Why so negative? ‘BBC’ gets an inside look at how Russia’s ‘troll factory’ is trying to become a legitimate news empire
Evgeny Prigozhin has enjoyed a special place in news headlines for several years, but 2019 was a turning point for the Russian catering magnate (who also dabbles in media and mercenaries, among other things). After countless denials that he has any connection to St. Petersburg’s infamous “troll factory” (indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for interfering in America’s 2016 presidential election) or its associated news outlets, Prigozhin recently agreed to chair the board of trustees at “Patriot,” a new organization that unifies four of these very publications: The Federal News Agency, Economics Today, Politics Today, and The People’s News. In a new investigative report for the BBC Russian Service, journalists Andrey Zakharov and Elizaveta Fokht visited Patriot’s headquarters in St. Petersburg and met with its director, Nikolai Stolyarchuk, to learn about the media group’s “positive mission.” Meduza summarizes this article below.
Setting foot inside Patriot’s St. Petersburg office means physical contact with one of its many links to Evgeny Prigozhin’s business empire: his catering company, Concord Management and Consulting, invested in the building’s construction. But Patriot’s new director, Nikolai Stolyarchuk, insists that Prigozhin’s role is primarily “moral support,” and he says they rented the space through a “management company” after several property owners refused to offer a lease, supposedly fearing U.S. sanctions. Stolyarchuk denies news reports that Prigozhin masterminded the entire operation, and he says Patriot asked Prigozhin to chair its board of trustees because of his well-known patriotic views and fortitude in the face of U.S. indictments.
Born in Stavropol and educated as a lawyer, Stolyarchuk spent seven years as the head of a small pro-Kremlin political party called “Young Russia” that was formed in July 2012, in the wake of large opposition protests. As the name suggests, Young Russia tried to appeal to younger Russians. Its greatest organizational success came in 2014, when its candidate finished third in the Oryol region’s gubernatorial race (in a campaign reportedly orchestrated to add legitimacy to the incumbent’s election victory). Late last year, the party was dissolved due to a lawsuit by the Justice Ministry for having too few regional branches.
Stolyarchuk landed on his feet. In early 2019, he found a job as an attorney for the National Values Protection Foundation. That summer, two of the foundation’s employees were arrested in Libya for trying to interfere in local elections. One of these suspects was St. Petersburg political strategist Maxim Shugalei, who was reportedly one of the consultants Evgeny Prigozhin hired to meddle in Madagascar’s 2018 presidential election.
As Patriot’s director, Stolyarchuk was reluctant to answer many of the BBC’s specific questions about the media group’s biggest and most notorious outlet, The Federal News Agency (FAN). He repeatedly refused to name the owners and claimed that the group owes its reported profits ($4.7 million last year) to ad contracts (though the sites contain almost no advertising), social media marketing services, and the publication of “widgets.”
The Africa murders
FAN’s best-known war correspondent is Kirill Romanovsky, who put journalist Orkhan Dzhemal, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko in touch with a mysterious fixer in the Central African Republic, where the three men were murdered on July 30, 2018, while collecting footage of mercenaries from the Russian private military company “Wagner” (which is also reportedly tied to Evgeny Prigozhin). The investigative project Dossier Center later uncovered correspondence between Romanovsky and Mikhail Burchik (who U.S. officials say is one of the troll factory’s leaders), where Romanovsky asks for advice about how to explain his ties to the fixer.
Asked about Romanovsky’s suspicious role in the murders, Stolyarchuk said his only conclusion is that the Central African Republic is a dangerous place (“especially at night”), and the journalists should have planned their expedition more carefully. Stolyarchuk added that Patriot has no concerns about Prigozhin’s reported links to the killings because there’s no “concrete evidence” that the Wagner PMC is even real (though President Putin acknowledged its existence at a press conference this June).
Let’s put a smile on that face
Patriot’s mission statement focuses on countering “anti-Russian” media outlets’ negative news agenda, and a key goal is expanding the media group to regional publications and maybe even some federal outlets. In May 2019, FAN released its own classifications of the Russian-language media, dividing publications into five categories: foreign, anti-Russian, social-political, state, and patriotic.
Stolyarchuk says anti-Russian outlets propagate negative stories about the country that implicitly endorse regime change (for example, he says these publications recently framed a four-percent pay raise for public servants as President Putin inflating his own salary). What is “negative news”? Stolyarchuk says it’s either fake news or stories that depict isolated events as broadly representative, like implying that a single state official’s incompetence or corruption necessitates changing the entire system.
Stolyarchuk says Patriot refrains, for example, from reporting the details of violent actions by the National Guard against protesters, until a court has formally verified the details of a particular assault. The media group is eager to avoid such “negative coverage,” he says, because drawing attention to individual cases can lead to the “misperception” that the whole system is flawed.
But sometimes negativity is okay
In early November, several Patriot media outlets simultaneously published anonymous letters supposedly from university students claiming that lecturer and local city councilman Boris Vishnevsky sexually harassed them. Newspapers in St. Petersburg (including Novaya Gazeta, where Vishnevsky has written a column for many years) say there’s insufficient evidence to sustain the allegations. In response, Stolyarchuk has accused liberal society of defending “elderly perverts, rapists, and murderers.”
Stolyarchuk somewhat reluctantly defends the often lurid headlines published by FAN (such as stories accusing opposition politicians and their spouses of necrophilia and drug addiction), and he says he doesn’t meddle in editorial matters. He also told the BBC that he can’t comment on whatever evidence theoretically fuels FAN’s vilification of figures like Lyubov Sobol and Maxim Reznik. At the same time, Stolyarchuk says he has gently conveyed to the media group’s editors the need for more positive coverage.
Send in the trolls
At its start, staff hired by The Federal News Agency actually worked from the same address (55 Savushkin Street) as St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency. Also entirely by chance, some of FAN’s operational tactics mimic the troll factory’s practices. This spring, for example, the media outlet launched a “Comments Department,” where a dozen people sit in a room and post comments on news reports and on social media, occasionally using fake names and sometimes writing on behalf of FAN itself, promoting the outlet’s editorial line and content.
FAN director Evgeny Zubarev says this is perfectly ethical because staff write openly as the outlet’s representatives (though this isn’t always true), and he says “the difficult information front” justifies the approach.
Meanwhile, Stolyarchuk questions the troll factory’s very existence, while also saying that he doubts an operation with the means described in an October 2017 report by RBC (100 employees and an annual budget of $2.2 million) could have had a substantial impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.