Hydra was a darknet forum operating in Russia and other post-Soviet states and primarily known as a marketplace for illegal drugs. In early April 2022, in coordination with the U.S. law enforcement, German authorities seized Hydra servers and virtual wallets containing $25 million in Bitcoin. The website has been shut down since. To The Moon talked to several former Hydra users about what they’ve lost

The rise of Hydra started in 2015, as two other drug marketplaces, Way Away and Legal RC, merged. Naming the new platform after a mythical Lernaean Hydra, a monster serpent with many heads that would grow out after getting cut off, was a pun addressed at its main competitor RAMP (Russian Anonymous Marketplace) that actively fought other forums with DDoS attacks. The number of Hydra users skyrocketed in 2017, when RAMP got shut down. By mid-2019, the forum reached 2.5 million registered accounts. In addition to drug sales, the platform offered other services like forging papers or cryptocurrency transactions which was also considered illegal in Russia.

However, Hydra was mainly known as a resource for drug sales. What looked like an old-school internet forum was a collection of sellers that paid a fixed price for running a shop on the platform. Hydra established a system of no-contact sales: a courier named kladman ("klad" (клад) means "buried treasure" in Russian) would drop a lot of so-called zakladkas (can be translated as "stash") in different secret spots.

After placing an order (and paying for it with Bitcoin), a user was given the geolocation of one of those stashes and the description of the spot where their order is hidden. According to an investigation carried out by online publication Lenta.ru, in 2019 Hydra kladmen dropped 13,600 zakladkas daily, with a joint worth of 227 million rubles (equalling about $3.5 million at the time).

There are three common types of a zakladka: magnit (usually a little round magnet on a wall holding the drop), prikop (buried in the ground), and taynik (“a cache”, literally any other way to conceal the drop).

Hydra shops and kladmen could get very creative, and the scavenger hunt for zakladkas were often quite an adventure. Zlata (all names have been changed for privacy.—To The Moon), a frequent Hydra customer, says that she even heard stories of tayniks “hidden in a pile of poop”.

Daria, another devoted user, remembers her most eccentric zakladka,

On my trip to Khanty-Mansiysk, deep in Siberia, I went to a remote spot in tundra to pick up methadone buried under a pile of snow.

An image by Edik Katykhin
An image by Edik Katykhin

Zlata was fascinated by the craft of some zakladka makers,

My favorite store “bongo_bongo” used to put their stuff into fake rocks that were completely indistinguishable from real ones. I loved how easy it was to find their zakladkas.

Oleg, also a Hydra customer, explains the technology,

Those rocks are made of fragile camouflage material. They look like ordinary rocks but once you grab them or step on them, they easily break.

Oleg’s own best memory of searching for a zakladka is from a business trip to Kaliningrad,

I was totally exhausted working at a forum and desperately needed to get high. As a result, my coworker and I ended up climbing a fence around the Immanuel Kant University campus, walking across a field of stinging nettle, and an abandoned industrial park with barking stray dogs. By the time we found the drop, it was 4 a.m. and all the parties we over. We just went back to our hotel and immediately passed out.

At times, things went wrong, be that someone accidentally finding your zakladka, a professional zakladka thief, an inconsiderate kladman not dropping it properly, or the contents of zakladka not corresponding with the original order. Similarly to other darknet marketplaces, Hydra can be seen as an attempt to build a self-regulating society, and every purchase gone wrong could be disputed with the seller.

We found ourselves in a socialist capitalist system with its own hierarchy and its own set of rules. You knew when it was appropriate to summon a moderator to figure out whether it makes sense to bury your zakladka in the ground if they knew the temperature would drop to -10 °C (14 °F) the next morning. You knew it was important to keep up a good profile and leave reviews, and consistently buying stuff from the same account would increase your social capital,

says Oleg.

An image by Edik Katykhin
An image by Edik Katykhin

Just like its ancient Greek prototype, Hydra had many faces. On the one hand, it would aggressively promote its services on the regular internet, controlling multiple Telegram channels where drug-related memes and themed tiktoks would alternate with Hydra promo codes and commercials. They even made several YouTube ads that had enough time to go viral before getting banned. When Lenta.ru published its infamous investigation of Hydra, heavily loaded with moralizing against drug use, Hydra claimed to have paid for it as a form of negative PR.

At the same time, Hydra became a prominent resource for harm reduction.

It wasn’t just about junkies stocking up on “salt” (a synthetic stimulant officially called mephedrone.—To The Moon). There were subforums where people sought psychological and psychiatric help, as well as an overdose hotline. I remember all kinds of ads for rehab facilities and harm reduction centers where users could get sterile syringes and such,

says Oleg.

Over the past decade, most legal public resources for information exchange among drug users got banned by the Russian government. According to Daria,

Hydra gradually filled up that niche. In its most recent form, Hydra had hundreds of detailed guides, describing all the dos and don’ts regarding any drug, their effects, and long-term consequences of their use.

An image by Edik Katykhin
An image by Edik Katykhin

While a lot of Hydra users were simply binge-reading trip reports for fun, others, like Daria, took those more seriously.

I’ve been strung out on mephedrone for the past couple of years and since it’s a pretty new drug I was reading a lot of stories from other mephedrone users. It’s a “merciful” drug, and if you overdose, the consequences don’t follow immediately. People love telling stories like “I’m so crazy I do 1.5 g at a time,” and there’s always someone who’d say they do 5 g in response. There was a couple, two creative professionals, who were using it daily and, on top of that, intravenously for several months in a row. They kept living their normal life and working their daily jobs. They admitted they lost a lot of weight and at some point they decided to take turns shooting mephedrone so that when one of them fainted, the other one could come to rescue. And after a while, they just decided to take “a little break” from it. There was also a doctor, one of the admins, who used 0.5 g of mephedrone daily for a month. While doing so, he regularly tested his blood and measured all the vitals, and then wrote a detailed report on his experiment. Of course, official research of this kind and quality has never been carried out in the academic world.

An image by Edik Katykhin
An image by Edik Katykhin

For many, Hydra became a workplace. An opportunity to become a kladman and make up to $20 per drop seemed like easy money to lots of high-school and college students. At the same time, Hydra users could find more conventional jobs. Graphic designer Ivanushka shares his story,

Last winter, I was completely depressed since all my freelance gigs dried out. I got on Hydra to get some weed and saw an ad from a new store that was looking for a designer. It seemed weird, but I was pretty desperate at that point, so I messaged them. They responded, and from then on it went pretty much like a regular job, except for I cringed badly while making collages with piles of mephedrone and remained paranoid about getting caught. But it went well, they accepted the design and paid me in Bitcoin. I recently checked my wallet and noticed how much more it’s worth now, and this certainly worsened my inner conflict regarding this job.

An image by Edik Katykhin
An image by Edik Katykhin

With all its controversial traits, Hydra became a huge community of drug users. People started missing it the moment it shut down, and not even for being dopesick—smaller alternative marketplaces popped up immediately. Daria remembers how, despite staying anonymous, users made friends on the forum and shared personal updates. Oleg and Zlata are nostalgic for their favorite local shops with funny names and unique package designs.

Hydra had a really important social mission. People could not only buy drugs or discuss the nuances of getting high but also learn how to get clean and fight their addiction,

says Daria. Oleg sums up,

I liked pretty much everything about Hydra. Except for one thing — it was completely illegal.

An image by Edik Katykhin
An image by Edik Katykhin