Master of Puppets

The Man Behind the Kremlin’s Control of the Russian Media

Michail RubinMaria Zholobova, Roman Badanin, in collaboration with OCCRP, June 5, 2019

 Русская версия

It is widely known that major Russian media outlets — especially television — are controlled by the government. But who actually manages the Kremlin’s grip? This is the story of Alexey Gromov, a former diplomat who has gained great influence and power as Vladimir Putin’s media puppetmaster.

In the spring of 2017, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in about 100 Russian cities to protest political corruption and other problems in national government.

Western media and Russian Internet news outlets published stories about the marches, many focusing on the police who brutally dispersed the crowds and arrested nearly 2,000 protesters. But Russian viewers of the country’s television channels saw little of this. For most of them, the May 26 protests never happened at all.

Alexey Gromov and Vladimir Putin

Why did Russia’s broadcast media ignore the demonstrations? It may be that the orders came from a man who has served Russian President Vladimir Putin for nearly two decades: Alexey Gromov, formerly the president’s press secretary and now first deputy head of the presidential administration.

Described as an unassuming man whose passions include collecting antique coins, Gromov is nonetheless a key manager of the Putin government’s control over what gets said — or not — in Russia’s major print and broadcast media. He is also a co-creator of RT, the international propaganda network formerly known as Russia Today.

Despite his great influence, Gromov remains relatively unknown to most Russians.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s he studied history at Moscow State University, focusing on the South and West Slavs. His fellow students included Konstantin Nikiforov, who became President Boris Yeltsin’s speechwriter, and Oleg Dobrodeyev, future chairman of Russia’s main state-run television station.

But in many ways, Gromov’s youth was unremarkable. One classmate remembers him as a friendly guy who loved to play soccer. He met his wife Anna while harvesting potatoes; such agricultural work was a mandatory tradition for Soviet students.

After graduating, he entered the Soviet diplomatic service, spending several years in the former Czechoslovakia before returning to Moscow.

Gromov stayed in diplomacy after the Soviet Union collapsed, serving at the Russian Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia. In 1996, his boss, the Russian ambassador, was made President Boris Yeltsin’s press secretary. Gromov quickly followed him to Moscow, becoming head of Yeltsin’s press service.

Elena Tregubova, a journalist whose 2003 tell-all book “Tales of the Kremlin Digger” warned that Putin was reinstituting Soviet-style control of the media, describes Gromov as a modest man who treated people well and, most critically, never expressed his own opinion on political issues during his tenure.

In 2000, he was appointed as the press secretary for Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin. This promotion radically changed Gromov, Tregubova wrote. He began to behave less like a press secretary and more like a security guard, driving away journalists from the president and forbidding reporters from asking questions.

His and his new boss’s influence on the country’s media environment would soon make itself felt.

Борец с пропагандой

Gromov’s First Assignment

Vladimir Putin began his presidency by distancing Russia’s influential oligarchs from power. In particular, he deprived them of their national TV stations: Vladimir Gusinsky lost NTV and Boris Berezovsky lost ORT (now Channel One). The process involved both criminal cases and arrests; first Gusinsky, then Berezovsky were forced to leave Russia by the end of 2000.

The first to be hit was NTV, which was critical of the government and aired frequent attacks on Putin and his policies. In particular, the satirical program “Kukly” (The Puppets) portrayed the relatively short president as Klein Zaches, a fairytale dwarf who gains a fortune by taking credit for the work of others. During the 1999–2000 election campaign, NTV and Guinsky’s other outlets openly sided with Putin’s competitors, leading the Kremlin to view the oligarch as a personal adversary.

Виктор Шендерович с куклой Владимира Путина
The author of satirical program “Kukly” Victor Shenderovich with a puppet of Vladimir Putin

The shut-down of NTV was led by Mikhail Lesin, who was press minister at the time. But Gromov also took part, according to Evgeny Kiselyev, the station’s head at the time.

Kiselyev recalls first becoming aware of Gromov’s role when they both attended a 2001 meeting with the president in which the channel’s editorial staff asked for his protection, explaining that criminal cases against Gusinsky were endangering the station. Putin’s reply, in which he stressed the supposed independence of the Russian judicial system, made it clear that no help was forthcoming.

But these assurances came to little in the end. Titov ended up serving nearly two years in prison. By the time he was released, NTV had already been placed under the control of the Russian state monopoly Gazprom.

Министерство пропаганды

Details Matter

Gromov’s career continued to rise. In 2008, he was named deputy head of the presidential administration, which greatly increased his influence and put him in charge of the entire national television apparatus.

Despite his ever-higher positions, Gromov maintained a keen interest in the details of his work.

A prominent Russian broadcast journalist tells a story of needing money to make a documentary and asking for a meeting with Gromov. To his surprise, Gromov not only met with him, but immediately started making calls to line up the financing. The journalist asked Gromov why he didn’t have a subordinate make the calls.

“Shit doesn’t work if I don’t do it myself,” Gromov told him.

That’s Gromov’s approach in all things television. He alone has the authority to order state channels to air a news item. He also retains the authority to prevent news from being shown.

Last October, leaders at the state-run VGTRK, which operates the popular “Russia” and “Russia-24” channels, received a furious call from Gromov. The channels were broadcasting video of a mass shooting at the Polytechnic College of Kerch in Crimea that left 20 people dead. Gromov ordered them to stop showing the video, recalls a man who overheard the conversation.

An Angry Fax

Gromov could be very direct about the coverage he disliked.

One piece of evidence comes in the form of a fax a wealthy Russian media owner received from the Kremlin a few years ago.

On a sheet bearing the letterhead of the presidential administration was a copy of an article written by one of the outlet’s correspondents who covers the president’s events. The text was riddled with indignant handwritten notes.

The fax came from Gromov, apparently seeking to intimidate the editor for how his outlet had covered the president, and was shown to The Project by the editor-in-chief of the outlet in question.

Coins and Rubles

Gromov collects rare coins, particularly those from the Russian Empire, according to a fellow numismatist familiar with his collection. Those cultivating favor with the official know of his expensive hobby and come bearing gifts. A media industry figure who spoke on condition of anonymity said he once bought an expensive coin and delivered it to Gromov via Mikhail Bryukhanov, a college friend of Gromov’s, who worked in the presidential administration since 2002 and now serves as deputy head of Rossotrudnichestvo, the government body responsible for international cooperation. According to the gift giver, Bryukhanov helped him select a coin Gromov might like and even accompanied him to make the purchase.

Bryukhanov may himself also profit from his official responsibilities in arranging travel and other logistics for journalists who cover presidential trips.

For over 10 years, the Kremlin has used a company called Mosco to handle press pool arrangements. The president’s press office even sent Russian media outlets a letter recommending that the company be used to organize all travel with the president.

According to the Russian corporate register, Bryukhanov owned 16 percent of Mosco in 2006. A friend of his has confirmed that he still owns the shares today. When asked by The Project, Lyudmila Melender, Mosco’s current head, declined to say whether Bryukhanov was still a co-owner.

Bryukhanov did not reply to requests for comment.

In the Inner Circle

Gromov is one of the few people with direct and almost unlimited access to Putin, a former federal official told The Project. Putin has always asked press secretaries to accompany him on his trips. As a result, people in the position spend more time with the head of state than almost anyone else.

Gromov’s status and regular travel with Putin helped him establish relationships with others in the president’s inner circle, such as Putin’s security guards.

When Putin began to appoint several of his former guards as governors, they turned to Gromov for help. He selected public relations firms to represent them and teach them how to conduct themselves as public officials, according to sources within the presidential administration.

But in most cases, no call is needed. The heads of television channels attend weekly meetings at Gromov’s office at the presidential administration building in Moscow, where they are told what must be broadcast and what is forbidden.

Gromov’s sessions bring together the heads of all Russia’s major public and private TV companies — Channel One, VGTRK, NTV, TVC, REN TV, and Channel Five — plus representatives of key government agencies, including the office of the president, the government, and the parliament. A Kremlin official responsible for election campaigns also participates, along with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

A few regular attendees of these meetings told The Project how they work.

Gromov outlines the president’s schedule and gives direct orders about how to cover his appearances and what exactly should be shown or said in news reports.

“You can ignore this,” one participant recalls Gromov saying as a way of indicating that a particular event should not be covered.

The TV networks also report their plans. They can offer ideas for news coverage, but only Gromov can give the go-ahead.

His instructions may also invoke restrictions on coverage in so-called “control regions.” If an important event is taking place — the election of a governor or the construction of a World Cup stadium, for example — the stations are forbidden to air negative information about anything happening in the entire region.

These restrictions apply to state security agencies as well. The Attorney General’s Office, the Ministry of the Interior, the Investigative Committee, and other state bodies also generate large flows of information through their press services. Representatives of these services also attend a special regular meeting with Gromov, who dispenses instructions on what not to cover.

His role also includes convening important players together in particularly sensitive moments and coordinating their response, as he did when Western countries began to impose sanctions on RT, the state news channel widely dismissed as Russian propaganda.

While adept at exerting minute control over his subordinates, Gromov is also widely considered a master at managing up. Like few others, he knows how to obtain the decisions he wants from Putin, sometimes by selectively presenting unflattering information.

The 2013 firing of the head of state news agency RIA Novosti, Svetlana Mironyuk, is a good example of this. According to several sources, Gromov convinced Putin the outlet was producing inappropriate coverage of the post-election protests in 2011 and 2012.

A protest rally in Moscow on May 6, 2012

In other cases under Gromov’s tenure, journalists have been removed from the presidential pool for publishing negative stories about Putin. Tregubova, the author of the book about her time covering the Kremlin, is one such example. Another reporter, Pavel Aptekar, was expelled from the pool after reporting without Gromov’s permission about Putin’s cancelled visit to a school in the North Caucasus on the day of the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan.

But the presidential press pool is also a source of income for people close to Gromov.

In 2005, when Gromov and Mikhail Lesin, then an adviser to Putin, created Russia Today (now known as RT), Gromov insisted that Margarita Simonyan be the channel’s first editor-in-chief, according to a man who participated in the discussion.

Gromov and Simonyan remain good friends, and Simonyan’s family has done well from the relationship.

Lesin himself would later die under mysterious circumstances in a Washington DC area hotel after breaking with Putin.

A Steady Job

In exchange for his years of loyal service, the Russian state has taken good care of Alexei Gromov.

According to his official asset declarations, his average yearly income since 2008 has been just under $200,000.

He also owns a 961-square-meter mansion on nearly 3,000 square meters of land in elite Ilyinskoye, not far from the presidential residence in Novo-Ogarevo. According to the land registry, before coming into Gromov’s possession, this plot of land belonged to the state.

Similar properties in the same village have recently sold for about $5 million.

In Moscow, the Kremlin official’s family occupies three adjoining apartments, taking up 500 square meters in a luxury high-rise in the upscale Presnya District, where apartments currently sell for $12,000 per square meter. At such prices, the Gromovs’ apartments would be worth about $6 million.

But two of the apartments technically belong to the state, according to property data obtained by The Project. While Russian officials can be granted state housing, by law they should receive only one living space, said Ilya Shumanov, deputy director of the nonprofit anti-corruption organization Transparency International Russia.

The third apartment is owned by “Alexey Gromov.” This property is not listed in Gromov’s declarations, which indicates that it likely belongs to his son, who has the same name.

When the apartment was acquired in 2014, the younger Gromov was 22.

Connections Count

The younger Alexey Gromov is now 26, but he is already a successful and versatile businessman.

In 2017, the young man obtained a stake in LMZ Skad, a car wheel rim factory in the Krasnoyarsk region which is under the majority control of Rusal, a natural resource giant belonging to influential billionaire Oleg Deripaska. The company reported revenue of $36 million that year.

In the same year, the younger Gromov obtained a 33.3 percent stake in MKM Logistics, a garbage collection company. According to Russian business newspaper Kommersant, he bought his shares from oligarch Roman Abramovich. But he remained in the garbage business for just a few months before selling his shares to the company’s founder, Mikhail Chigirinsky.

Stanislav Novikov, a partner at FBC Grant Thornton, an auditing and consulting company, evaluated the value of the sale at $10.5 million. That estimate is based on the company’s profitability, access to long-term government contracts, and financial indicators.

Representatives of MKM Logistics and the company’s shareholders declined to disclose the details of their business.

Alexey Gromov, Jr., did not respond to requests for comment. His father, Alexey Gromov, declined to comment for this story.

Alexei Gromov Jr. Photo: VKontakte

Gromov’s Good Friend

RT is Russia’s best-known pro-government international news outlet. Not surprisingly, it’s run by one of Alexei Gromov’s good friends — and her family hasn’t done badly.

At Gromov’s insistence, the first (and current) editor-in-chief of Russia Today, the worldwide pro-Kremlin channel now known as RT, was Margarita Simonyan.

Gromov and Simonyan remain good friends, and Simonyan’s family has done well during their relationship.

Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Putin at a celebration honoring RT’s 10th anniversary. Photo: kremlin.ru

Several years ago, a large company in Russia’s Bashkir region was in need of public relations support. A call was made from the presidential administration to recommend Alisa Simonyan, Margarita’s younger sister, for the job, The Project was told by a source familiar with the issue.

Alisa Simonyan was hired to provide PR for large state projects the coverage of which Gromov oversaw, including the Olympic Games in Sochi, the World Cup, and the construction of Russia’s new bridge to occupied Crimea, despite the fact that she was not known to have any experience in the industry.

Margarita Simonyan confirmed to The Project that her sister worked on these events.

Her privileged position was especially clear in the case of the Crimean bridge, which opened in May 2018.

Alisa Simonyan was hired to provide PR for the project by Stroygazmontazh, the construction company working on the bridge, which is owned by oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, a friend of Putin.

The PR staff hired by Alisa Simonyan work through an association called the Crimean Bridge Information Center, according to one of its employees. The center was established by subsidiaries of RT, which Margarita Simonyan heads, but it is supervised by Alisa.

Asked about this arrangement, a representative of Rotenberg said Alisa Simonyan is a Stroygazmontazh consultant and that she “cooperates” with the information center. Rotenberg funds the information center with his own money, according to his representative.

Gromov’s youngest son, Danila, also works in the center. Responsible for social media marketing, among other things, he created the viral “Bridge Cat” campaign, built around images of a real cat said to have been involved in the bridge’s construction.

Alisa Simonyan is in high demand because she is “capable,” but also because “all are impressed by her connections,” said an employee who has worked with her.

Margarita Simonyan is also engaged in her own independent commercial activities. She confirmed to reporters that after becoming head of RT, she started a PR business and hired Alisa, who later left to start her own firm. She stressed that she is not a public official and has the right to engage in private business, but declined to disclose the names of her clients.

Margarita Simonyan insists that her business has nothing to do with Gromov. “He doesn’t even know who our customers are. Our business began and has developed without any participation from Gromov. I can confirm this on the [lie] detector,” she told The Project.

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