From the blogosphere to Telegram ‘Meduza’ reviews the most important Russian investigative journalism of the decade
Alexey Kovalev, who leads Meduza’s investigative desk, took a look back at his favorite genre of journalism and chose a single bombshell story from a Russian-language outlet for every year. The resulting list is certainly not comprehensive: It excludes a number of outstanding investigative pieces as well as stories that most would say belong to other genres (for example, social investigations like Olesya Gerasimenko’s Kommersant Vlast report on credit slavery in Russia and Mediazona’s monologue from a young U.S. citizen who was trapped for 15 years by her Old Believer relatives in rural Russia). Instead of providing an exhaustive look at Russian investigative journalism, this list attempts to span all of the field’s central trends in the past decade, from traditional long reads in established media sources to the very first anti-corruption bloggers and new media that have made a big splash in recent years.
Alexey Navalny’s blog, 2010
The year was 2010. Stationed at Russia's helm was President Dmitry Medvedev, and a brief era of government openness was beginning. “Goszakupki,” a website that makes government contracts public knowledge, was already operational, and it would soon become a vital source for a whole new generation of investigative reporters. Meanwhile, a blogger named Alexey Navalny steadily gained popularity on LiveJournal. Navalny’s blog demonstrated by example that not only major newspapers but ordinary people as well can produce anti-corruption investigations — if they use the resources provided to them by the government itself. You don’t have to be a professional to dig through the Goszakupki website or become a minority shareholder in a government corporation, request financial reports from it, and publish them on your blog.
Not only that, your audience might grow to be even larger than that of traditional media outlets. By 2010, Navalny’s LiveJournal blog had 20,000 subscribers, a number entirely comparable with the readership of an average Russian professional outlet. Down the line, Navalny’s national stardom went global, his name appeared on the front pages of leading newspapers around the world, and he reached an audience of millions at home through an organization called the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).
All pathos aside, though, Navalny’s investigation of the state-owned oil transport company Transneft boiled down to leaked excerpts from a company report delivered to the federal government’s Accounts Chamber. The leaks, according to Navalny, came from an anonymous group of “honest employees.” Transneft’s report indicated that at every stage of construction for the VSTO (East Siberia-Pacific Ocean) pipeline, the cost of the project was regularly exaggerated, documentation from contract competitions was destroyed, and the contracts themselves were awarded to dubious companies.
Navalny’s most successful publications were yet to come, at least in terms of social significance. The FBK’s 2017 investigation on Dmitry Medvedev’s secret property empire has drawn more than 33 million views on YouTube to date, an unimaginable number for any “traditional” media outlet.
Nonetheless, it is the Transneft post that gave rise to a new format in Russian corruption investigations, one that uses lively, accessible language, avoids journalistic clichés, and explains complex corporate machinations to ordinary Internet users who couldn’t be farther from that world.
Novaya Gazeta, 2011
Meanwhile, it was Roman Anin’s groundbreaking piece for Novaya Gazeta that set a new standard for investigations in traditional papers. It pulled back the curtain on the possibilities brought about by international organizations that unite the efforts, expertise, and resources of individual outlets in various countries to produce an international editorial collective. In this case, the organization in question was the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which spent the next decade producing more investigations of a similar caliber, some in collaboration with Novaya Gazeta. The scale of these investigations would have been unmanageable even for the largest individual media outlets. Only international groups proved to be capable of uncovering a truly global criminal network that involves everything from Russian corporations and entangled offshore funds to Mexican cartels and Asian criminal gangs.
The New Times, 2012
Veteran journalist Yevgenia Albats’s work in The New Times was so influential that it sparked a rather specific Russian meme. After this piece was published, the nickname “Mikhail Ivanich” attached itself permanently to Vladimir Putin in popular discourse: That’s the pseudonym those in Putin’s inner circle, like his fellow KGB veterans and his colleagues in the Ozero dacha cooperative, used among themselves when debating what luxurious gifts they might use next to placate their leader.
Novaya Gazeta, 2013
Sergey Kanev is yet another member of the classic Russian investigative school. In Novaya Gazeta, he described how “Ramzan Kadyrov’s guards,” or security officials affiliated with the leader of Chechnya, keep up a rowdy and uncontrollable presence in Moscow. Kanev’s central sources were actually anonymous Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, who were frustrated enough with the disruptive independence of their supposed allies that they were willing to talk to the press. Thanks to Kanev and Novaya, the President Hotel in Moscow is still known as the unofficial headquarters of Kadyrov’s men in Moscow.
Most of the information the public received about what happened in Ukraine in 2014 and early 2015, from the Maidan and the first “little green men” in Crimea to all-out war and the Ukrainian army’s massive losses at Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo, came from other journalistic genres: namely, on-the-ground reports and interviews. One of the first stories that crossed the line formally into investigative territory was written by Maxim Solopov for RBC in October 2014 (Solopov is now a correspondent for Meduza’s investigative desk).
Centering his story on paratroopers from Pskov, Ryazan, and Ulyanovsk who had fallen prisoner to Ukraine or died in Ilovaisk, Solopov painstakingly refuted the dubious claims of Russian officials about how active Russian servicemembers appeared in Ukraine. No, Solopov proved, these people were not “on vacation.” In fact, they wouldn’t even have had the right to fight abroad if they were, let alone receive awards and casualty compensations for that fighting.
Roman Badanin, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, Farida Rustamova, and Anfisa Voronina on Moscow State University’s expansion
One of the sharpest questions in Vladimir Putin’s 2019 annual press conference came from Farida Rustamova, a correspondent for the BBC Russian Service. Rustamova asked the president when he would finally acknowledge Innopraktika CEO Katerina Tikhonova and Nomeko board member Maria Vorontsova as his daughters. Once again, Putin avoided answering the question directly, referring to his children as “these women” in his response. It was no accident that Farida Rustamova was the one to ask the question: She was one of the then-RBC correspondents who investigated Moscow State University’s (MGU) massive expansion and named Katerina Tikhonova as the central player in that growth (Russian media sources still give her the epithet “Vladimir Putin’s presumed daughter”). It was after the publication of that investigation that Russian state media sources quietly began to legitimize Tikhonova and Putin’s younger daughter, Maria Vorontsova, as talented, independent women who owe their successes exclusively to their own talents. Their fathers’ surname went entirely unmentioned.
The St. Petersburg outlet Fontanka’s series of investigations on the assets and activities of Petersburg resident Evgeny Prigozhin stretches for years, and its creator, Denis Korotkov, has earned himself a reputation as the personal enemy of “Putin’s chef.” Of course, that status is not without personal risk. However, the primary story that has been permanently affixed to Russian news feeds thanks to Korotkov and Fontanka is not about Prigozhin himself but rather about his private army, more commonly known as the Wagner PMC (Private Military Company).
Wagner troops both living and dead have been located in Syria, in the Donbas, in Libya, and in every other location where the Russian government has vested political or financial interests. Nonetheless, the company has assiduously cleared Russian officials of any responsibility for its actions, enabling Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov to continue claiming in briefing after briefing that he did not know who those people in unmarked uniforms could be. Among other things, Korotkov uncovered the appearance of Wagner himself — the elusive Dmitry Utkin, a retired GRU officer. It was Korotkov’s publications, which included images of Utkin being received at the Kremlin, that made Wagner’s ties with the Putin administration public knowledge.
Andrey Zakharov, Polina Rusyayeva, Svetlana Reiter, and others on Russian hackers and trolls in the U.S. election
RBC & The Bell, 2017
If 2014 was the year of Ukraine for Russian journalists, then 2017 was the year of the Russian hackers and trolls that U.S. journalists and intelligence officials argued were responsible for an unprecedented Russian intervention in U.S. domestic politics. Andrey Zakharov and Polina Rusyayeva of RBC, both specialists in Evgeny Prigozhin’s media empire, described how “Putin’s trolls” operated in detail: They created social media pages for hot-button issues like racism, gun ownership, and regional separatism, driving wedges among other users. They also didn’t so much support Donald Trump as attack his main opponent, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, from all sides.
Meanwhile, Svetlana Reiter of The Bell explored the connections between four Russians who were jailed in Moscow on treason charges in December 2016 and the election of Donald Trump. Among those four were an FSB colonel, an FSB major, and a Kaspersky Lab employee. The Bell’s investigation found that what Russian security agencies called treason in this case was an act that was previously considered typical intelligence sharing: Sources close to the four jailed Russians said their alleged crime had been to give U.S. intelligence agents information about the hackers who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s servers.
The Insider & Bellingcat, 2018
This series was created by the Russian media project The Insider and the international open-source investigative group Bellingcat. The latter cohort had already gained fame for its work using social media posts to learn more about the eastern Ukrainian war and its reports on the 2014 Malaysia Airlines crash in Donetsk.
The two groups chose to collaborate after former GRU employee and deserter Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in the British city of Salisbury. British intelligence officials asserted that the pair had been killed using the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok, and police released photographs of the alleged poisoners.
The Insider and Bellingcat’s investigation began with the fact that two men whom British officials identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov appeared on the Russian state TV channel RT to win back their good name. RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan interviewed the pair personally. The result was a rather awkward and absurd conversation that itself spawned a plethora of memes. During the interview, Petrov and Boshirov assured Simonyan and her viewers that they were simply tourists hoping to take a look at the famous steeple of the Salisbury Cathedral; the fact that the Skripals were poisoned that same day was pure chance.
The Insider and Bellingcat methodically picked apart Petrov and Boshirov’s arguments and found that the two were actually GRU officers Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. In the course of their investigation, the journalists uncovered a number of curious details about how Russian intelligence agencies operate. For example, the passports for Mishkin and Chepiga’s fake names were issued in a single office, and their numbers differed by only a few consecutive digits. This find revealed that almost anybody, with a bit of effort, can find a list of passports belonging to undercover GRU agents.
By the end of the 21st century’s second decade, a tradition had firmly taken hold in the Russian government: From any official perspective, disasters could only be terrorist attacks if security services managed to prevent them, a feat of which the FSB and other agencies regularly boast. If a terrorist attack was not prevented, then it must be called something else — “a gas explosion,” “a manifestation of insanity,” just not a terrorist attack. There aren’t many journalists who find the inner strength not only to repeat government press releases and statements on these matters but to question and even refute them. Among that small group are a few somewhat unexpected outlets.
Baza is one of the newest media outlets writing in Russian. When, on December 13, 2018, an explosion ripped apart an apartment building in Magnitogorsk, the project barely existed. Its investigation arguing that the explosion was not a tragic accident or a utilities failure, but rather a terrorist attack, was published on a free blog platform.
Nonetheless, the outlet’s team includes veterans of the loyalist, pro-Kremlin media conglomerate Life, which is known for publishing “leaked” videos of security operations. One could argue, of course, that Baza’s investigation was aligned with some faction of security agents who were not happy with the cover-up of the explosion’s true causes, but that doesn’t make the widely discussed doubts about what happened that night any less legitimate.
By the end of the year, Baza, now a fully-formed and formidable player in the Russian media market, republished its Magnitogorsk investigation as a documentary video. It became no more persuasive in that form: The video includes a number of arguments that are obviously stretched, several gaps in reasoning, and clichés like a journalist speaking with a taxi driver on the way to the airport. However, the absence of any verifiable official claims about what happened in Magnitogorsk on December 31, 2018 leaves Baza’s report as the most thorough, detailed, and realistic account of an explosion that the government seems very eager to forget.