The instructions came by email: Meet in the park in an hour. Sit on a bench near the statue, holding a copy of the local edition of Forbes. Then wait 10 minutes. A man will approach you and show you a picture of a keyboard.
The John Le Carré-esque cloak-and-dagger showmanship may seem outmoded in the age of the National Security Agency, but it's par for the course with the shadowy Russian collective that calls itself the Anonymous International. Completely unknown just months ago, the group has become the talk of Moscow political circles after posting leaked documents detailing elements of Russia's annexation of Crimea; covert operations in eastern Ukraine; the inner workings of its TV propaganda machine; and online information warfare against the West. Russian journalists have confirmed nearly all the leaks independently — no mean feat in a country where officials brush off kompromat (an untranslatable gray area between rumor, investigative journalism, and blackmail) with indifference or stony silence.
As the group's reputation grows, discussion has increasingly focused less on the content of the leaks themselves than on the identity of the people who publish them. The group, which sends cryptic messages to reporters in the name of a "press team" called Shaltai Boltai — the Russian name for tragic nursery rhyme hero Humpty Dumpty — claim they represent disgruntled Russian government officials upset at Putin's recent hardline turn and aggressive policy toward Ukraine. Most observers believe that they are a surreptitious "project" within the presidential administration, used either in an internal struggle for power or for as yet unclear goals against the liberal media and opposition.
BuzzFeed recently became the first publication to meet a member of the group, who would only reveal his nickname, Shaltai. The man identified himself through a keyboard imprint on the soles of his loafers. He insisted on walking in a continuous circle throughout the 90-minute interview to avoid detection. BuzzFeed agreed not to describe his appearance or reveal the date and time of the interview, other than to say it took place outside Russia. Verifying what he said is, by nature and design, difficult.
"We're a community of people who think Russia is going the wrong way and needs to be more open," Shaltai said. "If that means we have to change reality with these uploads, then so be it."
To prove his identity, he opened a folder dubbed "007" on a laptop and let BuzzFeed read a 10,000-word analysis of power struggles over the course of a week in Russian politics, which the group posted a few days later. He also showed BuzzFeed a photograph of Kristina Potupchik, the former spokesperson of Kremlin youth group Nashi, wearing a medal resembling those Putin secretly gave 300 Russian journalists for their role in the annexation of Crimea. Shaltai said Potupchik was part of a second group of Kremlin-linked public relations specialists and spin doctors whom Putin gave medals in May.
The group appears to take its name after the global Anonymous hacking movement, but shares little in common with it. Shaltai claimed the group get its leaks from a network of "informants," including hacked emails from a Russian "troll nest" that BuzzFeed wrote about earlier this month. Their number — or, indeed, existence — is unclear. Shaltai often talks to journalists over email and on encrypted chat systems with another member called Boltai. Both of them speak of a third member called Alice, the group's "ideologue," who is supposedly writing a manifesto.
According to Shaltai, the group has existed in some sort of loose form for the last five or six years after meeting on a gaming forum. He claimed to know only one of the group in person and said that members are all "nonpublic professionals, some technical and some operative," which implies links to analysts and field operatives in Russian security services.
Until last year, they worked anonymously on "various informational projects that might or might not appear in reality," Shaltai said. The only one he would admit to was a fake press release published last June saying that Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russia's state rail monopoly and an old friend of Putin's, was fired. Security officials failed to find the hackers, who sent the release from a Siberian IP address altered in a way to suggest the culprits had inside information on how to make it look like it was coming from the prime minister's office. In December, Yakunin said that the culprits had been found, offering no details other than to say that they "can't sleep peacefully. Let them worry."
Things changed later that month, when one of the group's "informants" supplied them with the text of Putin's annual New Year's speech before he had made it. They created the Shaltai Boltai blog and published it before it went on air. Putin, whom they usually refer to as "the Guarantor," then recorded a second, slightly different version at the last minute. His spokesman attributed it to a technical hitch.
The project stalled until Russia's invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in March, accompanied by a sharp conservative turn domestically said to have troubled even Western-oriented figures in Russia's government.
"We're upset at the methods our government was using over Crimea," Shaltai said. "If you want to make things better, look at your own country. Ukraine should go to Europe if they want to. Change Russia if you want them to come to Russia."
Since then, the group has published new leaks nearly every week. Most of it is small-ball stuff. The revelations rarely touch on illegal activity, instead focusing on how the sausage of Russian politics is made. Often, the figures exposed are not themselves high-ranking Kremlin officials, but third-party proxies said to do dirty work for the presidential administration. The only thing the leaks seem to have in common is their traceability in one way or another to senior figures in the presidential administration. The biggest victim is Viacheslav Volodin, who took over domestic policy when Putin returned to the presidency and agitated for a crackdown on a then-burgeoning democratic protest movement. Others reveal the doings of press department chiefs Dmitry Peskov and Alexei Gromov, who have long warred for control of the Kremlin's media policy.
Political observers point to the leaks' apparently targeted nature as a sign that the group is actually a "project" used by one powerful Kremlin faction to settle disputes with others, rather than a gang of Kremlin Snowdens out for the truth. This is partly a natural assumption in Russia, which even has a separate word — sliv — for a leak whose purpose is to damage someone's reputation or standing, rather than expose wrongdoing. Decades spent under a domineering state have taught Russians to expect the worst from it. There's nothing you can reveal that everyone didn't assume they did already, so the people behind it must be up to no good.
This paradox was brought to its apex during years of "managed democracy" under former deputy presidential administration chief Vladislav Surkov, who turned Russian politics into a hall of mirrors where surrogates stage-managed by Kremlin "political technologists" replaced real opposition and debate. Whistleblowing (or, indeed, anything else) could be repurposed for the opposite effect. When former Kremlin spin doctor Stanislav Belkovsky went public in 2007 with claims that Putin had a secret $40 billion fortune that would make him Europe's richest man, commentators suspected he had been authorized to do so in order to ward off oligarchic pretenders to the throne. Putin's money has, of course never been found: Nobody ever really bothered to look.
The group's obfuscatory mystique often draws parallels with Surkov's own postmodern, pseudoliterary theatrics. With an eye to "telling stories in the genre of fairy tales," they took inspiration from the Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass after Shaltai supposedly found a copy of the book at a garage sale. In Carroll's telling, the giant, cantankerous egg is a semiotician who tells Alice that any word "means what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." In the same vein, Shaltai Boltai eagerly correspond with and give interviews to Russian reporters, but answer nearly every question in vague riddles or half denials. Their goal is to "create realities and give words meaning." "We could tell you, but would you believe us?" is a common refrain.
Suspicions deepened after Shaltai Boltai published a series of slivy targeting Volodin, whose successful fight to replace Surkov in late 2011 was accompanied by a similar hacking scandal involving Potupchik, the youth group press secretary, and who is one of the few officials the leaks implicate in actual corruption. Shaltai said he knew Surkov personally, but denied the group was stage-managed. "Vladislav Yuryevich's views on what's going on are the complete opposite of ours," he said, using Surkov's patronymic. "People assume that we are a Surkov project just because he has access to materials and contacts."
Even based on what little is known of them, it's difficult to believe they are what they say they are. Shaltai Boltai often write — and Shaltai speaks — in a strange, inappropriately colloquial manner, with bizarre slang and sloppy punctuation. Weekly tip sheets that Shaltai said were prepared for presidential administration chief Sergei Ivanov curiously omitted major events like Putin's recent meeting with the separatist premier of Crimea and a shady pro-Kremlin financier linked to leaders of the eastern Ukrainian uprising. Stylistically, according to people familiar with presidential administration protocol, they lacked the crispness of the genuine article.
Most glaringly, Shaltai made a great deal of his theatrical security precautions without taking obvious other ones. He spurned a suggestion to communicate over encrypted email. He didn't check to make sure that BuzzFeed didn't bring a phone, through which the meeting could have been traced. He even called from a payphone to confirm the time.
His identity, after all, may not really be the point.
"We are doing what we want," he said. "Let people think we are a Volodin, Surkov, Gromov project — we don't care. People can think we're changing our spots and switching sides — let them."