Conspiracy U A former KGB instructor is winning over students with pseudoscience lectures and FSB internships
This winter term, two-thirds of the students at the MIREA Russian Technological University — one of Russia's biggest technological schools — will be tested in “psy-effects,” “combat memes,” and the doctrine of “hybrid warfare.” The first rumors about these bizarre exams came from the students’ relatives, but the university has now verified the reports. Meduza's Liliya Yapporova learned that Vitaly Grigorev, a military veteran and former instructor at the KGB Higher School, is forcing his “national systems of information security” students to learn about these strange concepts, as well as a few popular conspiracy theories, like “Dulles's Plan” (which claims that former CIA chief Allen Dulles plotted to destroy the USSR by corrupting its “cultural heritage” and “moral values”).
Relatives say students are being tested on “recoding national consciousness,” “psy-viruses,” and “other nonsense.”
One student’s relative told Meduza that instructor Vitaly Grigorev circulated a study guide to his students a couple of days before midterm exams, sharing slides from lectures he’d read in class. The materials highlighted concepts like “recoding national consciousness,” “psy-viruses,” and “other nonsense that doesn’t even deserve to be called pseudoscience,” the family member told Meduza, saying, “It’s hard to believe this is really happening.”
A source gave Meduza a copy of Grigorev’s presentation, which does address these concepts. Judging by the title slide, the lecture was created for students at the Institute for Integrated Security and Special Instrumentation (one of MIREA’s subdivisions where students train in information security). Most of the presentation, however, isn’t about cryptography or secure communications, but “types of influence in the context of information warfare.” For example, Grigorev tells students that “replacing traditional dress with unisex clothing” is a “spiritual warfare tactic,” and he says one example of “recoding national consciousness” is when ISIS used social media in 2015 to recruit a 19-year-old philosophy student named Varvara Karaulova.
Grigorev also lectures about “psychotronic warfare,” promoting neuro-linguistic programming (a pseudoscientific approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy), and he tells students that Alaska’s High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (which analyzes the ionosphere) is actually a secret U.S. mind-control project. Other slides describe genetically modified and synthetic products, as well as drugs, medicines, “energy drinks,” and alcohol, as “race weapons” designed to target enemies at the “genetic level.”
Vitaly Grigorev chairs MIREA’s specialized department on “information confrontation,” a student’s family member told Meduza. In other words, it’s possible that Grigorev’s affinity for pseudoscience means students in different courses have also had to study similar concepts. A second-year student who asked Meduza not to reveal his name says his class was told to study the same slideshow. Another student who took one of Grigorev’s courses last semester told Meduza that all the university’s lecturers on national security are fond of conspiracy theories.
Grigorev’s students told Meduza that he often brings up contemporary politics during his lectures, propagating pro-government ideas like “opposition protests are attempted color revolutions,” “social media is a weapon designed to destroy Russia,” and “human-rights groups are special ops against Russia.” When students push back, he apparently refuses to entertain dissenting opinions or counter-evidence.
Speaking to Meduza, Vitaly Grigorev confirmed that he authored the presentation shared by his students’ relatives and verified that he teaches a course on “national systems of information security.” He says journalists’ questions about his class are “an act of the very information war” about which he lectures. He maintains that his course materials are supported by reputable sources. “For ‘psy-effects,’ just read the Defense Ministry’s website. Just go there and do a search for how the Defense Ministry is fighting psy-effects!” Grigorev said. (Meduza couldn’t find anything about “psy-effects” — psi-vozdeistvie — on the Defense Ministry’s website.)
Asked about teaching the Dulles’s Plan, Grigorev says he actually focuses on an August 18, 1948, “directive” from the U.S. National Security Council. (The now-declassified top-secret State Department memo to the National Security Council is real, but it doesn’t call for overthrowing the USSR through propaganda, though it does stress the need to “bring about a basic change in the theory and practice of international relations observed by the government in power in Russia,” including through “informational activity.”) Grigorev insists that CIA chief Allen Dulles was behind this initiative.
Grigorev says 2,000 students are taking midterm exams this week in his “national systems of information security” course, and he suspects a few unprepared students reached out to the media in anticipation of bad grades. Grigorev says he’s ready to defend his lectures and syllabus to the school’s rector.
MIREA trains specialists for the “rapidly developing fields of science and technology.” The school has its own big-data laboratory and artificial-intelligence program, and its corporate partners include Yandex and Samsung Electronics. A source told Meduza that Grigorev’s classes on pseudoscience could potentially weaken the credibility of the university’s diplomas.
Spokespeople for MIREA told Meduza that Vitaly Grigorev’s presentation is part of a four-hour introductory lecture to “national systems of information security.” “The terminology and concepts that are supposedly unscientific and used in instruction are considered examples of the arsenal of means used in foreign countries to influence Russian youths and conduct information warfare. The core message [of the course] is that you have to know the enemy, their ideology, and their methods of combat, in order to win,” the university said in a statement.
Vitaly Grigorev has a past with the KGB Higher School and the “Security Council apparatus”
From 1986 to 1996, Vitaly Grigorev taught at the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB (renamed the FSB Academy in 1992). A source with access to Russia’s Federal Tax Service database confirmed that Grigorev worked at the Federal Communications and Information Agency’s training center (which was also later folded into the FSB) before coming to MIREA. Grigorev has also been described as someone with a “long history” of work related to Russia’s Security Council apparatus. He regularly speaks at information-security conferences, and he’s delivered a whole series of lectures about “color revolutions.” One of these presentations was at an event organized in part by the Federal Protective Service and the Federal Security Service in the summer of 2017 about “the methods and technical means of ensuring information security.”
In 2016, Grigorev presented a paper at Russia’s Chamber of Commerce on the “social technologies of the Orange Revolution.” Some of the slides from this lecture match materials in the study guide recently distributed to students at MIREA. Next year, the university will host a conference on “intelligent systems in information confrontation,” where Grigorev will lead a discussion about “the adaptation of military confrontation methods in the information sphere to the business environment.”
Grigorev’s students are tested on real documents (like the Russian Constitution, Russia’s military doctrine, and executive orders on national security) alongside fictional materials. When lecturing on the so-called Dulles’s Plan, for example, he doesn’t quote the actual text of a now-declassified top-secret State Department memo from August 1948, but a revised edition that appeared in the novel “The CIA vs. the USSR” by Nikolai Yakovlev, who was recruited by the KGB for “ideological operations.”
Grigorev also lectures on the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” a “hybrid-war blueprint” that’s attributed to Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces. According to Grigorev’s presentation, the doctrine reinterprets the basis of modern-day military operations as information technologies designed to “manipulate populations’ protest potential.” Building on Gerasimov’s concept, Grigorev says the stages of hybrid warfare (in which he believes Russia is primarily the target, not the aggressor) include the use of “combat-meme mechanisms of controlled diffusion” and a “social laser” to destroy the enemy.
Though MIREA’s engineering and programming students frequently moan in online forums about the pseudoscientists on the faculty, students majoring in “information security” have few complaints. This August, several people in this latter group praised senior staff in the department for connecting them with internships at the Federal Security Service and the Federal Technical and Export Control Service. Students with good grades say they can find jobs even before their third year in the program.
Vitaly Grigorev says he’s confident in his course. “I simply know how the country’s leadership sees this issue, and I’m not saying anything more in my lectures. The concept of ‘hybrid war’ was introduced into the mainstream by Defense Minister [Sergey] Shoigu. It’s our leadership’s official response. Putin has talked about it. Do you have something against statements by our leadership?”
Summary by Kevin Rothrock