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No sale FSB agents reportedly interrogate the administrators of a popular Telegram channel known for spreading ‘kompromat.’ Apparently they wanted to cash out.

Source: Meduza

In a media landscape starved for information about the byzantine goings-on of officialdom, public channels on the instant messaging service Telegram have grown immensely popular in Russia. The network’s appeal is several years old already, having survived even a concerted attempt by the state to block the app, and the political gossip circulated on Telegram continues to draw readers and infuse the biggest channels with real market value. Journalists have explained how Russia’s authorities often buy out troublesome authors, but police crackdowns seem to be becoming increasingly common, as the state tries to maintain control over Telegram’s most trafficked political outlets. The latest apparent targets in this campaign are two individuals connected to a Telegram channel named after an enormously wealthy cellist.

According to the news outlet Baza, agents from the FSB’s Economic Security Service briefly detained two men on January 27, including Moscow resident Alexander Gusov and another man. A source close to Russia’s intelligence community told Meduza that the FSB’s Constitutional Defense Department might also have been involved in the operation. According to Baza’s sources, the detained persons are connected to Futlyar ot Violoncheli (“Cello Case”), one of the most popular Telegram channels in Russia. 

Broadcasting to an audience of more than 400,000 subscribers, Futlyar regularly posts compromising information (kompromat) about different Russian state officials. For example, since Mikhail Mishustin was nominated on January 16 to lead the government cabinet, Futlyar has published 17 stories about the prime minister and his family. Baza says the authorities only released Alexander Gusov after confiscating the SIM card he used to register the Telegram channel. Gusov told the website Open Media, however, that he was never searched by the authorities and he denies any connection to Futlyar.

Created in July 2017, Futlyar hasn’t posted any new content since January 27, 2020, when the FSB reportedly detained Gusov and another man. On January 29, the website reported that the Telegram channel’s anonymous owners had supposedly sold the outlet for $2-3 million. A source familiar with one of Futlyar’s potential buyers confirmed to Meduza that the channel’s administrators were in fact trying to sell the publication. “Before New Year’s, [Futlyar’s administrators] were actively searching for a buyer and they were in a real hurry. When the Kremlin didn’t agree to their proposal, they kept looking. The deal was supposed to be done by January, and then they planned to get back to work with a different team,” says Meduza’s source. 

But the channel encountered problems. On February 3, another channel called Adminskaya Kurilka (“Admin Smoking Room”), which shares news about Russia’s most popular Telegram channels, published an interview with one of Futlyar’s technical administrators (whose contact information was indicated in the channel’s description). In the interview, he reveals that the people who were in control of Futlyar have been inaccessible for a week, following some unspecified incident. 

On February 4, the website — which redirected users to Futlyar’s channel on Telegram — stopped working. (The channel is technically called “@rospres” at Telegram.) Mirror sites at .org, .net, and .info domains have also crashed. Futlyar’s Telegram posts often included hyperlinks to this website, which first launched in 2008. According to the website’s masthead, its publisher was the “Ruspres” news agency — an organization formally registered with Roskomnadzor, though the license indicated on the site is listed as “expired by the decision of the founders” in Roskomandzor’s records. On both the website and in Roskomnadzor’s registry, Ruspres’s founder is listed as Galina Chin and its website’s founder is Oleg Rozov. When Meduza called the telephone number registered under the name Galina Chin, a man answered. He says his number must have been listed by mistake and says he doesn’t know anyone named Galina Chin. Oleg Rozov did not respond to messages Meduza sent to the email address given when was registered. 

According to the “SPARK-Interfax” database, Alexander Gusov is the owner and CEO of the “Razvitie” (Development) LLC, which in turn belongs to the Vek online newspaper. Baza’s reports also identify Alexander Krestnikov as another individual “familiar with the activities at Futlyar.” Krestnikov has partnered with Alexander Gusov on several past media projects, including as co-owners of the now-defunct “Online Publications Joint Newsroom” LLC. Krestnikov now owns the “Chetvertaya Vlast” (Fourth Estate) LLC, which is registered to 277 different online domains, including the website (scandals dot ru) — an outlet that’s similar to Rospres and Futlyar. Krestnikov did not respond to Meduza’s phone calls or messages sent through his Chetvertaya Vlast company.

Story by Alexey Kovalev and Liliya Yapparova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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