The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought a new information war to Europe. Within Russia, Western media and humanitarian groups have reported an increase in propaganda, free speech restrictions, and punitive measures for protestors. Although it’s not a solution to an authoritarian regime, a VPN can help protect the privacy of Russian residents and potentially allow them to access unfiltered information. Clearly VPNs are seen as a useful tool for use in Russia. In early March, VPN use surged by over 1,200% within the country. The question is, which VPNs should people in Russia use? We can help with that decision.
An Important Disclaimer
We at PCMag are not legal experts in the best of circumstances, and certainly not when it comes to foreign law in an authoritarian state in the middle of a fast-moving crisis. Even if we had all the information, which we do not, the situation is changing daily.
Given the recent crackdown on free speech in Russia, the risk to individuals’ safety is real. While we stand by our work, we urge readers in Russia to think carefully and weigh the risks of using these services.
Reader should also bear in mind that a VPN can only do so much. Other tools can help in other ways: Multi-factor authentication protects your accounts from takeovers, and antivirus software can root out malicious tools before they can affect your privacy. Encrypted communication apps, like Signal and WhatsApp, ensure conversations stay private.
Why You Need a VPN in Russia
“The war on the information front is a major aspect of what is happening on the ground,” Bill Budington, the senior staff technologist at the non-profit EFF, told PCMag. The way to win that fight, he said, is with reliable information. “The more information Russians get from outside the country, the better.”
One of the problems with this information war, Budington explained, is the fragmentation of the internet. What was once the world wide web is now anything but global. He pointed to a 2019 law that gives the Russian government broad control over how its people access the internet. “That allows them to cut off all non-Russian internet from Russian citizens,” Budington said.
A VPN can help with that. A VPN uses an encrypted connection to route all your internet traffic to a server controlled by the VPN company. This ensures that an internet service provider or someone monitoring your connection wouldn’t be able to see your online activities. It also hides your IP address and makes it harder to attribute what you do online back to you.
Connecting to a VPN server within Russia will get you those privacy benefits, as well as letting you use sites and services that may not be available or would be difficult to use outside of Russia. It’s also likely that using a Russia-based VPN server from within Russia will yield better and more reliable performance. With that in mind, we selected the services listed above because they have a server presence within Russia.
You will still be subject to censorship and other restrictions while connected to a Russian VPN server, however. To get around those hurdles and connect to the free, uncensored internet from within Russia, you have to use your VPN to Spoof your location by connecting to a server outside of Russia.
(Potentially) Subverting Censorship in Russia With a VPN
Connecting to a VPN server outside of Russia may be the easiest way to get around government censorship. The VPN’s encrypted connection shuttles your data outside of Russia and into another country—wherever the VPN server is. In that way, the VPN lets you view the web as it appears from that other country. Given that VPNs generally perform better the closer they are physically to the individual using them, a person in Russia should look for a non-Russian server that’s not too far away, geographically speaking, and that doesn’t censor the web. For example, someone in the western part of the country might choose a server in Estonia, Latvia, or Finland.
VPNs can be effective tools for getting past censorship, but they can sometimes be blocked for the exact same reason. So far, that hasn’t been the case in Russia, according to Budington.
Many VPN services include features that disguise VPN traffic as standard HTTPS traffic. Some VPN providers give this tactic a branded name. TunnelBear VPN calls it Ghost Bear, for instance. Look around your app’s settings to see what’s available.
All the VPNs listed above have VPN servers outside of Russia as well. We discuss some additional considerations for choosing a VPN below.
Can I Even Get a VPN in Russia?
The Russian government has paid special attention to VPNs in recent years, making it harder for many to operate within the country. One recent challenge is that the international isolation of Russia has meant that official app stores may not always be accessible within Russia. Google Play, for example, still allows downloads of some apps but payment through the app store has been suspended. A huge uptick in VPN usage suggests people are making it work, though. Here are a few things users might try to get access to blocked VPNs.
First, you can manually configure a VPN using configuration settings provided by the VPN company. Generally, you’ll just have to open your computer or mobile device’s OS network settings and use the information from the VPN company to manually create a connection. It’s not hard, but nor is it an intuitive process. It also requires you to update the configuration whenever there are any changes on the VPN’s end. You may be better off manually configuring a VPN connection once, and then using it to download a VPN client.
Second, many VPN companies provide direct downloads to their client applications from their websites. Getting a VPN on your mobile device is a bit trickier. There’s no easy way to sideload apps (that is, manually install without using an official app store) onto an iPhone, and doing so with an Android device can open you up to installing malware. No matter how you get your VPN configurations or apps, make sure they’re from a source you trust. A malicious app could harm your device or, worse, make it possible for you to be tracked online.
Are VPNs Safe to Use in Russia?
VPNs can also present some risks in themselves. “Not all VPNs are created equal,” said Budington. “You can have a VPN that sucks up all your information and monitors your browsing habits [or] you can have a VPN that has a reputation for integrity and not keeping logs.”
Budington suggested looking for VPNs that can resist financial pressure and won’t be shut down by Russian authorities. In every review we write of a VPN service, we note its country of origin. None of the VPNs listed here are based in Russia. “Using popular VPNs that have a good reputation is a good call,” said Budington. “A small VPN that’s very activist-based could be a red flag within Russia.” Budington suggested looking to the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense guide for more information on how to communicate safely in dangerous situations.
Recommended by Our Editors
It’s difficult to say to what degree the Russian government is monitoring VPN usage. Bear in mind that intelligence agencies and law enforcement have many tactics and tools for surveilling people. Budington said one thing to watch for are suspicious warnings in browsers when visiting HTTPS sites. These warnings usually say something about certificate authorities or falsified certificate authorities. “That’s a big red flag,” said Budington.
Certificate authorities are part of the system used with HTTPS sites to ensure you’re securely connected to the correct website. Warnings about certificate authorities do happen for mundane reasons, but they are rare. Budington explained that the EFF has seen certificate authorities popping up in Russia, creating pressure for everyday Russians to approve these new certificate authorities in their browsers, especially since some certificates are required for accessing government services.
“As the state clamps down on the free flow of information, you’re going to see more pressure to install these certificate authorities that have the capability of intercepting and modifying information that Russian citizens are accessing and sending,” said Budington.
Our Favorite VPNs for Russia
To compile this list, we started with all the VPNs we determined had a good geographic distribution of servers. We then identified companies that maintain servers in Russia. We weren’t always able to determine how many servers are available in Russia, however. To the extent that it’s possible, we have ordered the list to put services with the largest collection of Russian-based servers at the top and otherwise ordered the list according to the VPN service’s score based on our hands-on testing and analysis.
Again, remember that connecting to a Russian VPN server from within Russia will protect your traffic and help hide your identity, all while still being able to access local sites and services. You will still be subject to Russian censorship, however. To get around that censorship, you’ll have to connect to servers outside Russia. All the VPNs listed above have plethora of non-Russian servers available. Unfortunately, it’s not feasible for us to test whether a VPN can successfully and safely tunnel out from Russia.
We’ve reviewed dozens of VPNs, and as such have several Editors’ Choice winners. Many of these do not have servers in Russia, and therefore were not included in this list. However, they are excellent services and would be useful for anyone trying to connect to servers outside of Russia.
Two that we want to highlight are Mullvad VPN and IVPN. Both of these services are low-cost, and both use unique account systems for maximum privacy protection. They also accept payment in cash sent directly to their respective headquarters for even more anonymity. These two VPNs are also dedicated to transparency and privacy, making them strong choices.
Finally, it’s worth noting that economic pressure for sanctions and limited options for international payments, the cost of a VPN for anyone in Russia may be a major consideration. Four of the VPNs listed above provide free subscription tiers, but half will place some restriction on how much data free users can consume and all of them restrict what servers are available for free users. ProtonVPN is our top choice for free users, and it boasts no data restrictions. However, it’s important to note that its free tier does not include Russian servers. If money is tight, our lists of free VPNs and cheap VPNs can help you find a service that fits your budget.