Kseniya Kirillova, now living in California, is on Putin’s hit list. In a rare informal interview, the Russian dissident journalist and expert on Russian propaganda and disinformation tells the The Loyal Opposition how Russia changed before her eyes, the murder of her editor and friend by government agents, Russian propaganda both within Russia and how it’s directed at the West, and lessons for the American press and the American people seeking to preserve our institutions and democracy. This interview first appeared as a #10Questions on twitter. In this article, LO supplements the original content with added details from Kseniya.
Question 1: What was it like to grow up in Russia? Do you remember it always being as restrictive as it is now?
Kseniya: When I grew up in the 90’s, Russia was very different. We had problems with corruption, lawlessness and abuse of power, but Russia was a free society for ordinary people. We learned about Soviet repression of dissidents in school, but we were sure that was only history. It was impossible to imagine our government repressing ordinary people for their speech or writing or social media. We had lots of hope we could improve the issues of corruption in the government.
But Russia changed gradually after the 90’s. At first the changes were slow, but they accelerated after 2012 when the Russian/Ukrainian war started.
Before the war, Russian propaganda focused on protecting the homeland from external enemies, especially the West. After the war started, the propaganda became more aggressive, openly calling for the destruction of other countries and arguing that Ukraine had no right to exist as an independent country.
The war was accompanied by a real wave of oppression against the press, and even against ordinary people for social media posts, protesting and doing things that had previously been considered legal. Putin has suppressed virtually all real opposition, a situation that I could not have imagined when I grew up.
America is facing a similar situation with Trump. He even calls the press “the enemy of the people,” a term Stalin used that even Putin avoids.
I know the pattern all too well. In Russia, the rhetoric preceded the repression. Putin started calling protesters “national traitors” and within a few years was repressing ordinary people. I see the same trend with Trump who is trying to repeat Putin’s behavior. I still hope it will not be possible to arrange real repression here.
Question 2: How did you get involved with anti-Putin, pro-democracy policies in Russia?
I was an investigative journalist in my home city and worked for independent press locally. Journalists and human rights activists were not considered dissidents when I began my career and I investigated and wrote about people’s problems and social issues. It was impossible to cover these topics without getting complaints about government, especially corruption complaints. I even exposed corruption in the local FSB, Russia’s internal security services. This happened before repression was felt locally. It was natural to keep investigating these complaints which took me deeper into exposing government crimes and corruption. I had liberal views and, having grown up in a free society, I couldn’t imagine not being free. We really didn’t fear repression then.
Read more from Kseniya about how Russia has changed during her lifetime.
Question 3: Why do feel like you can’t return to Russia?
Russia murders journalists and dissidents, including in Ukraine. Many Americans heard recently about Babchenko who managed to escape being murdered by working with Ukrainian authorities to fake his death and apprehend those who were trying to kill him. But there are other journalists who aren’t so lucky.
My friend, Alexander Shchetinin, who was called Sasha, was the founder of a major Russian news agency with international reach. After the Ukrainian war, he broke ties with Russian editorial control and re-registered his news service as a Ukrainian company. He exposed Russian agents of influence working in Ukraine, showed Ukraine as a victim of Russian and worked against Russian propaganda. The Russian special services could never forgive him for this.
I worked with Sasha and American security experts on Russian international crimes in Ukraine, the coup attempt in Montenegro and countering Russian propaganda. Sasha was my good friend. He was honest and brave and worked effectively against Russian propaganda.
Special services warned Sasha that we would be accused of state treason if we returned to Russia. In Russia you can now be charged with state treason for things as simple as text messages or phone calls to foreigners discussing Russian aggression. You don’t need to have any access to state secrets to be charged with state treason. Anyone working against Russian threats is considered a traitor. The highest level of Russian court issued a decision that determined our website, New Region, was “extremist” based just on the fact that we mentioned a banned organization without saying that it was banned in Russia (but we had every right not to do this, as we were Ukranian media at that time) and we did not call the Ukrainians, who defend their land from invasion “terrorists and extremists” as Russian propaganda does.
Anyone (including civilians and dissidents) who Russia believes is working against Russian threats is deemed a traitor.
In late August, 2016, Sasha was found dead in his own apartment in Kiev with a gunshot to his head. Ukrainian police said they would investigate it as a murder, but there has been no result. Immediately after Sasha was murdered and before any new organization could have had a report, a long article was published on a Russian propaganda site that said Sasha was killed. It had four other names, including mine, saying that they also might be killed. It was clear from the timing that the article had been written in advance of Sasha’s murder and it was a warning from the killer to me and the others named. For me, if they killed Sash and say they will kill me, I have no reason not to believe it. My work on Russian channels of influence, including the Montenegro coup, makes me a target.
Sasha’s murder is unfortunately not unusual for opposition journalists working in Ukraine, where the situation has become very dire and dangerous. Read more about Sasha life and murder.
Question 4: How does Russia use propaganda and disinformation domestically?
In the U.S., many people think Russia could be its friend if only the U.S. government would change its policies. In Russia, there are no such illusions. In Russia, the U.S. is an enemy.
Domestic propaganda stresses that the U.S. and the West are Russia’s enemies and that Russia needs to destroy the enemy to survive. Propaganda tries to create hatred against the West.
There are different propaganda tools for this. The main difference is that Russian propaganda does not have any ideology, but is based on feelings, fears and images rather than a particular world view. It plays on feelings that are familiar – especially fear – to convince people that all of the West, and especially the U.S., has as their main dream destroying Russia. That Russia is surrounded by enemies and must fight back to protect itself.
Propaganda uses falsified images they have created to show, for instance, the U.S. dropping bombs on children. Propaganda says it is the U.S. that has created all the conflict in places like Syria. It emphasizes that the only way to avoid destruction is to rally around a strong leader.
You can see Trump using a similar construction. But rather than using a war, he uses fear of immigrants, China, jobs, and says the only way for Americans to protect themselves is to support him.
Kseniya has written extensively on domestic propaganda in Russia. You can learn more about the subject here.
Question 5: What are Putin’s goals when uses these techniques in the West?
Putin has many goals – some rational and some not.
He wants other countries not to interfere in Russian policy in the “near abroad.” He wants Western leaders to consider him an equal and wants to restore “Soviet Union” style influence and power. He has an obsession on restoring lost Russian power that may not be rational.
In order to maintain power, he needs to maintain the image that Russia is surrounded by enemies. He needs to portray all Russian problems as a result of foreign enemies.
He also needs to continue his crimes and corruption and get his and his oligarchs’ money into Western systems. He wants corruption in the West because If the West were as corrupt as Russia, he and his oligarchs could more easily move their illegal money.
He uses propaganda to support his supporters, like Trump, in the West. However, at the same time, it is his goal to undermine democracy in the West, to weaken the West, to destroy NATO, to destroy the European Union, to discredit democracy and to prevent the West from interfering in his crimes. He wants to discredit the very ideas of freedom, rule of law and democracy, all of which are very dangerous to his rule. Because when you come to the U.S. – even me- you are impressed that the law enforcement system (the Department of Justice and FBI) has standards that have withstood huge pressure from the president and remained independent. The American FBI has stood against all the Trump threats and pressure and didn’t give up and continues to investigate his case. That is impossible to imagine in Russia now, where the special services and the justice system all participate in Putin’s crimes.
Putin is not afraid that people will see American lifestyle and money, but he doesn’t want people to realize that Western values really exist. Western democracy is a real threat for his rule and he tries to destroy his enemies by any means to maintain power.
Americans should have no illusion that we can build a good relationship with Putin’s Russia, because he will always consider us his enemy. He considers concessions to be weakness and when he sees them, he tries to exploit them.
You can learn more about Putin’s desire to destabilize liberal democracies from Kseniya’s September, 2015 EuromaidanPress article, “New Russian Geostrategy: Destabilize Ukraine, Embroil the EU and NATO in Arguments with Each Other.“
Question 6: Can you give us some specific examples of how Russia deploys propaganda and disinformation in the West?
Interfering in elections using social media is one way Putin uses propaganda in the West, and it continues today. Putin feels he needs to support Trump against America’s foreign allies and against American institutions. The Russian media has called for purges in U.S. intelligence and uses on-line trickery to push that view.
I was on a troll hunter team in 2015 that was written up in Newsweek. I have found a lot of Russian accounts that pretend to be Americans. I have found lots of slander against James Comey, much of it written in Russian and then translated to English, so it was very easy to tell. Russian propaganda also tries to get Russians in America, even those that don’t support Putin, to support Trump.
Putin gives Trump advice via media on how to fight American institutions. One example is to say that if the investigation continues, it will lead to civil war. Putin wants Americans to worry that there will be a civil war by Trump supporters if he is impeached and think it isn’t worth it to find out his crimes.
In many cases, Russian propaganda tries to persuade people that the investigation hasn’t found anything. They also pretend to be America patriots supporting Trump or extreme-left activists to stir division.
Earlier this year, Kseniya noticed that a Russian military analyst writing in Military Review, a major Russian publication, was overjoyed that Trump was acting in Putin’s interests. According to the analyst, one of Trump’s main achievements was to damage the U.S. intelligence community.
Question 7: How does the Russian press compare to the U.S. press?
In Russia, independent press almost doesn’t exist. Mainstream press is under government control, so it’s just propaganda. There are a few brave opposition journalists who are independent, be even they sometimes have to support Putin’s criminal agenda. We cannot trust opposition media operating inside Russia.
Many journalists in America underestimate the scale of evil in the current situation. They think it is just another sensation or scandal. They have to write what is popular and often give both a pro-Trump and anti-Trump view. I think journalists should usually show different points of view, but they shouldn’t treat truth and lies equally. Journalistic responsibility is not only to provide balanced material, but also to check the facts.
Russian propaganda tries to pretend to be part of the story and American journalists often include it in their articles as such. The American press is vulnerable to propaganda because they can’t imagine it’s possible to lie so blatantly and so much.
For Russia, the press is a tool in the information war. It is a tool to undermine Western democracy, so we need to check everything that comes from Russian press because its aim is the destruction of American society and the destruction of truth – the idea that truth doesn’t matter.
American journalists must understand that truth is what matters, because in Russia they kill us for the truth. The best people I know are willing to sacrifice their lives for truth. Truth doesn’t only matter, it is priceless. If we don’t believe in truth or believe it doesn’t exist, we will lose this country.
It is journalists’ responsibility to find the truth and not just give a platform to every liar and enemy.
For more information about why Americans are so susceptible to Russian propaganda, read Kseniya’s July, 2016 piece here.
Question 8: What do the Russian people think about America?
Russians are more cynical than Americans. They say all governments are corrupt and that freedom doesn’t exist, even in the West. They like to think they are part of a small group who really understands the “geopolitical situation.”
Russians believe that if liberal democracy came to Russia, it would be corrupt too, but that it would also leave them weak and vulnerable to Russia’s enemies.
Sometimes people understand the truth, but deliberately do mean things, because they believe that “in war, the end justifies the means.” Therefore, it is hard to fight against it.
At the same time, ordinary Russians often treat Americans with interest and sympathy, as long as the matter doesn’t come from political disputes. In the Russian mind, hatred toward the West and the desire to receive Western goods are whimsically combined.
Question 9: Roughly 12% of the U.S. population lives in California, where you now reside. How did Putin use the #CalExit secession movement to further his goals?
The #CalExit founder, Louis Marinelli had a second home in Russia and many interactions with Moscow through conventions and foundations. His idea was to separate California from America like Crimea separated from Ukraine. He had right-wing views and said he could not live under the American flag. But, in California, secession is a left wing idea and most people in California don’t support Trump. So when Marinelli came to the U.S., he had to quickly change his views and become a “liberal” leader. However, journalists discovered his Russian connections – which were pretty obvious since he had a home in Russia – and many California liberals didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
Having failed to be accepted, Marinelli became useless to Moscow. He moved back to Russia, but his life there deteriorated. Russian media has accused him of being a CIA agent and his life in Russia isn’t comfortable. Many people still don’t know about Russian participation in #CalExit, and it remains popular with some on the extreme left.
Louis Marinelli and the Russian #CalExit influence operation to push California towards secession remains a fascinating subject despite its failure. Democrats must be careful about influence operations not only from the right, but the extremes at both ends. You can read more about Marinelli in Kseniya’s May, 2017 article for the Kyiv Post here.
Question 10: What do you think Americans need to do in order to avoid what happened in Russia?
This is a hard question.
Appreciate what you already have. Many people, especially progressives, are so terrified by what is happening now that they think all American government is evil, but that is not the truth.
Institutions are still independent and still try to fight Trump. We need to support them. They have their own flaws, but they are independent. I know what happens when independent institutions are destroyed.
In Russia despite all the propaganda, many didn’t want to go to war against Ukraine, our closest neighbor. But when the war started, we didn’t have independent press or independent courts or any system of checks and balances. When Putin started the war, no one could stop him. No dissent was tolerated. The propaganda was just lies and slander as if truth did not exist.
Remember that truth matters and that it exists. Many gave their lives for truth. Independent institutions and democracy are really the best things in the world and we need to sacrifice everything to protect them.
People from many countries complain about Russian propaganda, corruption and aggression. You cannot imagine how much these people believe in the United States. They believe the U.S. will help them defend their countries from Russian aggression.
American ideas inspire so many people around the world. I get so many ideas from people who share information with me for free because they hope we can help and they believe in us. So many people around the world still believe in this country.