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Russia's investigative journalists take spotlight with stunning findings on Putin, Navalny poisoning

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In the Kremlin, “It’s everybody against everybody… that’s why they are all afraid of being exposed by journalists.”

That’s what Roman Badanin, editor of Proekt, a Russian investigative outfit, tells Fox News. He notes that despite the light that’s been thrown on corruption at the highest levels in Russia, the situation has not, on the surface, changed. 

The alleged worst offenders don’t go to jail or even eat humble pie, nor do they convince skeptics that they are clean. But Badanin, his colleagues and a few other agile armies of intrepid and deep-digging independent journalists intend to keep chipping away at the fortress.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s sleekly produced videos on corruption have inspired some of this new generation of journalists and made healthy competition for others. Their job has not been easy.

“I’m nervous for my family’s physical and digital security,” Badanin said.  He added that his site has been hacked and he’s been followed. “We are preparing an article on some of the Kremlin officials and we know that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is extremely nervous.”

Following decades of Communist rule, there is no real legacy of investigative reporting in Russia. There was a wild, and at times reckless, period of press freedom in Russia in the ’90s, right after the Soviet Union dissolved. Russian journalists have invented themselves. Now oddly, Badanin says, it’s felt a bit like being back in the USSR.

“In terms of organizational structure and judicial structure, I call it the new ‘samizdat,'” Badanin says, referring to the days of underground (self) publishing that was prevalent in Soviet times. There have been no large, public or private channels or newspapers doing buccaneering, controversial reporting.  Badanin has a staff of 12. “We’re niche media.  In terms of funding, unfortunately, Russian legislation on media is more than draconian. That’s why we have to hide some information on the sources of our financing.”

Recently, signing up for crowdfunding has helped. Proekt strives to be relevant and exclusive.

The practice of “probiv” in Russian is the purchasing of all sorts of personal data on the web and was said to have helped the investigative unit Bellingcat identify Navalny’s supposed August 2020 poisoners.

“It’s one of the options which was created because of total corruption in Russia and the situation where Russian authorities do not cooperate with journalists in cases of big societal importance,” Badanin said. “I don’t think so-called ‘probiv’ is a crucial part of this Russian investigative journalism revival. The crucial part is, we have a lot of things to investigate!”

Badanin’s Proekt made quite a splash when it ran a story about an alleged lover of Putin’s who went from being a cleaner to a millionaire.

“Our estimation of her wealth is something like $115 million in assets and stakes in companies and equity,” he said. And, in what Badanin called an “aha moment,” he said, “we started to check who exactly gave her those businesses. We understood they were businesses created by Putin’s friends, just given to her.”

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Going through social media accounts, Badanin discovered that the woman had a daughter, who bore a striking resemblance to Putin and quickly racked up almost 100,000 followers on Instagram. She was said to have been thrilled that her stock went up after the Proekt article that “outed” her.

“All of a sudden, she’s a public person. She regularly participates in Clubhouse sessions. After our article, she was regularly asked if she is Putin’s daughter and she never said no. She never said yes, but she never said no.”

Badanin said his interest in Putin’s personal life was not derived from a desire to supply readers with gossip, but rather as a means of searching for Putin’s assets. He said he believed they’re abundant and spread widely among friends and family.

He has reported extensively on Yevgeny Prigozhin, often referred to as “Putin’s chef” due to his considerable catering contracts with the Kremlin. Said to be the owner of troll farms and a mercenary unit deployed to fight on behalf of Russia in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, to name a few spots, he’s under indictment in the U.S. for alleged involvement in meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

When asked about his hottest topic lately, Badanin identified the FSB, the successor to the KGB. He said the agency has been of interest not just to him, but to most investigative independent journalists these days.

“Because of the role in the Navalny poisoning, because of the role in the current political situation in Russia, because the FSB is the most influential group in the ‘siloviki,'” referring to politicians who came from the security of military services.

Badanin said the FSB has been in a struggle with the more “liberal” parts – and he said “liberal” while gesturing quotation marks – of the Russian establishment. He added that he saw this struggle symbolized by a proposal to return the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, to the square in front of FSB headquarters. It was torn down from Lubyanka as the Soviet Union unraveled. 

Muscovites are invited to vote in a referendum this week on whether or not to bring Dzerzhinsky back. The spiritual father of the KGB, a man most associated with “Red Terror,” has been passing the years in a park of old statues in the capital.

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There’s a big discussion going on about this right now in Russia. 

“It’s a really dangerous sign,” Badanin said. “It’s scary.”

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