Skip to main content
news

The Real Russia. Today. America's unlikely ‘social media’ spy arrested in Moscow, and Meduza summarizes the best Russian journalism in 2018

Meduza

Thursday, January 3, 2019

This day in history (26 years ago): Presidents George H. W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin signed START II on January 3, 1993, in Moscow, banning the use of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
  • Russian news agency says ‘U.S. spy’ recently arrested in Moscow was caught ‘red-handed’
  • American spy experts say Whelan’s detention ‘doesn’t look like a spying case at all’
  • Meduza summarizes the very best Russia journalism in 2018 (at outlets that aren't called ‘Meduza’)

America's social media spy? 🕵️

Paul Whelan, the U.S. citizen recently arrested in Moscow on espionage charges, was caught “red-handed,” according to the news agency Rosbalt. A source in Russia’s law enforcement reportedly says Whelan spent years using social media to recruit Russians with access to classified data. Whelan’s lawyer, meanwhile, told the news agency that he expects his client to be released on his own recognizance, when the case comes before a judge.

Rosbalt’s source says Federal Security Service officers arrested Whelan at his room in the Metropol Hotel, five minutes after he supposedly accepted a flash drive with a list of all the employees working at a classified security agency. The source claims that Whelan used “highly non-standard methods for intelligence gathering,” registering accounts on social networks popular among Russians. He supposedly started this as far back as a decade ago, broadcasting his interest in Russia and the Russian language. Rosbalt’s source says Whelan sought out Russian Internet users “tracked and selected in advance by American intelligence as individuals who might have access to classified information.”

After two years of friending Russian Internet users, Whelan reportedly started visiting Moscow. “What stood out,” Rosbalt says, “was that Whelan wasn’t at all interested in pretty Russian girls, and preferred to spend his time drinking with male friends from the Internet.” Whelan was supposedly embedding himself in the private lives of potential information sources, going so far as to attend these people’s family celebrations.

Rosbalt’s source also speculates that reports about Whelan being dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Marines in 2008 for larceny could be part of a “cover story” invented to make it easier for him to operate in Russia.

  • On January 2, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited Whelan at the Lefortovo Detention Facility in Moscow. Huntsman reportedly offered the American Embassy’s assistance, and later spoke with Whelan’s family by phone. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Washington expects to learn more about the charges and will demand Whelan’s return, “if the detention is not appropriate.”

🚭 Washington ain't having what Rosbalt is smoking

Across the pond, not everyone is convinced that Paul Whelan is the social-media spy Rosbalt says he is. In a report for The Washington Post, Siobhán O'Grady and Amie Ferris-Rotman spoke to former CIA official John Sipher and current International Spy Museum executive director Chris Costa, who say “Whelan’s detention doesn’t look like a spying case at all.” “We don’t send in random Americans without diplomatic immunity to collect low-level stuff,” Sipher argued. “Whelan’s job title alone would probably attract attention, not avoid it,” Costa added. Read the report here at The Washington Post.

Here's your summary of the best Russian journalism (outside Meduza) in 2018 🍾

Every year, Meduza awards something called the “Riga Balsam” to Russia’s best journalism outside our own newsroom. Like a taste for high-alcohol-content liqueurs, the selection process here is completely subjective. If you’re interested in which Meduza investigative reports our own correspondents liked best, we have a whole separate article for that, which you can read here. What you’ll find below, however, is a summary of other Russian journalists’ top work last year — says us.

🎭 How the street-art group “Voina” survives and steals in Europe

Olesya Gerasimenko — BBC Russian-language service

The adventures of the artists who painted the “Giant Galactic Space Penis” on the drawbridge leading to the St. Petersburg FSB headquarters — artists who seven years later wander Europe, fearing arrest, and praise Vladimir Putin for the conquest of Crimea — is enough to entice any journalist. Olya Gerasimenko’s reporting stands out because she doesn’t simplify Voina’s story or resort to a moral assessment of their art. Her biographical look at the group is less about politics than aesthetics (Voina’s long history of shoplifting, it turns out, is a deliberate art project itself) and family (the relationship between “Vora” and “Koza” — Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol — and their children is the most powerful part of the story).

🔥 The lives of suspects accused of responsibility for the shopping mall fire in Kemerovo

Timur Olevsky — Takie Dela

After a fire killed 60 people at the “Winter Cherry” shopping center in Kemerovo on March 25, 2018, the authorities quickly pinned the tragedy on more than two dozen suspects. Alexander Nikitin — an electrician who worked at the mall — is one of these men. To this day, he remains in pretrial detention. Timur Olevsky’s reporting is straightforward and vital, painting the portrait of someone news headlines tend to dehumanize.

⚱️ Why men work for the “Wagner” private military group, and what happens when they’re killed in action

Ilya Barabanov — BBC Russian-language service, Sergey Khazov-Kassia — Radio Liberty, and Igor Pushkarev — Znak.com

In early February, at least several dozen mercenaries from the PMC organized by Dmitry “Wagner” Utkin were apparently killed in combat against the U.S. military, and the subject of Russian mercenaries — their supposed nonexistence and their deaths — remained one of the main stories in Russian journalism throughout the year. Sergey Khazov-Kassia from Radio Liberty spoke to “Wagner” soldiers about their living and fighting conditions. Ilya Barabanov from the BBC reported on the PMC’s legal structure and spoke (like Znak.com’s Igor Pushkarev) to the loved ones of mercenaries who were killed in Syria. The journalists found some parents questioning why their sons had died, and others fighting over the millions of rubles in compensation paid for their dead children and husbands.

👮 How an undercover cop transformed the “New Greatness” movement into an “extremist organization,” and what followed

Andrey Kaganskikh and Maxim Litavrin — Mediazona, Alexander Chernykh — OVD-Info

A few young people start chatting over Telegram and begin hanging out at a nearby McDonald’s to discuss the fate of the country. At some point, one of them says they should create a political organization, with a charter and objectives and everything. The others agree. The Thomas Jefferson of the group, it turns out, is an undercover police officer, and the poor souls he’s fooled are soon arrested and thrown in jail. A vivid demonstration of how the state creates its own “extremist” enemies, the “New Greatness” Case was one of Russia’s biggest stories in 2018. Mediazona was the first news outlet to report the full details of the investigation, and OVD-Info’s Alexander Chernykh made it an emotional story. Chernykh’s interview with the mother of 18-year-old suspect Anna Pavlikova was instrumental to provoking the public backlash that ultimately helped convince Moscow’s courts to transfer Pavlikova and Maria Dubovik to house arrest.

👰 Why Russian women marry ISIS combatants

Maria Borzunova — Dozhd, Nina Nazarova — BBC Russian-language service

ISIS fell somewhat by the wayside in 2018, but there are still people whose lives remain broken by the terrorist state. This includes hundreds of Russian women who traveled to ISIS-held territory in search of love. Now they are treated as dangerous extremists, wherever they go. In Iraq, these women are sentenced to life in prison; in Chechnya, local ruler Ramzan Kadyrov has actually tried to reintegrate them into society; and officials in Dagestan and Ingushetia have locked them behind bars. Digging by journalists Maria Borzunova and Nina Nazarova helped us better understand what motivated the ISIS wives, and their reporting also captured the human drama of their predicaments, from dusty desert prison floors to compassionate guards willing to help them contact their families.

A note to readers: There is a potential conflict of interest here, given that Nina Nazarova is married to Meduza deputy chief editor Alexander Gorbachev.

🗳️ Falsifying Putin’s reelection

Maria Tsvetkova and others — Reuters

Reuters uncovered damning evidence that Vladimir Putin’s blow-out reelection victory wasn’t as clean as the Kremlin would like you to believe. A whole team of journalists pooled their efforts for this story, reporting from Ust-Djeguta, Simferopol, Kemerovo, Zelendodolsk, and Gryazi, and described what they saw with their own eyes: the same people voting multiple times. The investigative work enraged Russia’s Central Election Commission, which refused to accept that its new “Mobile Voter” system is prone to abuse. The agency even questioned the patriotism of the Russian citizens on the Reuters news team — an absurd reaction that demonstrates the merits of their journalism.

📸 How to be a model if half your body is covered in burn scars

Kirill Rukov — The Village

Rukov recorded this autobiographical monologue by Sveta Ugolek, a woman from Komsomolsk-on-Amur who suffered major burns over half her body, endured bullying from her mother, and then ran away from home. She ultimately settled in Moscow and sought a career in modeling. It is hard to imagine a more astonishing story of overcoming the odds.

💌 The women who wait for their men in prison, and why

Yulia Dudkina — Batenka, Margarita Loginova — Taiga.info

A whole subculture exists for “waiting women” in relationships with men behind bars. They have their own hierarchy, structure, language, and means of communication. In different but equally satisfying ways, reports by Yulia Dudkina and Margarita Loginova capture the love, loyalties, and freedom of various women and men entangled in these romances. This reporting also develops an emerging tradition in Russian journalism, where correspondents find and unpack the stories of people affected by the country’s prison system.

🚨 Torture in Russia’s prisons

Olga Bobrova — Novaya Gazeta

There’s little doubt that Russia’s federal penitentiaries torture their inmates, but Novaya Gazeta still changed the public landscape in late July by releasing a 10-minute video showing guards beating a prisoner, demanding that he apologize for insulting one of the staff. Prison torture briefly became a national issue, catapulting the subject into daily news headlines for weeks.

🙅‍♀️ How State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky sexually harassed journalists

Nina Nazarova — BBC Russian-language service

BBC journalist Farida Rustamova was the third woman to come forward with allegations that State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Leonid Slutsky sexually harassed her in his office. Rustamova actually kept an audio recording of Slutsky’s unwanted advances, where the lawmaker urged her to dump her boyfriend and then groped her crotch. After Nazarova’s report, several Russian news outlets joined a boycott against covering the State Duma generally and Slutsky specifically, though he never suffered any consequences. The parliament’s Ethics Committee ultimately absolved him of any wrongdoing, acknowledging his actions but refusing to censure him, which was itself a telling end to the story.

A note to readers: There is a potential conflict of interest here, given that Nina Nazarova is married to Meduza deputy chief editor Alexander Gorbachev.

👷‍♂️ The Bashkir handyman who kidnapped two bureaucrats

Dima Shvets — Mediazona

Criminal cases, trials, and prison life were center stage in 2018, and Russian journalism would have been far worse off without Mediazona, one of the country’s most important media outlets. In thankless but vital work, Mediazona regularly live-blogs the courtroom proceedings of major trials, and nearly every week it publishes another long-form report about Russia’s criminal justice system. There are a dozen other articles we could have selected to showcase the website’s excellent reporting, but we chose this one about a talented man from a Bashkir village who grew so desperate for a little state assistance that he kidnapped two local officials and declared himself a member of a secret counterintelligence group. It’s an exciting, very sad story.

💰 The secret operations and money-making schemes of anonymous Telegram channels

Andrey Zakharov — RBC, Mikhail Rubin — Proekt

Anonymous channels on the instant messenger Telegram peddling “insider info” and rumors are one of Russia's most important media innovations in recent years, clearly demonstrating the social consequences of the country’s crackdown on free speech. It turns out, however, that the system used to control the major television networks is adaptable to Telegram. Proekt’s investigation into the money-making schemes that fuel anonymous Telegram channels shows how vested interests shell out cash to plant information or stop it from spreading. Money also dominates popular channels “on the other side of the political aisle,” like Stalingulag, which RBC’s Andrey Zakharov traced to a 26-year-old man from Makhachkala who reportedly earns 150,000 rubles ($2,170) for a single promoted post.

🍽️ How Evgeny Prigozhin deals with his rivals

Denis Korotkov — Novaya Gazeta

Whether you call him “Putin’s chef,” the “troll factory” curator, or the man behind the “Wagner” PMC that’s fighting simultaneously in Syria and Africa, there’s no escaping Evgeny Prigozhin in Russia’s modern-day news cycle. Despite this ubiquity, Denis Korotkov is perhaps the only journalist who manages to find new stories about Prigozhin or track down people who have worked for him. The consequences of his reporting speak for themselves: when Korotkov left Fontanka for Novaya Gazeta, someone started sending morbid “gifts” to his new newsroom, including a severed sheep’s head, crates of goats, and a funeral wreath. These intimidation tactics didn’t stop Korotkov from reporting how Prigozhin organizes attacks on rivals. The man who confessed his role in these operations mysteriously disappeared before Novaya Gazeta published Korotkov’s article. He later reappeared, just as mysteriously.

👬 The Salisbury attackers’ true identities

A series of investigative reports by The Insider and Bellingcat: 1, 2, 3, and 4

This series of reports was the investigative journalism of the year. When British officials accused two Russian citizens of poisoning Sergey and Yulia Skripal in March, Vladimir Putin said the men had been “found” and identified as “civilians.” “Ruslan Boshirov” and “Alexander Petrov” promptly granted a disastrous interview to the state news TV network Russia Today. The next day, The Insider and Bellingcat reported that “Boshirov” and “Petrov” were actually Russian intelligence operatives, and over the next several weeks the investigative journalists exposed the agents' real names (Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin) and their general biographies. Despite some stylistic and conceptual gripes about The Insider’s work, this investigative reporting is undeniably a triumph.

Yours, Meduza