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On October 5, 2016, Sergey Kiriyenko took the position of first deputy head of the administration of the President of Russia instead of Vyacheslav Volodin, who was appointed on that day as the chairman of the State Duma’s Federal Assembly of Russia. The first deputy in Putin's administration is traditionally responsible for the internal political bloc, supervises election campaigns at all levels, interacts with parties and public organizations, and monitors information policy. The change of the head of the political bloc was accompanied by a reorientation to other people who serve the Kremlin's political needs at lower levels. It became publicly noticeable six months later.
On March 26, 2017, political consultant Dmitry Gusev organized a discussion club devoted to the rallies that were spurred by the investigative film "He's Not Dimon" by the Anti-Corruption Foundation of Alexey Navalny about the wealth and corruption of then-Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Medvedev. However, the discussion of the rallies turned into complaints by several political technologists about the Kremlin's indifference to them after the change of leadership in Putin's administration. Vyacheslav Smirnov, a political technologist, shared the frustration of his colleagues: " Thank you very much, Navalny, for the fact that we gathered here; we have stagnated and want to speculate in front of the president's administration. Moreover, the most annoying thing is that we do not hear a response. We talk a lot, write a lot on Facebook, and ask for a dialogue, but there's not even a hello... Accordingly, technologists start to get nervous because they don't have money. Political scientists also tighten up; they have long been generally offended people. They are surprised, and they don't even know who to complain to." According to Smirnov, the rally showed that "in the country, thank God, not everything is fine", and political technologists can give the Administration of the President (AP) good advice — but it [AP] stopped asking for their opinions. "They don't give money, they don't give methodologies, they don't give guidance," Smirnov concluded then.
The rebellion of "hungry" political technologists best characterizes Russian propaganda’s infrastructure built under conditions of clan capitalism. In such a system, bureaucrats, political technologists, directors, and business people in a fiercely competitive environment seek to provide their services in return for money and career growth preferences. Various propaganda projects in these conditions are united more by the pragmatic goal of pleasing the top leadership than by a single administration or a coherent ideology. One can see this in the following examples.
In the early autumn of 2022, unknown hackers accessed a million documents of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s structures, Putin's former "cook", and later his associate and assistant in carrying out sensitive criminal operations. The documents ended with journalists from Die Welt, Dossier Center, Insider, Paris Match, and Arte. The Dossier Center (a project of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch who spent ten years in prison under Putin's regime) said the authenticity of the documents had been confirmed based on its previous research, and he published a major investigation into the operation of a giant propaganda machine under Prigozhin’s leadership. By 2022, according to investigators, the empire of the so-called "troll factory" united about 400 legal structures, dozens of media, and numerous people in the social networks created for various propaganda tasks. Notably, according to the Dossier, Prigozhin's Telegram channels almost did not interact with the networks of another Kremlin contractor on the Internet, the former leader of the Kremlin youth movement "Nashye"(Нашие) Kristina Potupchik.
Part of this empire — the "Patriot" media group — formally appeared in 2019, uniting the Prigozhin’s media, which investigative journalists had long considered a "troll factory." The most famous is the "Federal News Agency" (FAN). The documents record numerous transactions with other influential media and bloggers for commissioned materials. Hundreds of paid commentators worked at the "factory", forty of whom wrote comments exclusively on Ukrainian media platforms. In an interview, one of the former employees of the "factory" told Radio Svoboda that their production rate was 120 comments per day. The structure of the "factory" even had its social network "YaRus" (ЯRus). The General Director of the National Academy of Sciences, Yevgeny Zubarev, says that they started working in 2009: "The first commentators appeared in the media, working against the opposition: Alexey Navalny and others." However, journalists discovered the "factory" only in 2013 when they noticed the work of the Internet Research Agency (АИИ) organization in St. Petersburg, where employees were paid for comments on social networks. Since then, "production" at the "factory" has only grown and reached the international level. Due to the work of the "troll factory", the US Ministry of Justice charged Prigozhin with meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Prigozhin consistently denied his involvement in the "factory" until, in February 2023, he finally admitted that he had invented and created the "Internet Research Agency". He explained this by the need to "protect the Russian information space".
Prigozhin's propaganda machine, like his other projects, was completely independent of the Russian bureaucracy and had coordinated its work only directly with Putin. That is why Prigozhin's agitational propaganda business suffered after the deterioration of relations with the President of Russia. Already a few days after the mutiny of Wagner's group, at the end of June 2023, Roskomnadzor blocked Prigozhin-related publications RIA FAN, Politika Segodnya (Политика сегодня), Ekonomika Segodnya (Экономика сегодня), Nevskie Novosti (Невские новости), and Narodnye Novosti (Народные новости). Prigozhin promptly curtailed what was not blocked by the state. The Bell journalist Irina Pankratova assumed that, at the time, he did it so that his projects would not reach political opponents in the Kremlin. According to Agentsvo journalists, even a month before Prigozhin's rebellion, a part of Prigozhin's bot network started working against its creator.
Prigozhin was not the only one who made money from the creation of outsourced state propaganda, although no one reached his scale. Similar work was done by the Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev with the help of his TV channel Tsargrad TV or the already mentioned Kristina Potupchik on her own media assets. Outsourcing allows the Russian state to delegate the "dirty work" and increase efficiency due to certain competitiveness of projects for funding.
New administration projects
Putin's administration’s political bloc is also trying to coordinate projects that, with generous funding, are rapidly increasing in scale. For example, in recent years, a large bureaucratic structure for state’s information management, called Dialog, was created, as the Russian opposition media — Vazhnye istorii (Важные истории), The Bell, and Meduza stated in their investigation. The deputy head of Putin's administration, Sergey Kiriyenko, coordinates the network. The "autonomous non-governmental organization" (АНО) Dialog, subordinate to the Department of Information Technologies of Moscow, was created to monitor social networks and promote the messages that the Kremlin needed to promote, as per the journalists. Initially, it required encouraging voting for amendments to the Russian constitution, allowing Putin to run for another term. The framework was later used to control information related to the Covid-19 pandemic. With the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, the structure's headquarters were used for military propaganda and general control of the information environment in social networks.
In the summer of 2020, a subsidiary structure, Dialog Regions (Диалог регионы), was launched to work with the regions and is responsible for the creation of regional management centers (ЦУР). The staff and budgets of the organization grew rapidly. The investigation says that as of 2022, more than 2,500 people worked in this organization, and 6.5 billion rubles were transferred to its work from the Ministry of Digital Development's budget. By 2024, it was planned to allocate about 24 billion rubles to Dialog Regions.
The task of the structure is coordinating "state public pages" on the Internet: official pages of governors, city administrations, regional ministries, housing and communal and emergency services, schools, kindergartens, etc. Since December 2022, the presence of state institutions in social networks in Russia has become mandatory. Regional management centers’ employees train regional civil servants and politicians to create accounts, attract subscribers, respond to comments, and determine the content that must be published. According to the recommendations, officials should promptly respond to simple requests of residents: put up a bench outside, cut down a dry tree, fix a pipe, repair a lantern, etc. According to the project, the operational response to such simple requests should improve the general image of state bodies. By the end of 2022, there were about 130,000 such state-owned enterprises in Russia. Director General of Dialog Vladimir Tabak says that these pages are read by 50% of Russian social network users. The network allows the Kremlin to deploy disinformation campaigns quickly and spread the necessary propaganda narratives.
The updated June 30, 2023 government resolution on the rules for granting subsidies to Dialog states that the regional management centers should also operate in the occupied Ukrainian territories — the "Donetsk People's Republic, Luhansk People's Republic, Zaporizhia Oblast, and Kherson Oblast" — at least in terms of tracking complaints and appeals. Dialog has already reported that Mariupol civil servants are taught to conduct "state meetings". Realna Gazeta (Реальна газета) reports, concerning the documents available in the editorial office and its own sources, that as early as the fall of 2022, the local occupation administrations were tasked with taking control of complaints on social networks and reporting on the problem’s resolution or naming the date when it will be resolved.
Another of Kiriyenko’s projects is the image of Russia after the war. According to Meduza, it is handled by the State Council of Russia, a substructure of the administration. The result of the search should be two images of Russia. The first is export, aimed at foreign audiences and Russian elites. The second should be clear and close to the domestic audience, most Russian residents, as per the journalists' investigation. The pro-Kremlin Expert Institute for Social Research has already allegedly prepared an export concept — "Russia should become a "continent of freedom" for people of right-wing beliefs from around the world — "such as Silvio Berlusconi or Viktor Orban." At first, experts and Kiriyenko himself, according to the publication's sources, proposed the image of a state with a "special path", like Venezuela or India, which are isolated from the West, ready to violate generally accepted rules and defend their own (sometimes dictatorial) political traditions. But such a concept did not appeal to Putin and his power entourage, reported the publication’s sources. Therefore, they decided to focus on the image of Russia as a "correct, right-wing, and traditional Europe without gay parades, the influence of minorities, and the USA." These ideas are supposedly closer to Putin. For "internal use", the Kremlin will promote the concept "Russia returns lands whose inhabitants want to be spiritually Russian", writes Meduza.
From each according to his abilities, to each — a grant
Another component of the Russian propaganda machine is the distribution of state money through the grant system. Within the Internet, the Internet Development Institute, created in 2015 under the patronage of Volodin, is primarily engaged in this. At that time, his task was primarily considered to be the digital enlightenment of officials to improve the Russian authorities' communication practices. But in the last few years, the structure has attracted huge budgets. It has become the leading donor of propaganda projects on the Internet, the journalists of Meduza and Vazhnye istorii write in their investigation. Billions of rubles are directed to creating "proper" Internet content of any form, from videos by bloggers to, for example, a series about the malicious influence of a hostile video service on young people. In 2023, the Institute received more than 20 billion rubles (of which more than 17 were explicitly for the creation of "state content" dedicated to "civil identity" and "spiritual and moral values"). Another 26 billion rubles are planned to be spent in 2024 and 2025. In addition, the Institute often gives its own grants for co-financing to other state and private companies. Journalists inform that the distribution of funds is very opaque and tied to the promised number of views, which is easy to screw up.
For example, the State Film Fund, which finances the entire Russian cinema, planned to spend less in 2023 — only 11.6 billion rubles. In recent years, the Fund has also focused almost exclusively on propaganda education. Among the list of priority topics for the provision of film grants formed by the Ministry of Culture of Russia in 2022 were "Preservation, creation, and dissemination of traditional values", "Peacemaking mission of Russia", "Little Russia as a historical region of Russia", "Promoting the heroism and self-sacrifice of Russian soldiers during a special military operation", "Neocolonial policy of the countries of the Anglo-Saxon world", "Degradation of Europe", "Formation of a multipolar world", etc.
Kiriyenko distributes the money himself through the Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives. According to the results of the Sirena investigation, the Fund distributed at least 635 million rubles in 2022 to 172 projects that directly or indirectly promoted the war against Ukraine. Among the largest grantees are the "ZaRossiyu" (ZaРоссию) marathon, Oleg Tabakov theater’s tour in Khersones in the annexed Crimea with the play "Matroskaya Tishyna" (Матросская тишина), and the "Za VMF" (Zа ВМФ) patriotic concert tour.
Various parts of Russian agitational propaganda are constantly tense in their competition for the Kremlin's attention and finances. For example, according to Meduza, in 2022, the special services suddenly pushed the internal political bloc of the Kremlin and its head, Sergey Kiriyenko, away from preparing pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories, which the administration considered its "parish". The story of the dismissal of Sergey Mikhaylov, the general director of the state agency TASS, is illustrative. According to The Moscow Times, he was punished for the agency's overly detailed coverage of Prigozhin's rebellion. Therefore, propaganda agents in Russia need to maintain the skills to reorient themselves in time and even guess the leadership’s wishes without a shadow of a doubt. Regional media, as a rule, must correctly imitate the rhetoric of national media. At the same time, lower-ranking officials must listen carefully to the public speeches of their direct superiors but not rely on signals from other officials too much.
Such a controversial agitational propaganda structure has its advantages and disadvantages. It lacks a coherent ideology or a single management vertical. But at the same time, such a plastic mass of businesspeople, bureaucrats, and adventurers adapts well to new historical challenges, whims of bosses, or even criminal military adventures of the Kremlin. The primary condition for the existence of various parts of the motley body of Russian agitational propaganda is a timely allocation of financial resources.