The Enemies List How the authorities divide the labor of crushing Russia’s free press
The nature of political violence in Russia changed in the summer of 2021. What was once a disparate collection of draconian laws and legislative amendments (four categories of “foreign agent,” a registry for “undesirable” organizations, and a growing list of “extremists”) has now coalesced into a single campaign. Having destroyed the anti-Kremlin opposition, the Russian authorities have turned their attention to the free press. Since April, officials have designated seven newsrooms and 20 individual journalists as “foreign agents,” and banned an entire outlet as “undesirable.” The federal censor has blocked a handful of news websites, forcing several publications to close down permanently. The independent media outlets yet to receive any special status from the Russian government nevertheless operate in constant fear of police raids and lawsuits. The agencies responsible for this attack on Russia’s free press have worked so swiftly that the public still knows alarmingly little about how this repressive system operates. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova investigated the apparatus that’s been turned against Russia’s independent journalists and uncovered how collaboration between a group of “civic informants,” the state media outlet RT, and Russia’s national security bloc fuels this summer’s crackdown.
The investigative team
In September 2018, Russia Today published a story, titled “How to Become a Foreign Agent: RT Is the First to Uncover Meduza’s Foreign Funding.” The report marked the launch of a new investigative division. Analyzing public records for the Latvian company “Medusa Project,” RT’s journalists found “partners of George Soros” among the publication’s donors. Two years later, Russia Today released another report about Meduza winning a state contract in Latvia for domestic advertising about tourism.
RT’s investigative division has devoted significant resources to digging through financial disclosures to find traces of foreign grants awarded to VTimes, iStories, Radio Svoboda, Proekt, and Meduza (all of these publications were later designated as “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations”). Russia Today has also closely covered alleged foreign money allocated to political projects run by Alexey Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In their reports to federal agencies that have prompted “foreign agent” and “undesirable organization” designations for multiple groups and individuals, “patriotic” activists Alexander Ionov and Vitaly Borodin cited RT’s articles, quoting whole paragraphs verbatim and recycling the same scanned documents. Borodin told Meduza that Russia Today’s reporting “inspires” him, while Ionov says he’s had several private meetings with Evgeny Shipilov, the head of the network’s Russian-language broadcasting department. (A source familiar with RT says Shipilov oversees the investigative team as a subdivision.)
In recent months, as the campaign against the free press accelerated, Russia Today increasingly featured comments from Ionov and Borodin about foreign money flowing to different media outlets, journalists, and nonprofit groups — even when the claims were unverified. (In July 2021, for example, Ionov told the TV network that iStories received donations from the Stockholm School of Economics, but he could not provide corroborating documents.)
But RT’s investigative reports are typically based on admittedly thorough research. The division’s direct supervisor is Alexander Raskin, a crime reporter and former journalist at the tabloid Life.ru. Sources close to the investigative division say the team comprises young, apolitical economists and experts often with experience in Aram Gabrelyanov’s media empire. RT’s investigative team has tackled the Rothschild Trust Corporation’s internal records, sought traces of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s projects in Estonian and British legal registries, and looked for funding links between Alexey Navalny and the “Doctors’ Alliance” civic group.
When drawing connections between the facts, however, Russia Today’s investigative journalists often embrace peculiar interpretations of events. For example, when reporting on the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic, RT’s investigative team focused on contacts between Pyotr Verzilov (one of the victim’s friends) and various American human rights activists and lobbyists, ignoring the phone records of Evgeny Prigozhin’s subordinates who actually tailed the three journalists in Africa. “Someone collaborating directly with the Pentagon financed Verzilov and his projects,” reads Russia Today’s bizarre conclusion.
A source familiar with RT says editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan coordinates the network’s coverage of the independent media’s foreign funding. She is reportedly responsible for deciding which newsrooms, organizations, and individuals RT considers “disloyal,” and she selects the investigative division’s specific targets. Roughly nine months into 2021, almost every entry on her list is now banned or blacklisted by the federal government. Two sources close to RT say this “Enemies Rolodex” was Simonyan’s personal initiative.
According to three different sources, Russia Today often hires freelancers for investigative work. Meduza’s sources say the television network sometimes draws on reporters at the news outlet Baza, but Baza editor-in-chief Nikita Mogutin categorically denies such collaboration. He says RT approached him and Baza co-founder Anatoly Suleimanov about working together in 2019, but it soon became clear to him that the network ultimately seeks reporting “that suits its interests” (though RT editors were apparently prepared to buy “a couple of decent texts” before getting what they really wanted). Coincidentally, Baza may have been one of the first media outlets targeted in Vitaly Borodin’s complaints to the authorities. In the summer of 2019, after Baza published a story about Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin’s mansion under construction outside Moscow, Borodin allegedly reported it to the FSB (though he denies filing a complaint against Baza). “He wanted to get in good with Sechin,” a source told Meduza, guessing at Borodin’s motivation.
Alexander Raskin, whose resume includes stints at Kommersant, Expert.ru, Russian Newsweek, and Life.ru, told Meduza that he works for a humanitarian project at Russia Today called “Helping the Donbas.” He says he wasn’t even aware that the TV network has an investigative division, though he is identified on the Federal Investigative Committee’s website as “the director of RT’s investigative division” in a press statement about the winners of a competition “for the formation of objective public opinion.” (Raskin says he was involved in a joint project between Russia Today and the Investigative Committee to investigate war crimes.)
RT’s investigative reports usually feature no bylines and the authors’ anonymity is carefully guarded even within the newsroom. Two writers openly credited with contributions are Dmitry Bulgaru (likely a graduate student at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy studying U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East) and Kit Klarenberg (a leftist activist in Britain who co-founded “Occupy Faith UK”).
Most RT investigative correspondents are so eager to remain unnamed that they avoid social media entirely. Even when contacting sources for stories, Russia Today journalists use untraceable phone lines. For example, the caller identification app GetContact linked the phone numbers used by RT journalists who telephoned human rights lawyer Evgeny Smirnov and one of Meduza’s own correspondents to different names with no significant online presence. The names do not appear in Russia Today’s 2019–2020 leaked payroll records, either.
Two sources familiar with RT’s investigative division say the team includes Mitya Leontyev, the only son of Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontyev. Until 2018, Leontyev Jr. worked at the tabloid Life.ru, reporting on many of the same subjects that Russia Today now covers closely. Taras Podrez also came to RT from Life.ru, though he told Meduza that he hasn’t been a full-time employee at Russia Today since the start of the pandemic, having shifted most of his work to the website Octagon.media, which also runs stories about “foreign agent” and “undesirable organization” media outlets and human rights groups.
In January 2021, Octagon reported the details of Proekt editor-in-chief Roman Badanin’s receipt of an American visa. The story’s author demonstrated fluency in open-source state registries, namely those of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency and electronic public court records. A month later, Russia Today published an anonymous investigation citing the same information.
RT’s investigative reports don’t rely exclusively on information scrubbed from public databases. The network has also used private information, like in a February 2021 article about Badanin’s foreign funding that featured RT-watermarked scans of Proekt’s grant records that may have been stolen by hackers in a phishing attack against the encrypted email service Protonmail. Badanin says the documents in question were hacked in the summer of 2019. “In other words, they held onto them for a whole two years [before publishing anything],” Proekt’s founder told Meduza.
The cyberattack against Protonmail in 2019 targeted investigative journalists at Bellingcat and The Insider who were probing Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Some of the data stolen from Roman Dobrokhotov, The Insider’s editor-in-chief, later appeared on three different “GRU shit-sites,” says Dobrokhotov, and two of these websites were registered to a Ukrainian journalist with reported ties to stolen-data trafficking. RT journalists have access to such sensitive materials “only through Simonyan,” says a source with knowledge of the network’s investigative division. Another three sources confirmed to Meduza that Russia Today’s employees collaborate constantly with the FSB’s Operational Information Department.
Yet Simonyan’s crew does not depend exclusively on Russia’s intelligence community for materials about the inner workings of nonprofit organizations and the free press. RT also turns to the black market where it competes with other buyers for leaked and stolen data, sources told Meduza. In the summer of 2019, for example, Russia Today reportedly spent $10,000 on a story about Bitcoin donations to Alexey Navalny’s movement. Alexander Larenkov, a former projects coordinator at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, sold the information and helped prepare the article, according to a rival negotiator for Evgeny Prigozhin’s news apparatus who lost the exclusive to RT. “For $10,000! I was mad as hell then because the story was worth a ton and he practically gave it away for free,” recalls Meduza’s source.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief strategist, denies any foul play in the movement’s use of Bitcoin and declined to comment on Larenkov’s alleged collaboration with Russia Today.
Highly motivated and well connected
Alexander Ionov, the activist whose complaint kickstarted the Justice Ministry’s decision to designate Meduza and iStories as “foreign agents,” believes that all Russian independent news outlets subsist on Western funding. “There’s practically no independent journalism. It’s like a chessboard: two grandmasters play and move their pieces,” he told Meduza. To prove this, he pays two lawyers to hunt down foreign grants awarded to different media outlets. The research he submitted to authorities about Meduza, for example, cost him more than 100,000 rubles (about $1,350). This is easy money for Ionov, whose office supply company’s turnover amounted to about 70 million rubles ($942,335) in 2020, according to public business databases.
Ionov is also involved in the creation of a “community group” devoted to countering supposed foreign agents. He claims the initiative as his own, but two sources say the idea belongs to the Putin administration, to which Ionov reportedly maintains close ties. Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the human rights project Gulagu.net (No to the Gulag), told Meduza that Ionov worked with Russia’s Foreign Ministry before he was invited to assist with the Kremlin’s domestic projects. Ionov denies any special ties to the president’s office, but he’s collaborated on multiple occasions with “Officers of Russia” veterans' group founder Anton Tsvetkov, another activist in the fight against “foreign agents.” For example, Ionov’s complaint against Bard College in New York, which led to the school being designated as an “undesirable organization,” was filed through Tsvetkov’s “Coordination Council of Non-Commercial Organizations of the Russian Federation.”
Tsvetkov’s alleged work with the authorities also includes his chairmanship of a public commission in Moscow that monitors prisoners’ rights. After taking over in 2013, he began purging the independent members and replacing them with Kremlin loyalists. “Reformatting the commission was probably the first task they gave him,” says journalist Zoya Svetova, who served on the commission from 2008 to 2016. “Who gave him this assignment? I suspect it was the presidential administration.”
Officials started drafting nationwide reforms to public monitoring commissions as early as 2012, when the Kremlin instructed Vladislav Grib, the first deputy secretary of Russia’s Civic Chamber, to take control of how the commissions are actually formed. Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin says he attended a closed meeting held at Grib’s office in 2013 and personally witnessed how Grib, Anton Tsvetkov, and representatives from the Putin administration drew up lists of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission’s future members.
Speaking to Meduza, Tsvetkov denied that the Kremlin has directed the Civic Chamber’s selection process for monitoring commissions. Spokespeople for the Putin administration did not respond to Meduza’s questions.
Masters of self-promotion
When Vitaly Borodin first spoke to Meduza, he said he served as a criminal investigator outside Lipetsk for three years, but an acquaintance and a former officer at the local FSB branch say he spent only a year on the police force. Borodin has built a career on such antics and exaggerations, aggressively networking and promoting himself. Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin first met Borodin at an anti-corruption conference in 2015. He looked like hired muscle squeezed into a business suit, says Osechkin, but Vitaly Borodin has since reinvented himself as an influential social activist. Earlier this year, he filed the complaint that led federal officials to outlaw the investigative news outlet Proekt as an “undesirable” organization.
Borodin shows up regularly at Kremlin banquets and attends almost every church service conducted by Moscow Patriarch Kirill. At these events, an assistant shadows Borodin constantly, filming his every handshake. On social media, he meticulously catalogs these interactions. His Instagram page features footage of his wife arm-wrestling Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, as well as photos galore showing him together with important figures like Crimean Republic head Sergey Aksyonov, United Russia parliamentary leader Sergey Neverov, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, and United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak. When sharing these images, Borodin adds self-important captions like “Here I am with general such and such. We discussed important issues. We’re looking for solutions.”
This footage “opens doors” for Borodin, an acquaintance told Meduza. Other sources confirm this information. Having registered his “Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Project” (FPBK) in Mytishchi outside Moscow, Borodin gained access as a public figure to offices at various government levels. A former FPBK employee told Meduza that Borodin ingratiated himself with “Just Russia” parliamentary deputy head Mikhail Emelyanov so well that he was even able to use Emelyanov’s secure office phone line to call regional officials and “recommend” his own anti-corruption organization for local collaborations.
Emelyanov told Meduza that his office invited Borodin to a single roundtable discussion about economic policy and never allowed him to use his secure phone line.
But Borodin’s influence escapades haven’t always paid off. For example, when he tried to reach President Putin directly at United Russia’s party convention in December 2017, the Federal Protective Service (FSO) stopped him, three acquaintances told Meduza. The altercation led to some shoving and ended with Borodin spending a few days in jail. He denies that this ever happened, but Meduza obtained copies of the official records that document his administrative arrest for disobeying a lawful order from a member of law enforcement.
The incident cost Borodin his pass to enter the State Duma building, but he lobbied his way back inside within just a few months. To manage this feat, he reportedly turned to Umar Kremlev, a sports official with close ties to FSO deputy director Alexey Rubezhnoi. During the Russian Boxing Federation’s national conference in 2017, FSO officers surrounded the Russian Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Moscow and physically barred regional representatives from participating in a vote on the federation’s next leader. As a result, FSO deputy director Alexey Rubezhnoi was unanimously elected the chairman of the group’s Supreme Supervisory Board. Rubezhnoi promptly appointed Kremlev as general secretary.
To establish connections with the presidential administration, Umar Kremlev also promoted himself as an elite jeweler, telling people that his company supplied the gold and gems found on the necks and extremities of top officials and their wives. At a sporting exhibition in October 2019, Kremlev presented Vladimir Putin with a diamond-encrusted boxing glove. “What a beauty!” the president exclaimed, before handing back the extravagant gift and moving on.
Having repaired his relationship with the FSO, Vitaly Borodin has even started providing the agency with sociological research services in Russia’s more remote regions. The Federal Protective Service has to produce reports about opinion trends nationwide, but it has just seven analytical centers across the country, Meduza learned from an FSB veteran, a source close to Russia’s intelligence community, and a third source with years of experience as a political consultant. Shorthanded, the agency is forced to turn to people like Borodin and his FPBK, says one of Borodin’s acquaintances.
All three of Meduza’s expert sources stressed, however, that Borodin’s collaboration with the FSO does not amount to real influence. He helps collect certain data for analysis, “and then some poor officer has to compile it,” says a source close to the FSO. “The quality [of the analysis] will be awful but nobody gives a shit.”
Borodin told Meduza that he is not involved in the FSO’s sociological research, but he says the Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Project is active in various regions, “accumulating information and complaints” about foreign agents and other supposedly hostile groups.
Foot soldiers for the cause
The activists filing complaints about independent news outlets’ foreign funding may have material incentives of their own, says sociologist Konstantin Gaaze. Another two sources familiar with the state’s campaign against the free press told Meduza that the authorities “pay more” to the figures who manage to attract media attention. The reports submitted by figures like Borodin, Ionov, and Tsvetkov are not what drive Russia’s media crackdown, however. According to the sources and experts who spoke to Meduza, the Federal Protective Service and the presidential administration appear to be working through such “activists.”
This is something new. In the past, federal agencies launched inquiries without revealing the names of the people who complained to the police. Now the authorities are making celebrities of the “patriots” who file these reports.
At the same time, some have joined the campaign without the state’s prior approval or any plans to earn bonuses. For example, two groups closely associated with the oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin — the National Values Protection Foundation (FZNTs) and the Federal News Agency (FAN) — have advocated major expansions of Russia’s “foreign agents” and “undesirable organization” lists, pushing for the inclusion of Mediazona, OVD-Info, and Bellingcat. Five different sources (including employees and an individual close to the Kremlin’s domestic policy team) attributed this initiative directly to Prigozhin, who reportedly hopes to use Russia’s campaign against “foreign agents” to promote his own groups.
For instance, it’s apparently Prigozhin’s ambition to transform the National Values Protection Foundation into his main “human rights” project. The organization is designed to function as a legitimate cover for Prigozhin’s experts working abroad. He reportedly wants to make it a kind of “Russian Orthodox Amnesty International” in the West, three sources told Meduza. “It would act as an expert community that weighs in on human rights issues in all the asshole corners of the world,” says a political strategist who’s worked with Prigozhin.
But the officials orchestrating Russia’s campaign against “foreign agents” have not invited Prigozhin’s team to join in. The oligarch’s people do not attend the regular meetings with Alexander Kharichev, who manages the Kremlin’s State Council logistics, a source close to the president’s domestic policy team told Meduza. “I haven’t even seen them in the hallways,” says the source.
The activists working in unison against foreign funding in Russia’s free press deny that they coordinate their efforts, but almost all of them have collaborated privately before: Borodin and Ionov together prepared humanitarian aid shipments to Syria; Prigozhin financed Ionov’s projects; and Tsvetkov provided a platform for Ionov’s work, as well.
Roles for the Justice Ministry and the Federal Security Service
The federal government’s face in the fight against foreign influence is the Justice Ministry, which created a special working group to add news outlets and nonprofit organizations to its foreign-agent registry, two sources told Meduza. The group’s main task is the continuous processing of complaints about organizations’ foreign financing submitted to the Justice Ministry by the likes of Alexander Ionov and Vitaly Borodin.
Shortcomings in Russia’s legislation on foreign agents, however, can make this work enormously difficult, forcing officials to interpret lawmakers’ intent regarding foreign funding thresholds and the nature of “political activity.” Operating in perpetual “crisis mode,” many officials at the Justice Ministry have slipped into “administrative despair,” says a source close to the agency. Even Deputy Justice Minister Oleg Sviridenko, who manages the registry of NGO “foreign agents,” has reportedly voiced criticisms.
But no one discusses the repressive nature of the law itself: Over the past two years, the ministry has been purged of all doubters, says Natalia Edvokimova, a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. “People ready to thin out the field showed up,” agrees Svetlana Makovetskaya, a human rights activist who attends meetings at the Justice Ministry.
Meduza learned that the signals indicating which organizations should be designated next as “foreign agents” can reach the Justice Ministry from different places. For example, the Federal Protective Service’s Special Communications Bureau has tried to use Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation to dispatch competitors in the sociological research industry. Before it landed on the Justice Ministry’s registry earlier this summer, the “Social Science Lab” educational project received a “suggestion” from state attorneys encouraging the organization to “self-dissolve.”
In another example, the Justice Ministry also added the First Anti-Corruption Mass Media Group (PASMI) to its “foreignt agents” registry, based solely on data provided by the Federal Financial Monitoring Service. Meduza’s sources say the “law enforcement bloc” within Russia’s executive branch that oversees domestic politics (headed by Andrey Yarin, who reportedly has close ties to the FSB) could be connected to the current campaign against “foreign agents.”
The main group facilitating the campaign against Russia’s free press is the Federal Security Service (FSB). Intelligence collected by the agency prompted an audit of the Perm-based media group Chetverty Sektor (which was labeled a “foreign agent” on August 21), and activists associated with the FSB also filed complaints against the Dozhd television network, which was later added to the Justice Ministry’s registry. A source familiar with the situation says the orders to designate Proekt as an “undesirable” organization also came from “the intelligence community.”
Whatever the contents of the materials against Proekt, Russian security services expert Andrei Soldatov is confident that they must have come from the FSB’s counter-terrorism and national defense Second Service, which General Alexey Sedov has led for the past 15 years. This department, confirm Soldatov’s sources in the intelligence community, writes most of the reports that provide the Attorney General’s Office and Justice Ministry with the necessary arguments for blacklisting different organizations and media outlets.
Enter Russia’s National Security Council
But the FSB is not empowered to choose which organizations are added to the federal registries. According to Konstantin Gaaze, who studies Russia’s political elites, the bureaucratic process of designating anyone as a “foreign agent” or “undesirable organization” should be slow and arduous in theory, but the authorities have moved swiftly against the free press, suggesting that the National Security Council itself is orchestrating these decisions, says Gaaze.
Meduza’s designation as a “foreign agent” is a case in point. Alexander Ionov filed his complaint on April 20, 2021. The very next day, Roskomnadzor deputy director Vadim Subbotin forwarded the report to the Justice Ministry’s Department for Nonprofit Organizations. Within another 24 hours, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service supplied the Justice Ministry with information that “the organization in question receives foreign funding, including indirectly.” On April 22, First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov told the Justice Ministry, “Based on the information received from Roskomnadzor and the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, we agree with the inclusion of information about this legal entity on the corresponding registry.” On April 23, Deputy Justice Minister Oleg Sviridenko issued orders to include “SIA Medusa Project” on Russia’s registry of foreign mass media outlets “performing the functions of a ‘foreign agent.’”
The FSB “doesn’t have the ability to set targets,” says Soldatov. This role belongs to Russia’s Security Council, where members draw up lists of future “foreign agents” and “undesirables,” according to Soldatov and three more people familiar with the council’s meetings and records. A source close to the presidential administration told Meduza that the lists of “foreign agent” media outlets are discussed at weekly sessions of the Sovbez and prepared by the council’s apparat (an independent administrative subdivision of the presidential administration).
In April, Vladimir Putin reportedly discussed a complete “blockade” of the foreign news media with the National Security Council’s permanent members. The council’s position and even its detailed instructions are distributed to the federal ministries and to senior state officials, says a government source familiar with such orders.
According to another insider source, the Sovbez formalized the “fight against foreign influence” at an expanded meeting back in July 2015 (though it’s unclear how that decision is connected to the authorities’ campaign against the independent media today). What’s changed in the past six years? Konstantin Gaaze points out that the Sovbez’s decisions now carry “constitutional, binding force,” thanks to the results of the 2020 plebiscite.
Andrei Soldatov says the Security Council’s more aggressive approach could be connected to the president’s increasingly “personal baseline.” “In 2015 [after Crimea], Putin decided to ditch all these postmodernist games and fall back on the Soviet model, which assumed an enormous role for the Central Committee [of the Soviet Communist Party]. Under the Central Committee, even the intelligence community played a purely supporting role,” Soldatov explained.
Gaaze, meanwhile, believes the failed revolution in Belarus may have prompted the Kremlin to adopt a firmer grip at home and “change the nature of political violence in Russia.” “Even after Crimea and even after MH17,” he told Meduza, “they at least glanced back at international law. But now they’ve seen the events in Belarus, and they’re untethered. ‘[Standing trial at] The Hague doesn’t scare us anymore! We are not afraid,’ they’re saying now.”