The man behind ‘Putin’s Troops’ How a failed Krasnodar politician created an army of the elderly to fight Alexey Navalny and other foes
Dmitry Lesnov / Yuga.ru
On July 4, members of a movement known as “Putin’s Troops” raided Alexey Navalny’s presidential campaign office in Krasnodar. Made up mostly of elderly people, the group chanted slogans, ripped up campaign materials, and flipped over furniture. This incident wasn’t the first disturbance instigated by “Putin’s Troops.” The group regularly stages protests against Russia’s democratic opposition, and earlier this year it even produced a viral video modeled on the hit song “Ice Melts.” Behind all this activism, you’ll find a philanthropist named Marat Dinayev, the founder of a charity called “Social Justice.” In a special report for Meduza, Artem Besedin of Yuga.ru spoke to Dinayev and his activists to learn more about how this forme Krasnodar politician created a small army of elderly pro-Putin video bloggers.
We begin at a residential neighborhood not far from the Chistyakovskaya Roshcha park in Krasnodar. The back exit of a five-story brick building leads out into an overgrown meadow. On the other side of the clearing, there’s an identical five-story brick building. Around the corner, there’s a playground, and at the corner you’ll find another property. On its red metallic door, there’s a faded, ragged banner with photos showing happy old people and the slogan “We’ll bring joy to life! Day after day, we’ll help out!” This is the entrance to the offices of “Social Justice,“ a charity whose leader, Marat Dinayev, has spent at least 15 years working with senior citizens to organize protests against both Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition and some local authorities in Krasnodar.
Dinayev got started in Krasnodar politics more than two decades ago, in 1996, when he first registered an organization called “Social Justice.” At the time, his daughter, Fatima, was just nine years old. Today, you can hop on YouTube and watch Fatima Dinayeva take part in this week’s attack on Alexey Navalny’s campaign headquarters in Krasnodar. In a sea of elderly people chanting slogans and wearing “Putin’s Troops” T-shirts, Fatima’s screams were some of the loudest. At one moment, when her fellow activists paused momentarily to rest, you can clearly hear Fatima yell, “Down [with Navalny]!”
When asked about her career, Fatima Dinayeva reluctantly admits that she makes a living working as a linguist. She refused to tell Meduza where exactly she works, but the Russian Scientific Citation Index states that a woman named Fatima Maratovna Dinayeva is employed at Kuban State University. When asked about her lifework, however, Fatima talks about her activities at “Social Justice” and “Putin’s Troops” — a charity and social movement, both created and led by her father, Marat Dinayev.
In 2002, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda’s Krasnodar edition published a scathing criticism of Alexander Tkachev, the young regional governor and future minister of agriculture, after he was caught vacationing at mountain resorts in Austria. In response, a group of senior citizens held a protest outside the newspaper’s office, leading journalists to dub these activists “crazy grannies.” “The old lady rioters broke through the security line and occupied the elevator,” said one report. Komsomolskaya Pravda traced the demonstration back to Marat Dinayev, claiming that the local philanthropist promised the senior citizens “sausages and peas” to stage the protest.
The demonstration against Komsomolskaya Pravda wasn’t the first rally organized by Marat Dinayev, however. Earlier in 2002, he tried to run for a seat in the regional legislature, but local authorities removed him from the ballot, declaring that almost a third of the signatures he collected to register his candidacy were fake. Following this decision, Dinayev’s brigade of elderly activists assembled in the public square outside the Krasnodar regional legislature to protest rising bread prices.
Asked why he and his activists completely reversed their opposition to the region’s governor, becoming aggressive supporters in just a matter of months, Dinayev says the reason is simple: “Do you remember that he was actually the [candidate] from the Communist Party? Well, when he used to want to go after Moscow with pitchforks, we were against him. But the moment Tkachev became a Putinist, we became… not his supporters, but we just stopped going after him.”
Komsomolskaya Pravda offers another explanation for Dinayev’s capricious loyalty, pointing out that he changed his position on Tkachev after being charged with assaulting two people in the street while intoxicated. Dinayev refused to discuss the matter, but he did confirm that there was a six-month period when he couldn’t leave the city because he was under investigation in a “fabricated case,” he said. Dinayev says the case was dismissed when “a bunch of our grannies wrote letters to the Interior Ministry.”
Dinayev constantly refers to his activists as “grannies.”
Marat Dinayev founded the “Social Justice” Krasnodar Regional Public Charity Foundation for Assistance to Poor and Low-Income Citizens in 1996. For the first nine years, he says the foundation worked predominantly with children from disadvantaged families, though it never ignored the elderly. The organization has existed for more than two decades, but you’ll only find a single audit published on the Justice Ministry’s information portal. The report is from last year.
“Social Justice” says its funding comes from individuals and legal entities. In 2016, the group reportedly spent 4.5 million rubles (about $75,000) on charitable causes and another 850,000 rubles ($14,000) on taxes, office expenses, and “labor.” You can find a similar report on one of the foundation’s own websites, stating that “Social Justice” spent 4.35 million rubles ($72,000) on charity in 2014, along with 335,000 rubles ($5,500) on overhead expenses.
Dinayev says that “the need to create a social movement” based on his charity first emerged in 2011, but the name “Putin’s Troops” didn’t come about until 2015. It was around this time that the group’s videos on social media started displaying a special banner: a portrait of President Putin on a purple flag. The “troops” are an informal group, operating without any official registration or legal representation. Dinayev calls them his “hobby club.”
So far, no one from “Putin’s Troops” has achieved more celebrity than Lydia Arkadyevna — a beret-wearing elderly woman known for an unhinged rant published in December 2013, where she argued in complete seriousness that Alexey Navalny bought his law degree on the black market and also had his wife committed to a mental institution. In the video, Lydia Arkadyevna threatened to travel to Moscow to “put a stop” to things.
Her ramblings were the perfect fodder for a viral video, and Russians enjoyed her bizarre hostility and unexpected observations. On Dinayev’s recommendation, she even got acquainted with the rock band Metallica, saying with approval that lead vocalist James Hetfield is a “very good man” because he supports Vladimir Putin.
In 2014, with the same fervor, Lydia Arkadyevna denounced protesters in Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement. A year later, she announced that Barack Obama (pronouncing the president’s surname “Obam”) was responsible for inventing ISIS and burning down a house. “People came up to the house and went inside, and he set it on fire,” she explained.
In this video, from behind the camera, you can hear Marat Dinayev asking her questions: “Why do Obama’s supporters still live in Russia? What about your buddy, Navalny, who threw rocks at you — why does he stay in our country, living here calmly?”
“Because he has lots of helpers: [Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris] Nemtsov, [Former Prime Minister Mikhail] Kasyanov, [Garry] Kasparov, [former opposition Duma deputy Ilya] Ponomarev,” the woman says, looking to the side. “Ponomarev, [opposition party leader Sergey] Mitrokhin, [leftist activist Sergey] Udaltsov — these are all his… The people who… who give him money. It’s what gives him money.”
Dinayev admits that he supplied all these names to the elderly woman. “They know about the top officials without our help. But, sure, when it comes to someone like [environmental activist Yevgeniya] Chirikova, [Lydia Arkadyevna] got some help. But you’ve got to understand that there’s a fight going on, and nobody pays attention to one person holding up a banner,” Dinayev says. “She would always call Kasyanov ‘Kosyagin.’”
“We’re not afraid to be funny,” Dinayev’s daughter told Meduza proudly. “We don’t let anything get to us.”
According to the Dinayevs, Lydia Arkadyevna worked as a hairdresser, before joining “Social Justice” in 1997. The two leaders of “Putin’s Troops” say their Internet star recently died. Marat Dinayev is actually pretty cynical when he talks about Lydia Arkadyevna’s passing. “We hadn’t used her for a whole year before she died. She’d basically served her purpose,” he told Meduza.
Visiting Dinayev’s office in Krasnodar, Meduza’s correspondent met an activist from “Putin’s Troops.” A 70-year-old woman in a red dress carrying two plastic bags, she introduced herself as Valentina Viktorovna. She’d stopped by the office to pick up some free newspapers. Looking directly into her neighbor’s eyes, the woman said in a singsong voice, “Rulers are put there not just by the people, but by the Lord Almighty. It’s not for us to choose: He placed the tsar above us, and we should only accept it and show respect. I read the Bible and follow the Word: all leaders are from God. And we should not demean them, but extol them.”
Having heard this woman’s sermons, Dinayev invited her to give lectures.
It’s easy to find Valentina Viktorovna’s videos on YouTube, where Social Justice and Putin’s Troops both operate channels. Here she is in March 2017, looking at the camera through big sunglasses, saying that Navalny had decided to join the Rostov Boris and Gleb Monastery, and her group would try to stop him. Here she is again (misidentified as “Melissa” for some reason), explaining in November 2015 that the U.S. government controls ISIS. Valentina Viktorovna also took part in the July 4 attack on Navalny’s campaign headquarters in Krasnodar.
Living on disability payments, Valentina Viktorovna says she’s survived three surgical operations and was once even declared clinically dead. In 2010, she passed by Dinayev’s office on crutches, went inside, and became an activist. Today, she leads a busy social life, distributing free newspapers to bedridden residents in her district, leading a network of 35 other disabled people, and regularly visiting Dinayev’s office or speaking to his daughter on the phone to learn about future demonstrations.
“I like this work, this movement, and working with people. Before, I used to work in Soviet trade. I worked in markets. Now there’s a different worldview,” Valentina Viktorovna told Meduza. “The main thing is that I don’t obsess over my surgeries. What matters is that people need me!”
Friends in high places
The “Social Justice” charity isn’t all that public. The organization stages three children’s parties a year, and Dinayev insists that hundreds of kids come to these events. In footage from the group’s last three September parties, however, it’s hard to count even a few dozen children in attendance. It also turns out that the charity holds these events in the courtyard outside its office. Social Justice’s website also indicates that the organization distributed groceries in March 2017 to children in low-income families. Dinayev says local businesses sponsor his charity, while “Putin’s Troops,” with its T-shirts and flags, relies solely on his private funds.
There are, however, other theories about how the group and its creator get their money. Sergey Obukhov, the chairman of the Communist Party’s Krasnodar branch, claims that “Putin’s Troops” receives support from the local government, citing the fact that state officials always approve the group’s permit requests for public demonstrations ahead of everyone else’s.
In 2017, Alexey Navalny’s local supporters discovered that Social Justice’s office is located on premises owned by the Krasnodar Department of Municipal Property and Urban Land, and the charity remains there, despite a 2015 court order demanding that it vacate the building.
Moreover, though the organization’s main stated purpose is helping children, Krasnodar Mayor Vladimir Evlanov handed out paid holiday packages in September 2013 to Social Justice’s “veteran-activists,” sending them on holiday trips to Dzhubgam, as part of a program called “The Older Generation.” Evlanov also personally congratulated Social Justice on its 15th and 20th anniversaries.
But Dinayev says “Putin’s Troops” aren’t connected to the authorities in any way, and he cites the fact that he’s given interviews to Radio Svoboda and the television network Dozhd, as proof that the movement is completely independent. Asked about the charity’s property dispute with the city, Dinayev told Meduza that he and the authorities had simply failed to reach an agreement before the court order, claiming that Social Justice now has a three-year lease on its office space. He refused to show us the lease, however, saying that the document was buried somewhere at home.
A source in the Krasnodar government told Meduza on the condition of anonymity that the office space was granted to Dinayev’s group as a charitable organization, saying the foundation received no money from the city. “There was no support from the administration for any of the actions taken by Dinayev and his supporters,” the source insisted. “The administration is seriously dissatisfied with Dinayev’s actions. Members of his organization are actually taking part in political activities, and the group’s charitable status is to a certain extent becoming a smokescreen for actions that have nothing to do with the goals and objectives of the organization to which the city granted its premises.”
The Krasnodar branch of Russia’s Interior Ministry told Meduza that the ministry’s regional officials might evaluate the actions of “Putin’s Troops,” including the attack on Navalny’s campaign office. When approached, however, the regional office refused to comment on the issue.
The highest justice
Marat Dinayev’s political career wasn’t limited to a failed run for the regional parliament: he also failed to become mayor. Today, citing his age, the 52-year-old says he no longer harbors any political ambitions. “To tell you the truth, these kids here who think they’re politicians — they’re not politicians at all,” Dinayev says dismayingly. “I fought with all the authorities here! And with people who aren’t the authorities, too. I’ve got six stitches in my head.”
Dinayev says his fight against the opposition is no joke: “There are more than enough clowns in the government. But we are for real,” he says of his group. “We don’t want to be left alone [against Navalny and his supporters], when the authorities suddenly disappear. Maybe they don’t care what happens, but we care.” Dinayev says he’s very pleased with the public response to his group’s attack on Navalny’s local campaign headquarters. “This is as far as we’ll go, regarding the law. We’ll operate right here at the edge. I can shut up now and move to the side, and half the country will discuss me and these grannies.”
“Why aren’t there [Putin’s Troops] anywhere in Russia, except here [in Krasnodar]? You think the Kremlin just decided to limit an experiment to the Kuban? No, of course not,” Dinayev says. “This is our work. And even our clash with Navalny wasn’t sanctioned by anyone. It turns out to have been a real breakthrough, judging by how much everyone liked it. But we decide what to do on our own. We never ask anyone.” Dinayev says his charity has a bright future because “Putin will clean them all out.”
“There will be changes, and then you and I will get together and we’ll be able to talk normally. Here in our Kuban,” Dinayev says, now growing angry, “we’ll see who’s overstayed their welcome. A f***ing third-generation state deputy! First there was his grandfather, the son already had his turn, and now the grandson is there, you see? How does Navalny strike such a chord in people? Well it’s because the system is in trouble. To do anything about it, we’ve got to deal with these f***ing third-generation deputies.”
“We’re hyper-Putinists, even super-Putinists,” Dinayev explains. There’s a stack of books on his desk with titles like “100 of the Third Reich’s Greatest Secrets,” “The Secret War Against America,” and “Who Helped Hitler?” His office is small, and there’s a mangled cat wandering about. Dinayev says it’s name is Marcel, and he insists that it, too, is an avowed Putinist.
“With my dying breath, I want to shout ‘to hell with them!’” Dinayev says. “We all die. It’s the highest justice, that everybody croaks. Including the people with billions. Death is the highest form of justice. When I had ambitions, these guys and their offspring stopped me at every turn. It’s revenge. Against everyone. And it has nothing to do with Navalny.”