In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is it possible for a private technology company to defy the state and win an unequal battle? It seems unlikely, but that is what happened Thursday when the Roskomnadzor, the state communications watchdog better known for blocking sites and social media, announced it was lifting a ban on the popular Telegram messaging app.

In recent years, we have seen time and again how Russian private companies — such as YukosNTV, Yandex or Sistema — are powerless when the state decides it doesn’t like what they are doing. Telegram seemed to be heading for the same fate two years ago, when the Roskomnadzor, supported by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and parliament, announced it was shutting down the app because it refused to share its keys with the intelligence services. But instead, Telegram showed how a private enterprise could defeat a stumbling state.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
More >

Telegram, launched in 2013, has long bothered the government not just because of its sophisticated encryption technique, but also because it quickly became an important platform of political discussion. Opinion leaders started their blogs there, protesters used it to organize demonstrations and hundreds of thousands of subscribers communicated without any censorship. Telegram owner Pavel Durov had left Russia in 2014 and was out of the authorities’ reach.

What’s more, Telegram became the main messenger for state officials to communicate with each other and with a larger audience, enjoying the freedom and privacy it afforded them. Even Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, admitted to using Telegram to chat with editors of government and independent media outlets. Telegram blogs also became an important source of news in times when all the major television channels were under state control and broadcasting only selected information aimed to flatter Putin and align with his worldview.

Putin’s relations with the Web are complex. He himself is totally offline. He has alleged that the Internet is an American plot — or even one hatched by the CIA. On the other hand, like the rest of his generation, he remembers how the Soviet Union lost the technological race and the Cold War after falling behind the United States in information technology and computer science. And many of his high-ranking bureaucrats and crony tycoons are enthusiastic about the digitalization of the state and the world. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, Russia developed its own successful, and mostly private, technology sector, and its citizens became accustomed to a free and accessible Internet.

Unlike in China or Turkey, Russia’s leaders are reluctant to block major international platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Wikipedia. Ordinary Russians are used to them, and blocking them would cause a public backlash. The relatively young Telegram seemed an easier target to demonstrate to others that they needed to obey.

It’s also worth noting that, in Russia, oppressive initiatives do not always start from the very top. Often, mid-level officials are looking for ways to display their patriotism. The case of Telegram became a personal battle for the head of the Roskomnadzor, Aleksandr Zharov.

Thus began a race between the state and Telegram’s programmers. The Roskomnadzor blocked thousands and then millions of IP addresses; Telegram programmers responded by inventing new ways and proxies to work around this. As a result, Telegram remained stable even on the days of the worst attacks. But the clumsiness of the state team led to unexpected yet predictable consequences — many websites and resources that had nothing to do with Telegram, including those belonging to federal agencies, national and regional media and major universities, were temporarily blocked or slowed down because they shared the same subnetworks as Telegram. The battle drew the attention of those who hadn’t used it, and its remarkable resilience made it even more popular than before.

Over time, the attempt to show the state’s strength and decisiveness in the face of a defiant private company turned into exactly the opposite. It became a teaching example of the state’s weakness. The final victory was won during the pandemic. The Moscow city government and other government bodies used the officially blocked — but in reality, very much alive — Telegram as the most convenient and rapid tool to share information with the media and public about the virus, restrictive measures and other developments.

Now, with the government’s announcement last week, the battle with Telegram is over. The head of the Roskomnadzor was dismissed but landed a comfortable position with one of Russia’s state corporations. Telegram agreed to disclose the IP addresses and phone numbers of suspected terrorists after having received a court decision, but has not handed over the encryption keys or the messages of the suspects.

Still, the legislation aimed at subduing the Internet and the tech industry continues to exist, as does the wish of the state to make it more submissive. Two questions remain: Can state bodies ever be in advance of market tech companies? And can the Russian state ever succeed in this domain so long as it maintains its present views on the Internet, shaped by the current occupant of the Kremlin?

This article was originally published in the Washington Post