The New York Observer is standing by a reporter who has written more than a dozen articles for the outlet with a slavishly pro-Kremlin bent, the most recent a story with no sources that blames the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on his love life.
The reporter, Mikhail Klikushin, has written 15 articles for the outlet since November 2014, according to the Observer's website. He has no online presence — in English or Russian — beyond the stories he has written for the Observer, which have also been picked up by other outlets. A Nexis search turns up no public record of Klikushin.
"He's a writer," Observer Editor-in-Chief Ken Kurson told BuzzFeed News. "He lives in the tristate area. He's a Russian national who has been in America for at least 10 years or so." Klikushin's contact information is impossible to find online. He declined a request, issued via Kurson, to speak to BuzzFeed News.
Kurson said Klikushin is a freelancer and was paid for his articles. He says he has met the writer face-to-face.
He stood by Klikushin's articles and said, "I have probably edited about half of them myself."
"We try to publish compelling content that people want to read," he added.
Klikushin's 15 articles are remarkable in how directly they line up with pro-Russian propaganda points. The Kremlin regularly issues talking points, either via official statements or, more often, by reports in state-run or Kremlin-friendly media.
A little over one day after Nemtsov was gunned down in central Moscow, the Observer ran an article by Klikushin speculating that the slain opposition's leader's "tangled love life" was behind his murder. That line was floated by Kremlin-owned Russia Today as well as Life News, an outlet with very close ties to Russia's security services, in the hours following Nemtsov's murder. LifeNews headlined its story: "Nemtsov may have been avenged for an abortion done by his lover." Neither outlet is considered trustworthy or respectable because of their overt ties and politicization. Automized Russian bots on Twitter, meanwhile, spammed the network with identical tweets saying: "Nemtsov was killed because of the jealousy of some Ukrainian (apparently he stole the girlfriend of some Ukrainian),."
By Monday, Nemtsov's girlfriend — the target of Klikushin's story — had become a major figure in Russia as it deals with the aftermath of Nemtsov's murder. Anna Duritskaya, a model from Ukraine, appeared visibly shaken in an interview with the Russian TV channel Dozhd. The Russian authorities have barred her from leaving the country. On Monday evening, the Russian newspaper Izvestiya, which the Kremlin often uses to plant stories, cited unnamed sources in the investigation as saying that the Ukrainian security sources were behind Nemtsov's murder.
Russia has invested heavily in spreading its propaganda. In the English-language world that is done mainly through outlets like Russia Today and the new website Sputnik. But there are also smaller projects without obvious direct links to the Kremlin. New websites like Russia Insider insist they are private initiatives.
A recent report called "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money" shows the varied ways in which Russia ensures its propaganda finds a home in the West. Its methods run the gamut from the blunt to the nuanced and refined. The subject of Russian propaganda has shot to the forefront of discussions — both in the U.S. and in Europe — since the outbreak of war and revolution in Ukraine, where Russia has deployed its multiple media assets to paint the new Ukrainian government as "Nazis."
Stories in the Western press often make it into the discussion back home in Russia. Klikushin's stories are regularly translated into Russian — it is unclear by whom —and then circulated on obscure news sites, blogs, and beyond. In this case, a commenter uses a translation of Klikushin's story in "the American newspaper New York Observer" to dispute a post on the website of opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy. A post on a different website links to Klikushin's story and asks, "Have they started to see the truth about Ukraine in New York?"
Other articles written by Klikushin target the Kremlin's favorite bugbears: State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as well as the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia and Latvian politicians. Klikushin also focuses on Ukraine, with one article headlined "The New Ukraine Is Run by Rogues, Sexpots, Warlords, Lunatics and Oligarchs."