Last Weds, April 5 marked the one-year anniversary of the takedown of Hydra, the Russian-language darknet market that had the distinction of not only being the world’s largest such market but the longest running one, as well. Thanks to the wealth of services it offered and breadth of territory it dominated, Hydra processed more sales volume in Bitcoin than all other darknet markets combined for a good portion of its existence, handling about 80% of all DNM transactions in 2021.
The victor of a ruthless battle with its predecessor, RAMP (Russian Anonymous Marketplace), Hydra operated from 2015 to 2022, amassing a userbase of three million by 2019 and processing over 100,000 transactions a day. The alleged co-founder of Hydra, Dmitry Pavlov, was arrested by Russian authorities ten days after the market’s seizure. He remains incarcerated in Russia while awaiting trial and has maintained his innocence since the arrest.
Since the fall of Hydra, several players in the Russian DNM scene – new and old – have scrambled to fill the giant void in the regional market, which also includes neighboring countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova. All of these countries have population centers that were home to different “shops” on Hydra, which made use of the “dead drop” system in which packages of drugs were hidden (known as “buried treasures”) by “kladsmen” and their coordinates shared with the buyer.
Seizure notice placed on the Hydra Tor URL after its servers were located and seized in Germany.
While many ex-Hydra buyers and vendors initially took to encrypted chat apps to continue business, at least a dozen contenders quickly emerged to position themselves as Hydra’s successor. By Nov 2022, however, four of these markets had managed to dominate 80% of DNM activity worldwide: Blacksprut (28%), Mega (22%), OMG!OMG! (17%), and Solaris (13%). In comparison, the largest English-language market, ASAP, only accounted for 7% of all activity. In Jan 2023, Solaris was hacked by new contender Kraken, which has since assumed its userbase and catapulted into the top four Russian-language DNMs.
On Mar 15 of this year, one of the biggest Bitcoin mixing services used by Hydra customers, ChipMixer, was dismantled and taken offline in a joint operation by US and German law enforcement. It is estimated that ChipMixer was used to launder over $60 million from Hydra users between 2017 and 2023. Other major Hydra payment processors, such as Bitzlato, Garantex, Chatex, and Blender.io, have all been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department and/or their infrastructure seized, as well.
Despite multiple crackdowns by law enforcement in the US, EU and Russia, the DNM landscape remains ever-broadening and its players undeterred, with 190 “significant” new markets or forums opening for business in 2022 alone. It is estimated that the activity of the new Russian-language DNMs now overshadows the annual sales volume of Hydra, suggesting LE efforts have had little impact on curbing markets in the country and surrounding territories.