The Dark Past of Putin’s Media Chief
Mikhail Lesin, the Putin aide just found dead in a hotel in Washington, D.C., was the first to propose Russian state control of the Internet.
Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s new book, Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries, documents the rise of the Russian Internet—and state surveillance of it—from the closing years of the Soviet Union to the present day. In this exclusive excerpt, the authors recount an early initiative in 1999 put forth to soon-to-be Russian president Vladimir Putin that would have effectively given the state full ownership over the country’s online services.
The man responsible for that initiative, Mikhail Lesin, then the minister for Russian news media, would help found RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda network. He was just discovered dead in a hotel in Washington, D.C.
The fall of 1999 was full of dramatic events: the apartment bombings in Moscow, the war in Chechnya, and parliamentary elections. The Kremlin’s political masters saw every critical piece of reporting by journalists of Gusinsky’s media empire— above all, NTV—as yet more signs of a conspiracy against them.
In this dramatic battle newspapers were not major players, and the Internet was not taken seriously; television dominated all.
However, one person saw the potential to exploit the Internet for the Kremlin. Gleb Pavlovsky, then 48 years old, was a plump, round-faced public-relations man with gray hair and brown-framed glasses and always dressed in a sweater. Though self-assured, Pavlovsky harbored memories of his own harrowing experience with the KGB. Born in Odessa, Pavlovsky went to Moscow in 1974, where he continued his involvement with the dissident movement. Under a pseudonym, he wrote a long and critical article about Brezhnev’s constitution for the samizdat journal Poiski. In April 1982 the KGB went after him. During the investigation he repented and began to cooperate with the authorities.
As a result, instead of being sent to prison camps, he received a few years of exile in the Komi Republic, 800 miles northeast of Moscow. “Internally, I realized that I crossed the line,” Pavlovsky admitted many years later. Although his behavior appalled his former dissident friends, he returned to Moscow in 1985, and soon after perestroika started, he found his way back to democratic circles, with at least some of his former friends accepting him back. In 1989 he founded the very first independent news agency, Postfactum. Pavlovsky saw that sometimes it was possible to cross a line and then to cross back again.
In 1999 Pavlovsky was called on by the Kremlin to help build a new progovernment party, Edinstvo, or Unity, and to devise a smear campaign against the Kremlin’s opponents, including Luzhkov, Primakov, and the tycoon Gusinsky and his mass media. “There was a war with Gusinsky then,” Pavlovsky said.
Pavlovsky’s organization, the Foundation for Effective Politics, was a public-relations company. It launched a number of websites with kompromat aimed at Luzhkov, a collection of revealing dossiers on various profitable Moscow businesses under the control of the mayor’s associates. It also created a false site that pretended to be the official website of the Moscow mayor. Television journalists close to the Kremlin then recycled the kompromat posted on these sites.
One day in 1999 Pavlovsky came to the presidential administration with an idea. At the time it was against the law to publish exit polls on Election Day, but the restriction applied only to traditional media—the law did not cover the Internet. Pavlovsky suggested a way to exploit the gap. On December 16, three days before the parliamentary elections, Pavlovsky’s foundation launched a website, elections99.com.
On Election Day the website published real-time exit polls from the Russian regions. Widely quoted by traditional media, including TV channels, its data helped sway voter sentiment in favor of Putin’s Unity Party, helping it gather 23.3 percent of the vote, compared to 13.3 percent for Luzhkov’s party, translating to 73 seats in the 450-member State Duma, the lower house. This was a victory for Unity, which had not existed before as a party.
At 9:51 a.m. on Election Day, Pavlovsky, excited, sent a message by pager to Yumashev, Yeltsin’s son-in-law and a member of the Kremlin’s inner circle, saying, “It looks a lot like victory!”
Pavlovsky had been busy in other ways too. Putin, having been appointed prime minister, was actively planning to run for president to succeed Yeltsin. Pavlovsky had been regularly going to Putin campaign meetings, which convened at Alexander House near the Kremlin and often included Putin. Putin’s presidential campaign staff was headed by his loyal ally, Dmitry Medvedev.
Pavlovsky spoke up to suggest that Putin should meet with Internet entrepreneurs, explaining that the meeting with the Internet crowd could help shape Putin’s image as leader of the new generation.
After all, he said, Russia was approaching the twenty-first century, and the country wanted to rely on new people. Pavlovsky got a green light to set up the meeting.
In the 1990s Pavlovsky had not been very successful, always close to many promising projects, but he had never really come out on top. The Postfactum news agency closed in 1996, and he had been on the board of Kommersant, the most successful Russian business daily, but somehow was distracted with minor public-relations projects throughout the 1990s. Now Putin’s campaign offered him a new route to success. But he knew the rules: you should have something behind you to be useful, either a reputation—which Pavlovsky lacked—or a TV channel or a newspaper, like the tycoons had; he did not have those either. The one thing he did pay attention to was the Internet. The meeting between Putin and the Internet entrepreneurs could prove to the Kremlin that Pavlovsky was in command of the Internet and, thus, enhance his prestige.
Pavlovsky called Anton Nossik, the then 33-year-old editor-in-chief of a new online media outlet, Lenta.ru, and invited him to attend the meeting with Putin. Nossik had few illusions about Putin and his KGB past. His family was a part of rebellious liberal-minded Moscow intelligentsia who didn’t like official Soviet policy regarding art. Nossik was quite certain that his generation was smarter and had brighter prospects than the old Yeltsin elite. It didn’t help that a week before the scheduled meeting, on December 20, Putin went to FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square to celebrate the Day of Security Organizations and made a famous remark: “Dear comrades, I can report that the group of agents you sent to infiltrate the government has accomplished the first part of its mission.” This was followed by approving laughter from FSB officers.
Nossik wasn’t surprised by the invitation; his new project was part of Pavlovsky’s collection of online media. “I had known Anton for long, over 10 years maybe, and I invited him to launch Lenta.ru,” said Pavlovsky. And Nossik recalled that “all our projects then were with” Pavlovsky. Nossik’s office was located in the hulking building of the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti on Zubovsky Boulevard that also housed Pavlovsky’s online media.
Pavlovsky asked Nossik and Marina Litvinovich, a young online journalist well connected in Moscow’s Internet subculture and working in Pavlovsky’s foundation, to select people for the meeting with the prime minister. Nossik selected his young friends, most in their twenties, including colleagues at Pavlovsky’s organization, and people who had websites and online media.
But the preparations took time, and word of the meeting filtered over to the offices of the Russian government, the formal structure of ministries and agencies, led by Prime Minister Putin.
One of those who heard about it was Oleg Rykov, a veteran adviser to the government on information technology. In the 1980s Rykov was involved in a top-secret, ambitious, and very expensive program, supervised by the KGB, to build a system of managing the Soviet Union during war with underground city bunkers built all over the country as well as powerful computer centers burrowed deep underground. He knew a lot about computers and hated secrecy; he was sure that in most cases it just covered up incompetence. He was also very skeptical of government intrusion into the Internet. Rykov became alarmed when he heard of a plan drafted by Mikhail Lesin, then minister in charge of the news media, that would effectively hand over the distribution of domain names from the nongovernmental organization based at the Kurchatov Institute, the major Russian nuclear research center and the birthplace of the Russian Internet, to the government. For him, it meant only one thing. “Lesin wanted to take away the entire Internet,” Rykov said later.
Rykov learned that Lesin would present the plan at the meeting with Putin that, if approved, would effectively put the Russian Internet under direct control of the state, determining who used which domain names.
Rykov immediately called Alexey Soldatov, a founder of Relcom, the very first Internet service provider in the country, and warned him about Lesin’s worrisome plan. Officially the Information Department of the government was tasked to select the meeting’s participants, so Rykov lobbied to include his government department, the Department of Science, as one of the official organizers. Finally it was agreed that both departments would jointly select the attendees. Rykov and Soldatov huddled to make choices for their slots, choosing mostly veterans of the Internet of the early 1990s.
Simultaneously Soldatov, seeking to build a united front against Lesin’s initiative, tried to find Nossik, but without success.
When the date of the meeting was announced, Soldatov gathered his group at the offices of Relcom, next door to the Kurchatov Institute, to establish their strategy. They decided that Soldatov was to speak first and that they would try to kill the Lesin proposal.
On December 28, 1999, two groups of people went separately to the White House. Eight years after Yeltsin and his supporters had barricaded themselves inside and seven years after the violent confrontation with hardliners in 1993, when it was shelled by tanks, there were no visible traces. The building was now renovated and surrounded by high fences and checkpoints, and demonstrations were prohibited near the building.
The two groups, totaling 20 people, saw each other for the first time in the lobby, then took the elevator to the fifth floor, to the so-called central zone of the Dom Pravitelstva, or house of government. As they waited outside the conference hall on the fifth floor, they didn’t talk much to each other.
They looked as different as they felt. The younger ones were dressed casually, whereas the older generation wore suits. The younger group “was another crowd,” recalled Alexey Platonov, a director of the nongovernmental organization that managed domain names and a friend of Soldatov. “We were dealing with the infrastructure,” Platonov said. “There are several levels of the Internet, and ours was the low and the middle levels, and then on the top there is the add-on that became known as ‘the Internet.’
"They then considered themselves the elite, and they called us communication people, plumbers.”
Finally the participants were shown into the large conference hall with a long horseshoe-shaped table with chairs lined up shoulder to shoulder. They sat as they wished. Putin was at the head of the table, along with a deputy and two ministers—Lesin and Leonid Reiman, who was minister of communications. Soldatov sat to the right of Putin, and Nossik sat opposite him. Pavlovsky, who had thought up the idea of the meeting, did not attend.
Putin made a brief introduction. Soldatov immediately raised a hand. He delivered a lecture, speaking somewhat slowly and clearly, about the history of the Internet in Russia. Then, following a plan agreed beforehand, Soldatov turned to Mikhail Yakushev, a well-known jurist, who explained with equal care how the Internet was regulated.
Putin nodded and then suddenly produced a file. Inside it was a description of the Lesin plan to take over the domain names, agreed upon with Reiman. It had two chapters, titled, “On Ordering the Allocation and Use of Domain Names” and “On the Establishment of a National System of Registration of Domain Names.” Taken together, they would deliver control over the domain .ru to a government body and to make all kinds of organizations, from joint-stock companies to media to schools, use these domain names and launch their corporate sites by December 31, 2000.
Putin asked what everyone at the table thought about the proposal.
They all pretended to be surprised. Nossik raised his hand. “This is exactly why we are afraid of the government,” he said. “Like a magician, you pull out of your sleeve some government regulation, after which everyone can go home!”
A close friend of Nossik, Artemy Lebedev, a young website designer, arrived late to the meeting and took an empty chair, followed by his girlfriend, Litvinovich, who worked for Pavlovsky.
He was the son of a famous Russian writer, Tatiana Tolstaya, wore a bandana over his head, and was always carefully unshaven, with the manners of a creative type. Lebedev at once launched into an attack on the nongovernmental organization that was controlling the domain names. The director, Platonov, sat directly opposite Lebedev during the tirade. Lebedev accused the organization of unfairly setting prices too high for domain names.
Platonov, 45 years old, was a nuclear physicist who had spent his entire career at the Kurchatov Institute. Sitting there, the target for a verbal attack right in front of a prime minister whom he just met for the first time, he was evidently confused. Platonov surmised that Lebedev’s angry speech was not accidental.
The main topic of the meeting was state regulation and, in particular, the question of what to do with the domain .ru. For Platonov, the idea of state regulation of domain names—what Lesin was proposing—seemed “some sort of a racket: you have something profitable—give it to me.” And Lebedev’s attack in front of Putin provided the government arguments for why the status quo should be changed. Platonov responded emotionally.
The volume of the discussion and the cross talk soon became unmanageable, but it was clear that everyone at the table, both old and young generations, were dead set against the Lesin proposal.
Soldatov raised his hand again. When Putin nodded, he said, “I suggest we should have the project subjected to public discussion.”
Putin immediately responded, “Agreed. Let’s decide that this project, and all projects in the area of the Internet, will be subject to public debate.”
With that, the Lesin proposal was effectively killed off. The meeting had lasted more than an hour and a half. Arkady Volozh, the founder of Yandex search engine and present at the meeting, though mostly silent, took with him a pencil from the White House, which his son put up for sale the next day on the online auction Molotok.ru for 2,500 rubles, with the description, “A pencil stolen from Putin’s meeting with the Internet professionals.”
To Nossik, the meeting was pure theater. He was certain that Putin knew the script and how it would turn out. He concluded that the real purpose of the meeting was to improve Putin’s image as an advanced and liberal-minded leader of Russia. After all, Putin was, at the time, making parallel efforts to persuade Western businessmen that he accepted the free-market system and would be committed to Yeltsin’s path. Nossik also thought that the Internet crowd was summoned to show their support, and they delivered. “Thanks to me, thanks to all of us, Putin got what he wanted,” Nossik recalled. “He was supported by the most advanced part of society.”
Nossik never thought the Lesin project had a real chance of being implemented. But Soldatov thought the project was for real, and he felt great relief when they secured Putin’s promise not to sign anything without a public debate. For years the Kremlin kept this promise. “We got what we wanted,” Soldatov recalled.
For all of the Internet people who came to the White House that day, the encounter left the rules as they were. The status quo remained in place, and that was what they wanted.
Putin took away a different impression. In 1999 Putin was not very familiar with the brave new world of the Internet. He didn’t have e-mail, and he was given information from the Internet on printouts. As always, he tried to shape the people he saw into his understanding of the world, defined by his KGB background and his tough years in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. And what he saw was that the most important figures in this new area were all closely tied to the Kremlin in one way or another—through his spin doctors or government agencies, many of them dependent on government contracts. He also saw, in Lebedev’s remarks, that these people could be easily manipulated. They could be divided and subdivided. This was a KGB method, but for now he didn’t need to do anything.
Three days later, on New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin announced he was resigning and then handed over his powers to Putin.