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‘The future is gloomy, but’ Russian business leaders and government officials discuss recently leaked telephone calls where elites criticized Putin
Over the past several months, Ukrainian and Russian independent media outlets have published multiple audio recordings that are purportedly private phone conversations in which elite members of Russian politics, business, and society harshly criticize President Vladimir Putin, his policies, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. In March, the Ukrainian media released a recorded conversation that allegedly took place between Russian music producer Iosif Prigozhin (no relation to the Wagner Group founder and catering tycoon Evgeny Prigozhin) and billionaire and former politician Farkhad Akhmedov, in which the men call Putin and his cronies “criminals” and say, “They fucked us and our children and their future.” Iosif Prigozhin dismissed the recording as a fake soon after it appeared. In April, another recorded telephone conversation appeared on YouTube, this time allegedly between Russian billionaire Roman Trotsenko and the businessman Nikolai Matushevsky. The investigative news outlet iStories published a synopsis of the alleged Trotskenko–Matushevsky call and collected the reactions of several Russian business and thought leaders (who remained anonymous in the original piece). Meduza is sharing an abridged English-language version of the report.
On April 17, 2023, a video appeared on YouTube purportedly containing an audio recording of a telephone conversation between Russian oligarch Roman Trotsenko and his friend, businessman Nikolai Matushevsky. During the call, the two men criticized Vladimir Putin, saying that Russia had “fallen into some asshole’s clutches.” They added that waiting for any good outcome in the near term isn’t worth it.
Though recording was published on April 17, the conversation itself likely took place months earlier, on January 10. Journalists with the investigative project Sistema wrote about the recording after receiving an emailed hyperlink. In order to prove the conversation’s authenticity, the sender included Trotsenko’s real phone number.
Matushevsky told Sistema that the conversation never happened, and Trotsenko said that he hasn’t been in touch with Matushevsky in a year and a half.
While these leaks may have given some Russia-watchers in the West a laugh, if genuine, they’re also an important tool for gauging the mood of people close to the Russian authorities. Reporters at iStories spoke with managers at multiple large Russian companies and to one former high-ranking security official to learn about how Russian elites view the Putin regime and the war on Ukraine.
Entrepreneur and former member of the Forbes list:
Technically, of course, it’s hard to establish whether [the recording] is a fake or not. But judging by a few details of the conversation, I think it isn’t a fake. All rich people are currently unhappy, no matter what they say outwardly, no matter how much they present themselves as supporters of the party line, they’re all flipping the bird in their pocket.
Trotsenko’s feelings are understandable. His business is basically dead, and everything that used to bring in money is now an expense to maintain.
It’s a curious moment. After the first audio recording leaked, everyone immediately became very careful with telephone conversations. But it was too late, it seems, since recordings were already out there somewhere. Now the question is who will leak next. Are our own intelligence services leaking our conversations? I’m not sure. They’d think long and hard about how it could end for them before leaking conversations with such words about Putin.
High-level manager of a large construction company:
From what I’ve heard, the [views expressed in the leaked conversations] are the prevailing mood. I first heard such sentiments in late February when everyone was in shock. There was a feeling that the apocalypse was still to come, but that it was inevitable.
Management is also in a dark mood. To put it bluntly, the future is very gloomy, but we’re working as hard as we can to appear positive so as to not fuck ourselves over. The social circle [at work] has obviously narrowed a lot. People are silent about [plans to leave], but it seems like many [are preparing] in private.
During the first wave [of mobilization], people panicked, and many started working remotely. [Management] even agreed willingly. It’s really hard to find staff now; there’s a labor deficit. So, directors guarded their teams. As for new laws about electronic [draft] summonses, you live as if there were not one sword, but tens of thousands, hanging over your head. You have no idea when they’ll start to fall.
I think they need to fall. I think there’s hope that, by March 2024 [when Russia will hold the next presidential election], things won’t be so wild. But then it will just be total darkness. That’s what struck me [in Trotsenko’s words]. I had that thought myself, six months ago.
Someone close to the management at a large metallurgical concern:
People in my circles discussed the Prigozhin–Akhmedov conversation, of course. Some felt the same way, some haven’t shifted and are still waiting for a return to 2013. Simply put, the conversation [between Prigozhin and Akhmedov] was understandable to many — many agree, many share that opinion. Trotsenko is too alarmist. No one is fleeing to Indonesia, everyone who wanted to leave left long ago.
There is a different problem: People are afraid their assets will be seized abroad. They’re afraid Putin will die or be otherwise removed from power. So, there’s a feeling that “we’d better rally around Putin, let him rule for another 25 years.” As long as there’s no revolution, as long as there’s no anarchy. Pessimists abound.
Among the people around me, there are three clear desires: The first is to return to how things were. Somewhere around 30 percent are still sure that we can do that. The second is to stay walking the tightrope. There’s nowhere to run. Stay, and they’ll take everything away there. Flee, and they’ll take everything here. We’ll sit quietly and let the sanctions run their course. The third desire is no revolution. The group that’s currently in the Kremlin won’t let the country fall apart. Supporting them is better than a coup — [then] we’d lose more.
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A former high-ranking Russian intelligence officer:
I believe this can be discussed. It’s very similar to what many are discussing now. In the last few months, it’s as if the barriers to such criticism have come down, people get together and are no longer shy about expressing themselves. It wasn’t like that before, and it’s happening even at a high level. Of course, not in the public eye, but in kitchens.
The security services don’t give a fuck about this recording. Everyone has just one goal now: padding their pockets. It’s as if we took a time machine back to 1999. Everyone thinks about the same thing: how to line their pockets and leave in time so they don’t catch hell.
I think the authorities won’t react to the recording right now, otherwise people will think it’s real. But in time, of course, the participants in these conversations will get caught. [The authorities] will start to seize their assets for allowing themselves to open their mouths and thereby violate the rules of the game: they’re allowed to earn money in the land ruled by the anointed one, but they can only do it with their mouths shut and their pants down. I won’t be surprised if the leak was organized not by Ukrainians, but by our own guys, so they can then “strip” them [seize their assets] — it’s just that kind of business.
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