Did Putin really poop? How an influential Telegram account is spreading wild, unproven claims about the inner workings of the Kremlin
Russian Telegram account General SVR is a source of many juicy tabloid stories about Putin.
Among them are repeated rumors of serious health issues and an infamous claim that he pooped himself.
Russian media experts highly doubt the account and say it does more harm than good.
In early December, a sensational story tore through the tabloid press: President Vladimir Putin had tripped and fallen down the stairs, unintentionally getting dirty in the process.
It proved a compelling tale to Western audiences largely horrified by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and hungry for his ultimate demise.
The claims have been covered in The Sun, New York Post, Daily Mail, Gawker and Newsweek, among others. They attributed them to a single anonymous source: the mysterious Telegram account known as General SVR.
The channel is a stark example of the wild media ecosystem that has exploded since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Horrifying videos and eye-catching claims abound, reaching vast audiences often with little evidence or context. Some inevitably spill over into mainstream media reporting.
General SVR emerged in 2020, claiming to be led by former and current members of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, as well as other state bodies.
In a statement to Insider, a spokesperson for General SVR declined to identify the sources of the account, citing personal security, but said he had “full confidence” in them.
“They never let us down,” the spokesperson said.
Since its inception, the narrative has produced a steady stream of unsubstantiated but fascinating claims about the inner workings of the Kremlin and Putin’s allegedly failing health.
They range from the allegation in May that Putin would temporarily cede power in order to undergo cancer surgery; to say that Putin had a fit of coughing just before his September speech announcing the mobilization of the reservists.
The most recent scatological claim drew a rare public denial from the Kremlin, which told Newsweek: “It’s completely wrong.”
The Kremlin’s own claims are themselves highly unreliable. But the fact that the epicenter of Russian power has been forced to assure the world that Putin hasn’t pooped is a testament to the outsized power of General SVR.
Among those accustomed to more rigorous documentation of Russian secrets, General SVR is met with open derision.
Aric Toler, from the respected investigative firm Bellingcat, told his Twitter followers in May to “ignore anything that comes” from the account.
Russian media pundits tell Insider the SVR general is unlikely to be a credible source – and say that despite the momentary embarrassment he may cause Putin, he is likely doing more harm than good.
Who is General SVR?
General SVR is sometimes referred to by the alias “Viktor Mikhailovich”, but no one knows for sure who exactly is behind the account, but two names crop up frequently, with different theories attached.
One is Valery Solovey, a Russian academic sometimes described as a conspiracy theorist, who was raided by Russian authorities on February 16 this year, as reported by independent Russian media Meduza.
Solovey is a source of rumors about Putin published under his own name, such as his remarks reported in The Sun in 2020, when he claimed that the Russian president was preparing to step down by January 2021. As is known, Putin n did not resign.
According to Meduza, who herself quoted local media, Solovey was called as a witness in an investigation into General SVR, who was accused of breaking Russian hate speech laws, but he was eventually released.
Shortly after his interrogation, the General SVR channel published a message denying any connection with Solovey.
In a comment to Insider, Solovey said he was not connected to the channel but claimed it had “high reliability” and that even Putin himself was aware of its content.
When asked if he would name any of the characters behind the account, he replied, “No.”
In response to claims that he is a conspiracy theorist, Solovey highlighted his claims that have come true, including the prediction that Russia would invade Ukraine.
The second figure linked to the account is Ukrainian lawyer Viktor Yermolaev, according to Meduza. Insider was unable to contact him, but he strongly denied Meduza’s allegation, saying he had no contact with anyone in Russia.
Dr. Lucy Birge, a researcher specializing in Russian media and politics, told Insider that “it wouldn’t be hard to see what the strategic objective is” for a Ukrainian who runs the account.
But there is still little more than speculation to go on.
Sell cartoon Putin
General SVR’s wild world must be understood in the larger context of how Telegram is used in Russia, according to Russian propaganda and media researcher Dr. Jade McGlynn.
Russia’s mainstream media landscape has steadily tightened, as reported by Insider’s John Haltiwanger, forcing many independent media outlets to relocate outside of Russia and be branded as “foreign agents.”
Along with this process, Telegram was born, an encrypted platform that allows anonymous and unfiltered publication to a wide audience. (The Kremlin tried, unsuccessfully, to block the app).
Initially seen as a place for authentic voices, Telegram quickly became “a space for impersonations and information operations,” McGlynn told Insider.
Information operations are missions, usually conducted by the military, to disseminate information intended to harm an enemy or influence a conflict.
Although there are dozens of active, well-read channels — both pro and anti-Putin — General SVR is moving to Western media because it’s “hard-hitting,” McGlynn said.
For her, part of the problem lies in the oversimplification of the situation – and of the potential solutions to the conflict.
The constant headlines portraying Putin as about to die without any real evidence to back it up can lead Western readers to think “‘great, well Putin is going to be gone soon, so we don’t need to worry too much. ‘”, as she said it.
That, in turn, could reduce public urgency around continued military aid to Ukraine – an issue increasingly questioned in the US and UK.
Birge agreed. “It’s not hard to see how this image of Russia sells,” she told Insider. And there’s even an advantage for Putin in the fact that no matter how negative the story, it centers Russia as a world power, she said.
For Birge, the phenomenon says a lot more about what Western news consumers want to read than about Russia.
And that comes because there is a huge “information vacuum” around the Russian elite, she said.
“Obviously there are things going on behind the scenes that we don’t know what they are,” she said. “It’s tempting to follow this unidentified person who has all the answers.”
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