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Hunting down the haters How Rostec, the Russian military’s industrial supplier, waged a PR war on Telegram

Source: Meduza

Story by Svetlana Reiter (Meduza) and Irina Pankratova (The Bell), with contributions from Lilia Yapparova

Since the start of the Ukraine invasion, Rostec, the state-held industrial corporation that produces Russia’s Armata and T-90 “Proryv” tanks, has been drawn into an unexpected new kind of warfare: namely, the war on anonymous Telegram channels that dare to criticize the industrial giant and its CEO, the former KGB agent and Putin’s friend Sergey Chemezov. The main beneficiary of this crusade, though, happens to be another figure. Here’s the unlikely story of the rise of Vasily Brovko, the PR manager who went from helping clients make a name for themselves to uncovering the real names of Telegram administrators who would rather stay anonymous.

Hear from the coauthor of this article, Svetlana Reiter

‘Leviathan’ redux

“A sequel to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan.’” This is how the media described a court hearing that took place in late December 2022 in Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court, whose subject was extending the pre-trial detention of three former admins of the society-gossip channel Tushite Svet (whose name translates as “Lights Out”). Arian Romanovsky (the former editor-in-chief of Tatler magazine’s Russian edition), society columnist Tamerlan Bigayev, and Ksenia Sobchak’s commercial director Kirill Sukhanov were all present via a video link, folding their fingers into hearts in front of the camera. All three had been in custody since October.

With 23,000 subscribers, Tushite Svet was conceived as part of a larger society-gossip publication, to be produced by the journalist Ksenia Sobchak. On December 22, the courtroom was packed with reporters and glossy magazine writers. The blogger and Moscow party-scene regular Alyova Vodonayeva sat there too, dressed in a hoody printed with a picture of Tamerlan Bigayev. In 2020, Vodonayeva herself came under police scrutiny for “inciting hatred” with posts that called Russia a “poor and greedy country” (she had criticized welfare policies that tried to boost the birth rate with motherhood subsidies known as “maternity capital”).

The charges against Romanovsky, Bigayev, and Sukhanov were far more serious. According to the prosecution, they had “extorted 11 million rubles” (roughly $145,000) from Sergey Chemezov, CEO of the state industrial corporation Rostec and a key member of President Putin’s inner circle.

Chemezov has been at the helm of the corporation since its inception in 2007. In fact, his leadership predates Rostec as we have known it since the rebranding of “Rostekhnologii,” the corporation’s fusty “maiden name.” What predates Chemezov’s directorship of Rostec is an old friendship with Putin, going all the way back to their Dresden days, when both of them worked for the Soviet secret service, though nominally Chemezov was there as a representative of Luch, a Soviet industrial concern.

Rostec is a state holding company with more than 800 entities under its umbrella, including brands like Avtovaz, KamAZ, Russian Helicopters, Uralvagonzavod (the maker of Russia’s Armata and T-90 “Proryv” tanks), and Kalashnikov. In 2020, Rostec claimed exports to more than 100 countries, which it supplied with machinery, military equipment, radio-electronics, and other products, the overall share of exports comprising a third of its revenue. Rostec’s annual consolidated revenue in 2021–2022 hovered just above two trillion rubles (more than $26 billion, by today’s exchange rate).

The case against the three admins of Tushite Svet, a Telegram channel with just over 20,000 subscribers, materialized shortly after the channel published a post about one particularly lavish birthday party, thrown at the home of Chemezov’s old friend and business partner Vitaly Mashchitsky. The “birthday boy” being feted was the coal magnate Andrey Bokarev. Chemezov himself was among the guests, reported the channel.

Although the connections among Chemezov, Mashchitsky, and Bokarev had long been an open secret, the post published on Tushite Svet caught the eye of Vasily Brovko, Rostec’s director for special projects. The executive immediately alerted Chemezov to a publication “that could cause significant harm” both to himself and to his inner circle. According to the case documents, Chemezov told Brovko to contact the people running the channel and get them to remove the post. Brovko then asked Andrey Baldukhayev, a member of Mashchitsky’s security staff, to do Chemezov’s bidding, and so it was Baldukhayev who contacted Arian Romanovsky and asked him to take down the post about Chemezov. Romanovsky redirected him to Sukhanov, and this is where things started to go awry.

According to Brovko’s testimony, Sukhanov wouldn’t agree to keep quiet about Chemezov unless he was promised 11 million rubles right over the phone. His exact pricing was one million for deleting the post about the birthday party, and ten million more for a one-year block on compromising materials related to Chemezov and his friends. After a brief negotiation, the price of removing the post fell to 800,000 rubles. On October 24, 2022, Sukhanov went to the downtown Moscow Regent restaurant to collect the money from Baldukhayev and was arrested on the spot by law enforcement. Within days, Sukhanov’s partners joined him in police custody, and Chemezov pressed extortion charges against all three.

Left to right: Kirill Sukhanov, Arian Romanovsky, and Tamerlan Bigayev during the court hearing, December 22, 2022.
Vitaly Smolnikov / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press

Tushite Svet wasn’t the first Telegram channel to be prosecuted on behalf of Rostec. Only a month before these arrests, a blogger named Anatoly Spirin was apprehended in Ulyanovsk on charges of extorting 150,000 rubles directly from Vasily Brovko, this time in exchange for deleting negative posts about Brovko himself and his wife, Gazprom-Media CEO Tina Kandelaki, a constant heroine of the Russian society chronicle. When similar extortion cases started to open serially in the summer of 2022, the common denominator in all instances was Vasily Brovko, a Rostec executive with a strangely nebulous job title: “director for special projects.”

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A man who knows what he wants

Vasily Brovko was born in 1987 in Zhukovsky, a suburb outside Moscow. He went to a local high school and was, for a while, an avid soccer player. His friends say that he’d always been assertive and ambitious. As a Moscow State University political science student in the early 2000s, Brovko cofounded an online publication that he and classmate Alexander Kabakov (now a notorious facial-recognition tech executive) dubbed The publisher and State Duma deputy Konstantin Rykov provided office space for the publication, which grew into a discussion club and soon began to attract speakers and contributors like the former Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh and media manager Alexey Volin (who now heads the state corporation Space Communication).

“Vasya was very communicative, very charming, and very persuasive. When he managed to contact a speaker, they would end up liking him,” recalls one of’s columnists. For Brovko’s fellow students, became a “quasi-political” networking hub that could make a real difference in a young person’s future chances. As for Brovko himself, he (in the words of the journalist Oleg Kashin) “always gave the impression of a man who knows what he wants.”

Vasily Brovko

Brovko’s charisma enabled him to connect easily with liberal politicians like Maria Gaidar (who later moved to Ukraine), writers like Dmitry Glukhovsky (who was later designated as a “foreign agent”), and members of the independent media like Oleg Kashin. Although Brovko himself had always been squarely pro-Kremlin, his appeal of a self-made man without a patron endeared him to many different kinds of people. In 2006, he joined the O2TV television channel as a political segment producer, launching a program called “Black and White,” co-hosted by Maria Gaidar and Oleg Kashin. According to Kashin, this “wasn’t an obvious career path” for either of them, “but Brovko somehow managed to talk both of us into doing it.”

The stint at O2TV put Brovko in touch with new media figures, like the authorized Putin biographer Andrey Kolesnikov, who launched the magazine Russian Pioneer in 2008. Brovko immediately offered him his PR services, organizing the Pioneer Reading Series, which came to be frequented by a whole swarm of Kolesnikov’s acquaintances, from senior state officials (like Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov) to high-profile bohemians like the writer Dmitry Bykov. In May 2008, Russian Pioneer organized a soccer video-game tournament, and Brovko resolved to invite Tina Kandelaki, whom he’d long wanted to meet.

“I called her personally, persuaded her, reminded her constantly about the event,” Brovko recalled later. “On the day of the event, we somehow got talking on the phone, and she said, ‘This doesn’t happen often, but I can tell by your voice that you’re not a weirdo.’” The same year, Brovko, Kolesnikov, and Kandelaki launched a YouTube collaboration called Unreal Politics, garnering suitably “unreal” numbers of views. Their most successful video (featuring the pop singer Natasha Koroleva) got 720,000 views in just a week.

Pop singer Natasha Koroleva on Unreal Politics, March 2009
Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Moscow

When the show premiered on the NTV television channel in 2010, its guest list shifted, abruptly, from music and showbiz stars to heavyweights like the film director Nikita Mikhalkov, entrepreneur and politician Mikhail Prokhorov, and the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. At the same time, NTV proved recalcitrant in refusing to air shows with opposition figures like Vera Kichanova. Kandelaki was first to leave the program, feeling stifled by the symbiosis with NTV. And there was soon friction between Brovko and Kolesnikov. A year after its NTV relaunch, the show fizzled out. What remained intact in the aftermath was the PR agency Apostol (which translates as “Apostle”), a company founded by Brovko in 2008 together with Kandelaki. Apostol had, in fact, been the backbone of both Unreal Politics and Pioneer Readings and relied heavily on Brovko’s business partner and future wife, Tina Kandelaki, who had invested her own considerable social capital into the agency.

An ‘apostle’ with a Lamborghini

A Russian media insider recalls how, some 10 years ago, he witnessed Brovko’s arrival for a business meeting. Emerging in the rain from a black limousine, Brovko was immediately flanked by two female assistants who opened a huge black umbrella over his head. Something similar, figuratively speaking, went on at the offices of Brovko’s PR firm. A former Apostol employee remembers Brovko being surrounded by gatekeepers. Any attempt to convey something directly to Brovko was met, as he describes it, with cries: “Oh no! Don’t you understand it’s Mr. Vasily Brovko?! Don’t go in there, just tell me what to tell him.” The speaker is nonplussed about all the pathos: “Vasily? He was just an ordinary Vasya. He didn’t invent the iPhone; he hadn’t built Google. But he was definitely a genius at riding over people’s ears.”

Brovko’s department heads treated him as a demigod, another former employee confirms. Meanwhile, Kandelaki entertained the staff with themed parties every week. One Victory Day, for example, she served the employees a dinner of buckwheat with spam, in the spirit of the Second World War. But the environment was hardly rosy for the staff. Many associate their days of working at Apostol with being broke. Four former rank-and-file staffers told Meduza and The Bell that their salaries often arrived several months late. “You couldn’t budget; you were constantly borrowing from friends. And when you got paid, you’d pay off your debts and have nothing left to live on. And Brovko, mind you, liked to have parties in the office’s backyard, with DJs, snacks, and booze, and everyone had to contribute.”

Brovko himself radiated unrelenting prosperity, entertaining employees by showing off his sports cars while they waited desperately for their paychecks. He was, for example, a proud owner of a Bentley Continental GT Speed. Once, a former employee recalls, “he showed up in a Lamborghini or something.” Brovko drove the car back and forth in front of the office “for half an hour straight,” until everyone had feasted their eyes.

Despite Brovko’s formal leadership, all the major contracts landed by Apostol were negotiated by Tina Kandelaki, who brought in major clients like the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Tatarstan government. “The one thing that Tina knows is how to negotiate,” says one of the couple’s longtime acquaintances. Brovko, he adds, “realized what she had envisioned.”

Vasily Brovko and Tina Kandelaki

“Lots of people first turned to her as a PR and media consultant,” said another source close to Kandelaki, “and if the client wanted even more, Tina would tap into her team,” which would bid for contracts and close deals. “They’re just like the couple from House of Cards,” says a former client from the Moscow municipal administration, referring to the American TV series. “They don’t like people, but they love to make money.” The agency’s pricing, he says, was unjustifiably high, “more than five times the market average.” Still, he says, there were some things that only Apostol could do:

For example, let’s suppose you’re inaugurating a rose garden or a fountain — and 30 influential bloggers instantly turn up for the event! Ten years ago, Tina and Vasya weren’t picky; they sang in every key. If you had an event, you’d get full coverage from all sides, the conformists and the liberals alike.

Some sources, including Ksenia Sobchak, have suggested that Apostol’s client list was not entirely explicit, and that the agency did some under-the-table work for Ramzan Kadyrov, to name one personality: according to Sobchak, Apostol made $200,000 a month, running Kadyrov’s Instagram account. (The agency itself has denied working with Kadyrov.)

Despite rolling in money, Apostol was a seriously unprofitable company. Its only good year was 2013, when the agency netted more than 30 million rubles in profit (about $930,000 in 2013 money), against 538 million rubles in revenue. The next year, with a higher ruble revenue (602 million), the profits fell to 4.8 million rubles. In 2015, the revenue went up again, to 707 million, while the profits plunged to 1.3 million rubles. Two years later, Apostol recorded a loss of 170 million rubles and declared bankruptcy.

The largest client secured by Apostol in its brief lifespan was Rostec State Corporation. Judging by the official state procurement data, Rostec’s contracts with Apostle totaled over 340 million rubles in the period of 2013–2015.

Apostol’s introduction to Rostec may have come from two Russian business figures close to the arms conglomerate: Sergey Adonyev (a political and media financier and one of Russia’s richest people, according to Forbes) and Vladimir Kekhman (a former banana importer and now the general director of the venerable Moscow-based theater company MKhAT). As for his ties to Adonyev and Kekhman, Brovko owed the relationship, like many others, to the immeasurably well-connected Tina Kandelaki. As one of the couple’s acquaintances described Brovko’s luck, “Vasya is a mediafucker.” “He likes high-profile women,” his friend mused, “and Tina brought him out into the world and introduced him to everybody.”

Vasily Brovko, Sergey Chemezov, Tina Kandelaki, and Ramzan Kadyrov

Thanks to Kandelaki, Brovko and Adonyev started discussing a collaboration. Adonyev then introduced Brovko to Kekhman, who knew that Sergey Chemezov just then needed a good PR person and recommended Brovko. A source close to Chemezov describes how Brovko captivated Rostec’s CEO: “He comes in with readymade presentations, all shine and sparkle, and spends two hours flashing numbers in PowerPoint. Executives like Chemezov love this kind of thing.”

By 2013, Brovko took the helm of Rostec’s communications department. But this only took place after he turned Rostekhnologii into Rostec proper, by conducting a major rebranding campaign subcontracted to the London-based Winter communications consultancy, founded by the Russian media manager Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper. Rostec’s new logo alone had cost the client around 100,000 British pounds. (Hazel Brands founder Hazel Macmillan, who had previously rebranded the British Airways, designed the logo.)

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, communications between Brovko and Oskolkov-Tsentsiper dried up. Brovko had long perplexed his acquaintances with his conservative, pro-Putin political attitude, which seemed to clash with his cutting-edge sense of the present moment. By then, however, Brovko was already ensconced at Rostec.

Special projects

After moving to Rostec, Brovko’s career trajectory could only be described as a vertical take-off. A year after joining the corporation as the new communications director, he was in charge of both PR and IT departments. Two years later, he authored a strategic development plan for the corporate giant. By 2016, he had become Rostec’s director for special projects: a post created especially for Brovko. (In a press release explaining the promotion, Chemezov said, nebulously, that Brovko’s new line of work “will shift from functional management to project management, in accordance with Rostec’s needs.”)

This steady rise even weathered a media scandal that hit Rostec a few months after Brovko’s arrival when Anti-Corruption Foundation founder Alexey Navalny publicized Apostol’s 64-million-ruble contract with Aeroflot. The story was picked up by Ksenia Sobchak (who keeps a close eye on both Brovko and Kandelaki), setting the media abuzz, and Brovko was eventually forced to respond directly to Navalny.

In defense of his PR agency, Brovko boasted that Apostol had built Aeroflot’s YouTube channel from scratch, publishing 52 videos that garnered 6.7 million views. In response, journalist and Navalny-associate Ruslan Leviev (who would later found the OSINT project Conflict Intelligence Team), accused Apostol of faking the YouTube views on Aeroflot’s channel with the aid of a “bot farm.” Brovko then got personal, calling Leviev a conspiracy theorist and Navalny a “bot president.” According to a former Apostol employee, however, “bot farms” really were part of the agency’s toolkit. They were staffed, the ex-employee recalls, by a couple dozen programmers working in a dedicated building.

When Telegram arrived on the Russian market, it promptly became the new frontier for competition and surveillance. Rostec-related Telegram content thus entered Brovko’s agenda since the very start of the messenger’s operations, says a longtime acquaintance of Chemezov’s. (The same source notes that Brovko’s access to Chemezov is so good that he can meet with him almost every other day if he wishes.) But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which Telegram channels now get their marching orders from Rostec. A simplier task is to identify the channels that often mention the state corporation.

One prominent channel that does this is Nezygar, the pioneer of political scoops and anonymous insider reveals. In 2019, for example, Nezygar broke the “story” that Chemezov was about to be appointed prime minister. The prediction did not come true. Then, in the fall of 2022, two things occurred simultaneously: Nezygar permanently ceased publishing anything critical about Rostec; and, for the first time in its existence, the channel’s description changed from “Telegram’s first political channel” to “Politics, economics, and sociology.”

A description change often signals a takeover by new administrators or managers.

Telegram and propaganda

‘Our newsroom turned into a cult’ How a ‘liberal’ Telegram channel began peddling Kremlin disinformation to 1.6 million people

Telegram and propaganda

‘Our newsroom turned into a cult’ How a ‘liberal’ Telegram channel began peddling Kremlin disinformation to 1.6 million people

In October 2022 (at the peak of Rostec’s crackdown on anonymous Telegram channels, with a flurry of extortion cases), Nezygar published a lengthy post about how Chemezov is “decidedly overtaking the Kovalchuk brothers in the media agenda.” “At the end of all the transformations, Rostec’s media conglomerate will be the largest in the country, minus the traditional state media and federal TV channels, whose ratings, and (what is especially germane) estimates of credibility have been declining for the sixth year in a row,” the post predicted.

Another major anonymous political channel that has lavished attention on Rostec in recent years is Karaulny. Corporate news fits oddly into the rest of Karaulny’s agenda, but since last fall it has regularly paid tribute to Rostec, with 26 posts in November–December 2022 and then 15 more in January 2023. The channel’s contact person used to be the blogger Oleg Volodin, whose own profile now identifies him as “ex-Karaulny.” Although some speculate that Karaulny might have been acquired by Brovko, this information could not be verified.

As this article was being written, a series of anonymous channels often quoted by Nezygar published a flurry of closely spaced posts, to the effect that Meduza was investigating the top Rostec executive Vasily Brovko. The first of these posts appeared on Obraz Budushchego (“Image of the Future,” a channel describing itself as “political insights,” with 158,000 subscribers), framing the investigation as a Sobchak-commissioned hatchet job:

The conflict between Rostec’s management and Ksenia Sobchak is moving into an acute phase: soon, a media campaign will start against special projects director Vasily Brovko. […] The campaign is set to begin with an investigation by Meduza journalist Svetlana Reiter. […] In search of dirt, and doing Sobchak’s bidding, Svetlana is calling everyone, including Brovko’s family. Reiter is trying to use third parties, keeping them in the dark about her real purpose.

The post appeared just one day after Svetlana Reiter had indeed interviewed several of Vasily Brovko’s acquaintances. Once the post went up, it was promptly reiterated by Brief (formerly “Brief Nezygar,” with over 360,000 subscribers), and then by another baker’s dozen of anonymous channels. The reason for this is simple: Telegram promotion algorithms are built on cross-citation indexing that factors in search-engine-optimization rankings. Channels frequently citing one another usually belong to a channel cluster managed in a centralized way to maximize SEO.

The first flight of the Russian Okhotnik drone
Russia’s Defense Ministry

Raising a hunter

Last August, a series of cookie-cutter news briefs in different Russian outlets announced that Russia might soon deploy heavy attack Okhotnik (“Hunter”) drones in Ukraine. The new model was supposedly being developed by the Sukhoi aircraft company, a subsidiary of Rostec. “Neither the Americans nor NATO, nor any other country, have anything like this machine,” said Rostec’s deputy director, Vladimir Artyakov, adding that the UAVs would go into mass production within a year or two.

Curiously, this wasn’t the first time Rostec was reaching for the name “Hunter.” In the fall of 2021, it had acquired (through its subsidiary Avtomatika) a technology developed by the St. Petersburg IT company T.Hunter. The artificial-intelligence app, dubbed “Okhotnik” (“Hunter”), had been patented in late 2021; the following year its developer won a license from the Federal Security Service to provide information to Russia’s security services. Avtomatika CEO Andrey Motorko described Okhotnik as an analytical platform for open-source cybercrime data that could be used by the government. The authors of this investigation learned, however, that Okhotnik can also de-anonymize the accounts that administer Telegram channels.

At least half of the top-100 Russian Telegram channels are run anonymously. Telegram creator Pavel Durov had initially positioned the messenger as an app designed with a dogged determination to protect user privacy. In the fall of 2022, though, State Duma Deputy Alexander Khinshtein said that anonymity on Telegram is a myth and that law enforcement can “de-anonymize all the kings of dirt.”

He might have been talking about the advent of tools like Okhotnik.

Judging by its technical description and the explanations given by an industry source, the application works by probing open-source data like social networks, blogs, forums, messengers, community boards, crypto blockchains, dark-net resources, and web-based automated government services. All of these can be connected to the platform as external modules, giving Okhotnik access to names, nicknames, email addresses, websites, phone numbers, domains, crypto-wallets, encryption keys, and so on. An industry insider suggests that the total number of sources accessible to Okhotnik is greater than 700. (The product’s website claims only that it’s more than 300.) Okhotnik can successfully identify Telegram account admins and owners, using a built-in neural-network method. Personal information is then refined based on the target’s phone number, geolocation data, and IP address.

Sources in the penetration market compare Okhotnik to the well-known Chimera Telegram bot, developed by a group of Russian hackers. The new platform, however, has official access to current law-enforcement data (as opposed to leaked data, whose contents are not always current and must be verified). An industry insider notes that Okhotnik is both legal and similar to intelligence products developed by Palantir in the U.S. and Paterva in South Africa.

Rostec and its partners, National Engineering Corporation and T.Hunter, are planning to start selling the new software to law-enforcement agencies by late 2023. According to a police insider, Okhotnik will become available to all of the Interior Ministry’s branches and departments and also to the “operative and technical subdivisions of the FSB.”

Facial recognition and the police state

Hard knocks Moscow police arrested few demonstrators at last week’s Navalny protests, but now they’re coming for activists and journalists using facial recognition data

Facial recognition and the police state

Hard knocks Moscow police arrested few demonstrators at last week’s Navalny protests, but now they’re coming for activists and journalists using facial recognition data

Jail one and terrorize the rest

“Chemezov isn’t bloodthirsty, but he is, shall we say, an old-fashioned man,” says one of the Rostec CEO’s acquaintances, explaining the corporation’s move to clamp down on compromising content spread through Telegram. As a business decision, jailing a few bloggers for extortion is a good deterrent for those who remain, he says. What isn’t exactly business as usual, though, is the fact that Rostec’s crackdown on negative PR involves active assistance from the FSB. A case in point is the arrest of 26-year-old Ulyanovsk-based blogger Anatoly Spirin, who was charged with extortion at Vasily Brovko’s behest in the fall of 2022.

Spirin maintained several anonymous Telegram channels, including Politburo 3.0 (with 3,200 subscribers as of mid-March this year), publishing critical posts about local politicians and business figures. The channel’s claim to fame, as stated in its description, was that it had sent Ulyanovsk Governor Sergey Morozov into early retirement.

Spirin’s posts only mentioned Rostec a few times. In February 2021, Politburo 3.0 claimed that “structures close to Rostec” were publishing paid Telegram posts to the tune of 400,000–500,000 rubles per publication (roughly $5,000–$7,000, depending on exchange rates). In the summer of 2022, Spirin criticized Chemezov directly, predicting his resignation and pointing out, along the way, that the West was imposing sanctions on both Brovko and Kandelaki. All in all, these and a couple of other posts would not have been enough to draw Rostec’s ire, if not for the presence of a former FSB operative also from the Samara region (neighboring with Ulyanovsk) in Rostec’s Telegram group: Pavel Seleznev, himself a past subject of a Telegram exposé on torture in the Samara FSB department. (The exposé ended with the highly suspicious “suicide” in 2019 of its alleged author, Togliatti-based journalist Mikhail Kurakin.)

According to informed sources, Seleznev’s current title at Rostec is “vice president for IT.” Since leaving the FSB, he has worked under Mikhail Dudin, who is now himself employed by the Kremlin (as confirmed by a source with access to Russian tax data). In March 2021, Dudin was involved in the high-profile hacker attack on Alexey Navalny’s website, where Russians were invited to register their commitment to street protests against Navalny’s imprisonment. At the time of the cyberattack, Dudin was a subordinate of Andrey Yarin, the head of the Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate. Yarin’s Kremlin deputy, Timur Prokopenko, is known as “the Kremlin’s Telegram supervisor” who interacts regularly with none other than Vasily Brovko.

Vasily Brovko and Vladimir Putin at the Innoprom exhibition, July 2017

The limits of control

In recent years, Rostec and Sergey Chemezov have been a real magnet for Telegram dirt. In August 2022 alone, the company and its CEO garnered more than 6,100 Telegram mentions, those posts, in turn, drawing some 3.2 million views, according to Tgstat data. Most of this content is unflattering. A query on Rostec and Chemezov for August 2022, for example, yields a list in which the first 30 posts are entirely negative, and there are only 20-odd relatively positive posts in the next 100. Some channels with a small number of subscribers (under 50,000) mentioned Rostec up to 50 times a month and in a purely negative key.

Some Telegram administrators who spoke with us speculated that negative publications were likely a ruse to get some hush money out of Rostec. Others suggested that adversarial publications had themselves been commissioned by Rostec’s competitors. One way or another, what’s evident is Rostec’s increased attention to Telegram content since the start of the Ukraine invasion and its determination to clean up Telegram coverage of the corporation and its leadership. “I don’t know whether Chemezov discusses this with his subordinates or the board of directors,” says one popular Telegram writer, “but he clearly doesn’t want to read nasty things about himself.” “In peacetime,” he adds, “you could have ignored all this, but now that ‘the homeland is in danger,’ even trifles like going to a birthday party have become problematic.” The expectation is, he goes on, that “Chemezov shouldn’t go to parties and should instead be sitting at the plant around the clock, watching the tanks being assembled.”

It’s a reflection of Rostec’s efforts to clean up Telegram publicity that more than 5,500 posts referring to the corporation and to Chemezov personally were deleted in 2022. (Some of them also criticized Brovko and Kandelaki.) Still, if Rostec were to get serious about suppressing negative publicity, it would have to wrestle with influential groups operating in a coordinated fashion, including these key players:

  • ANO Dialogue
  • Kristina Potupchik (possibly affiliated with ANO Dialog)
  • Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan
  • “War correspondents” (independent according to some sources, and RT-financed according to others)
  • Evgeny Prigozhin and RIA FAN
  • Ksenia Sobchak
  • Ramzan Kadyrov

Ekaterina Fyodorova, the author of the popular channel Good Morning Carl (75,000 subscribers), tells Meduza: “The authorities are acting on the principle ‘destroy or take over.’” Symptomatically for Russia, this observation refers not only to law enforcement but also to the state’s obscure, oligarchic corporate powers.

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Sobchak apologizes

Two days after Arian Romanovsky’s arrest, police searched Ksenia Sobchak’s Moscow apartment. Sobchak herself had left Russia, and it was her husband, theater director Konstantin Bogomolov, who met the operatives at the door. A source close to Sobchak explains that a source in the police had alerted her that there was an arrest warrant issued in her name. Because there’s often a delay before road border checkpoints receive bulletins about persons banned from traveling abroad, the insider source told Sobchak to flee through Belarus.

Less than two weeks later, she was back in Moscow and intent on meeting with Chemezov, says one of her acquaintances, explaining that Sobchak was eager to get her former colleagues from Tushite Svet out of trouble. According to another source, however, she wanted to meet Chemezov precisely to distance herself from the channel and the criminal case against her entourage. One way or another, getting a meeting proved to be very difficult. Chemezov eventually promised to help but only in exchange for a written apology from Sobchak herself.

An apology duly appeared, though, once again, some sources claim it was drafted at Rostec’s PR office, while others insist that Sobchak herself volunteered the apology, which included the following repentance:

There’s no political context here. I know that all the guys regret sincerely what has happened. […] I sincerely regret that the actions of my colleagues have harmed Sergey Chemezov, and I offer him my apologies.

Nevertheless, Romanovsky, Bigayev, and Sukhanov remain in custody. According to one of Sobchak’s acquaintances, she failed to arrange a follow-up meeting with Chemezov.

Rostec’s position on the prosecution of Telegram admins is this: the case sets a “legal precedent for countering high-tech blackmail and fraud,” in the words of a source close to the senior management. Russia’s Telegram media market will never be the same, he says; its level of responsibility will have to be closer to the professional expectations leveled at the members of the accredited press.

Patterns in court

Alexander Gusov, the owner of the Telegram channel Novy Vek (“The New Century,” with 82,000 subscribers) was arrested in February 2023. The formal charge in the case was, once again, extortion. According to a law enforcement source who spoke to the news agency TASS, the prosecution considers Gusev to be the founder of another popular Telegram outlet, VChK-OGPU (576,000 subscribers). Three years ago, Gusev’s premises had been searched by the FSB, which had linked the PR executive to yet another channel with a name that means “The Cello Case” in Russian.

Only at an appellate hearing on February 27 did the court reveal the name of Gusov’s alleged victim, who turned out to be Chemezov’s longtime acquaintance and Rostec business partner, the coal magnate Albert Avdolyan. As a cofounder of a company called Yota, Avdolyan is also connected to Sergey Adonyev, one of the people who, thanks to Tina Kandelaki’s resourcefulness, propelled the career of her husband Vasily Brovko. Avdolyan was now accusing Gusov of extorting 12 million rubles (about $155,000) in hush money. The transfers were mediated by Avdolyan’s proxy, Alexey Shcheglov, and it is his biography that’s worth a closer look.

Shcheglov has served in the FSB and worked in the Kremlin (where he supervised an analytical department within the so-called “FGUP GlavNIVTs,” a high-tech surveillance center subordinated directly to the Presidential Administration). Shcheglov has also been employed by one of Rostec’s partner companies. One prominent Telegram writer associates him with the FSB’s counterterrorism and constitutional defense service. Although Meduza and The Bell could not confirm this fact, records show that Shcheglov’s contacts have logged his phone number under the name “Sheglov Fsb Aleksej.” No later than 2019, Shcheglov moved to Norsi-Trans, a corporation that shortly afterwards joined Rostec in a new business niche: delivering the hardware necessary to mediate state access to Russians’ cell phone data and messages, under an FSB warrant.

What does this mean? According to a Telegram marketing insider, there’s only one meaning: game over.

The police state goes digital

A ‘Wild Boar’ trained by Yandex A massive data leak reveals the ascent of artificial intelligence in Internet surveillance and suppressing protest in Russia

The police state goes digital

A ‘Wild Boar’ trained by Yandex A massive data leak reveals the ascent of artificial intelligence in Internet surveillance and suppressing protest in Russia

Investigation by Svetlana Reiter (Meduza) and Irina Pankratova (The Bell), with contributions from Lilia Yapparova

Adapted for Meduza in English by Anna Razumnaya

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