Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on at a news conference in Ufa, Russia, on July 10, 2015. Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on at a news conference in Ufa, Russia, on July 10, 2015. Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Since the days of the Soviet Union, Russians have found ways to communicate using new technologies.

In 1955 a young Soviet physicist named Vladimir Fridkin created something amazing: a boxlike machine, more than 3 feet high and 2 feet across, with two cylinders on the top and the high-current generator attached, that produced a very first copy of a photograph in the Soviet Union. Fridkin proudly named the device the Electrophotography Copying Machine No. 1. The authorities seemed happy—Fridkin was featured in a television show praising the Soviet achievements in science and received a small bonus for his accomplishment.

Fridkin became very popular in his research institute as his colleagues kept coming to his room every day to copy articles from foreign journals. Two years passed, and then he got a visitor of different kind. A female KGB officer went to his office to remove the machine. The first copying device in the Soviet Union was smashed to pieces, and the parts were taken to a dump. The reason? “People who come over to you can copy some prohibited materials,” Fridkin was told. Photocopiers produced in the West eventually made it to the Soviet Union, but they were kept under lock and key, available only in the offices of the Communist Party.

More than 20 years later, the Soviet Union was preparing to host the Olympic Games in Moscow, in the summer of 1980. To host it properly meant to have international phone lines, lots of them. So in 1979 the number of international lines in the country was significantly increased. An international telephone exchange station, known as M9, was launched in the southwest of Moscow. The Soviet engineers were proud to make the breakthrough: The new channels provided automatic connection, without an operator, which was unheard of in the Soviet Union. But this didn’t last for long. Just a few months after the Olympics, the KGB requested that the automatic international connection be destroyed. The engineers argued that all lines could be held under surveillance and intercepted, if the KGB wanted, and asked not to cut off the connection. But the KGB persisted. The automatic connection was cut off in the Soviet Union for all but a few chosen organizations, approved by the authorities.

The Soviet approach to control the population relied heavily on control over information by all means, from spying on what people say and read to limiting people’s communications. Access to modern communications mean horizontal ties, people talking to people, exchanging news and ideas. But the Soviet state was based on the idea of hierarchy, or a vertical, in which everything had to be authorized.

This story was repeated over and over again, until the Internet came to the country in 1990—first, not surprisingly, to the top-secret Kurchatov Institute for nuclear research in Moscow.

And then everything changed. In the summer of 1991, the KGB attempted to oust Gorbachev and reverse the democratic reforms unfolding. Tanks and troops were sent to Moscow streets, and the KGB enacted strict censorship. But there was already a tiny network in the Soviet Union, connecting researchers in the country with their peers in the West. It was then mostly dial-up connection, thus slow and unreliable, but enough to exchange emails. This network became the first tool to spread information about the coup, reporting people’s reactions and troops’ moves inside the country and to the West.

The KGB failed to grasp the significance of the network—secret agents never raided the two tiny offices of the only Russian Internet service provider in Moscow. Thus the security services started to lose the battle against the network.

The August 1991 coup failed, and for the next 20 years the Internet in Russia developed free and uncensored. The security services tried to put it under some sort of control by forcing all Internet service providers to install black boxes on the networks. These black boxes, known as SORM, from the system of operative-research measures, provide backdoor access to all Russian communications, including the Internet for the Russian secret services. But the idea of the network was not affected. Everybody could participate without an authorization.

After Moscow protests in 2011-12, Vladimir Putin made it personal. In 2014 he said that the Internet was a CIA project and made sure to introduce repressive legislation to intimidate the biggest Internet companies in the country.

Putin was used to dealing with hierarchy and organizations that could be coerced by going after the bosses, and he attempted the same approach against Internet companies. Since 2012 top-level officials of Internet companies like Yandex and Google were invited to the Kremlin to talk privately about Internet filtering. In a way, this strategy paid off—the biggest national and global Internet companies swiftly accepted the idea of censored Internet, and they criticized only the way the Russian authorities wanted to do that—because the initially chosen method could easily lead to blocking of entire service like YouTube.

But networks have no tops; they are horizontal creatures. The content is generated not by the companies that operate websites and social media but by the users.

In the spring of 2014, the company Vkontakte, the most popular social network in Russia, modeled after Facebook, was placed under control of the Kremlin, imitating the approach Putin had used against traditional media in the early 2000s. The founder of the network, Pavel Durov, was forced out of the country. Soon he was replaced as CEO by Boris Dobrodeyev. The choice was noteworthy—Dobrodeyev’s father, Oleg, is a head of the television state empire, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company. And now his son headed the most popular social network in the country.But then the war in Ukraine started. The Russian authorities denied the Russian military involvement in the conflict. And soon Russian and Ukrainian journalists found dozens of profiles of Russian soldiers on Vkontakte who boasted of their exploits in Ukraine—sharing their names, their units, exact locations. This autumn, the story was repeated, now with the Russian soldiers sent to Syria. Most of these young soldiers knew nothing about the leadership of Vkontakte—and possibly they never heard of Durov or Dobrodeyev. But despite Putin’s attempts to control the Internet, the soldiers had revealed the truth.

In times of political stability, when the message is under the state’s control and the public believes in propaganda, the Internet as technology cannot do much. But then a crisis comes, of any kind—political, economic, or even a natural disaster—and it provokes the users to generate the content. The authorities have no means to stop them, unless they switch off the Internet completely.

By Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, Slate

Irina Borogan is a Russian investigative journalist and a co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.

Andrei Soldatov is a Russian investigative journalist and a co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.