Anyone who wants a glimpse of the information wars that could lie in America’s future should have a look, immediately, at Alexei Navalny’s latest video (it’s got English subtitles). The video so annoyed Oleg Deripaska, the video’s oligarch anti-hero, that he has just persuaded Russia’s media regulator to block it. Navalny, Russia’s best known dissident — he tried to run for president but was blocked — so annoys the Kremlin that Muscovites spray-painted his name on their sidewalks after a recent storm, hoping that would persuade municipal authorities to remove the snow. It worked.
Like most of Navalny’s productions, this one is a cross between investigative journalism and a piece of video entertainment, a serious exposé of corruption sprinkled with memes and jokes. But this time the inspiration was unusual. Navalny’s offices are often attacked — by police, by police dressed as “Cossacks,” by “spontaneous” groups of pensioners and, once, by prostitutes (or, in any case, women dressed as prostitutes). They came into his campaign offices, followed by cameramen who just happened to be there, draped themselves over the furniture and then left. This is modern authoritarian propaganda at its purest: The Russian state, at least for the moment, has decided not to arrest Navalny but to mock him, belittle him and undermine him. There is no need to take his accusations of government corruption seriously if they can be juxtaposed with video clips of women in fishnet stockings and bondage gear.
This time Navalny flipped the story back at them. Studying the photographs of the women who’d visited their office, his team used facial recognition software to identify one of them as Nastya Rybka, author of “How to Seduce a Billionaire” and purveyor of an Instagram account packed with photographs of Deripaska and his yacht. Close reading of both the book and the pictures, plus a search of shipping and flight manifests, produced another discovery: Rybka and Deripaska had not been alone on that yacht. A senior Russian official, Sergei Prikhodko, a man who has quietly served in multiple Russian presidential administrations since the 1990s, was also on the boat. According to Rybka, the two were discussing U.S. politics. This was the summer of 2016.
Navalny’s main point was about corruption: By accompanying Deripaska on his plane and his yacht, Prikhodko — who is, behind the scenes, one of the men most responsible for Russian foreign policy — was accepting a de facto bribe. But Navalny also makes a lot of jokes, mocks Rybak’s literary aspirations, and throws in a few speculations, “for the benefit of the conspiracy theorists.” Deripaska, he noted, has a longstanding relationship with Paul Manafort, the ex-Trump campaign manager now at the center of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Among other things, we know that Manafort owed Deripaska money; we also know that he offered Deripaska special, private briefings on the state of the campaign. Navalny now suggests that perhaps these briefings weren’t really for the benefit of Deripaska, but for Prikhodko — and of course for his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin. And perhaps they were the topic at hand on the yacht.
Navalny doesn’t prove his case, but he doesn’t claim to either. Instead, he deftly connects people — an American lobbyist, the American president, a Russian official, a Russian billionaire, a pouting call girl and his own blocked presidential campaign — into the same story. Which is where they belong, because they are in fact all connected. Russia is a corrupt dictatorship in part because people such as Manafort helped people such as Prikhodko and Deripaska launder money in the West, in part by using property schemes like the ones developed by real-estate entrepreneurs. People such as Prikhodko can be found on yachts because people like Deripaska want to ensure that they can go on making money in ways that ordinary Russians — who are prevented from voting for Navalny — cannot see.
Aside from the tantalizing hints about our own corrupt political class, Navalny’s video might hold some lessons for Americans on how to cope with a government that denies, obfuscates and believes that — as former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon so eloquently puts it — “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with sh–.” More than four million people have clicked on Navalny’s video, and by the time you read this the numbers will probably be higher. An acute combination of investigative journalism, digital sleuthing, jokes, memes and viral marketing has helped Russians cut through the “sh–,” possibly drawing in people who don’t care much about politics, just because it’s funny. Study it hard, because we may need something like that soon here, too.