The rise of Andrey Lipov How an inconspicuous Kremlin bureaucrat was tapped to head Russia’s federal censor
In late March, after several years spent transforming his agency from a dull licensing office into a bonafide Internet censor, Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov left for a new job at Gazprom-Media. His shoes will now be filled by Andrey Lipov, an inconspicuous Kremlin bureaucrat whose official biography spans just two paragraphs. Lipov’s most prominent initiative to date is his work on Russia’s “Internet sovereignty” legislation. As the new director of Roskmonadzor (which is responsible for implementing this law), he’ll have the chance to bring this project to life. Meduza correspondent Maria Kolomychenko studied Andrey Lipov’s career path, his high-placed associates, and past conflicts that have involved certain law-enforcement agencies.
Late Putinism 1.0
Roughly a decade ago, a handful of powerful influence groups dominated Russia’s telecommunications industry. A former top manager at several major telecoms told Meduza that the two biggest castes in this field were “the St. Petersburg communications men” tied to former Telecommunications Minister Leonid Reiman and “the Orthodox communications men” with ties to then Communications Minister Igor Shchyogolev and oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev. Andrey Lipov has a long history with Shchyogolev and Meduza’s sources say Lipov’s “digital Stalinism” was developed around this time under his influence.
In 2008, Putin’s longtime head of protocol, Igor Shchyogolev, unexpectedly left the Kremlin to take over the Communications Ministry, where he soon assembled a team of like-minded, often religiously devout colleagues, often working closely with Konstantin Malofeyev, the founder of the Marshall Capital Partners investment firm. Shchyogolev joined the board of trustees at Malofeyev’s “Safe Internet League” and then the board at his St. Basil the Great Foundation. During Shchyogolev’s tenure, the Communications Ministry managed to buy a 10.7-percent stake in Rostelcom, after which Alexander Provotorov from Marshall Capital Partners became Rostelecom’s CEO.
Andrey Lipov was one of the people who joined Shchyogolev’s new staff at the Communications Ministry. After starting out as a consultant, he was soon handed what was then one of the agency’s most important projects: e-Government. In this role, he apparently succeeded in making himself indispensable. In 2012, Lipov followed Shchyogolev to the Kremlin and took over the presidential administration’s department for applying information technology and developing e-democracy. Roughly eight years later, he was tapped to head Roskomnadzor.
Oleg Rykov, who served as an adviser to the Communications Ministry from 2004 to 2012, told Meduza that Lipov was always “one of Shchyogolev’s guys” and described his meteoric rise within the government as “impossible.”
Lipov and son
Andrey Lipov graduated from the Moscow Technological University in 1992 with a degree in cybernetics. Three years later, he defended his dissertation on technologies for growing vegetables in greenhouses at the Agricultural Engineering Research Institute (VISKhOM), which employed his father, a prominent scientist. Before Andrey Lipov joined the Communications Ministry in 2008, he and his father worked side by side for years at VISKhOM and the two co-owned “Greencomplex” Ltd., a research-and-development contractor for Russia’s Agriculture Ministry.
When the Internet arrived in Russia 30 years ago, it first reached various research institutes like VISKhOM, although it was the Kurchatov Institute that launched “Relkom,” the country’s first science network. Staff at this organization soon created Russia’s first two Internet providers (“Demos” and “Relkom”) with the aim of connecting other scientific institutions.
Sensing an opportunity and apparently feeling slightly behind the curve, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) then decided to create its own telecommunications network. “It was both a matter of principle and a financial calculation,” one individual who participated in these events told Meduza. RAN later launched its own network under the leadership of scholar Alexey Zhizhchenko.
In 1996, drawing on RAN’s research division, the Online Resource Center was formed. According to Lipov’s official biography, he was one of ORC’s co-founders, though records from 2002 found in the Spark-Interfax database list him as the entity’s sole proprietor. A source with knowledge of ORC told Meduza that the organization was home to “many influential creators and staff,” particularly the children of prominent Russian scientists. Besides Lipov, ORC allegedly employed the sons of scholars Alexey Zhizhchenko and Andrey Gonchar and the son of Alexander Dzasokhov (the former senator and president of Russia’s North Ossetia–Alania Republic). Another of Dzasokhov’s sons also worked as the deputy general director at the state telecommunications company “Svyazinvest,” which was later acquired by Rostelecom.
In January 2007, the telecommunications operator NetByNet bought ORC from Andrey Lipov. Based on what Vadim Kurin (NetByNet’s CEO at the time) told Meduza, the sale likely netted Lipov about 65 million rubles ($2.6 million at the time). Kurin says Lipov managed to build a solid business and assemble a strong team, but ORC failed to expand beyond a few dozen business centers and academic institutes.
A life of public service
In 2008, after selling ORC and working briefly within NetByNet, Lipov accepted a job at the Communications Ministry’s State Policy Department, working on information technologies and IT-based management. Within two years, he was managing the department. Artyom Ermolaev, the former head of Moscow’s Information Technology Department and Lipov’s boss from 2008 to 2010, told Meduza that Lipov didn’t have preexisting close ties to Igor Shchyogolev. This relationship developed on the job, he says.
According to Ermolaev, Lipov’s key work at the ministry was launching Russia’s e-Government initiative: a series of projects to provide public services through the Internet. The campaign was a success. Russia’s Communications Ministry celebrated the nation's dramatically improved 27th-place electronic governance ranking by the United Nations in 2012 (after rising 32 rankings in just two years).
The Communications Ministry’s e-Government initiative wasn’t all roses, however. The project was carried out through the “Electronic Russia” federal target program, where Rostelcom was the sole contractor. In August 2011, the Attorney General’s Office accused Rostelecom of embezzling nearly 300 million rubles from contracts with the Communications Ministry by allegedly overcharging the government for equipment and software by 1.7 times. The company supposedly “ran schemes that used multiple intermediary firms” and stashed some of the stolen money in offshore accounts. After the Attorney General transferred the felony case to the Interior Ministry’s Investigative Department, however, the authorities failed to corroborate any criminal activity. Igor Shchyogolev and Rostelcom head Alexander Provotorov have insisted that the contract was market-based
In May 2012, Shchyogolev left the ministry to rejoin Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin as a presidential adviser and Lipov followed a month later to head the administration’s department for applying information technology and developing e-democracy (now known as the Kremlin’s Office of Information and Communications Technology). What did Lipov do in the Putin administration? A former manager of several pro-Kremlin IT projects told Meduza that Lipov supervised exercises to test the RuNet against external cyber threats, build registries of banned websites and information-dissemination organizers, and promote Internet sovereignty, big data regulations, import-substitution, and all kinds of attempts to digitize the government. He also managed various initiatives spearheaded by Shchyogolev, like the Internet Development Institute (with its “roadmaps” for the long-term development of the RuNet) and the “Sputnik” search engine (an ill-fated effort by Rostelcom to provide censored search results, in competition against Google and Yandex).
A safer Internet
Lipov’s ties to Russia’s “Orthodox communications men” were especially important around this time. In 2011, Rostelecom shareholder Konstantin Malofeyev created the Safe Internet League (LBI), an association “to counter the spread of dangerous online content” in order to protect children. Shchyogolev headed LBI’s board of trustees, which included Malofeyev, State Duma deputy Elena Mizulina, FSB Information Security Center director Andrey Gerasimov, and the heads of Russia’s “Big Four” telecoms.
The league’s biggest public initiative was the introduction of Internet “whitelists” (screened online content), which lawmakers like Mizulina lobbied to impose as default settings on networked computers in Russia as a preventative measure to keep minors from accessing smut, violence, and information about drugs.
LBI’s push for Internet whitelists strained relations with the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC) — particularly with Google, which is a member of this group. In 2013, for instance, Google declined to deliver a presentation at LBI’s “Safe Internet Forum” and instead sent a representative as an audience member, who then criticized the initiative in a series of tweets. Later, RAEC’s deputy director wrote on Facebook that Mizulina blamed iPhones for corrupting children, triggering a wave of public ridicule. In December 2014, when LBI and Mizulina drafted actual legislation to require Internet whitelists, RAEC made its opposition public in a statement on its website (though it later removed the text). LBI called RAEC’s position “unfounded and contrived.”
A former top manager of several major telecoms told Meduza that RAEC’s resistance to the whitelists enraged the “Orthodox communications men” and Lipov was told to deal with them. Another three sources with ties to RAEC told Meduza that the Attorney General audited RAEC in late 2014 and early 2015 at Lipov’s direct request to determine if the association should be designated as a “foreign agent.” Speaking to Meduza, RAEC director Sergey Plugotarenko confirmed that the audit happened, but he didn’t say who instigated it. In the end, the police action forced RAEC to abandon plans for associate memberships with Western and Eastern organizations that have no legal offices in Russia.
But RAEC’s problems didn’t end there. Almost immediately after the Attorney General’s audit finished in January 2015, anonymous accounts on social media started spreading false rumors against Plugotarenko, accusing him of various crimes. Four sources told Meduza that Andrey Lipov was responsible for spreading these lies. (Lipov declined to comment on Meduza’s story.) Two sources told Meduza that the rumors stopped abruptly, the moment State Duma Information Policy Committee chairman Leonid Levin spoke out in RAEC’s support. (Levin would later chair the Regional Public Center for Internet Technologies, which is headed by RAEC deputy director Sergey Grebennikov). Levin and Grebennikov, as well as David Davydov (who headed the Safe Internet League at the time), declined to comment on these allegations.
Meduza’s source in the Kremlin says the conflict with RAEC wasn’t personal for Lipov. He was just the enforcer following orders, the source claims.
Lipov’s more recent police needs
As Meduza reported last December, police launched a large-scale embezzlement case at Andrey Lipov’s initiative against one of the RuNet’s core founders, former Communications Deputy Minister Alexey Soldatov (now the chairman of the Internet Development Foundation’s Supervisory Board), and his business partners Evgeny Antipov and Alexey Shkittin.
The authorities accused the men of “theft by defrauding IP rights,” which allegedly inflicted more than 500 million rubles (now about $6.4 million) in damages against the Russian Institute for Public Network, the first Russian member of RIPE NCC (the Regional Internet Registry for Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia).
One source told Meduza that the conflict involving Soldatov and IP addresses dates back to the annexation of Crimea when Ukrainian telecoms left the area and the peninsula found itself in sudden need of new IP addresses. Because business activity in Crimea poses risks internationally (especially in the annexation’s immediate aftermath), many in Russia were reluctant to sell or transfer their IP addresses to local telecoms in Crimea. Russia’s authorities reportedly approached Soldatov, as a board member at the Russian Institute for Public Networks, and asked him to help, but he refused. When RIPN announced in April 2018 that it was re-registering its IP addresses in RIPE NCC’s database under a Czech company called “Reliable Communications” (owned by Alexey Soldatov and Alexey Shkittin), the Kremlin was enraged.
IPv4 Transfer Statistics published by RIPE NCC show that several Crimean telecoms received blocks of IP addresses in 2015 from businesses in different regions across Russia, including companies like Rostelecom. A source close to RIPN confirmed to Meduza that transferring IP addresses to Crimean telecoms was a risky undertaking at the time, given the political climate and RIPE NCC’s still unclear position regarding Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
Alexey Soldatov also has a history with Andrey Lipov: In the 1990s, Soldatov worked at the Kurchatov Institute, which launched Russia’s first scientific telecommunications network and then created the Internet provider “Relkom,” all while Lipov was working on the same thing at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Years later, in 2008, they met again in the Communications Ministry, where Soldatov served as deputy minister and Lipov worked in one of the ministry’s departments.
Soldatov left the ministry in 2010 after the troubled launch of domain registration in Russia’s new .рф domain when the Federal Antimonopoly Service fined the domain name registrar “Ru-Center” more than 200 million rubles for uncompetitive practices (the organization allegedly bought .рф domains en masse and then resold them at higher prices). Even the Attorney General’s Office got involved. To make matters worse, one of Ru-Center’s shareholders was Soldatov’s sister. Soldatov was also directly accused of pressuring the Coordination Center for TLD RU when it was developing .рф domain registration rules.
Since RIPN’s IPv4 Transfer scandal, Soldatov has repeatedly advocated the creation of a national Internet registry (a NIR) in Russia to coordinate IP address allocations and other Internet resource management functions at the national level. One source pointed out to Meduza that Roskomnadzor was recently added to the Coordination Center’s board of founders, making it an ideal place to create a NIR, given that the organization already administers domains and could IP addresses, too.
A man of many faces
People who have encountered Lipov at his previous posts describe him differently. Oleg Rykov, who served as an adviser to the Communications Ministry from 2004 to 2012, says Lipov is no telecommunications specialist (“he probably couldn’t tell UDP apart from TCP,” says Rykov) and there’s no reason to think he’ll come to Roskomnadzor and activate some “secret weapon” to transform the agency into an effective censor. On the other hand, one former Communications Ministry official who interacted with Lipov on the job told Meduza that Lipov is actually very technically savvy. The legislation he supervised from the Kremlin, says Meduza’s source, was quite sophisticated. (This apparently includes Russia’s new Internet sovereignty law.)
Artyom Ermolaev, the former head of Moscow’s Information Technology Department and Lipov’s boss from 2008 to 2010, described him as an effective manager, while RAEC deputy director Sergey Grebennikov says Lipov is a consummate professional whose organizational skills made working with the Kremlin especially fruitful. “As an official, he’s quite tough. For example, the president says something without fully understanding the issue — after all, it’s impossible to understand everything… While other officials in the presidential administration in these situations try to find various compromises and workarounds, [Lipov] does not. He’s inflexible and he does it exactly as it was said, and he’ll take the toughest approach that was proposed,” says Grebennikov.
A former Roskomnadzor employee who encountered Lipov previously told Meduza that Lipov is a “gray cardinal” and a “big manipulator,” saying that he’s spent years carrying out Igor Shchyogolev’s bidding, albeit with his own “creativity” and “backstage games.” “On the one hand, he really was under Shchyogolev’s command, but on the other hand he, too, could manipulate his own boss, exploiting his complete confidence,” says Meduza’s source.
Both Andrey Lipov and Igor Shchyogolev, who now serves as Vladimir Putin’s presidential envoy in Russia’s Central Federal District, declined to comment for this story.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock