Throughout Putin's rule, interaction with Russian diasporas abroad has been an important part of the Kremlin's foreign policy strategy. Emigrants have been actively used to advance Kremlin propaganda and sometimes to serve the needs of Russian intelligence. In the U.S., where diaspora organizations were extremely active, they were eventually dealt with by the FBI - the head of the Council of Compatriots was accused of violating the Foreign Agents Act, causing the organization to effectively dissolve itself. The invasion of Ukraine has further divided the compatriot movement: some of its members have decided to withdraw from the public sphere for a while, others continue to openly support the Kremlin, and still others have “readjusted” so as not to harm their political careers.
FBI versus Kremlin
Diaspora in the service of the Kremlin
The war and the “Russian world”
«Our people» in the system
FBI versus Kremlin
In June of this year, Maria Zakharova and Dmitry Kiselyov held a joint session on Russophobia and the pseudo-liberal West's attempts to “cancel Russia” at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Besides them, the discussion was attended by the pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who served 12 years in an American prison for cocaine smuggling, the odious political technologist and RIA Novosti columnist Timofey Sergeitsev (known as an ideologist of de-Ukrainianization of Ukraine) and several “compatriots” who complained of “unprecedented discrimination” of the Russian-speaking diaspora abroad.
“It started when 30 uniformed FBI agents visited my house at 6 am on September 29, 2020... and interrogated me for five hours and searched me for eight hours,” a blonde woman in a Russian tricolor scarf told the crowd, her voice trembling with agitation. “They showed me a paper... which outlined the charges [that prompted the investigation]: “agent of foreign influence”, “collusion in favor of a foreign state” ... On Russia Day we all wore T-shirts or made posters [with the inscription] “I love Russia” – a flash mob of sorts. So, now it's illegal, it's a crime to love Russia!”.
Elena Branson (Chernykh) is the Russian patriot who became the subject of an FBI investigation. A Russian and American citizen, in 2012 she established the “Russian Center of New York”, whose office was “located” in her Manhattan apartment, and from 2018 to 2021 she headed the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriot Organizations (KSORS) in the USA. The organization purported to be informal and independent, but in fact it was fully under the control of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
A month after the FBI’s visit, Branson left for Moscow. Last March, the US authorities brought formal charges against her for violating the law on foreign agents. According to the investigation, for about ten years, Elena Branson “deliberately avoided registering as a foreign agent, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), working on behalf of the Russian government and receiving missions and funding from high-level Russian officials.” She was also charged with participating in a fraudulent scheme to obtain visas for Russian officials and their relatives and making false statements to the FBI, a total of six counts in the indictment.
In her homeland, Branson has not been idle either: today she hosts a program on Radio Sputnik (part of the Russia Today news agency) in which she interviews guests about Russophobia and the “hunt for Russians” abroad. She faces 35 years in prison in the United States based on the totality of charges brought against her.
Several dozen people associated with the Compatriot Coordinating Council were searched and interrogated during the investigation. Last November, the organization announced that it was suspending its work in the United States. Some prominent members left the country after Branson and the rest went into hiding or underground when they found themselves on the radar of the United States intelligence services. Among them are also those who, after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, ostentatiously disassociated themselves from the compatriot movement and even condemned the actions of Moscow. These people are trying to build a political career in the U.S. and can potentially use their position and connections to influence attitudes toward Russia.
Diaspora in the service of the Kremlin
Coordination Councils of Russian Compatriots (KSORS) are umbrella structures that unite local emigrant organizations in their countries of residence: Russian-language media and publishing houses, Russian schools and kindergartens, cultural centers, clubs, etc. They exist in one form or another in a hundred countries around the world, from the former Soviet republics to Mauritius and Ecuador, and are subordinate to the World Coordination Council, which, as stated on its website, provides “interaction of compatriot associations with government agencies of the Russian Federation and its entities”.
The KSORS work closely with Russian embassies and representative offices of the Foreign Ministry's Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation), receiving grants and instructions from them. Since the summer of 2020, Rossotrudnichestvo has been headed by Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson and namesake of the former prime minister. Another institution that patronizes the Russian diasporas abroad is the Russian World Foundation, a joint brainchild of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science. The chairman of the foundation's board of trustees is Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Duma deputy and grandson of Stalin's Commissar Molotov, while the board of trustees is chaired by deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitry Kozak. Last July, Russian World and Rossotrudnichestvo were put on the EU sanctions list.
Formally, the councils of compatriots are supposed to popularize the Russian language, history and culture, consolidate the community and help strengthen diplomatic relations between Russia and the countries of residence. However, since coming to power, Vladimir Putin has seen in the diaspora much more serious potential. Putin knows from his own experience how emigrants can be useful to the “center”: in the 1980s, he was a Soviet foreign intelligence officer residing in Dresden and worked undercover as director of the USSR-GDR House of Friendship.
Speaking at the first congress of compatriots in 2001, Putin stated bluntly that only a strong state can have a truly strong diaspora, and made it clear that emigration must work to strengthen Moscow's influence across the world:
“Now, when Russia is regaining both momentum and authority, when the customary post-war world order is breaking down, we should be together all the more. And Russia's national success should become our common success... I think that our compatriots abroad have every opportunity to help their homeland in constructive dialogue with foreign partners”.
In return, compatriots regained lost identity and a sense of belonging to the unified “Russian world,” a concept which, according to Putin, “has for centuries stretched far beyond the geographical borders of Russia and even far beyond the borders of the Russian ethnos.” Over time, concern for Russian-speaking citizens abroad has become one of the regime's main foreign policy narratives - and one of the justifications for its aggression against Ukraine.
Over time, concern for Russian-speaking citizens abroad has become one of the justifications for the aggression against Ukraine
While considering the diaspora an instrument of “soft power,” the Russian authorities, however, were in no hurry to openly use it for political purposes. As Igor Baboshkin, head of the Nash Dom (New York) publishing house and former chairman of the US KSORS told The Insider, no explicit political objectives were being set for compatriots before 2014:
“We held various festivals, concerts, celebrated holidays, and supported organizations of Russian-speaking immigrants. The embassy paid for the rent, tickets and hotels for conference delegates. Since the coordinating council did not have its own bank account, each organization sent its own request for an event to the embassy, received the money in its own account, and reported on spending it.”
Everything changed after the referendum in Crimea. According to Baboshkin, in April 2014, the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded that the KSORS sign a letter in support of the annexation (The Insider has a copy at its disposal). Sergey Lavrov and his then-deputy Grigory Karasin, who was in charge of relations with compatriots, pressured Baboshkin for a long time, but he refused: “We said we would not play political games, and we refused to sign. Eventually, the letter was signed by Natalia Sabelnik, president of the Congress of Russian Americans (San Francisco) established in the 1970s, and the Foreign Ministry “started to promote her”. In August 2014, she defeated Igor Baboshkin in the rigged election of the Coordinating Council Chair. After that, the organization was joined by people who actually swore allegiance to the Kremlin. Some of them, in Baboshkin's opinion, were obviously recruited by Moscow. People loyal to the Russian authorities also headed compatriot associations in other countries.
After the Crimean events, humanitarian tasks were pushed to the back burner - activists from the diaspora turned into agents of Russian influence and conduits of Kremlin propaganda.
One of the most energetic activists was Igor Kochan, head of the Russian Youth of America (RYA) and coordinator of the Immortal Regiment in New York; he also headed the youth outreach department of the Russian Orthodox Church's parishes in the United States. Kochan is known to have moved to New York from St. Petersburg in 2007; he used to work for a company engaged in decorating the city for Christmas and has since turned into a business analyst. Since 2014, the RYA, under his leadership, has held a series of political rallies in support of Russia’s policies: its members protested in front of the UN headquarters against “growing neo-fascism” in Ukraine, rallied with posters “Putin is not your enemy, your enemy is Wall Street,” and marched through Manhattan with Russian flags. They also handed out T-shirts in Times Square with the image of the Russian president and the inscription “I am Putin’s friend”.
Igor Kochan with the Statue of Liberty in background
In 2020, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Victory, Kochan organized in several American cities a patriotic event of an unprecedented scale - he launched a plane into the sky with a 30-meter St. George's ribbon. As the BBC's Russian Service reported earlier, one hour of aerial advertising in the United States may cost about $3,000. But Kochan's budget, according to Igor Baboshkin, has always been “practically unlimited”:
“The fact that Kochan has as much money as he needs was revealed to me personally by [Russian Consul General in New York] Igor Golubovsky. Therefore, one can conclude that this man is absolutely not a random person, especially since I had no idea about him before 2014. He did not have American citizenship. In general, Kochan came from nowhere, he sang and danced pretending to be a clown, and all the while winning over American youth to show they were also on the side of the Kremlin.”
After the investigation into Elena Branson began, Kochan left for Russia, but later returned to New York.
“Russian Youth of America” at a rally to celebrate National Unity Day in Times Square, November 2021. Igor Kochan wears a red shirt and a beard
In addition to patriotic activism, KSORS members have also engaged in outright political lobbying. For example, in June 2014, Natalia Sabelnik of the Congress of Russian Americans (CRA) addressed an open letter to Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, calling for an end to the “large-scale US intervention in Ukraine and the campaign to isolate Russia.” “The US military contingents must be withdrawn immediately from the Eastern European region, and NATO's enlargement efforts and provocative actions against Russia must cease,” the message read. Sabelnik sent another two letters, this time to President Donald Trump, in 2017 and 2018. One was a request not to sign a law expanding sanctions against Russia, the other regretted the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the United States and urged not to jump to conclusions on Moscow's involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal:
“About 90 percent of Russian-speaking Americans voted for you in the hope that you would restore relations with Russia and lift sanctions. Today it seems as if you are abandoning your campaign promise to improve bilateral relations.”
Then, at the next rally, the KSORS leadership instructed organizations of compatriots to participate in the collection of signatures in support of the Trump-Putin summit.
US KSORS members at the World Congress of Compatriots in Moscow in October 2021. Anton Konev followed (far right) Sergey Gladysh, Eduard Lozansky, Igor Kochan (back row from right to left), Natalia Sabelnik and Elena Branson (front row center)
Igor Baboshkin has no doubt that the letters signed by the CRA head on behalf of the entire U.S. Russian-speaking community had been drafted at the Russian Foreign Ministry. Even today Sabelnik claims to be the official representative of the Russian Americans. In late September, she traveled to Costa Rica to attend the meeting of American, New Zealand, and Australian compatriot leaders. The main topic of the conference was “the disruption of the unity of the Russian world abroad,” and in their final statement the delegates expressed their agreement with “Russia's actions to protect its sovereignty” and unanimously supported the annexation of four regions of Ukraine.
The war and the “Russian world”
The investigation into Moscow's interference in the 2016 presidential election, the case of Maria Butina who was accused of working illegally for Russian authorities, and then the searches in the homes of KSORS members forced the pro-Putin part of the U.S. Russian diaspora to temper its fervor. A year ago, speaking with Butina on RT, Elena Branson lamented that many members of the community had decided to distance themselves from the compatriots:
“[They] said they would not attend the “Immortal Regiment.” They won't arrange Christmas celebrations for children and will, in general, ignore the events held by compatriots for fear of being persecuted”.
After February 24, a complete lull fell upon the diaspora. For example, this year the “Immortal Regiment” event was held via Zoom – only about 15 people dared to march across the Brooklyn Bridge with portraits of their grandfathers who had fought in the war. The traditional picnic on the occasion of Russia Day, which Russian Youth of America organizes in a popular recreation park north of New York City, did take place, except that its familiar name “Russian Glade” had to be replaced with the neutral “Summer Glade.” “But all Russian-speaking people understood exactly what we were celebrating: the date, the tricolor balloons, the prominently displayed samovar,” RYA activist Maria Popova said in an interview.
After February 24 this year, a complete lull fell upon the diaspora, and the “Immortal Regiment” event was held via Zoom
Under such conditions, even the most ardent patriots don't risk taking to the streets to stage pro-war rallies in the United States, says Dmitry Valuev, coordinator of the Russian America for Democracy in Russia movement.
“Since these people live permanently in the United States, for them to openly support Putin today is quite a challenge. The indictment of Helena Branson was a clear signal to them that their activities here will not be perceived positively, so war advocacy is rather sporadic.
Activists are somewhat bolder in their actions online. In October, a pro-government Telegram channel reported that the youth association Russian-American Cooperation Initiative, which coordinates the “Immortal Regiment” parade in Seattle, announced a fundraiser for the Russian army: “Against the backdrop of rampant Russophobia in the United States, the campaign surpassed all expectations of its organizers. In a single day, a significant amount of money was collected, and the money was used to buy army underwear to be given to servicemen participating in the special military operation.”
Immortal Regiment procession on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, 2015
FBI agents had visited Sergey Gladysh, the executive director of the Russian-American Initiative and former secretary of the KSORS, asking questions, back in 2018. Gladysh was born in 1991 in Moscow; his family moved to the United States in 2000. After studying at the University of Washington in Seattle, he returned to Russia and worked at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration and the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs (Rosmolodezh). Gladysh did not come to the attention of U.S. intelligence agencies by chance: he organized a youth patriotic camp in Seattle similar to the Seliger camp, together with Elena Branson he managed the Facebook group Russian-Speaking Americans for Law and Order, which actively supported Trump and was associated with the English-language publications Russia Insider and The Duran that spread Russian disinformation. In recent years, Gladysh has brought “delegations of young American leaders” to Russia, particularly to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. After the searches in 2020, Sergey Gladysh left for Russia; his exact whereabouts are currently unknown.
At present, the Russian-American Cooperation Initiative website is inactive, but its logo is being used by the Russian American Daily media project, which openly publishes pro-Kremlin content. The project's Facebook page has more than 30,000 followers.
Eduard Lozansky, head of the Washington-based Russian House – Continent organization and president of the American University in Moscow, also continues to openly support the Kremlin. A member of the “old” emigration (he came to the United States in the 1970s), Lozansky calls himself a Soviet dissident, but has for years demonstrated loyalty to Russian authorities. He organized the World Russian Forum in Washington, DC, hosted Russian power brokers and government officials, attended Russian embassy events, and published articles on his websites, us-russia.org and newkontinent.org, exposing Western failures and endorsing Russian policies. Lozansky still does the same today. He blames the Biden administration for the escalation of the conflict and praises Putin and Trump in his articles (including those intended for the Russian media).
In October, Eduard Lozansky was the subject of a special report by Russia 24 about Americans “expressing an alternative view of relations with Moscow.” He has also been collecting statements by Russian sympathizers, mostly from Republican congressmen, on his Facebook page. Here are some striking quotes from this collection: “NATO is supplying neo-Nazis in Ukraine with powerful weapons and teaching them how to use them. What the hell is going on with these #NATO-Nazis?”; “Zelensky is a globalist puppet of Soros and the Clintons”; “Ukraine is not our ally. Russia is not our enemy. We need to solve our problems with debt, inflation and immigration. None of them is Putin's fault”; “I wish Putin were the president of America.”
«Our people» in the system
Among the formerly active members of the KSORS are also those who chose a different strategy – they openly opposed the war and even stopped publicly associating themselves with Russia and their compatriots. However, three of The Insider's interlocutors, who are aware of their work in the Coordinating Council, admitted they did not believe in an ideological split: most likely, those people had a self-preservation instinct - they do not want to repeat the fate of their colleagues who were forced to leave the United States, and simply “readjusted”, sensing the current situation.
A telling example is Olga Tarasova (Oklahoma), the former KSORS vice-chairwoman and editor-in-chief of several Russian-language publications. Prior to the council's dissolution, she participated in pro-Kremlin forums, attended receptions at the Russian embassy, and wrote complimentary articles about Russian Foreign Ministry and Rossotrudnichestvo officials. Her son, lawyer Alexei Tarasov, rose to fame as the defender of Victor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko; he is also listed as a board member of the Congress of Russian Americans. With the outbreak of the war, Tarasova placed a dove of peace on top of her Facebook photo, and her newspaper, The Russian America, began publishing cartoons on Putin and reprinting material from independent Russian media.
The “metamorphosis” that happened to Anton Konev, one of the leaders of the youth wing of the KSORS, seems even more surprising. Just a few months before the war began, his Facebook page featured posts with the hashtag #YoungRussianworld, comments from the Russian embassy about “provocative actions against members of the Russian diaspora,” and propaganda videos about Russia. On February 24, Konev added the Ukrainian flag to his avatar, which surprised his followers; since then, he has been voicing harsh criticism of Putin's regime on social media and demonstrating support for Ukraine in every way possible. But Anton Konev's story is remarkable in another way: having worked in the U.S. for years in the interests of the Russian government, he has gradually worked his way into American politics.
Konev, 39, came to the United States in 1997 from St. Petersburg and has a bachelor's degree in political science from the State University of New York. He has positioned himself as a staunch Democrat, which sets him apart from other diaspora activists who traditionally vote Republican. For the past two years, Konev has been a legislative assistant to the Albany County Comptroller; before that, he served in the New York State Assembly, was a member of the Albany City Council, and organized election campaigns at various levels. “Today, he is one of the few members of the Russian-speaking community who so far has managed to make a successful political career. While Russophobia rules the upper echelons of power in the United States, middle-ranking politicians continue to develop relations between our countries,” the Russian World Foundation website wrote about Konev.
Konev did prove to be a useful man for the Kremlin. Thus, in the fall of 2017, he brought to Russia a delegation of lawmakers from New York State, led by his boss, state Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda. The visit was unofficial. The American guests visited Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan and met with Sergei Sobyanin, the deputies of the Moscow City Duma and the State Council of Tatarstan, and the members of the Public Chamber. The propaganda news agency Sputnik then enthusiastically quoted one of the delegation members, Senator Diane Savino: “We were very surprised to see how well Moscow is run... We hope we can learn something and maybe implement some really clever things that they have done here in recent years in New York.” Curiously, Elena Branson was also involved in organizing reciprocal visits between American and Russian officials, and the investigators working her case considered it as evidence of illegal foreign agency activity.
In May 2018, Anton Konev used his official position to push the compatriots' agenda at the official level. At his suggestion, Luis Sepulveda introduced a special resolution on the “Immortal Regiment” march to the New York State Senate. The document explained in detail the meaning of the event and presented Russian Youth of America as a “very important” social organization. Igor Kochan, president of the RYA, who was present at that meeting, said in an interview with TASS that he was pleased:
“Despite the strained relations between Russia and the United States at the top, we see a warm attitude towards Russia and this initiative at the state and local levels.”
Another former KSORS activist, singer, Russian language teacher Tatiana Tulina, is also trying to get into politics. In the November 8 election, she is running for the Mecklenburg County Council in North Carolina on behalf of the Republican Party (three of her opponents are Democrats). She promises her voters to fight against tax hikes, for better education and “traditional values”.
Tatiana Tulina was born in Kyiv, graduated from the Sevastopol National Technical University, emigrated to the USA in the late 1990s and has recently been living in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was in charge of the SRCS’s cultural section, organizing concerts, festivals and celebrations, and has worked closely with the Russian Embassy since 2014. In particular, on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Tulina brought Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to Charlotte. The visit included a speech by Kislyak at a local university, meetings with business representatives and a Sochi 2014 presentation. In the summer of 2018, Tulina was among the organizers of the last forum of Russian compatriots in the United States, which was held on the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Washington.
From left to right: Tatyana Tulina, Olga Zatsepina, Olga Tarasova
On her election website Tatyana Tulina states: “Having been born and raised in the Soviet Union, I know for a fact that socialism does not make everyone equal. It gives the government total control...” Yet, one can find online photos of her posing in a pioneer tie or holding a red Soviet banner. Tulina's resume, which The Insider has at its disposal, says she was engaged in “conveying a positive image of Russia,” and has a diploma from Rossotrudnichestvo among her achievements and awards. According to Russian-language American publications, before 2022, Ms. Tulina had also been spreading fakes about neo-Nazism in Ukraine. Today, she collects humanitarian aid for war victims and declares in interviews that her “beloved Ukraine deserves peace.”
Tatyana Tulina's nomination to a political position, albeit a local one, marks a new stage in the integration of people close to the Russian compatriot organizations, believes Dmitry Valuev of the Russian-speaking America for Democracy in Russia movement. Igor Baboshkin calls her a Kremlin protege: the Russian authorities “badly need “a trusted person” in political circles. Not in Congress initially, but a couple of years down the line, having gained political capital, it is possible to move forward.”