Alexey Navalny & the digital footprint of Katya Kazbek
Who's the Stalinist heiress trying to get an imprisoned Russian dissident cancelled? Well...
I interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you a tale I was originally going to do as a news article — until I realized that I was too personally involved.
Since this is a personal newsletter, this is the perfect medium to discuss it.
If you pay attention to Russia, you may have noticed that jailed dissident Alexey Navalny was recently stripped of his “prisoner of conscience” status by Amnesty International, due to past “hate speech.”
Was Navalny implicated in hate speech before? Absolutely. If you want to understand Navalny’s evolution, I highly recommend this Masha Gessen article on the subject. It doesn’t mean that Navalny is above criticism, far from it, but the crude caricature of him as Hitler lite is also off the mark.
The first person to break the story was Aaron Maté of The Grayzone:
The Grayzone is interesting — an ostensibly leftist outlet that supports violent dictators like Bashar al-Assad, etc. They don’t disclose the sources of their funding. In conversation, Aaron has personally told me that he fears that people like me would harass their funders (we have a history of disagreeing online):
(If you want more context on the “eye gouging,” I invite you to click on the tweet and read around — by the way, the story Aaron and I were discussing/arguing about apparently turned out to not be true. No one’s eye was gouged, I was later told)
What’s even more interesting that in the screenshot Aaron posted, the e-mail from Amnesty begins with “Thank you for your e-mail.” So, Aaron was probably following up on something. Possibly following up on an earlier e-mail about Navalny’s status. Why is this relevant?
Well, the respected Russian media outlet, Mediazona, was the first two quote two Amnesty sources, one unnamed and one named, about Navalny’s status. Both sources cited a potential coordinated campaign against Navalny from abroad.
The social media activity of writer Katya Kazbek, who has been very active in denouncing Navalny in these last few months, was cited by an Amnesty source in particular as having spurred outrage about Navalny’s past statements. Kazbek has contributed to The Grayzone, and, whether directly or indirectly, she seems to have influenced Amnesty’s decision.
Who’s Katya Kazbek?
I took an interest in her a while ago, when I noticed that she lives in New York City, writes for Russian propaganda outlets such as RT.com (here she is smearing protesters in Belarus who have endured a months-long brutal crackdown), and has adopted a kind of “woke Stalinism" that’s popular with a chunk of the Twitter left these days:
In the screenshot above, Katya is praising Stalin and Mao as “some of the smartest people.” The person who’s replying to her then says, “But not everyone in the U.S. is aware [of how smart Stalin and Mao were].”
I was tipped off that Kazbek may work for the Russian government, which at the time seemed believable, as professional Russian propagandists have long been courting the Western left — sometimes quite successfully.
Curious to find out more, together with a friend, I looked at the magazine Katya is the co-founder of, Supamodu.
Supamodu is, in fact, a registered trademark. Cool! USPTO.gov then gives you all of the publicly available information about said trademark.
I’m not going to publish all of the information listed on the USPTO website here, as Kazbek has since accused me and others of “threatening her life” as more people realized who she actually is (more on that in a second) — but the site confirms Kazbek’s real name (Katya Kazbek is a pseudonym) and her swanky NYC address.
No, this woman is not a Russian government official. She is just a wealthy heiress trashing jailed Russian opposition members, praising Stalin, and calling every journalist she doesn’t like a “spook” and/or accusing them of ties to the CIA:
The above is a reply to journalist Marc Bennetts, for example.
I’d quarreled with Kazbek over her use of the word “spook” to refer to journalists she doesn’t like. While someone like me feels relatively safe in a place like D.C., where I live now, I know how accusing a member of the media of potential espionage-related activities can be dangerous for people elsewhere. For that, Kazbek twisted my words, implied I’m an anti-Semite, said I’d threatened to doxx her, and accused me of threatening her life:
Good talk! Then a bunch of other people from Kazbek’s ecosystem piled on, calling me a “spook,” and it was basically a party. As I did in my replies, I will reiterate: Calling journalists “spooks” is disgusting and dangerous. But I expect no less from a wealthy Stalinist (which ought to be an oxymoron, but whatever, rich kid cosplayers will always be a thing).
Of course, at this point, I was also curious about where Kazbek’s wealth had actually come from. That part was also easy. Again, OSINT to the rescue.
Here’s Kazbek’s old LiveJournal. Again, these are materials that are out in public.
Here’s a very good LiveJournal search engine in Russian.
Using advanced search, we can look at mentions of Kazbek’s family on her LiveJournal. I’m not going to mention the specifics because of the ugly accusations I’ve faced from Kazbek, but by cross-referencing data + using Kazbek’s real last name, we can reveal that Kazbek’s father is entrepreneur Yury Dubovitsky. He founded the Bely Veter chain of stores in Russia — think the Russian version of CircuitCity.
In 2007, it was estimated to have sold for $60 million to $100 million. Other sources placed the potential figure higher — I can’t confirm what it was, nor can I confirm how much Dubovitsky profited. Certainly Kazbek’s past statements (you can look them up if you want to keep going down that rabbit hole) that her family is merely “comfortable” seem odd in light of that.
Dubovisky’s later business dealings are also interesting, but I want to talk about the wider implications.
What’s the actual lesson here? First of all, Navalny is an anti-corruption activist. Kazbek’s family grew wealthy in lawless 1990s-era Russia. It was lawless for everybody — there’s a reason my own family grabbed whatever they could salvage of their much smaller business and left Ukraine at that time, I won’t pretend I’m not a product of that era either — but in many ways, people like Navalny represent a kind of reckoning for people’s of Kazbek’s background.
Honestly, Kazbek’s relentless drive to cancel Navalny is both comical and dark in that light. Not to mention wildly hypocritical. But that’s my personal view.
On a less personal note — maybe one shouldn’t pretend to be some kind of woman of the people, deeply committed to the proletarian revolution, if one is an heiress with a sizable and easily searchable digital footprint. Or at least be honest about your wealth! It obscene to be coy about it. It’s distasteful.
The other thing I’d like to add is that Kazbek’s early Russian writings about her family are frequently quite touching and profound. I enjoyed them. I wish she didn’t stan a murderous dictator like Stalin, or write hit pieces about people struggling against corrupt regimes for RT.com. The woman’s talented. All of this makes this story even sadder to me.