An Indicted Russian Picks Up the Phone, and Mocks the Idea That Russia Meddled [Video]

Cristian WorthingtonFeedToPost, MediaVidi Twitter

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On Friday afternoon, a few hours after an indictment issued by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, named Mikhail Burchik as one of thirteen Russians who interfered in the 2016 Presidential election, I called Burchik on the phone. He hung up immediately after I identified myself as a journalist....

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On Friday afternoon, a few hours after an
indictment issued by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, named Mikhail Burchik as
one of thirteen Russians who interfered in the 2016 Presidential
election, I called Burchik on the phone. He hung up immediately after I
identified myself as a journalist. I called back, and he stayed on the
phone long enough for me to ask if he had heard the news. “Yes, I have
heard the news,” he said, in heavily accented English, then he hung up
again. This was not unusual behavior for Burchik, in my experience.
Burchik hung up on me a lot in 2015, while I was investigating the
Internet Research
, the shadowy Russian “troll farm” where, according to the indictment,
Burchik has served as executive director. Back then, when I asked him
about his relationship to the Agency, he denied any connection—despite
the fact that leaked internal e-mails and Internet records linked him to
the organization—and I included his denial in my New York Times Magazine article about the Agency. Since then, Burchik has also been identified as the
Agency’s executive director by journalists in both the Western and
Russian press, yet he has continued to deny having any role with the

I called him again. This time, he said we could chat over the encrypted
messaging service Telegram. His avatar on Telegram is a disarming
cartoon—big hipster glasses and a sweep of black hair—which looks like
it might appear in a subway ad for a millennial-friendly meal-delivery
startup. Last year, the Russian business magazine RBC described
Burchik as a thirty-one-year-old I.T. consultant who had launched a
couple of companies and who specialized in “the promotion and
development of Internet projects.”

I sent a message to Burchik saying that I wanted to talk about his being
named in the U.S. government’s case against the Internet Research
Agency. “I think, that it’s a joke from usa,” he wrote back. “I don’t
know english so good to understand information in official publication.”
He declined my offer to talk through a translator, and continued to chat
with me in broken English.

I sent him a screenshot of the section of the indictment that indicated
he had become the executive director of the Agency in 2014, that he
stayed on at least through 2016, and that he’d had multiple meetings
with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected businessman alleged to be
the chief funder of the Agency. According to the indictment, Burchik
helped oversee an operation of hundreds of employees that spread
propaganda under false identities on social media, in an attempt to
support Donald Trump and sow “political discord” in America. Burchik
insisted that he did not work for the agency. “Why they think that it’s
I?” he said. I said because they had done a large investigation. He said
that nobody had called him, and that he had received no official notice
about the charges.

“I think it’s бред ),” he said, using a Russian word for nonsense. I was
struck by the parenthesis at the end, which is the smiley face emoticon
on the Russian Internet. He seemed, in general, sanguine about the case,
mocking the idea that he might have played a role in the U.S. election.
He said that he lives in Russia and doesn’t know anything about the U.S.
besides “Washington is the capital of USA.” “I think that if the USA
democratic system was broken buy several Russian people–it’s very bad
for American political system,” he wrote, calling the notion

Burchik’s dismissive tone mirrored the official Russian response to
Mueller’s indictment. On Saturday, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey
Lavrov, called the allegations “claptrap.” And Prigozhin, the oligarch
at the center of the indictment, was reportedly unbothered by the news.
“The Americans are very emotional people, they see what they want to
see,” he said,
according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “I have great respect for them. I am not
at all upset that I am on this list. If they want to see the devil, let

I asked Burchik if he knew anything at all about the Agency. “I read
some information about this agency and I have one question for you: How
you feel when you know that USA managed by russian president?” Tone is
hard to capture in an online chat, especially when English is not the
correspondent’s first language, but I took this to be sarcasm. I told
him that, whether or not Trump was helped by Russians, I was not a
supporter of the President. I said that, personally, I thought some of
the claims being made about the Internet Research Agency—in terms of its
strength and its effect on the election—were overblown, but that what it
was doing was still harmful. I said that I didn’t think the Internet
should be used as a tool of information warfare.

“But in fact it is used,” he replied. “First of all it used by USA, see
example in middle east country. All revolution, supported by USA and use
social network for this.” The idea that the Internet is a tool of U.S.
influence is also promoted by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who
once called the Internet a “C.I.A. project” that Russia must be
protected from, and who has framed a crackdown on Internet freedom as an
effort to protect Russian sovereignty from malicious online influences.

I said that I believe the U.S. uses the Internet for its own interests,
but that I had not seen anything like the Internet Research Agency’s
effort to spread disinformation and propaganda through false identities.
(I later realized this was not entirely true. In 2014, the Associated
revealed a bizarre plot by the U.S. government to secretly create a Twitter clone
in Cuba to undermine the Communist government and help spark a “Cuban

Burchik seized on the first part of my statement, and asked me to
include the fact that the U.S. does use information warfare in my
article. “It will be good example for americans people,” he wrote. “That
US use intetnet for information war a lot of time….”

Before he signed off, I pressed Burchik again on his connection to the
Agency. If he was not the executive director, what explanation did he
have for how the U.S. government and Russian media outlets had come to
that conclusion? “ ‘Shit happens’ ),” he wrote.

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