An investigation by The Insider has revealed the identities of several Kremlin agents living and working under false identities inside Russia itself. All of those identified thus far are members of GRU Unit 29155, the Russian military intelligence group best known for its role in the Novichok nerve agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England in 2018. Although The Insider previously disclosed that Unit 29155 officers had used their state-sanctioned assumed identities to make multiple other trips abroad, including to place explosives at Bulgarian and Czech military facilities, the activities of their alter egos inside Russia itself had remained a black box — until now. Below, The Insider presents the biographies of three such “domestic illegals.”
The Human Rights Activist
Russia’s most notorious assassination and sabotage squad has infiltrated a host of Russian civil society organizations, The Insider has discovered. GRU Unit 29155, responsible for poisonings and terror attacks across Europe, has also been spying on opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, both inside Russia and abroad, by posing as human rights activists, documentarians, and trade journalists. Their targets have included venerable NGOs such as the Free Russia Forum, founded by Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov; the Sakharov Center, named after Soviet physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov; and Memorial, an organization set up during Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost to chronicle the human rights abuses and high crimes of the Stalinist period.
In the months leading up to Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s domestic security arms began cracking down on civil society organizations like these more severely than usual. In July 2021, opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was deemed “extremist” by a Moscow court, and many of its employees and volunteers fled Russia rather than risk being jailed for their political activities. Independent media outlets, including The Insider, were labeled as “foreign agents,” and countless journalists and editors similarly relocated to less repressive environments abroad in order to continue doing their work. In December 2021, a Moscow court “liquidated” Memorial, claiming that the human rights organization had failed to properly notify readers that its publications had been produced by a “foreign agent.” The Sakharov Center, which had survived despite earning its “foreign agent” designation in 2014, was ultimately closed by another Moscow court’s decision in August 2023.
Kasparov’s Free Russia Forum, which is headquartered in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, remained beyond the official jurisdiction of the Kremlin’s reach. Kasparov himself left Russia after his role in a series of large scale anti-Putin protests — the Bolotnaya rallies of 2011-2012 — made the former national hero a prime target for political repressions. However, the revelation that an agent from GRU Unit 29155 was nevertheless able to infiltrate the Free Russia Forum’s gatherings abroad shows just how seriously the Kremlin took the “threat” of Russians anywhere exercising their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
The Unit 29155 operatives spying on their fellow Russian citizens represent an unprecedented tasking for a notorious assassination and terrorism outfit: they are all Russian “illegals,” operating under assumed identities and without diplomatic cover, but doing so domestically as well as abroad, where the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, traditionally plies its trade. Indeed, the GRU does not officially have a mandate to operate on Russian soil, suggesting that Putin has grown so confident of the capabilities of his notorious black ops team that he has tasked it with keeping an eye on his enemies at home, even as it continues to track its enemies abroad.
The Human Rights Activist
The first operative whose identity The Insider can reveal is Ivan Zhikharev, purportedly a professional geologist who specializes in drilling through the earth’s crust in search of water. In his spare time, Zhikharev devotes much of his energy to lofty causes: posing as a human rights activist and traveling to the meetings of at least one prominent Russian opposition movement in exile (or, at least, he did before being outed by French intelligence in 2022).
This Zhikharev bears an uncanny resemblance in name and appearance to another man: Ivan Zhigarev, who even shares Zhikharev’s birthday. This is not a coincidence. Instead, it is the logical consequence of the fact that the man posing as Zhikharev is indeed Zhigarev, a trained killer from Unit 29155.
Left: Ivan Zhigarev (photo from archived snapshot of his wife’s VK account; photo currently deleted.) Right: “Ivan Zhikharev,” passport photo.
The son of Soviet military officer Ivan Zhigarev Sr., Ivan Zhigarev Jr. was born in Magdeburg, East Germany, where his father was stationed in the 1980s. The younger Ivan followed in his father’s footsteps, serving in the Russian army’s special forces before being selected to study at the elite GRU Military-Diplomatic Academy, a finishing school for Russian military intelligence officers. This biographical detail is evidenced by Zhigarev’s address registration history, which shows that as of 2011 his official address was that of the academy’s dormitory: 76 Khoroshevskoye Street in Moscow. By 2009, records indicate, Zhigarev had been recruited to serve in what was then still a newly-reconstituted unit of the GRU, one to be dedicated to killings and military action abroad – Unit 29155.
Extract from a leaked Moscow residential database showing that, as of late 2009, Zhigarev was an officer at Unit 29155 and had a registered address at the dormitory of the GRU academy.
It was soon thereafter that Zhigarev’s doppelganger — “Ivan Zhikharev” — came into existence. The GRU arranged for “Zhikharev” to be employed by a state-owned prospecting and well-drilling company, NPO Geospetsstroy, as can be seen from state pension fund records bearing the operative’s fake surname.
As a foreign operative, Zhigarev followed the standard pattern of other members of Unit 29155, traveling internationally on assignment under his false persona in small groups of three to five team members. While the purpose of these trips remains unknown, The Insider can confirm that in early March 2015, Zhigarev, under his alias, spent ten days in The Netherlands. At the same time, three other members of Unit 29155 — including Alexander Mishkin, who three years later would travel to Salisbury to poison the Skripals with the Novichok nerve agent — were also in the Benelux area.
Zhigarev visited Amsterdam twice in 2016, a trip that corresponded with the travel of other known 29155 members. On one of these trips, he was joined by another Skripal poisoner, Anatoly Chepiga. Zhigarev also went to Munich and Berlin in 2016. In January 2018 he traveled to France, where he joined other members of Unit 29155 at a site that French intelligence later discovered was a clandestine Russian logistical base in the Alps located near the Swiss border.
Coincidentally or not, “Ivan Zhikharev” was also physically present in Europe during the preparations for the Skripal poisoning, flying to Moscow from Vienna on March 3, 2018 — the day when Mishkin and Chepiga first visited Salisbury, and one day before the poisoning itself.
Although his European travel continued, by 2017 “Zhikharev” had been repurposed to serve as one of the handful of Unit 29155 officers carrying out a mission closer to home: infiltrating Russian human rights and opposition circles.
Using reverse face search tools, The Insider has confirmed the participation of Zhigarev at several events organized by Russian dissident organizations, including but not limited to the Free Russia Forum, the Moscow Sakharov Center, and the Moscow Helsinki Group. (The latter was established in 1976 after Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union signed on to the Helsinki Accords, which obligated all signatories to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Helsinki Group was dissolved in January 2023, officially on the grounds that its members had participated in the defense of human rights outside of Moscow itself, and thus beyond the organization’s mandate.)
Zhigarev’s sightings at these dissident groups’ meetings were corroborated by records showing that he had traveled to the locations where each of the events in question took place — whether in Russia or abroad — and that he did so using the passport issued in the name of his cover identity, “Ivan Zhikharev.”
One of the organizations he was able to penetrate was the Moscow Open School of Human Rights, which is affiliated with the Sakharov Center and has received U.S. funding for its work promoting civic activism and human rights education. His photo appears among attendees at multiple events organized by the organization.
2019 photo of activists from the Moscow Open School of Human Rights. “Ivan Zhikharev” is seated front and center, grabbing his knees.
Former activists from the Moscow Open School told The Insider that the person they knew as Ivan Zhikharev had been among “the most active of volunteers.” He apparently told everyone he met in this capacity that he worked in well drilling but that he wanted to dedicate his free time to human rights activism. “Zhikharev” ultimately worked his way into the inner circle of the organization, obtaining access to members’ registration data and even participating in administrative meetings that discussed sources of funding.
The GRU spy assumed a role in the organization’s campaign supporting incarcerated human rights activists, including jailed Kyrgyz organizer Azimdzhan Askarov. Zhigarev even offered to gather and transport donations raised for Askarov, who died in prison in 2020. Most of Zhigarev’s colleagues remember him as a friendly and responsive volunteer. “If you asked him to do anything, he would neve refuse; he took part in all meetings,” one former member of the Moscow Open School told The Insider, requesting anonymity.
Activists from other organizations confirmed that Zhigarev had been able to obtain introductions and recommendations to participate in their activities from existing – presumably unsuspecting — members.
“Zhikharev,” second from right, at a 2018 award ceremony honoring Oyub Titiev, the then-incarcerated head of the Chechen chapter of the Memorial human right organization.
Travel data obtained by The Insider shows that Zhigarev visited locations where events of the Moscow Open School were held, including Voronezh, in southern Russia, and Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. The Chisinau event, held in late October 2019, gathered more than 200 activists and journalists from fifteen countries throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It was sponsored by the Prague Civil Rights Center.
“Zhikharev” on stage at the CampCamp event in Moldova, October 2019.
The Moscow Open School was not the only activist organization the GRU spy infiltrated.
In 2017, he gained admission to the Free Russia Forum, founded in 2016 by the exiled Russian-Armenian chess grandmaster turned opposition figure, Garry Kasparov. For the safety of its members, who could not move unencumbered in Russia, the Free Russia Forum held its conferences in Vilnius, Lithuania.
To be accepted as a delegate to the Forum, Zhigarev had to provide two letters of reference from existing members. Evidently, his previous work as a volunteer with the Human Rights School had provided him with the necessary network, and plausible backstory, to obtain them.
Records from the Free Russia Forum, which were shared with The Insider, show that “Zhikharev” attended the group’s fourth gathering, held in Vilnius from December 3-4, 2017. He traveled to Lithuania by car, hitching a ride with two other attendees — Ruslan Kambiev and Rasul Kataganov, both of them human rights activists from the North Caucasus.
When approached for comment, Mr. Kambiev initially told The Insider that he did not remember a person by the name of Ivan Zhikharev, and even when presented with a photograph of the three travel companions that had been posted to Kambiev’s own Instagram account, the activist still struggled to recall the circumstances of their introduction. After consulting with his colleague and travel companion Kataganov, Kambiev reasoned that they most likely met Zhigarev at a seminar held by the Sakharov Center in October 2017, and that the two genuine activists must have offered the undercover GRU agent a ride to the Vilnius event later that year in order to “share the cost of gas.”
“Zhikharev” (right) in an Instagram photo with Ruslan Kambiev during the December 2017 Vilnius forum.
Following his initial trip in December 2017, Zhigarev signed up for the next five gatherings of the Free Russia Forum. Members of the organization told The Insider that he regularly requested reimbursement for his transportation costs and hotel stays, and that he also asked for letters of invitation in order to obtain a Schengen visa, which allows for unchecked travel through most European Union countries. “Ivan Zhikharev” received a visa from Lithuania based on an invitation from the organizers of the forum. The visas he used for travel to subsequent meetings were issued by France.
It is conceivable that the GRU officer’s insistence on hotel reimbursement was linked to a desire to be offered a room in the hotel where the organization’s founding members — potentially Kasparov himself — resided during the events, whether to spy on them or worse. However, members of the Free Russia Forum told The Insider that the reimbursement requests were never granted. They also noted that, even if Zhigarev had succeeded in booking a room at the hotel where the organization’s leadership was staying, Kasparov himself was always provided accommodation at a separate location.
Despite never being reimbursed, the GRU operative regularly attended the Forum’s sessions and signed up as a volunteer in three working groups, including one titled “Putin’s List,” aimed at identifying a list of oligarchs and political cronies of the Russian regime that must be the targets of Western sanctions. He also took part in the internal online discussions of another working group dedicated to identifying key Russian people and entities worthy of Western sanctions.
The last foreign trip Zhigarev took was to the Chisinau event in November 2019, a few months before COVID-19 restrictions began complicating international travel for most of the world’s population, be they genuine tourists or Russian intelligence officers. However, activists from the Sakharov Center told The Insider that “Zhikharev” had continued volunteering for events well into 2021.
It is likely that the GRU decommissioned the “human rights” cover work for their mole in 2022 after French authorities publicly revealed “Ivan Zhikharev” as a GRU officer, along with the names of several other Kremlin agents who had traveled to the secret base near the Swiss border. (The French authorities mistakenly assumed Zhigarev’s alias was the real name of the operative whose passport contained so many French-issued visas.) Given the name of the earth-drilling humanitarian had been publicly outed as a spy, the risk of continuing to use the Unit 29155 member as a plant would have grown too extreme.
Another GRU officer whose cover identity has lived a wide-ranging parallel life is Lt. Col. Maksim Rodionov. Born in Atbasar, Kazakhstan in 1983, Rodionov served in the Russian army before joining the elite 3rd Spetsnaz (special forces) Brigade in the Western Russian city of Tolyatti, leaked residential data confirms. From there, Rodionov was recruited into Unit 29155, where he was given the alter ego “Maksim Smirnov,” purportedly an aspiring documentary filmmaker.
Digital traces of both the real and fake identities of Rodionov can be found in open sources. For instance, a headshot and contact details for “Maksim Smirnov” is currently displayed on the site of the Russian Documentary Guild, where Rodionov’s second persona advertises his services as a freelance film director of admittedly limited accomplishment. He claims to have made “two short-form documentary films about the nature of the Shor Mountains,” located in southern Siberia. The earliest web archive date shows this would-be Ken Burns listed on the guild website in August 2016.
A profile for “Maksim Smirnov” on the website of the Russian Documentary Guild.
Given the GRU’s recent history of less-than-stellar tradecraft, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the face in the headshot of ostensible filmmaker “Maksim Smirnov” is also currently posted to the Wikipedia page for the 3rd Spetsnaz Guards Brigade in Tolyatti, where Col. Maksim Rodionov served until moving over to Russian military intelligence. Facial comparison software leaves no doubt that the man who participated in the brigade’s “Victory Day” celebration on May 9, 2011, commemorating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany, is the same man displayed on the Russian Documentary Guild website.
Facial comparison software confirms that “Smirnov” was in uniform at the 3rd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade’s “Victory Day” celebration in 2011.
Poor tradecraft similarly allowed The Insider to trace Rodionov’s career in Unit 29155, which dates back to 2014. That was the year he was issued a passport bearing a serial number that falls within the range of those used by several of the GRU’s “illegals,” Salisbury would-be assassins Mishkin and Chepiga among them. Using his newly issued cover identity of “Smirnov,” Maksim traveled to Barcelona twice, first in March 2014 and then again in July 2016. He also went to Italy in October 2016, then Kyrgyzstan in May of that year, followed by Czechia in July 2016, Kazakhstan in April 2017, and finally to France in November 2017.
As was the case with the travel of “Ivan Zhikharev,” these trips overlap with journeys taken to the same location by fellow members of Unit 29155. Records also show that Rodionov communicated with senior leaders of the group, including its peripatetic commander, Gen. Andrey Averyanov, before leaving Russia and after returning home.
In addition to his travels throughout Europe and Central Asia during the late 2010s, Rodionov embarked upon his career as a documentary and commercial filmmaker. His work history, seen by The Insider, shows that between 2015 and 2019, “Maksim Smirnov” worked for a video production company called Prosto Media. The Insider contacted the managing director of this company, who denied being aware of any such employee and said that Prosto Media did not begin operating until 2018, three years after Rodionov’s alleged start date. That item on his curriculum vitae was likely forged.
Rodionov subsequently co-founded a video production studio called Tomiris, which is linked to a range of publicly visible projects including coverage of a “friendship” motor-rally between Russia and Mongolia. (This was likely no coincidence, as The Insider has previously reported on the GRU’s use of sports rallies as cutouts for its espionage activities.) Another creative project involved the production of a barely-watched talk show extolling the virtues of traditional family values while warning viewers against the dangers of “homosexuality and demonism.”
“Maksim Smirnov” also had a partner, a co-shareholder of the Tomiris studio, named Maksim Tokarev. Public records show Tokarev, born in 1985, founded a number of NGOs dedicated to environmental protection, sports, and public health. Leaked travel data shows that from 2018 to 2021 Tokarev traveled frequently in the company of Russian and visiting documentary filmmakers and journalists. A leaked Covid registration database shows that in 2021 Tokarev stated that he was a courier for the Russian online-shopping company OZON, the country’s equivalent of Amazon. In December 2023, Tokarev posted a photo of himself on stage with Vladimir Putin at a civic awards ceremony, writing on the Russian social media platform VKontakte that the Russian president had congratulated him on his birthday and wished him to continue “moving in the direction I am moving” with respect to Tokarev’s supposed environmentalism.
The Insider contacted Tokarev to inquire about the nature of his relationship with a Unit 29155 member but he did not respond in time for the publication of this story.
Given Rodionov’s lackluster filmography and his evident failure to integrate himself with any politically conscious artistic circles, it is not clear what purpose his cover identity may have served for the unit. The Insider is therefore appealing to its readers who may have encountered “Maksim Smirnov” in the course of their professional duties or activist efforts to contact us confidentially via email.
Konstantin Medvedev is a unique case in the annals of GRU clandestine operations. That is because he has no alias. Instead, he has been leading the life of an undercover member of Unit 21955 under his legal name.
Medvedev was born in Magdeburg, East Germany in 1976. Like his colleague Ivan Zhigarev, Medvedev’s father was also a Soviet military officer stationed there, Alexander Medvedev. Leaked residential and employment records show that Alexander Medvedev served as the head of human resources for a department at the Russian Ministry of Defense. After retiring from the military, Alexander worked as HR director at the now defunct Moscow-based Millennium Bank. From 2008 to 2017, he ran for a seat on the Moscow City Council four times as a candidate from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation — winning once, in 2008.
Konstantin Medvedev followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from the Novosibirsk Military-Command Institute, a breeding ground for GRU operatives. Like most other colleagues from Unit 29155, including Zhigarev, Medvedev also studied at the GRU Military Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, as evidenced by residential records showing his registered address as of June 2013 to have been that of the academy’s dormitory: 76 Khoroshevskoye Street, and a later address registration shows him reiding at the academy’s corporate apartment building at Narodnoe Opolchenie 48.
Extract from a leaked Moscow residential database showing that, as of 2013, Medvedev was registered at the GRU Military Diplomatic Academy's dormitory on Khoroshoveskoye Highway.
From here, however, Medvedev’s documented life trajectory veers off into the civilian realm — at least officially. Employment records show him working as a journalist for a marine insurance magazine of the highly descriptive title Marine Insurance, and as an “international correspondent” for the now-defunct general interest newspaper Tribuna, based in Moscow and owned by Russia's state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom. The Insider and Bellingcat have previously disclosed that Marine Insurance — along with its publisher, Insurance Press, and its related marine insurance company, Nautilus — are all fronts of the GRU. The trio of companies even provided cover and financing for the travel of the two Unit 29155 operatives indicted for orchestrating an unsuccessful coup attempt in Montenegro in October 2016. Although there are no references in open sources to Medvedev ever publishing an article in Marine Insurance, a 2008 article in a magazine affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Defense does describe a marine insurance agent named Konstantin Medvedev transporting several mysterious jars to Japan aboard a Russian oil tanker (at the end of the article, Medvedev tells the reporter the jars contains samples of the Russian oil being carried in the tankers as required by the insurance company — hardly a plausible explanation).
Medvedev’s work for Tribuna is better documented. An article that ran in 2006, right around the time Medvedev was graduating from the GRU’s Military Diplomatic Academy, places the “journalist” in Slovenia, where he filed a report on the state of Soviet monuments in the country. In 2011, Medvedev conducted an interview with the outgoing Indonesian ambassador to Russia, in which Khamid Avaluddin extolled the virtues of badminton as “the sports of diplomats.” Medvedev’s name also appears in connection with a conference organized by Moscow State University in 2014 to discuss the status of the citizens of Transnistria, a separatist enclave in Moldova occupied by Russian soldiers. Medvedev is listed as having attended the conference on behalf of Tribuna, which was shuttered in 2016.
However, Nikolay Vasiliev, the last editor-in-chief of Tribuna, told The Insider that he could not remember a journalist by the name of Konstantin Medvedev ever working for the newspaper.
Tax records do show that from 2020 to 2021, Konstantin Medvedev was working for two state-owned Russian banks, Sberbank and VTB, both sanctioned by the United States and EU in 2014 for their role in financing Russia’s earlier invasion of Ukraine, which involved the illegal annexation of Crimea and material support for “separatists” in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region. Medvedev’s income in 2021 from VTB alone is listed as $305,000, which is approximately 15 times the average military salary at the GRU.
Screenshot of leaked data indicating Medvedev’s income in 2021 from VTB alone was listed as $305,000 — close to 15 times the average military salary at the GRU.
As with “Maksim Smirnov,” it is not immediately clear to The Insider what Medvedev’s missions for Unit 29155 were. His two phone numbers appear in the communication records of dozens of other known members of the team, including its head, Averyanov, and Egor Gordienko, who took part in the double poisoning of Bulgarian arms manufacturer Emilian Gebrev in 2015.
It is also unclear why Averyanov chose to not furnish this member of his elite black-ops unit with a cover identity, the first such instance The Insider has uncovered. One possible explanation may be that, prior to his recruitment into the unit, Medvedev had already traveled to Europe, meaning that his stored biometric data could have compromised any alias he might have assumed — thus jeopardizing whatever mission he was tasked with carrying out.
The lack of an assigned alias is all the more striking given the fact that Medvedev also traveled on a passport bearing a serial number from the original range issued to Unit 29155. He certainly traveled on behalf of the unit, visiting Helsinki in May 2016; the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek in May and August 2016, Paris in June 2016, Vienna in May 2017, and Prague in August 2016, March 2017, and February 2018. Medvedev’s travel records even show joint bookings on flights with other 29155 team members.
The Insider is asking anyone who may have encountered Konsantin Medvedev in the course of their professional duties or activist efforts to contact us confidentially. You can do so via our editorial email ([email protected]) or The Insider Box, our confidential Telegram bot.