Fans of fallen superheroes and Godwin's Law – as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of Nazi or Hitler comparison approaches – read on.
“The banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt fifty years ago in her book about German Nazi SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, that concludes that great evils in history were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the status quo and believed their actions were normal.
Arseny Bobrovsky is not Adolf Eichmann. He certainly never killed anyone—indeed, he’s broken no laws at all. But for some on the RuNet, he represents pure evil.
Bobrovsky, the owner of a Russian PR firm called “Daily Communications,” would be a thoroughly typical example of Moscow’s “creative class” liberals, were it not for one thing: Bobrovsky has a secret identity. At least he did, anyway, until March 25, 2013, when he and his accomplice [ru] Katya Romanovskaya outed themselves [ru] to the world as the authors of KermlinRussia, one of the most popular accounts on Russian Twitter. With well over half a million followers today, KermlinRussia—a parody of Dmitri Medvedev’s first Twitter name—is widely regarded as one of the chief mouthpieces of the liberal opposition movement.
Within hours of this “coming out,” the usual suspects involved in anti-opposition news breaks (in this instance, the formidable Stanislav Apetyan) had uncovered [ru] the curious fact that Bobrovsky helped manage [ru] a public relations campaign for one of the most hated institutions on all the RuNet: the Safe Internet League [ru] (abbreviated as LBI, in Russian). That organization, of course, is most notorious for spearheading the RuNet Blacklist, a federal censorship initiative launched last summer, designed to purge the Web of content dangerous to children. (Critics, however, argue that the extrajudicial mechanism is a slippery slope to a wider crackdown on digital free speech.)
The timing of this revelation couldn’t have been better for Apetyan, who just four days earlier was singled out [ru] on Facebook by Yandex-co-founder Ilya Segalovich as a hired LBI stooge. On March 21, 2013, Segalovich cited a March 18 post [ru] on LBI’s Vkontakte page, where the League named Apetyan’s blog and summarized his finding that the vast majority of RuNet public figures’ Facebook followers are bots. “For me personally,” Segalovich declared, “the issue of the League is now settled,” arguing that any affiliation with Apetyan discredited it entirely.
As it turned out, a far more important collaborator with the League was Bobrovsky, whose KermlinRussia account is an online hero to Russian liberals. After Apetyan’s discovery circulated, Bobrovsky published [ru] a long self-defense to KermlinRussia’s Facebook account, explaining the details of his past work for LBI, as well as his reasons for serving such an odious client. Almost two thousand words long, Bobrovsky’s text—a potpourri of confession and rationalization—is something to behold.
At certain times, he is repentant:
Здесь начинается серая зона моей совести. В этот момент я задал несколько вопросов, ответы на которые знал. Также как и знал, что мне соврут. Совесть боролась с профессиональными амбициями. В сухом остатке ясно, что я более амбициозный, чем совестливый.
Here [when I took LBI’s contract] began the grey zone of my conscience. At this moment, I asked a number of questions, the answers to which I already knew. I also knew that [LBI] would lie to me. My conscience fought with my professional ambitions. The bottom line is that I’m more ambitious than I am conscientious.
Elsewhere, Bobrovsky tries to justify his decisions under a rubric of consummate professionalism:
Но мне хотелось сделать этот проект. Потому что только такие проекты по-настоящему показывают, чего ты стоишь как профессионал.
But I wanted to do this project. Because only these kinds of projects can truly show your mettle as a professional.
He later adds:
Как профессионалу мне совершенно не стыдно. Я сделал свою работу очень хорошо и свалил обратно – заниматься бизнес-пиаром Маршала, передав через пару месяцев работу над аккаунтом своему сотруднику.
As a professional, I’m entirely unashamed. I completed my work very well and got out of there, carrying out the business-PR for Marshal Capital [the intermediary between Daily Communications and LBI], and managing to pass the account onto a colleague within a couple of months.
“Professionalism” and the opportunity to demonstrate his talents for manipulating public perceptions were key drivers in Bobrovsky’s decisionmaking. At first, he avoided taking LBI’s contract, instead recommending a competitor, Victor Michaelson [ru]. According to Bobrovsky, Michaelson’s firm botched the job, mounting a slapdash press conference that won the League more bad press for founder and board chairman Konstantin Malofeev (who also founded Marshall Capital, Daily Communications’ direct employer). Bobrovsky says he only stepped in after this media blowup, unable to resist the challenge. (“Crisis PR,” he writes, “is the most interesting type of project.”)
Presumably to show how uninterested in money he was, Bobrovsky even reveals the value of the contract Daily Communications finally did accept: 330 thousand rubles (roughly 10 thousand dollars) per month. Bobrovsky claims that Michaelson’s fee was almost two-and-a-half times more—amounting to over 150 thousand dollars for six months’ labor. What Bobrovsky doesn’t say, curiously, is that he was promised 20% of Michaelson’s contract earnings. According to Michaelson, Bobrovsky fought [ru] to receive 20% of the contract’s full value, even after LBI dropped Michaelson’s firm, six weeks into the campaign. Bobrovsky did get 20% of those six weeks (about three thousand dollars), but this apparently bred bad blood between him and Michaelson, culminating in KermlinRussia’s Facebook post, where Bobrovsky announced to the world (perhaps as an embellishment or maybe as an honest disclosure) that Michaelson couldn’t cut the mustard with LBI.
Not everyone is buying it
Earlier that evening, on March 25, Tonia Samsonova, a firebrand journalist for Slon.ru, Ekho Moskvy, and Dozhd television, responded to Bobrovsky’s unmasking. Samsonova, who interviewed [ru] a still-masked Bobrovsky in May 2012, expressed [ru] on Facebook her unease about his now-revealed résumé:
Вчера мы сидели в кафе с Арсением – кермлинрашей – я пришла домой и легла спать в семь вечера, мне снились кошмары. Потому что Арсений делал вещи, которые я не могу оправдать, и писал в Forbes тексты, с которыми я частично согласна (а по ключевому поводу мы с ним никогда не договоримся, видимо).
Yesterday, Arseny (KermlinRussia) and I met in a cafe. [Samsonova also posted a photo of this encounter.] I came home and laid down to sleep at 7 PM. I had nightmares. Because Arseny did things that I can’t justify, and wrote texts for Forbes.ru, with which I partially agree (though on the key issue it seems we’ll never agree).
Samsonova’s reservations about Bobrovsky’s “unjustifiable acts” and questionable texts echo the thoughts she aired in their televised May 2012 encounter, when both individuals sparred about KermlinRussia’s op-ed column for Forbes.ru, where Bobrovsky regularly argues that all Russian wealth (small and large) travels “dishonest paths.” (The idea being that no Russians can escape the petty incrimination that accompanies survival.) Samsonova plainly objected to this notion, telling her guest that he was simply wrong. In KermlinRussia’s later Facebook post, published hours after Samsonova’s “I had nightmares” comment, Bobrovsky countered that perhaps she ought to weep over her work for Ekho Moskvy, which is owned by Gazprom and headed by Alexey Venediktov, who is suspected [ru] of conniving with the regime at critical moments of the 2011-2012 winter protest movement.
And what of Bobrovsky’s fate? He and his KermlinRussia colleague Ms. Romanovskya have apparently joined the regular staff at GQ Russia, which the magazine's chief editor, Michael Idov, announced in a heartfelt message to readers [ru] in the current issue. The duo is still updating KermlinRussia, and Bobrovsky by all accounts will continue to write articles for Forbes.ru, where one of his most recent compositions (ironically, given this week’s revelations) attacked none other than the League for a Safe Internet. Reading that text, one wonders how Bobrovsky expected readers to view his column, once his past affiliation with LBI came to light. Did he give it any thought? In that February 6 piece [ru], he writes:
Декларация борьбы с детской порнографией и педофилией — это эффективный способ получить 100%-ную общественную поддержку и настолько высокий уровень доверия к проектам Лиги, чтобы общество относилось к любым ее действиям максимально некритично. Очень похоже на стиль Владимира Путина, который в 2004 году под флагом борьбы с терроризмом почему-то отменил губернаторские выборы.
Declaring a fight against child pornography and pedophilia is an effective means of getting 100% public support and a high level of public trust in the League’s projects, so that society related as uncritically as possible to any of their [other] actions. It’s very similar to the style of Vladimir Putin, who in 2004 under the flag of a war against terrorism for some reason canceled gubernatorial elections.
Bobrovsky, of course, knows precisely what inspired LBI’s PR campaign. He was, after all, the man behind it. This excerpt above, perhaps better than anything he has said in the last week, displays the cognitive dissonance that colors Bobrovsky’s self-awareness. Is this a modern, diluted manifestation of Arendt’s “banality of evil”? In the postscript to her book, Arendt explains that the subtitular banality referred specifically to Eichmann’s bizarrely conventional rationale for his monstrous deeds:
Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal […].
By talent and tenacity, KermlinRussia has earned its place among the RuNet’s most beloved personalities. Indeed, Bobrovsky seems to bring that purposefulness to all his endeavors—both netizen and professional, both good and evil.