Russia’s PR minister Mikhail Mishustin is obsessed with his image online and in the media. Here’s how this fixation shapes his cabinet.
Russia’s new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, is fanatically obsessed with his own reputation and image in the media, multiple people who know him have told Meduza. Special correspondent Farida Rustamova explains how Mishustin spent a decade working meticulously and tirelessly to craft his public profile as an effective manager, culminating in his appointment as prime minister.
When Mikhail Mishustin was treated for coronavirus this spring, public details about his condition were scant relative to the information shared about Boris Yeltsin’s heart surgery, a quarter of a century earlier. Over the three weeks he was sick, Mishustin never spoke openly about his illness, but he regularly held teleconference meetings from the hospital. Sources close to his cabinet told Meduza that he consciously avoided talking about his treatment, eager to avoid any appearance of weakness.
Additionally, the cabinet’s website never published any footage of Mishustin’s temporary replacement, Andrey Belousov, who attended several events while serving as acting prime minister. Images of Mishustin, meanwhile, never disappeared from the website.
Many people who know Mishustin say he’s regularly preoccupied with his own reputation and his image in the media, reading everything published about him and his work, ignoring nothing, and agonizing over every word. Meduza spoke to businesspeople, journalists, publicists, Mishustin’s friends, and other state officials. They all talked about this fixation that sets him apart from other Russian state officials.
The TV publicist
When Mishustin took over Russia’s Federal Tax Service (FNS) in 2010, he embraced rhetoric describing the agency as a “service company,” not a branch of law enforcement. He hired Larisa Katysheva, a former television and radio journalist from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), to craft a new public image for the FNS, and she promptly implemented new service standards and took steps to improve communication with taxpayers. Going in this new direction, the tax service also adopted a gentler slogan: “Your taxes are going to good causes.”
Over time, Katysheva was managing not just the agency’s image, but the image of its leadership, as well, instituting a dress code and communication standards that imposed modest and measured public behavior. With Katysheva’s makeover and Mishustin at the helm, the FNS started commenting more often, both officially and unofficially.
In 2012, the FNS even launched a special TV show called “Taxes,” hosted by Katysheva, that airs on state television to this day. The show was created to make Russia’s tax code more accessible to the public. No other federal agency has anything quite like this, though there are similar projects from some state corporations (like Russian Railways and Rosatom), which “demonstrates Mishustin’s corporate thinking,” one former government official told Meduza.
Thanks to Katysheva, the agency’s press service became more effective at working with reporters, a former Vedomosti journalist told Meduza. When it suited the tax service, press releases and access to officials were streamlined. When the agency could avoid bad publicity entirely, it now bottled up more efficiently than ever.
Celebrities and the Guinness Book of Records
Speaking to Meduza, a former state official described Mishustin as something of a maverick of self-presentation. “He loves it when everyone likes him, and he’s very good at selling himself,” the source says. “He was even able to sell himself to the president.”
As head of the tax service, Mishustin often recruited celebrities to promote the agency’s new projects. In 2013, he even arranged for cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov to demonstrate how he could pay his taxes online while orbiting the Earth in a video streamed to the Tax Administration Forum Meeting for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The stunt set a Guinness World Record for the “highest-altitude financial transaction.”
Smothered in a friendly embrace
In his first years as FNS head, Mikhail Mishustin worked hard to charm business journalists. A decade ago, the state of Russian journalism was very different: independent media outlets were harder to influence editorially and their voices were pivotal in the business world.
Sources told Meduza that Mishustin carefully tracked everything reported about the Federal Tax Service in the business press, responding even to op-eds by writing directly to authors and editors to criticize expertise and coverage he disliked. Mishustin instituted greater transparency at the FNS, but he pounced on journalists who caused problems.
Financial reporter Alexandra Bayazitova says Mishustin and his publicity team regularly complained to her editors when she reported on the tax service’s spending on buggy software. She says Mishustin used to start his work day with a special computer program that aggregated news reporting about his agency.
As Russia’s free press weakened over the years, Mishustin came to view the independent media more as an extension of his agency’s own press service, which has become a consensus view among state officials.
The first blow
Mishustin didn’t have to wait long before his new publicity machine was tested. Almost as soon as he joined the FNS, federal agents opened an embezzlement case against Olga Chernichuk, the agency’s deputy chief in Moscow, and Alexander Udodov, Mishustin’s own son-in-law. The charges were serious: the embezzlement of 2 billion rubles (now about $28.9 million) in VAT refunds issued through a sham company.
A former official in Russia’s tax service told Meduza that Mishustin’s PR team worked around the clock after the allegations were announced, interfacing aggressively with the press while cautiously trying not to offer any excuses or justifications that might be construed as acknowledgment that the criminal investigation had merit.
It was around this time, between 2011 and 2012, when Mishustin reportedly became acquainted with Leonid Levin, then a State Duma deputy and the future head of the government cabinet’s publicity team. According to a source in the government, Levin convinced Mishustin to lean into the investigation rather than deny the allegations. Mishustin acted on this advice, taking credit for the case as an anti-corruption initiative.
If Mishustin had known about the investigation beforehand, however, Chernichuk should have been suspended from duty before the case was announced. Days later, the Federal Tax Service challenged the legality of the raids by the Investigative Committee and the FSB, insisting that the FNS itself had thwarted the attempted embezzlement in question. In the end, Chernichuk and Udodov were reclassified as witnesses.
Though Udodov escaped with his reputation largely intact, he later exercised his “right to be forgotten” to force the search engine Yandex to delete hyperlinks to the few stories about the embezzlement case that mentioned him by name. For example, a source told Meduza that Udodov twice sued Yandex several years ago to remove hyperlinks to stories claiming that he helped Mikhail Mishustin orchestrate illegal VAT refunds.
The power of the publicists
When he formed a new government cabinet in early 2020, Mishustin made Leonid Levin his deputy chief of staff, recruiting him from the State Duma’s influential Information Policy Committee (the same council that approved most of Russia’s recent draconian media and Internet legislation).
Levin isn’t just another lawmaker. In the 1990s, he founded “Secret Adviser,” now one of Russia’s oldest public relations agencies. Today, it has a reputation for confidential services that include planting and suppressing news stories. Levin says he cut ties to the firm when he was elected to the State Duma in 2011, but past and current employees told Meduza that they doubt this is true.
Leaked correspondence reported by Novaya Gazeta, Republic, and The Insider ties Levin to the Kremlin’s staging of the Crimean secession referendum, identifying him and several Secret Adviser employees as important political strategists working in the annexed peninsula. (The same communications mention Alexey Krymin, who served as an adviser to Levin in the State Duma and now has a job in Mishustin’s cabinet.)
In the 1990s, Secret Adviser ran smear campaigns and hired itself out to warring businesses. Today, it’s one of the main PR offices in Russia that suppresses compromising news coverage. Sources close to the government cabinet told Meduza that the agency provides confidential services to state organizations and individual state officials. A source in the government told Meduza that Secret Advisor prepared the speech Mishustin delivered during his trip to Kazakhstan in January (his only foreign travel since becoming prime minister), though Mishustin’s spokespeople deny this.
Leonid Levin’s role in the government is providing “informational support” to the rest of the cabinet (similar to what media-manager Alexey Gromov does in the Putin administration). That said, Boris Belyakov — Mishustin’s long-time press secretary — is the one actually stuck talking to journalists.
Mishustin’s PR team also includes Alexander Gribov, a wunderkind who recently left a senior position in the State Duma to join the government as deputy chief of staff. Gribov’s job is to maintain ties to civil society and state agencies, while managing travel throughout the country for the prime minister, his deputies, and the federal ministers.
Mishustin’s PR counterattack
The first publicity crisis Mishustin faced as prime minister was a wave of independent investigative reporting about his family’s undeclared luxury real estate, how their declared income appears to be too little to afford such property, and the fact that the Mishustins had suspicious ties to Alexander Udodov (who hadn’t yet been identified as the prime minister’s son-in-law).
Cabinet spokespeople declined to comment on the reports, but more mainstream news outlets soon ran stories justifying the prime minister’s wealth, including a Kommersant story published on January 19 in which economics deputy editor-in-chief Dmitry Butrin argued that the Mishustins earned their money through a series of conservative but smart investments.
A source at another news outlet told Meduza that Boris Belyakov, the prime minister’s spokesman, offered stories with similar findings to several other publications (but they rejected the idea). The government’s press office denies this and Butrin told Meduza that his text was his own initiative, though he admitted to “consulting with Belyakov” when writing it.
In early February, RBC published a letter about the Mishustins’ income signed by Polina Gerasimenko, a managing partner at the investment company “UFG,” where Mishustin worked from 2008 to 2010. RBC was only granted answers to its questions on the condition that it publish the responses verbatim, without any edits. A source in the government told Meduza that UFG coordinated these answers with Mishustin and his team of PR specialists. Another source close to the cabinet says the prime minister edited the answers himself, though his spokespeople deny this.
A few weeks later, Alexander Udodov suddenly granted an interview to the newspaper Izvestia, where he revealed that he’s married to Mishustin’s sister, said he’s paid 500 million rubles ($7.2 million) in personal taxes over the past 10 years, and denied any role in embezzling VAT refunds.
Two sources close to the government told Meduza that Mikhail Mishustin personally orchestrated the cabinet’s indirect response to the reports about his family’s wealth, coordinating statements from third parties to different news publications. Meduza’s sources say the new cabinet is consciously trying to avoid the fate of Dmitry Medvedev, whose government was constantly pilloried in the press.
One of the reasons Mishustin has come to rely on his own publicity machine is that it can be difficult to negotiate access to the media controlled by the Putin administration. Instead, sources told Meduza, Mishustin’s team spends millions of dollars a year buying coverage, courting individual journalists, and paying for PR on Internet platforms like Telegram. (The cabinet denies these allegations.)
Caricatures and “orders from Moscow”
Mishustin’s former colleagues told Meduza that he’s not exactly a champion of independent journalism. “The freedom of the press for him is like snot in syrup,” says one source, claiming that the prime minister has no reservations about pressuring journalists when they report things he doesn’t like. Mishustin will start with unruly authors and march uphill to editors and owners, if necessary. “Using pressure is his style — it’s a style from the 1990s,” says an ex-colleague.
The Krasnodar website Klerk.ru, one of Russia’s oldest accounting publications, is a case in point. Known for its political cartoons, Klerk.ru carries significant weight in Russia’s world of professional accountants, which was roughly 5 million people by 2013. As head of the tax service, Mishustin was reportedly very sensitive to criticism published in Klerk.ru.
In May 2019, Klerk.ru owner Boris Maltsev published an article accusing the FNS of pressuring his website not to publish caricatures or critical coverage of the tax service. Maltsev says intermediaries speaking for the agency first asked him to delete four cartoons depicting Putin, Mishustin, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, and Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina. Then officials pressed for the removal of another 96 political cartoons. Maltsev says he agreed to take down the caricatures, at which point the FNS apparently asked him to start unpublishing entire articles.
Maltsev says he was then instructed not to publish further caricatures depicting state officials, not to criticize the tax service’s information systems, and not to report anything that might damage the government’s reputation, especially the reputation of the FNS.
Local tax inspectors first audited Maltsev in 2017, meticulously studying his business records and spending a whole year combing through the financial records of Klerk.ru’s employees. Roughly two years later, the tax inspectors returned to Maltsev’s office, this time to conduct new inspections in three separate audits.
He says he soon discovered through intermediaries that the FNS was building a criminal case “on orders from Moscow” that would supposedly go away if he fulfilled certain “conditions.” When he went public with the story, however, the audit abruptly ended.
Maltsev says he can’t verify who was responsible for sending the tax service after him, but he says the auditors told him constantly that they were acting on “orders from Moscow.” The prime minister’s press service assured Meduza that Mishustin never interferes in editorial decisions.
If you’re unfamiliar with Telegram, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s just another messaging platform. In Russia, however, it has become “a social network of blackmail [kompromat] for civil servants” and a “fetish for bureaucrats,” one former state official told Meduza. Russia’s authorities follow Telegram channels closely and even work with political strategists to spread and suppress content as necessary.
Two sources close to the government told Meduza that Prime Minister Mishustin reads Telegram channels carefully, supposedly relying on Leonid Levin and Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan for advice on how best to shape narratives on the network. Sources told Meduza that Simonyan controls “a good half of the Telegram channels” in Russia writing about politics and society. Simonyan told Meduza that she’s never discussed Telegram channels with Mishustin and says the only channels she manages are her own and those run by the media outlets where she works.
After Mishustin’s appointment as prime minister, political channels on Telegram briefly exploded with reports and rumors about his family’s wealth, but almost all major channels quickly ceased this coverage. A source close to the government told Meduza that it would have cost more than a million dollars per week to suppress such content at Russia's top 20 political Telegram channels.
One of the few major outlets on Telegram that continued criticizing Mishustin was Futlyar ot Violoncheli (“Cello Case”), but the channel abruptly stopped updating altogether on January 27, 2020. It’s still not clear what happened. Blogger Ilya Varlamov says someone bought out the channel’s administrators for $2 million and then closed it down, whereas the website Baza (known for its sources in law enforcement) has reported that the FSB seized the SIM cards used to register the Telegram channel, thereby taking physical control of the publication. Baza’s sources say Mishustin directly requested the police action, though Meduza could not verify this and the government denies it.
Mikhail Mishustin enjoys a close and particularly delicate relationship with Yandex, Russia’s biggest Internet company. According to a senior executive at a major IT firm, he’s longtime friends with Arkady Volozh, Yandex’s CEO and cofounder. For instance, in 2009, before Yandex’s IPO, Misushtin reportedly encouraged UFG Asset Management to invest $25 million to acquire a small stake in the tech company.
As head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service, Mishustin repeatedly asked Volozh to “correct” the search results for his name, a mutual acquaintance told Meduza, though the government denies this.
A former Yandex employee says public relations officials from the FNS during Mishustin’s tenure were the most active among all state officials when it came to interacting with Yandex. The agency’s PR team constantly wanted to know more about how the company’s search engine and news aggregation work, says Meduza’s source. For example, the tax service sent representatives to Yandex in 2011 during the Chernichuk-Udodova scandal with questions about how search results are generated. Larisa Katysheva told Meduza that the agency was confronting a coordinated smear campaign by bots. Spokespeople for Yandex say the company doesn’t moderate its content and relies on uniform algorithms to determine what results are displayed.
Mikhail Mishustin’s attention to detail is especially vivid when it comes to his own public speeches. Sources told Meduza that he agonizes over the wording and attaches a certain “sanctity” to preparations for speaking engagements. A few days before the Gaidar Forum in mid-January (shortly before he was named prime minister), Mishustin visited the university hosting the conference and practiced his speech.
“He didn’t send assistants — he went himself! He looked over the auditorium where he was supposed to speak, walked up and down the isles several times, went to the podium, rehearsed his speech, and found out what questions he’d be asked. An official at that level with so many important things on his plate, and he spent three hours of his time on this!” a source close to the government told Meduza. Two other sources confirmed these details.
Sources say Mishustin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, often didn’t even look at the speeches prepared for him until it was time to deliver them. These texts frequently contained certain flourishes and purple prose in order to conceal Medvedev’s generally weak grasp of economic issues, sources told Meduza.
Mishustin, on the other hand, reportedly keeps his staff at work until midnight while he rewrites speeches using oversized cue cards, going several rounds with speechwriters, repeatedly telling them to add more references to Vladimir Putin and the president’s executive orders and public remarks. Mishustin is apparently extra meticulous with letters of congratulations and condolences that bear his signature.
Two sources close to Mishustin’s cabinet told Meduza that his chief of staff, Dmitry Grigorenko, instructed two government departments and the nonprofit organization “National Priorities” (established late last year to promote Putin’s national projects, led by a former adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, and heavily subsidized by the government) to draft at least three options for a “new trademark style” for Mishustin’s cabinet.
So keep your eyes peeled for that.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock