Meet Russia’s trolls: From standup comic to a Siberian Jay Z
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — One tried his hand at standup comedy. Another wrote a psychological dissertation about loneliness among the elderly. A third, from eastern Siberia, studied economics and wildlife management, and was known to his work colleagues by the unlikely nickname of “Jay Z.”
They are among the 13 Russians indicted by a grand jury in Washington in a sweeping conspiracy to defraud the United States and its political system, including the 2016 presidential election, via bogus social media posts and other “information warfare.” The indictment said they sought to support the campaign of Donald Trump and disparaged Hillary Clinton.
The 13 Russians, most of them in their 20s, worked in St. Petersburg at what was known by the nondescript name of the Internet Research Agency, which has since become known as the “troll factory.”
According to the U.S. indictment, the operation was funded by 56-year-old magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was among the 13. An oligarch who has ties to President Vladimir Putin, he has gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in Defense Ministry contracts in recent years for catering and other services, and also is linked to a shadowy company that employs private contractors to fight in Syria.
The agency began its work against the U.S. political system in 2014, the indictment said, and by September 2016, its monthly budget exceeded $1.2 million per month, not including bonuses.
Those employed by the agency have either ignored or refused requests for interviews, but friends, colleagues, open source materials and media reports portray a group of bright men and women in their 20s who were eager to build their careers without worrying too much about the nature of their work.
“They came to the factory and thanks to their personal qualities and knowledge of English, they were rapidly promoted,” former agency worker Lyudmila Savchuk told The Associated Press. She had worked in the domestic section and was not among those charged.
Yevgenia Kotlyar, who has been investigating the agency since last year for independent Dozhd TV, believes that a lot of the trolls saw it as an easy way to earn money.
“They saw it as simple, well-paid work. ... What they wrote was not necessarily how they felt inside,” she said. “It was business and nothing personal.”
The indictment identified Mikhail Bystrov, its general director, as the agency’s highest-ranking official, while Mikhail Burchik was executive director, its No. 2, in charge of operational planning of its U.S. activities. Russian media said Bystrov dealt with organizational issues and Burchik was its de facto chief of the operation, located in an inconspicuous office on the northern edge of the city.
A 31-year-old tech entrepreneur, Burchik owned several companies, including the Commercial News Agency, which was dissolved in December 2017. According to public records, Burchik received several state contracts, including one in 2015 worth just over 1.3 million rubles ($23,000) for the distributing a local newspaper in St. Petersburg.
Contacted by phone by the AP, Burchik snapped: “I have no idea what information you want from me, I am not up to speed with new events and I think that should be enough information for you.”
Speaking with Russian outlets, Burchik scoffed at the indictment.
“If several hundred million Americans are so worried about the activities of an ordinary Russian businessman involved in IT and website development, then it seems that the country is facing a grave situation,” he told the RBK news outlet.
Because Russian law doesn’t allow for the extradition of its citizens, those under indictment are safe as long as they don’t travel to a country that would turn them over to the U.S.
Burchik didn’t seem worried.
“I love my country. There are many beautiful places that you can go to in Russia,” he told the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Robert and Maria Bovda worked as top translators for the agency between November 2013 and October 2014. According to the indictment, Maria was chief of the agency’s “translator project,” the core unit for the U.S. operations, and Robert served as her deputy.
In social media photos posted by Robert Bovda, they are shown smiling and drinking beer on vacation in Crimea. Maria Bovda sports dreadlocks, while Robert posts about his love of music and memes. Their relationship is not clear.
Robert’s former professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, confirmed that he studied at St. Petersburg State University, specializing in the psychology of crisis and wrote a dissertation about the loneliness and dependency of the elderly.
Maria told RBC that she worked at the agency but denied meddling in the U.S. election.
Dzheykhun Aslanov, a native of Ust-Kut near Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, succeeded Robert Bovda as head of the agency’s “translation project,” which also was called the “American department” by the Russian media. He joined the agency in September 2014, according to the indictment.
Aslanov’s English was not as strong as his co-workers’ language skills. He graduated in 2012 from St. Petersburg’s Russian State Hydrometeorological University where he studied economics and wildlife management.
“He was much younger than many of his colleagues. It’s not really clear how a guy from a small town near Irkutsk got to such a senior position,” said Kotlyar, the Dozhd TV reporter.
The indictment lists aliases for Aslanov as “Jayhoon” or simply “Jay,” but he was known in the agency’s office as “Jay Z,” an apparent play on the name of the American entertainer.
Aslanov owned two companies: Azimut and Reputation Management Center. According to the indictment, Azimut was responsible for moving money from Concord, one of Prigozhin’s businesses, to the Internet Research Agency.
Reputation Management Center curates clients’ online reputations, monitoring their digital presence and “drowning negative reviews in a sea of positive information about the company.”
Gleb Vasilchenko was 22 when he joined the agency in 2014 after studying personal relations at St. Petersburg State University’s journalism school.
While a student, he took part in a university-wide comedy competition. Yevgeniy Karpov, a friend and fellow comedian, said Vasilchenko was a talented actor and fondly remembered him telling “excellent jokes” onstage.
“We used to cross paths at university,” Karpov said. “I was always touched by his sincerity and goodwill. He would always help other participants of the competition and did so with total dedication.”
Karpov added: “It was always nice to talk with him, joke together on this or that topic, and it was clear that he was a very educated and intelligent person.”
According to the U.S. indictment, Vasilchenko worked at the agency until September 2016, monitoring and posting on social media. He later headed two subgroups focused on operations to interfere in the U.S. political system, posing as different American citizens.
Karpov said they didn’t discuss politics, describing Vasilchenko as politically “skeptical” and “strictly analytical.”
Another worker on the “translator project” was Irina Kaverzina, a St. Petersburg State University graduate who operated multiple American personas that she used to post, monitor and update social media content, according to the indictment.
After social media companies began working with U.S. investigators, the indictment said, Kaverzina confessed in a September 2017 email to a relative:
“We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.”
She also wrote, “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
Little is known of Sergey Polozov, identified in the indictment as the IT manager who oversaw the procurement of U.S. servers to conceal the troll factory’s Russian location; Vadim Podkopaev, an analyst on the “translator project”; and Vladimir Venkov, who also posted comments while posing as various U.S. citizens.
Two of the agency workers — Anna Bogacheva and Alexandra Krylova — traveled around the U.S. for about two weeks in 2014 to collect information to help the operation.
Bogacheva was a promising student who won a grant to study at St. Petersburg’s ITMO university. She worked as an engineer at the eScience Research Institute, and has run a business called I.T. Debugger that says it work with “difficult clients.”
Most students milling in and out of ITMO, a leading technological and scientific university, were unaware of the U.S. indictment and other related charges.
“Probably she worked there because she wanted better living standards, and it’s hard to find a well-paid job here,” says Nikolai Pleshkov, 22. “Or maybe she wanted to feel like James Bond!”
Irina Borogan, who co-authored “Red Web,” about cyber activities by Russian security services, said the workers’ light-hearted attitude about their job was a way to cope with their involvement in sinister activities.
Kotlyar said some of them probably didn’t understand the consequences of their actions.
“What does this list mean for these young, often open-minded people who want to travel and see the world?” she said. “Now they will not be able to do so easily and will have to look out for their security.”
After a pause, Kotlyar added: “These people really are not stupid ... and this office wasn’t a kindergarten.”
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed.