Foreign agents: the movie. Russian state TV airs fear-stoking ‘investigative film’ about exiled opposition figures and journalists

Posted: Thu, 18 Apr 2024 13:41:06 UTC+3
The first-ever Congress of Foreign Agents, a meeting of people who have been added to the Russian Justice Ministry’s “foreign agents” registry. Berlin, February 3, 2024.

On April 13, the Russian state TV network Rossiya-24 aired an “investigative film” about Russians who have been declared “foreign agents” by the Justice Ministry and are now living in exile. Using footage obtained by reporters posing as “independent journalists,” the film highlights a variety of activists, opposition politicians, and journalists, and supports its claims about the supposedly nefarious nature of their activities with commentary from pro-Putin and pro-war pundits. Meduza shares a summary of the “investigation.”

“Foreign Agents,” Russian propagandist Arkady Mamontov’s “investigative film” about the opposition figures purportedly working to undermine Russia from abroad, begins by likening Russia’s “foreign agents” to the character Pavel Smerdyakov from Fyodor Dostoyevesky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Over ominous music, a voice reads the monologue in which Smerdyakov says he “hates all of Russia” and regrets that Napoleon’s army didn’t “conquer” the country in 1812. The comparison between Smerdyakov and critics of the Putin regime is a recurring theme throughout the film.

Much of the “investigation” is dedicated to the Congress of Foreign Agents, a meeting of “foreign agents” in exile that was held in Berlin in February 2024. Correspondents from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) appear to have either attended the event disguised as foreign journalists or hired actual Western journalists to attend.

Over the course of an hour and a half, the film calls attention to a range of opposition activists and politicians who have criticized the Kremlin, expressed support for Ukraine, or wished for the “collapse” of the Putin regime. These figures include environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, human rights lawyer Mark Feygin, politician Leonid Gozman, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, feminist activist and writer Daria Serenko, politician and blogger Maxim Katz, and political scientist Ekaterina Shulman. The film also features statements from “experts” who “analyze” the activities of the “foreign agents,” such as political scientist and Putin supporter Natalya Narochnitskaya and ardently pro-war writer Yury Polyakov.

‘Foreign agents’ everywhere

The film goes into detail about exiled liberal opposition politician Leonid Gozman, with VGTRK correspondents going to the building where he lives in Berlin and discussing the property he owns in Europe. Mamontov refers to Gozman as a “friend and associate of Anatoly Chubais” and says that Gozman considers the 1990s to have been “sacred” for Russia. These claims are illustrated with footage of empty supermarket shelves and long lines.

Undercover reporters working for VGTRK also managed to get into the editorial office of the exiled independent Russian news station TV Rain in Amsterdam. After showing the building and telling viewers its address, the film shows “gotcha” footage from interviews with TV Rain presenters Eduard Burmistrov and Anna Mongayt, such as clips of them saying that Crimea belongs to Ukraine.

One of the many allegations Mamontov makes about “foreign agents” in the film is that they “don’t just desire Russia’s collapse, they crave it — just as they’re taught by their Western handlers.” At their public events, Mamontov says, the “foreign agents” try to “recruit” people to join their cause. This allegation is illustrated by footage from a public talk held by political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann.

Another segment is dedicated to Russian singer Eduard Sharlot, who was arrested in a St. Petersburg airport in late November. After showing footage of the musician burning his Russian passport, the film features an interview with Sharlot, who has been in a pre-trial detention center for several months. Sharlot describes to his interviewer how he was “hypnotized” by videos from opposition figures like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Maxim Katz. “They speak in a certain way, everything is filmed in a certain way — it’s all very well-designed, I think, by American propagandists,” Sharlot says. Mamontov asserts that the singer was not under any pressure to speak to the filmmakers and did so “voluntarily.”

Mamontov’s “investigation” ends with several profiles of people who were once “fanatical supporters” of Russia’s “non-systemic opposition” but who “opened their eyes” after living in the West. One of these converts is a man named Nikita Khatuntsev, who claims to have regularly taken part in protest rallies before moving to New York in the early 2010s. After the move caused him to realize that he “loves Russia,” he says, he married an American woman and brought her back to his home country. Now, according to Khatuntsev, he has everything he wants in life. The film shows Khatuntsev and his wife shoveling snow in front of their home in ushanka hats (fur hats with ear flaps).

Soon after the film aired, feminist activist Daria Serenko took to X to tell the story of how undercover VGTRK employees showed up at one of her book presentations in Berlin. According to Serenko, the filmmakers introduced themselves as “independent Serbian journalists” and were “shoving their cameras in everybody’s face from the get-go.” After the presentation, she said, they asked her for an interview. She recounted the conversation that resulted as follows:

They expected to hear about my hatred for the Motherland and how I wish ill upon Russia, but instead, they got a passionate tirade about my love for Russia and why the dictatorship must go up in flames. Then I gave them a detailed list of all of the Russian war crimes I could remember. They wouldn’t be able to show any of these things on state TV. […] Basically, I didn’t give them any sensational quotes to pull from the interview, so instead of my direct speech, they settled for some old expert grumbling from offscreen about banning the books of so-called ‘foreign agents’ and emigrants and how we’re a far cry from Nabokov.

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