Since Donald Trump and the U.S. far-right rose to power over the last two years, Charles Bausman’s pro-Kremlin outlet Russia Insider keeps finding a way to pop up in high-profile places across American media’s digital mainstream. Last Monday was one of those days.
Russia Insider’s posts relaying far-right, ultranationalist talking points and anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracies propelled the site to the front page of Reddit in the past year, the fourth-most visited site in the United States.
More than 30 videos on his site’s YouTube channel have received over a million views. Many of them are direct rips from Russia’s propaganda network RT, but retitled with phrases like “Putin crushes smartass” and “Putin fires corrupt bureaucrats like a BOSS.”
But a flagrantly anti-Semitic post on Russia Insider this past Monday has RT publicly denouncing the pro-Kremlin blogger and native of Greenwich, Connecticut.
RT is now claiming Bausman, who insists he has no ties to the Russian government, is no longer welcomed by the Kremlin-run network on which he used to regularly appear.
“RT categorically and unequivocally condemns the disgusting hate speech promoted by the recent Russia Insider article, its author, and the platform as a whole, and rejects any association to such. Charles Bausman’s increasingly disturbing views are the key reason why he was blacklisted by the network two years ago,” an RT spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Bausman’s manifesto, dubbed “It’s Time to Drop the Jew Taboo,” went viral last week for its overt anti-Semitism and wild conspiracy theories. Bausman claims that “the ones shrieking the loudest (about Russian election interference) are mostly Jews, and disproportionately female,” and claims “the whole ‘Fake News’ phenomenon is fundamentally Jewish.”
Bausman knocks The Economist’s Ed Lucas, for example, because his great uncle was an “allegedly Jewish chief of the air staff in Britain during WW2.”
The 5,000-word diatribe was immediately condemned as a neo-Nazi call to arms by high-profile American journalists on Twitter.
“This pro-Putin site's manifesto is basically a Nazi screed in 2018. It reads exactly the same way: ‘We must go after the Jews or we will face societal calamity,’” said Tablet senior writer Yair Rosenberg.
“For the three and a half years of its existence Russian Insider has been pretty blatantly pro-Putin. Yesterday it came out as blatantly anti-Semitic,” wrote BBC home-affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford.
Bausman recently moved back to his childhood hometown in Connecticut from Moscow. His site and YouTube channel are littered with directly copied-and-pasted articles from RT and the state-run news site Sputnik.
RT told The Daily Beast that Russia Insider “is indeed an entirely separate entity from RT” and “does not have a syndication arrangement with the platform.”
Russia Insider’s top three videos on YouTube are segments directly ripped from RT broadcasts, wherein RT’s bottom-third logo remains on the screen. An RT segment titled “WE LOVE RUSSIA: Cameraman faints while woman giving birth in maternity ward” on Russia Insider’s page has 11.6 million views on YouTube.
RT claimed it “directed the website to remove all RT content, video and otherwise” on early Thursday morning, but Russia Insider’s entire catalogue, including RT’s copyrighted content, remained live at press time.
When asked how long content takedowns usually take, a Google spokesperson said that “when a copyright holder notifies us of a video that infringes their copyright, we remove the content promptly in accordance with the law.”
In other words, if RT wanted the videos deleted by now, they’d be gone.
Bausman told The Daily Beast he did not receive any takedown requests from RT and was unaware he was blacklisted by the network. Russia Insider continued to post full articles from RT after the propaganda network told The Daily Beast it had directed Bausman’s outlet to remove all RT content.
“I suspect that that’s not correct. I get calls all the time asking me to come on. I usually don’t because I just don’t have time,” said Bausman.
Since the 2016 election, U.S. politicians have warned against overt propaganda operations like St. Petersburg’s Kremlin “troll farm,” where money flowed from pro-Putin oligarchs to subcontractors who posed as Americans to push pro-Russian talking points.
On Friday, Twitter retroactively warned users who followed, liked, or retweeted those accounts, which were caught by social-media giants and handed over to investigators after political pressure and unceasing public outcry about unchecked election interference.
But media operations like Russia Insider live a gray area in pro-Kremlin Western media circles that might have more staying power: sites that refuse to criticize Vladimir Putin’s regime, but whose financial underpinning is unclear.
Bausman repeatedly denied to The Daily Beast taking money from Russian oligarchs, even after he acknowledged the veracity of a leaked email where he pleaded for money from one. He also admitted he couldn’t think of a time his site criticized the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin.
This sort of ambiguously structured media operation with an outsize following, experts say, presents a much larger challenge than easily identifiable, low-level trolls in St. Petersburg: Are they just Vladimir Putin’s biggest fans, or are they in on it?
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russia’s propaganda campaign relies on this “gray area,” where it is nearly impossible to tell which sites are organs of a Russian disinformation operation and which are “useful idiots,” or mouthpieces susceptible to Kremlin talking points or some that may be legitimate supporters of Russia, its leaders, and policies.
“It’s unknown attribution. With some of these sites, you don’t know how they’re funded, and they’re claiming to be from the people and for the people, but they refuse to criticize Putin, and when it’s that one-sided, it’s hard to believe it’s truly representative of all Russian views,” said Watts, who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee at the outset of the Russia investigation last year.
“There are these sites that label themselves as ‘citizen journalism’ portals, where anyone can submit and post. But we’ve seen the Kremlin use false personas to post at a range of media outlets, submitting articles as part of their Russian active-measures framework. Do we know who these submitters are?”
Bausman’s career path from Wesleyan grad to successful Moscow agriculture executive to pro-Putin blogger, combined with Russia Insider’s strict adherence to Kremlin talking points, led many on the internet to speculate Bausman is working for the Russian government.
In a conversation with The Daily Beast, Bausman said his relationship with the Russian government was “none.”
Bausman, who now lives in Greenwich, spent the better part of the last decade working in Russian agriculture. He was an adviser at Agrofarm Capital and a director at AVG Capital Partners and Global AgInvesting, where he managed millions in “significant holdings in Russian agriculture,” like grain and meat farms, while based in Moscow since 2010. Bausman’s former Twitter account, where he hasn’t posted since 2015, was @RussianAg.
In 2014, he created Russia-Insider.com, which he referred to as a “small personal project” in a crowdfunding letter. In the year after, Bausman purchased several variations of Germany-Insider, Iran-Insider, England-Insider.com, France-Insider.com, and other countries where Russia has a geopolitical interest, according to the domain-research company DomainTools. Bausman also purchased HolyRussia.org, variations of RussianFaith.com, and RussianWord.org.
Along with the rise of Donald Trump, his site garnered viral success on YouTube and Reddit.
In the run-up to the French elections, a post applauding French far-right nationalist and Putin ally Marion Le Pen for “dismantling feminist hypocrisy” reached the front page of Reddit after winning fans on the pro-Trump forum r/The_Donald.
Another post based on the false Pizzagate conspiracy theory, titled “(Hillary Clinton campaign chairman) John Podesta Is a Pedophile and Needs to Be Stopped,” skyrocketed to the top of Reddit’s largest Trump forum five months later.
It’s the site’s popularity, Bausman said, that led to him quitting his full-time job as a Russian agriculture executive, which he admits was considerably more lucrative.
“Part of the decision was that I just loved doing it. I find it so interesting and so rewarding. It was something that I was willing to do. I also felt like it was important,” he said.
Bausman denied continuing work on his Russian agricultural businesses since working on Russia Insider full-time.
But The Daily Beast then presented evidence that Russia-Insider.com shared an IP range with only four other websites, both variations on Russian-Harvest.com and Rostov-The-Great.com, which are dedicated to "Family farms, centered around churches—in Russia.” The sites’ domain names were purchased in 2016, two years after Russia Insider’s launch.
“Those two things you mentioned are not businesses. They’re social projects I don’t have anything to do with,” he said. “I own those URLs, but I was helping friends register some websites.”
In 2015, leaked emails from Bausman to Putin-connected Russian oligarch Konstanin Malofeev drew watchdog sites like The Interpreter to question if “Russia Insider (is) sponsored by a Russian oligarch with ties to the European far-right.”
(A policy consultant on Putin’s staff once referred to Malofeev as “Putin’s (George) Soros” in an interview with Bloomberg News, referring to his billion-dollar war chest, constant political spending, and direct lines to power. His TV network, Tsargrad TV, gives a platform to U.S. conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.)
In the emails, Bausman asks Malofeev’s associate Alexey Komov for cash in English. “I still need money!! Any chance for restarting the conversation?” In another email, Komov asks Malofeev in Russian for thoughts on Russia Insider.
“Any reaction from K?” Bausman asks Komov, the “K” referring to Konstantin Malofeev, two weeks later.
The Daily Beast asked Bausman if he has or had any financial relationship with Malofeev.
“Absolutely not. I can explain to you why that all came up. I’m friends with a guy, we used to work with him. I don’t hide the fact that I’ve been trying to get financial support,” said Bausman. “The answer was no. This email made its way to the internet. Somebody hacked their emails. But they’ve never given me penny.”
Bausman said he relies on crowdfunding to keep his site going, saying he accepts cash, PayPal, and “very little through bitcoin,” which can be anonymous.
Bausman and Malofeev both present themselves as strict Russian Orthodox Christians. (Rostov-The-Great.com points to a program to rebuild ancient orthodox churches in Rostov, a town 130 miles outside Moscow.) On Thursday, Vladimir Putin dove into an icy lake as part of a yearly Orthodox ritual.
Malofeev and Komov are both tied to the American far-right through their work with the St. Basil the Great Foundation and World Congress of Families, an anti-LGBT, anti-pornography coalition. The St. Basil the Great Foundation hosted a meeting about how to stop the “satanic gay lobby” before heading to several WCF events in the U.S.
In turn, American WCF members have closely allied with Putin’s far-right wing in Russia.
“The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world,” WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs said in 2013.
While Bausman couldn’t instantly think of a story published on Russia Insider that went against Russia’s talking points, he said that adjudicating every Kremlin talking point is “not my role.” While he has not printed a story about it, he said he believes banned Putin critic Alexei Navalny should be allowed to run in the upcoming Russian election, but he’s “not interested in writing about that.”
“There are definitely things the Kremlin does that I don’t agree with. We just feel it’s so overdone in the Western media. To add to it is counterproductive. We use what little bandwidth we have and we try to show the other side of the coin,” said Bausman.
Instead, Bausman and his site prefer to push conspiracy theories that ever-so-conveniently defend the Russian government—and attack Moscow’s foes. In a series of posts, for example, Russia Insider pushes a conspiracy theory that the Kremlin had nothing to do with shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. (In April of last year, it published a 6,100-word article called “MH17: One Thousand Days of Faking.”)
Naturally, the site also frequently dips into anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracy theories, like ones that claim she has Parkinson’s disease and others that earnestly speculate that she has been possessed by demons.
Bausman said he was happy with the press attention his anti-Semitic blog post received in the U.S. (A Philips Exeter, Wesleyan, and Columbia grad, he says he moved back to Connecticut to be closer to his mother and brother.)
He later sent The Daily Beast a link to a blog about American neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer’s podcast, saying the white supremacist had an “intelligent, balanced, and well-informed” conversation that largely agreed with his article.
That conversation will no longer be supported by Russian propaganda—at least publicly. “It is regrettable that Russia Insider has inexplicably shifted its mission from providing an alternative perspective on Russian affairs to promotion of ethnic hatred,” an RT spokesperson told The Daily Beast.