When Lyudmila Savchuk heard about the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov earlier this year she was shocked and saddened.
“I felt the bullets between my own shoulders,” she said, recalling how the Kremlin critic was gunned down near Moscow’s Red Square in February.
Yet within hours of Mr Nemtsov’s death, Ms Savchuk and her colleagues were going online to pour bile on the former deputy prime minister and claim he was killed by his own friends rather than by government hitmen, as many suspect.
“I was so upset that I almost gave myself away,” she said. “But I was 007. I fulfilled my task.”
The “007” role that Ms Savchuk refers to is her own extroardinary one-woman spying mission, which appears to shed intriguing light on the propaganda machine that props up the rule of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
Ms Savchuk says that for two months, she worked as one of scores of “internet operators” in a secretive “troll factory” called Internet Research, an anonymous four-storey building on a back street in St Petersburg, Russia’s former tsarist capital and Mr Putin’s hometown.
Ms Savchuk’s job was to spend 12 hours a day praising the Kremlin and lambasting its perceived enemies on social networks, blogs and the comment sections of online media.
The trolls’ task, reminiscent of the black arts of Soviet disinformation, was to attack any opponent of the Russian authorities, be it dissenting politicians, pro-European Ukrainians or even Barack Obama – who was branded a “monkey” because of his black skin.
“We had to say Putin was a fine fellow and a great figure, that Russia’s opponents were bad and Obama was an idiot,” she recalled.
All along, however, Ms Savchuk was copying documents and making clandestine video footage about the “factory”, gathering evidence in the manner of a Cold War spy. Or, as she prefers to see it, a Victorian sleuth. “I was really inspired by detective novels and Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch,” she told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview last week.
She worked from January 2 to March 11 at the building of Internet Research at 55 Savushkina Street in St Petersburg, which insiders say is still operating as a “troll factory”.
Working two days-on, two-days off, its army of bloggers – who are thought to number several hundred – spew out thousands of posts a week.
“The first thing we would do each day would be to turn on the proxy server to hide our IP addresses,” said Ms Savchuk. Then the operators would start to receive “technical assignments” – written descriptions of themes they should raise in their blogs and comments, with key words to be included.
The bloggers are kept under tight control – their email is subject to checks and their workplace monitored by CCTV. Failure to reach quotas invokes a fine, as does a poorly scripted post. Ms Savchuk said she and others were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“I was told on the first day that we were working for the good of the motherland, that we were supporting the authorities,” she explained in an interview at a friend’s apartment in the city’s Pushkin district.
Some of the resulting blogs, said Mrs Savchuk, featured crude montages of people like Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, while others used more subtle techniques to discredit the West.
Between musings about ghosts and crystals, Cantadora – an imaginary fortune teller created by Ms Savchuk and colleagues – occasionally swerved into politics. On March 3, she wrote a post called, “Bad premonitions: Why I’m worried about my sister living in Europe”. The sister, she says, told her from her home in Germany that “thousands of farmers have gone bankrupt in the EU because of sanctions” on Russia and “unemployment is thriving”.
Marat Burkkhard, 40, another ex-employee of the troll factory who has gone public, said in an interview that “America and Obama was one of the top themes that we wrote about every day”.
“When there were black people rioting in the United States we had to write that US policy on the black community had failed, Obama’s administration couldn’t cope with the problem, the situation is getting tenser. The negroes are rising up.”
Ukraine was another constant topic. “That was always about the Kiev ‘junta’, how the poor people of Donbas are being bombed, how women and children are being shot, how Nato is to blame and Blackwater has mercenaries there.”
On Syria, Bashar al-Assad, its autocratic president, was praised as a “friend of Russia”. Closer to home, the team was ordered to laud domestic products like the Armata, the Russia army’s new main battle tank, and the YotaPhone, a homegrown rival to foreign smartphones.
“The most unpleasant was when we had to humiliate Obama, comparing him with a monkey, using words like darkie, insulting the president of a big country,” he said. I wrote it, I had to.”
How the secretive Internet Research is funded remains a mystery. On an overcast day last week, all windows of the building had blinds drawn across the windows. At a turnstile in the lobby a security guard told the Telegraph there was no one who could speak to a reporter and no contact number. The company “doesn’t have any telephones”, he said.
Full article: My life as a pro-Putin propagandist in Russia’s secret ‘troll factory’ (The Telegraph)