Since Alexey Navalny’s arrest, some Russians, including Sergey Titov, have quit their positions in state-run or state-affiliated institutions.
In 2018, at the age of twenty-five, Sergey Titov was hired as an editor at Mash, a fast-paced Russian news startup with offerings that alternate between trashy, ironic, and would-be serious. “You could write about an actress from a television series popular with old ladies, but the next post would be about QAnon or what’s happening on Wall Street,” he told me. It was a dream gig. He had always wanted to write copy, and it turned out that he had a natural gift for coming up with irreverent, pop-culture-driven spins on the news. But it wasn’t long before he realized that Mash, which is primarily viewed on Telegram, the messaging app, appeared to have connections to influential figures in politics and business who were, in turn, close to the Kremlin. Mash was not nearly as brazen a propaganda instrument as, say, Rossiya-1 for domestic audiences or RT for international ones, but it obeyed its own subtle, unspoken limits on what it covered, and how. It didn’t publish outright hagiography of Vladimir Putin, for instance, but it also avoided coverage of the comings and goings of his daughters, a taboo subject for media outlets in any proximity to the state. “There were moments when I had to ask: Do we cover this or not?” Titov said. He got a “no” around twenty or thirty per cent of the time, he told me, making clear that there was a “narrow category of topics that should not be touched.” (He declined to say which ones exactly, saying, “I think they’re obvious.”)
For several years, the pleasures and advantages of the job outweighed his sneaking discomfort with it. He had a fluid sense of how to write posts that went viral, such as adding nostalgic music or a clip from a Tom Cruise movie to a bit of news. Within half a year, he was promoted to deputy editor, which meant that he was now in charge of the channel’s output on Telegram and oversaw the work of dozens of other writers and producers. “It was exciting, interesting, and creative,” he said.
But his new position came with new responsibilities. Now he was the one judging whether a piece of news could go out on the channel. As Mash became more popular, the Kremlin’s political technologists, as the cohort of advisers in Putin’s administration are known, took an ever more acute interest. “The more successful, influential, and significant we became, the more posts began to appear that caused me anxiety,” Titov told me. “I don’t want to say exactly what they were, but let’s just say I more and more started to disagree, or felt like making a facepalm—‘God, how embarrassing!’ ”
In August, when Alexey Navalny, the country’s most visible opposition leader, was poisoned, Titov had little doubt that the Kremlin was to blame. “It looks as if the state is ready to kill its opponents,” he said. “There’s no way to say such a thing is O.K. It was scary. I started thinking it was time to leave.”
It was not an easy decision. He would have liked to work for an independent outlet, but they were so few in Russia and tended to pay little; he felt equally sure that whatever jobs opened up at them went to people in the “tusovka”—the cliquish in-crowd of liberal journalists in Moscow. And there was a lot to like about his job at Mash: in the fall, Titov was dispatched to cover the front lines of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a short and bitter conflict. He was also proud of Mash’s coverage of protests in Belarus, which didn’t shrink from the brutality of the riot police or fail to mention the large size of the crowds of demonstrators who turned out week after week. And then, there was the money, not an insignificant concern for Titov, who comes from a working-class family and has no financial cushion. Just before the New Year, Titov told his bosses he was thinking of quitting; they offered him a substantial raise. “My soul was up for sale, at least for a month,” he said, wryly.
Whatever the bargain he had made with himself, the events of January upended it. On January 17th, Navalny flew back to Moscow from Berlin and was promptly arrested; two days later, while being held in pretrial detention, he released a video on YouTube dubbed “Putin’s Palace,” a two-hour investigation into a secret residence on the Black Sea with a supposed price tag of more than a billion dollars. Navalny published visualizations showing the house’s hookah lounge, ice-hockey rink, and seven-hundred-euro toilet brush. The Kremlin was conspicuously quiet. Finally, five days after its release, when the video had been watched nearly a hundred million times, Putin offered up a pro forma denial. “Nothing of what is listed there as my property belongs or has ever belonged to me or my close relatives,” he said. But Navalny’s original video didn’t allege that Putin owned anything himself; in fact, Navalny traced the palace to a series of complicated shell companies with offshore accounts held by figures close to Putin. The attempt to make the story go away was widely ridiculed online.
On January 29th, a new video that appeared on the Mash channel suggested that the outlet had been co-opted into the Kremlin’s counter-P.R. campaign. Mash’s editor-in-chief, Maxim Iksanov, managed to secure access to the would-be palace and took a tour of the premises, in what looked like a staged visit. (The same day, the Insider, a news site focusing on open-source investigations, linked Iksanov to Russia’s Presidential administration.) As Iksanov strolled around the palace, he noted that it was less a glamorous retreat than an unfinished construction site. “Concrete everywhere,” he said. “Nothing to brag to your friends about.”
Titov was off that day, and declined to discuss his own role, if any, in producing the video. “I knew it was going to come out, but I can’t say anything more than that,” he said. In any case, he thought the result was laughable. “In the past, Mash had certainly released some things that could be called wrong, and with which I definitely disagreed,” he said. But this latest video “forever moved us into the category of state propaganda.” The segment didn’t actually contradict Navalny, either—his investigation claimed that the palace had been plagued by mold and was in need of a wholesale renovation. Titov went to his bosses, and told them, “No, no, no, I’m not going to think about it. I’m leaving, one hundred per cent.”
The next day, a second video appeared on Mash. This one featured Arkady Rotenberg, an oligarch who parlayed his childhood friendship with Putin in postwar Leningrad—the two trained at the same judo club—into billion-dollar state contracts to build everything from gas pipelines to a bridge linking Crimea with mainland Russia. Rotenberg claimed that the palace on the Black Sea was his. “It’s no secret now—I’m the beneficiary,” Rotenberg said. “It’s a real find. The location is fantastic.”
Titov had already told Mash he was leaving, but the Rotenberg video was a new low. “It looked stupid, sad really,” he said. He composed a post for his own personal Telegram channel. “I know everything about Mash’s reputation, I know about the shameful things, but we really did everything we could (when we could),” he wrote. “We lived in this gray zone and fought desperately for the opportunity not to write shit.” But, with the release of the “Putin’s Palace” videos, “the work of talented people” was “simply crossed out by the decisions of people in suits who couldn’t care less about the work of journalists.” Titov said that, despite making many compromises along the way, he never had any intention of becoming a shill for state propaganda. “That’s why I had to give up my beloved job.”
In recent weeks, as Navalny’s return to Russia and immediate arrest gave way to protests in more than a hundred cities across the country—protests that were met with a violent police response and thousands of arrests—a less visible reckoning has been unfolding throughout the country. Slowly, and in small numbers, Russians who previously formed part of the system, however loosely defined, are reëvaluating their compromises, questioning whether the price of success—or merely getting by—has become untenable. Last year, in my book “Between Two Fires,” I tried to describe the dynamic: “One could not live in ignorance or indifference to the urges and caprices of the state; in fact, it was to your advantage to guess what it wanted from you, and to deliver that while also being clever enough to extract some benefit for yourself.” Even if Putin’s rule remains outwardly secure, its long-term viability will depend on the tacit support of people like Titov, talented and capable professionals who have found a comfortable niche for themselves inside the system.