ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—This city’s infamous “troll factory,” the focus of one series of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments almost 10 months ago, is still out of bounds to journalists, even if its efforts to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election is now so well-known that Russian state television openly jokes about them.
But the world is less familiar with another operation reportedly underwritten here by the very same buddy of President Vladimir Putin who allegedly funded the trolls at the Internet Research Agency. Often dubbed “Putin’s chef” because of the enormous catering contracts on which he built his fortune, Yevgeny Prigozhin is the central figure in that Mueller indictment (PDF).
He is also the alleged money man behind the Federal News Agency, known by the Russian acronym FAN, which wages information war by other means, specifically by pretending to be a legitimate source of solid reporting.
Traditionally, journalism’s role is to hold the government to account when it fails to tell the truth or respect human dignity. That is what reporters at Russia’s independent media groups still believe when they investigate state corruption, report on human-rights violations, or government policy failures.
But that’s not the way FAN views things. Its watchword is not truth or justice but “patriotism,” and its unabashed aim is to propagate a semblance of news that supports the Putin government.
One might see in that a certain parallel with the Fox News version of reality in the United States, but with Prigozhin’s project there’s an added wrinkle. It is widely reported that he is also the man behind a mercenary army known as Wagner, whose combatants, mostly recruited from the regular services and the military intelligence apparatus known as the GRU, have been reported fighting in Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic.
FAN’s agenda is to wage information war against Putin’s and Prigozhin’s critics in Russia, Ukraine, Syria, the United States, and Africa. The number of battlefields just keeps growing.
More than 12 million people read FAN’s news on riafan.ru. Meanwhile, the government of Ukraine in Kiev accuses the agency of “information terrorism.” This year, Facebook shut down the agency’s accounts, which infuriated FAN’s managers and inspired them to take the conflict to the enemy, as it were. The Russian information soldiers physically moved to Washington.
On Friday, The Daily Beast spoke with FAN’s general director, Yevgeny Zubarev, about that strategy.
“When Facebook banned us in April,” he said, “we declared that we would respond by establishing a group in America, we called it USA Really.” Then he added defiantly, “Whoever wants us to surrender should not count on it. We are not going to be quiet.”
Zubarev complained that he had received “attacks from the USA” in the form of multiple emails from American organizations and the government fighting fake news. “The United States Cyber Command writes to me to say that what I am doing is wrong, that their job is to fight trolls,” said Zubarev.
A Cyber Command spokesperson declined to comment.
Zubarev insists that his agency had nothing to do with the “troll farm.” Last month, however, The Daily Beast reported that FAN and the IRA trolls operated out of the same address, used the same internet infrastructure, and shared links to some of the same staff.
When asked to confirm or deny that FAN is owned by Putin’s friend Prigozhin, who funds the IRA, Zubarev took a long pause, then said it was his right to keep the owners anonymous. He was much more comfortable speaking about his agency as a victim of American pressure. “Our colleagues based in the U.S. receive threats,” he said. “Last month, the FBI detained Alexander Malkevich, the manager of USA Really, at Washington airport. The FBI questioned him for several hours, then gave him an official notice proclaiming USA Really a ‘foreign agent.’”
Zubarev found it funny that the United States would do what Russian authorities have been doing for years: labeling organizations with opposition views and overseas funding as “foreign agents.” Zubarev actually giggled. “The pattern is just the same,” he said.
FAN’s head office is in St. Petersburg, on the ground floor of a grim red business center called “Ilyich” (Lenin’s patronymic name ). Zubarev did not want The Daily Beast reporter to see the newsroom: “I don’t think there will be anyone to show you around,” he said.
According to an investigative report by RBK Group, recognized in Russia for independent journalism, the “media factory” costs more than $3 million a year. It employs as many as 250 people serving 16 web portals, where you can find news, stories about Russia’s geopolitical tensions with the West, or about an actress posting her nude photographs on Instagram. Independent media experts warn that each piece of information published on FAN needs to be double-checked.
In late November, police arrested two men for setting FAN’s office on fire. Zubarev blamed Kiev for financing the attack by paying “radicals” in St. Petersburg.
“We know who tried to burn our newsroom in October; each attacker made around 25,000 rubles [$370] and they acted on an order by either Ukrainian Nazi groups or SBU [Ukraine State Security],” he said. “Among our staff we have a big number of political refugees from Ukraine, where they have faced death threats, so they are biased in their coverage of Kiev,” Zubarev said, and then added, “But every publication is biased.”
Zubarev did not agree that it was professional for a journalist to criticize his government, and alluded to the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, the longtime dictator of Libya who was deposed and killed in 2011. “Gaddafi built a great country and now look at the consequence of criticism against him.”
For Zubarev, a Russian journalist’s role is to be a defender of the motherland, and therefore to say only good things about its government—at least if the motherland is Russia.
To fight the information war in Ukraine, the Russians have put up at least two websites aggregating positive news about Ukraine’s eastern regions, controlled by pro-Russian military forces, and negative news about Kiev’s policy.
On Sunday, these were some of the headlines:
“Kiev May Be Planning a Chemical Attack”
“Kiev on the Verge of a Large-Scale War”
“Heirs of Fascists”
Zubarev complained about the difficulties of operating in Ukraine, where the government maintains “fake-news kills” and treats Russian infowarriors the same way it treats conventional Russian soldiers: by arresting them. “As soon as they discover our stringers [freelance reporters] in Ukraine, they report to SBU and accuse our people of extremism or terrorism.”
Propaganda rules oblige Kremlin-controlled media to avoid harsh criticism of Putin or of Kremlin policies, which officials call “provocative” coverage. For example, last Thursday FAN did not publish a single word about the first television interview with Katerina Tikhonova, described by dozens of news outlets as “Putin’s daughter.”
It was surely too good and too surreal a story to miss: She was talking about brainwaves in front of a screen featuring a wired human head. And yet FAN did not cover the story—the children of the Kremlin are apparently taboo.
“If a controlled media makes a mistake, they receive a call from the presidential administration,” says Georgy Bovt, editor in chief of Russkiy Mir magazine. “Though today we see youth in media with strong noses for the political winds; the presidential administration does not have to call them, they sense political correctness.”
Nobody at the Kremlin had to drill FAN’s boss when it was founded in May 2014. “I was originally ideologically ready, when I came to this job, I had clear conservative views,” Zubarev told The Daily Beast. “Nobody needed to advise me on how to manage the agency: We are defending the motherland on the information fronts.”
Not many Russian media outlets paid much attention to what was called “Prigozhin’s media factory,” as opposed to his troll factory. But then three independent journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while shooting a film about Wagner, Prigozhin’s private military force. Several groups of independent journalists trying to investigate the murder suspected that Prigozhin might be behind the assassinations.
Out of journalistic solidarity and respect for the profession, most Russian independent media outlets make sure to describe FAN as a firm “linked to the ‘troll factory’ and Yevgeny Prigozhin” whenever they quote the websites, but not always. Last week, Medusa, a Riga-based online newspaper and news aggregator, cited FAN without any caveat, simply saying, “According to FAN agency’s source,” in one of their own stories. This is how disinformation can be laundered and allowed to seep into the mainstream media.
Professional journalists with good reputations would hardly want to be associated with propaganda, but some may compromise when the pay is good, says Alexander Gorshkov, editor in chief of Fontanka.
Fontanka reported on the direct link between billionaire Prigozhin’s security chief, Yevgeny Gulyaev, and Wagner forces fighting in Ukraine and Syria. Fontanka has been speaking with Wagner soldiers, publishing their names, photographs, and documents since 2015. “I don’t think that FAN or USA Really will be dangerous for Americans, just like Radio Liberty’s website does not play any significant role in Russia; though we should not even compare Liberty to USA Really,” Gorshkov told The Daily Beast.
St. Petersburg is a city of communities where journalists know each other. Gorshkov said that most of FAN’s staff had nothing to do with journalism but they could write a patriotic post on Facebook, which was good enough to get hired.
“Prigozhin’s structures employ professional journalists, along with former policemen and semi-criminals," Gorshkov said. "FAN pays about 60,000 rubles [$896] a month, which is a big salary for a reporter based in St. Petersburg. As with Wagner soldiers we have interviewed, their biggest motivation is money.”
Prigozhin and Wagner are some of the most dangerous topics to report on in modern Russia. Fontanka, TV Rain, and Novaya Gazeta find their reporters under surveillance, receiving death threats as soon as they cover these topics.
“Originally, Prigozhin created his media factory to go after all his critics; every time I am about to publish or have published something about him or his Wagner, they attack me from all sides,” a journalist at TV Rain, Lilya Yapparova, told The Daily Beast.
Political figures in the Russian opposition also complain about attacks by FAN. A year ago, FAN published a story about deputy Boris Vishnevsky’s “secret meeting” with Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his aide Vladimir Kara-Murza in Tallinn. “First, there was nothing ‘secret’ about my meeting with Kara-Murza, I had published my photograph with [Kara-Murza] on social media; second, I did not meet with Khodorkovsky—that was a fake piece of news,” Vishnevsky, a deputy at the St. Petersburg legislative assembly told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “Prigozhin’s propaganda machine, FAN, is not to be trusted, they target people like me with fake news.”