The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mueller indictment is vindication for Russia’s troll-factory critics

Lyudmila Savchuk speaks in an interview in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, in April 2015. Savchuk, a single mother with two children, was once a "Kremlin troll" working as part of an immense propaganda machine trying to shape public opinion not only across Russia but also in the United States and Europe. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

To some Russians, Friday’s indictment means vindication.

Activists, journalists and former employees have been working for years to shed light on the St. Petersburg troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency. While the organization is most famous for its role in the 2016 U.S. election, it has also sought to manipulate public opinion inside Russia, according to Russian news reports.

The Internet Research Agency has operated with impunity despite a mounting number of Russian investigative reports showing that employees created fake online personas to influence debates online. On Friday in Washington, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III delivered an indictment of the organization and 13 people associated with it that seemed to validate much of that reporting.

Friday’s news broke late in the evening in St. Petersburg, but one of the former troll-factory employees, Lyudmila Savchuk, agreed to talk on the phone at 2 a.m. local time on Saturday morning. She told The Post that the Mueller indictment represented “huge progress” toward naming and shaming the people involved.

“This is a big step toward not necessarily punishment but toward naming these people and open discussion over what they did,” said Savchuk, a journalist and former employee of the Internet Research Agency who won a lawsuit against the troll farm in 2016. “If we start tearing off the masks, then this may have a bit of an impact on some of them.”

Savchuk worked on Russian-language content at the troll farm in early 2015, a time when the United States was already one of the top three to five topic areas for the organization, she said. She added that while the risk of getting arrested when traveling abroad might represent punishment to the people indicted on Friday, she expected them to be immune from prosecution within Russia for the foreseeable future.

“The trolls will be on trial after Putin — and I am not sure we’ll ever live to see the day that Putin is punished in any way,” Savchuk said.

And indeed, Russian elites publicly appeared unfazed. Among them: Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a catering magnate with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin whom the Mueller indictment describes as supporting the Internet Research Agency. He told a Russian state news agency that he wasn’t disappointed to be indicted by Mueller and that if the Americans “want to see the devil — let them.”

Maria Zakharova, the sharp-tongued spokeswoman for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, published a Facebook post ridiculing the indictment while accompanying her boss to the Munich Security Conference.

“Thirteen people implemented interference in the U.S. elections?! Thirteen against the billion-dollar budgets of the intelligence agencies?” she wrote. “Is this absurd? Yes. But this is the reality of contemporary American politics.”