Hacked emails reveal intelligence agent’s harassment of theater luminaries and infiltration of Russia’s performing arts industry

Posted: Fri, 12 Apr 2024 07:13:05 UTC+3

Meduza has obtained access to the private correspondence of Sergey Dubov, an agent in Russia’s Federal Security Service responsible for meddling in the performing arts to elevate traditional, pro-state content and creators over the independent avant-garde. In hundreds of emails communicated between December 2007 and April 2022, Meduza tracked Dubov’s transformation from a loafing college student and early job seeker into a member of the FSB’s Directorate for the Protection of Constitutional Order. The records show how Dubov and the FSB collected and spread compromising materials about prominent figures in Russian theater and engineered a takeover of one of the industry’s most prestigious award ceremonies.

Meduza is not disclosing the identity of the source who hacked Dubov’s emails, but our newsroom independently verified that they belong to the FSB agent in question by matching private information in the correspondence to records available in services like GetContact and NumBuster, which log how people have recorded contact information on their devices. The correspondence shared with Meduza also includes many documents with Sergey Dubov’s personal information, further corroborating that the records are from his email accounts.

Dubov’s diaspora collaborators

Sergey Dubov’s post-college job hunting ended by the summer of 2014, when he’d found employment in Russia’s Federal Security Service. Dubov began his FSB career by monitoring the country’s so-called “national minorities.” Posing as a student or an “interested audience member,” he attended events staged by the Belarusian and Ukrainian diasporas, listening to speeches in search of useful contacts. The hacked emails shared with Meduza show that Dubov’s early outreach attempts were clumsy and unreciprocated, but he eventually established ties with a handful of figures who would help him observe and influence events in the diaspora communities. 

One of the individuals who became Dubov’s regular contact in these years was Sergey Kandybovich, the head of the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Belarusians of Russia. (Kandybovich also served as one of Vladimir Putin’s campaign proxies in Russia’s 2018 presidential election.) Email records indicate that Kandybovich knew Dubov worked in a Russian intelligence agency. For years, he sent Dubov his correspondence with other Belarusians and even coordinated the scripts for speeches he gave on the subject of Russian-Belarusian bilateral relations, crafting a message that demonized the “propagation of Western values” and promoted unifying rhetoric about Moscow and Minsk.

The collaboration didn’t end there.

In March 2018, Kandybovich and Dubov workshopped the “sample wording” of a police report filed against Polish journalist Tomasz Maciejczuk, who was then a recurring guest on Russian talk shows serving as a pro-Ukrainian foil to state propagandists. Emails show that Dubov approved the text, and Kandybovich promised to distribute it throughout his network.

By this time, Dubov already had an “expert report” on hand arguing that Maciejczuk’s posts on the social network Vkontakte constituted hate speech against ethnic Russians. The report was from Alla Shikhaleva, who worked at the Forensic Science and Criminalistics Research Center (which regularly provides state investigators with supporting expertise in politicized cases). Shikhaleva received 70,000 rubles ($750 at today’s exchange rate) for her report on Maciejczuk. (Dubov’s correspondence shows that she often consulted with him about out-of-court expert reports.) The FSB agent apparently put this document to use: A few months later, police raided Maciejczuk’s home in Russia, and migration officials subsequently refused to allow him back into the country, citing a decision by the Federal Security Service.

Dubov recruited many other collaborators, as well. For example, there was Dmitry Nagibin, a manager at the IT company Positive Technologies, which the U.S. government would later sanction for hosting “large-scale conventions that are used as recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.” In his spare time, Nagibin helped Dubov find vulnerabilities in certain websites and hack into various diaspora leaders’ email and social media accounts. Dubov’s emails also indicate that he repeatedly gained access to Vkontakte users’ private information from the network’s administrators. 

To infiltrate opposition activists in the Belarusian nationalist community, Dubov built a relationship with a journalist outside Moscow named Ivan Anisimov, whose police report against a Ukrainian national put him on the FSB’s radar. A series of emails from Anisimov to Dubov catalog the former’s disastrous attempt to befriend Ivan Sopov, who managed two Vkontakte groups of interest. Anisimov wrote that he got drunk and bungled the effort, but officials nevertheless arrested Sopov in May 2016 and even added him to Russia’s registry of “terrorists and extremists.” (He was later removed, and Meduza could not establish what became of him.)

Dubov’s theater collaborators and network of anonymous Telegram channels

In more recent years, especially since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Dubov has been busy intimidating and harassing cultural figures, particularly by leaking their personal information through Telegram channels. Meduza tied him to multiple leaks published or amplified by the anonymous Telegram channel Podkovrka. 

For example, in early March 2022, prominent theater critic Marina Davydova exited Russia through Latvia after receiving threats for her involvement in a petition against the invasion of Ukraine. The same day that Davydova crossed the border, Sergey Dubov emailed himself several files that included images of her Israeli passport and a photograph taken at the border during a 90-minute interrogation with the FSB where Davydova sat at a table with her documents in front of her. These photos later appeared on Telegram, where Podkoverka reshared them with messages advocating further persecution of Russia’s oppositionist theater figures. (The channel had previously accused Davydova of nefarious “Western ties” and campaigned, successfully in the end, for her dismissal from a theater magazine where she was editor-in-chief.)

Podkovrka also regularly publishes nude photos and videos stolen from the private online correspondence and digital archives of anti-Kremlin cultural figures. In 2022, the channel released such images taken from theater director and playwright Evgenia Berkovich, who was arrested in May 2023 and now faces seven years in prison on charges of “justifying terrorism” in her work. 


In 2021, Podkovrka targeted actress Varvara Shmykova by leaking her intimate photos after she shared a video message in support of Alexey Navalny when he was imprisoned after returning to Moscow from Germany. Shmykova told Meduza that she checked the sessions records in her Telegram account after the leak and found a login from an unfamiliar IP address. Meduza later identified the numerical label as an IP address used by the Federal Security Service and registered at the address of Russia’s Presidential Administration building. The day that Podkovrka released the nude photos of Shmykova and two other actors, the same images appeared in Sergey Dubov’s inbox. 

Meduza was unable to verify how Dubov acquired the photographs or whether he had direct ties to those who hacked Shmykova and her friends, but there is ample evidence that he is involved with Podkovrka’s harassment of cultural figures. Dubov’s emails show that he was regularly in possession of private materials just before the Telegram channel shared them publicly. 

Other telltale signs include the metadata in incriminating files related to suspects in the Seventh Studio embezzlement case against director Kirill Serebrennikov and others, which list one of Dubov’s email addresses as the file’s owner. Dubov’s correspondence also includes Serebrennikov’s estate inventory, which he emailed to himself with the note “from Sergey Elkin,” apparently referring to a federal investigator who provided some of the evidence for the prosecution in the Seventh Studio case. (Dubov’s inbox also contains numerous documents related to Seventh Studio’s former accountant, Nina Maslyaeva, suggesting that prosecutors may have dictated her confession implicating Serebrennikov and others.)

Joshua Yaffa, Maria Alyokhina, and Katie Marie Davies explain

In addition to leaked information, Podkovrka publishes insulting “reviews” of contemporary plays and films, where anonymous critics denounce the playwrights and directors as traitors. The metadata in one of these DOCX files provided OSINT analyst Sergey Konaev with the breadcrumbs needed to identify Culture Ministry film expert Maxim Lyubovich as the author of a scathing appraisal of Kirill Serebrennikov’s 2022 film “Tchaikovsky's Wife.” (Meduza found the same file in Sergey Dubov’s emails.) 

Konaev tracks multiple Telegram channels like Podkovrka that leak cultural figures’ personal data and publish hostile anonymous reviews of their work. For example, a channel called Real Cultras hounded actor Danila Kozlovsky after he criticized the invasion of Ukraine. Unlike Podkovrka, Real Cultras also harasses independent writers and the directors of major libraries, museums, and art galleries. Konaev studied clues in Instagram screenshots posted on Real Cultras and identified the person behind the channel as a P.R. consultant named Ivan Lykoshin, who oversees public events at Zaryadye Park in Moscow, adjacent to Red Square. Zaryadye Park director Ivan Demidov (a former domestic policy adviser to the Dmitry Medvedev administration) has also meddled in cultural affairs, leading an effort at the Contemporary Arts Development Fund to steer the industry by hijacking its awards ceremonies and intimidating theaters through veiled threats in content shared on anonymous Telegram channels.

Also speaking anonymously, a theater director told Meduza that a network of these channels with ties to figures like Lykoshin, Demidov, Sergey Dubov, and others is terrorizing the people who manage theater venues in Russia. A channel sends a cryptic, threatening message to the theater's head, and sooner or later, the theater has a problem with state regulators. “And all this without any official papers. There’s no law that requires theaters to scrub all performances, for example, by Ivan Vyrypaev. It’s all handled in whispers,” said Meduza’s source, who didn’t mention Vyrypaev randomly; the playwright now lives in Poland after being sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for supposed “disinformation” about Russian atrocities in Ukraine. 

Meduza found eight messages in Sergey Dubov’s inbox with Vyrypaev’s personal information, including a dossier with his bank statements and spending transactions. It is unclear under what circumstances Dubov acquired these data.

Conquering the Golden Mask awards

The federal government’s first serious attack on the Golden Mask Theater Festival — Russia’s equivalent to Broadway’s Tony Awards — was in April 2015 when Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky fired the director of the Novosibirsk Opera, Boris Mezdrich, for staging a version of Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” opera with an added plotline involving Jesus Christ becoming the lover of the pagan goddess Venus. After members of the Russian Orthodox clergy complained about the performance, prosecutors briefly opened a criminal investigation into “insults against religious beliefs.” Shortly after firing Mezrich, Medinsky took the stage at the annual Golden Mask festival only to be booed by an audience chanting, “Bring back Tannhäuser!” 

Medinsky’s speech was inaudible over the noise of the crowd.

Russia’s state authorities got the message, but not the one the festival’s angry audience hoped to send. Almost immediately after Medinsky’s humiliation at the 2015 Golden Mask festival, Culture Ministry officials started accusing the awards ceremony of rewarding “immoral” and “Russophobic” plays. In October of that year, without any public discussion, Russia’s Theater Union added several openly pro-Kremlin members to the Golden Mask’s expert council. The union simultaneously rewrote the Golden Mask’s charter and made Russia’s Culture Ministry a full-fledged co-organizer, giving the government more influence over the ceremony’s evaluation process.

However, even these changes didn’t give the Culture Ministry a majority on the expert councils. The ceremony’s strict rules and the Theater Union’s wish to preserve the Golden Mask as an ostensibly independent legal entity prevented ministry officials from exerting the control they wanted over the festival. In 2018, the ministry withdrew from the group of organizers, and Russia’s state authorities changed tack. Sergey Dubov’s emails show that this is when he shifted his work to the Golden Mask takeover.

According to the hacked correspondence shared with Meduza, Dubov was in near-constant communication with a handful of theater critics, most of all with Marina Timasheva (who, as the head of the Theater Union’s Criticism Commission, had previously backed the Culture Ministry’s conservative candidates for Golden Mask expert councils). Timasheva’s messages to Dubov indicate that she knew she was speaking to an FSB agent. Among other things, she sent him lists of pro-Kremlin colleagues she wanted to see on expert councils and named jury members with liberal views whom she wanted to kick out. 

Dubov’s correspondence with theater critics was still active and aggressive by April 2022, when Meduza’s records end, even though Russia’s militarized censorship of the arts amid the full-scale invasion of Ukraine pressured many independent theater directors into emigration. After February 2022, Dubov and Timasheva were triumphant in their emails to each other, but they remained vigilant in their campaign to elevate traditional, pro-Kremlin performing artists. 

Since then, the Golden Mask Theater Festival has stopped honoring work that challenges the state or subverts traditional culture. Russia’s Theater Union jettisoned the ceremony’s final vestiges of independence in August 2023 with new regulations that give the organization’s chairperson the unilateral power to change the composition of expert councils and juries. The chair can now even rewrite the nominations for Golden Mask awards. A few months later, actor and theater director Vladimir Mashkov — an outspoken supporter of Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine — became the festival’s president. 

In January 2024, Russia’s Culture Ministry notified state theaters that their performances must reflect so-called “traditional values,” which include “service to the Fatherland and responsibility for its fate.” The Russian theater industry and its most prestigious awards ceremony are now fully subordinate to the state, just as Sergey Dubov described in his plans with collaborators over the years.

Story by Elizaveta Antonova

Fact-checking by Denis Dmitriev, adapted for Meduza in English by Kevin Rothrock

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