In 1950, imprisoned Soviet scientists began laying the theoretical and technical foundations for what was meant to become a pervasive surveillance apparatus, allowing the KGB to listen in on any and all conversations, identify any and all voices, and affect near total political control. It was a power that no Soviet leader ever attained. But 65 years after Joseph Stalin launched that project, according to The Red Web, a new book by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Vladimir Putin may be on the verge of completing it.
Continuity is, in many ways, the theme of The Red Web, which, despite its subtitle (The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries) is about much more than the battle for control over the Internet in Russia. Having demonstrated the resurgent power of Russia’s secret services in their first book, The New Nobility, Soldatov and Borogan devote much of The Red Web to tracing the roots of modern Russia’s surveillance programs back to the KGB. It is a convincing effort, as the authors take the reader back to the 1950s and show how, for more than six decades, the Soviet and then Russian state sought to apply its best minds and, eventually, its best technology to the task of knowing who was doing what, when, where and why.
It is worth noting how quickly those two words, ‘Putin demurred’, become surprising.
Nevertheless Soldatov and Borogan – perhaps inadvertently – make it clear how quickly and how radically things can change.
Though the arc of their story runs from the Kremlin of Stalin to the Kremlin of Putin, the book’s greatest accomplishment may be in highlighting the degree to which Putin’s Kremlin in 2015 differs from the one he inherited from Boris Yeltsin.
When the Kremlin came calling
One of the most remarkable scenes in a book full of vivid narrative comes from early in Putin’s first term, when the man who would shortly become president gathered a group of the country’s emergent Internet elite.
Their goal was to discuss a proposal by Mikhail Lesin, Minister of Communications at the time, that would have given the government significant control over the domain name system. Present were the likes of Arkady Volozh (one of the founders of Russian internet company and search engine Yandex), Anton Nossik (the eventual head of blogging and social networking service LiveJournal), Mikhail Yakushev (a lawyer who would go on to help run Mail.ru), and Artemiy Lebedev (a designer and on-line entrepreneur). Lebedev led the charge, angrily accusing the government of a power grab and demanding it be stopped. Remarkably, Lebedev won: Lesin’s plan was shelved, as Putin demurred.
It is worth noting how quickly those two words, ‘Putin demurred’, become surprising. By the end of the book, this Internet elite are, with rare exceptions, too timid to challenge Kremlin policy and would not dare speak to Putin the way they did in 1999. It is this shift, from a political setting in which the Kremlin was only one power player among many, and in which there was no fear of debate, to one of monopolised power and frightened acquiescence, that is so startling.
While this transition from tentative pluralism to robust autocracy is amply illustrated by Soldatov and Borogan, they do not fully explain it. The reader is left to wonder, along with the astonished authors, at the speed with which Russia’s Internet providers gave into government demands to install eavesdropping devices on their servers, and at the general failure of citizens to care. To the extent they hint at an answer, it is to suggest that Russian citizens (including the owners and executives of burgeoning Internet businesses) also suffer from a ‘syndrome of continuity’.
Just as habits of surveillance and unaccountability carried through from the KGB to its post-Soviet successor, the FSB, so, perhaps, did the habits of quiet powerlessness carry through from Soviet citizens to their Russian descendants.
If that is true, and if the new Russian surveillance state is reinforcing those habits of mind on both sides of the state-society relationship, then Russia will not emerge from this trap for the foreseeable future.
At the same time as Putin began to reinvigorate the FSB’s SORM eavesdropping project and expand it to cover the Internet, he was creating a new financial surveillance service designed to provide him with a complete view of what the Russian political and economic elite was doing with its money. As Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes have described, this knowledge has underpinned the Kremlin’s ability to redistribute rent-producing assets more or less at will. When the state comes calling, whether for a contribution to a prestige mega-project or to push an oligarch off his perch, most have learned not to resist.
Walking on the knife's edge
However, the Kremlin doesn’t put all of this newfound knowledge and capability to as much use as it might. By contrast, China, while allowing a degree of debate in its heavily filtered online space, swoops almost instantly on any hint of mobilisation, erasing the offending content and pursuing its creators. Russia does not.
Despite a very real threat of repression, there is still considerable online mobilisation. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and LiveJournal are used to this day by leading opposition movements such as Alexei Navalny’s team and by smaller, localised protest groups, like the recent efforts to block construction in two Moscow parks. Soldatov and Borogan leave little doubt that this activity is monitored. But suppression is sporadic and, by and large, unpredictable.
Suppression is sporadic and, by and large, unpredictable.
The creation of a virtually omniscient Kremlin may be less about enforcing active control of the social, political and economic space in Russia than it is about encouraging Russians in all walks of life to control and censor themselves.
It is not simply that there is no place for Russians to hide. Without clarity about where the red lines are for political and even economic behaviour, there is no way to hedge. One cannot carefully walk on the knife’s edge, when that edge itself is kept purposefully obscure.
That, then, may be the difference between the Russia of 1999 and the Russia of 2015. Yeltin’s FSB pursued the SORM surveillance project, just as the KGB had for decades before, and while the details were obscure, the project itself was far from secret. But when Lebedev berated Putin and Lesin 16 years ago, he had no reason to believe he was crossing a line – or even that he was anywhere near a line that could be crossed – and thus there was no fear, no reticence and no acquiescence.
Today, fear of the Kremlin and the FSB is predicated on a dangerous combination of omniscience and obscurity, giving Russians the sense that their government will know when they’ve crossed a line before they do.
Andrei Soldatov & Irina Borogan's 'The Red Web: The Struggle between Russia's digital dictators and the new online revolutionaries', is published by PublicAffairs press on 8 September.