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2014/1 (No 152-153)

  • Pages : 320
  • ISBN : 9782707178985
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.152.0140
  • Publisher : La Découverte

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In September 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced the launch of a huge project known as the BRICS Cable, [2]  For more information on the BRICS Cable project, see...[2] which aimed to create by 2015 a 34,000-kilometer network of submarine cables linking Brazil to Vladivostok via Cape Town, southern India, and the Taiwan Strait. The aim of this ambitious project was to establish a truly independent Internet linking major emerging powers, and particularly to escape surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the extent of which had been revealed a few months earlier by the Snowden Affair. Of course, there had to be more than just a knee-jerk reaction to this news and scandal, shocking as these were, to launch a $1.5 billion project. In fact, the BRICS Cable is the continuation of an older project, namely the SAex (South Atlantic Express), which Brazil launched in 2011 to link with Cape Town via Saint Helena and enable better Internet development in southern Africa, which remained poorly connected to the major ridges crossing the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. However, the Snowden revelations in Moscow changed things: bolstered by its new position as the “protector” of a man censured by many US officials, Russia now had the opportunity to give Rousseff’s project new scope. Beyond its economic impact, extending SAex to Vladivostok would be an opportunity for the Kremlin to assert a kind of moral leadership among a group of countries with which Russia was trying to cooperate closely in several areas. Thus the Voice of Russia, an official media outlet, boasted on its English-language website of a project that would create “a cyberspace hidden from the prying eyes of American spooks.” [3]  “BRICS countries are building a ‘new Internet’ hidden...[3] Thus the BRICS Cable would be a physical manifestation of positions held by the Russian leadership on Russia’s relationship with the United States and the representation of its role in the world.


Although the term “cyberspace” evokes a completely new world with its own regulations, it no longer escapes the dynamics governing traditional geopolitics. While it is a reservoir for the representations and rivalries that shape the contemporary world, there is no doubt that cyberspace has become an issue of power in terms of both the information exchanged within its sphere and the computers, networks, and protocols enabling this traffic.


The BRICS Cable project is only one example of the way in which Russia intends to position itself in this new universe, as evidenced by representations and positions Putin’s rhetoric has applied elsewhere, underscoring a certain form of patriotism based on the celebration of state power and sovereignty. The fact is that Russia is now a cyberspace heavyweight. Today, about 50 million Russians are connected to the Internet, with the rate of penetration reaching over 70 percent in major cities. In qualitative terms, the Russian network is currently one of the fastest in the world. With over 40 percent consisting of fiber optic connections, it provides connection speeds that are fast enough for Russian Internet users to be very active online. Russians are now the leading producers of digital data in Europe, and their average technical knowledge, which is higher than that in other developed countries, allows them to benefit from considerable visibility on the Internet in the development of legal products (Russian developers are particularly prominent in the video game industry and data security) as well as illegal activities (illegal downloads, phishing, etc.). All in all, the country has a solid digital economy carried by major players, who are well able to resist competition from foreign giants. Thus the Russian search engine Yandex is in wider use than Google, and Internet users prefer using the national Vkontakte (VK) social network rather than its Western equivalent Facebook.


For the government, investing in this new field is essential. It is a matter of profiting from the opportunities in order to develop a digital economy in a country still overly dependent on energy revenues, and especially of extending into this new world a series of positions forged by a decade of Putin’s policies.


This paper examines the representations and rivalries that shape Russian cyberspace by relating them to governmental ambitions and to the major internal and external geopolitical challenges shaping contemporary Russia. Russian cyberspace stands out from its Western equivalents in that it is effectively represented as an alternative space for government and users, with its own values and practices and in opposition to American supremacy. We will examine this position as the product of atypical technical development, the legacy of the Soviet experience and its influence on the physical organization of Russian cyberspace, and the rivalries and power games shaping it.

Representations of Contemporary Russian Cyberspace


When we think of cyberspace, we often imagine an abstract informational space, unlike the real world and its geography because its borders are virtual and reproduced only artificially. However, for sovereign states, cyberspace presents new monitoring and regulatory problems. For example, existing techniques for bypassing IP addresses (via a proxy) make it difficult to track users—who can “switch country” virtually—and therefore to legislate, especially for states that practice censorship. [4]  A “proxy” server enables users to hide their IP address...[4] The very principles behind the Internet support this vagueness, namely a decentralized organization, globally standardized digital protocols enabling machines to communicate with other machines, and information transfers that largely ignore political boundaries. Moreover, cyberspace has a narrative influenced by an imagined world spawned by the first Internet revolution at the end of the 1990s, which stresses the concept of openness to the world and the overcoming of boundaries. At the time, marketing by large corporations emerging in this promising sector sold the Internet as a space of complete freedom and emancipation.


Russia takes an opposing approach to such a representation. In fact, its leaders’ strategic conception of the Internet and even of how digital networks are organized reflects a vision wherein notions of sovereignty and identity are central, a response to needs and ambitions that go far beyond digital issues to a point where rivalry with the United States and the West is central.

Informational Space vs. Cyberspace—or the Promotion of a Sovereign Russian Internet


This rivalry appeared initially as a semantic debate, which the Snowden affair greatly reactivated. Russian strategic thinking sees the term “cyberspace” and the imagined world it implies as something molded by US private and public organizations at the end of the 1990s and based on a representational model of the world largely inspired by the possibilities of contemporary globalization of the time, between the fall of the Soviet Union and September 11, 2001. Russians prefer to speak of “informational space” rather than “cyberspace.” This terminological split is in no way rhetorical. Rather, it suggests radically different conceptions of the Internet and of the digital world.


In fact, the concept of informational space supports a far wider reality than cyberspace, including not only the Internet but also the support framework and means of information distribution (print media, television, radio, etc.). In fact, current Russian strategic thinking does not recognize the existence of cyberspace as exclusive and unique, requiring instead its own specific regulation. Russia believes that digital networks such as the Internet are simply another form of media over which the state has the usual right of regulation. In brief, the Russian conception is largely conditioned by the importance the authorities attach to the issue of sovereignty, which cyberspace as a concept tends to eliminate.


Moreover, the semantic split has given rise to significant Russo-American rivalries in international bodies dealing with Internet issues and the digital world. For example, at the end of 2012, the Dubai World Conference on International Communications was set up with one of its aims being to reform the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body that manages domain names. At this summit, Russia made clear its view that it was unfair that a US-based organization should claim competence over managing what the Russian Federation considered a mark of sovereignty, and especially the fact that DNS root servers [5]  DNS root servers are the first level of a complex architecture...[5] should all be controlled by the United States and their European and Japanese allies. Moscow therefore proposed that more power be granted to the United Nations (UN) on this issue, with support from several countries, including China and Algeria. However, the US countered that such a proposition would lead to granting the power of regulation to a centralized authority (the UN), which was “antithetical to the concept of Internet architecture, which is a global network of networks without borders.” In other words, according to the Americans, such a reform would open the door to numerous possibilities for censorship and control over the Internet, and the role of states could in no way be that of a regulator. For Moscow, it was clear that the US position on this question was aimed at maintaining a US monopoly and remaining the game-master by imposing its own rules.


Beyond this insider debate, the Russian position is primarily an attempt to transpose into the sphere of cyberspace some of the rhetorical arsenal that accompanies the Kremlin’s political actions, which some call “Putinism.” Even though it remains extremely difficult to prove that such a thing exists, with definitions varying from one official to the next, it should be remembered that Putin’s actions have always focused on producing a semantic universe bent on creating a philosophy for his actions. Thus, a number of concepts such as “vertical power” and “sovereign democracy” are credited to Putin and Vladislav Surkov (known as the Kremlin’s ideologue). These celebrate the return of a strong state in a Russia that remains deeply marked by Soviet-era state-centered patriotism (Raviot 2007), when celebration of the power and sovereignty of the State-Party complex was the major reference point common to all people in the USSR. These concepts were also supposed to adapt ideas such as democracy and human rights to Russia, ideas seen by the Kremlin as forged by and for Western countries, which used them as instruments of influence. The background was the condemnation of Western moral supremacy. A number of major international issues, such as Kosovo’s independence, are revealing in this context. Russia, which always opposed the independence of this ancient Serbian province, denounced at the time (and still condemns) the West’s decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence as self-serving, from the very beginning cloaked in the humanitarian right to interfere, as well as partisan. In Moscow’s view, such right to interfere informed by a Western vision of human rights was a clear denial of sovereignty and primarily served the interests of Europeans and Americans more than those of Kosovars or Serbs, arguments that surfaced again, albeit in different form, when France proposed military intervention in Syria.


The reasoning concerning sovereignty over the Internet, i.e., cyberspace vs. informational space, is the same as that underlying accusations by Putin of Western moral imperialism. Nevertheless, although Russia occupies a political and media space opposed to that of Europeans and Americans, behind this stance is a profound identity challenge, induced by the fall of the USSR, and now including digital issues.

Runet, or an Attempt to Territorialize Cyberspace


In Russia, although the concept of informational space is confined mainly to decision-making circles and doctrinaire texts, there is no insurmountable gap between government and users on how to represent the Internet. On the contrary, the notion of otherness and of defending a certain form of sovereignty implied by informational space is to be found in what is a major attempt to territorialize a section of cyberspace, i.e., to create a narrative for part of the network that is based on a commonality of language, practices, and values, namely the Runet (Russian Internet).


Objectively, the term “Runet” describes the Russian-speaking section of the Internet. In concrete terms, this encompasses all Internet sites, all servers, and all email addresses using the Russian language to distribute information. The fact that such a specific term exists is already a powerful marker in itself. Today, Russian is the second most used language on the network (5.9% of global traffic) after English (54.7% of traffic) and slightly ahead of French. However, there is currently no equivalent term for referring to the French-speaking Internet, for a good reason, namely that Runet, which is based on the practice of a common language, also corresponds to a segment of the Internet in which web practices are different. Whereas French-speaking users favor widely used tools such as Facebook and Google for navigation, Russian-speaking users prefer platforms developed by and for Russians. Moreover, because Runet is conspicuous both by its language and by the platforms favored by its users, it is a market that remains difficult for Western companies to penetrate. [6]  For example, Runet has until now been characterized...[6]


Map 1 represents this distinctive feature from the point of view of the most widely used social networks and search engines. It is clear that, although certain countries opt for national social networks (China for reasons of censorship, Brazil, etc.), there are at the same time few parts of the world that escape the supremacy of Google and Facebook. Yet this is not the case in the former USSR, where networks such as Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki are used the most, as is the Yandex search engine. Beyond search engines and social networks, there are many other examples of Runet’s different practices on the Internet. For example, Russia is developing mobile connection systems (Yota), the vast majority of servers hosting content on Runet are located in Russia, and so on.

Map 1 - Runet as an alternative cultural cyberspace: The case of social networks and search engines

Runet is therefore not a creation of the mind. However, because its boundaries are quite clearly dictated by practice and language, it cannot be completely disconnected from the major geopolitical challenges that currently shape the post-Soviet area. In fact, this difference is now a matrix of narratives and representations that transpose into cyberspace certain identity and geopolitical challenges specific to the Russian-speaking world. In this context, the concept of Runet can also be seen as an attempt to territorialize cyberspace.


In many now independent former Soviet republics, the use of the Russian language is a major political issue. During the Soviet era, with notable variations over the years, Russian imposed itself as the official language of a multi-ethnic empire, in which several hundred peoples, cultures, and languages cohabited and whose common glue was a body of references, values, and narratives told in Russian. Once the USSR collapsed, the practice of Russian, the common language of an ideological empire whose ultimate aspiration remained global proletarian revolution, became a major political issue for some republics wishing to (re)create their own national narratives from the shadows of a colossus that represented oppression, shortages, and ecological catastrophes. In the Baltic States, for example, obtaining Estonian or Latvian nationality was quickly made conditional on a command of the country’s official language, thus excluding entire sections of society that spoke only Russian. In Ukraine, the attempt to create a nation-state included giving prominence to a national literature and national history told in Ukrainian. At the same time, the events of the Orange Revolution and the Sebastopol affair revealed the sensitivity of the national question in a country where over half the population was Russian-speaking.


Even though the question of a Russian-speaking population is handled very differently from country to country, it has gradually become a central issue in post-Soviet identity. For tens of millions of people born and raised in the USSR, Russian embodies a common destiny that crosses political borders and is rooted in a narrative of memory in which certain events, such as World War II, play a structuring role. From the beginning of the 2000s, the Russian government has used this linguistic lever as a powerful vector of influence. Several terms, such as “Near Abroad” and “Centrifugal Nationalism” (to designate the efforts of some republics to become free of the cultural grip of Russia), emerged from the promotion of this post-Soviet common future, often at the expense of national languages and cultures, a development sometimes represented as a Western-driven attempt to unravel the Soviet legacy (theories concerning the financing of the Orange Revolution, Saakhachvili’s Georgia, the Black Sea fleet, etc.).


In recent years, thanks to its independence, Runet has become the receptacle for these challenges. As a result, publications, posts, and comments designating Runet as a true, patriotic Internet (otetchestvennyj Internet), where the concept of homeland (otetchestvo) is far more reminiscent of the imagined Soviet world than of contemporary patriotisms and nationalisms, are now thriving on the Russian-speaking Web. Runet’s independent nature therefore serves to extend to cyberspace attempts to maintain this common future, which is strongly marked by the legacy of the Cold War and confrontation with the United States. Thus, the major Russian cyber-attack on Estonia in April 2007, now a textbook case, originated in just such a memory and identity dispute. In question was the decision of the mayor of Tallinn to relocate a statue of a World War II Soviet soldier from the center of the city to a suburb. Mobilization led by the Estonian Russian-speaking community and the Nachi movement [7]  The Nachi (“Ours”) movement is a political organization...[7] focused on the Estonian government, which was accused of not recognizing the Red Army’s liberating role in 1945 [8]  The debate concerns the fact that the Baltic States...[8] and of being in the pay of Western powers. [9]  Estonia joined NATO in 2004.[9]


As can be guessed, political promotion of Runet as a political space by certain groups, bloggers, and officials is in fact based on confrontation with the West and the values it is supposed to embody. This is an extension of Putinist discourse on respect for sovereignties and legacies in opposition to what is considered aggressive Western behavior. In fact, the geopolitical representation of the Russian segment of cyberspace matches that of the informational space promoted by the Kremlin in its reading of Russia’s place in the world.

An Unusual Internal Organization, or the Weight of Soviet Legacies


Runet is also a matter of cables and rivalries, whose history, going back to the Soviet era, allows us to understand the geopolitical dynamics animating it today. In practice, the physical and logical organization of current Russian networks is the result of strategic and political choices made over 30 years ago. Moreover, despite the huge technological developments in computers since the end of the 1970s, contemporary Russia remains dependent on an organization conceived in the dual context of East-West confrontation and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which has left a powerful mark. While this legacy explains certain physical and logical aspects of Runet, it also helps us understand how cyberspace has become a major political issue in Russia, where discourse on the subject of a sovereign Internet is the result primarily of rivalries over the control of networks. Today, and fairly recently at that, the official image of Runet and of governmental control mechanisms are being questioned, revealing a deep split over the role played by networks in Russia.

The Network’s Soviet Carcass


As shown above, the main characteristic of Runet is its independence in terms of both practices and tools, upon which a political discourse has been grafted. Historically, this independence began well before the huge advances of the Internet in the 2000s. Its roots go back to the 1960s and 1970s.


In those days, the symbols of East-West competition were the atom bomb and the conquest of space. These required an increasing number of partners in increasingly complex information exchange systems. With early computers, both the USSR and the United States created data networks capable of rapidly relaying the significant amounts of technical information needed for the upkeep and development of strategic sectors, including the nuclear complex. The two countries thus perfected huge, digital, military, and scientific networks, with differing frameworks that were to have weighty consequences for the future. The United States chose to develop a large military network with characteristic features that still make up the fundamentals of cyberspace today. Widely seen as the forerunner of the Internet as it is today, the platform known as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) enabled two users to enter into dialogue on a network that was decentralized so that it could survive a nuclear attack.


In contrast, the Soviets chose to develop an extremely large number of automated networks (i.e., linking calculators with no possibility of human interaction), all using different protocols. The decision was in response to the specific socialist principles for organizing space and the economy. Just as the territory of the USSR was divided into a vast number of management regimes and methods of control according to the nature and role of a location in central planning (forbidden areas, closed cities, open cities, etc.), the networks were similarly divided up, with the compartmentalization imposed by the vertical management of the economy. As computer technology developed, each regional ministry, each complex, had its own network [10]  This is true even though many of these organizations...[10] and its own data language (Logé 1991).


Nevertheless, the first civilian non-automated network in the USSR, called Demos, arrived at the end of the 1980s, thanks to profound political changes taking place in the country. Often presented as the ancestor to Runet, Demos was a typical product of the perestroika years. Although based on protocols and infrastructures developed in the early 1980s by the Academy of Sciences and various research organizations, access to the network was managed by a private company created by a number of young computer scientists out of the Academy of Sciences and the Kurchatov Institute for Nuclear Research during the economic reforms of 1987, which allowed free enterprise under certain conditions. The strength of Demos was in its use of various telephone and dedicated infrastructure (i.e., cables specific to the network) linking every computer in the country. Demos very soon adopted protocols and systems used in the West, so that by 1989, it had become possible for a user in the USSR to exchange information with one in Western Europe or the United States. Furthermore, in the same year, Demos became the official administrator of the domain name “.su” that had just been assigned to the Soviet Union, thus paradoxically making a private company the Soviet manager of what would soon become one of the signs of state sovereignty over the Internet.


However, although the Demos venture was a small revolution in the tightly closed world of Soviet computer technology, it did not break completely with the situation prevailing in the country before perestroika. On the contrary, it was a logical extension, delayed only by zastoi (the Era of Stagnation under Brezhnev) and mistrust of computer science by the Soviet leaders of the old generation. [11]  At the end of the 1970s, Brezhnev declared that computer...[11] This is because despite its status as a private enterprise and the young age of its employees, Demos remained a venture within a very restricted circle, limited to computer scientists working in state research institutes and the Academy of Sciences. Access to the network was controlled by the KGB to the extent that it allowed access only to a directory of some three hundred email addresses already created in the country and affiliated for the most part with laboratories, industries, and government. These unique development conditions, between privatization and state control, are the very source of the practices and tools of Runet today, for two main reasons.


The first is that such control, inherent in the mechanisms of Soviet state operations, and the very specialized nature of the Demos network created a community of engineers and computer science researchers from which several entrepreneurs emerged in the 1990s and helped create the tools that exemplify Runet (e.g., Arkady Volozh, founder of the Yandex search engine). Paradoxically, what typified this community was that although it lived in its own world under the control of the security services, it enjoyed an unusual level of freedom of speech, creativity, and openness to the world. In fact, although the KGB could control physical access to the network, what took place on the network was not controlled very much or even at all. Demos was used by officials of a more liberal bent and became a high-level space of political discussion and dissidence from conservative forces. A clear example of this is talk.soviet.politics, [12]  During the 1991 coup, this newsgroup was one of the...[12] the name of the very first newsgroup in Russian (a type of forum that still exists today), created by Soviet computer scientists and which played an important role against the attempted conservative coup of August 1991.


The second reason is that true to its vertical, centralized, and ideological political model, the Soviet state organized not only that world but also the layout of the cables in accordance with its own priorities. In fact, the Demos network relied on the infrastructures of an earlier scientific network called Relkom, which was the first exclusive link between the cities and areas to which central planning had given a specific scientific research role. This operational and specialized structure of the original network greatly influenced the development of Runet and continues to carry certain special features.


Map 2 compares the organization of the physical network used by Demos in 1991 to that of the public operator Rostelecom in 2013. Several conclusions can be reached as to the durability of an organization inherited from Soviet territorial planning and its influences. Thus, in 2013 as in 1991, the network was largely organized around two hubs, each at the very heart of basins assigned by Soviet planning to scientific research and strategic activities. Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, the capitals of areas largely devoted to military and core research since the 1950s and 1960s and still major points in the network, relay the signal to a number of formerly closed cities as well as others specifically dedicated to strategic activities. However, the durability of Soviet functionalism in shaping current networks did not preclude new dynamics from taking shape. The cables going deep into sparsely populated areas in the north of the country correspond to infrastructures established by Gazprom to automate the management of certain large gas pipelines transporting hydrocarbons from these remote areas to European markets. Similarly, the presence of new hubs in the Far East (Tynda and Khabarovsk) corresponds to planning made in the context of the TEA (Trans-Europe-Asia) project, a complex of cables that now crosses the country from east to west and which, following its inauguration in 2008, opened up a Russian network poorly linked to the outside world.

Map 2 - The physical Russian network in 2013: A soviet “carcass” serving new dynamics

The comparison clearly shows that Russia had suffered from a lack of connections, leading to significant bandwidth limitations (network connection speed) for many years. In 1991, communication with the outside world was made exclusively via a connection between Leningrad and Helsinki (called, not without humor, “Window on Europe”), from which the signal was redistributed to the world via the Western European network Eunet. For over a decade after 1991, until the TEA ridge was opened in 2006, Russia continued to suffer from the isolation promoted by the Soviet government. The present-day organization of the network still bears its scars, especially in the many satellite antennas on the 2013 map. In fact, in the 1990s and 2000s, when Russia experienced a crisis that turned foreign investors away, national providers used these satellite links to increase the bandwidth constrained by the restricted number of physical connections with the outside world. During the whole of the 1990s, antennas belonging to the Russian space agency and its subsidiary KS (Kosmichesky Svyazy), which were originally part of the vast Soviet space complex, were resold or subcontracted. Their significant concentration in the Novosibirsk region is explained by the fact that this area housed a great deal of scientific infrastructure and was also located vertically in the trajectory of missiles from the Baikonur launch site. As a result, some guidance stations were thus reconverted into bandwidth relays.


The quest for better bandwidth, a concern for business people and the government since the 2000s, and the specialized organization of the network have been features of the development of the Russian Internet for almost two decades. This situation, together with the country’s economic crisis, long dissuaded foreign investors from going into the Russian market during the first Internet Revolution at the end of the 1990s. This created opportunities for local entrepreneurs and engineers to develop their own solutions, often based on solid experience acquired in Soviet laboratories and the Demos network. Runet thus developed by default as a result of specific Soviet infrastructures and practices.

A Heterogeneous Space Beset by Rivalries


The picture of Runet would not be relevant if it were not drawn from the perspective of the power stakes and rivalries it creates within Russia. Digital networks were not spared the privatizations that followed the fall of the USSR and that supported the development of vast networks based on patronage in all branches of the economy. These networks thus became important instruments of influence for the oligarchs and local leaders, whose close ties with the government allowed them to benefit from financial and administrative support in return for their loyalty. Once again, this is a specifically Russian feature of Runet, replicating in cyberspace the classic mechanisms of vertical government that characterize Putin’s policies.


The example of Dubna, City of Sciences, is indicative. Located some 100 kilometers north of Moscow, Dubna has a population of 60,000 and is well-known in the field of the physical sciences. Since 1956 it has been home to the headquarters of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), and now brings the former socialist countries together into a scientific organization similar to the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). Since the end of the 1940s, Dubna has established itself around various high-level scientific facilities, including two particle accelerators created to uncover the mysteries of the infinitesimal. As the detectors produce a vast mass of data when particles collide in the accelerators, a direct digital link with the Kurchatov Nuclear Institute in Moscow was established in Dubna in the 1980s to transmit data rapidly and without loss. This is also where the government decided to build the Satellite Communications Center (SCC), a large satellite relay initially designed for rebroadcasting the 1981 Olympic games worldwide, then converted into a terminal for the famous “red telephone” linking the Kremlin to the White House.


When the budgets of research institutes collapsed in post-USSR Russia, local leaders began looking for new sources of enrichment, and Dubna’s infrastructures presented a formidable opportunity for capitalization. At the beginning of the 2000s, the SCC and the JINR sold part of their bandwidth to Demos, still an important actor in the sector. As a result, the small town of Dubna, isolated at the heart of the forest in a corner of the Volga Valley, became one of the best-connected places in the country even though the Internet had not yet been widely developed in Russia. A few years later, when local government became aware of its potential, a local operator, TMPK, was created and run by cronies of Dubna’s mayor. The town, which at the time was the recipient of large state subsidies for developing a knowledge economy, used part of these funds to run a public procurement procedure for constructing a municipal intranet, a quite remarkable system that created a network at city level with its own domain name (.du) and accessible to all subscribers. The bid was won by TMPK. Subsequent audits showed that the costs had been greatly inflated, which suggests a kickback, a practice not uncommon in Russia.


Today, Dubna is interesting in that it has a municipal access provider extending its influence over the entire north of the Moscow periphery and under the control of municipal elites, who trade their administrative resources against sometimes opaque financial rewards while blocking certain competitive projects. In practice, the network is thus controlled by political leaders who are members of the United Russia party and local intermediaries loyal to the central government.


The Dubna example demonstrates that Runet, shown here in its physical architecture, is typified by a collection of political and economic interests often marked by patronage. These interests now converge toward the Kremlin, which uses its vast currency reserves (particularly from energy revenues) to grant favors to one and all via subsidies and development programs and thus maintains the pyramid structure characteristic of Putin’s vertical power. However, the phenomenon goes far beyond physical infrastructure as the major entities in the Russian digital economy are today held by those close to government, including the Mail.ru empire, currently led by Alisher Usmanov, a business leader known for his pro-government stance who also owns major national newspapers. [13]  Usmanov owns, among others, the newspaper Kommersant...[13]

Map 3 - Local effects of centralization of the USSR network today: The case of TMPK

Despite it all, it would seem that the situation is changing and that new actors are emerging on Runet, eluding this control architecture and thus changing a power relationship that has existed for at least a decade. We know that since the major demonstrations at the end of 2011, Russia has been in the grip of a silent protest coming mainly from an urban middle class disgusted by corruption. Yet, a characteristic feature of this mobilization is that from the very beginning, it has been based in blogs and social networks. This is evidenced by the fact that beside the scandals and the pressures everyone reports, the development of smartphones equipped with cameras and directly linked to the Internet has allowed, for example during the last presidential election, an explosion of videos showing blatant cases of ballot stuffing in Putin’s favor or simply the handing out of cash to voters outside polling stations. Those claiming leadership of this movement come from the blogosphere and social networks (Alexei Navalny, for example). Even though today there is no direct censorship of the Net in Russia, the nervousness of the authorities on this issue is palpable. Many stories circulate about people being threatened or losing their jobs after publishing a comment or organizing an event via social networks. There again, it would seem that the government’s local intermediaries are playing a significant role. In Dubna, for example, militant ecologists circulated evidence on a local forum of the existence of “wild sites,” i.e., building going on in normally protected areas, naming individuals in the administration who had been corrupted. As a result, the president of the local ecological association suddenly lost all previously granted subsidies for the organization of a major jazz festival that attracts several thousand visitors every year. At the federal level, people understandably refrain from such actions, which are admittedly often the spontaneous acts of local elites anxious to keep their positions. But a recent affair concerning one man in particular, Pavel Durov, suggests that this vision is being challenged, as are the traditional control mechanisms shaping Runet.


Durov, a showy personality often called the “Russian Mark Zuckerberg,” [14]  Mark Zuckerberg is the founder of Facebook.[14] founded the Russian social network Vkontakte in 2006 in Saint Petersburg. Developed at the same time as Facebook, this network remains the most widespread in the post-Soviet area. It was undoubtedly the most important medium for the large mobilizations held in December 2011, so much so that that very month, the Russian Federation’s Federal Security Service (FSB) apparently asked Durov to remove seven groups active on the network because they threatened public order. Durov refused, even issuing a press release accusing the Kremlin of wanting to curb freedom on Runet. After a period of relative calm, Durov found himself entangled in a political-media imbroglio that speaks volumes about the complex links between government and some of the giants of the Russian web.


In April 2013, Vkontakte’s offices in Saint Petersburg were searched by the police for violation of the penal code. Earlier that month, a white Mercedes registered to the Vice-President of Vkontakte struck a police officer in Saint Petersburg, and the driver escaped after a chase. Accused of being responsible for this extraordinary affair, Durov disappeared, apparently to the United States. A month later, the government body that regulates telecommunications (Roskomnadzor) jammed Vkontakte for a day, causing chaos on Runet. The authorities claimed that this had been a mistake and that the website had been referenced inadvertently on a blacklist of servers used by pedophiles. For many Western and Russian observers, there was no doubt that the events of 2011 to 2013 were linked: Durov’s refusal to cooperate with the Kremlin resulted in repression. However, things were not that simple. In March 2013, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, generally disinclined to speak on behalf of the government, published an email exchange between Durov and high-ranking FSB officials in December 2011. This seemed to indicate a secret and close collaboration between the social network and the security services. Moreover, the Mail.ru group, owned by Alisher Usmanov, has held about 40% of Vkontakte since February 2011, which hardly suggests state conspiracy against the social network.


What is certain is that the lack of clarity surrounding this affair is indicative of new difficulties faced by the government when it tends toward the same controlling role in the digital economy as in several other areas. In contrast to industry, aeronautics, and even physical networks and large groups such as Mail.ru, Vkontakte developed very rapidly and outside of government’s influence. The murky situation of the social network and its founder could therefore imply that a new kind of economic and political actor has emerged, a challenge to the mechanics of vertical power in a specific sector created outside traditional business circles and according to entirely new technological and economic modalities.



Russian cyberspace has the special characteristic of being a reservoir for a wide variety of ambitions and geopolitical representations shaped by a specific physical and human organization with origins going back to the Cold War. The existence of informational space as a strategic concept is confirmation that the government intends to distance itself from a debate it considers to be dominated by a Western perspective. The concept behind Runet confirms this quest for separation, supported by the de facto independence of Russian cyberspace. Nevertheless, this independence is subject to notions of domination specific to contemporary Russia and cannot escape the mechanics of patronage and the resulting desire for control. In this respect, the Durov affair is a clear indication that new actors are challenging this dynamic. Their methods and the influence they exert over the internal politics of the Russian Federation and the entire post-Soviet area (such as the recent riots in Kiev and the role the Internet played in their development) are challenging the sustainability of a system in which sovereignty and regulation have until now been fundamental.


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[1] PhD Student at the Institut Français de Géopolitique (French Institute of Geopolitics), Université Paris-VIII (Slavic Studies).

[2] For more information on the BRICS Cable project, see the paper by Hannes Ebert and Tim Maurer, Revendications sur le cyberespace et puissances émergentes (this issue).

[3] “BRICS countries are building a ‘new Internet’ hidden from NSA,” Voice of Russia, October 28, 2013.

[4] A “proxy” server enables users to hide their IP address (i.e., the computer’s identification number, which identifies the user’s location and possibly to whom the computer belongs) by placing an intermediary between the user and the server.

[5] DNS root servers are the first level of a complex architecture enabling redirection of data via domain names. This turns them into eminently strategic points in cyberspace. There are currently 13 DNS root servers in the world.

[6] For example, Runet has until now been characterized by the almost non-existence of e-commerce. Although the situation is beginning to change, especially with the development of the Russian site Ozon.ru, giants such as Amazon are still finding it difficult to establish themselves there.

[7] The Nachi (“Ours”) movement is a political organization made up of “anti-fascist” and “patriotic” young people. Founded in 2005 after the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, the movement rapidly emerged as a fervent defender of Putin’s policies in opposition to anything that could be considered Western interference in the affairs of the post-Soviet space.

[8] The debate concerns the fact that the Baltic States were invaded by Stalin in 1939 before being occupied by Germany from 1941 to1944. During the week between the retreat of the Third Reich’s troops and the Red Army’s advance, these countries proclaimed their liberation before being occupied again until 1991. Some Baltic governments in exile continued to exist long after the end of World War II, so that today, the idea that the Red Army was simply an occupier is increasingly active in the Estonian national narrative.

[9] Estonia joined NATO in 2004.

[10] This is true even though many of these organizations used the same cables, particularly through the Express network, which was set up under the Railways Administration at the end of the 1970s.

[11] At the end of the 1970s, Brezhnev declared that computer technology was a “bourgeois science,” which slowed network development considerably.

[12] During the 1991 coup, this newsgroup was one of the few channels for transmitting information that remained open between East and West. In fact, the conservative coup leaders, who wanted to put an end to perestroika and were largely supported by the KGB, had organized an information blackout.

[13] Usmanov owns, among others, the newspaper Kommersant and has often been accused of censoring journalists expressing opinions hostile to Putin.

[14] Mark Zuckerberg is the founder of Facebook.



Over the last decade, with its developed digital economy and powerful linguistic area of influence, Russia has become a major player in cyberspace. It is using this new form of power to extend its major contemporary geopolitical positions over the networks. The focus of this paper is the territorial representations and rivalries aroused and fed by Russian cyberspace. In particular, it demonstrates that digital networks are an important amplifier for issues affecting the post-Soviet universe as a whole.


  1. Representations of Contemporary Russian Cyberspace
    1. Informational Space vs. Cyberspace—or the Promotion of a Sovereign Russian Internet
    2. Runet, or an Attempt to Territorialize Cyberspace
  2. An Unusual Internal Organization, or the Weight of Soviet Legacies
    1. The Network’s Soviet Carcass
    2. A Heterogeneous Space Beset by Rivalries
  3. Conclusion

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Kevin Limonier, “ La Russie dans le cyberespace : représentations et enjeux ”, Hérodote 1/2014 (n° 152-153) , p. 140-160
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2014-1-page-140.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.152.0140.

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