Since 2012, the Russian government has strengthened its efforts to censor the internet and limit individual freedoms. With the escalating conflict in Ukraine, censorship has only increased. Through targeted regulation and by keeping a tight control on the telecommunications sector, Russia manages to:
- Silence political opposition
- Discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community
- Block communication apps and social media platforms
- Spread disinformation and war propaganda
Facing intimidation, violence, and even imprisonment for speaking freely, activists, citizens, and journalists turn to online tools to circumvent censorship.
VPNs are not illegal in Russia, but installing one requires some attention and caution. Surfshark VPN is a great option that will allow you to access the internet freely, both in Russia and beyond.
Censorship in Russia has been reaching new heights following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
For years, international human rights groups have expressed concerns about the way Russian authorities treat the free press. Hundreds of thousands of web pages are blocked each year, and media houses that refuse to comply with state-set limitations are cut off.
Journalists continue to live in a hostile environment of terror, where their freedom of expression is heavily curtailed by fines, detention, and violence.
With the invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities are cracking down on freedom of speech like never before. Those who “spread disinformation” about the war can face prison sentences for up to 15 years. As a result, international media outlets are drastically limiting their activity in Russia.
It’s essential that people continue to have access to independent media, especially in times of war. This article will take a closer look at censorship in Russia, examine it in the context of the current conflict, and provide advice for those looking to get online safely.
Censorship in Russia: Attack on Freedom of Speech
Censorship is often used as a political tool. When imposed by a national government, it can be a way to control the public narrative. If you limit people’s access to diversified information, you limit what they can know.
In Russia, the use of censorship to steer public opinion is not a new practice. The Russian government has been censoring the internet since 2012 when it first started blacklisting websites for criminal activities and terrorism. Because the scale and severity of Russian censorship have only increased, international watchdog Freedom House classifies Russia as “not free” on their Global Freedom Index.
In January 2021, opposition figure Aleksey Navalny was arrested and imprisoned. Mass riots in response to the arrest were met with force by Russian authorities; more than 11,500 people were detained. Now, with the unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine, censorship and suppression are once again escalating.
In order to get around censorship, people can generally use a VPN (virtual private network). In 2017, the Russian government passed a new law that restricts software related to circumventing internet filters, including VPNs and proxy services. That’s why it’s important to know the extent of Russian censorship and stay cautious when going online.
Russian Censorship of Ukraine
Ukraine is a geopolitical target for Russia. Located between two spheres of influence, Ukraine has been caught in an ideological information war for years.
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in the Donbas region, the media landscape in Ukraine has been polarized. Through censorship, the Kremlin has been trying to use this polarization to its advantage.
It’s important to note that both sides are clamping down on the narrative. While Russia censors its activities in Ukraine for its citizens, Ukraine has also censored Russian outlets. RT was banned in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for instance. Censorship is used by both parties to control the narrative and reduce public access to key events in the war.
Crimea and the Donbas
After the annexation of the autonomous Ukrainian peninsula Crimea in 2014, Russian authorities quickly silenced independent media. Journalists who express any criticism have been harassed and abused by paramilitary and security forces. In the Donbas region, pro-Russia separatist media completely control the flow of information.
All independent media outlets have been banned and replaced by local “state-sponsored” outlets.
To keep political dissidents under control, Russia needs a narrative frame to influence public opinion. With regard to Ukraine, the frame is terrorism and genocide. According to Putin, Ukraine is under a “Nazi regime.” Bot campaigns and fabricated content further accelerate the spreading of pro-Kremlin propaganda online.
2022: Invasion of Ukraine
With the current invasion, censorship and manipulation of the media are only increasing. The war is fought out online as much as it is on the ground. Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor has been blocking independent media outlets in Russia for using words such as “war,” “invasion,” and “offensive.” Radio station Ekho Moskvy and television channel Dozhd, two independent broadcasters, have also both been blocked.
Meanwhile, Russian civilians have been cut off from social media platforms for prolonged periods of time. Access to Twitter, Facebook, several big app stores, as well as Western news media has all been restricted.
As of March 2022, anyone who creates content that the Kremlin deems “fake news,” can face up to 15 years in prison.
Tech giants have been responding to Russia’s new laws and increased censorship in different ways. For journalists, in particular, it’s a serious threat. As a result, the BBC and other international media platforms have temporarily suspended their activities within Russia.
Why Does the Russian Government Censor the Internet?
Russia uses censorship to control and manipulate its sphere of influence. This is largely informed by the ideological struggle for dominance with the West, as well as an internal political agenda.
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.
In many cases, internet censorship includes what Russian officials deem morally offensive content. In Russia, this extends to LGBTQ+ content, dating sites, and pornography.
Additionally, because the legal definition of censorship is often intentionally vague, it is used as a tool to silence political dissent. 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” now make up the vast majority of websites blacklisted.
In recent years, tensions between Russian authorities and big tech companies such as Google and Meta have increased. As a result of disagreements about permissible content, each censor the other in turn.
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 internet censorship in Russia is focused on silencing opposition to the current regime. Actions against LGBTQ+ and pornographic content are taken to reinforce Russia’s conservative narrative.
In general, Russian censorship is focused on:
- Silencing political opposition
- Banning LGBTQ+ content
- Blocking the use of communication software
- Punishing satire directed at religious organizations or figures
- Steering public opinion on Ukraine
Ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2016, Roskomnadzor blocked access to a number of websites encouraging Russian citizens to boycott the vote. Censorship of any form of political opposition has only increased.
In order to block access, 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 have resulted in bans on gay pride marches, pushback against organizations supportive of gay rights.
Even portraying an image of President Putin with exaggerated makeup was banned and censored for implying Putin had a “non-traditional sexual orientation.”
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.
The Telegram-ban was mostly ineffective and the government struggled to implement it. After two years, in June 2020, Russian authorities lifted the ban. Telegram had reportedly “agreed to help with extremism investigations”.
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. The Kremlin continues 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 major Russian social media platform, blocked after they posted a picture of Jesus Christ that Roskomnadzor deemed illegal.
Ukraine, Crimea, and the Donbas
Prior to the invasion, the Russian Federation already made strenuous efforts to block access to international, Ukrainian, and critical Russian media outlets that dared to speak up about the geopolitical conflict.
In 2014, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe expressed serious concern about the climate that journalists operate in. Violence and restrictions have only increased since then.
In the Donbas region, Ukrainian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have all been forced out over the years. Authorities reroute internet traffic through Russia. On the peninsula of Crimea, anyone can report activists, journalists, and regular citizens who don’t comply with censorship laws directly to the Russian intelligence agency FSB.
In the wake of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, online disinformation has spread like wildfire. Russia has heavily interfered with Ukraine’s web infrastructure, shutting down government systems and launching cyberattacks on financial and defense systems. High-profile Ukrainians have also been targeted.
How Does the Russian Government Censor the Internet?
The Russian government has different methods to censor the internet. These include:
- Owning telecommunications providers
- Creating a state-owned internet
- Banning the use of virtual private networks
- Regulation and surveillance
The state-owned telecom company Rostelecom is the largest provider of digital services in Russia. It connects to approximately 35 million households.
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.
Between 2012 and 2013, the Russian Parliament granted media watchdog Roskomnadzor, considerable power to block content without a court order.
When Roskomnador identifies what they consider to be illegal content, pages can be put on the government blacklist. ISPs who fail to block websites face huge fines and the threat of their license being revoked.
In 2017, the Russian Security Council ordered Roskomnadzor to look into a system of backup internet servers that would be placed within Russia and its 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.” The majority of internet traffic, at the very least 70%, does pass through technologies developed, owned, or operated by the United States government.
On the 1st of May, 2019, Putin signed the law to create an independent Russian internet. In 2021, they even started carrying out tests.
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.
Russia has also blocked top VPN services, including NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and others. Because surveillance has been increasing, some VPN providers have removed Russian servers from their service.
Another 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. Both laws significantly increase Kremlin surveillance.
Under the “Yarovaya Law“, Russian ISPs and digital communication providers are obliged to store all user communication data for up to three years.
Anti-terrorism legislation further expands the state’s powers of surveillance. Platforms that offer encrypted communication can be forced to provide the government with their decryption keys.
These data localization and data retention measures are primarily used against political and human rights activists.
Digital Warfare in Ukraine
Disinformation can be a powerful weapon in a military conflict. While military troops wreak havoc on the ground and millions of people try to flee Ukraine, a different kind of war is fought on social media platforms, waged by bot campaigns and troll factories.
Russia has created a strategy of using social media to advance a political narrative off of the Americans during the Obama era. Now, the Kremlin frequently uses troll farms to intimidate, manipulate, and drown out online critics.
As a result, information about the war in Ukraine can be manipulated to advance a pro-Kremlin narrative. On the western side, fake footage has also been circulating. Twitter has mistakenly taken down accounts that were tracking Russian military forces.
Cyber-collectives have started hacking campaigns. “Anonymous” has declared a cyberwar on Russia. Experts worry about the consequences of such a war since attacks on critical infrastructure can pose significant threats to regular internet users, too.
How to Circumvent Russian Censorship
While the current political climate requires extra care in going online, it’s essential that journalists, activists, and citizens alike, can gain access to independent media and communicate safely. Now, more than ever, you need access to impartial sources of information.
Using a VPN
A VPN hides your location from Internet Service Providers and from websites you visit by routing your traffic through servers all across the globe. It grants you a lot more privacy and protection online. It also allows you to access geo-restricted content, which is especially useful when freedom of the press is limited.
If you’re going to use a VPN in Russia, you need one with strong encryption and a clear no-log policy. The best VPN for Russia that we recommend is Surfshark.
Whether you’re a journalist or a regular citizen, the Surfshark VPN offers military-grade encryption and excellent features. It’s an affordable and user-friendly VPN. While its server network is not the largest in the world, it’s got servers in all the right places.
Surfshark doesn’t offer any servers in Russia, but it does let you bypass restrictions by connecting to servers outside the country.
The Surfshark VPN offers a choice of some of the most secure VPN protocols, a built-in kill switch, and many other security features.
- Very user-friendly and works with Netflix and torrents
- 30-day money-back guarantee. No questions asked!
- Cheap with many extra options
If you want an alternative, check out our article about the best VPNs for Russia.
Using the Tor Network
Depending on your ISP, you might not be able to visit a VPN provider’s website. This can make it difficult to download the VPN software necessary to access the internet freely.
If you are unable to access the website of your preferred VPN, try installing the Tor browser or Opera to access the websites and download the VPN software that way.
Encrypted messaging apps
Encrypted messaging apps can be used to communicate more freely and to organize opposition. Telegram is currently quite vulnerable to Russian surveillance. Signal, however, has strong end-to-end encryption and is generally considered to be very secure, according to cyber experts.
Secure email providers
Finally, if you want to communicate via email, it’s useful to send out emails through a secure provider. These have high encryption standards to keep sensitive information private. There are several other ways to circumvent censorship in Ukraine.
Russia continues to be a hostile environment when it comes to freedom of speech. In recent years, hundreds of cases of intimidation, violence, and imprisonment of dissidents have been recorded. Many companies have pulled out, restricting access to their content to local Russians, including big names like TikTok. You can however access TikTok in Russia through a simple workaround.
At the moment, censorship is reaching unprecedented levels with journalists risking up to 15 years in prison for “inaccurate” reporting of the war in Ukraine. Big tech companies and cyber-collectives battle to control the flow of information.
It’s a conflict that is likely only going to escalate further, which is why it’s more important than ever to stay safe online. You can do so by using a virtual private network such as Surfshark to access independent news. We also recommend encrypted communication services and secure email.
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 influence public opinion to the advantage of the Kremlin, in particular when it comes to nationalistic and conservative views. It’s a tool often used in conflict, and 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
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.