People in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson in southern Ukraine noticed something strange about the internet early last month. Some websites and social media have become inaccessible, just as they are in Russia.
Soon it became clear that traffic from a local provider, KhersonTelecom, had been permanently rerouted through an obscure Internet Service Provider (ISP) called Miranda to Russian telecommunications networks. This month the censorship intensified – Miranda blocked access to Google, as well as YouTube, Viber and Instagram.
In Russia, no one has ever heard of Miranda, and the company has no customers there. This is because it is an ISP with a very special purpose: to provide communication services in Crimea after the peninsula was occupied by Russia.
After the annexation, most major Russian companies avoided opening offices in Crimea for fear of sanctions, and the list of absentees included not only Russian banks and airlines, but also telecommunications companies. However, someone had to work in the occupied territories, so a solution was found; create completely new businesses only in Crimea.
The The Russian authorities could not let these new companies rely on local talent – they needed the expertise and management skills of Russian specialists. And that meant that Russian leaders have been faced with a very personal choice of whether to move to Crimea.
One man who made that choice was Ivan Zima, then 43-year-old vice president of Rostelecom, Russia’s national long-distance operator, who agreed to help launch a telecommunications provider in Crimea. Zima’s story is essential to understanding modern Russia, because without people like him the system wouldn’t work. He is an essential cog in the authoritarian machine, and there are many thousands of others like him, wage earners equally devoid of political motivation and proud to get things done.
Zima is not politically named, and he is not a pro-Kremlin activist. In the mid-1990s, he graduated from Irkutsk State Technical University with a degree in radio engineering and quickly realized that telecommunications was destined to become a booming industry in Russia. This is the year when the Russian Minister of Communications, Vladimir Bulgak, also a radio engineer by training, carried out the most important project of his life. Within three years, more than 70% of all Russian long-distance telephone stations have been replaced with digital upgrades using Western-made equipment, while the 2,000 analog international lines have been replaced with 66,000 lines digital.
Bulgakunderstood that Russiadesperately needed modern communications and local industry could not provide the technology. Workaround former Soviet factories to buy foreign technology helped the consumer, but at a huge cost – many domestic producers went bankrupt, leaving thousands of employees out of work. Yet in 1995, Russia had a modern domestic communications industry, dominated by Rostelecom, the state-controlled national long distance operator. Three years later, the young Ivan Zima joined the company as a leading engineer. He was ambitious and hard working. In the mid-2000s, he earned an MBA from a telecommunications university in Moscow.
Within a few years, Zima had worked his way up to Rostelecom’s senior vice president for communications network development and earned a reputation as, quite simply, a good engineer.
But in 2011, the role of communications network development in Rostelecom meant a number of things, including a role in helping secure Vladimir Putin’s re-election. The Moscow protests that year had been sparked by massive voter fraud in the State Duma elections. The ruling United Russia party cheated shamelessly, and its behavior was widely observed by journalists and activists across the country.
In 2012, a presidential election was scheduled. To quell protests, Putin promised to install video cameras at polling stations across the countryso polling stations can be monitored online from anywhere.The politically sensitive task was given to Rostelecom, and within the company it fell to Ivan Zima to keep Putin’s promise. He took over the task and quickly installed cameras all over Russia – and all in time for the elections.
Zima was not interviewed, so it’s hard to be sure what was going through his mind. Perhaps he explained to himself that he had simply developed a technological project, which is what an engineer is trained to do. Or maybe he thought he had helped make the elections transparent. After all, everyone knew that while United Russia was unpopular and had to rig Duma elections to win, Putin was really popular. Zima simply helped him get back to the Kremlin.
It was Zima’s first major political project and after establishing his credentials, others soon followed. The second project was even more dear to Putin’s heart. Zima was commissioned to build a backbone telecommunications system for the 2014 Olympics.
Again, there was nothing wrong, on the face of it, with building a telecommunications network for the Olympics. But that was Putin’s personal project, and in countries with regimes like Russia, the Olympics are never about sport, but always about the projection of power and politics. The Sochi games also involved a huge surveillance effort by Russian security services, but perhaps Zima thought it was none of his business to question the hardware that Russian security services had installed on its network.
Still, it was getting harder and harder to maintain the pretense, and the third draft made it downright impossible. In April 2014, Rostelecom announced plans to open a branch in recently invaded Crimea and invest 15 billion rubles (about $250 million) in network development under its now vice president. Soon after, Rostelecom changed its mind for fear of Western sanctions, and instead a new operator was launched. It was called Miranda-media and Zima resigned from his parent company to become the new CEO.
During the five years from 2014 to 2019, Zima led Miranda-media, the main telecommunications operator on the occupied Ukrainian peninsula. In 2019, finally, he was allowed to return to mainland Russia and Rostelecom rehired him as vice president in charge of telecommunications in the greater Volga region. He began to climb the corporate ladder again, and in January was promoted again; this time to lead Rostelecom’s digital projects – which include video surveillance, transport and housing services. It sounded like an engineer’s dream – to apply digital solutions to almost every area of life with almost unlimited budgets in a huge country like Russia.
This is not the first time that politics (and Putin) have intervened. In February, the Russian leader launched his all-out war on Ukraine, and Zima received another call from the Kremlin. On May 11, Zima resumed his role as CEO of Miranda-media.
But the new Miranda was not the old one. He had a newly created mission to expand his activities in Russian-occupied territories in southern and eastern Ukraine, including the introduction of Russian surveillance and censorship. Essentially, Ivan Zima was now one of the key players in the occupation administration.
When we searched for our book The red canvas, and for years afterwe have hadinnumerableconversations with Russian engineers involved in the development of surveillance technologies, and attempted tofigure out why they weren’t interested in how it was used. JThey have always repeated the same argument: “If the governments listen to the conversations of the people, it is not the fault of the microphone.”
There was a deep conviction that they were not responsible for their actions. We concluded that it was because thengineering education in the Soviet Unionhas beenfocused on technical issues, withNopeattention to human, ethical and moral issues. Jhe engineers were supposed to serve the Soviet military and security industrial complex. Russianengineering education was never reformed after the Soviet Unionhadcollapsed –after all, it produces very good engineers.
And now that the Kremlin is waging its biggest war of aggression in decades, and these engineers are helping install an oppressive occupation regime, the country’s engineers are doing as they are told; men and women who have been taught never to look at the big picture.
Zima, a shining example of this key type of network-building technocrat, is now shutting them down so that Google and Instagram are denied to the masses of the country.
The Soviet legacy is still alive, and it is mortal.
This article was originally published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).