Yevgeny Prigozhin, or “Putin’s chef,” as he’s called in the press, is notorious for two things: dispatching Russian mercenaries into war zones and running a troll farm accused of interfering in democratic elections. This report by Michael Weiss and Pierre Vaux features new insights, including leaked materials from within Prigozhin’s own organization, into how his operation in Africa has evolved into the realm of political consultancy and “election monitoring” using a network of European far-right extremists.
Free Russia Foundation recently hosted Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two investigative journalists from Russia who specialize in security services and internet surveillance, and sat down to talk about control over the internet in Russia, and whether independent media and civil society can prosper in an environment of growing censorship.
You have written a book about electronic surveillance in Soviet times and in modern Russia, and during the internet era. How widespread is government surveillance of the public today?
Andrei: Surveillance carried out by the Russian security services has not ever been intended for monitoring the entire population. The idea of using surveillance, the very fact of its existence, is to intimidate the public. Surveillance is only employed on people who the Kremlin perceives as dangerous – political activists, journalists, experts, people who express an independent opinion. These people may indeed be under surveillance and materials intercepted by the security services can then be used as kompromat. We’ve seen this in the case of Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny and many others. But the very fact that they are being watched becomes public and later people who have no connection to the opposition or political movements will feel limited in expressing their opinion, including on the internet. As in the old days over the phone, now people are afraid to express their opinions online.
Irina: We can say that, in technical terms, the Russian security services have fallen behind, relatively speaking, compared with their American counterparts, for example. They do not have the technical capability to intercept everyone simultaneously and store this data. But since the Russian security services are not bound by oversight, the possibilities of using intercepted information for their own purposes, including that which is obtained illegally, are unlimited. Therefore, people know that if they are under surveillance – their communications are being intercepted and they are being watched – it means that some kind of repression will follow. It’s not like how the NSA gathers information on you and puts the data on hold until they might need it. In Russia, if you’re in the sights of the security services, it is very bad.
So, the SORM system* is not pervasive?
Andrei: No, we don’t have mass surveillance.
Irina: Although, they would love to have it.
Andrei: They are currently trying to create it, for example by forcing all Internet providers and operators to store data so that security services can have access to it. But there are problems with that since the country is so large that data is not stored in one place, but in different regions. It is not technically possible to analyze the whole country’s data at the same time. Therefore, they rely on targeted surveillance of people identified as potential troublemakers. But it does not work in reverse order, like how American intelligence agencies can analyze data and identify people who speak on a particular topic and then create a circle of suspects.
The Russian authorities have been successful in suppressing independent media, including through online censorship. Strict regulation of bloggers has been introduced, and the regulator Roskomnadzor can close down any online platforms on the basis of extremism and so on. But at the same time there are websites like Meduza, Alexei Navalny’s website, YouTube channel and social media available. The authorities have not been very successfully in blocking the messenger service Telegram. How do you see the Kremlin’s struggle to establish censorship of independent media and the readers’ efforts to bypass it?
Andrei: The Kremlin is bad enough in inventing ways to restrict access to information. But in general it’s very difficult to close access to opposition resources by technical means – readers can use VPN, proxies and still get access to what they want to read or see. The problem lies in the fact that for the majority of people – who do not actively seek out alternative information – the Kremlin creates technical difficulties around accessing that information. A good example of this is what happened to Telegram. People who really want to use Telegram use VPN. But a large number of people who used Telegram, but were not motivated to make a special effort to keep using it, they have left Telegram. According to some findings, up to 70% of the Telegram audience left after the service was officially restricted.
Irina: The internet is too big a challenge for the Kremlin, because it is not traditional media, where you can simply control the media owner or repress the editor in chief. This cannot be done with the internet because it is an environment where information is shared instantly and it is very difficult to control. If something happens, some kind of crisis, and people begin to share information, then it is difficult to control 1,000 users at once; it is almost impossible. The tragic college shooting in Kerch is an example of this. At first, the authorities as always began to promote a narrative that a gas explosion had occurred and that was the cause of the deaths. But the authorities did not even have time to react, as videos from the scene began to appear and it quickly became clear there was no gas explosion. The Kremlin could not stop the flow of information. This gives reason for optimism.
But if we talk about the ability of independent media to operate online, to what extent is it possible? The majority of independent initiatives seem to be based abroad.
Andrei: It’s not just that. The fact is that if you want to establish an independent media platform, you must have independent sources of funding. We now have an increase in investigative journalism. We see a lot of projects, small projects, that do very important work and they really do great investigations on very important topics. But their audiences are very small, or if they are large and considered a threat to the Kremlin, advertisers will not go to them. If you do not receive advertising revenue, what is your alternative? Subscriptions? Subscribing involves identifying users and people fear that they can be identified via the surveillance system and it can be used against them. Therefore, the problem here is not technical; it lies outside the internet. We simply cannot find a business model that would allow us to create truly independent media. So far, we Russian journalists have learned to create media outlets that provide an alternative point of view, but we have not invented models for truly independent media.
What is your prediction about whether civil society will gain strength or somehow change the situation in Russia, particularly in the context of the internet?
Irina: Russian civil society, unlike political parties, is strengthening every day. In addition to the huge number of people participating in the Navalny movement – which is not yet a political party but rather a broad movement of resistance to the Kremlin and the current government – there are a lot of volunteer movements. We have not seen volunteer movements in Russia before; this is new and the movements are coordinated via the internet. There are people helping in many areas, like organizations that help prisoners, women in trouble, disabled people, and so on. All this is civil society activity and if they didn’t have the opportunity to coordinate through the internet, there would be nothing at all. The Kremlin does not like this civic activity, but it cannot do much because it is made up of masses of people. It’s not hundreds or thousands anymore – it’s already in the tens of thousands of people.
Andrei: One of the ways the Kremlin can control the situation is to convince people that they should not engage in political and social activities. The Kremlin has always created the perception that if you have problems with the state, then you will be absolutely alone. There will be a huge Leviathan state that will simply crush you. And that indeed was the case for many years in Russia. If you were an ordinary activist – not a famous journalist or writer – and you had problems with the state, then the state would most likely crush you. What is changing now – and this is thanks to the internet – is that civil society has removed this stigma from so many topics and has created a sense of support. If a person now finds himself or herself in a difficult situation, for example by being detained by the police, there are organizations like OVD-info and dozens of others that will help you. If a person goes to prison – it is no longer as scary as it was 10 years ago because the person will not be left on their own. Even if a person does not have money for a good lawyer, there are already organizations that will find one and help him. And this is something new. It removes the stigma from so many topics, it’s not so scary anymore. It’s still scary, but not so terrible and not so final. And it does not necessarily give confidence in the future, but at least some kind of hope.
Irina: Internet spreads hope.
So despite targeted surveillance as well as self-censorship, the Russian authorities still cannot control the internet as they would like to and that gives hope for some change in terms of strengthening civil society.
Andrei: Yes, the changes are already underway.
Andrei: As Irina said, civil society is growing and this cannot be stopped.
Irina: If it were a totalitarian regime, they could stop it. But an authoritarian one cannot. The regime in Russia, thank God, is not totalitarian.
*SORM – Soviet and Russian electronic surveillance system (Sistema Operativno-Rozysknikh Meropriyatiy, or System of Operative Search Measures). Russian legislation requires all of Russia’s internet service and phone providers to install a device in their lines, a black box that connects the lines to the Federal Security Services, the FSB. The FSB is then able to intercept and store communication and data.