Ever since 2012, the Russian government has increased its efforts to censor the internet and limit individual freedoms. These actions include:
- Silencing political opposition
- Discriminating against LGBTQ peoples
- Blocking communication app like Telegram and Zello
- Protecting religious organizations and figures
As a means of achieving these bans, the Russian government has different tools at their disposal. In general, they practice internet censorship through:
- State-owned telecommunication companies
- State-owned internet programs (still under development)
- Restrictions on VPNs and online anonymity
- Targeted regulation
Even so, Russian citizens and tourists in the country can use a VPN to overcome these restrictions. Surfshark, in particular, is a great option that will allow you to access the internet freely, both in Russia and beyond.
Research by the international human rights group Agora showed that Russian officials block access to hundreds of thousands of websites each year. Even more worryingly, Agora’s report indicated that Russian courts gave prison sentences in cases related to internet censorship every eight days.
Russia continues to be a hostile atmosphere when it comes to freedom of speech and other human rights, with hundreds of cases of violence, including five murders, recorded against bloggers, online activists, and journalists since 2007.
This article will look at why the Russian government is increasingly censoring the internet, what content is being targeted, and what you can do to circumvent that censorship.
A Huge Increase in Censorship
The Russian government has been censoring the internet since 2012, when it first started blacklisting websites for criminal activities and terrorism. Then, it expanded its policies to target LGBTQ, dating, and pornographic sites.
In 2015, the Russian parliament passed a new law forcing tech companies based overseas to move their Russia specific data to servers inside Russia, where the government could gain access to it. After refusing to comply with these new data localization requirements, access to the website LinkedIn was permanently blocked by the government, and their app was removed from the Google Play and Apple stores in Russia.
Throughout 2017, Russian authorities have increasingly moved to censor internet activity that was previously considered to be acceptable. However, Russian people and tourists can use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to circumvent government censorship.
Why Does the Russian Government Censor the Internet?
When the government first started censoring content in 2012, the blacklists emphasized websites that broke the law, such as those promoting terrorism, political violence, sales of drugs, weapons, and child pornography. The legal definition of these terms is sometimes intentionally vague, to allow state agencies to silence political dissent at their leisure.
The government censorship net was quickly widened to include websites that would be considered morally offensive in Russia, such as LGBTQ sites, dating sites, and pornography.
In 2016, the Russian government massively increased its efforts to censor political content in reaction to widespread anti-government protests. Websites blocked for being “politically subversive” make up the vast majority of websites blacklisted. New Russian laws surrounding data protection and retention have made it significantly easier for the government to target companies, such as Telegram and Zello, whose apps are widely used by protestors.
What Content Does the Russian Government Censor?
Most of the censorship in Russia is focused on silencing opposition to the current regime. Even the actions against LGBTQ and pornographic content are taken to reinforce Russia’s nationalistic and conservative narrative.
In general, Russian censorship is focused on:
- Silencing political opposition
- Banning LGBTQ content
- Influencing public debate about the Crimean invasion
- Blocking the use of communication software
- Punishing satire directed at religious organizations or figures
Ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2016, the Russian communications agency, Roskomnadzor, blocked access to a number of websites encouraging Russian citizens to boycott the vote. The government also continues to censor information on any form of political opposition in Russia. This includes the sites of leading opposition figures, such as Aleksey Navalny and Garry Kasparov.
In order to block access to these sites, Roskomnadzor relies heavily on Federal Law No. 398, also known as “Lugovoy’s Law“. This law allows the Prosecutor General’s Office to block access to websites for “extremism” without much oversight. The vague wording of Lugovoy’s Law makes it possible for oppositional political content to be banned for loosely defined infractions, such as “inciting illegal activity” or “spreading discord.”
In 2017, the Russian Parliament passed legislation that amended Russia’s child protection law with a clause banning “the propagandizing of non-traditional sexual relations among minors“. This new amendment prescribed fines, ranging from 4,000 roubles (about 50 euros or 55 dollars) for individuals to one million roubles for organizations.
The new amendment to the law has given the government wide-ranging powers to censor LGBTQ content. These new powers resulted in them banning many organizations supporting homosexual individuals within Russia, banning gay pride marches, and even placing an image of President Putin with exaggerated makeup on a government list of prohibited extremist content, because the image was found to imply that Putin had a “non-traditional sexual orientation”. In theory, these images, marches, and websites are all banned, because they could be seen by minors, which is against the law.
The Ukraine and Crimea
The Crimean peninsula was annexed from Ukraine by the Russian Federation in 2014. Since then, the Russian government has made strenuous efforts to block access to Russian and Ukrainian content that presents the invasion as anything other than legal.
Access to the Ukrainian news websites Korrespondent, Bigmir, and Liga was blocked for quoting Refat Chubarov, leader of the Crimean Tatar movement and a prominent critic of the Russian annexation. Similarly, the Consumer Rights Defenders Society’s website was blocked after it featured an article suggesting that Russian travelers enter Crimea through Ukraine, which Roskomnadzor claimed disputed Russia’s claim of sovereignty over Crimea.
In April of 2017, the Russian government moved to ban the encrypted Telegram messaging app when it refused to allow the government a backdoor into its users’ conversations. Telegram was widely used to help coordinate a number of large-scale anti-government protests during 2017.
In the process of implementing the ban, Roskomnadzor blocked a total of 18 million IP addresses resulting in nationwide internet disruptions and blocking access to Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud servers.
Despite the massive backlash from the international community, significant businesses, and internet freedom activists within Russia, Roskomnadzor has continued its implementation of the ban and has increased its targeting of political activists, human rights groups, and companies that don’t comply with its draconian censorship laws.
Access to the Zello app, which allows mobile phones to be used like walkie-talkies, was blocked by the Russian government in April 2017. According to Roskomnadzor, the reason for this blacklisting was that Zello didn’t register as an “information disseminator” under the Law on Information Technology.
Just before being blacklisted, Zello was used by Russian truck drivers to coordinate anti-government protests and strike actions over a controversial road-tax program.
Russia is home to two large conservative religious groups. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Sunni branch of Islam. Russian authorities continue to block content that they deem to be offensive to these religious communities under a 2013 law that prohibits offending the feelings of religious believers.
For example, the popular satirical group MDK had their page on VKontakte, a Russian social media platform, blocked after they posted a picture of Jesus Christ that Roskomnadzor deemed illegal.
How Does the Russian Government Censor the Internet?
Like many repressive regimes, the Russian government has different methods to censor the internet. From trying to enforce a state-owned internet, to banning access to VPN websites and collaborating with ISPs (Internet Service Providers), the Russian government regularly refines its censorship tactics. These include:
- Owning telecommunications providers
- Creating a state-owned internet
- Banning the use of VPNs
- Implementing regulation to help government agencies censor content online
The state-owned telecom company Rostelecom owns about half of the broadband internet market in Russia and continues to grow, with a seven percent increase in users each year. By holding a significant proportion of the Russian broadband market, the government can ensure that the biggest provider of internet access complies with all of its censorship demands.
ISPs all across the globe communicate with the government to influence the way people use the internet. For example, in Western Europe and North America ISPs might throttle connections when they’re used to download torrent files. If they are capable of doing that, just imagine what they can do under the control of a regressive government.
During 2017, the Russian Security Council ordered Roskomnadzor to look into a system of backup internet servers that would be placed within Russia and her allies, and be exclusively for their use. They created this system to combat the “dominance of the US and several EU countries in matters of internet control”.
On the 1st of May, 2019, Putin signed the law to create an independent Russian internet, but it’s been in legal limbo ever since.
VPN and anonymity restrictions
A law passed by the Russian parliament in 2017 required ISPs to block access to the platforms of VPN providers and website proxies that are widely used to access censored content and guard against surveillance by the government.
Another new law passed at the same time requires users of encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp to register with their phone numbers, allowing their online communications to be linked with their real identities and assisting in online government surveillance methods.
Between 2012 and 2013, the Russian Parliament enacted legal amendments that significantly increased the powers of several governmental agencies, including Roskomnadzor, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Federal Drug Control Service to block content without a court order.
These agencies have the unilateral power to block any call for unsanctioned public actions or rallies, and any LGBTQ content that is “propagandizing of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”.
Under the “Yarovaya Law“, Russian ISPs and the providers of communication platforms or apps are obliged to store all user communication data for up to three years. Russian data localization and retention rules are increasingly being used to block access to platforms used by political and human rights activists and anti-government protesters, such as Telegram.
New anti-terror legislation, brought into force at the end of 2017, dramatically expands the state’s powers of surveillance over internet communication, including requiring platforms that offer encrypted communication to provide the government with their decryption keys.
Fining Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
When Roskomnadzor identifies what they consider to be illegal content, they instruct the hosting provider to issue a warning to the website in question. If the content that has been deemed illegal is not removed, then the page is transferred to the government blacklist, and all Russian ISPs must block it within 24 hours. ISPs who fail to block websites included on the government blacklist face huge fines and the potential removal of their license to operate.
How to Circumvent Russian Censorship
One of the most effective ways for Russian citizens to exercise their freedom of speech is through secure messaging apps like Telegram. At the start of 2021, Alexey Navalny’s supporters used the app to coordinate their campaign and protests, emboldened by Navalny’s imprisonment.
Additionally, Russian people can access the internet freely with the help of a VPN. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) hides your location from ISPs and websites by routing your traffic through servers all across the globe.
Is Using a VPN Legal in Russia?
In July 2017, the Duma (the Russian parliament) passed a law requiring ISPs to block access to websites offering VPN and proxy services that would allow users to circumvent government censorship of content and shield them from online surveillance.
While using a VPN is not technically illegal in Russia, the government’s clampdown on circumvention tools has made it increasingly hard to access VPN providers from within Russia. One workaround is to use a free VPN to install your desired VPN. A regular browser with a VPN built-in, like Opera, can also be a good choice to get your hands on a fully-fleshed VPN.
What are the Best VPN Services to Use in Russia?
The Russian government does its best to limit access to VPNs, but there are some VPN services out there that will still allow you to surf the web without anyone keeping logs on your activity. Here’s the best one you can use.
If you are heading to a country like Russia, with a high risk of internet surveillance, and don’t want anyone collecting your data, then you can trust that ExpressVPN‘s combination of world-class encryption and secure logging policies will make keep you anonymous. Their system also comes with a built-in kill switch to prevent any data leaks.
ExpressVPN has a massive range of thousands of servers in dozens of countries, so you should have no trouble finding a server that will allow you a speedy and secure connection to the internet.
If you use your VPN on multiple devices, each with a different OS, then rest assured that ExpressVPN’s user-friendly application works on Android, iPhone, Windows, and OS x.
- Very easy to use VPN
- Perfect for anonymous browsing, downloading, and streaming (i.e. Netflix)
- 3000+ servers in 94 countries
But ExpressVPN is one of the more expensive virtual private networks. If you want a cheaper alternative that still works perfectly for Russia, read our article about the best VPNs for Russia.
Can’t Access These VPNs?
All VPNs mentioned above claim to be accessible from a Russian IP Address. We tested this, accessing all platforms with a Russian IP, and it worked. However, depending on your ISP, you might not be able to visit some of them after all. This can make it difficult to download the VPN software necessary to access the internet freely.
If you happen to be unable to access the website of your preferred VPN, you can try other options from this list above, or from our top 5 of best VPNs. If none of that works, try installing the Tor browser or Opera to access the websites and download the VPN software that way.
In 2009, Russia was considered to be “Partially Free” by the press freedom watchdog Freedom House. Between then and now, the Russian government’s increasingly aggressive stance on internet censorship, primarily aimed at the political opponents of the current government, has decreased that status to “Not Free”.
The Russian government’s attitude to press and internet freedoms places it in a similar category as countries like China, Iran, and the UAE, where freedom of speech and expression online are severely restricted under the guise of improving national security and morality.
But don’t worry. A VPN can help you get around these restrictions, giving you more freedom, whether you live in Russia, or just travel there for work or while on holiday.
If you want quick answers to your burning questions about Russian censorship, check out our FAQ section about the topic below.
Russian internet censorship exists to support the governmental nationalistic and conservative narrative. It’s a way for Russian authorities to influence the population’s thoughts and actions.
In general, Russian censorship is focused on silencing political dissent, which includes violence against journalists, banning political content that isn’t in agreement with the State’s official point of view, and outlawing software that can be used to coordinate protests. On top of that, the Russian government is also focused on:
- Limiting online anonymity
- Banning VPN software
- Banning LGBTQ content
- Protecting religious organizations and personalities through bans
The Russian government has several ways in which it censors specific parts of the internet, including specific content and messaging apps. They attempt to maintain this control through:
- Being in control of telecommunications providers.
- Working on a Russian, state-owned internet.
- Banning the use of VPNs and VPN websites.
- Implementing laws that facilitate censorship.
The best way to get around internet censorship in Russia is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN masks your IP address by routing your traffic through servers in other countries and encrypting your data. While it might be a struggle to get some VPNs to work in Russia, you can still use a VPN if you choose the right one and know of the right workarounds.