In Box

Inside a Russian Hacker School

Ilya Vasilyev runs his hacker school out of a small, grungy Moscow apartment. Hidden in a maze of old Soviet buildings, it’s not an easy place to find. There’s no sign on the door. Inside, students sit scattered around a pale-green living room, honing their programming skills. A bronze Buddha rests on an altar. When ...

Ilya Vasilyev runs his hacker school out of a small, grungy Moscow apartment. Hidden in a maze of old Soviet buildings, it’s not an easy place to find. There’s no sign on the door. Inside, students sit scattered around a pale-green living room, honing their programming skills. A bronze Buddha rests on an altar. When they see the bearded, long-haired Vasilyev, the students bow to greet their master. On their wrists are colored bracelets that indicate their rank within the school, much like the colored belts used in martial arts.

To get into what Vasilyev calls the Civil Hacker School, students must pass an entrance exam. Since its founding in 1996, around 10,000 people have applied for admission. Very few have what it takes, despite the fact that many applicants work day jobs as Webmasters, software developers, and computer security experts. Vasilyev has only a couple dozen students enrolled at any time. Tuition is free; the school runs entirely on private donations from unnamed sources. He insists he is not training the next generation of headline-grabbing Russian hackers such as Muscovite Igor Klopov, who earlier this year was charged in the United States with masterminding a massive identity-theft ring. "I simply help ordinary citizens learn self-defense in cyberspace," Vasilyev says.

In fact, students are specifically taught not to use their skills for evil. "Breaking into various systems and violating the law can land you in jail very quickly," he says. "And that isn’t the wisest choice for a hacker." Vasilyev even makes sure that pirated software — which is nearly ubiquitous in Russia — stays off the school’s six computers. But that doesn’t mean the lessons he teaches are purely academic. "If there’s a war in cyberspace, the knowledge of ordinary citizens might be used to benefit their states," Vasilyev adds. "So Russian hackers might be used to help Russia." Both viruses and anti-virus tactics are part of the school’s curriculum.

In Moscow, such training does not go unnoticed. Shortly after the school opened, Vasilyev says he was approached by agents of the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. They wanted him to use his school to train specialists for the agency. He turned the offer down, yet still recalls with a smile, "They have resources, of course, that could have been helpful. We wouldn’t be huddled in this little apartment." True, but his students might not be bowing to him, either.

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