MOSCOW—In the Russian speaking community of New York City he was known as Gregory Vinnikov, the owner of a travel agency called Eastern Tours Consolidated, and a sometime radio host. He allegedly ran up great debts, then took off back to Russia. That sort of story is familiar enough. But with Vinnikov there’s a curious twist.
On Russia’s pro-Kremlin television channels, on some of the most popular talk shows, the former resident of New York is now introduced as Greg Vainer, “a journalist from the USA,” and asked to interpret the behavior of President Donald Trump for a Russian audience.
In one recent edition of Russia’s “60 Minutes” talk show, Vinnikov participated with politicians and senior political observers in a discussion about the threat of war with North Korea. The show’s host, Yevgeny Popov, pointed at a map showing Khasan, a village near Vladivostok, where Russia wraps around China and touches the northwest corner of the North Korean border, just 130 kilometers away from Trump’s potential targets. He turned to Vinnikov: “What should we expect from Trump, who as we can see is completely unpredictable? We woke up one morning to learn that he had bombed Syria.”
The former travel agent, Vinnikov, appeared ready to explain the geopolitical dilemma to the Channel One viewers. “After watching Chinese news for eight hours today, I have the impression that nothing is going to happen, no missile launches are going to take place, and I think that China is ready to smother North Korea with its embrace.”
As for 34-year-old Kim Jong Un: “That North Korean boy is not going to push any button, ever. He would rather escape from North Korea.”
Right after that ambitious bit of punditry, the “American guest Greg Vainer” stepped on some pretty slippery ground for somebody addressing millions of Russians on a pro-Kremlin channel.
“Lets remember the fates of Libya and Iraq,” he said. “They did not fight either. They dumped their regimes.”
Regime dumping is not a safe theme in Russia, and Vinnikov’s statement raised hell in the studio.
Sergei Zheleznyak, an MP responsible for international affairs at the State Duma did not like Vinnikov’s point of view. “It is very comfortable to maintain this wonderfully kind position,” he said, turning on Vainer almost as if the travel agent were set up to take a fall. “Nothing will happen, let the Americans fire away!”
Another participant chimed in about Vainer: “He writes fairy tales—he is an American journalist.”
Today many people in Russia wonder how the immigrant from Leningrad, Gregory Vinnikov, who was organizing visas, transferring Russian pensions for people in the Russian diaspora, and selling tourist packages and air tickets for more than three decades, ended up among Russia’s most celebrated pundits on the Cold War and geopolitics. And perhaps even more suprising, how he has managed to weather the exposure of his dubious past.
In October of 2012, investigative journalist Alexander Grant published a story with the headline “‘Russian’ Victims of Gregory Vinnikov.” The article came out soon after Vinnikov closed his offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan and vanished from New York, leaving several of his clients wondering whether they’d ever get their money back.
Russians in the diaspora were boiling mad, cursing Vinnikov in the press and on social networks, until the businessman confessed to his friends that he felt so desperate at the time he even thought of jumping off a balcony. Finally, Vinnikov promised to pay all the debts back. It is unclear if he ever did.
Vinnikov/Vainer cultivates an image as a sensitive man. Recently in the space of 24 hours he posted several photos and videos of kittens and puppies on his Facebook page.
The Daily Beast requested an interview but did not hear back from Vinnikov. “I have never run away,” Vinnikov recently told Medusa, an online newspaper. “I do not look like an idiot who thinks that he won’t be noticed.”
And, yes, it’s true, the top talk show on Channel One is not the best place to hide.
Those, who knew Vinnikov in the past were wondering how he had managed to build any sort of reputation as an expert on geopolitics. In fact, he just fills a basic need for the Kremlin’s media world: the straw man easy to set up, and easy to knock down.
Last November a television host at St. Petersburg-based Channel 5 asked Vinnikov about European criticism of news coverage by state media outlets RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik: “Greg, you are an American journalist, you are our new and dear guest, please tell us who is the beneficiary of the campaign to discredit Russian media?”
Casually dressed in a sweatshirt over a checked shirt, the 59-year-old Vinnikov spoke with authority: “I have tried to reach the press office at the EU parliament and find out if there is a law about propaganda,” he said, but he claimed he could get no answers.
It is a tough role to be an American citizen or a journalist working for American media and stand up under the heavy artillery of often arrogant criticism or simply abusive attacks on Russian television shows.
The most experienced American correspondents in Moscow, including Newsweek’s Owen Matthews and David Filipov, the bureau chief of The Washington Post, regularly take the challenge and comment on Russia’s most popular TV shows about NATO expansion, Trump’s policies, Cold War developments, and other sensitive topics.
David Filipov, who has participated on Channel One’s “60 Minutes,” told The Daily Beast that he decided to appear on Russian TV for reporting purposes, to understand the chemistry of that often hostile environment. “Most of the people are nice to you backstage,” Filipov told The Daily Beast. “They know it’s for show. And, as I became popular with the TV hosts, who wanted a more-or-less fluent American with a prominent brand name to keep coming on, they would step in and defend me,” Filipov said.
In one of the recent shows the TV host Popov fended off an attack on Filipov from a former Russian diplomat. “Don’t pick on him, he’s here as a journalist,” Popov said.
Back when Russia was still celebrating Trump’s victory as its own, Owen Matthews made a statement that went viral on YouTube. Matthews had covered Russia for many years and he cut to the chase, gesturing as if he were a university professor.
“You gentlemen are cheering in vain, because he [Trump] is not a balanced person, he is a cynic, he lies as much as he breathes, he is an ultimately inadequate person for this role,” Matthews said on live Russian television, and despite many concerned coughs and shaking shaking heads around him, he continued: “This is a tragedy not only for America but for Russia, as well. Donald Trump will show you Kuzka’s Mother multiplied by four,” Matthews promised, alluding to a nebulous threat made popular by Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the old cold war.
Russian politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who bragged to The Daily Beast that he thought along the same lines with Trump, often mock everything American or “American” on Russian television.
In one of the shows on the country’s key “Rossiya-1” channel Zhirinovsky yelled at an American political observer and former editor of The Moscow Times, Michael Bohm: “You are all around Russia, you have 400 military bases here, do you have a single Russian base next to America?” Zhirinovsky was raising his tone. “You were the ones who trained Ukrainian fascists, you were the ones, who staged Maidan, you were the ones who burned Odessa and both Ukrainians and Russian will condemn you for 15 to 20 years,” Zhirinovksy concluded without giving Bohm a chance to speak.
As Radio Free Europe pointed out recently, demand for Bohm took off a few years ago after he called Russia "primitive" on the question of LGBT rights. Since then, as TV critic Irina Petrovksaya wrote recently, Bohm looks like "a pear being smooshed by repeated blows" when he goes on air.
Earlier this month one of Russia’s more popular bloggers, Oleg Kashin, posted Vinnikov’s picture as “Greg Vainer, a USA journalist” and wrote underneath, “Here is a new Michael Bohm!”
In other words, a new punching bag was found for Russian state TV channels: in this case an “American” they can rely on. It doesn't seem to matter if the guy is a fraudster or a credible journalist, as long as he agrees to play his role.