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Monday, March 05, 2007

Commissars of the Internet: Conclusion

Today we bring you the sixth and final installment in the "Commissars of the Internet" series, an original LR translation which exposes how the Kremlin is attempting to take control of the Internet.

Last Monday, we read the authors' introduction to the subject of "Internet Brigades." Then last Tuesday, we learned the details about their organization and activities and on Wednesday we examined their ideology and strategy. Last Thursday, we began reading about the brigades in action against their targets, and on Friday we continued that story. Today, we complete the saga.You can find the entire article to date on the new website LR is constructing to house its major translations, located here. The first major translation, "Spare Organs," is also already there.

It's also worth noting a recent piece in the International Herald Tribune which shows that the Kremlin is approaching this not only from the demand side but also the supply side, seeking to co-opt bloggers by bribing them to report favorable information about the Kremlin. The article states: "Some bloggers close to the government admitted that in order to insure that certain news is spun a certain way, or that certain items get leaked, money does change hands. Ivan Zassoursky, a marketing director at SUP-Fabrik and a media expert, says, 'Can you give someone money to organize a demonstration? Sure you can. So why can't you give someone money to write something on ZheZhe?'" Since the Kremlin owns all the major television stations and many newspapers, and even operates it's own English-language propaganda forum "Russia Today," it should surprise nobody that it is using its oil windfall to buy off the blogosphere as well. And those it can't buy it seeks to destroy.

Here then is Part II, Installment 5: The "Brigade" in Action, conclusion.

Commissars of the Internet
The FSB at the Computer

Anna Polyanskaya, Andrei Krivov & Ivan Lomko
September 16, 2006

(continued from last Monday)

Part II. Commissars of the Internet

The Brigade’s “gift of prophecy”

As a consequence of their specifically Soviet mentality and upbringing, brigadniki often slack off and do slipshod work, allowing annoying leaks which site administrators must then fix, by erasing the leaks along with large pieces of the rest of the forum.

For example, in October 2002 several brigadniki from the MN forum, presenting themselves as “patriotically-minded emigrants”, suddenly, without making any connection to the topics of the forum, launched into a campaign to discredit and expose a certain Mr. Limarev, who was completely unknown to the forum. It later turned out that Mr. Limarev ran the site “RusGlobus”, which was critical of the current Russian regime.

The postings of these “everyday readers from various countries” were unusually full of private information, including details of the unheard-of Mr. Limarev’s business and personal life, including his home address and telephone number, pseudonyms, names of his family members and bank account numbers. Two women were especially eager to expose Mr. Limarev, both of them long-time contributors to the forum, one of whom claimed to be a doctor in Ireland, the other an American real estate broker; both were passionate admirers of Putin and the FSB.

All of this brought a certain degree of confusion to the forum, inasmuch as none of the participants in the discussion could understand why the women were discussing and denouncing this unknown person, about whom so much personal information was being revealed.

The reason for this untimely “kompromat spill” became apparent two weeks later, when the magazine Moscovskiy Komsomolets ran an article by the journalist Khinshteyn [TN: Aleksandr Khinshteyn, also a Duma Deputy and well-known mouthpiece for the FSB; most recently involved in the purging of the leadership of the Russian Jurists Association (AYuR)] about how the FSB had sent an agent named Sultanov to France six months before to secretly investigate the creators of an anti-KGB site named RusGlobus. Among the creators of this site was the mysterious Mr. Limarev, whose address and bank account numbers had been posted by the Brigade on the MN forum.

The premature publicizing on the Internet of materials derived from operational sources of the FSB, two weeks before their first appearance in the mass media, resulted in a local Internet scandal. Many readers asked the obvious question: Who are these people, really, who have constantly appeared on this forum as opponents, presenting themselves as well-meaning residents of various countries, if they have access to information from the bowels of the FSB even before it is known to the journalist Khinshteyn, with his rather specific reputation? The remarkable “foresight” of these prophetic ladies might have been thought to put the prophetess Baba Vanga to shame, were it not for all their previous propagandist activities on the site, which had long before caused readers to have doubts about their true place of work.

After the scandal broke, the MN site administrator simply purged the archives of all the forums on which the women’s postings had appeared. When he was finished, not a trace remained of this premature leak of information.

Yet another very telling incident occurred on the forum of the journal “Novaya Gazeta” in February 2002, when a certain person under the nickname “Obaldevshiy ot Anni” (“Driven crazy by Anna”), in remarks on an article by Anna Politkovskaya, posted this text:

George Soros made a big contribution to “Novaya Gazeta” for the creation of databases of people kidnapped in Chechnya, hostages and war criminals. Soros later returned to see how his grant money was being spent. No databases whatsoever. But here our little Anka, the machine-gunner, shows up again. And it all makes perfect sense. How can one create such a database, when the horrible FSB is always encroaching on the life and dignity of poor Ms. Politkovskaya? But it would appear that in this case Soros is not buying it. Soros is now planning to cut off financing to “Novaya Gazeta” due to “improper use of grant money”. So there it is. And one more thing – for the serious specialist: Why in the world would the FSB defend the GRU? They have always been the fiercest competitors in every area of activity – both intelligence-gathering and covert action. They’re like the MVD and Prosecutor General, ready at any moment to take each other by the throat. And if a GRU spetznaz officer ever committed a crime, the FSB would do everything possible to expose it. The GRU are war-fighters, white-boned aristocrats, while the FSB is the successor to the KGB. Between them there will never be peace, they’ll never eat from the same bowl.

The above text was repeated almost verbatim by FSB representative Ilya Shabalkin on this exact topic. This would be nothing surprising, except that the announcement of Comrade Shabalkin took place just four days AFTER the appearance of this posting.

Obviously, one hardly needs to add that the anonymous person’s information, prematurely leaked on the “Novaya Gazeta” forum and repeated by the senior FSB officer nine days later, had absolutely no basis in reality and was quickly refuted by both the editors of Novaya Gazeta and the Soros Foundation.

Yet another similar “premature” release of information onto the Internet occurred on a forum of the magazine “Moskovskiye Novosti”. Strangely, its author presented himself as a Georgian artist of pro-communist leanings living in Europe. Here is his text, most interesting of all being the date – April 13, 2002:

With regards to the skinheads and fascists in Russia, maybe for a complete picture we should consider the possibility that the Western intelligence services have had a hand in this, eh? On the principle of “divide and conquer”. Just like they did with ultra-nationalist and fundamentalist organizations in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Why not suppose that the Chechen “freedom fighters” and “Moscow skinheads” were organized by one and the same force? The KGB men have no use for ultra-nationalism, because it destabilizes the region, and former KGB officers would never cut off the branch on which they are sitting. But well-organized neo-Nazis in the Soviet space might be quite useful to the west. By the word “west” I mean not the people of North America and Western Europe, but the intelligence services of those places. And their various propaganda specialists.

Six days passed. April 19, 2002 arrived. An then on the site there appeared the following, very doubtful report:


Information available to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs indicates that Russian “skinheads” may be receiving financial assistance from abroad. This was announced on April 19 during an interview by “Interfax” of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Aleksandr Chekalin. He believes that “we cannot fail to consider the foreign here, and we cannot exclude the possibility that young skinheads are finding sponsors and supporters from outside the local area.” “Our job now – together with the intelligence services – is to prove or disprove this”, the deputy minister emphasized.

So this “Georgian emigrant-artist”, always in solidarity with the pro-KGB Brigade of the site, managed to anticipate on the forum exactly the amusing and very doubtful announcement of the MVD representative, who subsequently was not able to come up with any proof or further developments.

Not long ago [in 2003], there erupted not just a local but very widespread Internet scandal on a similar theme. On a whole range of Russian forums there appeared a group of very well-informed people, all under the same nickname, “Ramsey”, who presented very specific information derived from intelligence sources.

The site and both reported that from the very beginning of the war in Iraq, intelligence information from the GRU on U.S. military actions in Iraq had leaked onto a variety of military and military-history forums and sites through postings under the pseudonym “Ramsey”. Analysts at “Gazeta” and “Lenta” carefully compared these reports with reports from the western press and coalition military commanders and came to the conclusion that all of the information was not only verified by official sources, but had appeared in advance of its first being mentioned in the western press. The online publications “” and “” suggested that in this way the Russian intelligence services were carrying on a virtual war on the side of Iraq, against America. If in Soviet times the intelligence services served up disinformation and leaks via the nationwide “Sarafan Radio”, and political propaganda was read to people at their workplaces, then today the Internet has given them a simply unprecedented new capability for similar manipulations of public opinion.

After these publications by “Ramsey” on the forums of, there appeared an approving posting by a regular member of the Brigade from Irkutsk:

The GRU in Iraq is working at full strength. This structure was, thank God, not destroyed by the democrats. They shoot me off a few things too, limited, of course. They themselves told me frankly, “Just what you need to know.” Nothing startling, all according to the law…

It is somewhat difficult to imagine GRU employees “shooting off” from Iraq their intelligence information to a modest little engineer in Irkutsk, who immediately posts this information on forums.

The most common occurrence of sloppy work by the Brigade appears when brigadniki are too lazy to correct their typographical mistakes and alter at least a bit the style they use under various identities and “legends”. As a result, they make themselves recognizable, like a portrait on a dollar, thereby reducing the “effectiveness” of their work. For example, a male personality will repeat word for word what he just said as a woman. It sometimes happens that one of these personalities will be offended personally by something that was said (nothing human is strange to them), and suddenly from the reserved image of a noble old widow will hatch the alcohol-soaked mug of a retired sergeant of the internal security service.

When did all this start?

This phenomenon is relatively new, very little studied, and is still awaiting researchers. As recently as 1998, such a large number of readers of a uniform type, with a conservative pro-government point of view, making use a common methodology and base of information, simply did not exist on the RuNet. People with communist and fascist viewpoints appeared only extremely rarely, and were found on forums in the ratio of about 1:50 in comparison to people of democratic persuasions. Much less were there any such “active measures”, following exactly the actions of the authorities. There were no personal, planned, mass houndings of one or another political figure who was out of favor with the current authorities. No obvious propaganda or counterpropaganda actions were visible, especially actions synchronized with government propaganda and precisely following the changing positions of Kremlin ideologues.

Here we present a short quote from one of the personalities we have described, in which he attempts to explain the unusual sociological transformation of Russian public opinion on the Internet, starting in 1999. By way of background: the brigadniki nowadays often call their opponents “paid propagandists of Boris A. Berezovskiy, or “BAB, Inc.” Clearly, it is too taxing for the soldiers of to imagine that their opponents might have their own motives for being on the Internet (such as their world view, political convictions and other such obsolete concepts) beyond conducting agitprop for money. So here is how the uniform personalities explain their simultaneous mass genesis on the RuNet:

“It is funny how the entire argument for the BAB, Inc. team’s main thesis rests on the fact that a couple of years ago the ideological complexion of the RuNet underwent a sharp change. Previously, so they say, a group progressive youth were nailing the Russian government, but now they’re gone. And, well, the fact that the age and social makeup of participants on RuNet forums has changed sharply (representatives of the middle and older generations have started to participate actively in discussions), BAB could care less, since it doesn’t correspond to their strategic interests. So they try to catch a black cat in a dark room that isn’t there…”

The author of this posting openly admits that in recent times there has been a genuinely SHARP change in the ideological complexion of the RuNet, but gives an explanation for this “sociological phenomenon” that does not stand up to scrutiny.

The argument of a sharp and completely unexplained change in the age of participants in discussions is from the realm of unscientific fantasy. In the three years following 1999, there was no universal cataclysm, no epidemic or neutron-bomb explosion, which selectively wiped out only young people. So, did the entire “progressive youth” remain on the Internet? Then how did their proportion change so much? Previously they were 90%, now they are 30%.

There also was no sudden increase in the standard of living for elderly people in Russia, nor any mass campaign to put “an Internet connection in the home every pensioner”. This is something too expensive for most retired people in Russia, and is clearly not their first priority.

There was no massive war, revolution or cataclysm in those three years that would have caused the generations on the RuNet to switch places. And without a social cataclysm, generational change and changes in ideology are very slow and gradual, always and everywhere -- in all countries and in all eras.

Another thing about these old folks in Russia – the ones who supposedly in 1999 suddenly got themselves on the Internet and piled into political forums (which is absurd on the face of it): among those aged 40-60, with a level of education sufficient to make a hobby of the Internet, these folks often have more radical pro-democracy views than the “progressive youth”, which by and large is not interested in politics at all. As for pensioners being supposedly “nostalgic for the Soviet Man”, one should not forget that these pensioners are of the famous “60’s generation”, who were more than a little critical of Soviet realities.

What we recall happening in 1999, however, was something much different from some hypothetical hooking up to the Internet of all the pensioners. Maybe exactly these global political metamorphoses and a total “U-turn” in all areas of Russian life also led to such decisive changes in the Internet? Certainly similar changes occurred over the same three-year period in the broad majority of traditional Russian mass media – newspapers, magazines and television. But the Internet is different from newspapers and television exactly because it is not possible to change its political tilt overnight, just by changing administrators under the guise of a “management dispute”.

Cui prodest? (Who benefits?)

It is completely obvious that the Russian authorities would like to take the mass media under control. The Internet is something new to them though, and methods for taking control developed in newspapers and television work poorly here. One could, of course, attempt to take under one’s ideological control all the leading news sites and most popular online publications by buying them out or infiltrating one’s own people into them (as is essentially happening now). But in the absence of any single Director of the Internet, and the in the presence of a huge variety of web publications and interactive forums where anyone can participate in discussions freely, outside of the range of political censors – in the presence of this great variety of form and substance the authorities are unable to impose on the RuNet any strict and steady ideological line, and cannot reliably control and protect the government’s approach to it. Any yet they must still conduct their propaganda and counterpropaganda.

Compared with Soviet times, the ways and means of government propaganda have greatly improved. Budgetary resources for PR are nowadays never in short supply. Not being privy to the details of the “projects” for “Creation of a positive image of Russia”, “Strengthening of information security” and “Creation of a unified information space”, we would suppose that these cannot help but affect the Internet, and in particular the popular political forums, on which any participant can write whatever he wants. And here is what the propaganda budget figures look like, as provided by “Novaya Gazeta”:

In 2002, Russia spent on space flight 9.74 billion rubles; on military reform, 16.55 billion; on government television and radio, 9.5 billion rubles. In 2003, the corresponding lines of the budget had new figures: On space flight, 7.65 billion; on reform of the army, 15.8 billion; on government electronic mass media, 11.02 billion rubles.

The peculiar thing about any propaganda is that it must always be all-encompassing. If any place is left free of influence from government ideology, then the effectiveness of any propaganda campaign is sharply reduced. It seems likely that exactly this specific feature of the RuNet led to the sudden appearance of hundreds of uniformly national-government, “patriotically”-minded (as they like to call themselves) personalities, who resemble each other like the soldiers of a single division.

We note that on forums people make new acquaintances, groups of like-minded people come together, and public opinion is formed. One can understand how the organizers of “a single information space” and “creators of if a positive image of Russia” would try to destroy in the womb this independent public opinion, even if it is only in the virtual realm (inseparable as that is from modern life).

Such actions, however, often lead to counterproductive results: people on RuNet forums already are striving to defend and support one another against the coordinated aggressions of the Brigade. It was exactly in this way that the authors of this article, living as they did in different countries, met and became friends. Our experiences participating in various web-forums turned out to be very similar. As a result, this article came into being, with our collective observations. But we leave it to our readers to draw their own conclusions from the above.

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