U.S.-funded media outlet ‘Current Time’ fires journalist for appearing on YouTube show to discuss conspiracy theory about Alexey Navalny’s father-in-law
On Thursday, reporters learned that the Russian-language television channel Current Time, created by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and funded by the U.S. Congress, has fired journalist Timur Olevsky for an unauthorized appearance last month on columnist Oleg Kashin’s YouTube show. Sources told the websites Mediazona and MBK Media that Olevsky violated his work contract by joining Kashin’s broadcast without his editors’ permission. Meduza summarizes the scandal.
Firing Olevsky is a big deal in Russia’s small journalist community for at least two reasons: (1) he worked for a Washington-funded media outlet, and (2) his interactions with Oleg Kashin facilitated a conspiracy theory against opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s wife. In other words, Current Time dismissed Timur Olevsky after he criticized the Navalnys — a publicity nightmare for everyone except pro-Kremlin pundits like Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who immediately reported the story as evidence of American hypocrisy.
On October 5, 2020, superstar YouTuber Yury Dud published a more-than-two-hour interview with the Navalnys. An hour and 45 minutes into the video, Dud asks Navalnaya if her father ever worked for Russia’s military intelligence, as some online rumors allege. She denies the rumor, explains that her father died years ago, and blames celebrity Ksenia Sobchak for spreading the claim. A few days later, Oleg Kashin declared on his YouTube channel that Navalnaya lied about her father; Kashin claimed to have uncovered records indicating that he was a former KGB general who now lives in London.
On November 24, in a blog post on his website, Alexey Navalny addressed the allegations, denounced Kashin (not for the first time), and published documents that refuted Kashin’s claims. Later that day, Kashin offered an apology of sorts (he admitted to “shitting the bed,” but insisted that he was now caught between Kremlin propagandists and Navalny “cult members”), and revealed that he’d based his previous claims about Navalnaya’s father on private correspondence with Timur Olevsky, who joined his broadcast via telephone to admit his mistake. Olevsky also argued, however, that the Navalnys’ failure to be more forthcoming about their family biography and Alexey Navalny’s general hostility toward independent journalists fuel the conspiracy theories that Olevsky himself inadvertently circulated.
The tusovka and Russian cancel culture
After Olevsky’s appearance on Kashin’s show, many in Moscow’s notorious media tusovka (clique) chastised him for slinging mud at the Navalnys and for interacting at all with Kashin. Even Elizaveta Nesterova, Olevsky’s close colleague at Current Time, savaged him on Twitter, saying that his perpetuation of lies and discrediting behavior would make it harder for her to request interviews, working alongside him.
The response to Olevsky losing his job, however, has been different. A few media personas like Yevgenia Albats have said they would also have fired Olevsky (though Albats later claimed that she would merely have suspended him for a few months), and Navalny’s own team has mostly kept quiet about the story, but Olevsky has received support from many prominent voices in Moscow, including Mediazona’s David Frenkel, Echo Moskvy’s Alexey Venediktov, Tatiana Felgengauer, and Alexander Plushev, “Justice Initiative” spokesperson Ksenia Babich, Novaya Gazeta’s Ilya Azar, and others. Even Elizaveta Nesterova has announced her resignation from Current Time in protest.
Though Olevsky is reportedly under a nondisclosure agreement that prevents him from discussing his termination in any detail, he wrote on Telegram on December 3 that he doesn’t want his story being used against Alexey Navalny, whom he says he respects.