On Saturday night, a supposed “scoop” circulated like wildfire around the Russia-focused Twittersphere. If it had any basis in reality, it would have been a bombshell: Vladimir Putin was “tired” and “considered leaving the presidency in autumn last year.”
Properly sourced, it would have confirmed a rumor which spread around Moscow in the summer of 2016. Because, back then, at least six Russian officials, or people connected to them, suggested a similar scenario to me, in various exchanges. I tried to stand it up, but nobody would go on-the-record. Then, later that year, in October, three more apparatchiks and some media people brought up the topic again, on the fringes of the annual Valdai Club event in Sochi.
At that point, I contacted one of Russia’s most prominent journalists, who knows Putin personally and has interviewed him many times. During a lengthy chat, the famous figure told me that even if Putin were genuinely “tired” and considering retirement, nobody outside his very close circle would know… and they NEVER EVER leak. A habit which, naturally, greatly upsets Russian hacks, who, unlike their American counterparts don’t have an endless flow of “classified” information to reveal.
The household name added that I needed to “stop listening to the Moscow rumor mill.” And not to become “another idiot foreign reporter who believes they have some special sources in the Kremlin that Russian journalists don’t have,” because “if Putin’s team ever do decide to share information it’ll be to a Russian newspaper like Vedomosti or RBC, not to the Moscow Times or the Guardian.” Naturally, I took this advice on board.
Not fit to print
Nevertheless, when The Independent’s man-in-Moscow, was boasting about his “scoop,” I hoped against hope that perhaps he had a proper source for the following pieces of information. “Vladimir Putin is, sources say, “tired” and, “three separate sources told The Independent that Mr. Putin apparently considered leaving the presidency in autumn last year.”
But, of course, none of these “insiders” have names. Which means we have to take The Independent’s word for it. Confidence is reduced midway through the lengthy piece when the report contradicts itself. Citing “one high-level source,” the writer tells us “Mr. Putin likes the unexpected; and when he makes changes, he will confer with no one.”
This is brain busting stuff. Because if Putin confers with nobody before making changes, then the only way Oliver Carroll’s story could be true is if he spoke to the Russian president himself. And he’d make an extremely unlikely confidant of Putin.
So who are the actual named sources here?
Valery Solovey is what lazy journalists call a “rent-a-gob” analyst. Apparently always willing to talk, he’s become a fixture for English-speaking hacks in Moscow, because he makes dramatic forecasts and supports the common Western media narrative that Russia is constantly on the verge of political collapse. However, he’s been the boy who cried wolf too many times now. I know, because only last year, I quoted him in a Russia Beyond article. Back then, he predicted 2017 would be the year when “Russians would turn against Putin.” But now we are in late November, and they haven’t. Putin is polling over 50 percentage points ahead of his nearest challenger, ahead of next year’s election.
The second, Gleb Pavlovsky, is an adviser who last worked for Putin in 2011 and has become an increasingly hysterical critic, offering his services to American outlets like The Hill, PBS and Foreign Affairs. Pavlovsky seems to be popular with US publications because he tells them what they want to hear. But the fact is he’s been out of the Kremlin for six years, and there’s simply no way he has any serious contemporary insight.
Let’s be clear here. The Independent has reported a Moscow rumor as fact. Probably because it was desperate for a Sunday clickbait story. But, as I have come to learn, the Russian capital is more gossipy than a National Enquirer editorial meeting.
For instance, in the past three years, I have had government, media and academic “sources” swear to me that Sergey Ivanov (before Putin demoted him), Vyacheslav Volodin, Sergei Kiriyenko, Alexey Dyumin, Sergey Sobyanin and Maxim Oreshkin will all be the next Russian president. Indeed, only this weekend, I was told, by five “insiders” that Dmitry Medvedev will run in the 2018 election, either against Putin or instead of Putin.
Earlier this year a Russian billionaire, who has met Putin many times, told me that the centerpiece of the 1917 centenary celebrations would be the burial of Vladimir Lenin’s body and that the Kremlin was considering a restoration of the monarchy. Meanwhile, a former cabinet minister, albeit full of drink, confided how Putin was going to remarry in the summer of 2017 to create a feel-good narrative ahead of the election. None of this happened.
The broadly accepted role of a journalist is to provide insight, based on fact. In other words, we need to filter the buzz, whispers, and hearsay and only deliver the news we can properly verify. And for something as profound as alleging the head-of-state of a country has considered standing aside, you need clearly named, on-the-record, sources.
The Independent provided only conjecture and a few familiar talking heads, with absolutely no access to inside information from Putin’s inner circle. Which is as airtight as a hermetic seal. It’s another low in British press coverage of Russia. But not quite an all-time low. That dubious honor probably goes to the Daily Telegraph, which once reported a rumor that Vladimir Putin had secretly traveled to Switzerland for the birth of a love child.