The internet was the last free zone in Russian society. Now Putin has it in his grasp

As a former secret agent, it frightens the Russian leader that information can be shared on such a scale

 

Share

Vladimir Putin hates revolutions. In 1989, he was horrified when East Germans burned the Stasi headquarters in Dresden, where he worked as a young KGB agent. He took Russia’s 1991 revolutionary overthrow of the Soviet system as a personal betrayal. He scoffed at Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, and derided Ukraine’s (failed) 2004 Orange Revolution. He loathed the crowds in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli that formed the Arab Spring, and he continues to back his bandit client Assad in a bloody civil war against the Syrian revolution. And, most recently, when revolution came too close to home, he invaded Ukraine following the toppling of the Yanukovich regime.

The Russian president drew his own conclusion from all of these events: all talk of democracy leads to protests, and protests lead to revolution. The bottom line: Russia must end all talk of democracy.

Thus, when he became Russia’s leader back in 2000, Putin began the process of undermining democracy in Russia and stifling freedom of expression. First, he cleansed the Kremlin of opponents and ended political pluralism and installed his inner circle. This included old friends from his days as a KGB agent time working for the mayor of Saint Petersburg; they became rulers of Russia’s kleptocratic economy and enforcers of the Putinist system from which they profited.

Soon he attacked the media’s freedom. One by one, he shut down the liberal newspapers that had sprung up in the 1990s since the Perestroika reforms. In some cases, their editors and journalists were “kindly asked to leave”, in others, they simply disappeared. Having marginalised print media, Putin turned his attention to Russian television. Broadcasters that once carried lively debates were turned into stultifying Kremlin instruments. As state-controlled TV stations began to spout increasingly convoluted theories to demonstrate their loyalty to Putin, Russian propaganda entered the realm of the absurd – so much so that Soviet propagandists would hide behind their Putinist counterparts.

Once he cleared Russia’s politics, economy and media from undesirables, Putin turned to society itself. December 2011 witnessed the biggest demonstrations post-Soviet Moscow had ever seen. So Putin used the courts: Russia conducted dozens of political trials, many of them unreported. Today, with Russia in a de facto state of war, Putin’s societal re-engineering has intensified. The Kremlin now categorizes citizens into either “traitors” or “patriots”. It is able to do this by maintaining a monopoly on patriotism, Putin having hi-jacked the concept by presenting himself as the guardian of traditional Russian values.

But one combustible tool had so far eluded Putin’s grasp: the Internet. Until recently, Russians could only breathe freely online. The online world would offer alternative narratives to the propaganda Russians were spoon-fed on television and in print. Online, Russians entered another, freer world to the claustrophobic cage that Putin’s Russia had become.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Putin declared war on the web. Today, Russia’s most famous blogger – Alexei Navalny – is under house arrest, and Pavel Durov, the founder of Vkontakte (Russia’s answer to Facebook) has been forced to flee the country. New laws require that foreign networks have their servers inside Russia, and that Russian bloggers with over 3,000 followers register with the state.

Putin never quite understood the Internet. Between 1985 and 1990, he was a KGB agent in East Germany, sending communiqués by telegraph and transporting messages in his shoes. His next stop was the Saint Petersburg mayoral office, where shady deals with gangster businessmen were sealed with the help of a fax machine. He was appointed as Russian president on New Year’s Eve 1999 – several years before the dawn of the social-media and smartphone era.

As a former secret agent, it frightens him that information can be liked and shared on such a scale. As the self-proclaimed protector of the “Russian world” (what Putin calls former Soviet lands), he dislikes Russians being so exposed to Western values. As the head of a kleptocratic economy, he feels threatened by Russians taking control of their own business needs.  And, as an ultra-conservative, he is disgusted by the Internet’s liberalism.

Continued violence across Ukraine has heightened Western fears that the country could disintegrate into civil war Continued violence across Ukraine has heightened Western fears that the country could disintegrate into civil war  

Putin’s Internet illiteracy sets him apart from his Kremlin colleagues. Dmitry Medvedev, the puppet prime minister who kept Putin’s presidential seat warm between 2008 and 2012, has a reputation as a tech nerd who sought to create a Russian Sillicon Valley (the Skolkovo project). Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s loyal Chechen warlord, posts daily photos of his large family on Instagram. And Putin’s aggressive deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, is an avid Twitter user.

Yet the Russian president’s ignorance of the online world is clear for all to see. Putin dismissed the Internet as being “50 per cent porn”, claims he “never sent an email before” and, most recently, called the web a “CIA project”. 

The Kremlin justifies its invasion of the Internet by alleging that it wants to protect Russians from America’s Intelligence services, enforcing its point of CIA aggression by parading Edward Snowden live on TV during Putin’s annual Q&A marathon. In reality, the Orwellian legislative document Russia drafted to combat the USA’s influence is only boosting the Kremlin’s own power to eavesdrop on its citizens.

Putin claims he wants the Internet to “serve Russian national interests”. In reality, his policies undermine Russian firms. Moments after Putin called the Internet a CIA project, the value of Yandex – Russia’s largest search engine – fell 5 per cent. Those Russians who leave Yandex will most probably go to Google. Surely Russia’s real national interests lie in supporting economic prosperity and social progress, not in defending Putin’s status quo.

Tragically, Pavel Durov has left Moscow. Yet he was everything Russia wanted – and needed: a young bright mind that could actually compete with the West using Russian products. And now, the only person in post-Soviet Russia that actually invented something is shopping for a new passport. Clearly, Russia has abandoned its dream of becoming a modern, functioning state in the name of Putin’s criminal regime and his mad imperial politics. There was nothing wrong with the small breathing space Russians enjoyed online – it was harmless to the Kremlin. Now, it is about to become much harder for Russians to speak freely.

Authoritarian regimes watch what you say; dictatorships watch what you think. Is Russia about to take that giant step backwards? If so, Putin could be headed for revolution.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The royal dress code can't cloak Prince Charles

Joan Smith
Ed Miliband  

Rochester by-election: A little respect goes a long way, Ed Miliband

John Rentoul
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin