This Is Not a Phone Conversation
By Sally McGraneOctober 27, 2015
The Red Web by Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov
EARLY ON in The Red Web, the excellent, highly readable tale of the ongoing struggle to control digital life in Russia, investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan tell the story of the Soviet Union’s first photocopy machine. It was invented by Vladimir Fridkin, who graduated with honors from Moscow State University’s physics department. The year was 1952 — the last months of Stalin’s rule, a time of virulent, state-sponsored anti-Semitism. As a Jew, Fridkin couldn’t get a job as a physicist. Finally he found work as an engineer. But his new office was equipped with only a desk and a table, so Fridkin ended up spending most his time in the Lenin Library. There, in the stacks, he found a technical book by an American about photocopying. He decided to build a Soviet photocopy machine — and succeeded.
Fridkin received awards; a factory in Chișinău, present-day Moldova, began mass-producing copy machines. He moved to a new institute, where his prototype made him popular with his colleagues, who used it to photocopy scientific articles from foreign journals. One day, a woman from the KGB dropped by for tea, and told Fridkin his machine had to be destroyed. “Fridkin asked whether she knew that this was the first copying machine in the Soviet Union,” write the authors. “‘I know, but people who come over to you can copy some prohibited materials,’ she replied.”
The machine was smashed to pieces and taken to the dump. Only its mirror was saved, and reused — in a women’s restroom.
“Fridkin’s institute did not carry out secret research, so the decision to destroy his machine was not protecting anything at the institute,” The Red Web explains. Instead,
it reflected the broader and deeper paranoia of the Communist Party. The party maintained a stranglehold on power, and a chokehold on information. It could not tolerate the possibility that Fridkin’s invention might be used to freely make copies of unapproved documents and allow them to be easily distributed.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, the methods employed to control information in Russia have altered, along with the country’s — and era’s — new technological, political, and economic realities. But Andrei and Irina, who have written about technology and the Russian secret services for nearly two decades, argue the current regime’s approach to the internet is animated by much the same paranoid desire for top–down control.
It wasn’t always this way: I met the soft-spoken Andrei during my first visit to Moscow, writing about internet technology in 2000. We met in the smoky lobby of the Rossiya Hotel to talk about the website he and Irina had just launched. Modeled on a transparency-seeking intelligence news site run by the Federation of American Scientists, “Agentura.ru” was dedicated to reporting on the Russian secret services. As the two — who have gone on to become foremost experts on the Russian secret services, and count among the country’s few remaining practicing investigative journalists — write in The Red Web, the Soviet Union had “sought to put information in a kind of prison.” Nine years after the collapse of the USSR, the advent of Agentura.ru was, everyone agreed, just one more sign of post-Soviet openness.
All that changed, of course, over the next decade. The next time I met Andrei was in 2012, in the dark, wood-paneled café on the ground floor of the Ministry of Communications (known as the “Central Telegraph”) on Tverskaya street, not far from the Kremlin, where, a few months earlier, Putin had resumed the presidency, to the dismay of liberal Russians. Andrei explained that this café was his meeting spot of choice — because the communications officials ate here, it was unlikely to be bugged. He handed me a copy of The New Nobility, also co-written with Irina. Published not in Russia but in the United States, in English, the book told the story of the resurgence of the secret services under Putin.
In The New Nobility, Andrei and Irina detail the steady erosion of Russia’s emergent civil society — including a free press — as the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) became even more powerful than its predecessor, the KGB. The New Nobility also offers a glimpse at some of the work the two journalists had been doing in the first decade of the millennium. During the Nord-Ost siege in 2002, when Chechen terrorists took nearly a thousand theatergoers hostage, Irina and Andrei talked their way into an apartment across from the theater. They counted the corpses piling up on the sidewalk after a criminally negligent FSB action in which the theater was gassed, but no plans were made to treat the hundreds of breathing-impaired hostages afterward. “All the steps on the left are covered with multicolor sweaters worn by the hostages,” they record in a diary-style entry. “Just three days before, these women dressed up in order to look good at the theater.” They published this eyewitness account despite pressure from the secret services not to.
They were on the scene again two years later, in Beslan, and recount the lack of leadership in the FSB’s response as terrorists killed hundreds of hostages, many of them children, during an attack on a school.
As a consequence of their journalism, the secret services called in Andrei and Irina for questioning at, among other places, Moscow’s Tsarist-era Lefortovo prison. Shaped like the letter K, the building does not appear on city maps.
In The Red Web — published in September, again in English, again in the United States, rather than Russia — Andrei and Irina trace the history of high-tech surveillance systems in Russia, focusing on the dizzying, then disturbing, technological and political developments of the post-Soviet period.
They start their story in one of Stalin’s sharashkas, or prison camps for scientists. It was here, in a camp on the outskirts of Moscow, that an inmate first developed the art of telephone voice recognition (he happened to be friends with the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, also an inmate). The discovery would prove to be a useful social as well as technological development, they write, for a regime that wanted citizens to censor themselves: “Everybody in the Soviet Union knew the expression ‘this is not a phone conversation,’ which expressed a wish to discuss something in person because they were afraid somebody else might be listening.”
Poring over technical documents, Andrei and Irina discover that it was this sharashka technology that would germinate, over decades, into SORM technology — little black boxes attached to Russian internet service provider (ISP) equipment that give the FSB the ability to intercept any phone call or email in Russia today.
The Red Web weaves political and technological histories together with personal ones: we learn that Andrei’s father, trained as a nuclear physicist, created one of the Soviet Union’s first computer networks in the 1980s, and went on to found Relcom, a major early Russian ISP. Under Yeltsin, Alexey Soldatov worked with the head of the secret service organization responsible for communications. Irina’s parents were engineers in a “Post Office Box” — one of the Soviet Union’s top-secret, closed military research cities.
During the putsch of 1991, when the authors were teenagers, the Relcom team used its primitive international lines to send information into and out of the country. “Relcom worked in both directions, spreading and collecting information,” the authors write. “It was a horizontal structure, a network, a powerful new concept in a country that had been ruled by a rigid, controlling clique.”
A few years later, the authors embark on their journalistic careers in an atmosphere of hope. “Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection victory seemed to bar a return to the totalitarian Soviet past,” they write. “These were the months when we first walked through the doors of the newspaper Segodnya as reporters. Andrei was twenty years old, Irina twenty-one. We thought that it was the best thing that ever happened in our lives.”
Andrei and Irina paint a grim picture of Putin’s later crackdown on the free flow of information over the internet. At first, Putin seemed to be willing to work with technology sector leaders. In December 1999, he held a conference to discuss the future of the Russian internet. There were plenty of critical voices when it came to the government’s proposals. Afterward, the founder of Yandex, the Russian search engine, gave his son a pencil he had taken from the meeting. The next day, his son put it up for auction, online. He asked 2,500 rubles for “a pencil stolen from Putin’s meeting with the internet professionals.”
A similar meeting, held in 2014, looked very different. “Before Putin arrived, there was a session about the future of the internet. It was more like a wake.” Pavel Durov, the founder of the Russian Facebook, VKontakte, had been ousted after he refused to comply with Kremlin requests to turn over information on Ukrainian activists, among others. In his place sat his Kremlin-friendly replacement. “When [the blogger Ruslan Leviev] saw how Durov’s chair had been filled, he immediately thought of the peril that faced […] Yandex.” Now, if the man who had stolen a pencil 15 years ago “was to say something wrong — it will be very easy to take his business away.”
Investigative journalism, Andrei and Irina write, is all but extinct in Russia today. In telling the fascinating if sad story of the demise of the country’s free press, they detail the Kremlin’s use of “hacker patriots” and trolls to attack Russian newspapers and blogging platforms — particularly after Putin’s announcement that he would return to the presidency sparked large, internet-organized protests in Moscow and elsewhere. Later, they elaborate on the Russian secret service’s belief that social media is a western tool, deployed specifically to create social unrest and political change.
Edward Snowden’s arrival, they say, only provided the Russian government with a pretext for clamping down harder. The stakes, too, are increasingly deadly, as the epilogue points out: In 2011, the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s phone calls were tapped; early this year, he was murdered in front of the Kremlin.
Still, they end the book on a hopeful note. They point out that Russian conscript soldiers posting selfies on VKontakte — not journalists — exposed the official line that there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine as untrue. In a networked world, they argue, Putin’s approach — going after the bosses of hierarchical structures — will ultimately prove irrelevant. “[N]etworks have no tops; they are horizontal creatures. Everyone can participate without authorization,” they write. “Putin and his team never fully grasped this.”
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