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'I Am Ashamed': Inside The Moscow Mayor's Influence Machine

Milena Mebius: "I am ashamed, but I am glad that I found the courage to say at least something about this crap."

Milena Mebius was one of the many Russians driven to outrage when actor Pavel Ustinov was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for allegedly dislocating the shoulder of a police officer during an unsanctioned demonstration on August 3.

The sentence against Ustinov, who contends he was falsely accused and was not even demonstrating but got caught up in a police crackdown, prompted dozens of prominent Russians to take to social media in his defense, calling on the authorities to reverse his conviction and set him free.

What caught Mebius's attention was the huge number of sometimes vicious pro-Kremlin trolling comments that quickly appeared under the various statements of support for Ustinov. They caught her attention because, until last year, Mebius herself had been paid to write such things.

"Pavel Ustinov was standing there and talking with a friend on the phone when the National Guardsman accosted him," Mebius wrote in an Instagram post in which she expressed "shame" for the two years she spent working in the opinion-shaping operation controlled by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. "Watch the videos and you can see it for yourself. But under the posts of these well-known people you'll find a pile of crap. Crap that they pay for with your money. Money that they once paid to me."

"I am ashamed, but I am glad that I found the courage to say at least something about this crap," Mebius, 28, wrote.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Mebius explained how the Ustinov case inspired her to "come out" about her past as a Sobyanin troll.

"When you see that there are many brave people around you, people who aren't afraid to say what they think, you also become braver," she said. "It is terrifying to live in a situation where you can be imprisoned simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it is even scarier to be silent when you have something to say."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Sergei Sobyanin at his inauguration as Moscow mayor in September 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Sergei Sobyanin at his inauguration as Moscow mayor in September 2018.

'Sobyanin's Whores'

The Moscow mayor's office controls an opinion-shaping juggernaut that is second only to the Kremlin's in Russia. From traditional media like television, radio, and newspapers to Internet influencers and a stable of pro-Sobyanin social-media trolls, this machine works tirelessly to shape public perception of the Moscow government and of Sobyanin himself.

"There is no journalism in the pro-government media," Mebius wrote in her Instagram post. "There is only 'Sergei Sobyanin visited X or opened Y or simply farted.'"

In 2017 and 2018, Mebius worked within this system, first at a city newspaper and later on the municipal social-media team.

"We attended public meetings of Sobyanin with paid spectators," she wrote. "We praised all his renovation projects. For a pittance we murdered Moscow, and during our breaks we got drunk at work."

Mebius wrote that she participated in promoting the mayor's candidates during the 2017 district elections in Moscow. "The worst moment for me," she wrote, "was when I had to write about the United Russia candidate (technically, an 'independent') in my own home district."

In her conversation with RFE/RL, Mebius spoke in more detail about her work as a pro-Sobyanin troll. "[The work consisted of] writing posts on municipal topics," she said, "and doing negative work in the comments [of other posts]."

"We never wrote about the mayor independently," she continued. "Just what he said himself. We watched him on television and then spent a week promoting his quotations."

Many of Sobyanin's trolls, Mebius told RFE/RL, come from other cities with few career opportunities. "Not many could quit," she said, "because there would simply be no way to pay the rent.... It isn't so easy to find another job when you have only been in Moscow a year or two. I was lucky because I was born here."

"All the money was paid under the table," she added.

Mebius said she was paid about 40,000 rubles ($625) a month to start and was making about 50,000 ($785) by the time she left.

Although not all the organizations who hire such trolls are technically municipal structures, "everyone knows who is sponsoring them," Mebius said.

"So where do they get the money?" she said. "From the budget. Which comes from our taxes. So it turns out we paid ourselves."

"My former colleagues and I called ourselves Sobyanin's whores."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL's Russian Service