In early December, a sensational story ripped through the tabloid press: President Vladimir Putin had stumbled and fallen down the stairs, involuntarily soiling himself in the process.
It proved an irresistible tale for a Western audience largely horrified by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and hungry for his ultimate demise.
The claims were covered in The Sun, the New York Post, the Daily Mail, Gawker, and Newsweek, among others. They attributed them to a single, anonymous source: the mysterious Telegram account known as General SVR.
The channel is a striking example of the wild media ecosystem that has boomed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Gruesome videos and eye-catching claims abound, reaching vast audiences often with little evidence or context. Some inevitably spills over into established media reporting.
General SVR emerged in 2020, claiming to be run by former and current members of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, as well as other state bodies.
In a statement to Insider, a spokesperson for General SVR declined to identify the account’s sources, citing personal security, but said it has “complete confidence” in them.
“They have never let us down,” the spokesperson said.
Since its inception, the account has pumped out a steady stream of unevidenced but fascinating claims about the Kremlin’s inner workings and Putin’s allegedly failing health.
They range from alleging in May that Putin would temporarily hand over power in order to have cancer surgery; to saying Putin had a coughing fit just before his September speech announcing the mobilization of reservists.
The most recent, scatological claim prompted a rare public denial from the Kremlin, which told Newsweek: “This is completely untrue.”
The Kremlin’s own claims are themselves highly unreliable. But the fact that the epicenter of Russian power was forced to assure the world that Putin did not poop himself is testament to the outsize power of General SVR.
Among those used to more rigorous documenting of Russia’s secrets, General SVR prompts open derision.
Aric Toler, of the respected investigative outfit Bellingcat, told his Twitter followers in May to “ignore everything coming from” the account.
Experts on Russian media told Insider that General SVR is unlikely to be a credible source — and argue that despite the momentary embarrassment it can cause Putin, it is probably doing more harm than good.
Who is General SVR?
General SVR is sometimes referred to by the pseudonym “Viktor Mikhailovich,” but nobody knows for sure who exactly is behind the account, but two names frequently crop up, with different theories attached.
One is Valery Solovey, a Russian academic who is sometimes described as a conspiracy theorist, who was raided by Russian authorities on February 16 this year, as the independent Russian news outlet Meduza reported.
Solovey is a source of rumors about Putin published under his own name, such as his remarks reported in The Sun in 2020, when he claimed that the Russian president was readying to step down by January 2021. As we know, Putin did not step down.
Per Meduza, which itself cited local media, Solovey was named as a witness in an investigation into General SVR, which stood accused of breaking Russian hate-speech laws, but he was ultimately freed.
Soon after his questioning, the General SVR channel made a post denying any connection to Solovey.
In a comment to Insider, Solovey said that he is not connected to the channel but claimed that it has “high reliability” and that even Putin himself gets briefed on its contents.
Asked if he would name any of the figures behind the account, he said: “No.”
In response to allegations that he is a conspiracy theorist, Solovey pointed to claims of his that did come true, including the prediction that Russia would invade Ukraine.
The second figure linked to the account is Ukrainian lawyer Viktor Yermolaev, according to Meduza. Insider was unable to contact him, but he firmly denied the claim to Meduza, saying that he has no contact with anyone in Russia.
Dr Lucy Birge, a researcher specializing in Russian media and politics, told Insider that “it wouldn’t be difficult to see what the strategic goal is” for a Ukrainian running the account.
But there is still little more than speculation to go on.
Selling a cartoon Putin
The wild world of General SVR should be understood in the wider context of how Telegram is used in Russia, according to Dr Jade McGlynn, a researcher on Russian propaganda and media.
Russia’s traditional media landscape has steadily tightened, as Insider’s John Haltiwanger has reported, forcing many independent outlets to relocate outside of Russia and be branded a “foreign agent.”
In tandem with that process arose Telegram — an encrypted platform that allows unfiltered, anonymous publication to vast audiences. (The Kremlin has tried, and failed, to block the app).
Initially perceived as a place for authentic voices, Telegram soon became “a space for impersonations and info ops,” McGlynn told Insider.
Info ops are missions, usually by the military, to spread information meant to harm an enemy or influence a conflict.
While there are dozens of active, well-read channels — both pro-and anti-Putin — General SVR cuts through to Western media because it is “punchy,” McGlynn said.
For her, part of the problem lies in oversimplifying the situation — and potential solutions to the conflict.
Constant headlines painting Putin as being on the verge of death with no real evidence backing it up can lead western readers to think “‘great, well Putin’s going to be gone soon, so we needn’t worry too much,'” as she put it.
That, in turn, could dial down public urgency around continued military aid to Ukraine — a matter that is increasingly under question in the US and the UK.
Birge agreed. “It’s not difficult to see how that image of Russia sells,” she told Insider. And there’s even an advantage for Putin in that, no matter how negative the story is, it centers Russia as a world power, she said.
For Birge, the phenomenon reveals much more about what Western news consumers want to read than it does about Russia.
And it comes because there is a massive “informational vacuum” around Russia’s elite, she said.
“Obviously there are things going on behind the scenes, and we don’t know what they are,” she said. “It’s tempting to follow this unidentified person who has all the answers.”
(Source Yahoo news)