(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Some remarkably audacious Russian-language investigations of President Vladimir Putin and his next of kin have hit the web in recent days. In the not-so-distant past, such explosive stuff would have, and did, cost editors their jobs and publications their livelihoods. The Kremlin considers these investigations part of an organized campaign. But if so, Putin himself is its unwitting number one organizer — not only because there’s plenty to investigate, but because his ostensibly successful campaign to control the Russian media is backfiring in a technological environment that has left Putin far behind. He must now contend with an emerging group of independent outlets that are both more nimble and less vulnerable to institutional pressure.
Up until recently, the private life of the Russian leader and his close relatives has been mostly a no-go zone for Russian media. Editors knew that entering it would have consequences. In 2008, the newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent was hastily closed down by its wealthy owner, Alexander Lebedev, after it published allegations that Putin was about to marry former rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabaeva and Putin himself angrily denounced the article as an “erotic fantasy.” In 2016, a series of stories about Katerina Tikhonova, who has been identified as Putin’s younger daughter by various media though the Kremlin has not confirmed her identity, and the Russia-related materials in the Panama Papers affair resulted in the dismissal of the top editors of RBC Daily, a leading Russian business newspaper. The paper’s owner, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, had his business premises searched by law enforcement agencies. After the editors were gone, the pressure ceased.
Now, the taboo has been broken spectacularly by two websites that have emerged in recent years — proekt.media and istories.media. Roman Badanin, the founder of Proekt, was one of the RBC managers who had to leave in 2016. The founders of Istories, a collective of investigative journalists whose leader, Roman Anin, doesn’t like to be called editor-in-chief, were involved in the original reporting on the Panama Papers and shared the 2017 Pulitzer Prize awarded for that effort.
Proekt fired the first shot with a report about a woman named Svetlana Krivonogikh, who went from working as a cleaner to a position of wealth and power as the owner of, among other things, Putin’s favorite ski resort near St. Petersburg and a stake in Bank Rossiya, in which some of Putin’s close friends also hold shares and where Putin himself keeps his salary account. The report alleges that Krivonogikh, who would not answer reporters’ questions, has a daughter born in 2003 who looks remarkably like Putin. A professional resemblance analysis is cited in the report; Proekt wouldn’t publish photos of Krivonogikh’s daughter because she's a minor, but internet doxxers soon found the photos and put them out on Telegram channels for all to see. In 2003, of course, Putin was still married to the mother of his two previously known daughters.
Istories delivered its own salvo with a piece based on a year-long investigation into the hacked emails of Kirill Shamalov, who, between 2013 and late 2017 or early 2018, was married to Katerina Tikhonova. The email archive contained everything from wedding photos and bills for the furnishings of two luxurious homes, one of them in Biarritz, France, to details of a sweet deal involving shares in the Russian petrochemical giant Sibur, which made Shamalov an instant billionaire. Bloomberg News reported in 2018 that as the marriage fell apart, Shamalov also lost most of his stake in Sibur.
Proekt added insult to injury with a story on Yury Kovalchuk, the billionaire and close Putin friend, and his business ties with Tikhonova, Kabaeva, Krivonogikh and Maria Vorontsova, who has been identified by media as Putin’s oldest daughter.
Both publications have done highly professional, exhaustive investigative work. None of the specific allegations in the stories has been officially denied (or, for that matter, confirmed). Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has refused to comment on the substance of the stories, calling them “an information attack” and adding, “We know more or less who organizes this activity, this work.”
The Kremlin’s problem is that it cannot do much with that “knowledge.” Neither Proekt nor Istories has a wealthy Russian owner or backer. Neither is officially registered as a Russian media outlet. Both can easily uproot and move: They are small organizations with a handful of employees and corporate entities outside Russia (in Lithuania in the case of Proekt and in Latvia in the case of Istories). Both have made crowdfunding appeals, but both apparently receive support from Western foundations that promote independent journalism in the former Soviet Union or investigative journalism in general.
To Putin’s propagandists, who have investigated the funding of Proekt and similar media, a relationship with these non-governmental organizations is damning evidence of something akin to spy activity. But to the journalists themselves, the Western funding is pretty much the only way to support their dangerous work in Russia. Advertisers and wealthy Russian sponsors are out of the question because both succumb all too easily to Kremlin pressure. And it’s hard to rely entirely on crowdfunding: The accounts of organizations that are the most successful at it, such as opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, are regularly frozen by the authorities or emptied out by expensive lawsuits brought by Kremlin allies.
An investigative media outlet in today’s Russia needs to be light on its feet and hard to pin down. The smaller its footprint in the physical world, especially in Russia, the better it can do its job — and the fewer no-go zones designated for the traditional media matter to it. The journalists who work in these small, flexible, mobile teams are technically savvy (the Istories website even has a page where its reporters share their knowledge of visualization, statistical and programming tools). They can work from anywhere, and they can handle data that has been intentionally scrambled to defy analysis. They are creatures of a world deeply alien to Putin, who does not use the internet on his own and often appears to prefer the late 20th century to the modern version of reality.
At the same time, they continue Russia’s powerful guerilla tradition that helped crush Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in the 1940s. The likes of Proekt and Istories are harder to fight than the “regular armies” of traditional media, but they can sting more painfully. Their reach is limited, of course, but the investigations do go viral on the social networks, and they add to the general public’s understanding of the regime’s nepotistic, mafia-like nature. This accumulated knowledge may not immediately threaten Putin’s hold on power, but it increases the gap between his system on the one hand and the young, the smart and the underprivileged on the other.
Of course, the guerilla projects’ reporters do their job at considerable personal risk. At any moment, any of them can be subject to a surprise arrest, an attempt to plant drugs in a backpack or an apartment, a seemingly random beating. But sticking to the journalistic profession in Russia has long carried that kind of cost in traditional media, too. By bringing the older newspapers, websites and other media outlets under its direct or indirect control, the Kremlin hasn’t increased reporters’ private risks, but it has taught the most stubborn of them to minimize institutional hazards. Now it’s paying a price — at least in the eyes of those Russians who keep their eyes open.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. His Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984" is due out in early 2021.
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