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OPINION

Double trouble: Exposing false claims of Putin's death

Two weeks after the latest fake sensation from the Telegram channel called “SVR General” and political analyst Valery Solovey about Vladimir Putin's demise, the latter continues to partake in official events as if he were alive. Nevertheless, even after this, there are people who steadfastly believe in the professor's theories. Certain journalists persist in inviting him to their shows, and the conspiracy theories surrounding “Putin's ailment” have seamlessly transitioned into speculations about “Putin's body doubles.” Fact-checker Ilya Ber delves into the phenomenon of unverified sensations propagated by Professor Solovey. Notably, Solovey had effortlessly shifted from communist to ultranationalist rhetoric and, it seems, embarked on an experiment on Russians in a realm where he truly excels: media manipulation. The success of this experiment is undeniable, evident in the growing ratings of Solovey and the associated Telegram channels. However, the collateral effect is a significant erosion of trust in the media at large due to such narratives. 

The Telegram channel “SVR General” came into existence in September 2020, and by October 22, 2023, the day of the sensational publication, it had garnered 362,000 subscribers—three times more than The Insider's Telegram channel. As of this writing, the channel boasts 463,000 subscribers, and there is no doubt that such a sharp rise in popularity is linked to the “chronicle of Putin's declared death.”

Operated under the guise of a former lieutenant general of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, who goes by the name Viktor Mikhailovich, the channel predominantly publishes purported insider information, often sensational, about Putin and his inner circle. For instance, it claimed that “Russian President Vladimir Putin has a habit of coming up with nicknames for friends, people in his inner circle, acquaintances, Russian politicians, and prominent figures worldwide.” According to the channel, Putin allegedly bestowed the nickname “Golubets” [a hint on a person's homosexuality] on the speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, dubbed the former president and prime minister Medvedev as “Funtik” [a short and funny person], and assigned the title “Sheptun” [whisperer] to the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin.

The purported general is said to be privy to the content of Putin's conversations with top officials of other countries and has access to classified intelligence. A month after the emergence of “SVR General,” its creators announced that the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, had been recruited by the FSB:

“We know and assert that in April-May 2019, Ukrainian citizen Andriy Borysovych Yermak, born in 1971, was recruited by Russian FSB officers and received the operational pseudonym 'Kozyr.'“

However, this sensation did not impress Ukrainian authorities. Yermak continued his duties, witnessing Russia's full-scale military invasion in February 2022 and remaining in his position to this day.

The key characteristic of all insights and predictions from the “SVR General” channel is their fundamental unverifiability—except, it seems, one: Putin's death. Yet, even this claim within the “SVR General” universe proves impossible to verify. According to the channel's authors, Putin had rarely appeared in public for a long time, and all his representative functions were allegedly carried out by a body double or doubles.

The key characteristic of all insights and predictions from the “SVR General” channel is their fundamental unverifiability

In July 2021, the channel informed its audience that there were two individuals occupying Putin's position, claiming that one of them had purportedly been killed in 2019 and was replaced by someone found with great difficulty “in one of the former Soviet republics.” Consequently, for the broader audience, the reported death of Putin changed nothing, as a replacement for him had supposedly been in position for several months.

Valery Solovey is intricately linked to the channel, although the exact nature of this connection remains unknown. During an interview with Yevgenia Albats, where the channel's author participated incognito, concealing their face and modifying their voice, Solovey affirmed, “I know the general personally and can vouch that he is indeed a lieutenant general, and he is not anonymous to me.” Furthermore, Solovey had been acknowledged in the channel's second publication, issued on its inaugural day.

According to an investigation by Anna Bekesheva disseminated online, the channel is the property of Viktor Ermolaev, a lawyer from Kharkiv. On one occasion, he inadvertently disclosed his Webmoney wallet number on the channel, unveiling not only his name and date of birth but even his residential address. While the voice of the “general” underwent modification during streams, it strikingly resembles Ermolaev's voice in public interviews.

Victor Ermolaev, also known as “SVR General”
Victor Ermolaev, also known as “SVR General”

Valery Solovey, in turn, is widely recognized by the public as a historian, a doctor of sciences, and a former professor at MGIMO, wherefrom he was reportedly ousted due to his disloyalty. However, there is much more noteworthy information in his biography. For instance, in 1987, he defended his candidate dissertation on a rather unconventional topic for a self-respecting historian, “The Role of the Institute of the Red Professoriate in the Formation of Soviet Historical Science and the Study of Problems in National History.” Subsequently, he spent years researching the “Russian question” and Russian nationalism. In 2008, his book “Blood and Soil of Russian History” was published. Here are several quotes from both this book and his other publications:

“Nevertheless, in my view, the main reason for the crisis is linked to Russians losing the sense of their great mission, which they lived with for centuries. It is a mission of a special destiny for the Russian people, called upon to embody and enact the highest Truth and the highest Justice.” (source)
“The emerging new society in Russia is replacing the luxurious and soothing decay of the West.”
“Russia can only be the state of the Russian people, or it will not exist at all—such a scientific (not political-ideological!) conclusion can be drawn from the author's studies.”
“Russianness is not culture, nor is it religion, language, or self-awareness. Russianness is blood, blood as the carrier of social instincts of perception and action. Blood (or biological Russianness) constitutes the core around which external manifestations of Russianness gravitate.” (source)
“Even a person who speaks Russian fluently and grew up in Russia will not be recognized as Russian by the vast majority of our compatriots if his external appearance sharply deviates from what Russians consider inherent to themselves.” (source)

In 2009, philologist and cultural theorist Ilya Kukulin wrote about Professor Solovey and his sister (they had co-authored a few books): “There is at least one more nation, which was explained in exactly the same way in the 1930s: that, supposedly, the 'racial way of thinking' was inherent to it, and even in some extraordinary and unique manner.”

It might seem that with such views, Solovey could find favor in contemporary Russia with its unofficial anthem by the singer Shaman, “I am Russian, I have my father's blood in my veins.” However, it didn't work out because he had abandoned these views (or at least stopped expressing them in public). In 2012, Valery Dmitrievich had decided to become a prominent nationalist politician. However, the Ministry of Justice refused to register his New Power party in 2013. He calmly abandoned nationalist rhetoric shortly afterward, just as he had left communist rhetoric behind earlier, moving closer to liberals, first within the system (Titov's Party of Growth) and then outside of it. Nothing resembling Solovey's quotes set out above has surfaced since.

Certainly, if you've noticed that those quotes deviate somewhat from conventional expectations regarding the tone of an academic narrative, your observation is accurate. Despite possessing academic degrees and engaging in publications, Solovey's primary professional focus has not been on historical research. Instead, he has sustained himself through pursuits such as political analysis, journalism, public relations, and teaching in related disciplines.

Despite possessing academic degrees and engaging in publications, Solovey's primary professional focus has not been on historical research

From 2007 to 2019, he served as the head of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at MGIMO. During this time, he taught the following courses:

  • PR and Advertising in Politics.
  • Fundamentals of Information Warfare and Media Manipulation.
  • Basics of Government Policy in the Information Sphere.

In this role, he demonstrated true professionalism. In 2015, Solovey authored the book “Absolute Weapon: Basics of Psychological Warfare and Media Manipulation.” On YouTube, you can find his lecture from 2014 titled “How to Watch the News During War.” It is not only informative but also well-presented, as, while discussing media manipulation, the lecturer occasionally employs its techniques.

In this capacity, Solovey discussed crucial and accurate insights into how conspiracy theories operate and how easily one can exploit people's weaknesses, breaches in their critical thinking, including exploiting people's belief in secrets, hidden knowledge, and fears of conspiracies. Applying pressure to these points allows one to capture their (our) attention and, to some extent, influence their (our) minds.

Solovey discussed crucial and accurate insights into how conspiracy theories operate and how easily one can exploit people's weaknesses

At the same time, he clearly conveyed to the audience that he considered all of this nonsense and stood on the side of Occam's razor, Hanlon's razor, and rational thinking in general.

Specifically, the lecture included passages like:

“Tell me, is there a lot of meaning in your personal life? No. In our lives, there are many coincidences, circumstances. In politics, it's the same.”
“There's no need to look for cleverness where there are simple human motives—greed, foolishness, and cowardice.”
“In a well-crafted report, you frequently encounter references to confidential information... Why does it carry such significance? The allure lies in the inclination towards secrecy. Media outlets subtly unveil the curtain, revealing the 'edge of truth.'“
“Introducing a 'plant' into a blog is also a potent manipulation technique. It creates room for speculation, known as the 'Wait Zone' (or 'fake information leak')—named after the pioneer of this phenomenon. It forms the foundation for all conspiracy theories involving mysterious forces: the third, fourth, or fifth force operating behind the scenes of politics. We are presented with the tip of the thread, leading us to believe that pulling it will unveil the secret. This process gives rise to colossal conspiracy theories, constructing elaborate schemes to interpret the world and certain political events.”

During this period, Valery Solovey, acting as a public speaker and political commentator, actively employed the techniques he had been imparting to his students. It appears that, as a researcher, he chose to conduct an experiment on himself to gauge its success. I presume that Valery Dmitrievich did not anticipate such a level of success and, consequently, opted to persist in his endeavors.

It appears that, as a researcher, Solovey chose to conduct an experiment on himself to gauge its success

Like other public speakers who are constantly immersed in both their own and others' broadcasts, he consistently engages in speculation and makes predictions. Despite the fact that his forecasts predominantly do not come true, there are no consequences for him. In theory and in practice, he understands that the broader audience comprehends very little and retains even less. People generally want to hear what they desire at any given moment—something they wish to believe, preferably presented with elements of intrigue and suspense. Solovey consciously and cynically provides all of this.

For instance, in 2016, he confidently stated that Putin would not participate in the 2018 elections due to “circumstances of irresistible force.” Repeating this prediction multiple times, he added that these “circumstances” would bring about significant changes in Russia in 2017, subtly hinting at some incurable illness of Putin. Despite Putin's active participation in the elections, his easy victory, and the absence of significant changes in Russia in 2017 due to these “circumstances,” Solovey's popularity continued to grow. By 2019, he not only appeared on shows run by numerous respected media outlets but also spoke at prestigious foreign analytical centers, such as the Kennan Institute.

Valery Solovey at a speaking engagement upon the invitation of the Kennan Institute
Valery Solovey at a speaking engagement upon the invitation of the Kennan Institute

The predictions of Putin's imminent demise were increasing in number. In 2020, he asserted without any doubt that by 2022, Putin would no longer be in Russian politics (due to the same circumstances of irresistible force). At that time, he specified the illness—cancer. However, “SVR General” offered a different explanation—Parkinson's disease.

At the same time, Solovey instructed YouTube algorithms, which actively promoted any videos featuring him more strongly than others on channels where he appeared. The positive feedback loop played a role here—increased followership led to more active promotion of videos with his participation by the algorithms. Journalists openly admitted to inviting him to their shows primarily because of the high viewership numbers, even though they were aware of the dubious nature of his “insights.” Over the years, the professor fell into a pattern and started sharing increasingly unverified, sometimes outright absurd, insights (supposedly from high-ranking sources in a secret organization to which he claimed membership) about Putin and his inner circle. In 2020, the “SVR General” Telegram channel emerged, possibly to give a semblance of legitimacy to these fabricated insights.

Similarly to this public channel, Solovey's predictions are fundamentally unverifiable. It would seem to be a straightforward matter, given such access to government secrets—you just have to be the first to reveal an upcoming government reshuffle or the resignation or appointment of a governor, complete with specific names and timelines. However, neither Solovey nor “SVR General” ever engages in such revelations. The reality is that they most probably lack genuine insights.

Neither Solovey nor “SVR General” has ever predicted a governor's resignation with a specific timeframe

In 2023, as ridicule mounted against Solovey due to Putin's continued presence, the political scientist decided to “bury” him nonetheless—his audience had staunchly adopted the belief in Putin's body doubles. In this scenario, distinguishing between the genuine Putin and the purported body doubles becomes impossible, making it challenging to verify the accuracy of Solovey's assertions. This situation unfolded just as a conveniently timed “prediction” from astrologer Dragan foretold severe turbulence within Russian ruling circles between October 26 and November 13.

On October 23, the “SVR General” claimed that Putin had suffered a cardiac arrest (with Solovey commenting on one of his podcasts that it was the “second one”) and was barely resuscitated. Subsequently, it was asserted that Putin had little time left. Finally, on October 26, Solovey, echoing the claims of the “SVR General,” declared that the “tyrant was dead”, his body lying in cold storage at the Valdai residence.

The manipulation worked once again. Solovey became popular among YouTubers, and the “general” gained another 100,000 subscribers. Now, stories about the “dead Putin” and the saga of his body double fighting with a potential successor in the person of Patrushev can go on for a very long time.

At first glance, it may seem harmless. People are entertained, they manage their anxieties, and they find hope. Yet, the long-term consequences could be harmful. Eventually, many of the current followers of these media manipulators will come to the realization that they have been misled. However, this won't result in a renewed faith in high-quality media; instead, it will likely lead to a further decline in overall media trust. The neglect of information hygiene, the creation and propagation of falsehoods, all contribute to this outcome. This has been a global trend for a considerable period.

Media literacy needs to be systematically imparted, starting from early schooling. It's crucial to clarify why information from credible, esteemed media outlets with a track record and transparent standards should be distinguished from anonymous sources. The differences in the operations of both should be explained, and why, for the sake of time efficiency and mental well-being, it's preferable to avoid reading anonymous sources altogether. Until this is achieved, various “soloveys” and “generals”, along with psychics and healers, will continue to attract attention.

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