The House of Little Fame

The Tale of Kremlin’s Fight Against the Bad News

Katya Arenina and Mikhail Rubin with Roman Badanin

December 19, 2022

After attacking Ukraine, the Russian authorities have been unable to secure even a single serious victory on the battlefield, but they have achieved unbelievable success on the domestic news front. Project shares three stories about the way the Russian citizens had lost the last chance to learn at least something about the Kremlin’s actions.

Episode 1

How Putin’s acquaintances fight over the market for leaked information and hit pieces

After wiping out the independent media, the Russian authorities discovered that the only source of information about them inside the country are now the anonymous Telegram channels. At first, Putin’s circle lavishly paid for their publications, but today even this crooked market is facing a repressive crackdown. The top manager of Rostech Vasily Brovko organized the arrests of Telegram admins who criticized him and instilled the climate of fear on the platform. Even Ksenia Sobchak caught it bad –– seemingly, for her feud with Tina Kandelaki.

“We are witnessing the greatest experiment in the history of humanity. There’s never been an attempt to erase a whole nation like they do with a social media account, ” declared a prominent TV presenter Tina Kandelaki on stage of the Luzhniki Stadium on March 18 of this year. On that day, Vladimir Putin decided to hold a festive celebration of the anniversary of Crimea’s merger with Russia and demonstrate the nationwide support for the recently started war with Ukraine for good measure. Around 200,000 people, mostly public sector employees, were herded into the rally for his speech. Some of the luminaries, on the other hand, were ready to stand in line for the right to speak at the same event as the head of state.

Kandelaki was able to secure this honor thanks to her husband. Compared to his wife, he is little known to the public, but has much better connections. He is Vasily Brovko who holds a position with a strange title –– the Director for Special Commissions at Rostec State Corporation. Rostec is one of Russia’s most important weapons manufacturers, headed by Putin’s ex-KGB colleague Sergey Chemezov. It was Brovko, who had recently become a close confidant of his boss, who assisted Kandelaki when she wanted to speak at the “puting.” And she had delivered: “We cannot be erased like a social media account, because we are a nation that cannot be crushed!” (In a written comment to the Project, Kandelaki said that her husband had no connection to her appearance at the rally. Brovko himself, just like the press service of Rostec, gave no comment for this text.)

Vasily Brovko and Tina Kandelaki. Source: Instagram

The interest to “social media accounts” is something that the Kandelaki-Brovko family shares. But while the wife is content with her own Telegram channel, the husband’s ambitions are much greater. After the wipeout of Russia’s independent media, the Telegram channels have become a place where the audience reads political gossip, and the elites leak compromising materials against each other. And in recent months, Brovko decided to orchestrate a real repartition of this shady market. It turned out to be so resounding that even demanded Putin’s interference.

* * *

“I have the diabetes and allergies. I have a mother who is dependent on me, she is currently in the hospital, there are four cats at home who will die, ” the author of Telegram channel Adskie Babki Alexandra Bayazitova told the court. The woman with a whole bunch of medical conditions was detained in August and sent to the detention facility, to the same cell as killers, without hesitation. This was done even though Bayazitova’s arraignment has no connection with violent crimes –– she supposedly extorted money from the management of Promsvyazbank, which is connected to Rostec –– in other words, offered not to publish negative information about the bankers for a compensation.

Alexandra Bayazitova in court. Photo: Dmitry Lebedev/Kommersant

Bayazitova is one of 13 admins and authors of Telegram channels who were detained in the second half of 2022 for the so called “blocks.” This malpractice has been mainstream on the Telegram market for a while, and many are not above it, including government entities and pro-Kremlin channels. The author of one of the largest new channels shares the following story: he has a contract with VTB that implies certain things. The government-controlled bank officially pays him for advertising, but in practice requests that no negative information about the bank is published. Another source who arranges publication of content in the interests of the Presidential Administration confirms that the heads of many government entities keep a close eye on their image on Telegram. In the case of VTB, Telegram is the direct responsibility of Nailya Asker-Zade, the common law wife of the bank’s head Andrey Kostin. Naturally, nobody punishes neither the bank nor the Telegram channels for this. On the contrary, thanks to this arrangement, the Kremlin has brought most of the channels under its control, as Project has reported earlier.

Judging by the content of the criminal cases that Project had a chance to study, the actions of 13 detained Telegram bloggers followed more or less the same arrangement. They published negative information, and when the unhappy heroes of their articles got in touch with them, demanding that the post be removed, the bloggers asked for money. But if this is common practice in the Russian telegram, why was it Bayazitova and 12 other Telegram bloggers who ended up being detained?

One could assume that this was the authorities’ attack on the opposition journalists. But the detained Telegram bloggers cannot be called staunch opponents of Putin. Moderate criticism of the government could only be found on the Kremlevsky Mamkoved channel (it was written by Stanislav Sadovov who was detained in September) and on Ksenia Sobchak’s channels (Sobchak’s Sales Director Kirill Sukhanov, former editor-in-chief of Tatler magazine Arian Romanovsky, and former journalist Tamerlan Bigaev were detained in October, all of them worked on Sobchak’s channel Tushite Svet). The rest of them were loyal: the list of detained bloggers includes a former journalist at pro-Kremlin publications, employees of the media empire of “Putin’s cook” Evgeny Prigozhin, and a politician. All of them regularly criticized individual government officials, but never the Russian regime. Nonetheless, it was now their turn to be arrested.

Project analyzed the content published by all the channels that “got caught in the crossfire, ” and spoke to the sources close to the complainants, people who know those who were detained, and Kremlin subcontractors at Telegram. Based on this analysis and the words of our sources, we can claim that the cases against all the channels were initiated by Brovko, who had personal motives to do so. It all began with an infowar of the type that are common to Telegram.

“Tina Kandelaki’s husband… promised to utilize multibillion sums of money and build a 5G network in Russia. But what a tough break –– there is no equipment for this in Russia…” This post, published on Nebrekhnya channel, is currently unavailable, but in the spring and summer it was very typical for the Russian segment of the Telegram. At that time, anonymous channels, apparently on behalf of someone, began to trip over each other in their criticism of Brovko. The peak was reached in June, when in a matter of three days his name was mentioned on Telegram at least 3,000 times, although previously he never got more than several dozen mentions a month. The channels accused Brovko of corruption and tax evasion and claimed that he was given his position at Rostec thanks to his wife, who was called in these texts an “arm candy/freeloader.”

How the number of mentions of Vasily Brovko in Telegram channels changed in 2022

Source: TG Stat

Brovko’s feathers were seriously ruffled by these postings, claims a person familiar with him. But to avenge himself, he needed to obtain the support of his superiors, and an occasion was soon provided.

In mid-July, Vladimir Putin held a meeting of the Council for National Projects and mentioned the use of new technologies in his opening remarks. After routinely congratulating Sberbank, Rosatom, and the Russian Railways, the President switched to criticism, and Chemezov’s company was the first to take a beating: “Overall, this work cannot be recognized as especially successful… Modest results have been shown in areas that lie in the purview of Rostec.”

Putin criticizes Rostec, 07.18.2022

Brovko’s acquaintance claims that it was then that he convinced Chemezov that Rostec must bring Telegram channels under control, since the President is scolding the company based on the content they publish. Two other sources on the Telegram market agree: Brovko convinced Chemezov of the need to repartition the market. And Putin’s friend brought in the law enforcement to do this.

This explanation is confirmed by the analysis of open data: just a few weeks after Putin’s words, the law enforcement agencies began the arrests of 10 Telegram bloggers who took part in the attack against Brovko and Rostec. Among them was the creator of the aforementioned Nebrekhnya channel Inna Churilova and her partners Bayazitova and Olga Arkharova. The official plaintiff against all three of them was a top manager of Promsvyazbank. Apparently, this was done to conceal information about the genuine reasons behind these cases. Regarding arraignment of other bloggers, Brovko and Chemezov personally lodged complaints against them.

Another three detained bloggers who were not included in the table above did not criticize Brovko and Rostec but worked with Ksenia Sobchak. The well-known fact about Sobchak is that she had a public fallout with Kandelaki several years ago. In her comment to Project, Kandelaki said that she has no connection to the prosecution of Sobchak, but two of her acquaintances believe that Brovko and his wife are quite capable of settling old scores. An occasion to do so was quickly found at the height of the campaign against the Telegram bloggers.

In late October, Chemezov came for a birthday celebration of entrepreneur Andrey Bokarev. As soon as he arrived, the recently created Tushite svet channel with an audience of slightly more than 10,000 subscribers, published a story: Bokarev is celebrating his birthday in style, the guest list includes Chemezov and Grigory Leps. Providentially, Brovko noticed this post just 10 minutes later and forwarded it to Chemezov, while celebration was in full swing. The head of Rostec tasked Brovko with figuring out who was behind the channel.

Rostec’s employees ended up arranging a whole performance: they got in touch with the channel’s admins not on behalf of Chemezov, but in the name of a certain “consortium of businessmen, ” and demanded removal of the story about Bokarev’s birthday celebration. In response, Sobchak’s employees suggested a “blocking” agreement –– for 10 million rubles a year they were ready to send any story mentioning a specific person for approval.

Brovko reported to Chemezov: he ascertained that the story was written up by Sobchak’s channel, and her employees want money to remove the post. Apparently, this information infuriated the head of Rostec –– at least, Sobchak’s acquaintance claims that Chemezov personally called the higher-ups at the Interior Ministry with a request to punish her. As a result, the law enforcement officers detained her three employees, and Sobchak received a warning from acquaintances that her detention is also in the works. At that point, she decided to leave the country.

The situation was resolved several days later when Ksenia’s mother Lyudmila Narusova used her long-standing acquaintance with Putin to get in touch with him by phone. The conversation made it clear that the head of state did not sanction the arrest of his former boss’s daughter. In conversation with Project, Narusova denied that she spoke to the President. After that, Sobchak returned to Russia, where she first went to make peace with Chemezov in private and then published an apology to him in her Telegram channel. Still, so far it didn’t result in her employees’ release from detention.

“I sincerely regret that the actions of my colleagues harmed Chemezov Sergey Viktorovich, I apologize to him, ” — apologies Ksenia Sobchak published in her Telegram channel.

* * *

After their colleagues were arrested, the Telegram bloggers who have already been corrupted by the Kremlin, became even more loyal. Previously, the authorities were happy to pay them for “blocks” and “leaks, ” but today, it’s enough to threaten them with prison. At least two sources engaged in arranging publications in Telegram have told us independently that the market is being “monopolized” in favor of siloviki.

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Episode 2

How the authorities clamped down even on Putin’s supporters

The authorities have purged the media and Telegram so deeply that the only source of more or less reliable information during the war can be found only in the channels of war correspondents. But even with their authors, the Ministry of Defense has reached an agreement –– with the help of money.

On the night of June 17, the cream of the crop of Russia’s propaganda met in St. Petersburg. There were the editors-in-chief of federal media, TV anchors such as Olga Skabeeva, as well as the pro-Kremlin war correspondents –– altogether there were about 50 of them. They waited for Putin for at least two hours: the Russian President is late for the informal meetings at least as often as he is for the official ones. When no more than 30 minutes were left of the official event time, the President did finally appear in front of his claque and the first thing he did was suggest that the conversation is moved to a different day.

The participants responded with a resounding “No, ” and that’s understandable. Long time ago, Putin would frequently invite the journalists for some informal conversation, but in the recent years, he only agreed to the annual meetings with the editors-in-chief at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. By 2022, only the most loyal were left among the editors-in-chief, which is probably why the war correspondents were also invited that night. In the end, they were the only ones who had Putin’s interest.

Military correspondents of VGTRK Alexander Sladkov (left) and Yevgeny Poddubny (right)

The meeting lasted no more than 40 minutes. Most of this time took a solo performance by VGTRK was correspondents Alexander Sladkov and Evgeny Poddubny who spoke about difficulties at the front. After the meeting was over, they asked the President for an eye-to-eye and surprisingly were given the green light. That’s how the war correspondents learned that they became a force to reckon with. Putin really does trust them, confirms a high-ranking media manager.

From the first day of the war, the war correspondents have covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their Telegram channels and did it differently from the official media. By the time of that meeting with Putin, they were disparaging the army higher-ups for the mistakes of the first phase of the war. This bothered the Defense Ministry whose daily reports continued to “cheer” the Russians up with the stories of its own achievements and Ukrainian army’s colossal losses.

Three days after their meeting with Putin, Sladkov and Poddubny were urgently called to the Ministry of Defense, to meet with its head Sergey Shoigu and the Ministry’s press officer Igor Konashenkov. The details of that meeting are unknown, but it definitely changed something in the war correspondents’ worldview. When soon after that, on June 30, the Russian army withdrew from Zmiinyi (Snake) Island as a “goodwill gesture, ” both bloggers supported this decision on their channels.

It’s right that they left. For me, the implications are more important than the imagery. We came when we wanted, we left when we wanted, isn’t it so? Why should we keep our men under fire?” wrote Sladkov.

Astonishingly, at the end of March, when the Russian army retreated from its approach to Kyiv also as a “goodwill gesture” after negotiations with Ukraine, the war correspondent reacted very differently. “I can’t imagine if we fought those Nazis, say in 1942, and engaged in negations. <…> I don’t know how I’m going to face the guys in the trenches tomorrow, ” Sladkov wrote.

Project has analyzed posts in 25 most popular war channels and discovered that after their meetings with Putin and Shoigu, most war correspondents began to change their rhetoric. In March, 11 of them criticized the decision to retreat from Kyiv, while only two supported this directly, but in June, the retreat from Zmiinyi Island was supported by eight channels. The only person to speak out directly against this decision was the pro-government military expert Boris Rozhin (Colonelcassad TG channel), while another 10 channels agreed that it had to be done but expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the decision was presented to the general public by the Ministry of Defense. Tellingly, many of the posts were practically identical.

How military Telegram-channels reacted to key events of the war

What they wrote about leaving Zmiinyi Island

Poddubny |Z|О|V| edition

The boys of the Kyiv regime are going to make this out into a great peremoga (victory). But even if the UAF occupy Zmiinyi at great cost, it will be senseless. This is just another slaughterhouse. In making its decisions, the General Staff is driven by military logic. And not the desire to meet expectations of a certain part of society.

Voenkor Kotenok Z

Many are currently interpreting the sensible decision to leave the Zmiinyi Island as zrada (betrayal), defeat, retreat, etc. Yes, this is definitely not a victory, but it is a reasonable withdrawal. Obviously, Kyiv is going to publicize it all as peremoga (victory), but the enemy won’t be able to fully control Zmiinyi. Should any attempt to make a landing be made, the Russian VKS (Airspace Forces) will begin systematic strikes.


This whole Zmiinyi has been blown out of proportion, by the khokhly no less. They need such “victories” right now as much as air to breath. You can bet your butt that they won’t enter the island. Because if they do, that’s where they’ll stay. But personally, I believe that withdrawing from this island is a tactically the right call

Arkhangel spetsnaza Z

Zmiinyi Island was left behind to save the lives of the troops and integrity of the military equipment. Plus, Zmiinyi Island has lost its strategic role in the plans of the Russian military commanders 🙂


From the look of it, last night the decision to withdraw from Zmiinyi Island to save manpower and equipment was made. Today, controlling the island physically is equal to suicide. The next stage of the fight for Zmiinyi Island is the destruction of the UAF landing forces in the best traditions of the principle “If I can’t have it, no one can!”

After the Russian army retreated from the Kharkov Region in September –– that retreat was once again criticized on Telegram –– Putin held another meeting with the war correspondents. The participants actively persuaded the head of state that the new failures can only prevented by mobilization, and just a few weeks later, on September 21, the President did sign the Decree on mobilization of reservists. It quickly became clear that mobilization proceeded dreadfully. But 18 out of 25 channels reviewed by Project spoke about it much the same way: there are certain problems and occasional overzealousness, but fortunately the authorities react to feedback and quickly resolve the issues.

In October, it became clear that the authorities brought the war correspondents under control. At that time, Putin solemnly accepted the occupied territories into Russia, but Ukraine was able right away to liberate Liman, a town in the supposedly Russian DNR. At that moment, certain bloggers wanted to support the army so much that they in essence cheered its defeat. UAF sought to liberate the town on September 30, on the day that agreements on “incorporation” of the occupied Ukrainian territories into Russia were signed, and Ukraine failed that task, completing the liberation a day later –– many channels presented it as a defeat for the UAF.

It has since become a tradition for the war correspondents on Telegram to cheer the defeats. When on October 18, the commander of the Russian military group in Ukraine Sergey Surovikin announced “difficult decisions” in the Kherson Region, none of the 25 channels studied by the Project tried to criticize him, while 12 of them expressed outright support.

Surovikin is probably one of the first generals in our contemporary history who became almost a folk hero after disclosing bad news. That just shows how across-the-board is the contemporary society’s demand for truth, ” wrote WarGonzo channel after the commander spoke about upcoming difficult decisions regarding Kherson.

The channels interpreted the city’s surrender, which happened soon after that, in much the same way: 11 of them supported the decision, five — criticized, while the rest gave a neutral assessment or kept quiet. Here’s, for example, the text by blogger Yuri Podolyaka: “It’s hard to make decisions such as this one. I understand General Surovikin perfectly well, not every general can do that. The army did everything it could.”

It’s not hard to understand how the Ministry of Defense achieved such loyalty from the war correspondents. “When the channels became the media heavyweights, different government agencies allocated budgets for them, –– explains the author of Dimitriev TG channel, military blogger Igor Dimitriev. –– Any channel that you know, they are working with someone, there can be no mistake about that.” The same thing was confirmed by the author of pro-government channel WarGonzo Semyon Pegov. He was one of those who reported in the fall that the Ministry of Defense is unhappy with the bloggers and is asking the Prosecutor General to examine them concerning discreditation of the army. The war correspondent also claimed that the Ministry of Defense is trying to come to an arrangement with the bloggers: “There have been approaches via intermediaries with financial offers –– to publish paid stories glorifying specific commanders.” The Russian commanders’ interest in their personal PR and their generosity in this regard is a fact that is made clear by open data.

One of this war’s principal anti-heroes was General Alexander Lapin: both the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov and the head of the Wagner private military company Evgeny Prigozhin publicly accused him of Russia’s defeats. But the war correspondents did not join them –– out of all the channels analyzed by Project, only one supported the criticism of the General, and that was Grey Zone, which is connected to Prigozhin.

Alexander Lapin. Source: Ministry of Defense

To the contrary, most of the bloggers traditionally sang praise to Lapin. A whole pool of channels was formed around him, which posted stories about him that were suspiciously advertorial-like. For example, one of them published a video showing Lapin who pointedly stopped his car to give a bag of groceries to a solitary older woman. “Benevolence is inherent to the victor: the commander of the ‘Valiant’ group took care of an old woman, ” was the exuberant headline of this story by the war correspondent.

Video of the channel “Operation Z: Military commissars of the Russian Spring” in support of Lapin

Project spoke on the condition of anonymity to two current and one former employee (s) of online media Ura.Ru who told us how Lapin’s PR was structured. Ura.Ru was especially ardent in praising the military commander. According to one of the sources, after the war began, the media outlet introduced a “block on negative information” regarding the Ministry of Defense and the military commanders of the Central Military District (Lapin is the one who commands it). After Kadyrov’s criticism, the head of the media outlet Mikhail Vyugin took a whole department that was usually engaged in search for exclusive information and entrusted the journalists with developing a content plan in support of the General. The editor-in-chief told them that the campaign was commissioned by “one of the towers at the Ministry of Defense” and promised cash bonuses to all the journalists involved.

The media outlet’s employees did develop a whole plan for the almost daily PR support of Lapin. Project familiarized itself with the document whose straightforward narrative is that the General wanted to save the soldiers’ lives, otherwise he would only score victories.

In the end, Ura.Ru had published at least 35 paid-for stories about Lapin. For example, in early October, the media outlet would publish several planted articles a day. The internet was literally overflowing with this content about Lapin the hero, as the largest Telegram channels constantly reposted the stories. For example, Ura.Ru article titled “Generals and Soldiers Disclosed Two Principal Character Traits of General Lapin” was reposted by both the war correspondents and the largest “civilian” channels, including Pool №3 (run by Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Dmitry Smirnov) and Brief (created by Nezygar channel). To coordinate the activities, Ura.Ru even established separate chats with admins of the largest channels, including Rybar: the journalists sent the just-published puff pieces about Lapin, which the Telegram bloggers had then to distribute to their subscribers.

They fought for Lapin

What headlines URA.RU uses to promote the commander

The Hero of Russia Accused of Surrendering Liman Was Defended to Kadyrov

The Fighters of the Group Commanded by General Lapin During Surrender of Liman Stood Up for Him

General Lapin Deceived UAF by Withdrawing from Krasny Liman

General Lapin’s “Iron” Nickname and His Team of No Fools

General Lapin Saved a Serviceman, Bringing Him to the Hospital in his Helicopter

Kadyrov and Prigozhin Created a Dangerous Situation for the Russian Army

The Servicemen of the “Valiant” Group Spoke in Support of General Lapin

Comrade-in-arms Compared General Lapin with the Hero of Brother 2 Movie

In the end, Ura.Ru journalists did receive a cash bonus for this work –– it was a sum equivalent to 1.5 salaries. The Ministry of Defense did not respond to Project’s questions about the nature of the stories published by Ura.Ru and Telegram channels.

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Episode 3

How rumors replaced information

The Kremlin de facto stripped the journalists of the ability to learn insider information from the government officials. Real sources were replaced by spin doctors and experts who are removed from decision making and frequently use the media for their own shady objectives. The war exacerbated the situation: millions of people read unverified rumors and make important decisions based on that information.

In February 2017, a group of Russian journalists was invited to the Presidential Administration for a private meeting with Sergey Kirienko, the new Deputy Head of Putin’s Executive Office who was given oversight of domestic politics. Newspaper, magazine, and online media correspondents have gone to such briefings for many years –– they needed insider information and the meetings with Kremlin’s top officials offered a good chance to obtain it. Moreover, the journalists used these visits to the Kremlin to introduce themselves to the government officials a few steps down the ladder: bureau chiefs, their deputies, personal assistants, and heads of departments. Thanks to such acquaintances, the Russian and international media published important news citing sources in the Kremlin: by that time, it’s been a while since most Putin’s officials spoke with the independent media without condition of anonymity.

First Deputy Head of the Presidential administration Sergei Kiriyenko. Source:

That briefing with Kirienko ended in a scandal and proved to be not only his first, but also his last. The journalists, as was the custom, came to the building at Staraya Square, went to the entrance hall 3B, and went up the stairs to Kirienko’s reception area. There they were taken to a small room where they could barely fit. Sergey Novikov who is responsible for media relations in Kirienko’s team invited a very broad group –– not just the newspaper and online media journalists, but also the correspondents of Dozhd independent TV channel, tabloid Life, and all the major news agencies.

By Kremlin’s standards, Kirienko was very candid that day. He gave a comment on the most important news story of the day –– the decision of St. Peterburg’s very religious governor Georgy Poltavchenko to transfer St. Isaac’s Cathedral under the Russian Orthodox Church’s jurisdiction. In his conversation with the journalists, Kirienko did not defend the governor and, moreover, harshly criticized him, calling the prescription of St. Petersburg authorities ill-conceived. The government official also shared the Kremlin’s plans for the upcoming presidential elections of 2018.

These statements provoked the interest of those gathered, and Kirienko gave permission to attribute his words to the “high-ranking federal official.” Because the briefing drew a lot of journalists, they had to agree on the so called “embargo.” Since the information was received in one place and from one source, the journalists agreed to publish their stories all at the same time. Such practice was no reason for joy for the editorial offices, but they had no other choice: throughout Putin’s rule, the Kremlin constantly hid information from them, and the high-ranking officials rarely agreed to speak one on one. Briefings for several media at once became the norm.

When only newspaper journalists were invited to the briefings, few paid attention to the fact that the statements of Kremlin sources regularly appeared at the same time in different media. But this time, the situation was truly comical. It was noticed by Meduza: the media derisively reported that on February 17, between 4PM and 4:27PM, nine media outlets at once published the stories of a high-ranking federal official criticizing the governor of St. Petersburg. Three days later, the same media once again published stories citing the same official. At that time, the founders of Meduza –– Galina Timchenko, Ivan Kolpakov, and Ilya Krasilshchik –– used their personal social media to express indignation over their colleagues’ behavior. Kolpakov wrote that this is “totally lame, ” Krasilshchik wondered who the Russian media’s “curator” is, and Timchenko wrote that participants of the briefing are engaged in “media support of the government agencies’ activities” instead of journalism.

Source: Facebook

The Kremlin, which has always been averse to publicity, was very much disappointed by the scandal. Several weeks later, Novikov gathered the group of journalists and admitted: “I underestimated the magnitude of his voice, ” meaning the way Kirienko’s anonymous statements were perceived. The government official made it clear that from now on he will push back against leaks from the Kremlin, and that instead of informal meetings with actual government officials he will now send the journalists the comments from pro-Kremlin experts. Since then, Kirienko has held no briefings and many of his subordinates had shut the independent media out.

That said, the readers were still interested in insider information from the Kremlin, and the media tried to accommodate them as best as they could. Ironically, the most active of them was the media outlet that rebuked its colleagues for “lameness.” By the end of 2022, Meduza became the principal purveyor of news based on the “Kremlin sources.”

* * *

In early October of this year, a rumor began to circulate among the spin doctors employed by the Kremlin: it was said that Kirienko’s “right hand, ” the head of the State Council governance Alexander Kharichev may retire right after the “referenda” on incorporation of Ukrainian territories, allegedly due to health problems. Most Russians have no interest in this person, but he is important to everyone who is connected to politics. At the Presidential Administration, Kharichev oversees the elections and, subsequently, the government expenditures in this regard. The spin doctors conveyed the rumor to Russia’s remaining newspaper journalists, and those began to verify this information. The rumor proved to be false. At least, all the Kremlin officials accessible to the journalists unanimously refuted this information, calling it a “false story.” This is quite possible: Kharichev allocates the contracts for election campaigns among the spin doctors and over the years could create some opponents resentful of his decisions. Either way, not a single major media chose to publish the information refuted by the actual Kremlin officials.

“In such cases, we don’t publish anything but begin to wait until the rumor makes its way to Meduza,” explains a journalist from one of the federal media. True enough, on November 25, almost two months after the rumor first appeared, the media outlet published a story citing three “sources close to the Kremlin” that said: “Kharichev to retire sometime very soon.” One of those sources even reported a strange detail: supposedly during the “referenda” in Ukraine, the siloviki “***** [were very surprised] how the campaigns waste money.” The source’s words implied that siloviki previously had no knowledge of pilfering during elections and decided to bring it to an end only now. It’s been almost a month since the article came out, and Kharichev still hasn’t retired.

This was far from Meduza’s first story based on the “sources close to the Kremlin.” At some point, the media outlet’s editors decided to not just aggregate the news, but to provide its readers with exclusive information. In 2019, Meduza set up a previously unseen assembly line: it began by publishing two exclusive domestic policy stories a month, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this number has jumped to eight a month. To compare, in 2008, at the time of its relative prime, the Kommersant daily published five important exclusive political articles a month written by the whole Politics Desk that was about 10 people strong, and it did that at the time when the sources were much more accessible to the reporters.

Meduza’s articles based on Kremlin sources often astounded other journalists and triggered rebukes on social media, but the flow of such texts continued. In particular, citing Kremlin sources, Meduza reported on the upcoming merger of the All-Russian People’s’ Front and United Russia party (although this rumor was circulated among the political reporters eight years prior to that), published nine different stories naming different dates for the referenda on LNR and DNR’s incorporation in Russia and never got it right, and five days before the start of the war claimed that Russia has no plans to attack Ukraine.

90% of Meduza’s sources’ forcasts did not come true

Project reviewed Meduza’s articles based on the “sources close to the Kremlin” and bylined by correspondent Andrey Pertsev and discovered that the forecasts of these sources virtually never come true. Since mid-2019, the journalist published more than 150 articles, in which the sources made at least 65 forecasts. According to Project’s calculations, almost 90% of these forecasts never come true.

Out of 65 predictions, only 8 came true, while 6 of them, before the publication of Meduza, were given by sources from other media or Telegram channels

For example, over the four years, the media outlet has “fired” practically all of Russia’s senior officials: the sources forecasted dismissals of at least 14 key government officials, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (first time, right after his appointment in early 2020, and second time, this summer), the head of the Presidential Administration Anton Vaino, and Federation Council speaker Valentina Matvienko, for whom such forecasts were made twice, and Sergey Kirienko and State Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, whose dismissal was predicted once. None of these forecasts came true.

Who has been dismissed by Meduza

Thrice (in June and September 2022), the journalist’s sources promised that Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik will soon leave their jobs as heads of DNR and LNR.

In July 2022, the sources predicted the upcoming appointment of Andrey Turchak and his resignation as the Secretary of United Russia’s General Council.

Also in July, the sources claimed that the former head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin will be given a new appointment and may become the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration in place of Dmitry Kozak who will resign.

wice (in April 2020 and July 2022) the sources dismissed Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin; notably, the first time happened virtually right after he assumed the office. In July 2022, according to Meduza’s sources, Mishustin could be replaced with the Head of the Accounts Chamber Alexei Kudrin.

The Minister of Communications Maksut Shadaev was supposed to resign during a special meeting of the State Duma in July 2022. At that time, Meduza predicted several serious dismissals, but they never took place.

In 2022, the Governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov could also resign. His new place of work was supposed to be in the institutions of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. This forecast appeared soon after Beglov’s visit to Belarus. In later stories, the media’s sources promised that there is no dismissal of the official on the horizon.

The sources also twice dismissed the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Anton Vaino, in the fall of 2021 and in July of 2022. In that first story, Meduza predicted the dismissal of not just Vaino, but of his First Deputy Sergey Kirienko and the State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin without specifying the source of information.

The media outlet’s sources first predicted the dismissal of the Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matvienko in September of 2020. At that time, they claimed that she can be replaced with the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergey Naryshkin. Eighteen months prior to that, such replacement was already reported by Kommersant, and back then the story resulted in a scandal and dispersal of the newspaper’s Politics Desk. For the second time, Meduza fired Matvienko in the fall of 2021, along with Kirienko, Volodin, and Vaino.

n February 2020, Meduza journalist retold an old rumor about the merger of the United Russia party with the All-Russian People’s Front and promised that the party’s leader Dmitry Medvedev won’t hold a policy-making position in the new structure. This legend has been known to all the journalists covering domestic politics for many years, and three weeks prior to Meduza’s publication of this story, the rumor appeared in Nezygar Telegram channel.

About 10% of predictions made by sources close to the Kremlin did come true, but with an important caveat: the same information was reported by other media outlets or Telegram channels before Meduza. For example, this summer, the Minister of Industry Denis Manturov was promoted to the Deputy Prime Minister, and the media outlet anticipated this (although the sources simultaneously could not dismiss the possibility of Manturov’s dismissal along with other members of the government, including Mishustin), proudly noting this in its subsequent texts. But every time, the author forgot to mention that this information was published by Nezygar channel six hours before Meduza. The same story happened on April 8 of this year, when the media outlet reported the upcoming appointment of Leonid Slutsky as the leader of LDPR but failed to mention that the same story was related by Izvestia on the previous evening. Throughout the years, the Project has found only three forecasts that were made solely by Meduza and actually held up.

Meduza’s editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov refused to comment on Project’s calculations, but noted: “We are, of course, troubled when Meduza publishes the stories that contain deeply flawed predictions by the sources. We strive to prevent such situations.” That said, he believes that “even mistaken forecasts of the sources help [the readers] understand how the system works or doesn’t work.” Kolpakov did not say where these sources work and whether they include any current Kremlin officials but assured us that the editors always know the name and position of each anonymous source. Meduza’s chief left unanswered the question about possible plagiarism of predictions earlier published by other sources.

But the most amazing thing are not the mistaken forecasts (these happen at many media outlets, including Project itself) but the fact that Meduza chooses to publish anonymous stories from the sources about thoughts running through the heads of Putin and his subordinates. Here are some examples of such statements:

“(The elites) have an understanding or a wish that in the sufficiently foreseeable future he (Putin) won’t control the state.”

“Putin hates Lukashenko so much he gets a fever.”

“Putin approves…”

“Putin remembers the 90s well.”

“Putin can’t wait to…”

“Putin loves him –– and for a long time.”

The last quote is the best proof that the said “sources” have very superficial view of things happening in Russia. It became known on July 12 that the Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov will replace Dmitry Rogozin as the Director General of Roscosmos. Right after that, Meduza published an article with a headline that read: “Putin loves him –– and for a long time.” In the story, the outlet’s sources predicted that being Putin’s favorite, Rogozin will be promoted, becoming either the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration instead of Vaino (in Russian politics, this is a key position, close in influence to Prime Minister), his deputy, or the President’s assistant in charge of Donbass. In early November, after a very long break, we learned what happened of the person whom “Putin loves and for a long time” –– previously dismissed Rogozin came at the helm of the group of military advisers known as the Tsar’s Wolves, tasked with providing technical support to combat troops. Kolpakov told Project that the editors discussed why these forecasts never came to fruition and decided that, just like in the case of Kharichev’s dismissal, “the sources didn’t attempt to mislead the journalists, and the forecast didn’t come true due to the changed circumstances.”

The response of Meduza’s editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov in full ↓

Meduza’s mistaken forecasts could remain the problem of the outlet itself if they weren’t read by many people who made important decisions on their personal future based on these stories. For example, in May, the outlet promised that mobilization in Russia “shouldn’t be expected.” And when it was announced, “a source close to the Presidential Administration” promised that it will happen as follows:

“People will be invited to verify the information. They will be strongly pressured to sign a contract voluntarily. Many will succumb to pressure, especially when new criminal articles will be mentioned. And those who won’t agree to sign will be let go and mobilized later.”

In truth, the most common mobilization scenario happened in the following way: a person reported for verification of documents, but was right away sent to the assembly station, from there –– to the boot camp, and then –– to the front lines.

People who decided to leave Russia because of mobilization also based their actions on information gleaned from the media publications, at least in part. On September 25, Meduza’s sources said that in three days the authorities will forbid the men of “conscript age” to leave Russia and that the only way to do so would be to present a note from the military recruitment office. Other Russian media outlets also asserted this. As a result, people were in a hurry to leave as soon as possible, gathering into long traffic jams on the borders where they would spend several days. Kolpakov told Project that the sources whose words were used in this story were not 100% sure of their prediction, but “never had let us down previously, ” and that the editors “knew that the consequences of border closures can be catastrophic and acted because time was short.” He said that after the event, Meduza’s senior management came to conclusion that the story’s wording could be softer, and that in addition to that, the story wasn’t approved with the editor-in-chief or his deputy, which is required for stories “of such level of importance.”

But Meduza’s most important forecast concerned the decision to start the war. On February 18, 2022, five days before the invasion of Ukraine, the outlet’s “Kremlin sources” said that in the near future Putin has no plans to even recognize LNR and DNR as independent republics. The sources claimed that there is no war in the plans and that the “constant statements [of the American intelligence services] regarding new dates of invasion have become tiresome.”

Nonetheless, Meduza continued to trust its sources. Just a week after the start of the Russian invasion, the outlet published a new exclusive story about the possible cancellation of gubernatorial elections in Russia. The forecast once again remained just that, but the amount of Kremlin-related “insider information” at Meduza has grown compared to the pre-war times. Kolpakov told Project that since then, the editorial office has tightened the rules of working with the sources.

Editing: Mikhail Rubin, Roman Badanin

Fact-checking: Mikhail Maglov