Doomsday psychology Meet the small firm behind the psychotechnology used by Russia’s military and intelligence agencies
After a Russian Secret Service officer died by suicide inside the Kremlin last month, Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov started looking into the psychological resilience of security officials. In the process, he uncovered a company supplying Russia’s intelligence services, police, and military with “Multipsychometers” — “psychodiagnostic hardware and software systems” developed at a research institute run by the Soviet Union’s Strategic Missile Forces in the 1980s. As it turns out, an entrepreneur who now lives in Moscow’s ritzy Rublevka suburb managed to build a successful business off this piece of psychotechnology — thanks to some good connections in the Russian Defense Ministry and security agencies.
On November 30, the Telegram-based news outlet Baza reported that an officer from Russia’s Federal Protective Service (FSO) had died by suicide while on duty inside the Kremlin. Baza claimed that the FSO officer was part of the unit responsible for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal security and attributed his suicide to the “FSO leadership’s indifferent attitude toward his working conditions, as well as frequent overtime.” An unnamed TASS source confirmed that a Secret Service officer had committed suicide, but denied the allegations that he belonged to Putin’s personal security team. The TASS source attributed the officer’s suicide to worries stemming from his divorce from his wife.
There are no publicly available statistics on suicides among Russian security officials or suicides involving the use of service weapons; the public is only made aware of isolated cases, like this most recent death. Nevertheless, each loss of life is considered the kind of emergency that the psychological services within the security agencies are expected to prevent.
FSO officers undergo psychological screening upon entering the service. As a rule, this takes place at special Federal Security Service (FSB) medical centers, a source from the FSO told Meduza. In addition, routine psychological tests are carried out there annually, security officials told Meduza, including sources in the FSO. Testing involves filling out forms with a large number of simple, but monotonous, multiple-choice questions. Usually, the test takers do not receive the results; instead a psychologist makes special notes for personnel officers about their professional “fitness.”
Full-time, in-house psychologists are responsible for examining Secret Service officers, though many of the methods they use have been developed by private companies. Meduza uncovered and looked into one such company that created a product used by nearly every branch of Russia’s security apparatus. For more than 10 years already, a small firm called the DIP Research and Production Center (NPTs DIP) has been supplying Russia’s security agencies with methodologies for psychological examinations and candidate screenings, as well as a corresponding piece of equipment — a hardware and software system known as the “Multipsychometer” (and its associated variants).
As it turns out, the DIP Center’s former owner, private businessman Vladimir Burlakov — who now lives in the expensive Rublevka suburb in western Moscow and owns an affiliated company called “Innovative Psychotechnologies” — managed to earn no less than 100 million rubles (about $1.36 million) off of contracts signed with the security agencies.
Publicly available information on procurements reveals tens of millions of rubles worth of contracts that various Russian security agencies have signed with the DIP Center for the supply of psychodiagnostic systems. For example, the company developed the so-called “Granit” system for the FSB specifically, as well as the 83t378 (an automated workstation for military psychologists) and the OTBOR-V (an automated workstation for professional screening specialists) for the Russian Defense Ministry. Moreover, being trained to work with these systems is mandatory for military specialists responsible for psychological screenings.
Customers listed on the company’s website include the Russian Defense Ministry, FSB, FSO, Interior Ministry, National Guard (Rosgvardiya), Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), Emergency Situations Ministry, as well as the now-dissolved Federal Drug Control Service and Federal Agency for Special Construction (Spetsstroy) — in addition to the intelligence services of Belarus and Kazakhstan. The website also includes a number of thank-you letters from various generals, including Russia’s deputy chief of staff, internal troops, military district, and Strategic Missile Forces commanders, as well as the heads of higher education institutions and the personnel departments of the Interior Ministry and the National Guard.
On the DIP Center’s website, you can also read articles on topics in psychology — ones specifically related to the intelligence services and law enforcement — written by alleged academic experts. To give an example, one article on suicide prevention by Mikhail Burenkov, who is described as a PhD candidate in psychology and correspondent member of the now-defunct Academy of Pedagogical and Social Sciences, says the following: “From a religious view point, suicide occurs after a loss of faith in God and a complete selfishness takes possession of a person’s soul. Modern psychiatry also agrees with this, considering the concept of ‘faith’ as an integral part of universal, moral values.”
To prevent suicides among security officials, the author of the article advises against lecturing personnel on why “suicide is bad” lest it “provoke the weak” to take their own lives. Instead, he advises directing one’s efforts toward “the formation of life-affirming attitudes.” “The life-affirming attitudes of Russian law enforcement officials can be tentatively described as follows: life is worth living; life’s challenges build a man; the Lord is merciful and does not close doors without opening others; seek and you shall find,” Burenkov writes.
Although the article byline describes Burenkov as a PhD candidate, the Russian State Library’s electronic catalogue doesn’t contain any information about his dissertation. However, there are two books in his name, titled Memories of Zhukov’s Personal Protection Officers and Traditions and Professional Values of the Russian Imperial Guard.
The DIP Center’s flagship product for the intelligence services and law enforcement agencies is the “Multipsychometer” psychodiagnostic system — a computer equipped with a special software and the following basic hardware accessories: “a specialized psychodiagnostic keyboard, a unit for psychomotor tests, a joystick-type analogue manipulator, a foot pedal, [and] headphones.” The “psychodiagnostic keyboard” looks like a regular one that’s had all its keys removed except for the arrow and the number buttons.
For mass testing, the manufacturer offers a version of the “Multipsychometer” system complete with a printer and scanner, which can be used to print tests on forms and processes the results automatically (all you have to do is load the results back into the system).
The programs for the psychodiagnostic systems contain a library with several hundred tests designed to identify psychiatric problems, depression, and workplace conflicts, as well as assess the psychological resilience of test subjects.
On the company’s website, prices for the base model “Multipsychometer” start at 183,000 rubles ($2,485). Publicly available government contracts show that one of the fully optioned models (complete with a steering wheel and pedals) costs up to 300,000 rubles ($4,074).
According to the business database Spark-Interfax, the DIP Center, which employs 16 people, had its highest earnings in 2015 — 100 million rubles in revenue ($1.36 million). But in 2019, revenues fell to 21 million rubles (about $285,000) and the company showed a loss.
The software, patents, and trademarks used by the DIP Center — in other words, all of the intellectual property for the psychodiagnostic systems — belong to a software supply company called Innovative Psychotechnologies. The company’s main owner, according to Russia’s Unified State Register of Legal Entities, is the former co-owner and founder of the DIP Center, 58-year-old Vladimir Burlakov. Though he comes from the city of Zlatoust in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region, Burlakov now lives in Gorky-2, a luxury settlement in Moscow’s Rublevka suburb, located along the Rublevo-Uspenskoye Highway.
Customers listed on the Innovative Psychotechnologies website include the Russian Investigative Committee, Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation, and Russian Railways (RZD), as well as the Moscow and St. Petersburg subway systems. This company also has many letters of gratitude from high-ranking security officials, including certificates from Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin and former Internal Troops Commander Viktor Zolotov, who now heads the Russian National Guard. The company proudly proclaims that “more than a milin specialists” have been tested using its methodologies.
A former DIP Center employee told Meduza that each deal with the security forces on the sale of psychodiagnostic systems brought Burlakov “at least 200 percent profits.” Apparently, the businessman also liked to boast about his great connections in government agencies. “How far upwards his connections extend I don’t know, maybe it’s more bluff than reality,” Meduza’s source said.
Burlakov himself did not respond to Meduza’s interview request. Spokespeople for his company, Innovative Psychotechnologies, warned our correspondent that he is unlikely to talk to the press.
‘The newest’ Soviet tech
The Russian Defense Ministry’s websites and media outlets loyal to the department refer to the DIP Center’s products as “modern” and “the newest” psychodiagnostic systems. On the other hand, the Defense Ministry’s online encyclopedia says that researchers from the USSR’s Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN) developed “Multipsychometers” back in the 1980s.
At the time, the Soviet Defense Ministry’s 4th Central Scientific Research Institute was the one conducting research for the RVSN. It had an entire department dedicated to establishing acceptable conditions of service for people who were expected to work 24/7, 365 days a year in the event of a nuclear war.
A separate team of researchers was responsible for developing technical equipment for professional screenings. Among the people working on this issue for the RVSN, the Defense Ministry’s website lists E. G. Cherepanov, the creator of the “PFL-1 mobile psychophysiological laboratory”; S. E. Poddubny, author of the “original methods of social and psychological research, allowing for improving the psychological climate in units”; and K. V. Sugonyaev, the developer of the “multifunctional psychodiagnostic system ‘Multipsychometer–01’.”
Today, Sergey Poddubny heads the General and Social Psychology Department at MGIMO University. He is also the recipient of numerous FSB awards. In 2011, Podduby and Sugonyaev co-authored the “Guidelines for determining professional suitability for contract military service, federal government civil service and work” for the FSB’s Central Scientific Research Laboratory of Psychophysiology and Labor Psychology.
That same year, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov gave an order approving instructions for organizing psychological screenings in the intelligence service and put the FSB’s Psychophysiological and Labor Psychology Laboratory in charge of overseeing this work. From 1993 to 2015, this same FSB lab was headed by another researcher from the Soviet-era 4th Central Scientific Research Institute — Evgeny Cherepanov.
Meduza was able to get acquainted with articles and reports by Konstantin Sugonyaev, published in special collections. These documents reveal that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the “Signal” plant in Tambov was producing small batches of “Multipsychometers” and the very same personnel at the 4th Central Scientific Research Institute were developing methodologies based on publicly available software and psychological tests.
The military research institute continued this work throughout the 2000s. “To this day, these developments ensure prosperity…NPTs DIP [ the DIP Research and Production Center] shouldered the burden of registering the ownership, replication, and promotional rights of products developed at the MPO [the medical and psychological department of the 4th Central Scientific Research Institute],” Sugonyaev wrote at the end of 2016, in an article included in a collection of materials from a scientific conference held at the Academy of the General Staff.
What’s more, Konstantin Sugonyaev was closely linked to the DIP Center for several years, as evidenced by an arbitration court ruling on a claim for infringement on intellectual property rights. The document affirms that from 2006 to 2011, Sugonyaev headed the DIP Center’s research and development department, working as the director for scientific work. However, the court ruling also states that “due to unbearable working conditions he was forced to resign of his own accord in January 2011.”
Meduza contacted Konstantin Sugonyaev directly, who explained that he is still in cooperation with the Russian Defense Ministry and can’t give comments to the media.
A helping hand from the General Staff
Before it began collaborating with Sugonyaev the DIP Center didn’t have a particular specialty. The company started out supplying computers for educational institutions under the Russian Defense Ministry and the Russian Border Service, then moved on to supplying them with video conferencing equipment and software for departmental sanatoriums.
“Until 2004 inclusively, Burlakov and his firm did pretty much the same thing that many technically advanced 10th graders did at that time — they screwed together computers and sold them, and at the same time laid utility lines for their integration into some systems. You can’t earn much, the competition is huge. The only peculiarity was that Burlakov had licenses to work in ‘closed environments’,” a former DIP Center employee told Meduza.
According to Meduza’s source, the company only started selling its “systems for psychological testing” in 2005, when it began cooperating with Sugonyaev (who combined this with his work at the military’s 4th Central Scientific Research Institute). At this point, the Defense Ministry transferred production of the psychodiagnostic systems and all technical documentation to the DIP Center.
The former DIP Center employee believes that the company’s leadership could have received government contracts from the security agencies thanks to the help of the General Staff’s leadership. The very first letter of gratitude posted on the company’s website is from 2006 — it was sent by Colonel General Vasily Smirnov, who oversaw work with recruits and reservists from the mid-1990s until 2013.
In 2012, Vadim Shatalov, a former employee of the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate for Work with Personnel (GURLS) — the department that oversees the work of military psychologists, — became the DIP Center’s deputy director.
By that point, different versions of the “Multipsychometer” were among the main diagnostic tools used by Russia’s Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, FSB, and other law enforcement agencies for psychological screenings. With just five employees, the company Innovative Psychotechnologies (which, as previously mentioned, owns the patents and trademark used by the DIP Center) earned Burlakov more than 100 million rubles (about $1.36 million) in net profit over five years (from 2013 to 2018), according to the company’s reports in the Spark-Interfax database.
The company only showed a sharp decrease in revenue and a net loss at the end of 2019. It was during this period that the Russian Armed Forces undertook a reorganization of its personnel management bodies and Shatalov left the DIP Center (he now works for a branch of the Academy of the General Staff that oversees scientific research on psychological screening in the troops).
But by that time, Burlakov was no longer the owner of the DIP Center: in December 2018, he transferred his stake to a minor partner, company CEO Sergey Kuznetsov, while maintaining ownership of Innovative Psychotechnologies. As it turns out, his two homes in Moscow’s expensive Rublevka suburb are also for sale — realtors estimate the value of each property at half a million dollars (one is registered to the businessman himself, while the second is in his wife’s name).
At the same time, “Multipsychometer” developer and former DIP Center director for scientific work Konstantin Sugonayev has directed criticism at Russia’s established practices for conducting psychological testing on security officials.
“Situations where a psychologist is recruited for ‘coaching’ candidates in passing screening procedures have become commonplace (for example, [when] entering a military academy). Such a practice not only profanes professional psychological screening, but also destroys the validity of tests,” he wrote in a publication following a conference at RANEPA in 2016. “Today, we have to admit: screening measures as a process are being carried out in Russia’s law enforcement departments, but whether they achieve their goals is unknown at best.”
At the time this report was published, Russia’s Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, FSB, and FSO had yet to respond to Meduza’s questions about the the use and effectiveness of “Multipsychometers.”
Translation by Eilish Hart