On September 19, 1990, a forgettable event failed to change the course of human history. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority assigned the Soviet Union .su as its country code top-level domain. This presumably would have mattered a great deal more if the “Evil Empire” hadn’t collapsed 15 months later, but .su, notably, didn’t collapse with its country. The domain lives on and now, 25 years laters, it’s making a strange and unsettling comeback.
Let’s start from the beginning: ccTLDs are like the country codes used in international phone calls. As opposed to top-level domains like .com (for commercial entities) or .org (for organizations in the public interest), ccTLDs are reserved for use by people or groups operating in a specific country, state, or territory — for the most part anyway. Back when the internet was first becoming a popular tool, different countries began registering their own ccTLDs. In 1985, the U.S. got .us, the U.K. got .uk, and Israel got .il. A year later Australia (.au), West Germany (.de), France (.fr), Japan (.jp), and a few others all registered their own ccTLDs as well.
The Russians were predictably late to the party. The country had many other problems to deal with at the time, so you can’t really blame Moscow for failing to notice the internet. At the time, getting on line generally meant queuing up for beets.
After others from the ol’ communist bloc — like Poland (.pl), Yugoslavia (.yu) and East Germany (.dd) — got their ccTLDs registered, the Soviets finally got around to registering .su. At the time, few USSR webpages existed, and most of them were used by academics trying to connect with their colleagues around them world. A four-letter .ussr domain would have been more appropriate, but a suggestion by a 19-year-old Finnish student lead to .su. (This raises many questions as to how much influence international teenagers had over the direction of cyberspace within the Soviet Union, and whether this may have extended to other parts of the Russian life. Could explain decades of belligerent, bellicose foreign policy.)
When the country finally dissolved in December of 1991, the domain was supposed to be phased out, as was the case for others like .dd and .yu. But it didn’t go softly: .ru wasn’t even assigned until 1994, meaning there was a two-month period when any newly minted Russian who wished to create a website had to use .su. When IANA, which is now part of ICANN, was supposed to finally withdraw .su, there was enough pushback by Russian officials — loyalists after a fashion —and users to persuade them to spare its life.
Fast-forward to 2001, when the managers of the domain, the Russian Institute for Public Networks, opened up .su to new registrations, in spite of ICANN’s public desire to terminate it. As of today, there are 119,423 registered .su sites. Anyone — and I really do mean anyone — can get one for a flat fee of $29.95 per year. All you have to do is go to Register.su and provide the necessary information.
Strangely, the site is operated by a team based in New York City. Inverse’s Repeated attempts to contact them failed, but those interested in registering their own .su website just have to get in touch with Register.su by phone or email. It typically takes one business day to get registered (assuming you pay via PayPal).
Because of how easy it is to register, the .su domain has attracted a lot of attention from cybercriminals looking for a safe haven to conduct operations. Administrators for Russia’s .ru domain began tightening rules in late 2011, spurring a migration to .su starting in 2012. “In my opinion more than half of cybercriminals in Russia and former USSR use it,” Andrei Komarov, from Russian internet watchdog Group-IB, told the Guardian in 2013.
These activities range from sending spam, launching DDoS attacks against other websites, mediating networks of hijacked computers that can empty bank accounts, to publishing credit records belonging to ordinary citizens and celebrity figures alike. Moreover, many registrars in other countries who still operate arcane domains will ignore requests to take down illicit and abusive websites. If you have a .su website and are complicit in illegal activities, chances are you’re not losing the URL.
Users of .su reportedly include anti-Russian Ukrainians, who are adopting the domain of the former Soviet Union as a way to harken back to the “antifascism” of the communist bloc. So, if you got a lot of time on your free hands, and some up-to-date antivirus software installed on your computer, go ahead and start plugging in .su website into the url bar, and take a stroll down one of the weirdest parts of the internet.
Next time you drop your MacBook in St. Petersburg, you’ll definitely want to head to the local интернет-кафе and go to ironbook.su. To each according to their need….