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YouTube campaign smears Russian liberals

Video campaign targeting a politician, a journalist and an analyst recalls Soviet-era tactics.

A screen grab shows a video accusing leading Russian liberals of taking bribes.

MOSCOW, Russia — Three leading Russian liberals have come under attack in a smear campaign reminiscent of Soviet-era tactics against those who went against the grain of official thought. 

Ilya Yashin, a leader of the opposition Solidarity movement, Mikhail Fishman, editor of the Russian edition of Newsweek, and Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst, found themselves playing starring roles as bribe-givers in a YouTube video that went viral last week. 

The video presents an anonymous caller ringing the three men and asking if they have ever given bribes to Russia’s notoriously corrupt traffic police. Fishman and Oreshkin openly say that they have. The four minute-long video intersperses the three men’s answers with images of their bribe-giving inside a cop car, from different angles, with the policemen’s faces blurred out. All three appear surprised when the cops refuse to take the bribe, responding instead with a hearty lesson: “Don’t break the rules — and don’t offer money!” 

That video had little effect. Russia’s traffic police are among the country’s least loved — just 23 percent of Russians trust them according to a 2008 poll by the Public Opinion Foundation. That feeling has only solidified in the past few months amid a spate of outrageous scandals (earlier this month, Russian traffic police came under fire for forcing random drivers to set up a “human shield” with their cars on one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares in order to stop a runaway criminal). 

Yashin and Fishman said the video was doctored, with words put in their mouths. The supposed police were actors, they said. Many people simply rolled their eyes. “Yeah everyone gives traffic police money — there’s nothing really horrible here,” wrote one Russian YouTube commenter. 

Then on Tuesday, a new video appeared. 

In addition to the alleged bribing, the second half of the video, titled “Fishman-Drug Addict” shows a man who appears to be Fishman sitting near a half-naked girl, her face blurred out. He sits before a stool, carefully cutting a white powder with a credit card and then snorting it. The video fades with Russian music accompanying a nude Fishman getting dressed. 

By then, it was clear a campaign was underway.