.
This equipment has two main functions: blocking access to information deemed harmful by the authorities and redirecting or cutting off traffic. The first is to be active all the time; the second is meant to be used during a crisis. Already, the government has shown how it would work. Last fall, Ingushetia, a small republic in the North Caucasus, struck a deal redrawing its border with Chechnya. Since then, Ingush protestors have staged on-and-off demonstrations against the land swap. In response, the regional branch of the FSB instructed local operators to shut off mobile Internet access across Ingushetia for two weeks in October. The same happened on March 16, during a meeting of local activists in Nazran, Ingushetia’s largest city. Mobile Internet went down across the region until the meeting ended. The Kremlin hopes that the new law will allow it to initiate similar shutdowns remotely by giving a command center in Moscow control over the equipment to be installed on the premises of all Internet service providers, Internet exchanges, and border crossing points.
This obsession with central control stems from Russia’s traumatized past. The Kremlin is still haunted by the ghost of the Russian Revolution. In September 1917, Vladimir Lenin told his supporters, “We must … occupy the telegraph and the telephone exchange at once, move our insurrection headquarters to the central telephone exchange.” A few weeks later, Red Guard soldiers did just that.
Lenin’s immediate successors learned the lesson well. In the late 1920s, Central Telegraph, which operated the Russian telegraph system, built its headquarters a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, on Tverskaya Street. Control over communications, the means of possible insurrection, was essential, so the Soviet secret services were always nearby. Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin’s fearsome chief of secret police, had a spacious office in the building, as he was also a commissar of communications. Gennady Kudryavtsev, the last Soviet minister of communications, told me in 2014 that a personal lift in Yagoda’s Central Telegraph office “used to lead to the basement and then to the metro. I checked—the lift shaft was still there.” Today, the Central Telegraph building houses Russia’s Ministry of Communications, and the secret services are still close at hand.
The Soviets desperately wanted to control all communications from one central location, but technology let them down. Phone lines in the Soviet Union were so bad that calls could not be eavesdropped on from a distance, so the KGB was forced to build hundreds of eavesdropping points throughout the country.
These days, Russian communications technology is much more reliable, thanks to the thriving Russian IT industry. That has given the Kremlin hope that it can finally fulfill the Soviet dream of directing all of the country’s communications from one location in Moscow.
It is hard to say how feasible the Kremlin’s ambition is. Many experts, including activists from Roskomsvoboda, Russia’s only independent Internet censorship watchdog, believe that Internet communications could be centrally controlled for some regions and some services, such as YouTube, but not for the entire country, and not for all kinds of traffic. The new laws may damage Russian infrastructure and leave Russians with lower Internet speeds, although the extent of the damage is difficult to assess. The damage to the international reputation of Russian Internet companies, however, is already done.
Russia is one of the few countries with domestic Internet brands that enjoyed stronger reputations in the country than foreign ones. Russia’s Internet companies were built without any government support, a source of national pride. For six years after the 2011 protests, they resisted government pressure, sometimes even publicly expressing their uneasiness with the increasingly Soviet approach to Internet regulation championed by the Kremlin. That resistance ended this year. The two biggest Russian Internet brands—Yandex (a Russian version of Google) and Mail.Ru (which owns the two most popular Russian social media sites, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki)—came out in support of the digital sovereignty law in January, when the government promised to pay for the new equipment. In a global information society, technology may help resist authoritarian governments, but the people who run the technology companies often do not.