Best VPN for Russia

Best VPN Services for Russia

If you’re a Russian citizen or expat living in Russia, you’re probably quite aware of threats to online privacy and security, not to mention current government legislation on data retention and censorship. This guide provides an informative critique of the state of online privacy in Russia today, as well as recommending our favourite VPN providers for those looking to protect their private data and secure their browsing activities while accessing the web in Russia.


Summary

Logo Name Links Monthly Price
ExpressVPN ExpressVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$8.32
ibVPN ibVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$7.95
PureVPN PureVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$9.95
HideIpVPN HideIpVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$5.99
Le VPN Le VPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$9.95
CactusVPN CactusVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$4.99

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“Runet”: a brief history

Russia, or the Russian Federation as it’s officially known, is the largest country in the world and has been in existence as a federation since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The break up consequently resulted in the end of the cold war and the recognition of fourteen other Soviet republics as independent states, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Tajikistan.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also coincided with the development and distribution of computers and the internet on a mass scale in the newly formed federation. From 1990-1, Russia’s telecommunications company Relcom grew quickly and joined forces with the European telecomms company EUnet. The network was used to distribute information about a Soviet coup attempt in 1991, and following the collapse, Russia took control of a large proportion of Soviet telecomms infrastructure, which galvanized the rapid development of ISPs and what is sometimes referred to as “Runet” (the Russian language community on websites and the internet). In October 1990, the first Russian FidoNet node was established in Novosibirsk. From here, internet usage in Russia developed quickly and often in collaboration with American and European counterparts, until increasing divergence in the late 1990s.

Rambler.ru
Rambler.ru is one of the oldest .ru domains and is currently the second biggest search engine in the country, behind Yandex. Snapshot from 1997. Image: web.archive.org

The rise in online access

Since the turn of the century, internet and computer usage in Russia has seen an incremental rise, particularly among youngsters and technology enthusiasts. In 2011, there were more people visiting websites in Russia than in Germany and in other European countries, while in 2013 an online survey found that Russia was the second most used language on the internet (slightly ahead of German).

Russia also boasts a large community of talented programmers, most of whom are self-taught using largely pirated software. This development has played a major role in both Russia and former Soviet republics in terms of the growth of software, the lack of centralized government regulation on online activities, and a burgeoning attitude of disregard for online privacy among the self-taught, which has in turn fostered a considerable community of cyber criminals.

Cyber crime

Russia has witnessed a vast increase in cyber crime in recent years, as well as an increasing paranoia from countries outside of Russia, since many allegations of Russian-organized hacking have been made. The notorious Russian Business Network (RBN) is a cyber crime organization that has been known to engage in personal identity theft for resale, as well as the distribution of child pornography, phishing software, spam, and malware. Initially, the RBN began trading in St Petersburg as an ISP, though at present it offers hosting services for criminal activities, and dedicates its time to developing illegitimate anti-spyware and anti-malware to hack systems and to steal user identities. The RBN is just one example of a highly-organized cyber-crime network, though it’s common knowledge that other, less organized, cyber criminals exist.

In 2008, the US accused the Russian government of engaging in “cyber-espionage campaigns” against the US Department of Defence, while in 2014 fresh allegations were made against the state for the so-called APT28 hacking project, which allegedly gathered data from numerous governments and militaries around the world, though in both cases the Russian state has long denied involvement. In 2015 the US also accused the Chinese government of actively hacking federal organizations, though little evidence has been found in support of the allegations. Following the Snowden revelations in 2013, it seems clear that the US has been involved in their own transnational cyber snooping, news which can only have exacerbated the state of online censorship in Russia today.

Online censorship

With the growth of online access, and the increase of online platforms for the sharing of opinions and ideas that may be considered dangerous or incendiary to government power, the Russian state has undertaken numerous tactics to monitor the online activities of its civilians and to censor its press, often in direct violation of article 29, point 5, of the Russian constitution, which states officially that the freedom of mass information is guaranteed and that censorship is prohibited.

From 2011 to 2013, Russia witnessed widespread protests, initially in response to the legislative election results of 2011, which according to various local and international news sources were victim to numerous irregularities, including “ballot stuffing, misuse of state resources, media bias and lack of impartiality by the election commission.” Anti and pro-government tensions during this period contributed to an increase in online censorship, particularly the obstruction of socio-political and religious content deemed extremist by Vladimir Putin’s ruling party United Russia.

Bolotnaya square protests in Moscow
Mass demonstrations in 2011 in Moscow and other large cities were likely to have played a role in recent tightening of regulation over internet content by the Russia’s government.

In July 2012, the State Duma passed legislation calling for an internet blacklist, which at the time of writing is still in operation. The blacklist is overseen by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (more commonly known as Roskomnadzor), and the Federal Drug Control Service of Russia. According to their website, the blacklist is designed primarily for the protection of children from harmful or extremist online content; particularly that which glorifies drug usage, advocates suicide, or describes suicide methods, or sites that contain child pornography.

However, the blacklist has also been used to block content that is considered to support or incite terrorism, as well as political and religious extremism on blogs and social media sites. What’s more, critics argue that the blocking policy of Roskomnadzor is dangerously opaque and that any growth in their powers could affect the operation of VPNs and pirated content, not to mention the unhindered circulation of opinions and ideas that may differ to the status quo.

In June 2015 it came out that both Roskomnadzor and the State Duma were entertaining the idea of blocking anonymisers such as VPNs and proxies, though a firm decision on the matter has not yet been made. In July 2015, news broke that the Kremlin are planning to finance an increase in regulatory control over the Runet, including more efficient control over content blocking, tighter restrictions in terms of which individuals can access the web, and the prevention of anonymisers like VPNs, traffic encryption, and the general filtration of content. However, in a recent interview with the head of Roskomnadzor, Alexander Zharov, he concedes that the blocking of anonymisers could lead to a Hydra effect, whereby there is a substantial increase in IP-masking services and pirated content. He also makes it clear that it would be senseless to ban traffic encryption since VPN providers could easily evade obstructions placed against them.

Also in June 2015, the popular Russian internet resource Lurkmore, which describes itself as an “encyclopedia of folklore and sub-culture,” was forced to suspend its operations due to repeated brushes with Roskomnadzor. In April 2014, the federal organization asked Lurkmore to remove a page featuring unlicensed images of Russian singer Valery Syutkin, and in 2014 alone, they were asked to take down five pages with information about drugs, and were threatened with total closure until the site complied with the federal requests. In 2012, the site was blacklisted due to published information on narcotics. According to Lurkmore’s founder Dmitry Khomak, their decision to wind down operations was significantly affected by the recent decision by Roskomnadzor to blacklist the leading non-profit science organization Dynasty.

In response to the obstructions put in place by Roskomnadzor and others, the Pirate Party of Russia have set up a regularly updated website listing blocked sites and domains, including information about the authority responsible for each blocked site. At the time of writing, the vast majorities of the blocked domains are illegal drug trading sites and prostitution directories.

Social media & blocked sites

Facebook has faced an ongoing struggle with authorities in Russia and the Ukraine, which more recently has led to the suspension of accounts and the deletion of posts from pro-Kremlin bloggers and a high-profile state official by the American-owned social networking site. Widespread critique of alleged Facebook bias from Russian and Ukrainian users has resulted in Russian social networks encouraging users to switch to their networks, where moderation policies are more lenient and the hosting of pirated content is accepted, including Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte (VK – the largest Russian social network in Europe) and the prominent blogging site LiveJournal.

In perhaps the most well-known instance of tension between the Russian state and Facebook, the social networking site deleted a post from the personal account of Maxim Ksenzov, the deputy head of Roskomnadzor, resulting in him deleting the account altogether in protest against the US-based social network. While in another case, the account of pro-Putin writer Eduard Bagirov was also blocked. In both cases, Facebook said that the suspensions resulted from the use of alleged ethnic slurs against Ukrainians, which breaches Facebook’s policy on insulting people based on their ethnicity. Despite the allegations, many Russians showed their support for the blocked users, arguing that the terms in question, “khokhol” and “ukrop,” which both refer to Ukrainians, are not always used as insults, though Facebook’s decision to freeze the accounts in question has sparked a fierce debate between Ukrainians and Russians with Facebook at the centre, including remarks by Ksenzov that the Russian government could block Facebook and Twitter “in a matter of minutes” if it so desired.

Tweet by Deputy Head of Roskomnadzor, Maxim Ksenzov, on disappointment of needing to delete his account Facebook account.

Despite the tensions, the relationship between the two has improved more recently. On July 7 2015, a spokesperson for Roskomnadzor praised Facebook for “doing everything right” in terms of moderation, though he also called for more fairness when it comes to the moderation of comments and posts. However, it seems that Russian users are increasingly willing to swap Facebook for VK and LiveJournal, a move which is being actively encouraged by both websites. What’s more, both websites have benefited from a new website called #GoodbyeFacebook, which has been set up by youth activists from United Russia and includes instructions on how to save personal data before deleting user accounts.

As well as with social networks, numerous other websites have come under pressure in Russia with many being forced to either shut down or move domains abroad. In August 2014, legislation was passed requiring bloggers with more than 3,000 hits per day to register as a mass media outlet. Essentially, this allows the Russian state to monitor the activities of popular bloggers more easily, and critics are concerned that the legislation could lead to the blacklisting of blogs merely on the whims of the Russian state. In other cases, MPs have proposed a block on all poker and roulette websites, though at the time of writing, this has not received adequate support to be legislated. It’s clear, however, that despite the constant evolution of social networking and piracy websites, and VPNs, the Russian state is enforcing a large scale crackdown on extremist and pirated content, and the actions of Roskomnadzor, the State Durma, and the Kremlin, should be watched closely.

VPN Services

In the larger cities in Russia like Moscow and St Petersburg, public Wi-Fi is readily available and widely used. As a general rule, however, public Wi-Fi spots should be avoided by users who want to protect their browsing activities and online data. The most effective way to achieve this is to encrypt all of your traffic using a VPN. For those living in Russia, there are many fast and secure VPN packages with anonymous payment methods such as Bitcoin, Yandex Money, and WebMoney. Below we’ve reviewed six of our favourite providers.

Logo Name Links Monthly Price
ExpressVPN ExpressVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$8.32
ibVPN ibVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$7.95
PureVPN PureVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$9.95
HideIpVPN HideIpVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$5.99
Le VPN Le VPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$9.95
CactusVPN CactusVPN Read Review
Visit Provider
$4.99

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN Russia

ExpressVPN is a large and popular provider with servers in 97 cities in 78 countries. The company has been around since 2009 and at present has its headquarters in the British Virgin Islands. They provide 256-bit encryption, which is secured using SSL. Their default protocol is OpenVPN UDP, though the following protocols are also available: OpenVPN TCP, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, and PPTP.

They also offer unlimited bandwidth and are well-known for fast speeds and reliable connections. For additional anonymity, ExpressVPN allows users to pay for subscription using Bitcoin, WebMoney, and Yandex Money. What’s more, they do not retain any logs of user browsing behaviour.

Pros:

  • Fast speeds
  • Quick and easy to set up
  • No logs
  • Large server range

Cons:

  • More expensive than other providers at $8.32 p/month for a 12 month subscription
  • Limited in-app features

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2. ibVPN

ibVPN Russia

ibVPN are a slightly smaller provider, though they still boast 95 servers in 39 countries with a total of 63 locations. Their headquarters are in Romania, which is a good location for those concerned about privacy since the Romanian government has recently voted in favour of private data protection.

ibVPN offer the following protocols: PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN, and SSTP. Like ExpressVPN, they also offer unlimited bandwidth. Payment options include Bitcoin, WebMoney, and Yandex Money. ibVPN do not store any connection or browsing logs.

Pros:

  • One of the cheaper providers at $4.95 p/month
  • Free trial option
  • 15-day money-back guarantee
  • Romania-based (favourable for privacy)

Cons:

  • Only one active connection per account allowed

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3. PureVPN

PureVPN Russia

PureVPN is one of the largest providers on the VPN market with over 450 servers across 6 continents. The company is headquartered in Hong Kong, which is not subject to the same online censorship as the rest of China.

They offer 256-bit SSL or AES data encryption with all accounts and the following protocols: PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, SSTP, OpenVPN, and IKEv2. What’s more, there are no restrictions on usage and PureVPN do not collect logs. Users can pay with Bitcoin or WebMoney.

Pros:

  • Up to five device connections at once
  • Hong Kong-based (favourable for privacy)
  • Cheap trial package ($2.50 p/month)

Cons:

  • Confusing encryption settings
  • Bandwidth limit on trial package

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4. HideIpVPN

HideIpVPN

HideIpVPN are a considerably smaller provider than those mentioned so far with 8 servers in each of the following 5 countries: UK, US, the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. The company headquarters are in Romania, which is a good choice for privacy advocates.

HideIpVPN offer SSTP data encryption for the following protocols: STTP, OpenVPN, SoftEther, PPTP, and L2TP/IPSec. For their VPN service, there is no restriction on bandwidth and there are no traffic limits. What’s more, they do not collect traffic logs. HideIpVPN offer both Yandex Money and WebMoney as payment options.

Pros:

  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Up to three simultaneous device connections

Cons:

  • Limited server choice

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5. Le VPN

Le VPN Russia

Le VPN are a less well-known provider based in France, though they have a large server base with over 400 servers in 50 countries.

They offer AES-256 encryption and their available protocols include OpenVPN, L2TP, IPSec, and PPTP. Their services include unlimited bandwidth and they do not collect traffic logs. Users can pay with Bitcoin. An additional incentive for Russian subscribers is the fact that Le VPN offer Russian-language support.

Pros:

  • 7-day money-back guarantee
  • Russian-language support
  • Up to two simultaneous device connections
  • Russian version of website

Cons:

  • More expensive than other providers at $6.50 p/month for a one year subscription (at the time of writing, however, their summer sale entitles users to a 25% discount off this price)

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6. CactusVPN

CactusVPN homepage

CactusVPN is considerably smaller than some of the other providers mentioned in the guide, though they have a strong reputation for fast and reliable VPN services. They have servers in four countries – the US, the UK, Netherlands, and Romania.

They offer the following protocols: PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN and SSTP, and for most protocols they use 256 bit AES encryption. They do not collect user traffic logs and there are no restrictions on bandwidth. Payment methods include Yandex Money and WebMoney.

Pros:

  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Free trial on offer
  • One of the cheaper providers at $4.99 p/month

Cons:

  • Only offer servers in 4 countries

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Glancing back at the curve.

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