news

The Real Russia. Today. Prigozhin's dirty laundry airs again, a profile of ‘Russia's New Yorker,’ and a harassment scandal at Meduza

Meduza

Thursday, November 8, 2018

This day in history. On November 8, 1986, Vyacheslav Molotov died at the ripe old age of 96. One of Stalin's protégés, Molotov served as Soviet foreign minister for more than a decade, infamously attaching his name to Moscow's 1939 non-aggression pact with the Nazis.
  • An accomplice to the founder of Russia's ‘troll factory’ comes forward and says U.S. election interference wasn't a Kremlin initiative
  • Publicist Ivan Davydov looks at the ‘lottery system’ mentality that corruption fuels in Russian society
  • Howard Amos profiles the people behind Batenka, Da Vy Transformer
  • Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't want a second Cold War
  • The Washington Post defends The New Times in a new editorial
  • Harvard Divinity School student Hannah Gais looks at the recent schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
  • A harassment scandal at Meduza

Another look behind Prigozhin's curtain 🔍

The newspaper Novaya Gazeta has published an interview with Andrey Mikhailov, the man who allegedly helped catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin build a media empire. Mikhailov says he agreed to speak to the news media as retribution for an incident last year, when he claims men with ties to Prigozhin abducted him, brought him to a forest, and beat him. In the interview, Mikhailov discussed the creation of the St. Petersburg “troll factory,” and the staging of various “provocations” against Prigozhin’s enemies and competitors, as well as several journalists. Novaya Gazeta says Mikhailov’s claims are supported by open-source information and private materials provided to its reporters. Meduza offers the following summary of the interview.

Prigozhin

According to Andrey Mikhailov, he started working for Evgeny Prigozhin in 2012, when an acquaintance introduced him to the tycoon’s head of security, Evgeny Gulyaev, who was looking for someone to oversee a media campaign against one of Prigozhin’s competitors. Mikhailov was soon put in charge of developing other media projects, and later introduced directly to Prigozhin. “Mr. Prigozhin was very pleased. Right there and then, he grabbed the cash from his safe to make four [newspaper] issues — 1.5 million rubles [about $22,430],” recalled Mikhailov.

Mikhailov told Novaya Gazeta that he met with Prigozhin in person only a few times, for instance when receiving bonuses “for exceptional work.” Based on the interview, a significant part of the boldest actions carried out by Prigozhin’s people were perpetrated at his personal request.

“Poisoned” at the banquet

Mikhailov says his first stunt for Prigozhin was staging food poisoning at a banquet in St. Petersburg in 2012 catered by “Caramel Catering,” a rival company (whose owner may have insulted Prigozhin personally, Mikhailov suspects). The objective was to damage the company’s reputation and torpedo its contracts to cater several major events. Mikhailov and his friend Sergey Solovyov, who later participated in other tricks by Prigozhin’s people, also organized a roundtable event and hired Caramel Catering to provide food. As planned, several guests then pretended to get food poisoning, and the incident was reported in the news media.

Targeting RIA Novosti and other news outlets

Mikhailov says he also helped Prigozhin launch several media projects designed to defame different news outlets. For example, he paid journalists to publish false information, so Prigozhin’s own media outlets could then run stories about how these journalists are fake news for hire. “What was the point? We needed the media to publish falsities and take cash for it. And they did,” Mikhailov said, admitting to staging such media campaigns against poet Dmitry Bykov and Forbes magazine.

In 2013, Gulyaev allegedly ordered Prigozhin’s team to get fake news published on the website of the still-largely-independent state news agency RIA Novosti. Mikhailov told Novaya Gazeta that he believes the objective was to oust then chief editor Svetlana Mironyuk (who was fired at the end of the year). Mikhailov’s people were apparently able to reach staff at the outlet and paid to place at least three fake stories.

“Then we wrote a memo about the completed assignment, including videos about how RIA Novosti was for sale, and handed it over to Gulyaev, who gave it to Prigozhin. How Prigozhin used it, I don’t know. These videos never showed up online, it seems, but Mironyuk was removed in December 2013, which means it was mission accomplished,” Mikhailov told Novaya Gazeta.

The “troll factory”

In the interview, Mikhailov said he believes the Internet Research Agency’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was “directly Evgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin’s idea.” “There were never any orders from any of the [Kremlin] ‘towers’ — it all came directly from Prigozhin,” Mikhailov said. To monitor activity on social media, Prigozhin allegedly used equipment from a company owned by Igor Ashmanov. (Mikhailov says he made the introduction.)

Cockroaches in Samara’s hospitals

In 2013, Gulyaev allegedly instructed Mikhailov to stage a series of incidents at hospitals and health clinics in Samara, to help Prigozhin win catering contracts at these facilities. Mikhailov said he released cockroaches (purchased in St. Petersburg) inside several buildings, and organized small demonstrations where paid protesters complained about unsanitary conditions and bad food at the local hospitals. “It’s my understanding that the videos [from the demonstrations] were made so Prigozhin could bring them to the right people, in order to get those contracts. The videos weren’t made for the general public, but they did leak to some local news outlets,” Mikhailov said.

In the interview, Mikhailov described other “offline” stunts allegedly organized by people with close ties to Prigozhin, including a staged traffic collision targeting the owner of the “DLclinic” dental clinic, Elena Cherevko (who at the time was in a property dispute with Prigozhin), and an assault on a blogger in Sochi. Valery Amelchenko, a 61-year-old man who allegedly participated in some of these operations, previously told Novaya Gazeta about these actions.

A Russian state of mind 🚨

In an op-ed in Republic, publicist Ivan Davydov argues that Russians’ unique mentality is molded largely by the country’s corruption, which poses nearly ubiquitous risks while simultaneously allowing people to buy themselves out of trouble, when necessary. With recent talk of mutually assured destruction in any nuclear conflict, Davydov says Moscow is now exporting this sense of high stakes to the rest of the world. In light of scandals like the recently reported graft at the Tactical Missiles Corporation, Davydov says Russia’s talk of total war is actually just more bluster undermined by the county’s own dysfunction. “What kind of war can there be without missiles?” Davydov asks.

“Russia’s New Yorker” 📰

In a report for The Calvert Journal, Howard Amos profiles the people behind the media company Mamikhlapinatana and their main online news platform, Batenka, Da Vy Transformer. The Moscow-based, 40-strong media outlet apparently has lofty aims, and the chief editor joked about being “Russia’s New Yorker.” With a deep pool of writers, including some of the most prominent reporters in Russian journalism, the Batenka team is a promising rising star. Read the profile story here.

Gorby's had enough 🤝

“Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, warned on Thursday against rising tensions between Russia and the United States and said there should be no return to the Cold War,” reports Tom Balmforth for Reuters. Read the story here.

Standing up for Albats ✊

The Washington Post published on editorial on November 8 in defense of The New Times, a Russian magazine that was fined roughly $332,000 in October for failing to file paperwork with the government. The editorial echoes claims by New Times chief editor Evgeniya Albats that her recent radio interview with opposition politician Alexey Navalny “was the last straw” for the Kremlin. What came before the final straw? “Tough questions” and “revelatory articles” about “such uncomfortable topics” as Putin’s children, says The Washington Post. Read the editorial here.

God and country? Try God vs. country 🙏🏻

In a text published on Attwiw.com, Harvard Divinity School student Hannah Gais looks at the recent schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople over the latter’s decision to give Ukrainian church leaders permission to form an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Gais argues that, more than two centuries the church as an institution “still doesn’t really know how to deal with the concept of the nation-state,” after the rise of the nation-state profoundly impacted the history of Orthodox Christianity. Read the text here.

A scandal at Meduza

For the past two weeks, Meduza has been at the center of a sexual harassment scandal involving its chief editor. In the interests of transparency, Meduza is summarizing recent events, its executive board’s response, and reactions from around the Russian mediasphere.

Yours, Meduza