Russian civil-liberties watchdogs Soldatov and Borogan (The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, 2010) look at the possibilities of technology for good and ill under the regime of Vladimir Putin.
In Russia, censorship and spying are nothing new. Even so, it may come as a surprise to some readers to know that Stalin kept a battalion of linguists, technologists, and engineers busy devising ways to keep his telephone conversations secure and secret. It is perhaps less surprising to read that much of that apparatus was kept intact in post-communist Russia, though enough glimmers of light had broken through that TV and radio could be put to work stemming the neo-Stalinist coup attempt of 1992—an episode in which Putin played an interesting role. When the civilian Internet began to develop soon after, the Russian security services resolved early on to control it. When he came to power, write the authors, Putin, through flattery and force, engaged himself in co-opting and cowing the bloggers, reporters, and commentators who sought in the Internet a vehicle for unrestricted expression. In a narrative peppered with glowering spooks and online hipsters (“He was the son of a famous Russian writer…wore a bandana over his head, and was always carefully unshaven, with the manners of a creative type”), the authors suggest that the regime is coming out ahead in the bargain and that things aren’t very different from the dark days of communism. Still, Soldatov and Borogan are guardedly optimistic, and they conclude by noting that the world’s awareness of recent events in Ukraine was largely the product of citizen journalism: “The Russian conscript soldiers who posted their photographs taken in the Ukraine did more to expose the Kremlin’s lies about the conflicts than journalists or activists. The network enabled them.”
Russia hands and Net neutrality advocates alike will find plenty to intrigue in this report from the front lines.