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A new trove of leaked documents, the so-called Paradise Papers, have revealedthat Yuri Milner, a Russian businessman with extensive investments in Silicon Valley, used funds from two Kremlin-controlled—and now U.S.-sanctioned—banks to make large investments in Facebook and Twitter. Both stakes have been sold off, but Milner’s path to Silicon Valley, where he continues be a power player and lives in a $100 million compound, was paved with the Kremlin’s money and a mutually beneficial relationship.
Milner’s story illuminates the very beginnings of Moscow’s efforts to establish a foothold in Silicon Valley, back in the days when the American president was pushing a thaw with Russia. It was a moment that set the conditions of the current one, in which the Russians’ use of social media and other digital tools to undermine America’s election has driven U.S.–Russia relations to their lowest point in decades. And it’s revealing of the Kremlin’s evolving methods in learning to control and manipulate the internet to advance its own interests—first at home, and then abroad.
Led by Vladislav Surkov, the savvy Kremlin strategist who was a generation younger than Putin and understood the web, the Kremlin began to recruit loose, untraceable armies of pro-government bloggers and commenters. It also cultivated ties with private new media companies in Russia that professed a more government-friendly point of view. Surkov, for instance, reportedly organized private funding for an internet publishing venture by then 28-year-old Konstantin Rykov, a fiery and openly pro-Kremlin blogger in 2007.
This was a key moment: With Surkov’s guidance, the Kremlin had shifted to a very clever tactic. Instead of allowing itself to be seen as openly calling the shots—as it had been when state companies took control of the independent news media—the Kremlin hid from view almost completely. As a result, a much more wholesome picture emerged: Here was a young tech entrepreneur, a poster boy for Russia’s well-deserved reputation as a scientific and technological powerhouse, attracting private investment on his own. The Kremlin’s involvement was impossible to prove, but its influence was beyond a doubt.
Yuri Milner and DST, which in just a couple years had nearly consolidated the Russian web by purchasing strategic stakes in just about everything, allowed the Kremlin another way to exercise that power. It became yet another example of the symbiotic relationship business and politics in modern Russia.