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The return of Samizdat, the underground press for Russians who don’t use VPNs or other Internet “tricks”. technology



More than 100 million Russians do not have access to the thousands of websites the Kremlin has blocked since the war began. On the one hand, there are about ten million people who do not have the Internet, and on the other hand, for the vast majority of the country, especially the elderly and middle-aged, the problem is that censorship forces them to have a minimum knowledge of the Internet that is de facto excluded from this Indeed. Until now. “We’ve created a tool where you can find an article that you think is important and then share it with the whole world without the need for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). With your brother or friend or with the neighbor, the people who if they had to install a VPN, they wouldn’t. Said Yevgeny Simkin , co-founder of Samizdat Online, for EL PAÍS, we’re making distribution a lot easier.

Samizdat is a culture. My father learned everything he had to learn about the real world through Soviet samizdat, including yoga,” Simkin recalls via video conferencing from New York. This word defines the underground literature that flourished in Soviet times to evade censorship. Soviet citizens exchanged works And they copied it to reach more people.The classic example of this is the timeless gem that is respected today in Putin’s Russia and made famous among those shadows, Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”.

As a result of the massive blocking of websites by the Russian authorities, many citizens have started using VPNs, although it is difficult to estimate the number. The Atlas VPN Initiative estimates that about 34 million Russians were using it in the summer. About 130 million citizens have access to the Internet, so only one in four uses this type of tool, according to studies.

This samizdat philosophy is the ability to share articles with people who have not downloaded any VPN. severely“,” When you want to have a website, you register your domain (your name). To do this, you contact a company that manages it, and puts it in the tables that all DNS machines have (which translates the domain from regular words to number identifiers). When he wants Your computer goes to this website, it goes to the machines in your country and they tell it the address,” Simkin sums up. “The authorities blocking the BBC do not control the DNS machines located in Spain or the UK, but they do control the DNS machines of Russia, Belarus or Iran, and they order domains to be hidden or to be removed from their lists of those they do not want people to access,” he adds.

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In the case of VPNs, they mask their user and connect them to DNS machines in other countries. But for people who don’t have those tools, what Samizdat did “was put hundreds of servers and thousands upon thousands of domains with absolutely ridiculous names that replace the original ones”. “Do you want to enter the newspaper Jellyfish from Moscow? Our server receives the request and encrypts it with another domain, for example nqtguizhxe.net, which is not on the authorities blacklist, says the founder of the initiative. With the bureaucracy of those countries, it will be days before officials discover and suppress the invented sphere of news.

If they prevent us from entering samizdat, it will be a small problem. If you’ve already come to us, you’ve come to us with a VPN, you’re the kind of person who already knows how to dig and knows to live in a fake world. Those looking for us will find us, and once there they will post the links,” Simkin points out, though he stresses they will be “three steps ahead” of the authorities.

Its portal collects stories from more than thirty media outlets with which it has agreements and translates the most important of them into the five languages ​​used by its editors: Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, English and Farsi. We want to go to China as soon as possible. The only reason not to be there is the lack of money. The founder points out that China is a very advanced technology and we have to be prepared.

The fervor among western politicians and eastern media

Simkin came to the United States as a child “during the wave of Soviet immigration in the 1970s.” “Everything changed in February 2014,” recalls the engineer and founder of a computer company, when Russia annexed Crimea and the Donbass war began. “My biggest team had ten people, 10 in Russia and 10 in Ukraine. When I fixed the problems and saw that everything was in order, I realized that I really wanted to do something else, ”he recalls. I have some connections with US politics and the media, I have the technologies and I speak Russian fluently. He can do something and undermine Putin’s propaganda machine.”

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The idea arose two weeks after the start of the all-out war against Ukraine, in mid-March of this year, and it slowly took shape until the launch of its portal in July. “We moved slowly, being very careful not to move too quickly and release something that wasn’t ready and had accidents. Once the Iranian mullahs or Roskomnadzor understood what was going on, they would come after us, and we didn’t want to provoke them ahead of time.” By his calculations, they have more than 100,000 entries per day, “although they are hard to keep track of.”

Belarusian journalist Anna Topacheva is one of its founders. “He knows everyone there and immediately opened all the doors for us,” says Simkin. Later, independent Russian media, such as Meduza and Mediazona, joined “with great enthusiasm”, as he continues to analyze the next steps with them.

Despite the project’s high acceptance, its financing has so far rested on the shoulders of its promoters. The word support can mean someone is saying ‘Hey, I’m supporting you, I’m going to introduce you to someone! “, which is the kind of support we have received. We have spoken with different investors, with different associations, and some are interested, but no one has entered yet,” says its founder.

His political supporters include Republican Bill Kristol, “who has contributed significantly”, former Radio Free Europe head Jeffrey Gidmen, and Russian dissident and chess master Garry Kasparov. “We’ve spoken to the State Department and they’re very excited about what we’re doing,” Simkin adds. However, he makes it clear that they are independent. I have no ties whatsoever with any political organization or agenda. This is my idea, I’m an engineer. My idea is that information leads to understanding, understanding to compassion, and compassion leads to humanity flourishing,” he notes.

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When asked if he fears his project being accused of being a tool of the White House or an American philanthropist, Simkin maintains that he accepts donations, but does not pressure them. “If someone offers us money, I will gladly take it because I will not invite them to tell us how we should work or to give advice. If someone wants to support a free press, I will accept the money,” he says after a sigh because “it is inevitable to listen to conspiracy theories.”

Samizdat Navalny

Russian opposition leader Alexéi Navalni’s organization last week launched a mobile app that shares its name with the Simkin portal and also allows you to read articles without a VPN. In this case, it would include stories from anti-corruption and media platform Proekt, Vazhnie Istorii, The Insider, and Bellingcat, some of which Moscow has declared “non grata.”

Russia’s internet censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, confirmed that by the end of July it had shut down more than 5,300 websites “for being censored by war”. However, many websites have joined the banned club, which includes social networks such as Facebook and Instagram (Declared Extremist Organizations for Justice), Twitter and foreign public media such as Deutsche Welle and the BBC. Other criteria, such as “propaganda of suicide and drug use,” justified the recent bans of Metacritic’s movie and video game ratings website.

In any case, the barriers to access to independent journalism are exacerbated by Russia’s indecision. Only 4% of citizens trust independent media compared to 41% who believe in the Kremlin’s channels, according to a survey by the Levada Center for Social Studies in August.

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