Yet within hours of Mr Nemtsov’s death, Ms Savchuk and her colleagues were going online to pour bile on the former deputy prime minister and claim he was killed by his own friends rather than by government hitmen, as many suspect.
“I was so upset that I almost gave myself away,” she said. “But I was 007. I fulfilled my task.”
The “007” role that Ms Savchuk refers to is her own extroardinary one-woman spying mission, which appears to shed intriguing light on the propaganda machine that props up the rule of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
Video by Dmitri Beliakov, edited by Juliet Turner
Ms Savchuk says that for two months, she worked as one of scores of “internet operators” in a secretive “troll factory” called Internet Research, an anonymous four-storey building on a back street in St Petersburg, Russia’s former tsarist capital and Mr Putin’s hometown.
Ms Savchuk’s job was to spend 12 hours a day praising the Kremlin and lambasting its perceived enemies on social networks, blogs and the comment sections of online media.
The trolls’ task, reminiscent of the black arts of Soviet disinformation, was to attack any opponent of the Russian authorities, be it dissenting politicians, pro-European Ukrainians or even Barack Obama – who was branded a “monkey” because of his black skin.
“We had to say Putin was a fine fellow and a great figure, that Russia’s opponents were bad and Obama was an idiot,” she recalled.
All along, however, Ms Savchuk was copying documents and making clandestine video footage about the “factory”, gathering evidence in the manner of a Cold War spy. Or, as she prefers to see it, a Victorian sleuth. “I was really inspired by detective novels and Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch,” she told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview last week.
Ms Savchuk says she was sacked in March after leaking her information about Internet Research to a local newspaper. Now she is out in the open and leading a campaign against the firm, which is allegedly run by a Kremlin-connected businessman.
“I want to get it closed down,” she explained. “These people are using propaganda to destroy objectivity and make people doubt the motives of any civil protest. Worst of all, they’re doing it by pretending to be us, the citizens of Russia.
In an attempt to expose the practices of Internet Research, Ms Savchuk is suing the company for breaches of labour law because she never received a contract and was paid in cash.
The story of her time as a troll is a rare and piercing insight into Russia’s attempts to skew the truth and flood the internet with political innuendo.
She worked from January 2 to March 11 at the building of Internet Research at 55 Savushkina Street in St Petersburg, which insiders say is still operating as a “troll factory”.
Working two days-on, two-days off, its army of bloggers – who are thought to number several hundred – spew out thousands of posts a week.
At her interview, Mrs Savchuk says, she pretended to be “a housewife with no real views” when she was asked if she sympathised with Russia’s opposition. She “cleaned” her pages on Facebook and Vkontakte (a Russian equivalent) in advance – the interviewers asked to see them – and replaced posts about her campaigns as an eco-activist with recipes.
“The first thing we would do each day would be to turn on the proxy server to hide our IP addresses,” said Ms Savchuk. Then the operators would start to receive “technical assignments” – written descriptions of themes they should raise in their blogs and comments, with key words to be included.
The bloggers are kept under tight control – their email is subject to checks and their workplace monitored by CCTV. Failure to reach quotas invokes a fine, as does a poorly scripted post. Ms Savchuk said she and others were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Read the rest of this entry »