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‘Our newsroom turned into a cult’ How a ‘liberal’ Telegram channel began peddling Kremlin disinformation to 1.6 million people
Story by Irina Pankratova (The Bell) with contributions by Svetlana Reiter. Translation by Sam Breazeale.
Since the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Telegram channels have become one of the Russian authorities’ most powerful tools for promoting their narratives of the war in Ukraine and spreading disinformation. Readovka, a channel that gets its instructions directly from a pro-Kremlin autonomous nonprofit organization (ANO) called Dialog, exemplifies the shift. After years of branding itself as a “liberal” outlet, Readovka abruptly morphed into a “patriotic” one after the start of the full-scale war, and its popularity skyrocketed. Meduza analyzed some of the “news” Readovka has published on the Kremlin’s orders — and dug into the story of how its founder tried (and failed) to branch into the military uniform supply business.
‘He always wanted to be in the center’
Readovka was first launched in Russia’s Smolensk region in 2011 as a “community” on the Russian social media network VKontakte. Its founder was Alexey Kostylev, a native of the area who, by his own account, was simultaneously running the news page, working in the construction sector, and writing poetry. Within a few years, he was devoting more attention to his media ambitions, and in 2014, Readovka became a full-fledged local news agency. In 2020, Kostylev started a separate division of the outlet in Moscow.
Before 2022, Readovka was never considered a pro-government outlet (though it was sometimes called a right-wing source for some of its coverage of ethnic conflicts in Central Asia). After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, it quickly rebranded as an “ultra-patriotic” channel, and its readership rapidly increased. While Readovka had just over 200,000 subscribers in January 2022, by the end of that March, the number had grown to nearly one million and counting. The channel currently has almost 1.7 million subscribers.
“In March , our newsroom literally turned into a cult,” one former Readovka employee told Meduza. “Editor-in-chief Alexey Kostylev started rounding up employees and lecturing us about how the world had changed with the start of the war, and how we needed to accept the new course of events, not ask questions, and trust the information he was giving us.”
According to this person, “Kostylev always wanted to be in the center; it didn’t matter what he was in the center of.” He achieved this, the source said, by networking at various events. That’s how he met two of his “patrons” — All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company host Andrey Medvedev and former Odesa City Council deputy Igor Dimitriev. Shortly before the start of the war, the source told Meduza, Dimitriev introduced Kostylev to several senior managers at the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service, while Medvedev put him in touch with Vladimir Tabak, the head of the Dialog autonomous nonprofit organization.
The Moscow authorities created Dialog in 2019 for the express purpose of facilitating better communication between themselves and city residents. Soon after, the Kremlin decided to expand the organization to the federal level and commissioned a service that would allow citizens throughout the country to voice concerns, RBC reported, in February 2020, citing a source close to the Kremlin. In fact, Dialog was creating Internet propaganda at the Kremlin’s request, publishing advertisements for things like Russia’s 2020 round of constitutional amendments and its 2022 mobilization campaign. Initially, the organization was led by Alexey Goreslavsky, who had previously served as the deputy director of the Putin administration’s public projects team and the Kremlin's former Internet policy curator. In 2021, Goreslavsky left to head up the Internet Development Institute, and was replaced at Dialog by Vladimir Tabak, who’s best known for creating an erotic calendar addressed to Vladimir Putin and available for public sale.
After meeting Tabak, Kostylev decided to start covering the news according to the “guidelines” developed for pro-Kremlin outlets by Dialog. Meduza has obtained messages from Dialog employee Darya Bogdanova, in which she sent Readovka a list of topics to be covered, as well as screenshots of Readovka employees’ work chats.
The news items mentioned in the messages:
- “Ovsyannikova — prepared by Western media to divert attention from explosion in Donetsk”;
- “Video on creation of nuclear bomb in Ukraine”;
- “White House asked popular TikTok bloggers to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for rising fuel prices in U.S., Fox Business reported”;
- “Working out unemployment — comment [from Russian Economic Minister Maxim] Reshetnikov”;
- “Resilience of the economy — comments from experts”;
- “Labor guarantees for workers at frozen businesses”
How ‘Readovka’ covered these topics:
- “Ovsyannikova — prepared by Western media to divert attention from explosion in Donetsk.” On March 14, 2022, twenty people were killed by a Russian missile strike in Donetsk. The Russian Defense Ministry declared that the missile was from Ukraine. That evening, Marina Ovsyannikova, an employee of the Russian state TV network Channel One held up an anti-war sign on a live broadcast. Pro-Kremlin outlets, including Readovka, repeated allegations that Ovsyannikova’s protest was “orchestrated by NATO.”
- “Video on creation of nuclear bomb in Ukraine.” On March 6, Russian pro-government media, citing an “informed source,” reported that a “nuclear weapon” was being “secretly developed” at an institute in Kharkiv. Pro-war Telegram channels like Readovka widely disseminated these claims, as well as reports that Ukraine was working to create a “biological weapon.”
- “White House asked popular TikTok bloggers to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for rising fuel prices in U.S., Fox Business reported.” The news that the Biden administration was working with popular TikTok users to spread the message that Putin was responsible for high gas prices in the U.S. was reported by multiple Russian government-controlled media outlets and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels. Readovka misleadingly characterized statements White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made to TikTokers as instructions or tasks rather than answers in a Q&A session.
- “Working out unemployment — comment [from Russian Economic Minister Maxim] Reshetnikov;” “Resilience of the economy — comments from experts;” and “Labor guarantees for workers at frozen businesses.” On March 16, Russian Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov took part in a meeting with Putin dedicated to economic support measures for Russia’s regions. After that, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels started regularly repeating Reshetnikov’s statements about the state of the Russian economy.
Kostylev gets into the uniform business
Alexey Kostylev’s collaboration with the Russian authorities didn’t stop with his decision to follow the Dialog’s “guidelines.” In the spring of 2022, at a Russian Defense Ministry meeting that included representatives of pro-war media outlets, the conversation turned to the shortage of winter uniforms for soldiers. Kostylev reportedly volunteered to supply a portion of the uniforms. His “starting task” was to send 1,000 winter uniforms to the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics,” according to a source who was involved in the wholesale purchase of Chinese goods and was familiar with Readovka’s plans at the time.
During that same period, “war correspondent” Mikhail Potepkin, who came under U.S. sanctions two years earlier for heading the Wagner Group front company Meroe Gold, began working for Readovka. According to a former Readovka employee who spoke to Meduza, Potepkin was still working with entities belonging to Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin and was tasked with keeping track of Kostylev’s procurement of winter coats.
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The person Kostylev charged with organizing the purchase of the uniforms in China and transporting them to Russia was Ilya Prints, the husband of Readovka senior editor Elizaveta Prints, two sources told Meduza. In their account, Elizaveta Prints is Kostylev’s “right hand” — after February 24, she headed up the outlet’s “rollout of foreign broadcasting,” which refers to its English-language version, Readovka World (which has 14,000 subscribers on Telegram), and the channel’s office in the Donbas.
Ilya Prints had not previously worked at Readovka, but he does have a sole proprietorship registered in the Smolensk region. In November 2022, Kostylev registered two LLCs: “Prints Corporation,” which specializes in wholesale clothing and footwear, and “Barkhat Tim,” which specializes in “non-clothing textile products.” He planned to use these companies to import ordinary winter coats from China and sew various Russian military units’ insignias on them, Meduza’s sources said. According to them, the contract promised to be lucrative: the Russian Defense Ministry had previously purchased sets of winter military uniforms at prices ranging from 15,000 to 100,000–200,000 rubles (a range from $194 to $2,588), depending on the fabric used.
But by the time Kostylev reached a deal with his Chinese supplier, China had blocked exports of khaki-colored winter coats to Russia in order to avoid violating Western sanctions, according to a source (Meduza was unable to independently verify this information). As a result, Kostylev’s plan failed, a source who works for a firm that supplies goods from China and who knows Ilya Prints personally told Meduza. A former Readovka employee confirmed that Kostylev, Elizaveta, and Ilya Prints did not fulfill the contract.
After their failure to supply the uniforms, according to two former Readovka employees, Kostylev “walked around white-faced,” while Potepkin was “enraged.” Potepkin resigned from the outlet and went on to work on other Defense Ministry contracts with different suppliers, while Readovka continued publishing the news stories ordered by Dialog.
Neither Kostylev nor Dialog head Vladimir Tabak responded to Meduza’s questions. Potepkin said that he worked at Readovka until mid-December, that his only role was as a columnist, and that he’s “not aware of any supplies of anything.” Evgeny Prigozhin’s press service responded to Meduza’s questions about the tycoon’s work with Readovka and the supply of military uniforms by saying, “This isn’t publicly important information, [and] you fall under the category of provocative and hostile media, so we don’t consider it appropriate to answer your request.”
After this report was originally published in Russian, Alexey Kostylev posted the following message on Telegram:
For some reason, we thought that these once-respected journalists would report on our development over the past year, if from a position of hostility. But to our surprise, the foreign agent outlet instead released this shameless bullshit that’s absolutely incoherent and illogical.
The following day, March 23, Readovka announced the launch of its own clothing brand, under which it plans to sell, among other things, winter coats.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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