Russophiles in plain clothes

On July 8, 2023, a march in defense of family values took place in the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia. The main participants defending these values were primarily Russian expatriates living in Cyprus. They were protesting against the newly adopted law in Cyprus regarding sexual education for children starting from preschool age. The protesters carried Russian flags, and their actions were welcomed by the Russian Ambassador to Cyprus, Murat Zyazikov, who happened to be a Lieutenant General of the FSB by sheer coincidence. The demonstrators carried placards saying «Hands Off Children» and «We Support Russia’s Actions.»

Such an aroma of madness is typical for any FSB operations disguised as public events and civil activism. They are usually organized by civil activists with distinctive backgrounds. In this case, among the organizers of the march, amidst the dull employees of the Russian Embassy and the Russian House in Cyprus, an exotic but typical figure for such activities stands out.

Mikis Filaniotis, a member of the Communist Party of Cyprus, is one such figure. After military service, he was sent to the USSR by the Communist Party for studies. He studied in Odessa and obtained an architecture degree in 1983. His wife is a Russian citizen, and his two daughters are also citizens of Russia. He is a member of the association of graduates from Soviet and Russian universities, a member of the expert council of the Russian Center for Science and Culture (RCSC), and a member of the coordinating council of the international Russophile movement. He often visits Russia. In March 2019, he visited occupied Crimea and received an award from the Crimean occupation government for participating in a Kremlin propaganda campaign — he became a finalist of the online quiz «Crimea in the History of the Russian World» in 2020.

In 2022, the Russian House in Cyprus congratulated Filaniotis on his birthday and thanked him «for his loyal friendship, support, sincere love for Russia, and the work done in translating 5 volumes of the publication ‘The Great Victory’ from Russian to Greek.»

«The Great Victory» is a multi-volume work on the history of World War II, released in 2015 by the MGIMO University under the general editorship of the future director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin (then the Chairman of the State Duma), and authored by a number of Putin-era scientific falsifiers. The publication is purely anti-scientific. It seems to be translated into the language of the host country in Russian Houses around the world as propagandistic literature.

Putin’s propaganda is characterized by a combination of deep ignorance and self-righteousness, accompanied by equally profound anti-Americanism — dire prophecies of the world economy’s collapse due to Washington’s machinations, which only Russia can save.

Here are a couple of quotes from Filaniotis in the Russian press: «The Republic of Cyprus is an Orthodox country with strong family traditions. Nevertheless, even towards our country, they are attempting to implement a neoliberal agenda, including the promotion of permissiveness and debauchery. The European Union is pressuring Cyprus, as European elites want to impose their neoliberal, anti-family agenda on all EU countries.»

«…the collective West led by the US has ignored all of Russia’s proposals for peaceful resolution in the global security sphere. … It became immediately clear that the US is seeking maximum profit by dismantling the economies of other countries, even within the European Union. As a citizen of the EU, I am ashamed of today’s unworthy leaders of European countries and the EU. Instead of protecting the interests of their people, they have completely succumbed to the US and Anglo-Saxon influence, destroying their economies and beneficial energy policies for the sake of Washington. The main goal of the West now is to strangle and destroy Russia’s economy, as well as its social and governmental structure.» Whether this nonsense affects a wide audience or not is difficult to say. Fools and ignoramuses are usually present everywhere, though personally, I find it hard to imagine someone who would swallow all this without choking. And it’s unclear what Filaniotis actually said, or if he said anything at all. Such texts are usually composed by editorial teams. The main thing is that Filaniotis is dutifully performing his role as a Kremlin influence agent in Cyprus. And his biography is typical for a foreign agent — first with the KGB and then with the FSB abroad.

Among Filaniotis’s titles, there’s one that stands out — «Member of the Coordinating Council of the International Russophile Movement.» This organization was established quite recently, in March 2023, in Moscow. It has added to the list of exotic creations by Russian intelligence agencies working with foreign influence agents.

In general, there are numerous variations of dummy public organizations that serve as Kremlin influence agents. They operate in all countries around the world under the guise of scientific, cultural, human rights, charitable, sports, and other associations. Their origin is relatively easy to deduce from the biographies and the nature of activities of their leaders, and usually, their place of origin — Moscow. They don’t even bother to hide much.

In the past year, following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, working for Russian intelligence agencies in this manner has become significantly more difficult. At least in European countries. Hundreds of intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover and overseeing the activities of influence agents were declared persona non grata and expelled to Russia. Openly expressing solidarity with the Putin regime has become dangerous for many pro-Russian organizations and individual agents of influence. The «Russian World» Foundation, which used to openly fund hundreds of such entities worldwide, has been sanctioned. Its activities are blocked in most democratic countries. Financial ties between the Western world and Russia have been virtually severed.

In this situation, intelligence agencies are seeking new ways to work with their existing agents. The International Russophile Movement is interesting in that it is very candidly named. It is not scientific, cultural, or educational; it is a society solely dedicated to love for Russia in general and Putin in particular. It does nothing else.

The International Russophile Movement (IRM) was established in Moscow on March 14, 2023, during the Founding Congress held at the A.S. Pushkin State Museum. The congress was attended by 87 participants from 42 countries on all continents. It was led by Nikolay Malinov, the head of the Bulgarian national movement «Russophiles,» which was created in 2003, during Putin’s era. Apparently, this was Moscow’s frantic attempt to gather and redirect as many of its agents as possible in the challenging moment of the catastrophic events on the Russian-Ukrainian front and Russia’s loss of remaining political influence in the world.

Malinov articulated the movement’s goals as follows:

«To be a Russophile means to be a patriot of one’s own country. Because it is Russia that embodies traditional values, the idea of a strong state, and the aspiration for a multipolar world – everything we want to see in our own countries. Russia’s antipode represents a world of Satanism that wants to annihilate us. We are neither right nor left. We stand for reason, goodness, and eternity. And that’s why we are Russophiles.»

This text, undoubtedly concocted by Moscow handlers, is intriguing in that it is not so much political as it is religious and mystical. The world is divided into two parts – good and evil. Good represents Russia, while evil represents Western democracies. To love good means to love Russia and Putin. Here, aside from other aspects, one can see the deep pit that Russian propaganda finds itself in today. There’s nothing to cling to. There isn’t a single universally applicable principle for it to hide behind anymore, principles that used to serve as a mask. Democracy, justice, peacekeeping, fairness – all of these have ceased to work, even as blatantly deceitful demagoguery.

Nothing remains except for calls for irrational love for Russia, as if it were a divine realm of goodness.

Similarly to Malinov, another initiator of the movement, Konstantin Malofeev, stated: «Russophiles are those who primarily love their country. Those who love Russia and Russians as a reflection of their own dream of freedom and independence. With such people, we will build a much better world than the one we entered in the 21st century. A multipolar world of free nations and traditional values, not the dictate of a single country imposing anti-Christian, anti-human, satanic abominations. I am certain that we, Russians and Russophiles, will surely triumph. Because God is with us!»

As announced at the founding forum by Malinov, the immediate goals of the International Russophile Movement include collecting one million signatures in Western countries to lift anti-Russian sanctions, establishing an Institute to combat Russophobia, and creating a contest that would be the opposite of «Eurovision.» All three tasks fall completely within the scope of Russian intelligence activities. Naturally, not a word is said about the sources of funding for the IRM.

Malinov’s biography closely resembles that of Filaniotis. He was born in 1968. He studied history at Kiev University, that is, Soviet history. He was a member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party since 1990), and from 2008 to 2015, he was the publisher of its newspaper. In 2015, he left the party due to political disagreements with its leadership, particularly its support for Ukraine in the conflict with Russia. In 2019, he was arrested on charges of espionage in favor of Russia. The trial began in 2021. He has been on the sanctions lists of the US and the UK since February 2021. Apparently, Malinov became a KGB operative during his studies in Kiev in the 1980s.

In the group of other foreign activists-founders of the International Russophile Movement, attention is drawn to Waldemar Gerdt, the head of the International Council of Russian Germans.

His biography is also entirely typical for individuals of that kind. He was born in 1962 in Kazakhstan, and in 1984, he graduated from an agricultural institute. He then completed two years of military service. In 1989–1991, during the twilight of Soviet rule, he was the 1st Secretary of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (VLKSM) in Kazakhstan. Afterward, he served as the chairman of a collective farm for two years and then emigrated to Germany in 1993.

When a high-ranking Soviet ideological official (as the 1st Secretary of VLKSM in a union republic is a significant figure) emigrates to the West, there can be little doubt about his previous connections with intelligence services.

Since 1996, Gerdt has been a businessman, and since 2016, a member of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD), known for its close ties to Moscow. Since 2017, he has been a member of the Bundestag for AfD. He has a reputation as an extremely religious person, which is not very characteristic of a 1st Secretary of VLKSM in a union republic. Before joining AfD, Gerdt was a member of the conservative Christian party Partei Bibeltreuer Christen. The German Wikipedia characterizes Gerdt as a pro-Russian propagandist. In 2018, an investigation revealed that among the offices of 18 Bundestag members from AfD, there were employees with a reputation for right-wing extremism. In particular, Gerdt employed Heinrich Groß, an activist of the Russian-German movement and also a well-known pro-Putin figure.

The similarity in the biographies of all three foreign Russophiles is evident. They are all roughly the same age, all know the Russian language, all studied at Soviet universities in the 1980s, and they all became Kremlin propagandists in their respective countries around the same time – during the decline of Soviet power. They are all professionals. The International Russophile Movement is just one of the purposes for each of them.

Over the five months since the creation of the International Russophile Movement, it has displayed quite noticeable activity, sometimes appearing anecdotal. Already in March 2023, a branch of the IRM appeared in Australia, and interestingly, its creation was announced by representatives of Australian Aboriginal communities.

In May 2023, Nikolai Malinov stated that the movement would attempt to open its branches in all countries where it does not contradict local legislation, and in places where this is impossible, they would focus on private initiatives by local residents. This likely indicates that the IRM has received sufficient funding to organize its centers and conduct recruitment of agents worldwide.

During the Second Russia-Africa Summit held in July 2023 in St. Petersburg, there was a separate section titled «Development of the Russophile Movement in Africa.» The executive director of the «Russkiy Mir» Foundation, Vladimir Kochyev, took part in its proceedings, openly stating that «knowledge of the Russian language allows for receiving information from Russia directly without intermediaries.» The plans of the Russophile Movement also include the installation of a monument to Pushkin in Cameroon.

An amusing action by the Russophiles took place in Venezuela: «Soldiers from the presidential honor guard were informed about Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine and the desire to establish a new world order… All present expressed their readiness to support the IRM.»

In Egypt, a round table discussion on «Russophiles and Their Role in Protecting Russian Culture» was held in July. It was organized by the representation of Rossotrudnichestvo in Cairo, in conjunction with the Egypt-Russia Friendship Society and the Egyptian Association of Graduates of Russian and Soviet Universities. This is a very characteristic situation where multiple foreign offshoots of Russian intelligence come together temporarily, simulating public organizations.

In the same July of 2023, the first international representation of the IRM opened in Milan. It was led by someone named Eliseo Bertolazi, with Vice-Chairman Dr. Mirko Preatoni. According to the Insider magazine, Bertolazi is a researcher at the pro-Kremlin Institute of Prospective Research in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences, as well as a correspondent for the «Russia Today» information agency. In 2018, Bertolazi headed the Italian delegation at an agricultural forum in Crimea. Preatoni is responsible for cultural matters in the «Friends of Great Russia» Association, founded in 2014.

For over 20 years of Putin’s rule, the work of Russian intelligence services abroad has been extremely easy and largely unrestricted. While democratic nations have been relatively successful in countering espionage and terrorism, they have faced challenges in dealing with agents of influence who do not formally violate any laws. Freedom of speech and opinion is guaranteed by democratic constitutions. Tracking the fine line between the activities of agents of influence and espionage, and catching such individuals in the act, is quite difficult, even if they do not hide their sympathies and concurrently hold positions such as being a member of the Bundestag.

The situation changed dramatically with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the imposition of sanctions against numerous Russian institutions, and the expulsion of a large number of diplomat-spies. In these circumstances, the role of fresh organizations with similar objectives but employing new methods and utilizing established personnel becomes more significant.

I believe that in the near future, we will hear a lot of new and interesting developments regarding the activities of Putin’s loyalists.

Dmitry Khmelnytsky