Saturday, February 24, 2007

Commissars of the Internet

Commissars of the Internet
The FSB at the Computer

Anna Polyanskaya, Andrei Krivov & Ivan Lomko


September 16, 2006

Translated from the Russian by LR's Original Translator

Part 1. The Virtual Eye of Big Brother

Political forums on the Internet are a relatively new pastime for Russians, a virtual world-wide kitchen where public opinion is brewed. More and more often, in various printed and online publications, articles are appearing that examine contributions to these forums as a way of monitoring Russian public opinion. The primary tone of these articles is generally one of complete surprise: “What is going on with the Russian educated class and intellectuals?” After all, it is surely these people who are the main users of the Internet and the ones most interested in politics and social trends. But what one finds on Russian web-forums is an orgy of hatred, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, violent propaganda, amoral barbarism and raving. A normal person, after reading forums like these, becomes ill. “With growing speed, the country is falling into insanity”; “the Russian educated class has become bestial” – this is the general tone of commentaries on “Radio Svoboda”, “Moskovskiye Novosti”, the web publication “”, and various mass media in the West.

A number of institutes for political studies in the West have created offices and political forums for researching the so-called RuNet (the Russian portion of the Internet), wherein specialists judge the mood of the intellectual elite in Russia. Following is just one very typical quote from the site of the Israeli research group MAOF:

“The commentaries of average Russians are striking in the ferocious unanimity of their readers. One gets the sense that America has attacked not just innocent Arabs, but Russia itself. In their postings on the forum, Internet users show exactly the same sort of wild malice as their Islamic protectorates. And what is most interesting, they do not need any sort of Imam. They are so consumed with spite that it can be hard for me, after only 12 years away from Russia, to tell whether they are even using Russian to express themselves.”

The majority of researchers who quote web-forum postings from the RuNet come to the same conclusion, that in most cases the people posting on these forums fully and completely support the leadership of the government, and that Russian intellectuals and youth have suddenly and simultaneously become aggressive thugs. But we will here try to rehabilitate the reputation of the thinking portion of Russia that expresses itself on the Internet.

For a fairly long time we have had our doubts about whether Russian public opinion has been so well-represented on RuNet forums. Are these really just the “commentaries of average Russians” that all these researchers find so “striking in the ferocious unanimity of their readers”?

Without doubt, the influence of official propaganda on public opinion in Russia is enormous, and the rebirth of totalitarian ideology is in full stride. Many long-forgotten Soviet ideals and values are being served up by Putin’s ideologues as know-how, and a well-planned restoration of the totalitarian concept is underway. So it is not surprising that among the participants of web-forms one sometimes finds radical anti-Americans, anti-Semites, and advocates of totalitarianism. But we would suggest that they – real people with totalitarian viewpoints – are much fewer than one would suppose from a quick glance at the postings on any forum.

Being on the Internet in Russia presupposes a few at least approximate “minimal qualifications”: a certain level of material well-being (sufficient at least to provide food, a residence, and a home computer), a certain degree of competence with computers, and a certain level of education, as would allow one to make use of political and historical categories. People with marginal, Soviet-Communist or National-Fascist outlooks exist, of course, but their range of interests lie, as a rule, some distance from the Internet and liberal political forums. Besides, people of the older generations, having not become familiar with computers, have a much harder time actively participating on the Internet.

Until 1998-1999, forums on the RuNet were fairly uniform in the sociological characteristics of their users. About 70-80% of the audience consisted of people in agreement with one another, people of liberal and democratic persuasions, representatives of the Russian middle class, and Russian-speaking émigrés. Now, just four years later, totalitarian opinions have suddenly risen to 60-80% of all postings on Russian forums.

This sharp quantitative spike has not corresponded with the range of public opinion, and is at odds with data from Internet polls on current issues of modern life. For instance, about 80% of authors on all web-forums very aggressively and uniformly curse the USA. But in polls in which a single computer can vote only once, 84% of Russian-speaking Internet users support the USA. A similar picture appears regarding approval-disapproval of the war in Chechnya, support for the policies of Putin and his administration, etc. Everywhere the situation is the same: wherever the voting is protected – where one cannot vote a second time – the results are diametrically opposed to the results of “unprotected” polls and inversely proportional to the percentage of “totalitarian” postings on forums.

Personalities from this group present themselves as individuals from various professions, living in a variety of cities and countries, and according to themselves belong to a range of social and age groups. Nonetheless, from long experience and close observation of these personalities, one inescapably notices a full range of typical features and general characteristics not held by any other participants in the discussions.

The guarded-aggressive, totalitarian ideology put forth by these people is their main indicator. A few members of this group try to look even somewhat liberal. But, alongside the usual “governmental” ideology (as well as xenophobia, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and intolerance toward differing points of view), these people are distinguished by the extremity of their orientations, corporate-group morale, common base of information, clear norms of behavior, and very specific methods of argument and “working toward an objective”. In all forums, this group applies uniform principles for creating mass consciousness, connected, above all else, with the use of intentional and well-planned lies, slanders and disinformation.

In addition, the year 1999 was a watershed for the appearance on the RuNet of all these clearly unified groups of uniform participants in web-discussions.

The phenomenon we are here trying to investigate is by no means an ideological or spiritual community of post-Soviet people, tied together by common views, nor the aggressions of isolated anonymous boors on the Russian Internet. In our view, this is a qualitatively different phenomenon – the appearance on RuNet forums of organized and fairly professional “Brigades”, composed of ideologically and methodologically identical personalities, who “work” to form the public opinion desired by the authorities, in practically every single one of the popular political/social web-forms having even a few hundred viewers a day.

We have tried to systematically characterize the activities of this “Brigade”, which can now be found on all liberal and pro-democracy open forums of the RuNet and in various online publications read by the educated classes. Communist, nationalist, pro-fascist and mass media sites were not considered in our study.

Round-the-clock presence on forums

At least one of the uniform members of the brigade can be found “online” at all times, always ready to repulse any “attack” by a liberal. During a 24-hour period, there is not a single hour when one can carry on a discussion in a forum without these “curators” being present. In any discussion, someone from the “Brigade” will invariably muscle in. The Brigade in fact stands guard day and night on all meaningful forums, periodically wandering from forum to forum with the same set of materials and advertisements.

Plasticity of ideology, always coinciding with the government

The brigade invariably and fervently propagates a fairly eclectic system of viewpoints and values, corresponding exactly to the very latest directions of government PR, including the ideology and policies of the Russian leadership. Any change in government instructions is immediately followed by sharp changes in the views of all members of the “Brigade”. In cases where government propaganda for some reason has to suddenly change course regarding, for example, the USA, or Mayor Luzhkov, the very same brigade member will permanently “forget” one or another individual, who until recently was either “worshiped” or conversely “fire-branded”, and begin to propagandize about something that only yesterday was hated, or vice-versa. Praises are sung as zealously as slanders were the day before. All of this is done without the slightest embarrassment or care for their personal reputations.

One of the more recent [2003] examples was in discussions of the issues surrounding the Kuril Islands [annexed by Russia at the end of WW-II, but are still claimed by Japan]. If in 2000 all members of the Brigade sang in a single voice: “Not one inch of our native land to the damned Japanese”, then in 2003, after the completion of negotiations between Putin and the Japanese leadership, the very same authors, under the same nicknames, were suddenly entirely open to the possibility of the islands changing hands in exchange for money or large-scale Japanese investments, and with great satisfaction would count off the many benefits of such a trade.

Conversely, during the time when a bill on the storage of nuclear waste in Russia was working its way through the Russian Duma, members of the Brigade passionately tried to persuade forum readers of the “definite usefulness, profitability and security” of turning Russia into the world’s nuclear cesspool. Individuals working on this propaganda projected themselves as “private citizens and patriotically-spirited emigrants”, but were clearly using information from the press service of the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom).

The camp complexes were scattered throughout the entire country, and not only in the backwaters, but even in capital cities. They were so disguised that the uninitiated would never guess what they were. By the mid-1940’s, they numbered several hundred, and in every one there were from several dozen to more than a million prisoners. It was often the case in remote regions of the country that prisoners outnumbered the local free residents. And the budget of a camp complex might exceeded by several times the budget of the region, state or several states in which it was located.

Boundless loyalty to Putin and his circle

Members of the web-brigade, with nicknames that are “twisted” and unknown to the forum, always make a point of expressing their immeasurable affection for Putin. They are prepared to destroy anyone who expresses even the slightest doubt about the merits of the Russian President. For the slightest criticism of Vladimir Vladimirovych, they will threaten their opponents and their opponents’ families with lawsuits, beatings, murder and other reprisals. The final form – threats to opponents’ families – are not isolated cases, but a widespread phenomenon on all political web forums. Sometimes members of the Brigade very openly announce their intentions for being on the forum. For example:

“Let’s support the first President in the last 11 years who has tried to change the course of history for our long-suffering Motherland. Let’s judge him by his deeds, and not by the gossip purveyed by the club-girl-loving mass media. Let’s put forward some constructive proposals here, so that if (hah-hah) the KGB were to show up here, Putin would have laid out before him on his desk a file containing the ‘voice of the people’, intelligently discussing the problems of ‘today’ and proposing solutions for ‘tomorrow’, rather than the cackling of a bazaar.”

This text is interesting in its ingenuous openness, its simple and comprehensible presentation of the Brigade’s assignment. What is curious is only that the information in the hypothetical presentation of the “voice of the people” from the forum would be “laid out before Putin” in the form of a rationalized proposal, but without any criticism, which might spoil the President’s mood. This is reminiscent of a 1930’s satirical epigram that went around along these lines:

“We’re for laughter, but we need,
Someone nicer than Shchedrin,
And those guys like Gogol,
So they’ll let us be.”

This rhyme could be placed as an epigraph on the Brigade’s version of the life and times of the Russian President.

Respect and admiration for the VChK-KGB-FSB

The brigadniki are overflowing with affection and respect for the FSB and all its historical incarnations, beginning with the ChK-OGPU and so forth. All reincarnations of the ChK-KGB are called “neo-noble”, “law-enforcement” and “civics-instructing patriotic” agencies, the activities of which, including the Gulag system, should be a source of pride for Russians. Any participant in an online discussion who shows insufficient respect for the VChK-FSB is denounced by the Brigade as an “enemy of Russia, a Russophobe, and a betrayer of the Motherland.” The Brigade constantly underscores the “honor, heroism and impartiality” of the Chekisti, the “selflessness and devotion of their service to the state and Motherland”, and their “incorruptibility”, in contrast to other government workers. The Brigade will make declarations like the following:

“The Russian special services have always existed, just as they existed, currently exist and always will exist in the countries of the West.” Or this: “The FSB is a ‘special service’ just like the FBI in the U.S., the MOSSAD in Israel or MI-6 in Great Britain,” etc.

Condemnation of the actions of the KGB-FSB by any participant of a discussion group excites genuinely strong feelings from all members of the brigade. For instance, the following was directed at a reader, who expressed less than sufficient respect toward the KGB-FSB (we request the reader excuse the language, although it is presented as it was in the original):

“EVERY MAGGOT DREAMS OF BECOMING A LOUSE. EVERY MAGGOT ON A FORUM DREAMS OF BEING NOTICED BY THE KGB. He cries out ,he wriggles and prays: “Notice me -- I’m the very biggest maggot!” But the KGB sets you aside with its instruments; it definitely is NOT INTERESTED in maggots. Grow up to the size of a louse, a mongrel, and maybe they’ll notice you.”

The Brigade has lately shown a tendency to separate the FSB from all its previous incarnations and renamings, and to present the organization not as the direct successor of the VChK-OGPU-NKVD, etc., (as it is presented in all of its official symbols), but as some sort of “self-born Aphrodite”, supposedly appearing only yesterday, literally out of thin air.

The key word which will invariably drive the brigadniki from their hiding places and force them to reveal their true colors is “lustration”.* [TN: Historically the term for various ancient Greek and Roman purification rituals. In the period after the fall of the European Communist states in 1989–1991, the term came to refer to the policy of limiting participation of former communists, and especially informants of the communist secret police, in the successor governments, or even in civil service positions.] Not a single member of the Brigade can for even one second comport himself to the idea of a peaceful, legal limit on the choices of profession available to former Party bosses and KGB officers. Usually, after even the most peaceful and non-accusatory mention of the word “lustration”, the brigade will cry out in a choir about “bloody repressions by democratic murderers” and “witch hunts”, after which they will collapse into a collective hysteria of obscenities.

Main Directions of Propaganda

On every Russian language political forum, brigadniki conduct targeted propaganda that is anti-liberal, anti-American, anti-Chechen, anti-Semitic and anti-western. By way of proving their slogans and theories, they introduce arbitrary tracts full of facts and events -- often completely fraudulent -- that force their opponents to do extensive research to refute them. This modus operandi is easy and effective, distracting opponents away from pointed discussions that are uncomfortable for the authorities. Members of the Brigade use every polemical resource available, including generous quotes from official and semi-official Russian government propaganda, such as articles from the online journal “” or the resurrected “Komsomolskaya Pravda”. Sometimes they recycle ideological artifacts from previous years, for example, Yakovlev’s book “CIA versus USSR”. In addition, they widely employ materials like “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. They constantly quote (without attribution) from the “Short Course of the VKP(b)”. One can compile a list of the myths and main ideological values of the web-brigade, including:

1. Vindication of Stalinism, the rehabilitation of Stalin and his imperial idea of a greater Russian people. A cult of Stalin and Dzerzhinskiy , the founder of the ChK. Minimizing the number of victims of the Lenin-Stalin repressions.

2. Prohibition of any discussion of lustration* and the crimes of the ChK-NKVD-KGB. The absolute sacredness of this organization from the day of its founding to the current day.

3. Unswerving Judeophopia.

4. Loyalty to every action and announcement of the current authorities, and a cult of Putin. Stories about the economic and social blossoming of Russia under his leadership.

5. Propaganda in favor of the war in Chechnya, “taken to every last Chechen”. Stories about how “Chechnya attacked Russia.” Mythical stories about “hundreds of thousands of Russians” killed by Chechens at the beginning of the 1990’s, before the beginning of the war. In the Brigade’s texts the number of these casualties grows every month. If two years ago they set the number at 20,000 dead, today they say a million Russian residents of Chechnya have been killed. The entire population of the republic is less than the number of dead Russians counted by the brigade.

6. Xenophobia, racism, approval of skinheads and pogroms.

7. Ruthless hatred of refugees and defectors from the KGB.

8. Anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, and a fiery hatred of anyone who mentions the “Cold War” period.

9. Nostalgia for the USSR, as a totalitarian empire and great power, which the whole world feared.

10. Restoration of the historical concepts and propagandist clichés of the Soviet period, with the exception only of Internationalism.

11. Hatred of the educated classes, especially émigrés, whom the Brigade calls “betrayers of the Motherland.”

12. Hatred of dissidents and human rights workers, political prisoners and journalists – as in the past, so in the present.

13. Hatred of perestroika, its ideology, its practitioners and major events. Hatred of the Yeltsin period and of him personally.

14. A relatively new piece of ideological baggage for the Brigade, above and beyond the propaganda of the USSR, is the accusation of “Russophobia” against everyone who disagrees with them. As used by members of the Brigade, this term resembles the obsolete term “anti-Soviet”, and an accusation of Russophobia has come to appear as a modern equivalent of the Brezhnev-era Article 70 of the Criminal Code (“anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”).

Ideological enemies of the Brigade

The main enemies of the Brigade are democrats (“trashocrats”), liberal westerners, Chechens, Europeans, Americans, Jews… [TN: ellipses in original] Objects of special hatred include the Russian liberal intelligentsia, independent journalists, members of the human rights movement, and certain individuals, including S. Kovalev, E. Bonner, A. Babitskiy, A. Politkovskaya, G. Pas’ko, V. Shenderovich, V. Novodvorskaya and others who are famous for their criticism of the current authorities. The brigadniki always favor limiting freedom of speech in the name of “higher interests of the State”, and introducing strict censorship, right up to the arresting of intellectuals, human rights workers and journalists who are not of the right opinions. The Brigade calls the journalist and ecologist Grigoriy Pas’ko a “spy and betrayer of the Motherland”. By contrast, in the case of Yuri Budanov [TN: the only Russian military officer ever convicted by a Russian court for war crimes in Chechnya] , the Brigade shows the highest level of sympathy and even approval. Budanov is presented as either an innocent victim (of the war, his wounds, a nervous breakdown, a sell-out by generals, liberal journalists, corrupt justice, etc.), or as a “genuine patriot”, “true Russian officer”, “loyal son of the Fatherland” and even “the pride and hero of Russia”.

Paradoxically, the Brigade also views as enemies many of the liberal authors of the articles they discuss on the forums. In other words, members of the Brigade, presenting themselves as honest and private citizens, troll around on and occupy forums they don’t like, round the clock, for years, discussing authors they hate. And yet another great paradox: the editors take no actions against people who run down their own authors, but take decisive action against the opponents of those people, who support their liberal journalists.

For example, in a readers’ discussion of a memoir by Viktor Shenderovich in the journal “Moskovskiye Novosti”, the site administrator (under obvious pressure by the forum’s Brigade) deleted several remarks about the article, but left the positings of brigadniki claiming that the article’s author “has licked out Gusinskiy’s ass, and now is giving Berezovskiy oral sex”.

Views of the USSR

The Brigade’s views of the Soviet past are, as a rule, apologist, although not always, and there exits here a certain separation of opinions. Many brigadniki warmly recall the Soviet period and worship the Soviet past in all its attributes, from the everyday to the official (often in terms from the Soviet-era propaganda piece “Short Course on the History of the USSR”, even when according to his “legend” the writer is a young man who has been living in the West for a long time). Often they publicly dream of the reestablishment of the USSR to its previous – or even better, expanded – borders. At the same time, they actively rehabilitate the Communist leaders, including Lenin, Stalin, Beria, Brezhnev and Andropov, as well as the totalitarian ideals of the Soviet period. The only idea from Communism that is completely excluded is the idea of Internationalism, which is replaced with a deep-seated nationalist-“patriotism”. This is often accompanied by a false substitution, in which the idea of the Motherland is associated exclusively with the authorities, and the Fatherland with the ruling regime. Devotion to leaders and totalitarian organizations like the KGB is taken as a patriotic position, while taking any position opposed to the regime is considered a betrayal of the Motherland and a form of Russophobia.

Typical of the Brigade are constant attempts to present in a positive and rosy light the entire Soviet period of Russian history, on the basis of the propaganda clichés of that period, consciously minimizing the number of those who died in repressions, blaming all the crimes of the Bolsheviks on Jews and/or foreign enemies, and glorifying the imperial nature of the Soviet Union.

Low cultural level and typical language

Despite the apparent variety of participants from the Brigade, the majority of them have approximately the same (very low) level of culture. The large majority of brigadniki have a poor command of the Russian language, making countless stylistic, spelling and grammatical errors, and as a result it can sometimes be difficult for them to hide behind their various pseudo/nicknames. At the same time, many of them are wonderfully familiar with ideological clichés, beginning with those from the Soviet period and ending with the most modern. It is very strange, for example, to hear on the Internet an aphorism from Comrade Zhdanov of 15 years before: “On whose mill is he pouring water?” It is, however, used by the Brigade frequently and seriously, without the slightest hint of parody.

Incidentally, brigadniki in all forums have obvious problems with humor, and their own jokes always have a barracks/toilet quality to them, dealing exclusively with defecation, homosexuality, prostitution, pornography and similar “low” aspects of life. A typical shop-worn joke of the Brigade we have encountered several dozen times is, “Stop looking for the KGB under the bed!” Here’s a typical example of the Brigade’s “humor”, thrown at a female opponent: “Make your skirt a little longer-ly, so your balls don’t show.”

Many members of the Brigade on liberal web-forums use very telling malapropisms (written without a trace of irony), like “dlin’she” (TN: roughly: “longer-ly”), “vsledom”, “navrode”, “zamesto”, and so forth.

Along with the obscene abuse, which members of the Brigade use everywhere they go, all of these warped words and turns of phrase suggest a specific culture and educational level of the Brigade that is absolutely not characteristic of the majority of Internet users.

“Foreigners” in the Brigade

Many of the brigadniki claim they live in or are presently staying in foreign countries – the U.S., Germany, Netherlands, Israel, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, etc. The Brigade will always use this as a device for telling about “the horrors of life in the West and advantages of life in Putin’s Russia”. On some sites it is possible to determine the country in which a user’s ISP is located (by the unique IP-code of each computer), and when the codes actually do show the server as being in the country where he claims to be, they are sometimes clearly proxy servers (intermediate systems). Curiously enough, it is exactly these “foreigners” who turn out to be the most aggressive and determined brigadniki, and the fiercest proponents of the USSR, KGB and Putin. These individuals love to describe the “nightmarish” realities of life in “their” western countries, the poverty and oppression there, the violations of their human rights, all in contrast to the simply wonderful conditions in Putin’s Russia. In their stories they always ignore the positive sides of life in the West, and they prevaricate a lot.

Brigadniki and liberals living in the exact same town can have arguments about the cost of goods and services that at times are fairly ridiculous. One gets the impression that they are living not only in different cities, but on different planets.

Individual work on opponents

As soon as an opposition-minded liberal arrives on a forum, expressing a position that makes them a clear “ideological enemy”, he is immediately cornered and subjected to “active measures” by the unified web-brigade. Without provocation, the opponent is piled on with abuse or vicious “arguments” of the sort that the average person cannot adequately react to. As a result, the liberal either answers sharply, causing a scandal and getting himself labeled a “boor” by the rest of the brigade, or else he starts to make arguments against the obvious absurdities, to which his opponents pay no attention, but simply ridicule him and put forth other similar arguments. This sort of action goes exactly according to the scenario described in the famous novel by Shukshin, “Slashed!”

The Brigade will always and invariably try to hound collectively any stubborn liberal on the forum, for example by having one member of the brigade write about the ideological inaccuracies and mistakes of the novice, while a second swears obscenities at the opponent, a third accuses the liberal of being crazy, a forth threatens him with reprisals and murder, etc. Then a fifth member will write complaints to the site administrator about any sharp counter-attack by the injured party, absolutely ignoring that this was simply an emotional lapse in reaction to a barrage of collective hounding. One gets the impression that the aim of the Brigade is to drive out any novice-liberal, having beaten out of him any enthusiasm for posting on the forum. If the liberal stubbornly refuses to leave, a specific arsenal of means in used against him, right up to collective complaints to the site administrator by all members of the brigade, or even backstage pressure on the administrator, with the aim of getting the opponent banned from the forum. During these periods, massive virus attacks may appear on the computer of the persistent liberal.

Accusations that opponents are working for “enemies”

In cases where opponents of the Brigade use forums to criticize Putin, discuss the suppression of free speech and democracy in Russia, call for an end to the war in Chechnya or show disloyalty to the agencies of state security, the brigade immediately begins to accuse them of taking money from B. Berezovskiy, the CIA, MOSSAD, Saudi Arabia, Zionists, Masons, [Chechen rebel spokesman] Movlada Udugov, etc. The brigadniki present the issue as being that any critic of the FSB or Russian policy in Chechnya is an enemy of the State, a Russophobe, and therefore his only reason for participating in political discussions is to earn a salary from the enemy. A variant is to try and smear the opponent with uniformly angry invectives about “emigrant-traitors of the Motherland, lecturing from abroad true Russian patriots for dirty money”.

By this logic, all of humanity has been so overcome by love for the VChK-FSB and Putin’s regime that extinguishing this powerful feeling could only be done by a huge amount of money. Logic, however, is rare in the postings of Brigade members. More likely, the brigadniki’s obsessive accusations about opponents taking money for being on the Internet says more about their own reasons and motives for being there, among an intelligent class of people that is alien and foreign to them, on liberal forums they find loathsome.

Frequent changes of pseudonyms (nicknames)

Brigadniki tend to change their pseudo/nicknames frequently. One and the same author will often write on a forum under a variety of pseudonyms, sometimes imitating a dialogue with himself, giving support to himself and showing the “massiveness” of support for his point of view. When changing nicknames, the author will take on the name of a different person, sometimes even a person of a different sex, forgetting that he still has exactly the same patterns of expression, phraseology, level of Russian language, ideological positions and arguments. Because of their low level of culture and tendency to use specific verbal clichés, it is not hard to pick out several nicknames belonging to a single brigadnik author.

Informational noise and fraudulent use of nicknames

On unmoderated forums the Brigade may stifle sharp political discussions that are undesirable for the authorities through the use of enormous volumes of meaningless messages on different themes -- what has come to be called a “flood”. Often these texts are pornographic or anti-Semitic in nature, and are repeated dozens or even hundreds of times in a row. Sometimes the brigade will use the name and address of an opponent with a liberal reputation to write a massive series of abusive or obscene postings. It is worth noting that this method is practically never used against the Brigade itself -- in other words, the liberal-opponents do not consider themselves capable of stealing other people’s names and addresses.

Political spectrum of the Brigade – “Principle of the common crest”

Permanent members of the Brigade of any popular web-forum may present themselves as followers of one or another party or movement, from anywhere on the Russian political spectrum, except the genuinely liberal part. On every forum there is always a nationalist-anti-Semite, a Communist, a representative of “United Russia” (Yedinaya Rossiya), and several individuals claiming they voted for Yavlinskiy, but were disappointed because of his insufficient loyalty to Putin. Among the others on the forum, there will always be someone with extremely leftist views, passionately idealizing the West, the U.S., and capitalism, but at the same time never criticizing Putin and his regime, which is somewhat illogical for the typical “lefty”.

Views of members of the Brigade will supposedly diverge on unimportant tactical issues, but they are unwaveringly united on the key and basic issues: absolute loyalty to Putin and the FSB; the “flowering” of Russia under their leadership; the harmfulness of democracy advocates and the period of perestroika; the necessity of continuing the Chechen war without negotiations, to the point of shooting the last Chechen; hatred of human rights workers, freedom of speech, and democratic/liberal values. We call this political positioning of the Brigade the “principle of the common crest.”

Any new person, of any political persuasion, who happens to wander onto the forum, will fall between the representative-teeth of this crest. All of members of the Brigade claiming to hold views close to those of the new person will claim their convictions particularly close to his, but will go on to correct the novice taking into account of the steadfast values of the Brigade. Anyone who dares to criticize Putin, the FSB, or the war in Chechnya risks receiving unpleasant notes from the Brigade, from individuals claiming to be on both the “left” and “right”, from the “guileless fascist/simpleton” to the “refined patriot/ex-Yabloko member”.

The Communist, the measured Statist-Liberal, the Yavlinskiy supporter; the person with a troubled fate; the one who has reexamined his beliefs; the modest and rational mother of seven from somewhere in Florida, who has nonetheless always been loyal to the Russian authorities; the guileless innocent from the common folk; the anti-Semite; the intellectual; the “former dissident and Siberian prisoner”, now dreaming of hanging the human rights workers from the lampposts – these are the Brigade’s usual types on web forums. But every single one of them absolutely and unwaveringly honors Putin and the FSB, as well as the “active measures” of the authorities. On all other points the brigadniki may have some minimal differences, sometimes forming the basis for an imitation of a discussion amongst themselves. If an opponent becomes stubborn in sticking up for their beliefs, the Brigade will collectively apply more refined methods for pressuring him.

Criminal means

Squabbles, provocations, foul abuse – all these are part of the normal life on the Web for members of the Brigade. They have special methods for dealing with women of opposing views who dare to argue with the postings of the brigadniki. In this case they throw out countless names of body parts and sex organs, point to the opponent’s lack of sex partners, to her monstrosity, old age, obesity, being a prostitute, etc. Here, for example, is a typical and relatively inoffensive remark:

“The GB – this is State Security. It’s a noble mission. Security is always very good. To live in a state of danger is bad - with this, one cannot argue. And to look after the security of the State is an entirely good and very important and necessary mission. And if someone from this “GB” were to wind up between someone’s legs because they wouldn’t shut up, it would serve them right. Too bad they wouldn’t kill her. That species doesn’t even worry about whether they look responsible. Obviously, for such repulsive behavior the GB takes reprisals on them. They should take more. You, Anastasia, are a dinosaur. And you should go extinct.”

And here is another typical appearance by a member of the Brigade:

“You, you little retard -- are you having an orgasm right in front of the monitor, or what? You can’t do it any other way, can you? Haven’t got a man? But then who do you need, you fool. You just prattle away from morning to night. Some sort of little companionship for you. You lick up your own poison (or more exactly, your dissatisfaction). Go get yourself a man and get jerked off like you should, you’ll feel better and it will broaden you mind, although the last is doubtful.”

And so on, and so forth, dozens and hundreds of similar postings under various nicknames. Oddly, after about two weeks of filling up the forum with similar postings, the majority of which we cannot quote here for reasons of decency, this group of authors, having conspired to hound their female opponent, will usually write a collective letter to the site administrator complaining about how they, self-proclaimed “intelligent regular readers” of the site, were viciously badgered by exactly the same female participant of the discussion who was the object of these types postings.

Most of the actual female participants of a discussion are not able to hold up for long under such a collective onslaught by the Brigade, and they eventually quit the discussion.

Intentional diversion of pointed discussions

Members of the brigade are well-versed in the use of simple techniques used by thieves (“look at the bird!”) to distract the attention of the “objective” with the aim of subsequently robbing him (in the current case, diverting the discussion into the wilderness). People who are not familiar with the criminal world easily fall for this trick, to the great joy of the entire Brigade. Among other members of the discussion -- other than the brigadniki -- conduct of this sort is practically never encountered.

The trick consists of having one of the Brigade members throw out an obviously false thesis, forcing the opponent to research and look for sources to refute the falsehood. For example, the claim that Ramon Mercader, the murderer of Trotskiy, never had any relationship with the OGPU-NKVD. After showing the person who presented this idea dozens of references showing that Mercader received the Hero of the Soviet Union award and was interred in the USSR, the person is nonetheless not the slightest bit embarrassed, on the contrary, he goes on to claim that the Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot never had any connection with Communism. After receiving references refuting this as well, the person next claims that not a single person was killed in Prague in 1968 by Soviet tanks. Next will come his claim that the total casualties of the Stalinist repressions numbered less than one million people, and the rest were fabricated by liberals. After receiving factual refutations of every one of his false claims, a month later the brigadnik will repeat them all anew, in exactly the same order and same way. This sort of trick works especially well when the brigadnik presents “concrete information” about, say, life in the USA: “A movie ticket there costs $20.” Real residents of the USA will join in on the discussion, along with other brigadniki who supposedly live there. And so the discussion will go on for a whole day about the cost of movie tickets.

Or a claim like this will be presented: “Putin does not have and never did have any relationship to the KGB – he was just a Specialist in the Army.” It will not help to present links to the site “”, nor to the official biography of the Russian President, nor to his personal interviews. The author of this sort of “dezinformatsiya” (“dezi”) will answer all refutations with only more filthy abuse of the person who dared to argue with him, and will all the more stubbornly repeat his “dezi”.

For example, one woman, a permanent member of one forum’s Brigade collective, who presented herself as a resident of Ireland, but regularly called for people to “pray to Putin”, reports on limitations on Jews that supposedly exist in England:

“What the Tsarist authorities did many years ago with boundaries on Jewish settlements and restrictions on the education of Jews, in our good country England they still do to this day. No, they’re allowed to study. They just have to pay. And they can hardly be employed in a government job. They can only go into business and pay taxes. Mercy. For this reason there are Jews here, but no Jewish question. There is also no anti-Semitism. But just imagine then how the Jews would start selling off England, like our “New Russians”, stuffing their pockets and bowing to Tony Blair. They’re smart, these English.”

We’ll leave this passage to the conscience of the “fellow-countrymen” of Lord Disraeli. Again, it’s not important here what exactly is written, only that it leads the discussion away from dangerous themes, best of all – overseas.

The well-informed web-brigade

Before all else, the Brigade has the most remarkable ability to instantly find quotes from old postings of opponents on forums, even postings a year and a half old, sometimes no longer even in the archives of the site. Many brigadniki strive also to know as much as possible about the personal information of their opponents. With this objective they regularly conduct “intelligence interrogations” of critically-inclined opponents, in the course of which they ask a wide range of questions about their family, the college they graduated from, their work, the region in which they live, favorite places and friends. Somehow, one’s casual “conversation partner” from the Brigade is able to quickly identify the country and city from which one is writing, even on those sites where it is not possible to see one’s IP-code.


Yet another characteristic of the uniform Brigade type is their tendency to work as a team. They unwaveringly support each other in discussions, ask each other leading questions, put fine points on each other’s answers, and even pretend not to know each other. If an opponent starts to be hounded, this hounding invariably becomes a team effort, involving all of the three to twenty nicknames that invariably are present on any political forum 24 hours a day. A favorite method of the Brigade is to accuse their opponents of being insane. This accusation always becomes a group effort, with each of the nickname-personalities of the Putin-loving Brigade throwing out one or another short remark: “democratic-schizophrenic” (“demshiz”) paranoid schizophrenic, ‘clinical’, persecution complex, clearly sick, loony bin’s computer, parole day at the psych ward, take your tranquilizer”, etc, etc. [TN: "demzhiz" is an interesting term of abuse, apparently with origins in Soviet "psychology." It is not, of course, a term recognized by psychologists outside of Russia and, after some discussion, the Russian version of Wikipedia refused to list it. For Russian speakers an excellent, almost clinical -- though tellingly sympathetic -- summary of its meaning and implications can be found on the Russian Darkus blog.]

For example, a certain “woman from intelligent circles” in the U.S. announces:

“Lord, if they prescribed Nastenka a lobotomy, I’d hand the doctor a scalpel myself – a dull one, like Nastya. But, well, if we’re limited to an electroshock, then let me pull the lever! I won’t pull it long, maybe just twice!... Little Anastasia would fall over red-bellied, maybe just fall in front of a train, herself of course, like in that book.”

Three years later, on a different political forum, a certain anonymous member of the Brigade tells a different woman who was writing about the victims of the Gulags: “Well what a little pile… How would you, little Veronica, like a lobotomy? If you haven’t already received one, of course.” It would appear this “joke” is typical across forums for the Brigade, as are many of their tricks.

A different type of activity for the Brigade is to take a typo and use it to accuse the person of lying, or start the whole tight-knit group writing that this always-careful, kind and cultivated opponent is actually a “malicious boor, squabbler, barbarian and liar”. In this way the Brigade collectively creates a negative image of opponents that are problematic for them.

Appealing to the Administration

After all the above-mentioned methods for dealing with an opponent are exhausted, the Brigade has in its arsenal an extreme measure: appealing to the site administrator. Most often, the brigadniki simply write mass collective complaints about their opponents to the editors, site administrators, or the electronic “complaints book”, demanding that one or another posting or whole discussion thread they don’t like be removed, or calling for the banning of individuals they find problematic. The Brigade’s complaints on various sites coincide word-for-word. For example, complaints from Brigade members to both the administrator of the site MN and the Web Master of, supposedly written by absolutely all kinds of people, all contained the same exact words: “This sweet couple has hounded and driven from the forum all its regular participants.”

The Brigade usually accuses its opponents of doing the very same things it most often does itself. Suppose a Brigade has most often abused an opponent by threatening him with physical reprisals, but the opponent has remained cool and collected. Then in their complaint to the administrator the Brigade will write that the “accused” has hounded them all simultaneously, that he is a foul-mouthed boor, and has threatened everyone with reprisals. When such letters come in large volumes (recall that the Brigade always works collectively, with each of its members using several nicknames), then the volume of complaints will influence any administrator, despite the invariable absence of actual quotes in the Brigade members’ complaints.

Simply put, this method amounts to collective slander of the opponent. It is fairly effective even with those forum administrators who are still unwilling to subordinate themselves to the ideological agencies of the Russian Federation. However, such independent administrators are becoming steadily fewer, losing their jobs one after another and being replaced by those more obedient and pliable.

Destruction of inconvenient forums

Sometimes a cleansing is orchestrated of whole sections of a forum in which one of the members of the Brigade has allowed a clear “leak” or exposure of too much (or simply untimely) information related to the intelligence services. Examples of this sort of activity are too widespread to be considered mere accidental coincidences.

The site, which hosted fairly pointed discussions of current Russian issues, was closed down soon after a discussion began in which a number of readers accused the FSB of involvement in explosions in Dagestan. The site has since been turned over to a government television channel. On the site of the magazine “Moskovskiye Novosti”, readers who had presented themselves as critics of Putin and the FSB were suddenly and without any explanation banned from all discussions, despite their having broken none of the site’s rules of conduct. All the postings of this group of readers, going back a year and a half, were erased by the site administrator.

When searching on the word “lustration” [see prior note] the search system had for some time given a reference to a forum in the online journal Yezhednevniy Zhurnal ( devoted to discussing the necessity of lustrating former chekists in Russia. Shortly after that forum’s postings began appearing on another Russian political forum, with a link to a post by a reader of, all the archives of discussions on Yezhednevniy Zhurnal, including the postings about lustration, were destroyed, and the forum itself underwent a complete change of design. On many forums of the RuNet, a painstaking and well-planned change of administrators is taking place, in which independent specialists are being replaced by individuals who are fully controlled by the government and will faithfully execute any order.

Advancers of the “Party line”?

There are, alas, many people in Russia with anti-liberal views. But since the breakup of the USSR they have not all presented themselves as a unified entity. The above-noted peculiarities of ideology and methods of operation of the “Brigade” simply could not have formed accidentally in multiple groups of people. However, exactly these “brigadniki” now make up about 70% of regular participants on Russian language political forums. They are as identical as two droplets of water, their texts coincide word for word on different forums, and they clearly use one and the same information base of articles and other materials expressing the current points of view of the authorities. These individuals are constantly present on article-comment forums belonging to such well-known liberal publications as “Moskovskiye Novosti”, “Novaya Gazeta”, “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, the information sites “”, “”, “”, “”, “”, and so forth. (TN: Again, this article was first written in 2003; some of these publications have since been bought out or otherwise taken over by government-owned companies or pro-Kremlin businessmen, and are no longer distinctly “liberal”.)

The oddest thing about all these personalities of a uniform type is that real people with the sorts of convictions and mannerisms outlined above would hardly participate, regularly, over a period of three years, in forums of liberal publications, among people of an intelligent frame of mind that is absolutely alien to them. It is psychologically somewhat strange that they even read publications of this type, inasmuch as people with such ideologies usually gather around publications like “Zavtra”, “Soviet Russia”, the forum RNE, etc. Try and imagine a person with pro-Western views who crawled day and night around the forums of a communist magazine, or a fiery member of the right-wing SPS Party settling into a site of Trotskyites, or a Zionist who would only communicate with fascists. Since in real life such examples do not exist – since real people prefer to communicate mostly with like-minded people in publications expressing points of view close to their own – we attribute the strange fact of the permanent presence of “brigadniki” on liberal sites to a certain defect in their method of operation.

A characteristic peculiarity of all these uniform personalities is that they sharply increase their level of activity during periods of “active measures” by the Putin authorities, or during events important to the authorities, such as elections at the federal level, the Babitskiy affair, the takeover of NTV, the reintroduction of the hymn of the USSR, the Grigoriy Pasko affair, the actions of the authorities in Nord-Ost, the Zakayev affair, the resurrection of the Dzerzhinskiy monument, the sinking of the “Kursk”, the struggle between the Putin administration and certain specific individuals (Gusinskiy, Berezovskiy, Luzhkov), terrorist attacks in the U.S., scandals at the Olympic games, the war in Iraq, etc.

During periods of such “active measures”, there is an unusual increase in the number of authors and postings on the RuNet that support any action of the current authorities and the FSB, and the activity levels of the uniform Brigade-type personalities increase by many times over.

For example: If in 2001 the main emphasis of these personalities was in smearing to the maximum extent possible V. Gusinskiy, then today (2003) his name has practically disappeared from RuNet forums, and all the Brigade personalities are busy only with B. Berezovskiy. If one supposed that Gusinskiy actually was the object of widespread personal dislike by all these nicknamed personalities, it would be hard to believe that this burning hatred was extinguished in a single day, as if on command, after Gusinskiy handed over all his shares to the government and similar “managing entities”. More exactly, the hatred of these Internet personalities was not extinguished, but burned with new strength, only now it was directed at a different wealthy oligarch – Berezovskiy.

A still stranger metamorphosis occurred in the case of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, for a time an object of passionate anger, hatred and contempt by these many uniform personalities. The stream of hatred and kompromat directed at him, which over the course of several months inundated all the political forums of the RuNet, suddenly fell off one day in Spring 2001. The Moscow mayor’s detractors suddenly removed him from criticism and reliably forgot about him immediately after the merger of his “Fatherland” (Otechestvo) party with the pro-Putin “United Russia” (Yedinaya Rossiya). From that day on, the Moscow mayor’s name practically never came up in discussions on Russian-language political forums.

Exactly the same story was repeated on 11 September. It is worth reading the archives of Russian forums during the week after that day – at that time, the level of spite and hatred toward the USA was truly phenomenal, along with the gloating, slanders and inhumanity. But after just two weeks, at the end of September 2001, President Putin presented a new policy in Germany formally siding with America in its global war on terror. From the very moment of Putin’s speech and for a long time afterward anti-American hysteria on the RuNet ceased. Limp appearances to the effect that not everything was so great in the USA and not everything was so bad in Russia continued here and there, but postings about “roasted Americans”, “gud-bai, Amerika”, “serves them right those fat gorgers of hamburgers”, or about “Arab heroes who repeated the feat of Gastello” [TN: Nikolai Frantsevich Gastello, a World War II Russian bomber pilot who supposedly crashed his crippled plane, kamizake-style, into a column of German tanks, destroying them all] – all of a sudden everyone stopped writing them, everywhere, simultaneously, on EVERY forum of the RuNet. After this, the wave of anti-American propaganda rose and fell in turns on the RuNet, but until the war in Iraq, when the anti-American wave again crested, it never reached the peak it did on September 11 and for exactly two weeks thereafter.

A new shade of rabid hatred of the U.S. began on the Russian Internet from the first day of the war in Iraq, and quickly reached an incandescence never seen before. Reading the forums, it sometimes seemed that the U.S. was not liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, but at a minimum had actually launched an attack on Russia and was marching on the Kremlin. A multitude of brigadniki on dozens of formus so rejoiced each time an American soldier was killed in Iraq, that it seemed the soldier’s death was literally their personal achievement. However, the entire bonfire of passion, hatred and anti-American gloating on the Internet once again fell silent in a single day, as if following a conductor’s baton, immediately after Putin announced that Russia was not opposed to the victory of the coalition forces in Iraq.

Any sociologist can confirm that true public opinion does not undergo such sharp metamorphoses, but always has more inertia, and cannot change altogether, everywhere, in a single day. It is not, however, within the scope of our project to draw global conclusions about radical changes on the Internet which have taken place over the last few years [before 2003]. We have here tried only to summarize a few of the characteristic regularities.

“Disinformation and Kompromat”

Along with the thief-like techniques described in the first part of this article, used to distract attention and lead political discussions into the wilderness, the Brigade also regularly throws targeted disinformation and kompromat into forums. Refuting such information can be difficult, and the old adage, “Keep lying, and eventually something will stick” works here as well as anywhere.

Clearly, it is important for the Brigade that false claims be a part of every discussion, and that those claims become part of the new myths that influence public opinion. Why in the world does the Brigade so constantly and brazenly repeat lies that have already been refuted? Its members themselves openly admit (and we quote):

“Graffiti is read by many more people than write it. And if I write over and over again that someone is a pig, eventually that someone will oink.”

One might suppose the existence of a certain type of person who is endowed with “the gift of utter shamelessness”, but strangely enough, there are generally at least five participants of this type in any discussion, and on the most popular Russian political forums there may be a dozen. All of their false claims, which identically falsify events and history, are repeated by them every day and sometimes word for word in dozens and hundreds of forums.

Technical Methods of Pressure

One of the most commonly used methods for putting pressure on stubborn opponents (especially those who make note of the possible presence of a tight-knit Brigade on the forum) is to send them junk email containing viruses and Trojan horses. In our archive we have dozens of cases in which people of liberal viewpoints have reported that after posting messages opposing the ideological values of the Putin regime they have suddenly suffered massive virus attacks that practically destroyed their computer programs and blocked their access to the Internet.

Here, for example is a report from one visitor to the forum

Immediately after my short participation in a forum on about the necessity of lustrating the FSB, a series of strong virus attacks penetrated all the defense systems of my computer and kept me from getting on the Internet for several days. Assuming that this was a coincidence, I returned to the same discussion forum on this topic that is so unpleasant for the FSB. That same day the following post appeared on the forum:

“You again! Veronika is back. I would have thought you would understand by now, Nikush. It became clear for everyone else a long time ago -- only for you is it still unclear. Fine. Then we’ll continue working. But one quick question for you, Veronika. You write about the KGB that they are, supposedly, beasts, and then you write that you live in Russia. If all of this is true, and I for example am a major in the FSB, doesn’t this scare you? Wouldn’t you rather be known as a French Jane?”

Immediately after this remark was posted, the massive virus attack on my computer returned. Clearly, this was a continuation of the work of the “FSB major”.

Obsessive stories about themselves

Trying to add credibility to their stories, brigadniki often tell unsolicited stories about themselves, their places of residence and work, their parents, etc, and publicize their work and home phone numbers, which none of the other participants in these forums find appropriate to do. At the same time, members of the Brigade often get mixed up in the details of “their” biographies, and may know very little about their supposed profession or the country where they supposedly live. Very often, they are émigrés in a foreign country, or call themselves émigrés. In recent months, however, this trend has changed, so that many of the brigadniki now claim to be residents of remote and non-fertile areas of Russia or Siberia, where, according to their stories, “a massive economic, social and cultural blossoming is underway, along with an overwhelming improvement in the standard of living, under the wise leadership of the Putin administration.”

Insightfulness of the Brigade

One of the most interesting peculiarities of the brigadniki is their ability to identify and publicize on forums not only their anonymous opponents’ place of residence, but also their full names, biographic details, place of work, and names of their relatives. Of course, they first ask a multitude of questions about their opponent’s country of residence, work, age, education, etc. But even when the personalities asking all these questions do not receive answers from their opponents, they somehow manage to find out this information on their own.

We once saw how, in the online remarks section of the magazine “Moskovskiye Novosti”, one member of a Brigade, supposedly using only the email address and neutral nickname “Kutyur”, determined and publicized the full name and place of work of one of the regular members of the discussion, a fierce supporter of Gaidar, Chubays and the SPS party. This was a couple of years ago, when the SPS was sharply criticizing Putin and his policies with respect to NTV and the war in Chechnya. The publication on the forum of the SPS supporter’s personal information was accompanied by threats against him and his family, which forced him to quit the web forum and for a long time refrain from any sort of discussion.

Finding and publicizing an opponent’s personal information with the intention of adding credibility to threats against him was made the more surprising by the fact that the “exposed” reader had given practically no details about himself on the site, and the site did not show his IP address. We observed similar, if somewhat less characteristic incidents more than once on the forum for the site “”, in which supporters of Putin suddenly called by their true first names opponents they had just met, and whose nicknames consisted only of numbers or punctuation marks. Not long ago we learned of a case in which a person from North America writing under a pseudonym on the political forum “Russia Today” suddenly had published on the forum by his opponents in the Brigade a detailed document with his entire biography, including medical diagnoses. This brings to mind the Russian joke about an Internet briefing by President Putin:

“Putin On-Line”

Here we have a question from an anonymous user:

- Vova, aren’t you ashamed to answer questions prepared in advance?

- No, Nikolai Petrovich Sidrov of Yaroslav, resident of Lenin Street, building 16, apartment 2, IP number (such-and-such), ISP (such-and-such), I’m not at all embarrassed to answer questions prepared in advance.

Politkovskaya – Object of Special Attention by the Brigade

Brigadniki are almost always present, and especially active and aggressive, at discussions of certain publications, authors and topics. Among Russian publications and authors, the leader in all categories would be articles on Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya in the journal “Novaya Gazeta”.

What happens during discussions of these articles simply defies description. It is an absolute orgy of animal hatred toward both Politkovskaya and every Chechen on the planet. Curiously, these remarks have been word-for-word identical with those posted since 2000, putting forward exactly the same “arguments”, accusations and insults, using exactly the same phrasing and sentence constructions. One gets the feeling that they are being written by exactly the same people with the same impoverished imagination and vocabulary. And once again we see here the same psychological puzzle: Is it really plausible that common readers, so fiercely hating this journalist and her viewpoints, would constantly, regularly, in every edition, read her every article and write exactly the same remarks, over and over again, never lacking the time or money to pay for the expensive Internet access one finds in Russia?

In this atmosphere so thick with insults, lies and xenophobia, normal discussion becomes impossible, and people with viewpoints other than those of the “iron clutch” are pushed out of the forums. It is entirely possible that this is one of the objectives of the Brigade, with its unified, propaganda-like ideology.

Administrative Resources

At the end of Jaunary 2003, on one of the more popular sites on the RuNet – the electronic version of the liberal magazine “Moskovskiye Novosti” – a fairly unusual event occurred. The Brigade on this forum unexpectedly began receiving active assistance from the new administrator of the MN site. The new administrator, a person of clearly limited intellect and ethics, suddenly, in spite of the site rules, categorically refused to remove from the site multiple anti-Semitic “flood” postings and obscene abuse written by members of the pro-Putin Brigade. Moreover, when many readers requested that the magazine take measures against the foul-mouthed anti-Semites from the forum’s Brigade, the administrator publicly answered: “You make me sick.” Then, without explaining his reasons, the administrator banned from the forum all members of the discussion who had been so presumptuous as to criticize Putin and the FSB.

The MN site administrator then took the unprecedented step (even for the RuNet) of purging the archives of the forum for the past two years. The MN site administrator was so energetic he carefully deleted only the several tens of thousands of readers’ postings that were directed against Putin and the policies of the FSB. Once again many regular contributors to the site expressed their annoyance to the administrator. In response the administrator advised that a number of the participants in previous discussions (all of them people of liberal and democratic viewpoints, who had never broken the rules of the forum) had been banned from the site on the personal instructions of the magazine’s editor in chief, V. Loshak.

One of the readers banned from the site had to use another computer to post his protest, having vowed to bring to light the fact of political censorship at MN. Eventually, his access to the site was reopened, but the site editor then took the unprecedented step of publicizing the IP codes of both of this person’s computers. The publication of a user’s IP code is quite undesirable for the user, since it makes it easier for hackers to break in, and the administrator’s doing this represented an absolutely amoral breech of the most basic standards of professional ethics. Ironically, exactly this same administrator had only a few months before publicly explained the undesirability and danger of publicizing IP codes.

After this reader’s departure from the forums being censored by the Brigade, the Brigade continued “in hot pursuit”, locating his U.S.-based ISPs using the IP-codes of his Internet addresses, and transparently hinting they might tell his employer about his pastime of participating in discussion forums during working hours.

The site administrator’s referring to the order of the chief editor -- to ban from the site all “anti-Putin” readers and delete all their postings for the past year and a half from the archives -- speaks for itself. We will note only that the “censored” readers never once broke the rules of the site, never used obscene language, etc. Moreover, the editor left in the archives all of the obscene abuse, indecencies and personal threats directed at these readers by members of the Brigade, while every last one of these reader’s postings that were directed against Putin or the FSB were carefully deleted.

It seems completely ridiculous that the editors of MN to this day openly help drive from the site people of liberal viewpoints, most of whom defend the positions of the authors and journalists of this still fairly liberal publication, to the benefit of those participants of discussions who absolutely trash these authors, showering them with every possible insult and obscene abuse.

Impressions of a first-time visitor to a RuNet forum

“When I first came to one of the forums of the magazine Moskovskiye Novosti, I saw a “discussion” taking place which consisted of a dialogue between a person with a female nickname and a tight-knit group of comrades who were cursing this woman in a chorus of foul abuse. The woman was writing in correct and carefully-argued postings on a wide range of issues about Islam and the historic connections of the KGB with near east Arab dictatorships. In response flew a stream of obscene abuse and indecencies from several male-nicknamed personalities, who praised the KGB.

“I was disturbed by this horrible scene of hounding and posted a remark about the unacceptability of such methods of argument and the use of foul language against a woman. Shortly after this I received emails from two participants in the forum, one a pianist in New York and the other a middle-aged woman from Florida. In their unsolicited emails my correspondents wrote that the woman whom I had defended was supposedly a vicious provocateur who hounded honest, decent people in every way. They presented a picture of events which in every way contradicted what I had seen with my own eyes. The elderly lady attached a picture of herself and invited me to visit her. The musician offered to meet me in a Russian restaurant in New York.

“As it later turned out, these two personalities were among he most active on the MN forums and several other liberal forums. They always worked in tandem, and were online for many hours every day (under a variety of nicknames, of course). If initially I had some doubts about the existence of a Brigade, the methods of the brigadniki themselves have quickly enlightened me otherwise. What struck me especially was the participation of the editor of the magazine himself in the expulsion of dissenting voices from the site, in favor of those who systematically terrorized and cursed them.”

After the site administrator and Brigade had chased from the MN forum every intelligent reader, commentaries on the forum came to consist of nothing but filthy abuse directed at people who had already been driven out, jumbled in with anti-Semitic “floods”, praises for Putin and more curses directed at Jews, the U.S. and President Bush. The MN site administrator has not objected. He has finished his work, having driven from the forum all those who disturbed the Brigade’s peace, and left the forum to its fate.

The Brigade’s “gift of prophecy”

As a consequence of their specifically Soviet mentality and upbringing, brigadniki often slack off and do slipshod work, allowing annoying leaks which site administrators must then fix, by erasing the leaks along with large pieces of the rest of the forum.

For example, in October 2002 several brigadniki from the MN forum, presenting themselves as “patriotically-minded emigrants”, suddenly, without making any connection to the topics of the forum, launched into a campaign to discredit and expose a certain Mr. Limarev, who was completely unknown to the forum. It later turned out that Mr. Limarev ran the site “RusGlobus”, which was critical of the current Russian regime.

The postings of these “everyday readers from various countries” were unusually full of private information, including details of the unheard-of Mr. Limarev’s business and personal life, including his home address and telephone number, pseudonyms, names of his family members and bank account numbers. Two women were especially eager to expose Mr. Limarev, both of them long-time contributors to the forum, one of whom claimed to be a doctor in Ireland, the other an American real estate broker; both were passionate admirers of Putin and the FSB.

All of this brought a certain degree of confusion to the forum, inasmuch as none of the participants in the discussion could understand why the women were discussing and denouncing this unknown person, about whom so much personal information was being revealed.

The reason for this untimely “kompromat spill” became apparent two weeks later, when the magazine Moscovskiy Komsomolets ran an article by the journalist Khinshteyn [TN: Aleksandr Khinshteyn, also a Duma Deputy and well-known mouthpiece for the FSB; most recently involved in the purging of the leadership of the Russian Jurists Association (AYuR)] about how the FSB had sent an agent named Sultanov to France six months before to secretly investigate the creators of an anti-KGB site named RusGlobus. Among the creators of this site was the mysterious Mr. Limarev, whose address and bank account numbers had been posted by the Brigade on the MN forum.

The premature publicizing on the Internet of materials derived from operational sources of the FSB, two weeks before their first appearance in the mass media, resulted in a local Internet scandal. Many readers asked the obvious question: Who are these people, really, who have constantly appeared on this forum as opponents, presenting themselves as well-meaning residents of various countries, if they have access to information from the bowels of the FSB even before it is known to the journalist Khinshteyn, with his rather specific reputation? The remarkable “foresight” of these prophetic ladies might have been thought to put the prophetess Baba Vanga to shame, were it not for all their previous propagandist activities on the site, which had long before caused readers to have doubts about their true place of work.

After the scandal broke, the MN site administrator simply purged the archives of all the forums on which the women’s postings had appeared. When he was finished, not a trace remained of this premature leak of information.

Yet another very telling incident occurred on the forum of the journal “Novaya Gazeta” in February 2002, when a certain person under the nickname “Obaldevshiy ot Anni” (“Driven crazy by Anna”), in remarks on an article by Anna Politkovskaya, posted this text:

George Soros made a big contribution to “Novaya Gazeta” for the creation of databases of people kidnapped in Chechnya, hostages and war criminals. Soros later returned to see how his grant money was being spent. No databases whatsoever. But here our little Anka, the machine-gunner, shows up again. And it all makes perfect sense. How can one create such a database, when the horrible FSB is always encroaching on the life and dignity of poor Ms. Politkovskaya? But it would appear that in this case Soros is not buying it. Soros is now planning to cut off financing to “Novaya Gazeta” due to “improper use of grant money”. So there it is. And one more thing – for the serious specialist: Why in the world would the FSB defend the GRU? They have always been the fiercest competitors in every area of activity – both intelligence-gathering and covert action. They’re like the MVD and Prosecutor General, ready at any moment to take each other by the throat. And if a GRU spetznaz officer ever committed a crime, the FSB would do everything possible to expose it. The GRU are war-fighters, white-boned aristocrats, while the FSB is the successor to the KGB. Between them there will never be peace, they’ll never eat from the same bowl.

The above text was repeated almost verbatim by FSB representative Ilya Shabalkin on this exact topic. This would be nothing surprising, except that the announcement of Comrade Shabalkin took place just four days AFTER the appearance of this posting.

Obviously, one hardly needs to add that the anonymous person’s information, prematurely leaked on the “Novaya Gazeta” forum and repeated by the senior FSB officer nine days later, had absolutely no basis in reality and was quickly refuted by both the editors of Novaya Gazeta and the Soros Foundation.

Yet another similar “premature” release of information onto the Internet occurred on a forum of the magazine “Moskovskiye Novosti”. Strangely, its author presented himself as a Georgian artist of pro-communist leanings living in Europe. Here is his text, most interesting of all being the date – April 13, 2002:

With regards to the skinheads and fascists in Russia, maybe for a complete picture we should consider the possibility that the Western intelligence services have had a hand in this, eh? On the principle of “divide and conquer”. Just like they did with ultra-nationalist and fundamentalist organizations in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Why not suppose that the Chechen “freedom fighters” and “Moscow skinheads” were organized by one and the same force? The KGB men have no use for ultra-nationalism, because it destabilizes the region, and former KGB officers would never cut off the branch on which they are sitting. But well-organized neo-Nazis in the Soviet space might be quite useful to the west. By the word “west” I mean not the people of North America and Western Europe, but the intelligence services of those places. And their various propaganda specialists.

Six days passed. April 19, 2002 arrived. An then on the site there appeared the following, very doubtful report:


Information available to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs indicates that Russian “skinheads” may be receiving financial assistance from abroad. This was announced on April 19 during an interview by “Interfax” of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Aleksandr Chekalin. He believes that “we cannot fail to consider the foreign here, and we cannot exclude the possibility that young skinheads are finding sponsors and supporters from outside the local area.” “Our job now – together with the intelligence services – is to prove or disprove this”, the deputy minister emphasized.

So this “Georgian emigrant-artist”, always in solidarity with the pro-KGB Brigade of the site, managed to anticipate on the forum exactly the amusing and very doubtful announcement of the MVD representative, who subsequently was not able to come up with any proof or further developments.

Not long ago [in 2003], there erupted not just a local but very widespread Internet scandal on a similar theme. On a whole range of Russian forums there appeared a group of very well-informed people, all under the same nickname, “Ramsey”, who presented very specific information derived from intelligence sources.

The site and both reported that from the very beginning of the war in Iraq, intelligence information from the GRU on U.S. military actions in Iraq had leaked onto a variety of military and military-history forums and sites through postings under the pseudonym “Ramsey”. Analysts at “Gazeta” and “Lenta” carefully compared these reports with reports from the western press and coalition military commanders and came to the conclusion that all of the information was not only verified by official sources, but had appeared in advance of its first being mentioned in the western press. The online publications “” and “” suggested that in this way the Russian intelligence services were carrying on a virtual war on the side of Iraq, against America. If in Soviet times the intelligence services served up disinformation and leaks via the nationwide “Sarafan Radio”, and political propaganda was read to people at their workplaces, then today the Internet has given them a simply unprecedented new capability for similar manipulations of public opinion.

After these publications by “Ramsey” on the forums of, there appeared an approving posting by a regular member of the Brigade from Irkutsk:

The GRU in Iraq is working at full strength. This structure was, thank God, not destroyed by the democrats. They shoot me off a few things too, limited, of course. They themselves told me frankly, “Just what you need to know.” Nothing startling, all according to the law…

It is somewhat difficult to imagine GRU employees “shooting off” from Iraq their intelligence information to a modest little engineer in Irkutsk, who immediately posts this information on forums.

The most common occurrence of sloppy work by the Brigade appears when brigadniki are too lazy to correct their typographical mistakes and alter at least a bit the style they use under various identities and “legends”. As a result, they make themselves recognizable, like a portrait on a dollar, thereby reducing the “effectiveness” of their work. For example, a male personality will repeat word for word what he just said as a woman. It sometimes happens that one of these personalities will be offended personally by something that was said (nothing human is strange to them), and suddenly from the reserved image of a noble old widow will hatch the alcohol-soaked mug of a retired sergeant of the internal security service.

When did all this start?

This phenomenon is relatively new, very little studied, and is still awaiting researchers. As recently as 1998, such a large number of readers of a uniform type, with a conservative pro-government point of view, making use a common methodology and base of information, simply did not exist on the RuNet. People with communist and fascist viewpoints appeared only extremely rarely, and were found on forums in the ratio of about 1:50 in comparison to people of democratic persuasions. Much less were there any such “active measures”, following exactly the actions of the authorities. There were no personal, planned, mass houndings of one or another political figure who was out of favor with the current authorities. No obvious propaganda or counterpropaganda actions were visible, especially actions synchronized with government propaganda and precisely following the changing positions of Kremlin ideologues.

Here we present a short quote from one of the personalities we have described, in which he attempts to explain the unusual sociological transformation of Russian public opinion on the Internet, starting in 1999. By way of background: the brigadniki nowadays often call their opponents “paid propagandists of Boris A. Berezovskiy, or “BAB, Inc.” Clearly, it is too taxing for the soldiers of to imagine that their opponents might have their own motives for being on the Internet (such as their world view, political convictions and other such obsolete concepts) beyond conducting agitprop for money. So here is how the uniform personalities explain their simultaneous mass genesis on the RuNet:

“It is funny how the entire argument for the BAB, Inc. team’s main thesis rests on the fact that a couple of years ago the ideological complexion of the RuNet underwent a sharp change. Previously, so they say, a group progressive youth were nailing the Russian government, but now they’re gone. And, well, the fact that the age and social makeup of participants on RuNet forums has changed sharply (representatives of the middle and older generations have started to participate actively in discussions), BAB could care less, since it doesn’t correspond to their strategic interests. So they try to catch a black cat in a dark room that isn’t there…”

The author of this posting openly admits that in recent times there has been a genuinely SHARP change in the ideological complexion of the RuNet, but gives an explanation for this “sociological phenomenon” that does not stand up to scrutiny.

The argument of a sharp and completely unexplained change in the age of participants in discussions is from the realm of unscientific fantasy. In the three years following 1999, there was no universal cataclysm, no epidemic or neutron-bomb explosion, which selectively wiped out only young people. So, did the entire “progressive youth” remain on the Internet? Then how did their proportion change so much? Previously they were 90%, now they are 30%.

There also was no sudden increase in the standard of living for elderly people in Russia, nor any mass campaign to put “an Internet connection in the home every pensioner”. This is something too expensive for most retired people in Russia, and is clearly not their first priority.

There was no massive war, revolution or cataclysm in those three years that would have caused the generations on the RuNet to switch places. And without a social cataclysm, generational change and changes in ideology are very slow and gradual, always and everywhere -- in all countries and in all eras.

Another thing about these old folks in Russia – the ones who supposedly in 1999 suddenly got themselves on the Internet and piled into political forums (which is absurd on the face of it): among those aged 40-60, with a level of education sufficient to make a hobby of the Internet, these folks often have more radical pro-democracy views than the “progressive youth”, which by and large is not interested in politics at all. As for pensioners being supposedly “nostalgic for the Soviet Man”, one should not forget that these pensioners are of the famous “60’s generation”, who were more than a little critical of Soviet realities.

What we recall happening in 1999, however, was something much different from some hypothetical hooking up to the Internet of all the pensioners. Maybe exactly these global political metamorphoses and a total “U-turn” in all areas of Russian life also led to such decisive changes in the Internet? Certainly similar changes occurred over the same three-year period in the broad majority of traditional Russian mass media – newspapers, magazines and television. But the Internet is different from newspapers and television exactly because it is not possible to change its political tilt overnight, just by changing administrators under the guise of a “management dispute”.

Cui prodest? (Who benefits?)

It is completely obvious that the Russian authorities would like to take the mass media under control. The Internet is something new to them though, and methods for taking control developed in newspapers and television work poorly here. One could, of course, attempt to take under one’s ideological control all the leading news sites and most popular online publications by buying them out or infiltrating one’s own people into them (as is essentially happening now). But in the absence of any single Director of the Internet, and the in the presence of a huge variety of web publications and interactive forums where anyone can participate in discussions freely, outside of the range of political censors – in the presence of this great variety of form and substance the authorities are unable to impose on the RuNet any strict and steady ideological line, and cannot reliably control and protect the government’s approach to it. Any yet they must still conduct their propaganda and counterpropaganda.

Compared with Soviet times, the ways and means of government propaganda have greatly improved. Budgetary resources for PR are nowadays never in short supply. Not being privy to the details of the “projects” for “Creation of a positive image of Russia”, “Strengthening of information security” and “Creation of a unified information space”, we would suppose that these cannot help but affect the Internet, and in particular the popular political forums, on which any participant can write whatever he wants. And here is what the propaganda budget figures look like, as provided by “Novaya Gazeta”:

In 2002, Russia spent on space flight 9.74 billion rubles; on military reform, 16.55 billion; on government television and radio, 9.5 billion rubles. In 2003, the corresponding lines of the budget had new figures: On space flight, 7.65 billion; on reform of the army, 15.8 billion; on government electronic mass media, 11.02 billion rubles.

The peculiar thing about any propaganda is that it must always be all-encompassing. If any place is left free of influence from government ideology, then the effectiveness of any propaganda campaign is sharply reduced. It seems likely that exactly this specific feature of the RuNet led to the sudden appearance of hundreds of uniformly national-government, “patriotically”-minded (as they like to call themselves) personalities, who resemble each other like the soldiers of a single division.

We note that on forums people make new acquaintances, groups of like-minded people come together, and public opinion is formed. One can understand how the organizers of “a single information space” and “creators of if a positive image of Russia” would try to destroy in the womb this independent public opinion, even if it is only in the virtual realm (inseparable as that is from modern life).

Such actions, however, often lead to counterproductive results: people on RuNet forums already are striving to defend and support one another against the coordinated aggressions of the Brigade. It was exactly in this way that the authors of this article, living as they did in different countries, met and became friends. Our experiences participating in various web-forums turned out to be very similar. As a result, this article came into being, with our collective observations. But we leave it to our readers to draw their own conclusions from the above.

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