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Free Chapter of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries

Ditsa Keren Technology Researcher

Andrei Alekseyevich Soldatov is a Russian investigative journalist and Russian security services expert. Together with a journalist Irina Borogan he is a co-founder and editor of the Agentura.Ru website, which has been covering Russian federal security service (FSB) and national security issues for more than a decade.

What made you write this book?

We've been covering the Russian secret services since 1999 and we've always been interested in how governments try to control the free flow of information. Since Russian internet surveillance and censorship are so widespread now, we felt it is important to overview this from a digital perspective rather than just a political perspective.

What new knowledge did you gain whilst writing the book?

Journalists tend to be pessimistic, and we are no exception. But surprisingly, when we did our research we found out that the Internet is a formidable challenge for authoritarian regimes. There is something about the Internet that the Kremlin and likewise cannot fully grasp - it's horizontal nature and the fact that the content is generated by users. Russia is a country with a very rich tradition of suppressing dissent - it's been a truly surveillance state for decades during the Cold War, and Putin made every effort to keep this system up-to-date with the internet era. Still, it's been clear that the authorities are slow, and in most cases they rely on old tactics of intimidation, rather than technology.

Free Chapter of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries by Andrei Soldatov

Andrei Soldatov

Following is the first chapter of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries

CHAPTER 1- The Prison of Information

In January 1950 Abram Trakhtman, a thirty-two-year-old major of the Ministry of State Security, a forerunner of the KGB, faced a personal crisis that threatened his entire career in Stalin’s secret police. For days he had sat alone in his office, located in a three-story, red-brick building in northeast Moscow.

The building on the compound was first erected in 1884 for a Russian Orthodox Church seminary. In the early 1920s, after the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of an officially atheist state, the seminarians were expelled. The seminary was turned into a prison for adolescents. Then, in the 1940s, it was transformed again.

The building stood on the outskirts of a small village, Marfino, which had just one cobblestone road. Bus no. 37 from city center stopped there twice a day. In 1947 the village was suddenly surrounded by newly erected walls and transformed into a Soviet secret research facility. It was named Object Eight and known informally as the sharashka of Marfino. A sharashka was a prison camp that held scientists who were put to work using their expertise for the state. They could not leave, but their conditions were better than the rugged prison camps of the Soviet gulag. At 9781610395731-text.indd 3 6/22/15 9:53 AM

Marfino the rooms were filled with convicted and imprisoned engineers, mathematicians, and linguists who were working to help the secret police find ways to provide secure telephone technology for Joseph Stalin.

Down the corridor from Trakhtman’s office was a large room, a former church cupola that had been subdivided so it looked like a half-moon chamber. On the ceiling the original church paintings were still visible, but down below it was crowded with radio and telephone equipment.

Trakhtman, thin-faced, with round, owlish eyeglasses and a head of naturally curly hair, was reluctant to go to the round room just now, even though he knew his subordinates were waiting for him.

Abram Trakhtman was the chief of the acoustic laboratory. He wore a green uniform with gold shoulder straps and a cap with a blue crown. The blue had been embraced by Russian secret services since the days of the tsars. An engineer by training, Trakhtman had enjoyed a very successful career up until January 1950. He was born to a Jewish family in a small Ukrainian town in the Pale of Settlement. He survived the pogroms, made it to Moscow, and entered the Moscow Communications Institute, graduating just before World War II. He then joined the Central Research Institute of Communications, where he was noticed by Alexander Mints, a prominent Soviet physicist and radio engineer highly regarded by the Soviet authorities. Mints made him part of his entourage, and Trakhtman earned two Stalin Prizes during the war.1

When the Ministry of State Security decided to launch the Marfino project in 1947, Mints was asked to lead it, but he declined. 2

Trakhtman got the job, which he eagerly accepted. He was given his own laboratory. He always wore the gold insignia of his Stalin Prize on his uniform. Yet now Trakhtman found himself in a dangerous situation—just when he thought he was on the verge of advancement.

Only two months before, Trakhtman’s laboratory had achieved a major success. They helped catch a government official who was providing sensitive secrets to the Americans. The laboratory consisted of five people; three of them were inmates, including the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his close friend Lev Kopelev.

(Solzhenitsyn was later sent off to a labor camp.) A gifted philologist, Kopelev was a big, flamboyant man with thick black hair, a black beard and mustache, and large, expressive eyes—a real firebrand. It was Kopelev who had identified a Foreign Ministry official who made a phone call to the US Embassy in Moscow, thereby revealing the existence of an undercover Soviet spy who was headed to New York to steal atomic bomb secrets. To accomplish this, Kopelev had analyzed the recording of an intercepted phone call and fingered one of five suspects. The suspected caller was arrested. Kopelev, excited by this success, thought he had created a new scientific discipline and gave it a name: phonoscopy.

With Kopelev by his side, Trakhtman made contact with a high-ranking general and won permission to establish a new research institute that would work specifically on speech recognition and speaker identification. Excited, Trakhtman told Kopelev that they would have a promising future together and asked Kopelev to think about what kind of equipment they would need for the new institute. A location for the sharashka was found in the center of Moscow.3

But January 1950 was an unfortunate time for an engineer with a name like Abram Trakhtman, even within the state security apparatus. A year before, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda had accused Jewish theater critics of unpatriotic behavior in an article edited personally by Stalin, and the Soviet press launched an orchestrated campaign against “cosmopolitanism,” which was essentially an attack on prominent Jews.4 The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded, many of its members arrested, and Jewish newspapers and publishing houses were closed. The campaign then turned into something akin to a witch hunt, with Jewish doctors being accused of poisoning Soviet leaders. In 1950 the anti-Semitic campaign reached the ranks of state security. Just a few days after Trakhtman had secured the general’s approval, he was told that the building chosen for the new sharashka was not sufficeently secure. Then he was told that Marfino’s prisoners could not be moved to this building because it was too risky to have them in the center of Moscow. It was clear to him that his plans were being deliberately and repeatedly delayed. Days passed without any decisions being made. Trakhtman was rarely seen in his laboratory, the half-moon chamber. His subordinates concluded that he was afraid to address their questions about the fate of the new project. They were right.

Finally Trakhtman was told he would not get any convicted engineers for his new sharashka. Despairing, Trakhtman tried to raise the stakes. He refused to be a director of the new institute without his prisoners and declared that the entire project was doomed without them. That was a mistake. The general who had given him permission for the new institute proceeded to cancel it. Trakhtman was stripped of his rank of major and expelled from Marfino. In late January he went back to the compound one last time.

After much anxiety, he walked into the laboratory and then turned to Kopelev and said, “Now, strictly between us—it’s impossible to be a director of the institute with such a name,” meaning a Jewish name like Trakhtman. He then squeezed Kopelev’s hand, smiled sadly, and left.5

With his ambitious plans for a new sharashka destroyed, Trakhtman soon relocated to another top secret facility, working on missile guidance systems, a part of the Soviet space effort. For Trakhtman, research on speech recognition was over. The most promising project of his life was ruined.

But the general did not forget about Trakhtman’s subordinates at Marfino’s acoustic laboratory. They remained locked up at Marfino for another three years until December 1953, when eighteen prisoners were transferred from Marfino to a sharashka outside of Moscow. It was called Kuchino, another compound of the security service, and the talented Lev Kopelev followed them in January 1954. The compound was controlled by the Soviet secret police and intelligence service, which was renamed that year the Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti, or, simply, the KGB.

Kuchino, about twelve miles east of Moscow, was set on an old prerevolutionary industrialist’s estate. It became the KGB’s main research center for surveillance technologies, including the all-pervasive Soviet system of phone tapping and communications interception. From this day forward, speech recognition research and telephone wiretapping were bound together, funded and directed by the KGB.

The Soviet secret services wanted to make sure they could properly intercept any call, and identify the person who made it. They wanted to make sure that information in the Soviet Union—all kinds of information, including communications between people— was under their control. Long before the term was fashionable, they determined that they wanted to be the dictators of data.

When Vladimir Fridkin graduated from the physics department at Moscow State University in December 1952, he earned a diploma with honors in physics. A thin-faced but earnest young man, he could not land a job in physics, despite months of searching. He was repeatedly turned down. He knew the reason: he was a Jew, and the anti-Semitic campaign launched by Stalin had erased all the advantages Fridkin might have expected with his degree.6

He gave up hopes of becoming a nuclear physicist and finally landed a job at the Scientific Research Institute of Polygraphic Engineering. The institute occupied a few miserable barracks in the rear of a large factory in the west of Moscow. When Fridkin first opened the door of his small office, it was almost empty— there was nothing but a table and chair. It was an inauspicious beginning: he could hardly carry out scientific research in the barren little room.

Instead, he went every day to sit for hours under a greenshaded lamp in the vast, high-ceilinged reading room of the Lenin Library near the Kremlin. The library held the largest collection of books, documents, and dissertations in the country, in hundreds of languages. One day, while there, he discovered an article written by Chester Carlson, an American physicist, about the process of electrophotography, or, more simply, photocopying.7

There was nothing like photocopying in the Soviet Union. Fridkin was intrigued by the possibility that he could build a Soviet copying machine. First, he went to the institute’s department of electrical equipment and asked them to get him a high-current generator. Then he went back to the physics department where he had studied at the university and obtained sulfur crystals and a photographic enlarger. In his small office he experimented. He tried to make a copy of a page, then of a photograph. One day he succeeded in duplicating an image of Mokhovaya Square, a wellknown landmark in front of the Kremlin. When the director of the institute saw this he exclaimed, “You do not understand what you invented!” The director immediately ordered the institute’s designers to take what Fridkin had done and transform it into a single machine that could make photocopies. When they managed to do this, the first copying machine in the Soviet Union was born. It was box-like, more than three feet high and two feet across, with two cylinders on the top and the high-current generator attached. It was named the Electrophotography Copying Machine No. 1.

Even though the machine was primitive, nobody doubted the significance of the invention. The institute director called the ministry—in the Soviet centrally planned economy, a government ministry oversaw every such institute. Soon the minister himself came to the Institute of Polygraphic Engineering to see the machine, and he was so impressed that he ordered it into mass production. A factory in Chisinau in the Soviet republic of Moldova was selected to produce the new machines, and a special electrophotography research institute was established in Vilnius. At twenty-four years old, Fridkin was appointed deputy chief. He was featured in a television show praising the Soviet achievements in science. He was also paid a bonus for his accomplishment. Although Fridkin felt much better, he still wanted to be a physicist. At last, in 1955 he was given a job at the Institute of Crystallography. When he moved there, his copying machine followed him. For two years his colleagues at the institute came to his room every day to use his machine to copy articles from foreign journals. Fridkin became a very popular person in the institute.

Then, one day in 1957, a nice young woman from the KGB section walked into his room. Fridkin had known her. She had a pretty face, wore plain clothes, and Fridkin often spent time drinking tea and chatting with her. But she brought bad news. “I have to take away your device and destroy it,” she said. Fridkin asked whether she knew that this was the first copying machine in the Soviet Union. “I know, but people who come over to you can copy some prohibited materials,” she replied.

The first copying machine in the Soviet Union was smashed to pieces, and the parts were taken to a dump. One critical part of it, a slab of mirror, was salvaged and put up in the women’s restroom. Fridkin’s institute did not carry out secret research, so the decision to destroy his machine was not protecting anything at the institute; rather, it reflected the broader and deeper paranoia of the Communist Party. The party maintained a stranglehold on power and a chokehold on information. It could not tolerate the possibility that Fridkin’s invention might be used to freely make copies of unapproved documents and allow them to be easily distributed.

In a few years the factory in Chisinau ceased production. Fridkin knew that the quality of the machines produced by the Chisinau factory was not very high. But it was hardly a reason to stop making them. Later, when photocopying became routine in the West, the Soviet Union bought Western Xerox machines, but its attitude to information remained unchanged. The few photocopiers that were brought from abroad were kept under lock and key in party offices or in the Academy of Sciences. In many factories and institutes a special staffer operated the photocopier under the watchful gaze of the KGB. It happened in Fridkin’s institute too.

He seethed with anger at the sight of the photocopying machines in his own institute being locked in the prison of information. Stalin died in March 1953, and the brutal, totalitarian system of mass repression slowly began to relax. The mood in Soviet society started to change. Many gulag prisoners were released and returned home by 1955. In February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, made a speech at a closed session at the 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalin’s crimes. The “secret speech” lasted four hours. In a few years Khrushchev loosened state controls in a period that became known as the Thaw. Dozens of different freethinking groups blossomed in the Soviet Union, including Moscow intellectuals, artists and writers, all kinds of nationalists, and Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate, known as “refuseniks.” It was a time when many were optimistic, especially young people who yearned for better lives after the deprivations of war and Stalinism. But the Thaw did not last. In 1964 Khrushchev was ousted and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who effectively ended reforms. In the autumn of 1965 arrests of intellectuals and writers began in Moscow and Ukraine, and censorship tightened.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 effectively marked the end of the Thaw.

But one feature of the period did not disappear. The circulation of uncensored information became an essential part of the dissident movement, if not its main goal. This included the circulation and copying of manuscripts, known as samizdat, or self-published, and it covered a wide horizon of material: banned works of literature, social and political commentary, open letters, Solzhenitsyn’s novels, and, from 1968 to the early 1980s, the Chronicle of Current Events, which reported human rights violations in the Soviet Union. Soviet dissidents didn’t have Fridkin’s machine nor a Western-made Xerox. They hammered out their works on carbon paper with a typewriter known as the Erika, made in Eastern Germany, which could produce only four copies at a time.

In the Soviet Union the state had always held the upper hand when it came to distributing information. All other sources, like independent media or the church, were outlawed. “A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer,” Lenin wrote in 1901 in the fourth issue of Iskra, the main Bolshevik newspaper. The Bolsheviks wanted newspapers to organize and mobilize the masses, not to inform them. They could not tolerate an independent press after the 1917 revolution: from their point of view it was impossible to let the enemy—a capitalist, free press—present an alternative worldview to the masses. Stalin repeated Lenin’s words in 1923 in an article, “The Press as Collective Organizer,” in Pravda.8 In the 1930s all Soviet cities were filled with street loudspeakers, spreading propaganda. Just like in the Middle Ages, when the church bells defined the day, in Stalin’s Soviet Union the day started with a national anthem broadcast by a loudspeaker on the street, and it ended with the anthem. There was no way to turn the loudspeakers off. For many decades Soviet citizens had no choice in what they could listen to or read. By the end of World War II an entire generation had come of age not knowing anything else, let alone what they had lost. They lived all their lives to the echo of the words and formulas dictated by the state.

The Soviet regime rigidly controlled public space. Newspapers and television were put under prior censorship by the general directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press, known as Glavlit, which reported to the Council of Ministers. From March 1961 Glavlit was also put in charge of controlling communications (telex and phone conversations) of foreign correspondents in Moscow.9

Another government committee, known as Goskomizdat, censored fiction and poetry. Radios were jammed, and dozens of jamming transmitters were positioned along the borders. It was a fast-growing industry. In 1949 350 short-wave transmitters tried to jam the Western radio broadcasts. In 1950 there were 600 of them; in 1955, about 1,000, with 700 in the Soviet bloc countries. All of them were erected to jam what amounted to no more than 70 Western transmitters. By 1986 the Soviet Union had thirteen powerful long-range jamming stations, and local city jamming stations were established in eighty-one cities, with 1,300 transmitters in total.

The radio jamming was stopped only in November 1988 by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.10

For most of the seven decades of Soviet rule to seek information was a risky and dangerous game for ordinary people. Soviet-produced radio sets had some frequencies disabled. To be found in possession of a quartz with the wrong frequencies was a potentially criminal offense. Soviet-made radios were required to be registered with the government, a rule that was canceled only in 1962. The authorities wanted to be able to track anyone who copied information; the KGB required that samples taken from all typewriters be kept on file in case one had to be identified.

The ordinary and casual exchange of news with foreigners was also restricted. With the borders closed, Soviet citizens needed an “exit visa” to go abroad, a long-cherished dream that could be granted only after a long talk with a KGB officer. When abroad, Soviet citizens were requested to walk in groups so to exclude any contact with locals, including informal conversations. Soviet citizens who were allowed to go on business trips were requested to present reports of their encounters with foreigners. Not surprisingly, the Communist Party wanted to force Soviet citizens to censor themselves. And the intimidation was effective. Everybody in the Soviet Union knew the expression “this is not a phone conversation,” which expressed a wish to discuss something in person because they were afraid somebody else might be listening. The “somebody else” was the state and its vast networks of informers.

The Soviet Union was not an occupying regime; instead, the regime attempted to make everyone complicit in its goals. The peculiar structure of Soviet society helped the authorities in this. The military-industrial complex was an enormous archipelago of institutes, factories, and government ministries. By some accounts, it made up 30 to 40 percent of the Soviet economy.

Within it the Soviet Union employed a vast army of engineers at secret military and security research facilities, known colloquially as “post office boxes.” These laboratories and offices were known only by a post office box number, such as NII-56. Any mail would be addressed to that box number, not to the real name of the facility. One purpose of the zip-code-style number system was to hide the secret facilities from the prying eyes of foreigners, who were prohibited from going near them. Often the state designated an entire city “closed.” Both of Irina Borogan’s parents, engineers by training, worked at the post office box in the tiny town of Electrougli: foreigners were not allowed into the town, although it is located only twelve miles from Moscow. There a certain kind of vague doublespeak took hold and became part of everyday conversations. A person might say they worked at a “post office box” developing a “device,” but their meaning was immediately clear. In this way the Soviet population was co-opted into becoming a part of the system.

Even if an individual didn’t work at a “post office box” or in the military, it was likely that someone else in the family did so, and the rules covered everyone.

In such a system the government did little to encourage telephone use. Officials at the Soviet Ministry of Communications loved to recall Khrushchev’s statement that Soviet citizens did not need home phones because, unlike in the United States, there was no stock exchange in the Soviet Union, and therefore they don’t need so much information.

When dissidents tried to use telephones to exchange information and contact each other, the KGB was quick to react. Kopelev, who left the Kuchino sharashka in December 1954, became a passionate Soviet dissident in the 1970s. He turned his two-room apartment, on the sixth floor of an apartment building in the north of Moscow, into a gathering place for dissidents.

Dozens of phone calls were made from there every day. But when the KGB found out, they cut off his home phone line. After that, his son-in-law brought him a handset from a phone station he worked at, a plastic black piece with a white disk, a dial, and a cable. Every night Kopelev walked down the stairs to the first floor of his apartment building. There was a room there for a dezhurnaya, a person on duty, usually a woman, whose job was to control who came into the building. Inside the room there was a phone, but the room was locked. However, outside there was a phone socket on the wall, and when the dezhurnaya was off, Kopelev got the device connected to the socket—and spoke for hours.11

In 1972 the KGB requested the Soviet Council of Ministers to adopt a new rule prohibiting the use of international phone lines “in a manner contrary to the public interest and public order of the USSR.”12

It was a typical KGB move to keep tight control. Even though the restriction was approved, it was not enough for the KGB; they wanted still more restrictions. In June 1975 Yuri Andropov, then chairman of the KGB, reported to the Central Committee about a new threat. He said that Jewish refuseniks were making international phone calls. In his letter to the Central Committee marked “Secret,” Andropov reported that in 1973– 1974 more than one hundred phone customers were identified and their phone lines turned off, which, according to the KGB chairman, “caused a severe blow to the foreign Zionist organizations which consider regular telephone as the most important way to get information of interest from the Soviet Union.”13

Andropov warned, however, that the Zionists were bypassing the KGB by actively using automated international telephone lines as well as telephone booking offices to make international calls using bogus names. The KGB lamented that the Zionists had delivered to the West a series of appeals to the international community, demanding that the Soviet authorities restore their disconnected phones. Andropov’s recommendation was “to suppress the use of international communication channels for transmission abroad of biased and slanderous information.”14

The policy remained that information was to be locked away. But Andropov could not keep it all imprisoned. The same month that he reported his concern to the Central Committee, a samizdat book was passed around a small town outside Kharkiv, 460 miles west of Moscow. The book was essentially a stack of tissue paper, bound by coarse thread, containing a collection of articles written by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a prominent Zionist in the early years of the twentieth century.

The samizdat book was passed to Alexander Paritsky, who was then thirty-seven years old. He lived with his wife, Polya, and two daughters in a small apartment. Kharkiv was mostly known for a huge tank factory. Paritsky’s father and brother were both imprisoned under Stalin, but he was by no means a dissident. He was constantly reminded, however, that he was a Jew. He had a modestly successful career as an engineer at a local research institute. Paritsky’s sister, Dora, brought the dog-eared samizdat manuscript to him. “As usual, we had it for only the one night and then it goes further on the chain,” Paritsky recalled. This was the usual procedure for samizdat—you could read it for one night and you had to pass it on.15 The night turned into a marathon reading session.

By the next morning “Polya and I became Zionists. We decided to emigrate to Israel,” Paritsky recalled. The next day he announced their decision to an astonished Dora. However, there was a problem: Paritsky worked on radars for the Ministry of Defense, and that made all his work top secret. Soon he left his job and became an elevator repairman. In July 1976 he applied for an exit visa for himself and his family. He also tried to find a way to contact Moscow’s community of refuseniks, hoping to make his case public. Paritsky began getting letters from Jews in Israel and soon got his first phone call from abroad.

When he received his second international call, from London, the phone was turned off right in the middle of conversation. “I was told that my phone was turned off by the order of the chief of Kharkiv’s communications center,” he recalled. “My wife and I arranged to see him, to find out the reasons.” When the pair went to the communications center, the chief just gave the Paritskys a brochure, which turned out to be the Charter of Communications. The chief pointed to the article that had been inserted in 1972 prohibiting the use of the phone to do harm to the Soviet state. To drive the point home, a few days later Paritsky got a formal summons to the city council offices, where he was given a warning about his anti-Soviet activities. However, Paritsky didn’t stop, and after that he made his calls from special offices where citizens could book calls through telephone operators.

On August 27, 1981, Paritsky was arrested near his apartment in Kharkiv. The Chronicle of Current Events reported his case.

The KGB first hinted at accusations of espionage, knowing of Paritsky’s past secret work, but then they changed tactics. The KGB added to his indictment that Paritsky was using international telephone lines for spreading anti-Soviet information. “At the court, the prosecution presented a woman, an operator at the international telephone communications hub. She testified that during her duty her client complained about the poor quality of the line. Then she gave my name, so she identified me by my voice heard on the phone five to seven years earlier,” Paritsky recalled. “She then explained that she connected the line to check the quality and heard me speaking all possible defamation of the Soviet system.”

He was sentenced to three years in jail and sent to the labor camps. Only in April of 1988 were Paritsky and his family allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

With the approach of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the Soviet Union needed international telecommunications to host the Games properly. In 1979 the number of international lines was significantly increased. An international telephone exchange station, known as M9, was launched, located in two tall buildings on Butlerova Street in Moscow’s southwest.

When, on July 19, 1980, the Games opened in Moscow, Gennady Kudryavtsev felt especially proud. Kudryavtsev had carried out a project to expand the international phone lines. He had delivered them on time. There were sixteen hundred new channels and a whole floor of M9 for international calls.16 These channels provided automatic connection, without an operator, which was hitherto unheard of in the Soviet Union.

The KGB had resisted the expansion. To mollify them, the Ministry of Communications suggested that callers would have to dial not only the number they wanted to call but also their own number so no one would go unidentified. The KGB was still reluctant to allow more phone lines to contact the outside world. Then Kudryavtsev suggested adding another way for the KGB to control conversations. “There was a specialist who told me that there was a way to add a special programming loop to get all calls intercepted,” said Kudryavtsev. The method of intercepting all calls was introduced, and the KGB was finally satisfied. No matter how many more lines were opened, they could listen to any call.

The sixteen hundred channels turned out to be quite enough, and there were no complaints from the participants and visitors.

“All passed with the first call attempt, because there was almost nobody to call, to be honest,” Kudryavtsev recalled. The Games were boycotted by sixty-five countries in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Still, the regime did not want to let people have the option for long. A few months after the Olympics, in early 1981, Kudryavtsev, who had been appointed the first deputy minister of communications, was called to the offices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He was uneasy. Just a few days before, he had learned that part of his responsibilities as first deputy minister was to oversee the system of Soviet jamming stations. He knew that the summons to the Central Committee had to do with the international lines.

“I heard already that the KGB people went around complaining about international phone lines,” he said. But when he arrived, it was worse than he predicted; he was given a secret decision approved by the secretariat of the Central Committee to reduce the amount of automatic international lines. The lines had been his triumph, but now he was being asked to take them down.

The decision was presented as coming from the Central Committee, but in fact it was written at KGB headquarters. Kudryavtsev was put in charge, and the scale astonished him: the order was to reduce the number of overseas channels from sixteen hundred to only one hundred. For channels to some countries, the cut was even more drastic. “We had eighty-nine channels for the United States, and I was told to reduce the number to only six,” Kudryavtsev said. He was clearly upset, “Of course it hurt me—I made it, I saw that it was necessary, that it was impossible to go without it.”

In a month Kudryavtsev destroyed his own creation. The changes made automatic connection almost impossible, and customers, including foreign embassies, noticed it. On a small sheet of paper Kudryavtsev wrote out an explanation that it was due to “technical problems,” but he blushed every time he was forced to explain.

Finally Kudryavtsev found a way to take control of a telephone station on Leninsky Prospect. He redirected the lines of those who were allowed to use automatic international connection to this single station. In a year the chosen organizations, approved by the authorities, found that automatic international connection was restored.

For the rest of the country it was not—and remained that way for many years.

Kudryavtsev was angry because the KGB was given everything they demanded for the Olympics, but after the games were over, they forced everything to go back to the way it was before. As a Soviet official, Kudryavtsev completely accepted that the KGB needed to possess the means for intercepting calls, but he didn’t understand why they needed to cut the lines. It was against his engineer’s nature, and it tortured him for years. His usual sad joke was to tell his friends that he got his first government award for increasing international communications capacities, and his second award came for cutting off those capacities.

For many years after 1981 Kudryavtsev tried to talk some sense into the KGB, but the generals would not listen. They believed he was behind the expansion of the phone lines before the Olympics— and in this they were right—and they told him only one thing: “Gennady Georgievich, you had f—ed us when you were leading to the Olympics. Now shut up.”

Kudryavtsev took that rather seriously. In the massive building of the Ministry of Communications on Tverskaya Street, known as the Central Telegraph, he was given an office once used by Genrikh Yagoda, a chief of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, who was also a commissar of communications. “All the furniture was from Yagoda’s times—his table, his safe—only his lift was blocked, which used to lead to the basement and then to the metro. But I checked—the lift shaft was still there.”

In 1988 Kudryavtsev went to the Politburo to explain a minor issue of international connection between a factory in Ivanovo, not far from Moscow, and its Bulgarian partners, and Mikhail Gorbachev was present. When Gorbachev asked him what should be done to improve the line, Kudryavtsev replied, “Cancel the decision of the secretariat of the Central Committee on restrictions of international communications.” Gorbachev said, “But what should be done specifically for Ivanovo?” And thus the question was postponed again.17

Ed Fredkin, a prominent computer expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spirited, cheerful ex-Air Force fighter pilot, had spent years cultivating relationships within the Soviet research community. He had a penchant for grand ideas and in 1982, at the age of forty-eight, he traveled to Moscow to participate in a physics conference. As he later recounted, his intention was to "infiltrate the Soviet Union with personal computers."

“Since we arrived a few days prior to the start of the meeting, I immediately went to the Academy of Sciences Computation Center to reconnect with old friends and explain what I wanted to do,” he told us. “My friends told me that I had to talk to Yevgeny Velikhov. I called him, and he came over to the Computation Center.”18

Velikhov, then forty-seven years old, was an open-minded and ambitious nuclear physicist and a deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. Velikhov had recently been elected a vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the youngest ever. Fredkin had known Velikhov for years, and he spoke openly with him, arguing that the widespread adoption of computer technologies was vital to the future of the Soviet Union and that better times could be realized only if the authorities gave up rigid control of information. Fredkin suggested that personal computers could fit with socialism even better than with capitalism, and Velikhov, an enthusiast of personal computers since the late 1970s—when he had bought for himself one of the first Apple models—arranged for Fredkin to speak before Soviet scholars at the presidium of the Academy of Sciences. “We needed this talk at the presidium to overcome the resistance,” recalled Velikhov.19

The goal was to change the Soviet government’s position, which was then geared toward developing information technologies by using a rigid hierarchical scheme with massive, central computers, and terminals, not personal computers.

Two days before the talk Fredkin was in his room in the Academy of Sciences Hotel when he got a phone call from someone.

The person spoke English and didn’t introduce himself: “I understand that you have been told by Velikhov that you will be allowed to give a talk at the next meeting of the presidium.” “Yes, that is correct.”

“Well, we have looked into the matter, and to this date, no foreign person has ever made a presentation at a meeting of the presidium. It’s true that Vice President Velikhov is an important man, but he is not important enough to overcome such a lack of precedence.” Fredkin was speechless.

“So, you will not address the meeting of the presidium.” Not knowing how to reply, Fredkin simply said, “Thank you.”

But the next day Fredkin got another call from the same person, who now told him that the talk was approved. Still, it was not easy. “When I arrived to give my talk, the acting president of the Academy of Sciences, someone whom I knew well and considered to be a friend, pointedly stood up, put his papers into his briefcase, slammed it shut, and stormed out, just as Gromyko had done, on occasion, at the United Nations.”

Fredkin made every effort to break the ice. He told the audience about his family ties to Russia; his parents had been suppliers of wood for the imperial palace in St. Petersburg. He spoke of the large technology gap between the Soviet Union and the United States. He said computers were different: the performance-to-cost ratio improved by more than a factor of two every two years, making it uniquely different from any other kind of technology.

But the suspicious audience first asked him why he cared about Soviet technological problems. Fredkin had a ready response, “My wife and I would feel safer back in Boston if the world remains relatively balanced.”

Fredkin impressed the audience. Next Velikhov went to Staraya Ploshad, a city square where the headquarters of the party’s Central Committee is located. He headed to a building right on the square, a big six-story neoclassical edifice with giant windows, built in 1914 for an insurance company. The top officials of the Central Committee had their offices there, and Velikhov had an appointment on the fourth floor to see Yuri Andropov. At the time Andropov, the KGB chief, had been elevated to become a secretary of the Central Committee, responsible for ideology; he was also sitting in for Brezhnev temporarily while the ailing general secretary was on holiday in Crimea. Velikhov asked for the meeting, an effort to overcome the resistance he faced to adopting personal computers in the Soviet Union.

The meeting with Andropov lasted an hour. “He was well prepared for the meeting, and he had his information from the foreign intelligence; it was obvious I didn’t need to explain to him things from scratch,” said Velikhov. He persuaded Andropov to form a new branch inside the Academy of Sciences, a section of information technologies and computation systems.

It was the same Andropov whose subordinates, a year before, had Kudryavtsev cut international phone lines. At that time nobody— and least of all Andropov—thought personal computers should be made available to ordinary Soviet citizens.

Back home Fredkin worked on lifting the US export controls on sending personal computers to the Soviet Union. He argued that personal computers would force the authorities to give up control over information, that they would jailbreak the prison. “I realized that nothing would happen until someone ‘broke the ice.’ I created ‘Computerland USSR,’ called Velikhov, and told him that if he would produce a purchase order for a small number of IBM PCs, I would arrange for them to be delivered and that that would open the floodgates,” Fredkin recalled.

Velikhov immediately produced the purchase order. “Computerland USSR” ordered about sixty computers from IBM in Europe, and Fredkin got friends at the Academy of Sciences Computation Center to make sets of chips that would allow the computers to display Cyrillic characters on the screen (as they had already done for one PC smuggled earlier into the Computation Center). Fredkin’s company took delivery in Europe, modified the keyboards and displays, got official clearance from the US Commerce Department, and delivered them to the Academy of Sciences. “The dam was broken,” Fredkin recalled. “Computerland USSR may be the only computer company in history that received and delivered one single order... then went out of business!”

For almost the whole of its history the Soviet Union had been a prison of information. But the prison, like so many other edifices of the Soviet state, was finally breeched in August 1991. Then the information finally broke free.

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About the Author

Ditsa Keren is a cybersecurity expert with a keen interest in technology and digital privacy.

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