Category: Russia

Putin’s Architect

Lanfranco Cirillo (via Radio Free Europe)

Not long ago, Italian authorities raided a sumptuous villa in the northern Italian town of Roncadelle. Inside, the Guardia di Finanza seized a world-class art collection: paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Miro, and Chagall. Some 143 works in all. Outside, there was a large Botero cat statue. In the nearby town of Montichairi, authorities also seized a Eurocopter EC130, worth an estimated 2 million Euros.

The artworks, the helicopter, and the Roncadelle villa all belong to Lanfranco Cirillo, the 63-year-old architect who has designed homes for Russian President Vladimir Putin and 44 other Russian oligarchs. Cirillo is perhaps best known as the architect of Putin’s $1.4 billion palace on the Black Sea—which earned him the nickname of “Putin’s architect.” (Cirillo didn’t deny his work on the project, but would not confirm the palace’s links to the Russian president.)

A lifetime of living large off the oligarchs has caught up with Cirillo. He faces charges in Italy of income tax evasion, money laundering, and violating laws for the protection of cultural assets. According to investigators, Cirillo failed to pay some 50 million euros in taxes from 2013 to 2019 and is said to have laundered the proceeds. But he’s unlikely to ever be held to account. Cirillo lives in Russia, where he was granted citizenship under a 2014 decree granted by President Putin.

For years, Cirillo accumulated a fortune in obscurity. In 2014, he told La Repubblica that he had thousands of employees and invoiced in the hundreds of millions of dollars. “I arrived from Italy 20 years ago with a suitcase as a representative of furniture from Mascagni of Bologna. Today 42 of the 116 Russian billionaires in the Forbes list are my clients,” Cirillo said. He had done dachas and banks, plane interiors and 20,000-square-foot mansions. Once, he said, he saw an oligarch’s wife slap her husband at a dinner. But Cirillo couldn’t name names. His wealth was built on discretion.

Not surprisingly, Cirillo was a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. “Like 92–93 percent of Russia’s population, I love our president and I think he is the right man in the right place in the current world situation,” Lanfranco said in a 2016 interview. A picture of Putin hung on the wall of his office and could be found on his now-defunct website, abitalia.com. Does he still sing the praises of his hero? Sitting in his luxurious home on the Black Sea, does Cirillo cheer as Russian soldiers lay waste to Ukraine? Or does he worry that Russia’s president has brought his new home to the brink of ruin?

Cirillo was a bridge, one of many that existed between the Russia’s ultrawealthy elite and the West. He allowed Russia’s oligarchs to live in an illusion. Yes, they were in Russia, but they were surrounded by the luxuries of the West. He stuffed the oligarch’s homes and planes with the finest furniture and kitchen cabinets from Europe and the United Kingdom. The tentacles of this operation even reached into America. One of the main suppliers of materials for Putin’s Palace was a company Cirillo controlled called Medea Investment LLC, registered in Washington DC., according to a Russian whistleblower, Sergey Kolesnikov.

Compared to the obscene wealth that surrounded and enriched him, Cirillo saw himself as a bit player. His job was to help the obscenely rich live in the baronial splendor to which they felt their corruption had entitled them. He was just a simple, poor architect, as he famously recounted in a 2009 conversation with oligarchs that was obtained by the Russian publication New Times. “I’m an architect, a simple person, I’m poor, very poor, I spent 50 million today, getting 25 (illegible), I have minus 25 million 800 (thousand) euros, for me it’s a lot of money, almost everything earned,” Cirillo said. No doubt these were trivial sums for his clients.

The bridges that people like Cirillo built between Russia’s ultrawealthy and the West now lie in ashes. The flow of luxury goods has ended. There are no more artisans carving rococo ornaments. No more consultants installing dream kitchens with Viking ranges and Subzero fridges. The meticulously-designed megayachts are being seized. The Versailles-style ballrooms he designed now stand empty. The glittering illusion Cirillo once sold to the oligarchs has been swiftly replaced by the darkness of the Soviet days from which they had all sought to escape.

Where are the sanctions on Putin’s Children?

This post has been updated to reflect that neither Putin nor his daughters are listed as partners of a company that owns a Biarritz home where Igor Stravinsky once lived.

The Biden administration is going after the children of Russia’s oligarchs.

Among those sanctioned in recent days were the wealthy sons of Putin’s former judo sparring partner; the son of the Kremlin chief of staff; and the brother and sister whose dad runs the Kremlin-backed Wagner mercenary group.

“The aid of these individuals, their family members, and other key elites allows President Vladimir Putin to continue to wage the ongoing, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” the White House said.

But one pair of names is absent from the list: Katerina Tikhonova and Maria Vorontsova. These are the adult daughters of Vladimir Putin.

If the Biden administration is going after the children of the oligarchs, aren’t the children of Putin fair game?

Putin has always been extremely protective of his daughters. “I never discuss my family with anyone,” Putin said in 2015. It’s taken years just to learn the most basic facts about them.

Katerina, a dancer-turned-mathematician, and Maria, a pediatric endocrinologist, have stayed out of the spotlight and taken on different surnames to obscure their connection to the most powerful man in Russia. At the same time, they have reaped the benefits of the corrupt system that keeps their father in power.

Katerina and her former husband, Kirill Shamalov, amassed a corporate portfolio reportedly worth $2 billion before their divorce in 2018. (Shamalov was sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2018; the UK sanctioned him February 24.)

An investigation by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation found Katerina headed a foundation that developed lands owned by Moscow State University. Her foundation, Innopraktika, collected $7.8 million from Russian-state owned companies and $7.3 million from unknown sources in 2015-2016.

Maria Vorontsova in Japan (New Times)

Her older sister Maria also lived a life of luxury. Photos on social media showed her traveling the world, riding on expensive yachts, and hiring teachers abroad, according to an investigation by the Russian publication New Times.

Maria married a Dutch citizen named Jorrit Faassen, who worked at subsidiary of Gazprom. In 2010, while driving in Moscow, Faassen got into a confrontation with bodyguards of a Russian banker. Seven bodyguards forced Faassen’s BMW to stop, beat him with baseball bats, and damaged his car. The banker, Matvey Urin, had fucked with the wrong person. Faassen, described in media reports as a Putin family friend, remembered the license plate numbers of the bodyguards that attacked him. The next day, police arrested the businessman and the bodyguards. Weapons and drugs were found in their vehicles. Urin was sentenced to prison and his banks went out of business.

There are rumors that Putin had a “secret” third daughter with a cleaning woman-turned-multimillionaire, but Putin has never acknowledged the girl as his child.

Sanctioning the daughters would put Putin family assets in the West under the reach of sanctions.

One place to go looking for Putin’s assets in the West is in the French town of Biarritz, 15 miles up the coast from the Spanish border. This seaside resort town holds a special place in the hearts of the Putin family. In the summer of 1999, Putin was vacationing in Biarritz with his wife and daughters when he learned that President Yeltsin had anointed him as his chosen successor.

According to a report published February 26 by the French radio station Europe 1, Putin purchased a home on Rue de la Fregate in Biarritz where the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once lived. Putin reportedly paid around $400,000 for the home in 1996, at which time he worked in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office on a pittance salary. The radio station says the French secret services confirmed the report. Europe 1 says the property is held in the name of one of Putin’s daughters.

Update: I spoke with Michael Anthony, who is listed as an officer of SCI Chalet les Rochers, the French company that controls the property on Rue de la Fregate. Anthony heads Anthony & Cie, a private wealth management advisory firm in France that serves ultra-wealthy clients. Anthony checked his records and tells me that neither Putin nor his daughters are partners of SCI Chalet les Rochers. He declined to name the listed partner(s), citing client confidentiality.

Katerina and her ex-husband, Kirill Shamalov, owned a different home in Biarritz. The seaside house was acquired for 4.5 million Euros in 2012 from one of Putin’s old friends, Gennady Timchenko. It’s not clear who owns the house on Avenue du General MacCroskey today. The French company that owns the house is in turn owned by a Monaco company, SCP Alta Maria, whose beneficiaries cannot be revealed, even on request.

The home on Avenue de General MacCroskey

Lyudmila Putin, Katerina’s and Maria’s mother, also spends time in Biarritz. Lyudmila was married to Putin for three decades before they divorced in 2013.

Putin’s ex-wife has come almost every year to Biarritz to “take the waters,” both before and after her divorce, Alexandre de Miller de La Cerda, Russia’s honorary consul in Biarritz, told TIME. “She stops either at the Miramar” – one of the town’s most luxurious hotels – “or in the house that belongs to our mutual friend from Putin’s St. Petersburg circle.”

Lyudmila acquired a $7.46 million home in Anglet, next to Biarritz, six months after divorcing Putin, OCCRP reported. The Anglet home is in the name of her second husband, a St. Petersburg businessman almost 20 years her junior. In recent days, the gate of the Anglet home was marred with graffiti reading ‘Putin suka!’ (a vulgar insult in Russian), ‘Putin’s mafia’ or ‘Slava Ukraíne’ (Glory to Ukraine).

Meanwhile, the US Treasury keeps noting how the Russians it is sanctioning are close to Putin’s daughters. Kirill Dimitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund who was sanctioned last week is close to Katerina and her ex-husband, the US Treasury noted in its release. It’s clear that being close to Putin’s daughters is part of being in the inner, inner Kremlin circle.

So why sanction the oligarchs’ children, and not Putin’s daughters? Is the US worried that it will be too much of a provocation for an already unstable man?

Why did the FBI raid homes linked to Oleg Deripaska?

Editor’s note: Post has been updated to replace photo of DC property misidentified as the Haft mansion.

Sometimes you go looking for one thing and you find something else. I have a theory that’s what happened on December 13, 2018, when authorities in Britain served a search warrant on a London storage unit leased by a company connected to the Russian aluminum tycoon, Oleg Deripaska.

The warrant, made at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, was executed in search of evidence of crimes committed by Deripaska’s one-time business partner, Paul Manafort. It doesn’t appear that there was much on Manafort in that London storage unit, but U.S. authorities had obtained something else – 11 boxes and 100,000 pages of documents from the company that controls the billionaire’s global property empire.

The target of the 2018 UK raid, London-based Terra Services, controls Deripaska’s luxury properties around the globe through a network of subsidiary companies. These homes include stunning villas in St. Tropez and Sardinia, a mansion in London’s Belgrave Square estimated at £50 million, a home in Paris near the Seine, and an estate with two marble palaces in Montenegro.  

Oleg Deripaska

On Tuesday, FBI agents raided two properties connected to Deripaska in Washington and New York. Agents conducted simultaneous searches at the Haft mansion near DC’s Embassy Row and at 12 Gay Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.  

A spokeswoman for Deripaska told The New York Times that the searches were “being carried out on the basis of two court orders, connected to U.S. sanctions.” The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Deripaska in April 2018, for “having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, a senior official of the government of the Russian Federation.”  

That senior official of the Russian government may be none other than Vladimir Putin. The U.S. government received reports that Deripaska held assets and laundered funds on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I would like to ask: did you find Putin’s money in those abandoned houses?” Deripaska asked on Telegram the day after the FBI raided the New York and DC properties, an intemperate comment that was later edited out.

The sanctions on Deripaska mean that banks must steer clear of him and his money cannot enter the United States. According to Deripaska’s spokeswoman, the properties raided Tuesday were ultimately owned by the billionaire’s relatives.

But someone was paying the bills at the Haft mansion and 12 Gay Street. The property tax bill for the Haft mansion runs more than $132,000 a year.

Did the documents seized in the 2018 London raid provide evidence that Deripaska was violating sanctions with respect to the NY and DC properties?

I have a hunch they did.

First, whatever documents were in those 11 boxes seized by officers National Crime Agency, Britain’s version of the FBI, Deripaska did not want the U.S. authorities to see them. Over the course of 15 months, Terra Services challenged the warrant in five separate hearings. One of Terra’s arguments was that the materials in the boxes had little to do with Manafort, and the few pages that did involve him were already in the possession of the U.S. Justice Department. A British judge rejected Terra Services’ arguments for judicial review in March 2020, clearing the way for the documents to be sent to America.

Second, a previously-unreported court filing contended that Deripaska takes an extremely hands-on role in running his U.S. residences — down to the location of electric sockets. According to an affidavit filed in 2016 New York Superior Court, “Deripaska exercises dominion and control over NY properties.” The document cites emails Deripaska wanted kept secret that were obtained during discovery in a lawsuit filed against him by Alexander Gliklad, former chairman of a Russian coal company.

Gliklad’s lawyers cited an email from a U.S. realtor working for Deripaska that references the oligarch’s preferences for electronics and electrical outlets near his bed in 12 Gay Street. Other emails suggest Deripaska was involved in negotiating a price in a proposed sale of a $42.5 million townhome on the Upper East Side. (The document summarizing those and other emails was improperly redacted, allowing its contents to be read by selecting and pasting them.)  

Third, and finally, the person in charge of Terra Services was involved in the purchase and management of the NY and DC properties. A few months before he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, Deripaska handed control of Terra Services over to Pavel Ezubov, his 46-year-old cousin.

Ezubov, the son of a member of Russia’s Duma, or lower house of parliament, set up the Delaware corporation that acquired the Haft mansion in 2006 for $15 million, according to records obtained by OpenSecrets’ Anna Massoglia.

And Ezubov’s name showed up on a New York city building permit for a $42.5 million Upper East Side Manhattan townhome connected to Deripaska. On the permit, Ezubov listed his address at a rented mailbox, located a short walk from 12 Gay Street, where property tax bills for all of Deripaska’s New York properties are sent.

It would make sense if Ezubov is managing these properties because his name shows up elsewhere in connection with properties connected to Deripaska that are being run by Terra Services. This includes Hamstone House, a 10-bedroom English mansion that was reportedly the Duchess of Windsor’s favorite property.

Euzbov’s name also shows up in connection with what may be the most expensive piece of property connected to his billionaire cousin. Villa Herakles in St. Tropez includes a 15,000-square foot main house, a guest house, a 345-acre park, two swimming pools, a tennis court, and a helipad.

Villa Herakles

Renovations on Villa Herakles cost 17.9 million Euros, according to the contractor’s website. The same contractor also worked on another home controlled by a Terra Services subisidary, Villa Walkirie, on the Italian island of Sardinia.

In a French court decision, an unidentified gardener who worked on Villla Heracles in St. Tropez from 2006 to 2009 said that his “real employer” was Basic Element – Deripaska’s holding company that comprises, Rusal, the world’s No. 2 aluminum maker.

Admittedly, the connection between Terra Services and the U.S properties raided Tuesday is not as strong as it is with the homes Terra Services controls in Europe. But what better place to sort this out then the 11 boxes of company documents that Deripaska did not want the U.S. to see?

Julian Assange’s Russian Connection

Israel Shamir, left, and Julian Assange

Whatever you think of Julian Assange — hero or villain, journalist or thief, high-tech revolutionary or paranoid narcissist — there is no denying his commitment to the cause of transparency.

Assange has paid a steep price for revealing the U.S. government’s hidden history. As I write this, he continues to battle extradition to the United States where he faces criminal charges of disclosing classified material — a case that could set a dangerous precedent for investigative journalism in the most powerful country on earth.

But the story of Assange and Russia reveals another history he prefers to keep private: his own.

The story begins well before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when WikiLeaks’ served as a conduit for the emails Russian intelligence officers had hacked out of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. By that time, Assange already had a years-old relationship to Russia.

It was Russia that Assange would often look to as a place to escape his mounting legal problems, something he would later advise Edward Snowden to do. It was Russia that offered him much-needed funds to keep his organization afloat. It was Russia that alternately terrified him and fascinated him.

Given how much we do know about WikILeaks activities during the 2016 presidential election, we still know relatively little about the origins of Assange’s relationship with Russia.

When did WikiLeaks’ relationship with Russia begin? And how did it start?

We have compromising materials on Russia

It may come as a surprise that Julian Assange — a man the U.S. government considers the Kremlin’s most useful idiot — once announced that his next target was Russia.

The year was 2010. Assange and WikiLeaks were riding a wave of notoriety after publishing thousands of secret US government documents that it had obtained from Chelsea Manning. First came the disclosure of a classified military video of a US Apache helicopter killing 18 people, including two journalists working for Reuters. That was followed by the disclosure of thousands of classified documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Everyone seemed to be wondering who or what WikiLeaks would expose next, and in July 2010, Assange showed his hand in an interview with Russia’s Izvestia newspaper.

Izvestia: Do you have compromising materials on Russia?
Assange: Yes, your government and businessmen. But not as much as we would like. The fact that most of your sites only post information in Russian limits our options. However, the Americans are helping us, they transmit a lot of materials about Russia.
Izvestia: Do you trust them in this matter?
Assange: Yes. Although, of course, we double-check all the information.
Izvestia: On which of the Russians has WikiLeaks already “opened a case”?
Assange: I will not name them. You will know them when we post the relevant content.

Alexandra Ovchinnikova, “WikiLeaks Co-Founder Receives US Threats,” Izvestia, July 28, 2010

Assange must have been dismayed when no one else picked up the scoop he dropped in Izvestia, because WikiLeaks tried again in October.

“I think that Russian readers will learn a lot about their country,” WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told Kommersant, a Russian business daily.

This time, the U.S. media took notice.

So did the Kremlin. An anonymous representative of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, said there was no cause for concern, but then warned that Russia could shut the WikiLeaks site down for good if it so chose.

In the end, WikiLeaks’ next target wasn’t Russia.

Instead, Julian Assange sought its help.

Seeking Russia’s help

At the same time as journalists were asking whether the Kremlin was about to get WikiLeaked, Assange was coming under tremendous pressure from law enforcement authorities in Sweden.

Prosecutors accused the WikiLeaks founder of raping and molesting two Swedish women during an August trip to Stockholm. In November 2010, a warrant was issued for his arrest. (In 2019, prosecutors dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence)

With his options dwindling, Assange turned to an unlikely source for help.

In letter dated Nov. 30, 2010 that was obtained by The Associated Press, Assange asked the Russian consulate in London for a visa.

WikiLeaks claimed, without evidence, that the document was a forgery.

Assange’s Man in Moscow

Julian Assange, left, and Israel Shamir

There’s good reason, however, to believe that Assange isn’t telling the truth.

For one, Israel Shamir, the man Assange named as his “friend” in the letter, told Russian News Service radio, that he had personally brokered a Russian visa. But by the time it was approved in January 2011, Shamir said, it was too late. Assange was in British custody.

Russia “would be one of those places where he and his organization would be comfortable operating,” Shamir explained, according to the AP’s report. Asked if Assange had friends in the Kremlin, Shamir smiled and said: “Let’s hope that’s the case.”

A Russian-Israeli journalist and citizen of Sweden, Shamir is best known as an anti-Semitic writer. He has argued that the Jewish “blood libel” myth has a historical basis in fact and likened Jews to a virus. “I think it is every Muslim’s and Christian’s duty to deny the Holocaust,” he said.

Born a Jew in Siberia, Shamir claims to be Greek Orthodox Christian convert. Once a Zionist, he says he’s now an anti-Zionist. Once a spokesman for Israel’s left-wing Mapam party, he now travels in Russian right-wing circles. Shamir was a member of Florian Geyer, a group that was co-founded by the far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, who had longstanding ties to Russia’s military, government and the security services. (The group shared its name with a Nazi SS cavalry division.)

Aleksandr Dugin, left, and Israel Shamir at a Florian Geyer meeting

Searching the Hebrew-language press, I found that Shamir’s own mother couldn’t understand what happened to her son. “He received a Zionist education. He was a Zionist activist. He did great things,” Esther Schmerler-Lomovski told Makor Rishon in 2003. “It pains me, what happened to him. I would like to understand it myself. I think it’s a disease. It’s a mental illness. He seems sane. He’s not disturbed. He seems smart. But there’s something unhealthy.”

Maybe Israel Shamir did go insane, or maybe he built quite a legend for himself. More than one reporter has pointed out Shamir’s ties to Russia’s security services. “From the late 1960s, people who knew him wondered if he were a KGB plant; at the BBC, while some found him charming, others considered he spent too much time at the Soviet Embassy,” Private Eye reported in 2011. Former Wikileaks staffer James Ball wrote in The Daily Beast that Shamir had “ties and friends in Russian security services.”

For former WikiLeaks staffer James Ball and Assange’s close friend, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Shamir was a step too far. Both men left the group.

Assange, however, would brook no criticism of his friend. Instead of banishing Shamir back to the freezing expanses from whence he came, he had invited him to join his nascent operation in 2007:

Dear Israel/Adam:

Someone wrote saying they ‘refused to associate with an organization that would work with an anti-Semite like Israel Shamir.’ From a brief sampling of your writing … I did not find the allegation borne out. I found these samples to be strong and compassionate. I suspect the name ‘Israel Shamir’ is a realpolitik deadweight we are not yet big enough to carry … Writing under another name in the interim … may be an option.

Assange’s Moscow Mule, Private Eye, Feburary 18, 2011.

What was Assange’s response when Private Eye published this email? Private Eye was part of a conspiracy led by journalists from the Guardian who “are Jewish.”

Друзья (Friends of) WikiLeaks

A Russian visa was only one way Shamir was using his ties to Russia to help get his friend out of trouble.

He would also help establish a “Friends of WikiLeaks” foundation in Russia, ostensibly to raise money for an Assange visit to Moscow that never took place.

The Russian Friends of WikiLeaks has received no attention in the United States. It got a lot of attention in Russia because it was backed by the weekly magazine, Russian Reporter, which billed itself as WikiLeaks’ “official partner” in Russia.

One of the founders of Friends of WikiLeaks was Vitaly Leibin, the editor of Russian Reporter, a Putin-friendly publication owned by one of Russia’s most notorious oligarchs.

According to Leibin, Yandex, the Russian search giant, approached him with an offer to help WikiLeaks at a time when PayPal, MasterCard, and VISA were severing their ties to WikiLeaks. “Yandex.Money said that they were ready to guarantee that this will not happen and you can collect donations for WikiLeaks on their site,” Leibin told Vesti Radio. (Yandex denied this.)

Israel Shamir. Source: Russian Reporter

Russian Reporter was an interesting partner for Shamir and WikiLeaks for another reason: Oleg Deripaska, the aluminum tycoon sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for his close connection to the Kremlin, owned 30 percent of the Expert group that included Russian Reporter through his holding company, Basic Element.

(In 2017, Deripaska’s longtime U.S. lobbyist, Adam Waldman, would meet nine times with Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, according to the Guardian. Waldman was trying to broker a deal with the U.S. Justice Department about the investigation into Assange and Assange’s leaks of documents detailing the CIA’s cyberweapons known as “Vault 7.”)

How much money did Friends of WikiLeaks raise? Did Deripaska give money? What happened to the money raised by the fund?

Shamir wouldn’t say. “Dear Seth,” he wrote me in an email. “I suffered a micro-insult last year, and I hardly remember anything of the things you asked me about. Sorry, can’t be of help.”

Shamir Gets the Cables

Most revealing was the way Shamir used one of WikILeaks’ greatest coups — the release of thousands of secret U.S. State Department cables.

Before her arrest, Chelsea Manning had passed WikiLeaks 250,000 cables from U.S. embassies around the globe offering unvarnished commentary on countries and leaders.

According to emails obtained by the Swedish magazine, Expo, Shamir had expressed interest in the U.S. State Department cables in June, months before WIkiLeaks began publishing them in bulk.

“I have a lot of good guys who can help to analyze the treasure and it would be good to start spreading the news. I am now in Paris, and people want to know more! Tuesday I go to Sweden, and there is a whole operation for your benefit!” Shamir wrote.

Assange replied, “There certainly is! Tell the team to get ready. Give them my best. We have a lot of work to do.”

Later that year, Shamir had shown up at WikiLeaks’ HQ in Ellingham Hall in the north of England. Introduced to the team as “Adam,” Shamir quickly aroused suspicion among staff when he asked for the as yet unpublished cables concerning “the Jews.”

Former WikiLeaks staffer James Ball says Assange ordered him to give Shamir more than 90,000 State Department cables “covering Russia, all of Eastern Europe, parts of the Middle East, and Israel.” (Assange has denied this, too.)

First stop, Moscow

Cables in hand, Shamir traveled to Moscow in early December.

Shamir reportedly asked Kommersant for $10,000 to write articles based on the cables, sources told Russian journalist Julia Latynina and the Guardian. (A Kommersant representative told Latynina a fee was not discussed.)

Russian Reporter, the Putin-friendly outlet partly owned by Oleg Deripaska, took Shamir up on the offer and started calling itself “the official partner of the Wikileaks website in Russia.”

Shamir’s articles for Russian Reporter contained a mix or both true and false information — a classic KGB disinformation tactic. His reports claim that the cables showed United States was a puppet master controlling global affairs and blamed Georgia’s then president for starting a war with Russia. In fact, the cables said the opposite.

It was a clever way to deal with the fallout from the cables.

“Unable to refute the compromising information contained in U.S. diplomatic cables, Russia’s intelligence services are trying to minimize the damage by distorting their content, using Russian Reporter as a conduit,” The Moscow Times reported, citing Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to then-President Vladimir Putin.

Next stop, Belarus

Shamir next headed to Belarus. He arrived in Minsk in time to observe the Dec. 19 presidential election as WikiLeak’s “only Russian-speaking accredited journalist.” Lukashenko would declare himself the winner of the election with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

Shamir, outside the administration building in Minsk

On Election Day in Belarus, the news service, Interfax, published an interview with Shamir in which he claimed that the cables contained a “Belarus dossier” and hinted at “black cash” being paid to undisclosed recipients. Interfax also reported that Lukashenko’s chief of staff, Vladimir Makei, met with Shamir.

Two days later President Lukashenko said the following:

“We’re simply going to publish certain documents. We’ll see how those who are published on the Belarusian WikiLeaks site — the supporters [of the opposition] and those who are working behind the scenes — react to this.”

In January 2011, Soviet Belarus, a state-run newspaper, began publishing extracts from the cables. Among those “exposed” as recipients of foreign money was the leading dissident, Andrei Sannikov, whom Lukashenko defeated for reelection, and Sannikov’s press secretary, who died under suspicious circumstances months before the election. (Sannikov was beaten by police in an Election Day protest, arrested on the way to the hospital, and then held in an undisclosed location, with no communication, for two months. He was ultimately charged with inciting protests and sentenced to five years in prison.)

“Because virtually every opposition leader was already under arrest at the time Shamir leaked the cables, the publication of these documents served to bolster, rather than prompt, the regime’s crackdown in the immediate aftermath of the presidential elections,” Kapil Komireddi wrote in Tablet magazine.

The relationship blossoms

Despite the damage he had done to WikiLeaks’ reputation, Shamir had somehow opened a door for Assange in Moscow.

In January 2012, Assange announced he would be hosting a show on Russia’s state-backed TV network, RT.

“The World Tomorrow” would be filmed in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where Assange had taken refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Once again, Russia was supplying Assange with much-needed cash. RT‘s purchase of a broadcasting license for Assange’s show came shortly after funding for WikiLeaks reportedly began “drying up.”

The following year, WikiLeaks personnel would help Edward Snowden take refuge in Russia. In an interview with DemocracyNow!, Assange said that he “advised Edward Snowden, that he would be safest in Moscow.”

RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, visited Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in August 2013, where they discussed renewing his broadcast contract. Russian media subsequently announced that RT had become “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks and had received access to “new leaks of secret information.”

Then came the DNC and Clinton campign hacks. “WikiLeaks actively sought, and played, a key role in the Russian campaign and very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort,” the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in the fifth volume of its multi-year inquiry into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. election. Assange received multiple visits at the Ecuador Embassy in London from RT employees during the summer of 2016.

In 2017, the government of Ecuador gave Assange diplomatic credentials and diplomatic immunity in order to allow him to leave its London embassy without fear of arrest by British police and take up a post in Russia. (Britain spoiled the plan by rejecting the appointment.)

As for Shamir, the nature of his relationship to Assange is unclear. (His son, Johannes Wahlstrom, remained part of Assange’s inner circle for years.) But there’s no denying that his association with WikiLeaks greatly benefited him. He writes a column for Russia’s largest daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and a blog on the ultra-nationalist newspaper, Zavtra.

Shamir remained an uncomfortable subject for Assange. It was a reminder of Assange’s own anti-Semitic leanings and his disastrous decision to hand over cables that were used to justify repression in Belarus. What’s more, Assange didn’t like discussing anything about himself other than his fame.

The man who dedicated his life to exposing government secrets didn’t want to reveal any of his own. Assange saw enemies everywhere, but he failed to see (or maybe he didn’t care to see) how his “friends” were using him to serve their own ends.

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.

Putin’s Kiss

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?

Not your typical VC photo. (Source: dayoneventures.com)

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.

Day One Ventures, SEC filing

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.