In 2017, while I was writing my book Trump/Russia, I put in a Freedom of Information request for the FBI file of a deceased Russian mobster. I foolishly thought I might be able to get a response in time to include it in my book.
Instead, it turned out to be the start of a four-year odyssey that drew to a close recently.
My FOIA request, which became a FOIA lawsuit, boiled down to a simple question: What was Donald Trump’s name doing in the file of a Russian gangster?
A few weeks ago, a federal judge declined my request to force the FBI to release 150 pages that might have shed some light on that.
The end result will do little to clarify the ongoing debate over Trump and Russia. The Russiagate deniers can continue to claim, correctly, there was no proof of any conspiracy, while those who believe that Trump successfully covered up his ties to Russia remain equally correct when they say we still don’t have all the answers.
Some of those answers may have been in the FBI file I was seeking. It belonged to Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, a top Russian mobster or vor y zakone (“thief who follows the code”), who arrived in America in 1992. He was arrested three years later and was sentenced to prison for conspiring to extort $3.5 million from two Russian emigres who ran an investment advisory in Manhattan. Ivankov served nine years. Upon release, he was deported to Russia where he was later assassinated.
While researching my book, I learned that during his time in New York, Ivankov kept popping up in Trump’s properties. First, sources told me that agents tracked him to Trump Tower. Next, he turned up at Trump’s new casino, the Taj Mahal.
Upon his arrest, FBI agents seized Ivankov’s phone book. According to author Robert I Friedman, who obtained a copy of Ivankov’s phone book, it included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organization office fax machine.
In response to my initial 2017 FOIA request, the FBI sent me 875 previously-released pages that confirmed that agents had tracked Ivankov to the Taj Mahal.
I wondered what other secrets might be buried in the file.
The FBI’s file on Ivankov ran to nearly 38,000 pages. Processing that large a file for public release would take years and cost more than $1,000 in duplication fees, so I agreed to reduce the scope of my request.
All I was interested in, I told the FBI, were the portions of the file that dealt with Donald Trump.
In January 2018, an FBI FOIA specialist told me over the phone that what I wanted could be found in a 528-page section of the file. There would be some privacy hurdles to clear first, she told me.
This was progress and it amounted to a confirmation of sorts that Trump’s name was in the file. How many other future U.S. presidents have appeared in the FBI file of a gangster?
But this bit of information, tantalizing as it was, meant little and only raised fresh questions.
Was Trump merely an innocent third-party mentioned in passing? Did Ivankov’s gambling at the Taj Mahal result in scrutiny of Trump? Or, as some have speculated, was Trump providing information to the FBI as a confidential source?
To answer those questions, I filed a FOIA lawsuit in federal court in Washington, DC. Mark Zaid and Bradley Moss, two well-known FOIA and whistleblower attorneys, took on my case pro bono.
The case was assigned to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who was intimately familiar with Trump and Russia. Judge Jackson had presided over the trials of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
This was my first time filing a FOIA lawsuit and I was surprised to see the FBI, after months of no activity, switfly handed over 378 pages. But Trump’s name was not mentioned once anywhere on those pages.
That left the 150 pages the FBI wouldn’t let me see. The Freedom of Information Act allows the government to exempt information from disclosure on a variety of grounds. Some of these exemptions, such as the names of FBI agents involved in the case, were irrelevant.
There were a few exemptions, however, that could potentially be hiding Trump’s name. The most commonly cited exemption on about 90 of the pages withheld in full was one protecting confidential FBI sources. That was followed by names of people of “investigative interest” to the FBI, an exemption cited on 76 of the pages withheld.
Even though Trump was president, he hadn’t surrendered his privacy rights. To force the FBI to disclose any of that information, we needed to show that this information was already in the public domain.
There was a precedent for disclosing this information. An FBI memo released more than 20 years ago under a FOIA request by The Smoking Gun revealed that in 1981, Trump had offered to “fully cooperate” with the bureau over a casino he was trying to build in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “Trump stated in order to show that he was willing to fully cooperate with the FBI, he suggested that they use undercover Agents in the casino,” the memo states.
With that 1981 memo, we argued, the government had already revealed that Trump was willing to cooperate with the FBI to provide information on organized crime at his casino in Atlantic City, so there was no reason to hold back when Vyacheslav Ivankov showed up at the Taj Mahal 12 years later.
The FBI responded with what’s known as a “Glomar response.” What this means is the FBI was telling us it couldn’t confirm or deny whether Trump was a confidential FBI informant but, hypothetically, if he was, the FBI still couldn’t confirm it because “doing otherwise jeopardizes the FBI’s confidential source program.” The FBI couldn’t even tell us if Trump wasn’t a CI because that could potentially reveal who the real informant was.
Furthermore, the government claimed that we couldn’t show that the 1981 FBI memo had been officially released by the bureau’s Record/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS).
RIDS was unable to confirm whether the record was officially placed in the public domain via an authorized FBI records release. The FBI does not routinely release third party informant records to the public. Therefore, RIDS did not consider this record as an authorized official disclosure by the agency that would trigger a FOIA waiver. Second, even if the FBI were to consider the record submitted by plaintiff, which it is not, the record failed to impart informant status to Mr. Trump.
Franz Kafka would have smiled at that one.
And that, pretty much, was that. Judge Jackson was left with no issue of dispute to rule on. On August 20, the case was dismissed.
While the FBI was telling us how carefully it protects the private information of future U.S. presidents, Trump’s former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein admitted that he had made the decision to release the intimate personal texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page because it would not violate their rights to privacy. Trump used these texts to mock and deride Strzok and “his lover” Page, complete with fake orgasms.
It’s an old story: Where there’s an executive will, there’s a legal way. What the president wants to keep secret stays secret.
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.
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.
WikiLeaks claimed, without evidence, that the document was a forgery.
Assange’s Man in Moscow
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 wasco-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.)
Searching the Hebrew-language press, I found that Shamir’sown 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:
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
These relate to the NSA’s little-known work in tracking transnational organized crime.
The NSA, which collects massive amounts of signals intelligence, has a unit called S2F dedicated to international crime and narcotics. A unit within S2F (S2F21) is tasked with monitoring mob bosses from Russia and elsewhere.
A 2006 memo revealed how this unit helped thwart the sale of a refinery to an Israeli organized crime figure via a front energy company.
The Israeli organized crime figure isn’t named. If you have any ideas about who this is, please contact me.
A 2003 memo revealed that NSA was tracking a Russian organized crime boss, Vladimir Kumarin, at the request of the State Department. State wanted to know if there were links between Kumarin’s Tambov gang, based in St. Petersburg, and Vladimir Putin.
The indispensable Catherine Belton writes in Putin’s People that in the 1990s, Kumarin, “with the help of Putin,” began taking control of St. Petersburg’s entire fuel and energy business. Putin also granted Kumarin an exclusive contract to supply fuel for the city’s ambulances, buses, and police cars. Kumarin became so powerful he became known as “the night governor.”
In 2006, NSA expanded its relationship with Spain’s Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI) to target Russian organized crime bosses. There were numerous targets of mutual interest to both countries, including Zakhar Kalachov who was arrested in Dubai in 2006.
The NSA’s powerful tools tipped the Spanish police to a company called Vera Metalurgica, linked to Russian crime bosses. One of those crime bosses, according to Spanish authorities, was Oleg Deripaska.
Finally, in 2006, the NSA let its employees know of a interagency intelligence blog devoted to the latest bank accounts and other information collected on Semion Mogilevich, “the U.S. government’s top Russian organized crime target.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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 andRussian 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.
Much has been written about how Russia used Facebook to influence U.S. voters in the 2016 election. Few people realize that Facebook was built with the help of Russian money.
Alisher B. Usmanov, an Uzbek-born mining magnate and one of the world’s richest men, poured nearly $900 million into Facebook before it went public in 2012. For a time, he was one of the social media giant’s biggest investors.
CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg said at the time that Facebook carried out “extensive due diligence” on this investment. That means the company would have had to have known that that its biggest outside investor was a man viewed in business, diplomatic, and intelligence circles as a gangster.
Facebook’s crack due diligence team clearly didn’t see Usmanov as a risk. But Megafon, a Russian mobile phone company in which Usmanov had invested, did. Take a look at this disclosure in Megafon’s initial public offering in 2012:
Gafur Rakhimov was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2012. “Rakhimov is one of the leaders of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia. He has operated major international drug syndicates involving the trafficking of heroin,” the Treasury Department stated.
Rakhimov, a man Usmanov has known for years, is a heroin kingpin. Sorry, an alleged heroin kingpin.
Usmanov’s ties to Rakhimov were no secret. The Observer of London reported in 1998 that Usmanov “admitted that he had known Rakhimov for 20 years, and had met him regularly in Tashkent and London, but denied that they have a business relationship and that Rakhimov was involved in drugs.” In 2007, Usmanov gave The Guardian another explanation of his Rakhimov ties. “I only knew him since he was a neighbor of my parents,” he said.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who defected and was famously poisoned with radioactive polonium, did some digging into Gafur Rakhimov. This is from a file made public during an official UK inquiry into Litvinenko’s death.
Komsomol was a Soviet Communist youth league. (When the Soviet union fell, former Komsomol bosses like Mikhail Khodorkovsky used their connections to acquire ex-Soviet assets.) The Solntsevo gang is Moscow’s most powerful organized crime group. (Usmanov has long denied any ties to organized crime groups.)
Litnvinenko goes on to note that Usmanov has connections with three former KGB officers, one of whom “saved” Usmanov from a “violent confrontation with Chechnian crime bosses.”
Testimony given in a German criminal case in 2007 identified Usmanov as a representative of the Solnestsevo Mafia.
Even so, Usmanov shrewdly assessed that, in the West, even a reputed gangster can buy respectability. “Putin’s Kremlin had accurately calculated that the way to gain acceptance in British society was through the country’s greatest love, its national sport,” Catherine Belton writes in her excellent book, Putin’s People. In 2007, Usmanov did just that by acquiring a large stake in London’s Arsenal football club.
If buying a football club was a ticket into British society, investing in a Silicon Valley unicorn like Facebook may have been a way for Usmanov to gain respectability in the United States.
Usmanov told Forbes that he got a call in 2009 from his associate, Yuri Milner, who asked him whether he had ever heard of Facebook.
“No,” Usmanov replied. “[But] my nephews know it.”
Born in Moscow, Milner attended the Wharton School of Business in the 1990s. After a stint at the World Bank, he returned to Russia to work at Bank Menatep, which was founded by former Komsomol boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Milner ran Menatep’s investment banking division, Alliance-Menatep, and rose to the position of deputy chairman.
Menatep rang alarm bells at the CIA in the 1990s because the bank was said to be “one of the main conduits for the transfer of Communist Party wealth abroad,” Belton wrote in Putin’s People. A leaked CIA report obtained by The Washington Times in 1994 stated that senior Moscow officials believed that Menatep was “controlled by one of the most powerful crime clans in Moscow.”
The bank collapsed in 1998 and Milner began investing in Russian Internet companies. Milner founded Digital Sky Technologies in 2005.
Usmanov acquired a large stake in DST in 2008 and helped finance investments in major Internet companies in Russia, including VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. “Usmanov is interpreted as a person who, on the Kremlin’s instructions, buys up various Russian [Internet] properties,” a Russian executive told The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe.
In 2008, Milner came calling in Silicon Valley looking for a place to invest Usmanov’s money. Goldman Sachs introduced him to Mark Zuckerberg and a deal was struck.
“We were not asking for board seats and even assigned our voting rights to Mark, which sent a strong message that we are not seeking any influence over Facebook’s operations,” Milner told Forbes. “We started to invest in Facebook in 2009 and continued through 2011.”
It was an offer than would have been hard for Zuckerberg to refuse. Milner’s offer valued Facebook at $10 billion, above what other investors were willing to pay at the time. And Milner demanded little in return, something he has pointed to when reporters started to question Russia’s investment in Facebook. “If this had all been an influence operation,” Milner wrote later, “we would surely have sought some control over the companies.”
Milner sold off all of his firm’s Facebook holdings after the IPO. Usmanov also invested his own money in Facebook, and it remains unclear whether he has completely closed his position. (A 2014 Bloomberg article noted Usmanov made a “gradual reduction” in his Facebook holdings.)
Perhaps Usmanov’s Facebook investment was just a shrewd, well-researched bet. In 2017, however, new information surfaced that suggested there were other factors at play.
The Paradise Papers, a secret trove of documents leaked from an offshore law firm, revealed that Kremlin cash was financing Usmanov’s investments.
The money came from Gazprom Investholding, a subsidiary of the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. Usmanov was CEO of Gazprom Investholding from 2000 until 2014.
In his censored blog post, Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote that Gazprom Investholding was a main conduit to export Russian corruption:
Alisher Usmanov had risen to chair of Gazprom Investholdings because of his close personal friendship with Putin. He had accessed Putin through Putin’s long time secretary and now chef de cabinet, Piotr Jastrzebski. Usmanov and Jastrzebski were roommates at college. Gazprom Investholdings is the group that handles Gazprom’s interests outside Russia. Usmanov’s role is, in effect, to handle Gazprom’s bribery and sleaze on the international arena, and the use of gas supply cuts as a threat to uncooperative satellite states.
Murray claimed in another 2007 blog post that “It was Usmanov who engineered the 2005 diplomatic reversal in which the United States was kicked out of its airbase in Uzbekistan and Gazprom took over the country’s natural gas assets. Usmanov, as chairman of Gazprom Investholdings paid a bribe of $88 million to Gulnara Karimova [the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president] to secure this.”
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny also has accused Usmanov of bribing Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and prime minister with an $83 million mansion. (Usmanov succesfully sued Navalny for libel.) Navalny’s representatives recently called for the West to sanction Usmanov.
Remember that $880 million Usmanov said he invested in Facebook?
Well, in 2009, Gazprom Investholdings loaned $920 million to Kanton Services Ltd., Usmanov’s British Virgin Islands-registered firm. A large chunk of that money arrived three months before Facebook announced its deal with Milner. (Usmanov has denied using state funds to invest in Facebook.)
Two years later, Kanton took a majority stake in DST USA II. When Facebook went public in 2012, DST USA II sold 25 million shares of Facebook for more than one billion dollars.
Interestingly, Volume 5 the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russia noted that VKontakte reached out to the Trump campaign in 2016, asking whether Trump wanted to put a campaign page on the site. The ensuing discussion is heavily redacted, although Usmanov’s name lights up a few footnotes.
Facebook is many times more powerful than VKontakte. Alisher Usmanov should never have been allowed anywhere near it.