Russia’s internet is sliding towards authoritarianism and complete muzzling of free speech. Digital rights activists are being routinely imprisoned and subjected to violence and cyber attacks.
If you don’t want to read the rest of this article, here’s our list of the best VPNs for Russia:
The deteriorating nature of online freedoms in Russia necessitates the use of a VPN while browsing the web. Short for Virtual Private Network, a VPN encrypts all the traffic flowing to and from your device and routes it via an intermediary server of your choice. It spoofs your location from nosy surveillance agencies and hackers and makes it very difficult for intrusive elements to pry into your online behavior.
VPNs can also be used by bloggers, social media activists, and others fighting for digital rights to continue to post online anonymously and with a sharply reduced fear of getting caught (more on that later in this article). At the same time, a VPN greatly enhances your browsing experience by unlocking geo-restricted content on streaming video sites such as Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, ESPN, and Vudu.
Our list of the best VPNs for Russia is based on the following factors:
- Speed and stability of service
- A large network of servers – both in Russia and across the world. This makes it easy for expatriates looking to access content from back home and local residents traveling abroad trying to acquire a Russian IP address
- Strong encryption parameters to maintain privacy and anonymity
- Ease of use
- Unlocks geo-restricted content without any problems
- Suitable for torrenting
- Apps for Android and iOS
ExpressVPN ranks as one of the top VPN services because of its commitment to serving users, an aesthetically-pleasing design, and robust speeds and security. The layout is simple and intuitive with minimal downtime. I’ve never come across a problem in my months of using the service.
It offers a large network of over 1500 servers spread across 94 countries including Russia – although it doesn’t specify how many exactly are located in that country. Foreign expatriates living in Russia and local citizens traveling abroad shouldn’t face any problems in acquiring a speedy and stable connection. Subscribers also have an option of connecting to a ‘smart location’ – in this case, the built-in AI will select the best server for you based on your current location.
Russia’s internet is monitored so privacy concerns should be quelled by ExpressVPN’s policy of not storing any traffic logs. The only microscopic metadata retention pertains to the date (not time) of connection, choice of server location, and total bandwidth used. The company says your individual IP address won’t be logged.
Some users may feel uncomfortable with this so if you would like to cover your tracks completely, we recommend that you sign up with a burner email account and pay via Bitcoin.
Encryption protocols are uncompromising. ExpressVPN uses 256-bit AES-CBC wit the utilization of both HMAC authentication and perfect forward secrecy. An internet kill switch is included with all packages. The company refers to this as a ‘network lock’ – with the feature temporarily halting all web traffic if the connection drops.
ExpressVPN unlocks geo-restricted content on Netflix without breaking a sweat. It works with Hulu and BBC iPlayer as well and supports torrents on all servers.
There are apps for Android and iOS. It’s also possible to use a desktop client for Windows and MacOS.
Read our review of ExpressVPN.
GET 3 MONTHS FREE: Our readers get an extra three months free if they sign up for one of ExpressVPN’s annual plans. That means you’re effectively availing 15 months for the price of 12. This includes its 30-day no quibbles money back guarantee if you’re unsatisfied.
IPVanish emphasizes speed, security, and privacy. It’s a recommended option for users looking to download torrents and maintain the highest privacy settings. Our user review gave the service an impressive 8/10 rating and it’s easy to see why.
Users in Russia will be happy to know that IPVanish declines to store any user information. All details like session history, choice of servers, and bandwidth will be hidden.
Encryption parameters are unflinching. IPVanish leverages 256-bit encryption on the OpenVPN protocol by default, SHA512 authentication, and a DHE-RSA 2,048 key exchange with perfect forward secrecy. The latter feature means that even if hackers break into your account, which is a far-fetched scenario to begin with, it’ll still be impossible for them to decrypt past session data.
An internet kill switch is included with all packages – adding an additional layer of security.
The service offers over 850 servers spread across 60 countries. At the moment there isn’t an option for Russia, but there are plentiful servers in former Soviet republics such as Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Bulgaria.
IPVanish doesn’t unlock content on Netflix or Hulu but does work with BBC iPlayer seamlessly. It also permits torrenting on all servers.
There are apps for both iOS and Android as well as a desktop client for Windows and MacOS.
Many users find it an excellent option for Kodi because it allows them to download the Android APK directly to their device. The interface is also remote control friendly for Kodi devices that lack a keyboard and mouse.
Read our review of IPVanish.
SAVE 60%: Comparitech readers can get a discount of up to 60 percent on IPVanish plans.
NordVPN is a mature VPN provider, after having been in the business for over a decade. There’s a bunch of powerful features packed into an intuitive app – including options to connect to a server based on how you would like to use it such as streaming TV, ultra-secure privacy, anti-DDoS, or anonymity.
Both speeds and privacy were excellent during our extensive testing of the product – helping it glean an impressive 9/10 rating.
It abides by a rigorous no logs policy which means it retains absolutely no information about user sessions, traffic, or timestamps.
This policy has served to be a boon for people valuing privacy. There have been at least two instances where NordVPN was approached by government agencies, demanding that the company fork over user data. But there simply wasn’t any incriminatory information on its servers. Authorities even confiscated physical servers once but couldn’t glean any information out of it. Furthermore, the company is incorporated in Panama which means it’s not subjected to any mandatory data retention laws.
NordVPN operates one of the larger server networks we’ve seen with 1191 servers in 61 countries. There’s a total of 15 servers in Russia. Like we mentioned before, you can pick one for your specific requirement.
The service works with many online streaming services including Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer. It allows torrenting.
Encryption standards are tight. All traffic is secured via the 256-bit AES protocol by default and uses 2,048-bit SSL keys. DNS leak protection is enabled. Your privacy and anonymity are pretty much assured.
There’s support for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.
Here’s our in-depth review of NordVPN.
CHEAP DEAL: You can save 72 percent off on Nord VPN’s two-year deal by using this link.
4. Cyberghost Pro
Cyberghost Pro will appeal to users on a budget who aren’t looking for a fancy VPN with a deluge of customizable options. It does its job quietly and efficiently but comes without the bells and whistles of the pricier VPNs on this list. Having said that, there is an adequate server network and both speeds and encryption standards are decent.
The existing server network is satisfactory. Currently, there are 1,049 servers spread across 27 countries and more are being added constantly. The list doesn’t include an option for Russia at the time of writing, but there’s a decent number in Eastern Europe and North America.
Apps are available for both Android and iOS as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS. Torrents are allowed on all servers except those in USA, Singapore, Australia, and Hong Kong.
Encryption standards are firm. The company avails 256-bit AES encryption on the OpenVPN protocol by default along with 2,048-bit RSA keys and MD5 HMAC authentication. There’s an internet kill switch included.
Here’s our full review of Cyberghost Pro.
DISCOUNTED OFFER: Save up to 72 percent on Cyberghost Pro’s two-year deal.
VyprVPN has some of the toughest encryption protocols we’ve seen. It complements this with around-the-clock online customer support service, free 3-day trial, and a stupendous server network. The company is able to overcome even the strictest barriers that governments impose on netizens.
Its logging policy might concern some users. VyprVPN says it stores “the user’s source IP address, the VyprVPN IP address used by the user, connection start and stop time and total number of bytes used.” But all information is stored only for 30 days and is used to improve the service. VyprVPN insists that it’s impossible to track the sites its users visit.
The company is very popular with users in China where it easily unblocks the Great Firewall. This means that its proprietary tech is sophisticated enough to thwart thousands of state-appointed engineers that work around the clock to weave a massive web. That’s a considerable feat.
VyprVPN made a wise decision to physically own and manage entire data centers which help it finetune the service and puts it in a class above other VPN companies. The normal industry standard is to either rent servers or outsource to a third-party. This helps VyprVPN further secure user traffic.
Said traffic is encrypted via the OpenVPN protocol, 256-bit AES encryption, 2,048-bit RSA keys without perfect forward secrecy, and SHA256 authentication. There’s an internet kill switch included. It’s also able to unlock content on Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer.
A premium version of the package allows access to the Chameleon™ protocol which scrambles OpenVPN metadata so deep packet inspection cannot recognize it.
There are over 700 servers, including options to obtain a Russian IP address.
Apps are available for both Android and iOS as well as a desktop client for Windows and MacOS. It supports torrenting.
Read our full review of VyprVPN.
TRY IT FREE: Our readers get 3-day complimentary access to VyprVPN here. This link will also give you a 50 percent discount on the first month if you decide to sign up.
Zenmate is somewhat of a mixed bag. It’s suitable for streaming and fast browsing but it is susceptible to DNS leaks. That might put off some users especially those concerned about their privacy. The company does offer an initial 14-day money back guarantee so you can test the service and see if it’s what you would like to continue with.
Premium packages unlock over 1,000 servers spread across 28 countries. But you’re not allowed to choose a server yourself – the service will automatically pick one for you depending on your location. That’s a bit of a downer.
The provider uses 128-bit AES encryption in conjunction with 2,048-bit RSA keys and SHA 256 for authentication. An internet kill switch is included. Zenmate also has a policy of not storing any data logs.
Apps are available for both Android and iOS as well as a desktop client for Windows and MacOS.
Read our full review of Zenmate.
Should I use a free VPN?
Free VPNs are a dime a dozen and may pop up in your search results because they’re heavily advertised. But if you’re looking for a premium browsing experience then don’t pin your hopes on them.
Free VPNs have a habit of monetizing by blitzing you with invasive advertisements, inserting tracking cookies, and selling your data to advertisers. Some have also hijacked your bandwidth in order to turn you into a foot soldier in a massive botnet army.
Expect bandwidth throttling, data caps, and a severely limited selection of servers.
Some of the VPNs listed in the article offer a free trial. That’s a suitable option if you’re not sure whether to opt for a VPN completely. But we strongly advise that you avoid the random ones that exist on the internet. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Some VPNs to avoid
Russia’s internet is heavily censored and monitored so anyone opting to use a VPN needs to be assured that their private data will remain inaccessible. The VPNs we’ve recommended on this list will do that just fine, but there are others who might violate your trust. That’s a risky scenario in an increasingly threatened online space which is why we think you should avoid them.
Here are two examples:
Israel-based Hola, which operated a popular VPN extension for Chrome, once had an impressive user base of 50 million. But despite the time and effort it had invested in building this community, it chose to undo all the good work for the sake of some supremely unethical acts. In 2015, the company leveraged a part of each user’s’ individual bandwidth and turned it into a pawn in a massive botnet army. If you were a Hola user, your device was used for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, promoting copyrighted content, and pornography.
2. Hotspot Shield
You might have come across Hotspot Shield while browsing the web as it was a notably popular freemium option which didn’t require a credit card to register. But things weren’t so straightforward.
In July a privacy advocacy group accused the company of forcefully inserting tracking cookies in user data without their knowledge or consent and selling it to third-party advertisers. The complaint added that Hotspot Shield redirected e-commerce traffic to partner domains – this meant legitimate HTTP requests like nike.com were knowingly navigated to partner affiliate sites instead, where the provider stood to earn a profit each time a sale went through.
The accusations haven’t been proven yet – the Federal Trade Commission is still investigating the matter and hasn’t reached a decision. We’re not rushing to any conclusions here, but questions about privacy and anonymity are thorny concerns. Our recommendation is to avoid Hotspot Shield until they are acquitted of all charges.
The reason we’re issuing these warnings is because of a firm belief that VPN providers need to be open and transparent with users. Data logging and monitoring policies need to be stated up front so that any prospective user can make an informed decision and understand what they’re getting themselves into. When a service tries to obfuscate what’s really going on, that’s a red flag.
How do I use a VPN in Russia?
In this section, we’ll take you through two examples. Follow the steps outlined here if you’re a foreign expatriate living in Russia looking to obtain an IP address from back home or another non-Russian location:
- Browse through our recommended list of VPN services and decide on a plan that works for you
- Register and pay for the service
- Once that’s done, download the companion apps (for your phone) or software (for PC or MacOS)
- Clear your cookies and cache in all web browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera, UCWeb) to remove old location identifiers
- Restart your device
- Open the VPN companion software and login
- Select a server from the country you’re trying to obtain an IP address – such as the Canada or Spain
- Allow a few seconds for the connection to be established. Once that’s done there should be a green notification icon in the taskbar or on the top of your smartphone screen
- Browse the web like you normally would. You’ll notice that host websites will assume your location is in the country you’re currently connected to and a bunch of previously unavailable content will now be accessible
The other example in this section is for Russian residents traveling abroad searching for a local IP address:
- Browse through our recommendations and settle for a provider that has servers in Russia
- Register and pay for the service – select the plan that best suits your requirements
- Once that’s done, download the companion apps (for your phone) or software (for PC or MacOS)
- Clear your cookies in all web browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera, UC Web) to remove old location identifiers
- Restart your device Open the VPN software and login
- Select a server in Russia and click connect
- Allow a few seconds for the connection to be established
- Once that’s done there should be a green notification icon in the taskbar or at the top of your smartphone screen
- Browse the web like you normally would – host websites will now assume you’re in Russia
What’s the future of the internet in Russia?
Internet advocacy body Freedom House says the digital landscape of the country is “not free”, pointing to a series of new legislative amendments known as ‘Yarovaya’s Law’ which undermines the security of encrypted communications and increases government access to user data. “Inciting” or “justifying” terrorism online is now punishable with a maximum sentence of a 7-year jail term, with the Russian administration using the vague and broad language in the bill to target social media users.
The monitoring agency puts the finger of blame on Russian president Vladimir Putin, saying that the clampdown on online freedom is a direct attempt to consolidate his authority. Content critical of the government’s actions in Crimea and involvement in the Ukrainian conflict is constantly filtered with independent news outlets facing legal and economic pressures from the Kremlin.
If the last few years are any yardstick, it’s unlikely that the Russian internet landscape will witness a greater degree of freedom. Authorities have continued to use new legislation to restrict access to content related to radical Islam, conflict with Ukraine, or any form of organized political opposition.
Thousands of websites continue to be blocked without proper justification. In July, over 2,000 people marched through the streets of Moscow demanding that the government end all efforts to control and monitor what is posted online.
A series of new bills introduced in parliament, but not yet passed, are trying to force VPN providers operating in the country to adhere to a government-sanctioned list of blocked sites. The laws also include a clause which requires internet service providers to keep a six-month list of the websites users visit. Additionally, it’ll compel instant messaging services like WhatsApp to hand over encryption keys so that authorities can monitor the content of communications.
Human Rights Watch explains Russian intervention on the web has been a major policy of the state since 2012 after state authorities realized the need to prevent the kind of mass uprising witnessed during 2011-12. Previously the internet had been viewed as some sort of benign space without the effect to mold public opinion and ministries had largely focused their efforts on curtailing content on television, print, and radio.
The internet is now viewed as the only medium where there was a significant degree of opposition to the ruling party’s policies and one that needs to be brought under control. The situation now is so bad that ordinary Russian citizens are unaware of what constitutes free speech and what doesn’t. Arbitrary definitions of laws are used to silence the truth while state-run media outlets continue to spew out biased reporting, particularly when it comes to regional conflicts.
How do I blog anonymously in Russia?
We’ve mentioned before how the Kremlin is trying to silence bloggers with the threat of incarceration and violent physical assaults. That’s a scary thought. But if you’re an activist or a journalist, we understand how important it is to get your message out. After all, media is the fourth pillar of the state and free speech is necessary for democracies to flourish.
There’s a sufficient amount of detail and best practices in our guide on how to stay hidden while blogging on the internet. Try to follow the steps we’ve outlined in detail. There’s no guarantee of your privacy remaining hidden forever but we do believe you can guard yourself to a sufficient degree if you take adequate steps to minimize your digital footprint.