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An accomplice to the founder of Russia's ‘troll factory’ says the organization was created without Kremlin instructions

Mikhail Mettsel / TASS / Vida Press
Mikhail Mettsel / TASS / Vida Press

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.

Video footage from the roundtable event organized by Andrey Mikhailov where guests pretended to get sick
yodavidenko

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 creation of the Internet Research Agency, which the U.S. government accuses of meddling in the 2016 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.)

Correction: An earlier version of this text stated that Mikhailov's comments about the “troll factory” related directly to the U.S. 2016 presidential race. In fact, Mikhailov was speculating about the origins of the Internet Research Agency. Meduza apologizes for the mistake.

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.

On October 22, Novaya Gazeta published an investigative report claiming that people associated with Evgeny Prigozhin are responsible for attacking opposition activists and bloggers, as well as carrying out several murders and poisonings in different countries. The newspaper attributed these claims to Valery Amelchenko, who suddenly disappeared on October 2. Days before the report was published, someone left a severed sheep’s head in a gift basket outside Novaya Gazeta’s newsroom in Moscow. Not long beforehand, the newspaper also received a funeral wreath addressed to Denis Korotkov, the author of the October 22 investigative report.

Summary of Novaya Gazeta's interview by Viktor Davydov, translation by Kevin Rothrock