After Mueller’s Indictments, an Interview With a Mole Who Was Inside Russia’s Pro-Trump Troll Factory
Since 2015 Lyudmila Savchuk and her Internet World team have been running their own investigation of the Factory’s methods. They wonder what took Mueller so long.
MOSCOW—When Lyudmila Savchuk read the U.S. federal grand jury indictment of 13 Russians accused of interfering in the the 2016 U.S. elections and other crimes, including bank fraud and identity theft, she was disappointed. All of those named by special counsel Robert Mueller were connected to the Internet Research Agency, also known by its infamous sobriquet the Troll Factory. Savchuk used to work there, and Mueller’s list, she said, should include hundreds of people.
“I am super excited to see the indictment, but for now 13 trolls sounds like a joke,” Savchuk told The Daily Beast on Sunday, after she read and studied the 37-page document.
Since 2015 Savchuk and her Internet World team of 15 anti-trolling experts have been running their own investigation of the Factory’s methods. They’ve looked at the way it hired “bot drivers” to create slanted or completely fictitious posts that automated networks could spread like wildfire across social media, and they’ve studied the campaigns and projects of the Troll Factory on both social networks and pro-Kremlin media.
So, they had a pretty good idea from the moment they read about the indictments and saw initial reactions what the Kremlin’s line would be: as Savchuk put it, “To laugh and mock the U.S. investigation.”
And that theme, as it happened, also was picked up by U.S. President Trump.
First he suggested, in a classic Trumpian non sequitur, that if the FBI had wasted its time on the Russia investigation it might have stopped a deranged teenager from murdering 17 people at a Florida high school. Then Trump claimed he never said Russia did not meddle in the U.S. elections, only that his campaign had not colluded with them. Then this:
“If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S.,” Trump tweeted, as if there were any question about that in the judgment of his own intelligence services and, indeed, of his own chief of staff, “then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!”
That was early Sunday morning, Mar-a-Lago time, and by then, the Russians had indeed set the tone.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quick off the mark on Friday, posting on her Facebook page, “Turns out, there’ve been 13 people, in the opinion of the U.S. Justice Department. 13 people interfered in the U.S. elections? 13 against billions budgets of special agencies? Against intelligence and counterespionage, against the newest technologies? Absurd?—Yes.”
Aleksey Pushkov, a Russian senator wrote on Twitter of Mueller’s work: “The mountain gave birth to a Nano-mouse and now they try to fill it up with air, to turn into a terrifying mouse.”
In fact, nothing about the new indictments suggests that they represent the end of Mueller’s investigation. Nothing about them excludes further indictments related to collusion by Trump campaign officials, several of whom are now actively cooperating with Mueller’s team. And nothing about the ongoing investigation of substantial allegations against Russian government agencies, including the foreign intelligence service, SVR, the domestic state security, FSB, and military intelligence, GRU, all of which allegedly have participated in operations meant to impact the U.S. elections.
The Troll Factory, for instance, is not alleged to have played any role in the hacking of Democratic National Committee and related emails, many of which were then disseminated through WikiLeaks. Those critical operations were the work of other players allegedly backed by the Kremlin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov may have had all this in mind on Saturday when he tried to dismiss the indictments as “just blather,” noting that U.S. officials “can publish anything, and we see those indictments multiplying, the statements multiplying.”
“There should be nothing funny here for the Kremlin’s guys,” Yulia Latynina, an independent political analyst, told The Daily Beast. “They should know that even if they use a rusty weapon to attack a foreign state, even if they fail at their efforts, they would get punished.”
Observers from the Russian opposition welcomed Mueller’s action, but wondered why it had taken the U.S. so long to harvest what they saw as pretty low hanging fruit. The existence and operations of the so-called Internet Research Agency had been well established in a number of investigative reports well before the American elections.
In the summer of 2015, The New York Times Magazine published an extensive report on the Internet Research Agency’s dirty tricks in the United States, including a social media campaign to spread panic in Texas about a nonexistent terror attack. Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny put out his video investigation of Russian trolls in August 2015. And just last October RBC magazine published a 5,000 word report on the Troll Factory that laid out in considerable detail how it tried to influence the U.S. race for the presidency with a budget of $2.2 million and 100 people (not 13).
Savchuk and the information she had gathered at the Internet Research Agency figured in several reports. She published her articles in Novaya Gazeta and other independent newspapers, and she said she would be happy to talk to Mueller’s investigators, but, so far, he hasn’t been in touch.
It was just about three years ago that Savchuk, an investigative journalist, volunteered to become a mole at the Factory. Her Internet World team watched it from outside, taking photos and videos of hundreds of employees walking out of the four-story building every day at 9 p.m., while a new shift crowded by the entrance, ready to walk inside and sit shoulder to shoulder at their tightly lined-up desks, composing posts on fake accounts until 6 in the morning.
The Factory, at that time, was operating from a building in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg at 55 Savushkina Ave., but earlier this month it moved into a seven-story business center with multiple exits. So now it is harder for the observers to count and identify the Factory’s employees.
“The bot farm is working today. Thousands of people are involved in the propaganda machine attacking U.S. and European Union democracy. I believe there is more than just one building,” Savchuk told The Daily Beast. “There must be trolls in the United States, too, but in Russia we have cheap labor, people happy to work as slaves for a miserable fee.”
In 2015, there was a security camera over Savchuk’s desk, she said, watching as she wrote “casual posts about Ukraine and other international affairs.” The special project she was assigned to work on was the LiveJournal blog of a fortune teller that is still up on the web.
Savchuk said that every employee at the Factory reported to “a tall, bald guy named Oleg Vasilyev,” she was surprised not to find Vasilyev on the Mueller’s list. The former mole said she had known a few of the Troll Factory Thirteen, including Gleb Vasilchenko, Mikhail Bystrov, and Mikhail Burchik. And when she checked Facebook friends of people from the indictment list she found Sergei Karlov and Robert Bovda, who also were “men I saw at the Factory.”
She said she does not remember two women from the Internet Research Agency, Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva, who allegedly traveled to the United States in 2014 to gather intelligence for their operations. But the indictment notes that both had left the agency by the end of that year, before Savchuk started there.
The agency promised to pay Savchuk around $700 a month, but the activist managed to keep her job there for only two and a half months, until the day her employers discovered her secret, that she was a journalist with an agenda, and attacked her for being, to say the least, an insincere troll.
Later, Savchuk took the Factory to court for not signing any work agreement with her and for not paying her salary for one and a half months of work.
“I won the hearing only because the court system was not prepared to defend the Factory on labor disputes,” Savchuk explained to The Daily Beast. “But that court hearing helped our investigation a lot: two official representatives of the Internet Research Agency showed up at the court—that was how we knew that the Factory existed on official papers.”
The only document the Factory wanted Savchuk to sign was a secrecy agreement, obliging her not to describe the nature of her work even to her friends and close relatives. But that she was not about to do.
Ugly messages have been bombarding the journalist ever since her last day at the bot farm. Her critics call her “traitor,” an agent for the CIA and the State Department. Meanwhile, fans of Russian President Vladimir Putin, of whom there are many, seem to think the way social media are manipulated in his favor is just fine.
“Even my mother’s friend was shaking her head on hearing about the secret Factory where people write pro-Putin posts around the clock: ‘What an honorable job it must have been to be supporting the president at such difficult time!’”
Before getting a job at the factory Savchuk researched the biography of its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, known in the media world as “Putin’s cook” because much of his fortune was made from a catering business given enormous government contracts. That’s why the indictment included two Prigozhin’s companies besides the troll factory: Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering.
Part of the document describes Prigozhin’s broader disinformation campaign as the Lakhda Project.
Lakhda is the name of the Saint Petersburg suburb where Prigozhin built his Troll Factories. “Prigozhin’s villa is also in the same area,” Savchuk told The Daily Beast. “Lakhda seems to be Prigozhin’s favorite word.”
Maybe that’s because it is a long way from the prison where Prigozhin spent nine years in the waning days of the Soviet Union before emerging to open a hot dog stand, become a Putin buddy, and make billions. “Prigozhin’s criminal past seems to be cloudy,” said Savchuk. “It requires deeper investigation.”
Back in 2015 Savchuk was one of the oldest employees at the Troll Factory. Most were in their mid-twenties. All the Factory needed from its employees was some ability to write well, and there were teachers of Russian and English for those who could not compose sentences in well-articulated troll.
Posters on the walls listed themes of propaganda subjects, which changed from day to day. “The USA and the EU were always at the top, as Russia’s main enemies,” Savchuk recalled.
“I would like to see every tiniest troll punished, so everybody, even those who carry a tripod for the Factory’s camera men realized that they will have to take responsibility for distorting reality.”
—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey