How Western News Is Getting Around Putin’s Digital Iron Curtain (2023)

(Video) Piercing Russia's digital Iron Curtain

As Russian forces continue their brutal invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is waging a digital war of his own at home. Russia’s media sphere, which was tightly controlled by the state even before the Ukraine invasion, has become even smaller. For years, Putin has overseen a sustained crackdown on press freedom in Russia—a process that in recent weeks claimed two of the country’s last remaining independent news broadcasters, TV Rain and Echo of Moscow. Now, thanks to the Kremlin’s latest censorship law, many of the West’s major news outlets have been forced out of the country too, and millions of Russians find themselves blocked from accessing numerous major social-media platforms as well as anything resembling free and independent news.

Instead of giving up on their Russian audiences, though, international news organizations are trying to exploit gaps within this new digital iron curtain to reach the Russian people.

Although the majority of Russians rely on state-run television as their primary source of news, the fact that some consume news from foreign outlets has long upset the Russian government, which has spent years asserting control over domestic and foreign media in the country. But even by the Kremlin’s standards, this latest effort to block Russians from much of the internet marks an escalation—one that has quickly transformed the country into a digital pariah.

Russians are, however, finding technical workarounds to sidestep the government’s bans, some of which have been encouraged by international news outlets that are keen to maintain a digital presence in the country, even if they can no longer claim a physical one. The New York Times, which has announced that it has withdrawn its journalists from Russia, and The Washington Post, which has removed bylines from its Russia stories to prevent its journalists there from being caught up in the crackdown, launched their own dedicated channels on Telegram, the as-yet-unbanned social-media-and-messaging app that claims more than 1 billion downloads (Russia is its second-biggest market) and acts as a platform to both news outlets and Russian state channels alike. Meanwhile, the BBC, whose Russian-language website more than tripled its weekly average audience (10.7 million people compared with its average 3.1 million) in the first week of the Russian invasion, before being blocked by the Kremlin, encouraged its audience to use tools such as the Psiphon app, an open-source, virtual private-network service that helps users conceal their location, and Tor, a more secure web browser. (The British broadcaster also reverted to more old-school tactics, announcing that it would revive its shortwave radio service as an alternative means of reaching its audiences in Ukraine and Russia.) In the weeks since the Russian invasion began, demand for VPNs in the country has skyrocketed by more than 2,500 percent compared with pre-invasion levels, according to Top10VPN, an online VPN tracker.

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Perhaps no outlet is better placed to overcome these challenges than Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The broadcaster was founded during the Cold War with the explicit purpose of reaching audiences behind the Iron Curtain. Despite the Soviet Union’s efforts to jam broadcasts, “people still found a way through the static,” Jamie Fly, the president of RFE/RL, told me. “I meet people all the time who remember sitting by the radio, literally turning the dial, trying to find the one frequency that had not been jammed.” Today, RFE/RL, which is funded by (though editorially independent from) the United States government, is directing its audience to utilize a number of circumvention tools, including VPNs and Telegram.

I spoke with Fly days after RFE/RL announced that it was suspending its operations in Russia after a more-than-three-decade presence in the country (initiated in 1991 with an invitation from then–Russian President Boris Yeltsin to open a permanent bureau in Moscow, which Putin revoked a decade later). The decision, which came days after the Russian government blocked access to RFE/RL and several other foreign broadcasters, was the culmination of the Kremlin’s yearslong campaign to expel the broadcaster—one that involved designating RFE/RL as a “foreign agent” and subjecting it to tens of millions of dollars in fines. Although the broadcaster continues to report from within Russia “in a limited fashion,” Fly said that the majority of its Russian service is now based out of Riga, in neighboring Latvia.

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That RFE/RL now finds itself facing another iron curtain, with its primary methods of serving its audience once again jammed by authorities who would much rather it didn’t exist, hasn’t undermined its resolve. “Our history is coming full circle,” Kiryl Sukhotski, who oversees RFE/RL’s Russian and Ukrainian teams, told me. Only this time, the broadcaster has more technological tools in its arsenal. In addition to Telegram and VPNs, RFE/RL has also been experimenting with other circumvention tools such as mirror sites, which enable the outlet to replicate or “mirror” the content from its blocked website at a different URL. When those sites invariably get blocked, “we just open up a new mirror,” Patrick Boehler, RFE/RL’s head of digital strategy, told me. “It’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the broadcaster isn’t getting its content to Russian audiences but ensuring that its methods are easily accessible. This is where the Kremlin has the greatest advantage. For all the Russians who have been able to access independent news and information using various circumvention tools, millions more remain firmly ensconced within the Kremlin’s echo chamber. Although its influence in Russia has been in decline, state-run television still remains the primary source of news for as much as 62 percent of Russians, according to a 2021 study by the Moscow-based Levada Center, Russia’s last independent pollster. To tune in to a typical Russian television broadcast, as my colleague Olga Khazan recently did, is to peek into this carefully crafted alternate reality—one in which Russia is the victim, the Ukrainian government is controlled by Nazis, and the war in Ukraine doesn’t exist.

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“If you’re a middle-aged person who is not really on the internet, who is maybe supportive of Putin and the government, and you’re watching TV, as most Russians of that age do, you will definitely be exposed to a firehose of propaganda about how bad the West is and [how] Russians are under attack,” Jill Dougherty, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and CNN’s former Moscow bureau chief, told me.

The pervasive nature of the Russian government’s efforts doesn’t make attempts to combat them any less vital, however. “Even if a Russian thought that it was propaganda from the West, at least they’re getting a different viewpoint,” Dougherty said. “What they’re getting right now is only one viewpoint, and it is highly emotional and very angry.”

Though news outlets such as RFE/RL are best placed to provide these alternative viewpoints, they aren’t the only ones who can. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made an impassioned appeal to Russian citizens through Telegram and other channels, urging them to spread the truth about what is happening in Ukraine. Others have endeavored to reach out to ordinary Russians directly using a tool created by a team of Polish programmers known as Squad303 that enables anyone to text, email, or phone tens of millions of Russians at random. Since its March 4 launch, thousands of people have used the service to send more than 40 million messages to Russians directly with information about the war. “We are bypassing the digital iron curtain,” a Squad303 spokesperson told me. He cited RFE/RL as part of the group’s inspiration.

“Thanks to Radio Free Europe, there was in us a hunger for freedom and democracy, which was the basis for the creation of Solidarity, which in effect overthrew communism in Europe,” he said, referencing the independent Polish trade union. “Now we are trying to help the Russian people in the same way.”

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The way everyone I spoke with for this story sees it, the West—and, in particular, its news media—has an obligation not to turn its back on the Russian public. As space for alternative information becomes ever smaller, and as the threats against those who diverge from the Kremlin’s narrative become more explicit, the greater that responsibility becomes.


Has the Internet been blocked in Russia? ›

Since 2012, Russia maintains a centralized internet blacklist (known as the "single register") maintained by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor). The list is used for the censorship of individual URLs, domain names, and IP addresses.

How do Russians get news? ›

A majority of Russians (56.4%) now say they get their news from the Internet at least once a week, up slightly from 50.4% in 2012. The Internet outdistances traditional media such as newspapers and magazines (49.8%) and radio (43.8%) as sources for weekly news.

What place does Russia come in on the Press Freedom Index? ›

As of 2022, Russia ranked 155 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Is there dissent in the Kremlin? ›

The Kremlin has slammed shut the door to independent media and political dissent. Two laws Vladimir Putin signed into law in March further enable the government to crack down on freedom of expression. The laws make factual war reporting and anti-war protests punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Is Facebook blocked in Russia? ›

Roskomnadzor also ordered that Facebook be blocked for its "discrimination toward Russian media", in retaliation for restricting the accessibility of pages for Russian state media outlets such as Russia Today. Twitter launched an onion service in response.

Has Russian TV channels been hacked? ›

Among the television channels impacted were Russian streaming services Wink and Ivi, a service similar to Netflix, and live broadcasts at the TV channels Rossia-24, Channel One, and Moscow 24, the hackers' group said on Twitter. The media could not be played.

Who controls the media in Russia? ›

Two of the three main channels are majority owned by the state. Channel One is 51% publicly owned, while Rossiya is 100% state-owned through the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK).

Do Russians have Internet access? ›

CIA World Factbook states there were 10.382 million Internet hosts in 2008 and 40.853 million Internet users in 2010 in Russia. By March 2011 the total number of broadband subscribers reached 16.5 million with penetration at almost 30%. These numbers increased within two years by 180% against 9 million in 2009.

What country is #1 on the freedom Index? ›

United States

Does Russia have freedom of religion? ›

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, in some cases the authorities imposed restrictions on certain groups, most often through the registration process.

Which country has the highest press freedom? ›

Rankings and scores by country
Norway(001) 92.16(001) 92.18
Finland(002) 92.07(002) 92.10
Denmark(003) 91.87(005) 90.13
Sweden(004) 90.75(003) 91.69
38 more rows

Why is the Kremlin so important to Russia? ›

The Kremlin of Moscow. As throughout its history, the Kremlin remains the heart of the city. It is the symbol of both Russian and (for a time) Soviet power and authority, and it has served as the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation since 1991.

What does Kremlin mean in Russian? ›

Kremlin is the Russian word for “fortress” or “citadel”. Indeed, some other old Russian cities have their own Kremlin. But the Kremlin of Moscow is the one known around the world and the symbol of the Russian state. The word "Kremlin" meant not the outer city wall but a fortress within a city.

Is the Kremlin impenetrable? ›

The Kremlin (Кремль) is a fortress that remembers Russian tsars and emperors, wars and victories, ancient and modern life. Although it is an impenetrable fortress, its style is beautiful and embellishes the center of the city and the center of the country.

What is the most used search engine in Russia? ›

Russian Search Engines
  • Yandex. Largest search engine on the Internet in Russian founded in 1997.
  • Google. World search giant holding 2nd place in Russia.
  • Search engine developed by one of the largest Russian Internet companies.
  • Bing. Web search engine owned and operated by Microsoft.
  • Rambler. ...
  • Other SE.

What browser is used in Russia? ›

Yandex Browser (Russian: Яндекс. Браузер) is a freeware web browser developed by the Russian technology corporation Yandex that uses the Blink web browser engine and is based on the Chromium open source project.

Does Apple support Russia? ›

While Apple has zeroed in on bans within Russia, other tech companies have removed support for Russian services in European countries.

Is Amazon blocked in Russia? ›

In addition to Amazon, other major players like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Netflix, and PayPal have stopped doing business with Russia.

What social media is still working in Russia? ›

Leading social media platforms in Russia in 3rd quarter 2021, by penetration rate
CharacteristicShare of respondents
9 more rows
19 May 2022

What social media is still available in Russia? ›

Social media usage in Russia

Namely, over 14 million Russians are using Twitter, while the number of Instagram users in the country stood at nearly 64 million users in October 2022. Approximately 71 million Russians were also using Facebook as of August 2022.

Does Russia still have analog TV? ›

The programme will continue throughout the course of this year, with Moscow scheduled to go digital‑only as of 15 April, while the country's few remaining analogue strongholds – including Saint Petersburg and the Leningrad region – will see the plug finally pulled on 3 June.

Do Russians watch a lot of TV? ›

Television is the most popular medium in Russia, with 74% of the population watching national television channels routinely and 59% routinely watching regional channels. There are 3300 television channels in total.

Who hacked Russian TV channels? ›

Anonymous, the online group of hackers, has claimed that they successfully infiltrated Russian state TV to show citizens the true devastation of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. The group shared footage of the deed on Twitter which shows a TV streaming the devastation in Ukraine as the war entered its 12th day.

Who controls the media in the United States? ›

These top six companies control 90% of the media in the United States. Just 37 years ago, there were 50 companies in charge of most American media. Now, 90% of the media in the United States is controlled by just six corporations: AT&T, CBS, Comcast, Disney, Newscorp and Viacom.

What is the most popular media in Russia? ›

Television is the most powerful sector of the media industry and the main news source for most Russians, although its dominance is being eroded by the internet. The top national TV networks are either state-run or owned by companies with close links to the Kremlin.

Do Russian citizens have rights? ›

Everyone in Russia enjoys guaranteed protection of rights and liberties by a court of law. The courts of law have the power to enforce these rights. The people can challenge any law of the state on the ground that it violates any of their rights and liberties.

What percentage of Russia has internet? ›

Nearly 85 percent of the country's population is online, according to data from the World Bank. But only some of those people use American social networks.

Does China have its own internet? ›

China has been on the internet intermittently since May 1989 and on a permanent basis since 20 April 1994, although with limited access. In 2008, China became the country with the largest population on the Internet and, as of 2018, has remained so.
Search engines.
ChinaShare of searches (%)
8 more rows

What rank is America in freedom? ›

Freest Countries 2022
CountryHuman FreedomRanking
United States8.7315
71 more rows

What is the best country to live in for freedom? ›

#1 Singapore. Read More About SingaporeSingapore's economic freedom score is 84.4, making its economy the freest in the 2022 Index.

Which country is best for human rights? ›

  • Sweden. #1 in Cares about human rights. ...
  • Switzerland. #2 in Cares about human rights. ...
  • Netherlands. #3 in Cares about human rights. ...
  • Denmark. #4 in Cares about human rights. ...
  • Norway. #5 in Cares about human rights. ...
  • Canada. #6 in Cares about human rights. ...
  • Finland. #7 in Cares about human rights. ...
  • Australia. #8 in Cares about human rights.

What is the biggest religion in USA? ›

The most popular religion in the U.S. is Christianity, comprising the majority of the population (73.7% of adults in 2016), with the majority of American Christians belonging to a Protestant denomination or a Protestant offshoot (such as Mormonism or the Jehovah's Witnesses.)

What religion is legal in Russia? ›

The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country's four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). A constitutional amendment cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country's ancestors.

Does Russia accept Christianity? ›

Christianity in Russia is the most widely professed religion in the country. The largest tradition is the Russian Orthodox Church. According to official sources, there are 170 eparchies of the Russian Orthodox Church, 145 of which are grouped in metropolitanates.

Which country has lowest freedom? ›

Least free were Syria (3.79), Venezuela (3.80), and Yemen (4.30). The components on which the index is based can be divided into economic freedoms and other personal freedoms. Highest ranking in economic freedoms were Hong Kong (8.91) and Singapore (8.71).

Where is the best country to live? ›

  • Sweden. #1 in Quality of Life. #5 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • Denmark. #2 in Quality of Life. #10 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • Canada. #3 in Quality of Life. ...
  • Switzerland. #4 in Quality of Life. ...
  • Norway. #5 in Quality of Life. ...
  • Finland. #6 in Quality of Life. ...
  • Germany. #7 in Quality of Life. ...
  • Netherlands. #8 in Quality of Life.

What country has the highest reputation? ›

  • Switzerland. #1 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • Germany. #2 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • Canada. #3 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • United States. #4 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • Sweden. #5 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • Japan. #6 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • Australia. #7 in Best Countries Overall. ...
  • United Kingdom. #8 in Best Countries Overall.

Why do Soviets hang carpets on the wall? ›

Many Russians were at the mercy of the state for their heat, so they ingeniously hung large wool rugs or wall hangings on their walls to keep that heat inside. The walls tended to be very thin as well, so rugs kept the noise from traveling and allowed families a bit more privacy.

Why do Russians have onion domes? ›

Helmet-shaped domes of pre-Mongolian Russian were replaced with onion-shaped domes. They say that such shapes appeared since they allow snow to slide down and not to sustain on top. The color of church cupolas can be also interpreted according to the church symbolism.

Why is the Red Square in Russia important? ›

An important public marketplace and meeting place for centuries, Red Square houses the ornate 16th-century St. Basil's Cathedral, the State Historical Museum and the enormous GUM Department Store, as well as a modernist mausoleum for the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.

What does Red Square mean in Russian? ›

Not many people realize that Red Square's name has nothing to do with Communism or Soviet Russia. The old Russian word for 'beautiful' and 'red' was the same; Red Square means “Beautiful Square".

Why is Russia called the motherland? ›

One more explanation: Fatherland was a nationalistic term used in Nazi Germany to unite Germany in the culture and traditions of ancient Germany. The Russians used Motherland as the symbol of a country that nourished and supported its citizens during times of crisis.

What is the equivalent of the White House in Russia? ›

Dom pravitelstva Rossiyskoi Federatsii), also known as the Russian White House and previously known as the House of Soviets of Russia, is a government building in Moscow.

Is America or Russia stronger? ›

In short, Russia is ranked 2nd out of 140 in military strength while the US is ranked 1st. As per the army population, Russia has 142,320,790 soldiers while The US has 334,998,398 soldiers. The available manpower is 69,737,187 with Russia and 147,399,295 with the United States.

How many security guards protect Putin? ›

Presidential Security Service (Russia)
Presidential Security Service of Russia Служба безопасности президента России
Annual budgetClassified
Jurisdictional structure
Federal agencyRUS
17 more rows

What does Russia buy from the West? ›

The data shows that Russia's main imports are machinery, chemicals, and other manufacturing goods, and that Russia depends on the rest of the world for the supply of many complex products.

Is the Internet working in Russia? ›

As of 2020, 122,488,468 (85% of the country's total population) were Internet users. As of September 2020, Russia ranked 47th among the world's countries by the fixed broadband Internet access speed, with an average download speed of 75.91 mbit/s, and 88th by the mobile network Internet access speed with 22.83 mbit/s.

Has Google shut down Russia? ›

Although commercial operations have ceased, Google said it was committed to continue to provide free services online, such as email and web searches, to Russians.

Is Google shut down in Russia? ›

Apple, Google haven't shut down app stores in Russia. The U.S. doesn't want them to.

Does Ukraine have Internet? ›

The physical infrastructure that makes up the Internet in Ukraine is well-developed, and often includes multiple fiber lines that can cover the same areas, said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for Kentik, which monitors global data flows.

Which country has its own Internet? ›

Cuba has its own state controlled intranet called national web.

Does China have its own Internet? ›

China has been on the internet intermittently since May 1989 and on a permanent basis since 20 April 1994, although with limited access. In 2008, China became the country with the largest population on the Internet and, as of 2018, has remained so.
Search engines.
ChinaShare of searches (%)
8 more rows

Does China still block Google? ›

Google China is a subsidiary of Google. A popular search engine, most services offered by Google China were blocked by the Great Firewall in the People's Republic of China.
Google China.
Type of siteSearch engine
Current statusLimited access; redirects to Google Hong Kong
5 more rows

In which country Google is not allowed? ›

North Korea

Like China, North Korea's isolation from the rest of the world means that Google is unsurprisingly banned. All social media sites are also banned. The government does not make the internet accessible to the North Korean population, so there are no locally developed search engines that we know of.

Does China still ban Google? ›

Google Search is partially blocked in China. Requests from the mainland to Google Search, including and, are automatically redirected to, the company's Hong Kong servers. Depending on what you search for on the Hong Kong version, the results may or may not be censored while in China.

Will Microsoft stop working in Russia? ›

We are announcing today that we will suspend all new sales of Microsoft products and services in Russia,” Brad Smith, president and vice chair at Microsoft, said in an announcement.

Has Apple pulled out of Russia? ›

Apple pulled out of the Russian market a week after Russia invaded Ukraine — but people in Russia will still be able to buy the new iPhone 14 through parallel imports, said a Kremlin official.

Is Microsoft shutting down in Russia? ›

Microsoft announced that it is cutting down its business in Russia and reducing the workforce in the country following its invasion of Russia. The company's new decision to scale down operations in Russia would result in the layoff of close to 400 employees.

Why does China not use Google? ›

Google pulled its search engine from China in 2010 because of heavy government internet censorship. Since then, Google has had a difficult relationship with the Chinese market. The end of Google Translate in China marks a further retreat by the U.S. technology giant from the world's second-largest economy.

What does Russian use instead of Google? ›

Yandex search usage in Russia

Despite the global dominance of Google as a primary search engine, Russian consumers gave their preference to homegrown Yandex and

What is Russia's version of Google? ›

In 2001, the company launched the Yandex.Direct online advertising network. In January 2009, Mozilla Firefox 3.5, replaced Google with Yandex as the default search provider for Russian-language builds. In August 2009, the company had introduced a player of free legal music in its search results.


1. President Putin Calls Russians Against Invasion ‘Scum And Traitors’
(NBC News)
2. How to Win in Putin's Propaganda War
(Stanford CDDRL)
3. Ukraine War: Putin Warns On NATO Troops In Sweden, Finland + More | Russian Invasion
(Channels Television)
4. A new digital Iron Curtain? How despots wall up the internet | with Audrey Tang and Leonid Volkov
(DW Global Media Forum)
5. G20 Showdown In Bali Amid Ukraine War? | Putin Likely To Attend Along With NATO Leaders & Zelensky
6. What Putin's declaration of martial law in annexed Ukrainian territories could mean
(CBS News)
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