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Meet The Activist Who Uncovered The Russian Troll Factory Named In The Mueller Probe

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on July 19, 2018 4:20 pm

The building at 55 Savushkina St. on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, is unremarkable. It's four stories high, made of concrete and shares a small parking lot with the apartment building next door.

But if you look a little closer, a few details stick out. For instance, the building is covered in windows, but each one is blocked by heavy drapes. And there are security cameras all over the building.

That's what you can see from the outside. But what went on inside this building in 2015 has attracted a lot of attention in both U.S. and Russian media. The company that operated inside 55 Savushkina was called the Internet Research Agency. But unofficially, and more commonly, it was known as the "troll factory."

Hundreds worked here, and 13 people, including a man with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, were recently named in an indictment connected to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. for providing support to the Russian Defense Ministry as it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, is alleged to be the man who funded the troll factory.

Internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk spent two months working undercover at the troll factory in 2015, creating fake social media accounts and writing blog posts meant to sow divisions in the U.S. and turn Russians against Americans.

Savchuk, a slight woman in her mid-30s, carries around a laptop with a campaign sticker for Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader in Russia who has been barred from running in the presidential election this weekend.

She sips a latte in a cafe outside St. Petersburg after dropping her kids off at day care for the afternoon.

"The factory worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was a day shift, a night shift, and even shifts over the holidays. The factory worked every single second," Savchuk says.

In the early days of her investigation into how fake social media accounts and trolls were affecting society, she was looking for a way in. It was late 2014 and she kept seeing advertisements in her social media feed geared to young, educated Russians looking to work in a creative field. A friend who worked at the troll factory tipped her off to what the ads were for. That same friend put in a good word for Savchuk with her bosses.

"My friend taught me the ropes. She told me that I had to write posts that were natural — like, for example, 'I am cooking or I am walking down the street and I had this thought about how bad the [pro-Western] Ukrainian president is.' "

According to Savchuk, there were a few hundred people in the building at any given time, and the average pay started at $400 a month. The trolls were divided into groups. Those with the best English skills posed as Americans and created accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They'd use those troll accounts to stir up trouble on subjects such as U.S. elections or race relations.

Savchuk, who considers herself a freelance investigative journalist and activist for free and fair elections, spent most of her time at the troll farm writing as an imaginary Russian woman on the LiveJournal blogging platform, widely used in Russia today. Her posts were meant for Russian readers and were intended to inflame anti-American feelings.

"We made up a post about a new computer game created in the States — that even kids loved to play — and the theme of the game was slavery," she says. "And this was to stir negative tensions towards Americans, as the creators of this game."

That game never existed. Nor did the woman that Savchuk was posing as. A day at the troll factory could mean multiple layers of trolling subterfuge.

Each troll was given a list of topics to focus on by a supervisor. She says there were usually about 10 topics on the list. The United States, the European Union and Putin never left the list.

"It is laughable when Putin says that we do not know about trolls or trolls do not exist," she says, "because when anyone looks through the Kremlin-controlled newspapers or state TV, they can see that the propaganda in that media is the exact same stuff that the trolls are posting."

Savchuk worries about the deleterious effect of so much fake information on Russian society.

"For the public, it is harmful because we are being brainwashed," she says. "We won't be able to understand what is really happening. We are put against one another, and we are sliding back into the old ways when we were searching for the enemy among us — our friends and colleagues. That feeling from the Soviet times — I can feel it everywhere."

Savchuk eventually leaked documents, videos and her story to the independent Russian news outlet Moy Rayon in 2015. And then the trolls and state-controlled media came after her.

"They said that I am a secret agent, a CIA operative, and that I am a pervert," she says. "This is what they usually do. So I was ready for this."

She says she ignored the trolls and hoped that her reporting spoke for itself.

She says that the charges against the 13 employees of the Internet Research Agency are her answer to those allegations.

Savchuk says she worked with several of the 13 troll factory people named in the Mueller indictment and was elated when she heard that workers and managers at the factory had been indicted.

"This was really a good sign," she says. "We should continue to add more names to this list. I think that every single propagandist, even the little troll on Facebook, has to be punished, has to be named and exposed."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've been talking for months about Russian interference in the U.S. elections and ongoing Russian cyberattacks. Well, today the Trump administration hit back, imposing new sanctions that freeze the U.S.-based assets of 19 Russian individuals and five organizations. Those sanctions also bar Americans from dealing with them. It's the most significant move the Trump administration has taken to counter this recent Russian aggression.

Our colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, is actually in Moscow this week. She's reporting on the Russian presidential elections. Hi, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hello, my friend.

SHAPIRO: I want to hear what you've been hearing from people there about Russian interference in the U.S. elections. What do they think of all the investigations happening here in the U.S.?

KELLY: They see this so differently than most Americans in the U.S. It is fascinating. And I'm going to introduce you in a minute to two Russian politics watchers with very different and opposing views on all this. But let me set the stage by first taking you to a place that may not look like much but which tells us so much about the beginning of this story, the story of how Russia came to play a role in our 2016 election.

OK, this is number 55 Savushkina Street. And this is not Moscow. This is St. Petersburg. The building at this address is made of concrete. It's about four stories high. There's a trolley car that rolls past every few minutes. We sent a producer to the outskirts of St. Petersburg to check it out. And she described how if you stand there and stare at this building, you will start to notice details - details like all of the windows are blocked by heavy drapes, details like the surveillance cameras bristling all over the building. A building which, by the way, does not have a name, no nameplate, but unofficially people call it the troll factory.

LYUDMILA SAVCHUK: (Through interpreter) The factory worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was a day shift, a night shift, and even shifts over to holidays. The factory worked every single second.

I am Lyudmila Savchuk. I am investigative journalist in propaganda in media.

KELLY: Our producer met Lyudmila Savchuk at a coffee shop. And Savchuk described the two months that she spent working undercover there at the troll factory. This is 2015. Savchuk told us a few hundred people would be in the building at any given time. And they were divided into groups. Those with the best English posed as Americans, creating accounts on Facebook and on Twitter, and then they would use those troll accounts to stir up trouble on, say, the U.S. election or race relations.

SAVCHUK: (Through interpreter) It is laughable when Putin says that we do not know about trolls or that trolls do not exist because when anyone looks through the Kremlin newspapers or state TV, they can see that the propaganda in that media is the exact same stuff that the trolls are posting.

KELLY: Savchuk wrote blog posts for the LiveJournal account of an imaginary Russian woman. And these posts were meant for Russian readers to try to inflame anti-American feelings. These posts, they got creative.

SAVCHUK: (Through interpreter) We made up a post about a new computer game created in the States that even kids loved to play. And the theme of the game was slavery. And this was to stir negative tensions towards Americans as the creators of this game.

KELLY: A game of course which never existed, much like the woman writing about the game. All of it was fake. And just as Americans wonder about trolls and bots and fake accounts sowing division and discord in the United States, Lyudmila Savchuk told us she worries about the impact on Russian society.

SAVCHUK: (Through interpreter) For the public, it is harmful because we are brainwashed. We won't be able to understand what is really happening. We are put against one another. And we are sliding back into the old ways when we were searching for the enemy among us, our friends and colleagues. That feeling from the Soviet times, I can feel it everywhere.

KELLY: So, Ari, a voice there from the trenches - or the production line, as it were - of a Russian troll factory.

SHAPIRO: There was a troll factory at the center of the indictments that special counsel Robert Mueller's team recently announced. Same troll factory in St. Petersburg?

KELLY: Same troll factory in St. Petersburg. You can see it there on Page 5 of that Mueller indictment. Lyudmila Savchuk says she actually worked with several of the trolls who are named in the Mueller indictment. She told us she's delighted that they have been charged with interfering in the U.S. election. She hopes every single one of those trolls is prosecuted. You know, one point - just to enlarge on something you heard her hint at there, Savchuk told us she is absolutely convinced the Kremlin controls the troll factories. And that of course is something the Kremlin denies.

SHAPIRO: This brings us back to a question that we began with. Do Russians believe that their government is messing with American politics? And if so, do they care?

KELLY: So I had the most fascinating debate about this with a couple of Russians here at the NPR Moscow bureau. Let me introduce you to these two guys. Konstantin Gaaze - journalist, analyst, middle-of-the-road. He's affiliated with the Carnegie Moscow Center. And then Sergey Markov, who is a former member of the Duma, Russia's parliament. And as you will hear, he is a Putin guy.

So I want to just play you a few of the highlights of our discussion, which started with this basic question. I said, U.S. intelligence has concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. And I asked these two, do you buy it? And do you buy that Vladimir Putin personally ordered that interference campaign? Here's Konstantin Gaaze.

KONSTANTIN GAAZE: I don't believe it in terms of order as official order. In terms of some back negotiations - totally informal, not even giving the free-to-go or knowing the plan of operation, just if we can do so, let's do so.

KELLY: So that's one voice. Now here's Sergey Markov.

SERGEY MARKOV: I'm absolutely sure that Vladimir Putin and presidential administration, Russian Foreign Ministry and Russian intelligence service did not interfere to the United States elections.

KELLY: You're sure they did not.

MARKOV: I'm absolutely sure with a few reason. You mentioned that United States intelligence service told that that's clear evidence that Russian authorities involved in this.

KELLY: Unanimous opinion - 17 U.S. spy agencies.

MARKOV: You trust them. We are not.

KELLY: You do not.

MARKOV: We think that American people losing its control over the United States intelligence service community.

KELLY: Why?

MARKOV: Because crisis of democracy.

KELLY: It's not just U.S. intelligence services say this, the Kremlin says this. Other countries also say that Russia is interfering in their politics. Most recently Germany has said this. How do you explain that, Sergey Markov?

MARKOV: Hundred percent propaganda. No...

KELLY: German, French, American...

MARKOV: Yes, 100 percent...

KELLY: ...British...

MARKOV: All of them.

KELLY: They're all making it up?

MARKOV: Yes - Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy.

KELLY: Konstantin Gaaze.

GAAZE: I would say both in Washington and Moscow everybody overestimates the level of coordination in the intelligence community. First of all, each and any intelligence community is a bunch of bureaucrats sitting up in the hills. I call it night state, like those - it's not a deep state.

KELLY: What's night state then?

GAAZE: Night state is operatives who are not officially hired by government but have certain level of access to President Putin personally, to his allies, to his counsels, to his advisers and so on and so on. And they do some job. Half of the job is paid, half of the job is done just because they think that it will be good to do such a job. Russian bureaucracy doesn't operate with such high level of coordination.

KELLY: You're saying you don't think Russian intelligence, if they'd wanted to swing the election to Donald Trump...

GAAZE: Even if they wanted...

KELLY: ...They didn't have the ability.

GAAZE: They didn't have the ability to do it with such high level of coordination.

SHAPIRO: Mary Louise, it's interesting to me that the spectrum of opinion you're finding in Russia is from somebody saying, Putin had nothing to do with it, this is bogus to somebody saying, well, maybe they had something to do with it, but not that much. (Laughter) There isn't even a voice here saying, yeah, the U.S. intelligence agencies are right.

KELLY: Those voices are few and far between here in Moscow, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Do you get a sense that Russians are following this closely? Is it front page news in Moscow?

KELLY: Yes and no. It is safe to say your average Joe - call him your average Ivan here in Russia - is not hanging on every word of special counsel Robert Mueller. I asked Gaaze, you know, the inside-the-Beltway crowd - or here in Moscow I guess it'd be the inside-the-Ring Road crowd - do they know who Jim Comey is? And are they following all the players in the Russia investigations unfolding in Washington? Here's what he told me.

GAAZE: Russian political elite is not obsessed with U.S.

KELLY: No?

GAAZE: No. Maybe some inner circle near the president, Putin, maybe they obsessed a little bit just because most of them, they are Cold War-era gentleman. They're more obsessed with Russia-China relations and the threat that China may create for Russia.

KELLY: Sergey Markov, do you agree?

MARKOV: Not fully because from here I'm going to the Russian TV, one of the leading Russian TV channel, NTV, where we - today we will two hours discussion about U.S.-Russian elections, about Mueller investigation. But how Russian public see this Mueller investigation? As TV serial, as great drama.

KELLY: TV serial?

MARKOV: Serial, like...

KELLY: A soap opera.

MARKOV: Yes. Yes (laughter).

GAAZE: Like "Homeland."

KELLY: We see - we also in Washington...

MARKOV: "House Of Cards."

KELLY: (Laughter) There's a bit of a soap opera.

MARKOV: You know, real "House Of Cards." You know, this drama - Mueller against Trump, Trump against Senate and...

KELLY: And his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

MARKOV: Yeah. What will happen? And we are sitting in big auditorium and watching this drama. It's also one of the things which people know here for sure - Russia will be blamed for everything.

KELLY: Ari, that is the line you hear here. Russia will be blamed for everything. And, you know, this makes me think of just one footnote to the conversation. The whole strange saga of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy poisoned in England, has been playing out front page news here this whole week when we've been here in Russia.

SHAPIRO: Interesting.

KELLY: And - yeah. You could have a really similar conversation as the one I've just been telling you about about Russian interference because the official government reaction has been the same. We didn't do it. Why does Russia get the blame every time? This is a circus show.

SHAPIRO: Or as the U.S. president might say, fake news.

KELLY: (Laughter) Yeah. I think that's the Russian translation of fake news.

SHAPIRO: Our host, Mary Louise Kelly, reporting from Moscow. Thanks so much.

KELLY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "RAWNALD GREGORY ERICKSON THE SECOND"[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION:In this report, we say that the 17 spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community have concluded that Russia intervened in the American presidential election. While it is correct that the conclusion was issued by the director of national intelligence, who speaks for all U.S. intelligence agencies, the work that led to the conclusion was done by three of the 17 — the CIA, FBI and NSA.] ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.