The U.S. branch of an important Russian diaspora organization is under investigation by the FBI, according to five sources familiar with the matter. The investigation has included the questioning of dozens of people associated with the group, as well as home and office searches, the sources told The Daily Beast.
The group being investigated, the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots of the U.S. (known colloquially by its Russian acronym KSORS), is part of a network of organizations committed to advancing the interests of Russian-speakers throughout the world. Some experts say that this network can be used as a limited source of “soft power” to advance the interests of the Kremlin.
These kinds of diaspora networks “serve to reinforce links between diasporas and the homeland—that's their main function,” George Washington University professor Marlene Laruelle told The Daily Beast. “And to a lesser extent, [they] create groups of citizens who can promote some of the Russian narratives adapted to each local context—but that function doesn't work well.”
The full extent or focus of the probe remains unclear. But one source claimed the investigation involved “a lot of visits and a lot of questions to members of the community, and I’d say nationwide.” According to two people questioned by the FBI in 2020, the questions suggested an interest in how KSORS handled its funds.
“[The agents] were polite, friendly,” one Russian questioned by the FBI told The Daily Beast. “A lot of people were questioned. I don't know the exact number, but a lot. From different states.”
Another questioned by the FBI told a similar story: “Yes! People from the FBI came to me. But it was not very serious. They did not take a translator and we used Google. That was funny.”
The source continued, “The questions were formal. Because they were not interested in anything other than the financial side of KSORS. But I had very little interaction with KSORS and did not know anything. I did not receive any money. And I don’t believe there was a lot of money there.”
Critics among Russian-speaking diaspora groups in the United States claim that KSORS became increasingly adversarial amid the escalation of tensions during Russia’s occupation of the Crimea.
Former KSORS chair Igor Baboshkin told The Daily Beast that after being re-elected chair unanimously, he was unceremoniously removed from his position after he refused to cosign a statement supporting Russia’s occupation of the Crimea.
“In the year 2014 when I left this organization, the Russian embassy took over and put in other people who had agreed to support Russia like a Fifth Column,” Baboshkin remarked, using the term for a subversive, clandestine foreign network. “They organized a Fifth Column from the people who are ready to work with the [Russian] embassy.”
These Coordinating Councils channel resources to cultural initiatives championing Russian history and understanding between nations, but there can be a fine line between anodyne cultural celebrations and promoting a political agenda, Kseniya Kirilova, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, told The Daily Beast. “The most difficult thing here is to distinguish where ‘innocent’ events dedicated to the popularisation of Russian literature, language, a commemoration of dates from the common history of nations, and so on, end—and destructive ‘information operations’ begin,” Kirilova explained.
Particularly troubling for some in the Russian-speaking community were camps appearing around the United States to celebrate martial aspects of Soviet history. Footage of one 2017 camp co-organized by current KSORS member Igor Kochan shows men dressed in Soviet military-style garb lining up for a gun salute with officers in blue caps on either side, NKVD-style. The camp had assembled to pay homage to the “Immortal Regiment,” in memory of those who died fighting the Nazis in World War II.
Footage of another camp outside of Sacramento shows children marching and undergoing firearms training.
Anton Konev, a member of KSORS who spoke with The Daily Beast by phone, said the camps simply included “Civil War re-enactments and WWII re-enactments.” The Soviet themes represent “part of history,” rather than ideological commitments, he stated.
Konev also disputed Baboshkin’s claims, insisting that the latter had been removed through an election, not by an embassy action.
In 2018, the FBI sent investigators in Seattle to question activists organizing Immortal Regiment events about financial accounts and transactions around the movement, as well as groups involved in it. (One source, for example, recalled specific discussions with the FBI “about KSORS and the Immortal Regiment.”)
Antonov denied any ongoing FBI investigation into KSORS, calling such claims “yellow journalism.”
A central figure in the 2018 investigation, current KSORS member Sergey Gladysh, told The Daily Beast, “What I can say is that the FBI has routinely paid visits to people within the Russian-American community for years… even well before 2018. To this day, however, I have not heard of anyone being detained or charged with any wrongdoing.”
Gladysh confirmed that he is currently in Russia on business. Another KSORS member, Anna Vernaya, told The Daily Beast that she is also currently in Russia, but would return to the U.S. later in the year. Konev told The Daily Beast that KSORS’s current chair, Elena Branson, and Igor Kochan are also in Russia attending to family matters.
Elena Branson is listed by KSORS as the president of the Russian Center NY, whose headquarters in a Manhattan one-bedroom residential apartment on Central Park West sold in late March for just under one million dollars. Branson, Kochan, and other members of KSORS’s 10-person council either did not respond to emailed inquiries or declined to comment.
On May 25, Kremlin-linked political scientist Sergey Markov posted a photo of himself across the table from a seating card labeled “Igor Kochan.” Markov’s post states, in Russian, “More and more people who have previously gone abroad are returning to Russia,” citing as reasons, “the economy, the pandemic, the destruction of the European way of life there,” and “a new type of political repression.”
The FBI refused to comment, “per our usual policy of not confirming or denying the existence of an investigation.”