How NOT To Be A Whistleblower In Russia: The Case Of Yevgeny Starshov

In 2009, the UK was rocked by lurid revelations about MP’s expenses: home renovations, expensive meals and holidays, and even apartments fraudulently claimed by Parliamentary deputies. Apologies, recriminations, resignations, and even prosecutions followed in the wake of the documented evidence published by The Daily Telegraph. In the past two weeks, an intern at the State Duma incited something similar in Russia, but only superficially so – thanks in large part to his own naivety and incompetence. This is his story.

Evgeny Starshov is a student at a Moscow business school. He is also a fan of Navalny, the “blue bucket” movement against migalki (the sirens on bureaucrats’ cars giving them right of way that many consider a blatant display of unearned privilege) and a blogging, Twittering member of the liberal opposition. An outspoken one, too. @YeenZo123 describes himself as an “extremist with a blue bucket,” while his LJ blog is modestly titled Journal of a Democratic Extremist (complete with rock guitar-strumming priest).

His outspokenness has now gotten him into hot water. As an intern at the State Duma, he was actively Tweeting about the laziness, sleaziness, and pofigism that characterizes life at that hallowed institution. He did this under his own name. A week into the job, he published a blog post on his experiences that spread like wildfire and was eventually reprinted at bastions of the liberal media such as Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow. His internship came to an abrupt. So what exactly were his scandalous revelations?

Overall, they were pretty unimpressive; I’d even say that if they were the full spectrum of corruption and idiocy at the State Duma, then things are far better than I expected (the operative word is “if”). I found the account of the “everyday life” of the parliament to be far more interesting. So here are the details.

On May 15th, Starshov twittered, “Going to sleep. Tomorrow, I’m going on campaign [поход на] to the State Duma.” He added that he’s “taking orders from you guys on Likes/Dislikes [симпафки] for each deputy.” It appears that, to a great extent, his mind is already set on certain issues.

Starshov documents his infiltration of the Duma.

Starshov documents his infiltration of the Duma.

And as soon as he arrived, he began tweeting. Security checks. Assignments to departments (in his case to the office responsible for reimbursing deputies’ transport costs). There, he was responsible, with four other interns, for routine data entry and checking for “bugs,” of which there were a fair number. These “bugs” consisted of claims on public money for non-government related travel, including foreign travel, taking friends and relatives, etc. He names two names. In March 2011, two Duma deputies tabbed questionable flights to government espense: Iosif Kobzon to his own concert in Kaliningrad and Svetlana Khorkina to see her relatives. The average cost of a Duma deputy’s account is 3 million rubles, or $100,000 (but the time-frame isn’t indicated). It is not uncommon for them to wrack up to $2,000 worth of shopping at airports.

There’s a lot of interesting details of the anecdotal sort. As long as they met their deadlines for completing tasks, the interns were allowed to do whatever they wanted. There are only two smoking rooms in the Duma building; smoking used to be permitted in their office, but the practice was banned after an LPDR deputy’s cigarette caused a fire. Speaking of the LPDR, the interns regard Zhirinovsky as a cool guy, a legend even. “From the Duma hall issue forth Zhirik’s heart-rending screams, which I even manage to hear from the other building!”

Despite “legends” that there exist cafeterias selling sandwiches with caviar for 10 rubles, he admits that the reality is more mundane. The main cafeteria menu consists of 3-4 salads (one of them is olivier), 1-2 soups (typically schi or borscht), a choice of steamed meat, cutlets or chickens; rice, buckwheat porridge, or potato puree (which “tastes just like the one at school”); plus tea and a roll. This course costs 170 rubles. There is also a buffet where coffee and pies are sold; a lot of different pieces, in fact, which “explains why they are all so fat.” One can also buy a meal of eggs, sausage, and a sandwich for 50 rubles, or a small sandwich with red caviar for 97 rubles.

Extremist materials on sale at the State Duma.

Extremist materials on sale at the State Duma.

The Duma also has a bazaar of sorts in a second building. Items on sale include expensive alcohol (e.g. Black Label vodka for a cool 1700 rubles a bottle), Abkhazian cheese, wild honey, all kinds of jams, even seeds and agricultural implements of all things. Many icons. The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church is heavy. Lots of rooms have icons, and he encountered at least one priest every day of his internship. As he humorously noted, they also sell “extremist materials” (see left: he is referring to the blue buckets, of course). But some of the material really does inspire “cognitive dissonance.” There are books on sale that are critical of Putin and supportive of Khodorkovsky; scandalous exposes of senior bureaucrats and Wikileaks kompromat against Russia.

The Duma hall, in his own words, makes him go WTF? It is less than a quarter full. The deputies walk about, talk to each other, read newspapers, play cards in the back rows. United Russia members have a fondness for iPads. The deputy chairman reads something in monotone, completely ignored by everyone else. “So you think that Putin or Medvedev are all powerful and take all the decisions in this country? No way, it’s a fat woman in red. From the party of thieves and scoundrels [AK: i.e., Navalny’s name for United Russia] judging by where she sits. She rushes by and tells everyone how to vote.” He almost couldn’t restrain himself from shouting out his outrage. “Do they really drive like maniacs to these meetings with their blue sirens, risking the lives of ordinary citizens, just to play on their iPad or read a newspaper? This is all so sad and embarassing. This isn’t a parliament, but an office’s smoking room!”

Victim of ПЖИВ?

Victim of ПЖИВ?

With deeply-felt outrage, Starshov contrasts the sleaziness of the Duma deputies with a certain protester on the steps outside the building. According to his description, she is an old lady and diabetic on the third day of a hunger strike. Her son had been killed, “in all likelihood” by a member of the party of thieves and scoundrels [AK: this wouldn’t be the first time]. Her attempts to find justice were stonewalled and now she is reduced to trying to capture the attention of society and the media to her plight. The “heroic” police confiscated her posters on several occasions. Starshov finished: “And so ends the first week of my internship. I will try to make more photos and investigations.” In the event, he never got the chance. His first week would also be his last.

Nobody had paid much attention to his Twitter. But hours after he posted his account on his blog, on May 20th, it began to spread uncontrollably. He seems to have realized that he made a big mistake pretty early, and reading his Twitter stream after that day makes for a sad (but morbidly entertaining) experience. From a conversation on May 20th between Starshov and @dlindele:

@YeenZ0123 State Duma. Internship report. Week one. [AK: link to blog post]
@dlindele Interesting, how long before they move you to another internship?)
@YeenZ0123 There you go, now I’m sad. 🙁
@dlindele You’ll be a prisoner of conscience!
@YeenZ0123 At least you’ll still be on my side? 🙂
@dlindele Well you know the drill, we don’t abandon our own)
@YeenZ0123 It’s spreading now… my end is surely nigh.)

But his blog post remained up nonetheless. Starshov soon got the attention of one @glennargo, who said that he’d worked in the Duma for 10 years. According to him, the Duma deputies have an elite cafeteria after all, which has a royal, a big aquarium, and pretty waitresses (by Duma standards). And there is an even more elite third room, a palatial dining room for special occasions…

The view wasn't bad, but nothing to write home about.

The view wasn’t bad, but nothing to write home about.

The first wildfire died down, seemingly without catching official attention. But the second one that began on May 23rd proved terminal. He joked about being offered political asylum in Holland. Then things got more serious. “Things took a bad turn. My director suffered because of me, and I didn’t want to do her any evil.” On May 24th, he was expelled from his Duma internship. He followed up by deleting his blog post – not that it really mattered, by that point – and soliciting suggestions on how to drown his sorrows: “Yes, I’m still sober. I’m trying to think of buying something cheap and tasty. I don’t like vodka… I’m in deep shit now, if anyone’s interested, I settled on beer. A lot of beer.”

But before he went on his beer-drinking binge, he did leave a parting post. It is telling in many ways of his mindset and motivations, so I might as well quote it in extenso:

… Yes, I’m fired. No spare words, just a goodbye and that’s all. Is this just? I think not. I only wrote about what I saw myself… I didn’t scan any documents nor did I intend to… If they decided to shut me up, just for my own words, that means I’m RIGHT and any other evidence is unneeded. And you’re all right when you talk about how bad they are. That I had no words to say anything only means I’m doubly right… People, you’re writing that I’m a hero. I don’t consider myself a hero. I’m a normal student, like thousands of others… I didn’t know that blogging was such a big crime. I’m not proud of what I did, I don’t even know how to react to it. On the one hand it was right to call a spade a spade and all, but on the other hand innocent people suffered from this, because of me. I will need to meditate on this a bit and try to figure out how to live with it.”

Fortunately, the consequences appear not to have extended beyond his expulsion from the Duma to this date. As he replied to me: “There’s nothing serious. All’s OK.”

My opinion here is superfluous. The account above is the fullest to date in English (and quite possibly in Russian), so you should be able to make up your own mind on the rightness or wrongness of Starshov’s expository crusade against the party of thieves and scoundrels. For what it’s worth, I think that although Evgeny Starshov is well intentioned, he is also hopelessly naive, overly emotional, and quite frankly deluded.

First, no employer will tolerate interns who blog and tweet in such an insulting and calumnious way about them. Not only in Russia, of course, but anywhere, including in the glorious West. If you’re going ahead with it anyway, at the VERY LEAST have the good sense to write under a pseudonym! No, it’s not a crime, but neither does the Duma have an obligation to tolerate it. I’m not even going into the fact that large parts of Starshov’s writeup consist not of criticism but outright insults (fat woman in red, party of thieves and scoundrels, etc).

Second, to be quite honest I don’t see the point of it all. If he hates the powers that be so much, why go work for them? And if he wanted to do serious whistleblowing, why do it so openly that his discovery is all but inevitable? (Though granted, he did say that he didn’t think that his writings would be found by the wrong people. Which is again a sign of his naivety). In the beginning of this post, I referenced the MP’s expenses scandal in the UK. It was sustained by an anonymous source leaking concrete evidence, i.e. the very “scanned documents” that Starshov refuses to have anything to do with. I’m sure that in Russia a newspaper like Novaya Gazeta, Vedomosti, or even Kommersant could have fulfilled a function similar to The Telegraph in the UK. Without proof, nobody is going to listen to his preachings apart from his own liberal choir.

This United Russia deputy took particular exception to Starshov's claims.

This United Russia deputy took particular exception to Starshov’s claims.

Third, it’s evident that Starshov is extremely and openly biased, obsessed with “speaking truth to power,” and this irrevocably taints him as a neutral source. Now I’ve no doubt that on many points he’s accurate; certainly if MP’s in the UK, one of the world’s least corrupt countries, fudge expenses, then it’s no surprise whatsoever that their Russian counterparts do the same. One United Russia deputy, Sergey Markov, went to the trouble of writing an entire post on his own LJ blog trying to refute Starshov’s claims. Some aren’t very credible, e.g. his absurd claim that since regulations forbid Duma deputies from claiming expenses for non-government related flights then they can’t be happening. On the other hand, he’s totally right in his defense of the low turnouts and the voting procedure. Most parliamentary sessions everywhere are extremely boring and routine, with the discussions done in advance and the votes on the laws in question already decided. Again taking the UK’s “Mother of Parliaments” as an example, it is common to see MP’s sleeping, looking very bored, whispering to each other, fiddling with their phones, etc. Perhaps not playing cards – though Markov denies that happens in the Duma either – but even if they did it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. As for the “fat woman in red,” her job was to communicate United Russia’s decision on the law in question to its individual deputies. She decides nothing.

As Markov concludes: “The young man should have known all this before coming on the internship. But instead of his textbooks he only read Navalny and aired the typical prejudices of a simple conscience. He was invited on the internship, paid for by the state, to expand his knowledge of the system. That’s an F, young man! Fail!”

I agree with Navalny that United Russia is, by and large, a party of thieves and scoundrels. But I can’t help also agreeing with Markov that Evgeny Starshov was eminently ill-equipped to prove it, because knowing you’re “RIGHT” just isn’t enough. You need some papers too.

EDIT 6/8/2011:

Remember Evgeny Starshov? That’s the Duma intern who was surprised to see his ass kicked out of the State Duma after blogging about their card playing and iPad pr0n surfing habits during plenary sessions, taxpayer-funded binge shopping at airports, and the “fat lady in red” to whom even Putin’s a bitch. (Note: This is a dramatized account).

Anyhow, since then he has been further mercilessly persecuted by the regime by enjoying tons of attention, getting a second internship, becoming yet another martyr of the liberal blogosphere, and appearing on national TV to defend his allegations from arch-nemesis United Russia deputy Sergey Markov in what is a spectacularly funny explosion of matter vs. antimatter. Go figure.


  1. Ha, ha alternative title: Russian state too arrogant to make interns sign condidentiality agreement.

  2. That’s funny, Joera. I’m sure it’ll be spun many different ways, and russophobes will doubtless portray it in terms very similar to that.

    I agree it’s pretty much the very eye of stupidity to think you can go to work for an organization, slag them six ways from Sunday all day long, and then act surprised when they give you the push. It’s also pretty cheeky to suggest your firing for running your piehole about widespread incompetence and irresponsibility on the part of your employer somehow establishes your “rightness”. He sounds like a self-important attention junkie and would-be crusader to me. But what would you expect? If you worked for a beer company and you claimed other workers urinated in the beer – or that’s what you heard – would you expect to be pulled out of there under tight government security and then to be given a medal followed by a protected identity change from the government? Of course not – you’d be fired. Would it prove you were “right”? I doubt it.

    He’s correct to expose the petty corruption he allegedy discovered – although I’d submit he was pretty deep in the files for an intern in his first week on the job who claimed to not be looking for corruption – but he certainly was stupid in his execution if he planned on being a long-term “Deep Throat”. Likewise, a pseudonym is useless if it’s child’s play to backtract the information to who would be likely to have known. If only birdcage-liners like Novaya Gazeta picked it up, I doubt it’s led to a major shakeup.

    • Likewise, a pseudonym is useless if it’s child’s play to backtract the information to who would be likely to have known.

      I’m not sure. All he had to do is mix up the timetables (i.e. disassociate times of leaks publication from the work that revealed it) and this would have become very hard. It’s not like they’re exactly very sharp about it either. He was tweeting about it throughout, and it took 3 days from his blog publication of May 20th for it to become known to Duma security. No doubt only because it spread rapidly and some Nashi type got hold of it and forwarded it on.

      • I suppose that might have thrown a little sand in their eyes, but professional security types are usually ruthless about compartmentalization and who would be likely to know what. That might be offset if the department he worked in was so sloppy that a brand-new intern had access to everything – but even if he staggered his publication times, it’d be hard not to notice that the “whistleblowing” started up just after he got hired, especially since he had only started. I imagine he gained some breathing space because it was so unexpected, and security wasn’t watching for it. You can bet they will be now.

  3. Yes, to be fair I havent seen much of russophobe outrage on this. Another lesson for wannabe whistle blowers: timing. This weekends all attention was on the gay pride. But who knows, maybe thanks to Anatoly it gets picked up. 😉

    The Russophile spin is of course: look how fashionable whistle blowing is becoming. 😉

    I feel sorry for the teachers /dean. I remember reading they got reprimanded. And possibly his fellow students loose the chance to do an internship in the Duma. Thanks Yevgeny!

    But i wasn’t joking that much. Duma HR dept. should grow up and inform interns about their rights and obligations. I doubt this can happen in a private Russian company.

    • It’s been a pretty big topic of outraged discussion on Russian liberal blogs this week. Needless to say, they regard him as a hero.

      “Spin” implies that it’s been somehow exaggerated or manipulated, but that is not the case at least with myself. There is absolutely no doubt that Starshov is heavily inspired by Navalny’s activism; his name is mentioned multiple times on his blog, always extremely positively, and he doesn’t even call United Russia by its own name but by the name given to it by Navalny i.e. the Party of Thieves and Scoundrels. A pity that he appropriated his ideology and rhetoric but without his strategy / intellect.

      As for consequences, he only mentioned that the director of his internship program got in trouble (I assume reprimanded) on May 23rd, the day that he was exposed and the day before he was fired without a word. But nothing further was mentioned. I believe the likeliest scenario is that she got a slap on the wrist and nobody else experienced overt consequences. Which kind of makes sense, really. Even if they wanted to make examples, on the other hand the Duma hardly wants Starshov’s stories spreading as a result of it…

      Nothing was said about whether there was a confidentiality agreement, but on the other hand if there was then Starshov is hardly going to bring it up. For my part I find it hard that there WEREN’T these kinds of clauses to sign in this day and age.

  4. Yes, I guess I didn’t think about the repercussions for his school when I was mocking him; you’re right – potential employers will likely be a lot more careful in future about taking on students who might turn out to be a mouthpiece for gossip. That is indeed unfortunate: as much of a drag as working for the Duma sounds at that level, interest in politics appears generally higher in Russia than many other places, and a familiarization with how the country is run is usually an eye-opener.

    If you could stay awake long enough to watch the Parliamentary Channel here, you’d get the impression that maturity was in short supply for such a heavily-regulated institution. It’s not like you have to be a cloak-and-dagger insider, either; it’s on TV. Members carrying on private discussions during debate is routine, and I imagine you can catch a few taking a nap if you could steel yourself to watch that long. Political engagement is not much more edifying, as excited members bang on their tabletops and hoot like howler monkeys when they see the banana guy approaching. I know it’s just a tradition, kind of like trash talking in baseball where you try to break up the other team’s momentum, but it still seems kind of undignified for alleged leadership figures.

    You’re right that a private company would likely have done more than just let him go with a pat on the head – he’d likely be sued or otherwise punished. Make sure you keep an eye on Putin’s whereabouts for the next couple of months, in case Yevgeny is found with drill holes in his kneecaps and a gag stuffed in his mouth.