Russia has a long history of internet censorship and online surveillance. In recent years, the Russian government has expanded its control over online information and enacted strict data localization laws.
With the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, authorities have cracked down even further – blocking access to major social media sites, foreign news outlets, and certain VPN and censorship circumvention tools. This makes using a VPN more critical than ever for those within Russia wanting to bypass these restrictions.
According to a 2022 report from Top10VPN, Russia ranks 48th out of 182 countries when it comes to internet freedoms. The Kremlin continues to tighten its grip – not only restricting access to information but also placing citizens under expansive state surveillance programs.
Just how bad has the censorship become amid the ongoing Ukraine conflict? Here are some revealing statistics:
VPN usage in Russia spiked over 11,000% in March 2022 after access to Instagram was restricted, reaching record highs according to Atlas VPN.
Over 15,000 websites have been blocked in Russia including major independent news outlets like Meduza, BBC Russian Service, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe. Access to Facebook and Twitter has also been severely limited.
New censorship laws were enacted in March 2022 threatening up to 15 years in prison for promoting "fake news" about the military. This stifles free speech and independent reporting even further.
Under the so-called "sovereign internet" law, Russia now has the ability to completely isolate the Russian internet, disconnecting it from global servers.
Using a VPN is one of the only ways Russian citizens can bypass these censorship efforts to access independent news sources and social media. VPNs also provide enhanced privacy and security at a time when online surveillance has become more intrusive.
What is a VPN and How Does it Work?
For those unfamiliar, a virtual private network (VPN) is a tool used to encrypt your internet traffic and route it through remote servers, hiding your real location. This gives you online anonymity and privacy.
When connected to a VPN server in a different country, you can bypass geo-restrictions to access blocked content. VPN encryption also prevents third-parties like your ISP or government from monitoring what sites you visit and what data you send/receive.
Instead of connecting directly to a website from your own IP address, all of your traffic is securely routed through an encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN server. This masks your IP, hiding your digital footprint from outside parties.
Encrypted VPN tunneling protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPSec make it very difficult for ISPs, governments or hackers to see what you‘re accessing online when connected through a VPN.
Top-rated VPNs will have large networks of high-speed servers across the globe, allowing you to choose an IP address in a different country or city. This bypasses geoblocks and evades targeted censorship efforts.
Why You Need a VPN in Russia
Here are the key reasons residents and travelers in Russia need a good VPN service:
1. Bypass Internet Censorship
A VPN is the most effective way to gain access to websites and apps that are geo-restricted or blocked by Russian ISPs.
Some of the sites and services that have been partially or fully inaccessible in Russia at times include:
- Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
- BBC News and other foreign media outlets
- Messenger apps like Telegram
- Google and YouTube
- Numerous blogging platforms and local independent news sites
By routing your traffic through a VPN server in the US or Europe, you can bypass these restrictions and access sites normally blocked within the Russian internet infrastructure.
2. Prevent Surveillance of Your Online Activity
Russian authorities have enacted laws like the "Yarovaya law" that compel telecom companies and ISPs to record user data and store it for up to 6 months. This includes metadata on communications and visited sites.
VPNs add a layer of encryption to your traffic, preventing your ISP and the government from monitoring what sites you visit or what data you send and receive online. This allows Russians to access information freely without fear of state surveillance.
3. Protect Yourself on Public Wi-Fi
Free public Wi-Fi hotspots present a major risk, especially in countries with high levels of cybercrime and surveillance. It‘s very easy for hackers to intercept data on unsecured networks using techniques like man-in-the-middle attacks.
A VPN secures all of your traffic, encrypting it so that no one on the same network can spy on what sites you access or data you send/receive when connected to public hotspots. This adds important privacy protection.
4. Unblock Streaming Content
Many streaming sites like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Hulu and Amazon Prime impose geo-restrictions, limiting certain content based on your location. Shows available in the US may not be accessible in Russia.
Connecting through a VPN with a US-based server lets you bypass these geo-blocks. A VPN can also get around throttling or bandwidth restrictions some Russian ISPs implement on streaming traffic.
5. Improve Connection Speeds
Ironically, using a VPN can sometimes improve internet speeds in regions where ISPs throttle or limit bandwidth for certain applications and sites.
By tunneling your traffic through an encrypted VPN connection, you avoid any speed throttling policies intended to slow down traffic for streaming, downloading, gaming or other high-bandwidth usage.
A VPN routes your traffic through uncongested servers which can provide faster throughput than an overburdened local ISP.
3 Best VPNs for Russia in 2023
Based on extensive testing and research, these VPNs consistently prove the most reliable and effective in Russia for unblocking sites, maintaining good speeds, and protecting privacy:
1. ExpressVPN – Best Overall for Russia
ExpressVPN tops our list as the most reliable VPN for bypassing Russian internet censorship. Key advantages include:
- 3,000+ high-speed servers in 94 countries to choose from
- Proven ability to unblock major restricted sites and apps
- Fast speeds for HD streaming with minimal buffering
- 256-bit AES encryption protects against surveillance
- Apps for all devices – Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Fire TV, routers and more
- 30-day money back guarantee
With servers strategically placed across the world, ExpressVPN consistently routes traffic around geo-blocks, filters and blacklists. We found it reliable for unblocking content on sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and foreign news outlets.
Speeds remain quick thanks to its large server network spread across 160 locations globally. This really helps streaming quality and browsing responsiveness.
See our full ExpressVPN Review for more details.
2. NordVPN – Fastest Server Network
If speed is your top priority, NordVPN is a strong choice with the largest VPN server fleet globally. Key features include:
- 5,500+ servers in 60 countries across the world
- Very fast speeds for HD streaming with minimal lag
- Apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Linux and more
- 256-bit AES encryption, no logs policy
- Ability to bypass censorship and geo-blocks
We recorded some of the fastest speeds from NordVPN when testing from Russia, thanks to its huge server infrastructure. The speeds are fast enough even for 4K streaming.
While not quite as reliable as ExpressVPN for unblocking access to restricted sites, NordVPN still works well for bypassing censorship and allows access to social media and foreign news outlets most of the time.
See our complete NordVPN review for more details.
3. CyberGhost – User-Friendly Apps
CyberGhost is another reliable VPN service that provides easy access to geo-blocked content along with user-friendly apps. Key features:
- Over 7,400 servers worldwide
- Proven to work consistently in Russia
- Apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and routers
- Automatic server selection
- 45-day money back guarantee
While not quite as fast as our top two recommendations, CyberGhost still delivered solid speeds throughout our testing. The apps are very easy to use, even for VPN beginners.
The automatic server selection is handy for always routing your traffic through the optimal server to bypass geographic restrictions. CyberGhost was reliable for unblocking content and apps blocked in Russia.
See our full CyberGhost review for more info.
VPN Comparision Table
|Unblocking Ability||Excellent||Very Good||Good|
|Encryption||256-bit AES||256-bit AES||256-bit AES|
|Money-back Guarantee||30 days||30 days||45 days|
FAQ – VPNs for Russia
Are VPNs legal in Russia?
The use of VPNs itself is currently still legal in Russia, unlike in places like China and Iran that outright ban them. However, Russia has been ramping up censorship efforts against VPNs.
Authorities have blocked IPs of some major VPN services, banned the use of VPNs to access certain sites, and tried inhibiting uptake of VPN services within Russia.
It‘s a bit of a legal grey area, but personal VPN usage still remains legal for now. Russian businesses face more restrictions on VPN and encryption software use under data localization laws.
Will a free VPN work in Russia?
We don‘t recommend relying on free VPN services if you need to consistently access blocked content in Russia. They often have very small server networks, limited bandwidth, and slow speeds.
Paid services like the VPNs we recommend offer significantly better performance, more reliable connections, and expanded server locations. They are worth the reasonable investment of just a few dollars a month for premium access and security.
Do VPNs protect against Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)?
DPI represents a more advanced form of internet filtering that inspects traffic at a deeper level beyond just blacklisted IP addresses or domain names.
Fortunately, modern VPN encryption secures your traffic on a deeper level to obscure it from DPI systems. This renders DPI filtering ineffective when connected through a good VPN.
Can using a VPN in Russia get you into trouble legally?
Simply using a personal VPN itself appears to be legal still, though the government continues efforts to identify and block certain VPN services. However, a VPN can be grounds for investigation if used to conduct illegal activities online.
Government regulation remains unclear, so caution is warranted. But a basic VPN used responsibly to access information seems unlikely to cause direct legal issues.
Does a VPN protect you from viruses or malware?
VPN encryption secures your data in transit over the network, protecting your traffic from prying eyes. But a VPN does not scan for or block malicious content you may download or sites you visit.
You‘ll still need comprehensive antivirus software and safe browsing practices even when using a VPN for full protection.
A good VPN service is essential both for accessing the open internet and protecting your privacy in an increasingly restrictive online environment in Russia.
We recommend ExpressVPN as the best overall option based on its proven performance history in the region. NordVPN and CyberGhost also provide reliable alternatives.
Using one of these top-rated VPNs represents one of the only robust solutions for bypassing censorship efforts, unblocking access to restricted apps and websites, preventing surveillance, and gaining internet freedom.