Russia’s underground press takes on Putin’s propaganda machine

‘Samizdat’ – the act of self-publishing and distributing censored material – was a form of dissident activity in the Soviet era that now takes place in a virtual format

Ukraine war
A man and a woman use their cell phones in Moscow in March 2022.SOPA Images (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett)

Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has stepped up digital censorship. Currently, more than 100 million Russians cannot view thousands of blocked websites. About 10 million of these citizens don’t have access to the internet at all, while millions more – many of them middle-aged – don’t have enough technological knowledge to get around restrictions.

This reality, however, is changing fast. Yevgeny Simkin, the co-founder of Samizdat Online, spoke to EL PAÍS from New York City via video call to discuss his organization’s efforts to help Russians overcome online censorship: “We’ve created a tool with which you can share articles with the whole world, without people needing virtual private networks (VPNs). We make distribution much easier. Samizdat is a culture. My father learned everything he needed to know from the Soviet Samizdat, including yoga!” Simkin says with a laugh.

Samizdat refers to a process from the Soviet era, when unofficial literature was circulated in a clandestine manner to avoid censorship. Soviet citizens exchanged works and copied them so that they could be passed on to even more people. An example of one of the gems that was discreetly distributed was The Master and the Margarita, a 1967 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov that describes a visit by the devil to the (officially) atheistic Soviet Union.

As a result of the widespread blocking of websites orchestrated by the Russian authorities, many citizens have started to use VPNs. The Atlas VPN initiative estimates that some 34 million Russians are using them: a sizeable number, but still less than a quarter of the population.

The philosophy behind the 21st century Samizdat is to be able to share articles with people who don’t have a VPN.

“When you want to have a website, you register your domain name. To do this, you contact a company that manages DNS (domain name system) servers. When someone wants to access your site, the search goes to the servers that are in your country,” Simkin explains.

“The [Russian] authorities that block the BBC, for example, don’t have control over the DNS machines that are in Spain or the United Kingdom, but they do control the DNS machines in Russia, Belarus, or Iran. They order these servers to hide or delete certain domain names, making it hard for Russians to access these sites in a straightforward manner.”

With access to a VPN, user identities are masked and connected to banned sites via DNS servers in other countries. But for people who don’t have this option, Simkin’s Samizdat has “set up hundreds of servers and thousands and thousands of domain names with absolutely ridiculous names that replace the original ones.”

“Do you want to read the Meduza newspaper [an independent Russian news outlet] from Moscow? Our server receives the request and encrypts it with another domain name – for example, nqtguizhxe.net – which is not on the authorities’ blacklist.”

Given the level of bureaucracy in Russia, it can take several days for an invented domain name to be detected and suppressed.

Simkin came to the United States as a child “during the Soviet migration wave of the 1970s.” He graduated as a computer engineer and went on to start a small technology firm. But everything changed in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and the war in Donbas began.

“My team had 10 people in Russia and 10 in Ukraine. Once things settled down, I realized that I really wanted to do something else,” he recalls. “I have some connections to US politics and media. I have the technology and I speak Russian fluently. So, I decided that I wanted to undermine Putin’s propaganda machine.”

The idea arose a couple of weeks after the start of the all-out war against Ukraine, in mid-March of this year. He launched his portal in July. “We moved slowly, so as not to rush and release something that wasn’t ready and experience a crash.”

One of Simkin’s co-founders is Belarusian journalist, Anna Trubacheva. “She knows everybody. She opened a lot of doors for us.” Thanks to Trubacheva, major independent Russian media outlets – such as Meduza and Mediazona – joined the Samizdat initiative.

Despite the popularity of Simkin’s project, financing has been a problem.

“A lot of people say things like: ‘hey, I support you, I’m going to introduce you to someone!’ Which is the only kind of support we’ve really received. We’ve spoken to various investors: some are interested, but nobody has committed so far,” he admits.

His political backers include Republican commentator Bill Kristol – a major proponent of the invasion of Iraq – former Radio Free Europe president Jeffrey Gedmin and Russian dissident and chess master Garry Kasparov.

Marina Ovsyannikova holds up a sign reading 'No War. Stop the war. Don't believe the propaganda. You are being lied to here' during a broadcast of Russia's Channel One evening news on 15 March 2022.
Marina Ovsyannikova holds up a sign reading 'No War. Stop the war. Don't believe the propaganda. You are being lied to here' during a broadcast of Russia's Channel One evening news on 15 March 2022. EPA (EFE)

“Information leads to understanding”

“We’ve talked to the State Department and they’re very excited about what we’re doing,” Simkin adds. However, he makes it clear that they are independent. “I have no ties of any kind with any organization or political agenda. My idea is simply that information leads to understanding, understanding to compassion, and compassion leads to the flourishing of humanity.”

When asked if he fears that his project will be accused of being a tool of the White House or some American philanthropist, Simkin is emphatic in underlining that, while he accepts donations, he doesn’t accept political pressure.

“If someone offers us money, I happily accept it… but they cannot tell us how we should operate. If someone wants to support free journalism, I accept the money.”

The organization led by imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently launched a mobile application that shares the name of Simkin’s portal. The Samizdat app allows articles to be read for free, without a VPN. Most pieces are published by organizations that are censored by the Kremlin.

Russia’s internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, confirmed that, by the end of July, it had shut down more than 5,300 websites in the name of “war censorship” to preserve national security. But many more websites are on the banned list, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Deutsche Welle and the BBC. Even movie and video game rating websites have been blocked for promoting “suicide and drug use” – proof that the censorship is simply a blanket ban designed to suppress any form of freedom of expression, communication or creativity.

In any case, independent media outlets in Putin’s Russia have bigger obstacles to face beyond censorship. According to surveys conducted by the Levada Center, only 4% of Russians trust independent media, whereas 41% believe state-owned channels. The rest of those surveyed either didn’t answer, or reported not trusting any media at all.

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