Alexandre Grant was relaxing in his Moscow hotel room last week, watching one of the cookie-cutter political talk shows on Russian state TV in which pro-Kremlin pundits slap down straw men brought on to defend the West.
Grant, a Russian-language journalist who has covered crime in New York for decades, noticed a familiar face among the punching-bag panelists: Gregory Vinnikov, a Soviet emigre who ran a successful travel agency in Manhattan before allegedly stiffing clients and fleeing the country in 2012.
"I was very surprised," Grant tells RFE/RL. "But at first I can't see in what capacity he's there. He's talking, defending Trump, explaining why America is right. And then I see written there 'Greg Vainer, Journalist, United States of America.'"
Vinnikov's reappearance -- under a new name -- as a pro-American analyst has created a buzz among Russian-language social-media users, including political junkies mocking state-TV tropes and emigrants in the United States recalling claims that he absconded with his clients' money.
The furor was kicked up on April 25 when Gennady Katsov, a veteran Russian-language journalist in New York, recounted Grant's discovery in a wry Facebook post noting Vinnikov's scandal-ridden past and his transformation into a Western counterbalance in television debates.
"As Grant noted with irony, 'He represented the U.S. position on Russian television commendably,'" Katsov wrote. "After that, who would dare say that Russian television is biased?"
Prime-Time Punching Bag
Russian political talk shows in recent years have regularly featured analysts and journalists -- including foreigners -- to take on pro-government voices in debates that frequently descend into shouting matches and, sometimes, actual fisticuffs.
Perhaps the most recognizable is Michael Bohm, a U.S. political watcher and former opinion editor with The Moscow Times whose demand on such programs skyrocketed in 2013 after he angered his opponents and the audience by calling Russia "primitive" on the issue of gay rights.
The respected Russian television critic Irina Petrovksaya earlier this month described Bohm as "a pear being smooshed by repeated blows" during his appearances. Bohm has said he is trying to challenge misconceptions about the United States and U.S. policy.
Kremlin supporters defend the shows as an example of free speech, while critics say the format is aimed at giving a veneer of pluralism while legitimizing Kremlin policies.
Exactly how Vinnikov, 59, became a go-to foreigner on the Russian political talk-show circuit remains unclear. A native of St. Petersburg, he emigrated to Canada in 1980 and later moved to the United States, where, Grant says, he initially sold frames for eyeglasses by telephone before embarking on a career in journalism.
Vinnikov, who did not respond to a Facebook request for comment, later launched a travel agency based in Manhattan that, according to clients and acquaintances, thrived by offering cheap airfare, visas, and hotel bookings.
In 2012, however, Vinnikov effectively vanished, allegedly leaving numerous clients in the lurch. Vladimir Kozlovsky, a well-known Russian-language journalist in New York, says he lost $1,000 for a plane ticket he'd purchased through Vinnikov's company.
Kozlovsky, who counted Vinnikov as a friend, wrote in 2012 that his disappearance "saddened me deeply."
Grant tells RFE/RL that dozens of Vinnikov's clients contacted him after the businessman left for Russia and asked him to help them get a criminal case launched. Brooklyn prosecutors said they didn't have enough evidence to go on but that a civil suit would be possible, Grant says.
"It didn't go anywhere," Grant adds, noting that Vinnikov had an excellent business reputation before he left the country. "They didn't have the enthusiasm to pursue it."
Katsov, the journalist whose Facebook post this week ignited the commotion over Vinnikov, claimed in a 2012 article that the travel agent had called him, saying he'd put his apartment up for sale and pledging to "return all the money to people."
Enter 'Greg Vainer'
Vinnikov began making appearances on national Russian television as "Greg Vainer" as early as November 2016, following U.S. President Donald Trump's victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
He has made six appearances on the show Open Studio on the St. Petersburg-based Channel 5, owned by a holding company controlled by Yury Kovalchuk, a longtime associate of Putin who was sanctioned by Washington over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
During his spots on the show, Vinnikov has pontificated on Ukrainian politics -- taking some light ribbing for boasting that he is Facebook friends with former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk -- as well as on the conflict in Syria and Trump.
Vinnikov, whom Open Studio host Inna Karpushina identified as a member of the Republican Party, has repeatedly defended the U.S. president and spoken positively about Trump's policy proposals, including the controversial construction of a wall along the Mexican border.
Karpushina did not respond to a request for comment about Vinnikov sent to her account with the popular Russian social-networking site VKontakte.
Vinnikov last week also appeared on the popular Sunday evening talk show on state-owned Rossia-1 hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, one of Russia's most famous television personalities.
Vinnikov's appearances on Channel 5 have been largely free of the yelling, interruptions, and stern rebukes that punctuate the most popular political talk shows on the two major state television networks and the Kremlin-loyal network NTV.
But Vinnikov got a dose of this debate style in his appearance on the talk show First Studio, broadcast on April 18 on state-owned Channel One. During the program, which was focused largely on Washington's escalating standoff with North Korea, he was shouted down as he argued that the United States was the "guarantor of democracy" in the world.
Following Katsov's Facebook post, which was accompanied by a screenshot from Vinnikov's Channel One appearance, Vinnikov took to his own Facebook page to defend his use of the journalist moniker. He posted several links to interviews he'd done more than a decade ago with Russian-language media outlets, including the respected Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy.
"I think it's enough to convince of my 30 years of journalistic experience," he wrote.
He did not explain why he was using the name "Greg Vainer."
Amid the controversy over Vinnikov's reemergence in the public eye, Facebook users recalled both his controversial U.S. business dealings and his new role in the Russian political landscape. One Facebook user claimed to have lost $900 to Vinnikov, but that the businessman still clicks the "like" button on his Facebook posts.
The prominent Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, meanwhile, weighed in with: "The new Michael Bohm!"
Solovyov, for his part, appeared to defend Vinnikov's credentials, saying on Twitter: "He's an American citizen. Worked in the media in the U.S. So what kind of journalist is he?"