From Putin’s Kiss to Jeffrey Epstein
Tech investor Masha Drokova took an unusual path to Silicon Valley. First, she was a true believer in Vladimir Putin. Then she
went to work did PR for Jeffrey Epstein.
There are numerous Russian women who are making substantial contributions in Silicon Valley. Only one can claim to have kissed Vladimir Putin, as Drokova famously did in 2009, and to have received a medal from Putin himself for “contributions to the fatherland.”
The 31-year-old Drokova has been very open about this and many other aspects of her life with one glaring exception: She will not discuss her work as a PR consultant for convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. (Drokova did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Update: After this post was published, Drokova told me she did some PR work for Epstein as a favor but was never paid by him. See note at the end of this story.
But the secret was spilled by Jeffrey Mervis, a writer for Science magazine, who received an email from Drokova in August 2017 asking whether he wanted to interview Epstein, her client. No doubt there are others who received similar pitches who have not been so forthcoming.
It’s this Epstein-Putin connection — and Drokova’s ties to a figure of interest to the Senate’s Russia investigation — that has me wondering whether her life is following the whims of fate or someone’s directions. Because let’s face it, Epstein was an intelligence goldmine. He collected dirt on his rich and powerful friends, who over the years have included Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Prince Andrew, Bill Gates, and Apollo Global founder Leon Black, who has his own connections to both Trump, Epstein and Russia. He had cameras in his house monitoring private moments. From an intelligence officer’s point of view, Epstein presented endless opportunities for blackmail.
Is Drokova’s life just a series of astonishing coincidences? Or might she be another Maria Butina or Anna Chapman, the sort of Russian woman who uses sex and charm to cozy up to powerful and connected American men in pursuit of information or influence? As I’ve written before, there’s a rich tradition of this Russia, going back to the KGB’s red sparrows.
It’s impossible to say for certain, but what is clear is that Drokova has a knack for showing up in places she doesn’t quite belong. First, she was the Putin superfan who befriended Putin’s critics. Then, she stunned many in her home country when she revealed that she is a proud permanent resident of the United States. She did public relations for Jeffrey Epstein and others despite a poor to middling command of English. Now, people entrust her with millions of dollars to invest in Silicon Valley based despite an investing philosophy — and I’m not making this up — that involves love and sex.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2005, then 16-year-old Drokova joined Nashi, the Kremlin-sponsored youth group and rose to the rank of commissar, or core activist. Her spontaneous decision to plant a kiss on Putin’s cheek caught the eye of Danish filmmaker Lise Pedersen who chronicled Drokova’s time in the organization in the 2012 film, Putin’s Kiss.
Drokova was the softer face of an ugly movement. The writer Peter Pomerantsev described Nashi as “the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth, who are trained for street battles with potential pro-democracy supporters and burn books by unpatriotic writers on Red Square.”
Drokova didn’t beat people up but she did call for burning books and organized a campaign to throw shoes at then President Bush. (“A stupid action,” she told the Wall Street Journal years later, and one that led to her leaving the group.)
Her mentors included Vladislav Surkov, Nashi’s creator and the Kremlin’s former top political strategist. Drokova attended a 2009 conference organized by Surkov to work out a strategy for information campaigns on the Internet, Jeffrey Carr writes in Inside Cyber Warfare. In Putin’s Kiss, Drokova quotes Surkov’s famous line: “Putin was sent to Russia by God.”
She also worked closely with Konstantin Rykov, who went on to become the Kremlin’s “chief troll” as well as a figure of interest in the Senate’s investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election. Drokova became a producer and presenter on Rykov’s Internet channel, Russia.ru. (More on him later)
Drokova’s departure from Nashi in 2010 came after she befriended a group of liberal journalists, the kinds of people Nashi marched through the streets to publicly denounce.
Opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, the film’s narrator, praises her bravery for supporting him in a protest after he is beaten within an inch of his life.
Others in Kashin’s circle, however, remained wary of “the girl with the big breasts [who] was sent to talk to liberals,” as one put it in Putin’s Kiss.
After leaving Nashi, Drokova put her propaganda skills to use in PR. Within a few years, she moved to the United States and began investing in Silicon Valley. It was a path that, as I’ve written, had been trailblazed by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov and Yuri Milner.
“Is She A Traitor? Nyet”
In 2017, the new and improved Drokova revealed on Instagram that she was a permanent resident of the United States. The news of Drokova’s U.S. green card caused a sensation in Russia, with many blasting her as a turncoat.
If you look closely at the photo of her visa above, you’ll see Drokova was granted an E16 visa. This is meant for “aliens of extraordinary ability” — aka the “Einstein visa.” (This is the same pathway through which Trump’s wife, Melania, gained U.S. citizenship.) It’s a category that, in theory, is reserved for people who are highly acclaimed in their field; the government cites Pulitzer, Oscar, and Olympic winners as examples.
Tech investor Esther Dyson, who sits on the board of Russian search engine giant Yandex NV, supported her visa application, according to Drokova. (Dyson also has a connection to Epstein. She traveled to Russia in the 1990s with Epstein where they posed for a photo outside the home of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. She also attended the “Billionaire’s Dinners” that Epstein attended and helped pay for. )
While many in Russia mocked and derided Drokova, one notable figure rose to her defense: Konstatin Rykov, her former boss and the Kremlin’s “chief troll.”
One has to wonder whether Rykov was speaking for himself only. In Vol. 5 of its report on Russia, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that “Rykov has played a significant role in the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic influence efforts.” He also has ties to people outside the Kremlin who are associated with Russian intelligence services or pro-Kremlin political parties, the report noted.
Rykov was an early supporter of Trump and featured prominently in a Washington Examiner story headlined: “Putin loves Donald Trump.” (Trump tweeted out a link to this story in 2015, saying “Russia and the world has already started respecting us again!”) After Trump’s surprise victory, Russian elites congratulated Rykov, the Senate’s report notes.
On Election Day, Rykov hosted a party in Moscow that was attended by pro-Kremlin propagandist Maria Katasonova, and Jack Hanick, an American media consultant who is associated with U.S.-sanctioned oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and his pro-Kremlin propaganda media outlet Tsargrad TV.
Included in a list of guests Rykov invited to the election party in Moscow was Masha Drokova. (Drokova’s social media posts suggest she was in California at the time.)
The VC of Love
Next to Drokova’s name on Rykov’s election party guest list was the co-founder of NtechLab, Alexander Kabakov.
NtechLab is the creator of FindFace, which it bills itself as the best facial recognition algorithm in the world. NtechLab recently built a massive surveillance system in Moscow. Russia has also licensed the technology to the United Arab Emirates.
NtechLab was the first in a string of investments that Drokova started making in 2016 in early-stage tech companies. (The size of her investment has never been disclosed.) Another early stage investor in the company was Impulse VC, a firm based in Moscow that was backed by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Other Drokova investments included StealthWorker, a service that connects employers with cybersecurity personnel. She invested more than $4 million in artifical intelligence startup DigitalGenius.
It’s yet another mystery how she came to invest millions at the same time she did PR work for Epstein and others. Why would a successful VC investor do PR? Whose money was she investing?
But it was only the start.
In 2017, Drokova started raising money for a Silicon Valley venture capital fund she founded, Day One Ventures. She has raised more than $70 million to date.
SEC filings show that Day One Ventures is backed by a small group of high-net-worth individuals, most likely from Russia.
Drokova had professional and expensive help setting up her fund, such as her New York lawyer from the firm of Willkie Farr. But it all seemed out of step for a carefree, almost childlike woman who said things like “Meditation is my Netflix.”
In 2018, Business Insider ran a remarkable article about Drokova’s VC fund headlined: This 28-year-old Silicon Valley investor builds businesses by helping entrepreneurs fall in love.
“Everyone is more productive when they fall in love,” Drokova explained. Really?
The article noted she sometimes recommends “sexual energy retreats,” or sets founders up on dates.
“It’s not necessarily matchmaking,” Drokova told the reporter, Zoe Bernard. “I just introduce them to my friends.”
Why anyone would entrust large sums of money to a person who says things like this is beyond me, but people have.
Twenty-five people invested more than $19 million in Day One Ventures Fund I. A total of 33 people have invested more than $52 million in her latest fund, Day One Ventures Fund II, according to a November 2020 filing.
One company receiving Day One Ventures money is a legal app called Do Not Pay. Its founder is Joshua Browder, the son of Bill Browder, one of Putin’s fiercest critics.
It’s one of the many absurd coincidences in Drokova’s life that render the word coincidence itself meaningless.
Drokova: “I never worked for Epstein”
Not long after this story ran, I called up Masha Drokova. To my surprise she answered.
Drokova told me she met Epstein once and agreed to do some work for him as a favor, without knowing about his sordid past. “I quickly find out I shouldn’t be connected with this person,” Drokova told me over the phone. “I didn’t do research in the beginning, which I very much regret.”
“I met him and he asked me, ‘I need connections with the media,'” Drokova told me. “I introduced him to some people. I dig deeper. Oh fuck, it’s a very bad story.”
She admitted she did send a pitch to Jeffrey Mervis, the writer for Science magazine. She also sent similar pitches to some of her friends. “Some of my friends told me: Do you know this person?” she said.
But Drokova was insistent that she was never paid by Epstein. There are bank statements that will show this, she told me. She added that she asked about hiring a lawyer to correct the record about the nature of her work for Epstein. She was told it would cost $50,000 and there was no guarantee of success so she gave up.
Drokova got off the phone before I could ask her a report that banking regulators in New York published about Epstein’s relationship with Deutsche Bank.
The report notes that the Deutsche Bank team monitoring Epstein’s accounts received an alert “about payments to a Russian model and Russian publicity agent.” (The bank’s monitoring team ignored the alert after a member of the team stated “[s]ince this type of activity is normal for this client it is not deemed suspicious.”)
If this wasn’t Drokova, then who was it? How many Russian publicity agents were working for Epstein?
It turns out the answer is more than one. In a follow-up conversation, Drokova tells me that there was yet another Russian publicity agent who was being paid by Epstein. But Drokova wouldn’t tell me the name of this Russian PR agent because she says it would ruin her life.
Great article, Seth