Transcript: Peering Under the Rug: Sources of Information about Russia

This week’s podcast is a roundtable interview I conducted at the University of Pittsburgh for the Center for Russia, East European, and Eurasian Studies Spring Series, “Spying, Archiving, Reporting: Information in Eastern Europe”

The following was recorded on March 28, a week after the Justice Department released its memo on the Mueller Report.

Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite. 

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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

Mark Galeotti is a Senior Associate Fellow at Royal United Services Institute. He’s the author of many books, most recently The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia published by Yale University Press and We Need to Talk About Putin published by Penguin. He blogs about Russia at In Moscow’s Shadows.

Kevin Rothrock is the Managing Editor for Meduza English.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Adviser at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. He writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications. He’s the author of The Tragedy of Property: Private Life, Ownership and the Russian State published by Polity.

Given the title of today’s event, “Peering Under the Rug: Sources of Information about Russia,” I thought we’d start by having each of you explain where you go for information about Russia. What media and what contacts do you rely on to find out what’s going on in Russia?

Mark: What is the secret answer? Where do you find all the truth? Of course, the honest answer is there is no secret answer. There is no single source. That’s the point. I think we are in a position at the moment in which, for all the understandable talk about Russia as authoritarian, about censorship, and so forth, there is a bewildering and massive array of material at our disposal.

The problem is not, “There’s no material” The problem is, “I do not have time to read all the material.” So really the thing to do, in my experience, is to try and go, “Yes. I have some places, media outlets, that I look at daily.” Vedomosti and key newspapers. Television is ridiculously state-controlled, full of the most toxic and bilious propaganda around. If you think, “Oh well. It’s five minutes of hate.” If only it was just five minutes . . .

Actually, in terms of the internet and the print media, there is still a vast amount of really interesting stuff. But I think, rather than just say, “Well, there’s this person and there’s this outlet,” and so forth, for me one of the key things to do is to make sure that I periodically move outside the obvious self-referential bubbles. For me, that also means looking at, for example, what the ultra-nationalists and the statists are saying. What’s being said on Tsargrad, for example, which is the brain child of Konstantin Malofeev, this ultra-orthodox, ultra-nationalist, not quite an oligarch but a minigarch who was a key figure in Crimea and still a key figure in the Balkans. You’ll get a very, very different kind of perspective from that.

I basically spend as much time as I’ve got looking at different sources. And then, I have a basis for when I talk to people in Moscow. Let’s be perfectly honest: my experience is that, particularly if you’re going to be talking about anything that in the most broad sense fits into the realms of security—and in this day and age almost anything can be a security issue—people are much, much more constrained about what they will say by email or by phone because they will assume they are being tapped and so forth. Which is ridiculous, in a way. Yes, the state has the technical capacity to do so. What it doesn’t have is just simply the people to be listening. But I think old paranoid habits have reasserted themselves depressingly quickly. So, in my experience, I get much more from talking face-to-face with people I’ve known for a long time.

But even then, what you’ve got to realize is this an information-scarce society. Everyone knows that they don’t know what’s happening in the black box around the leadership. As a result, information becomes a commodity, and everyone wants to pretend that they know what’s going on. If you talk to eight different people, you’ll get ten different theories, all of them expressed with absolute confidence. That, “Absolutely. I know some guy at the Presidential Administration.” It appears that the people of the Presidential Administration, which is the most important institution in Russia, all must be incredibly gregarious because it seems that everyone in Moscow has got an array of friends in it. But the point is: no one really knows.

My final point is, you’re always going to be just balancing a whole series of possibilities. You’ll get a whole bunch of data points, and it’s up to you and your gut—which is why it’s not political science—to try and work out how to connect those data points and paint a picture.

Maxim: It’s so complicated, I don’t even know how to describe this, but we have a huge and very vibrant scene in Russia, and not just writing, but also YouTube, podcasts, and social media. There is the Telegram messaging app which has channels so anyone can write little bits and publish it, and then people subscribe to it. Some of those Telegram channels are very widely read.

Many of them are terrible because they pretend, exactly as Mark said. Many of them are anonymous and pretend to be friends of Presidential Administration people. They write some stuff that is complete and utter nonsense daily. But there is also some useful stuff there, too.

You learn to sift through this and filter that. It’s just very raw. The material in Russian is out there in abundance. They’re huge: long pieces, short pieces. Breaking news gets immediately discussed, but it’s very raw unlike what people write in English. When I read in English, it’s like taking a rest. Like, taking a quiet moment, because you see there’s logic. I mean, regardless of whether the logic is correct, it is there just because people write in a certain way.

When people write in Russian, it’s a very different culture. It’s sort of a stream of consciousness kind of writing, which is very, very common. So, the Russian scene is really huge and it’s growing. The competition is terrible, which is kind of very weird and strange to be in Russia and here in the US where there’s this daily news that the Kremlin is trying to control this and that. All the state-run TV channels broadcast all the weirdest, the craziest things on a daily basis. Still, there’s enormous competition and it’s very hard to get yourself a readership not unlike in the west, but kind of in a different way.

This is the strange situation that we’re in. Do a kind of a thought experiment, and try and get rid of the state media, which are huge and very wealthy. They have both subsidies from the state, and they monopolize the advertising market. But if you subtract that from the scene, you basically get this huge broth and primordial kind of soup that needs to be structured but has no structure whatsoever. I anticipate a time when this state-run media is gone—it’s inevitable. They will go away at some point because it’s a completely ridiculous and an unnecessary luxury for the regime. And what remains will have to be structured, and that’s the work that we in Russia will have to do because right now it’s really such a mess, such a mess.

Kevin: I sympathize with reading Russian journalism, which is generally what I do for my job. A lot of it is this stream of consciousness stuff that Max’s talking about. But at the same time, when I read the American press about Russia, that’s when I start to hyperventilate, and I quickly get exhausted. I think maybe they take it too much in the other direction where it is so structured and so grand and so geopolitical, that when I’m reading, I’m like, “Does it have to be about Putin, again? Does it have to be about the balance of power and about these grand ideas?” It’s too big and I appreciate the granular focus you can get in the domestic Russian media. And that’s natural. I’m sure you get really granular stuff from a local paper in the US.

I work from Connecticut, by the way, so all of my sourcing is completely remote. I have some connections in the world of Russian journalism, and I’ll talk to them about the industry, but I wouldn’t describe it as high-level intelligence. I get plenty of that through Telegram, generally. That’s where people are most comfortable bad-mouthing each other.

I agree with Max about the Russian media. There’s a lot there. I think of it in terms of spheres. For businesses, you can go the top three: Kommersant, Vedomosti and maybe RBC. For headline breaking news you’re actually going to end up going to a news agency like, RIA Novosti, TASS, or Interfax. A lot of the stories you see written up in the independent media are just patch-written stories based on a breaking news story that just appeared on RIA Novosti an hour ago before. So, it’s not as though anything affiliated with the state is toxic and you have to stay away from it. Some of it’s just straightforward, factual, “Here’s a quote. Here’s what this ministry said,” sort of thing.

The state news agencies are the titans of general information, and then you’ve got the independent media. You may have heard of … if you follow Russia at all, you’ve got Dozhd, Mediazona, which is maybe not as well-known, but it’s fantastic. They report on the criminal justice system and it was founded by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot. They combined the money that they were magically able to collect after getting out of prison and put it into this amazing outlet. It has some donations, now, I think. I don’t know exactly how it’s run in terms of finances, but it’s an indispensable news outlet.

Mediazona also have these live blogs that they run from courtrooms. There’s really no better way to learn about the absurdities of the Russian justice system than to see a live blog of like, “Hour five of the verdict being read out.” Mediazona is a great source for that.

There’s also an exploding cottage industry of online investigative projects. The two that come to mind are both started by guys named Roman. There’s The Insider and Proekt, which is a little bit newer. The Insider has worked with Bellingcat a lot and was instrumental in breaking the news stories surrounding the Salisbury GRU agents. These guys are just working online and have small staffs, they’re in-country, and they’re doing really great work.

Outside of the country, you also have a lot of fantastic news outlets. Meduza, where I work, is obviously one of them. But there’s also BBC Russian and RFE/RL. They are doing fantastic work. Some of it’s not so fantastic. RFE/RL just had to pull a story that was about Yevgeny Prigozhin doing something illegal in the catering industry or something. It was based entirely on an anonymous source and, the only thing they could verify about him was that he was a businessman. It’s not stellar journalism. But that’s an isolated case. But that was the Radio Svoboda people, not the RFE/RL’s core team.

A lot of Americans’ understanding of Russia, of course, comes from the American media. Of course, the one story that has dominated American media about Russia in the last two years has been Russiagate. Mueller finally issued his report, and if you take what the Justice Department says, Mueller found no collusion between Trump and the Russian government, even though the report does state that the Russian government interfered in the American election.

Given that so much of the American media has been invested in this scandal—what do you make of Russiagate, now that we’ve finally heard that Trump is apparently not an agent of Putin?

Kevin: My Russian colleagues have always been deeply skeptical of the allegations, maybe even to a fault. They even rejected the idea that the cyber-attacks were Russian, and that seems to be relatively incontrovertible at this point. Now, that doesn’t say anything about the influence it had, or about the Internet Research Agency’s trolling which, I think, elicited the most skepticism from Russians and maybe just people in general. But it’s been a very frustrating time. I’m glad to see it over. Not because justice was served or anything: I have no idea about that. But just personally speaking, it’ll be nice when Russiagate does go away.

It’s frustrating for me because my job is to translate news about Russia from Russian, the idea being, “Hey Americans,” or, “Hey Anglophone world. There are things happening in the Russian media that you would love to know about, and here they are in English. You wouldn’t know about them otherwise.” Naturally, at least in the United States, the attitude is, “Well, where’s the smoking gun? Where’s the story about Russiagate that we’re not getting?” The answer from Russia, is that, “It doesn’t exist. At least, not so much in Russia, because this is an American story.”

I don’t mean that it doesn’t exist so far as it interests Americans. That’s certainly true. But even the sources and the geography of where the story has been written and investigated seems to be mostly in the United States, in Washington, and not so much from Russia. I mean, you have some stuff about the Trump Tower, and meetings at the Miss Universe pageant and so on, but for the most part it’s really been an American-based story. So, if it is indeed over, happy days.

Maxim: True: this is an American story. If you look at the way it’s reported, it was mainly from Washington, from the US, and rarely from Moscow. Because even when it was reported from Moscow by Moscow-based American or international journalists, they would immediately come up with very skeptical stories. Because if you know even something, a little something about the way Russia works, you would immediately notice that this whole Trump Tower story was really fishy. The stories would always mention the Russian contacts. They are like 3rd tier or 4th tier figures who are completely irrelevant. You wouldn’t expect any of people like that to be really important.

All this probably means is that Trump had very bad contacts in Russia. The fact that he failed to do a project just means that he just failed in Russia. It’s not that hard [to do a real estate deal in Russia]. Then, to use this as proof of some kind of conspiracy is really weird. This doesn’t mean that there was no “meddling.” There was. But again, the Russian secret services have been doing this for ages, so none of that is particularly new. It’s just now it’s so well known. So, from the start, it was a kind of a strange story and that’s why there’s been a lot of skepticism in Russia.

When the summary of the report was published it was basically a dud in Moscow. Like really very, very little interest. At the same time, there was this big news about a former government minister getting arrested, and that was big news compared to the Mueller Report. You would think that this entire Russia story would be a major story in Russia, but it isn’t, strangely, even in the Russian independent media circus. State-run television and media would, of course, mention it all the time but with their own spin, which is very predictable.

Kevin: I think that’s been true throughout the entire Russiagate story: it’s not just with the Mueller investigation being over and the summary coming out. But throughout. This is something I’ve noticed working at Meduza. There’ll be some kind of major story involving Russiagate and I’ll think, “Wow. This story seems like a big deal.” And the interest in the Meduza newsroom is like, “Meh. We’ll maybe do a short little news brief on it.” Then I’ll see the traffic and it won’t be that large and I’ll think, “Well, I guess they knew their audience on that.”

But it’s shocking to me how when I talk to relatives, and I don’t have any Russian background, about my job, they naturally assume it’s entirely Russiagate stuff. Like, they probably think I’m like working for Mueller or something. But the interests that drive the news cycles in Russia and the United States are very different.

Maxim: I remember long discussions on Russian social media, “Why do Americans call Mueller, Muller?” That almost attracted more attention than Russiagate itself.

Mark: Having just flown from Brexit Britain, it’s always quite charming to find somewhere where there’s an even more lunatic discourse than at home. But the point isn’t that. This story was never about Russia. This was always about Trump, and it was driven as much as anything else by political, ideological, and even aesthetic dislike of Trump in which obviously anything goes. And, again, to pick up on a point that’s just been made, if one looks at the Western press core in Moscow, one or two of them are really dim, but actually most of them are very, very good. They’re assiduous, they’ve got language skills, they know the country, and so-forth. They themselves are just so frustrated that there are all these important stories and their newsrooms are just simply saying, “Yeah, but what about Trump?” And they’re saying, “There is nothing about Trump.”

I think this has been not just a sign of the fact that in modern media, we’re still in a position where relatively few gatekeepers actually shape much of the narrative, but it also says something about Russia. In my recent book, We Need to Talk about Putin, I mention that in some ways, we all have our own personal Putin. Likewise, we all have our own personal Russia. That, in fact, what Russia actually is matters much, much less than how we would like to imagine it.

For a while now, Russia has become precisely this kind of cartoonish Soviet Union, where everyone works in lockstep and there is a single grand plan. No doubt, in a desk drawer in the Kremlin, there is this strategy as to how we will use “Agent Donald,” and so forth. Then there are all these people saying, “Russia’s not like that.” I’m not saying that Russia’s always a nice place. Exactly: there was meddling. Only that there’s these bizarre bottom-up entrepreneurial people trying to do things that they think will please the boss. But this doesn’t matter. That wasn’t the picture reporting on Russiagate painted, and the reality took second place to the fantasy Russia.

The irony is that, as it were, the real story is about meddling. I agree with Kevin that’s it’s questionable how effective it was and whether it did the job. We would always like to have a scapegoat. Believe me: if I could blame Brexit on Putin, rather than the insanity of my fellow citizens, I would be so happy. But, you know, we have to realize the Russians have not generated magic mind control powers. But nonetheless, there is a real story there, but it’s become almost relegated to the, “Yeah, yeah, there was that” because everyone was so excited by this thought that somehow Trump had been suborned.

The final point I’m going to make: if I had been a case officer sitting in Yasenevo, headquarters of the Foreign Intelligence Service, on the outskirts of Moscow, and I’ve been running “Agent Donald,” from the beginning, even during his election campaign, I’d be saying, “For God’s sake, stop praising Putin. You actually need to be telling everyone that Putin is the Anti-Christ so that when we do activate you, and use you to our advantage, no one will think it’s because you’re soft on Putin. They’ll think that there’s some good geopolitical reason.” I mean, so many really basic points just did not add up, but that didn’t matter. Everyone was excited by the thought that they could blame Trump on a nefarious foreigner.

And everyone was thinking that this was going to be the grand story. Because I also work on organized crime, the number of times, particularly when the whole business of money in the Trump Towers was an issue … (Look. Obviously, the Trump organization is … let’s see, some would say a pyramid, or an organization that constantly needs more money coming in because it’s so badly managed. As a result of that, basically any money, as long as you don’t come in with a suitcase full of cocaine-smeared $100 bills, essentially gets you through the door.)

But there was a point where basically every week, I’d be being rung up by a different journalist who’d say, “We found a connection with this particular Russian business person. Is he Russian mafia?” And I’d have to perform their every expectation of the wooly-minded academic by saying, “Well, it depends what you mean by mafia.” Because the guys they’re talking about are not these tattooed leg breakers. They were shadowy, dubious, business people who basically dominate the Russian business scene, and especially the kind of Russian businessmen who are buying glitzy apartments in Trump Tower in New York, or whatever.

But the point is, everyone was thinking, “This is going to be my Pulitzer prize moment. I’m going to connect Putin to the Russian mafia, and the Russian mafia to Trump.” Whereas, actually, there was a real story. It’s a story about venality, and incompetence, and corruption, and a whole bunch of people, not just one person, who basically don’t see that there’s anything wrong with taking dubious money. Who don’t see the boundaries between what should be legal, illicit, and above all, ethical, and what isn’t. But that’s been lost because there was this much more exciting story that somehow Trump was this deep-cover mole, as if he could ever have kept that secret.

Putin does play a very outsized, dominant role in Americans’ general understanding of Russia. He’s either a mastermind, some sort of super villain. How should we understand Putin? What is his place in the Russian system?

Mark: Most importantly, we should understand him as a symptom rather than a cause. In some ways, I think of Putin as the last Soviet leader in that he is of that generation. He’s probably the last leader who’ll be of that generation of homo sovieticus who are raised and socialized in Soviet times. He’s of that generation that also had, as adults, to cope with that traumatic moment where literally overnight they went from being citizens of one of the great super powers of the world, to being citizens of this ramshackle almost failing country that no one really cared about anymore.

I don’t make everything about Brexit, but I would say that if British experience is anything, it takes a long time to learn that you’re no longer that special. And you kick against it. You try and find ways of saying, “No, actually, this is why we’re really special. Okay. Our GDP may not be up there, we may not still be able to color large portions of the world red. But nonetheless, there are other more civilizational, more foundational, reasons why we as a people are naturally special.”

Putin came along, and he was an agent in this process, but he was also someone who was picked by other interests at a time when they basically said look, “The country is falling apart, we need someone else, someone who is sober, someone who actually can speak for our interests, and someone who will bring us back to where we should be. To make Russia great again.”

In that context, we need to understand Putin as part of a wider process of Russia rather than precisely this bare chested superhero who took a country and reshaped it. My final point is, there’s a whole series of myths about Putin that I explore in my book. One of the many myths that really bugs me is this idea he is this brooding geopolitical grandmaster sitting there with his three-dimensional chessboard while we, in the West, are still trying desperately to understand the basic rules of checkers.

The point is that he’s not. He’s not that risk-averse. He’s not that daring. He’s actually, on the whole, very hands-off when it comes to distributing large contracts to his friends. Actually, we have very, very much bought into a carefully manufactured myth that fits our needs because we would rather have him as a Bond villain, responsible for all of our woes, and which also fits into the Kremlin’s needs, too. They have done their best to package him in those terms: all those bare-chested antics and the like. That’s actually how I think Russia itself, in some ways, is trying to package it.

There was this video called “Ya Russkii Occupant – I am a Russian Occupier.” Because I am essentially morally bankrupt, I loved it. It was this splendid, very, very fancy, high-tech, “So? You want to call us occupiers? Yeah. Okay. We’ll own that. We are occupiers. We occupied the Baltic states, and we built factories, and as a result they built ships, and then they asked us to leave and we left. Now, they’re cleaning toilets throughout the European Union.” The video was very much an attempt to appropriate the outside myth of Russia as being the bad boys of geopolitics and say, “Okay. You want us to be the bad boys? We’re going to be the bad boys.”

I think that this, in many ways, has become a Russian strategy of sorts. I’m playing with this concept: we have hard power—military force, and soft power—the force of example. In some ways, I think the Russians have been playing with something I’ve been calling “dark power” which is the force of being feared; that you actually want to look more formidable. That sense of, “No one’s going to be our friends. People have decided that we’re the bullies in the schoolyard. Okay. We want to be the biggest, baddest, scariest, bullies out there, because then no one messes with you. People will actually volunteer to give you something out of their lunchbox.”

I think, in some ways, that has been something that the Russians have fallen into using as a strategy. Again, I think that fits us, so both the Kremlin and the west have collaborated in building this mythology.

Maxim: I agree. There are lots of schools of thought on Putin, obviously, because this is the subject, even in Russia. But I would say there are two poles, two extremes: one school essentially says that Putin is tyrannical and that this is a new totalitarianism. You can pick up Masha Gessen’s book. It even has the word ‘totalitarian’ in the title. But then, on the opposite end, there is a school that says that Putin is a Wizard of Oz kind of figure. Essentially, he’s absent.

When you talk to all those people from the presidential administration, one thing that you keep getting is that Putin is never in his office, that he’s very lazy, he’s taking long hours in the gym, swimming. Whatever he’s doing, he’s not working with documents, as was the case with Boris Yeltsin which was code for him drinking. Basically, Putin is not known for drinking much, but he’s not known for working a lot either.

So, you have these two opposing theories, and you cannot verify either. The Kremlin and the administration love to keep all these things bubbling and being discussed. They love the existence of various schools of thought, so it’s hard to tell. Putin, even in Russia, remains kind of a mystery figure, a myth. For now, there is very little that can be seriously done to verify either of the theories, or any theories in between. You know, what exactly is his role is.

I tend to be closer to the “Wizard of Oz school,” but at the same time, it’s very clear that Putin is the person behind all those high-profile arrests, court cases, trials, that are happening increasingly often in Russia right now. You cannot possibly think that he has nothing to do with this; he does, because it doesn’t work this way. He should be the person to approve-

Mark: But, can I say, when you say “behind”, as in he initiates or just simply someone else says, “Look. I want to take so-and-so down, boss. Is that okay?” And he says, “Fair enough.”

Maxim: Yeah. I think the theory is, again, it’s impossible to verify this. But the theory is, and it’s very common in Russia, is that basically Putin gets a lot of various suggestions and nefarious plans being brought to his desk. Then he sifts through them, and then he approves some of this, and he disapproves some of that. I’ve heard numerous stories from people who used to work with him that he very rarely proposes anything of substance himself. He listens to people, and people come to him with all kinds of projects. His role is to choose.

From the news, we see what kinds of people he chooses to arrest, and to give it a go, and what kinds of people remain, and what kinds of people basically remain outside of the news circle. It’s a separate subject; I won’t go into this. But basically, this is ongoing theory about him, that he is an arbiter, a person who chooses various projects rather than has a strategy of his own.

Kevin: This isn’t really my wheelhouse. I don’t write up op-eds or books like either of these two esteemed gentlemen, but I will say that reading Russian columns and summarizing them for a newsletter for Meduza, I would say, and I suppose I’m agreeing with Max, that there’s not really a consensus when it comes to Putin’s role in the regime or in everyday politics. I will say that it seems to me, and maybe this is just the bias of what I’ve been reading and the sources that I tend to choose, but it does seem as though there is a perception that since the annexation of Crimea, Putin has been distracted with foreign adventurism and he’s delegated more domestic policy.

While that’s been happening, they’ve also been clearing out a lot of the old guard, and they’ve been introducing what Tatyana Stanovaya says is a corporate structure, and that Sergei Kiriyenko, the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, has been treating it more as a business, and that he’s went to these managerial training schools, and that this is a significant development in the managerial style that the Kremlin uses.

The only really noteworthy thing I would say is that you get very fundamental disagreements on this issue in Russia, as well, which you obviously get in western scholarly work.

Maxim:  Just very quickly, I have an idea for a project for anyone interested, because it’s a subject in need of study. Sergey Kiriyenko is known to be a follower of something called “Methodology.”

Kevin: Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and stuff?

Maxim: Yeah. It’s not exactly a science, but it’s a kind of a venerable late-Soviet school of thinking with at least one huge book behind it written by a Soviet philosopher named Georgy Shchedrovitsky. This is called “Methodology” and it’s this entire philosophy, well not exactly a philosophy, but a kind of a very weird late-Marxian Soviet, but not conformist Soviet, way of thinking that was meant to be a way out for the Soviet Union to build a properly functioning management for governance.

There are lots of followers of Methodology in the government right now, especially in the Presidential Administration and the Skolkovo school, which is kind of a business school in Moscow. Strangely, the subject is not studied. It is a mystery to me, really. But it exists. It’s not something that people hide, conceal, or something. It’s open information and you can look into it. It would be really interesting to figure this out and look into this, and to see how it works and what it means. Because right now, Kiriyenko is a very, very powerful man in Russia. He’s managing a huge part of the day-to-day domestic policies.