25 October 2017 – San Francisco, US

by Kseniya Kirillova

It’s rather difficult to write about the spy series “Sleepers” shown recently on the First Channel, if only because most of the well-known critics have already spoken out about this “movie masterpiece”, calling it “a nauseating piece of propaganda for the FSB”. However, it seems that this new piece of the film propaganda contains something more than just “the version of “Anatomy of the protest” in the film format. There is a feeling that the goal of “Sleepers” is not only to cement the already existing “rules of the game”, but also a warning that all new “games” will follow such rules in the future.

The premise of the film is that Russia is inundated with the “sleeping” (and by the time the action starts – by the urgently “woken up”) CIA agents. Among them are the officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Energy, diplomats and moles in the FSB, teachers and students of MGIMO, and most importantly – virtually all opposition bloggers, journalists and human rights activists. At the same time, all of the above-mentioned characters are engaged not in “banal” theft of secrets, but in constant killings, terrorist acts, kidnappings and torture, regime overthrows and other atrocities.

Weapons Training at US Moody Air Force Base, c. 2011

According to the film, it is the CIA that trains terrorists (not anywhere, but in sunny California) who fire on the Russian embassy in Libya at close range, killing several dozen people. In the series, American intelligence coldly liquidates its own agents, sacrifices popular members of the opposition in order to instigate rallies, plans terrorist acts capable of killing thousands of people, and pins all the blame on the perfectly innocent and naively benevolent FSB.

Any dirt on the higher-ups, according to the authors’ viewpoint, is a complete fake, created by the CIA in order to discredit the Chekists and disrupt international contracts that benefit the long-suffering homeland. Any crime that is obviously beneficial to the FSB and is clearly organized by them is, in fact, a shrewd operation by the foreign special services, an insidious “set up”, a delicate illusion. Any wave of popular discontent is initiated from the outside, paid for and artificially incited by the armies of trolls. Yes, in the “Sleepers” it is the CIA, and not the Kremlin, through its Russian agents, that is running a real “troll factory” with clear instructions and methodologies.

Everything in this series is turned upside down, besmirched and utterly discredited. Opposition journalists and bloggers are fabulously rich, influential and hypocritical. The government is trying to please them, officials curry favor with them, their children are studying in elite schools, Internet trolls work for them. They are able to easily buy tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials for their investigations in order to once again attack the defenseless FSB. The “office”, in turn, is full of knights without fear and reproach, ready to risk their own lives to protect the “liberals” who hate them from cynical American intelligence. The FSB officers meekly face unwarranted accusations, read their mistresses lengthy political lectures about the orange revolutions, and pine for the USSR while almost shedding a manly tear remembering its collapse.

In fact, if you follow the evolution of cinema propaganda, “Sleepers” is not the first series where such stories are told. A decade ago, in 2007, the series “Spetsgruppa” was released.  It was dedicated to the FSB and in one of its installments a similar plot was played: a CIA officer who passes pseudo-compromising material about the FSB to an opposition journalist, and the FSB, which protects the dissident from the insidious American. But then the topic was presented in a more refined way: the sinister “Yankee” initially used the journalist without his knowledge, and the oppositionist himself at the last moment acted on principle and refused to cooperate with the CIA. Now, after so many crimes actually committed by the Russian special services, propaganda can no longer afford such refinement. The purpose of today’s “agitation through the cinema” is to justify the already existing sea of ​​blood – both today and possibly in the future.

The creators of the series repeatedly stressed – “the story is based on real events.” In fact, it is so closely intertwined with the reality of propaganda that sometimes it’s simply impossible to tell them apart. Suffice it to recall how in the spring of 2016 on the channel “Russia” in the program “Vesti” a story came out about a publicly accessible server that stored secret documents written in bad English that belonged to the MI6 and the CIA (the plot creates an impression that this is the same organization).

These documents said that 10 years ago the CIA sent MI-6 agent William Browder to recruit Aleksei Navalny in order to help “undermine the foundations of the constitutional system in the Russian Federation.” Apparently, the words were specifically chosen by the CIA in order to make it easy for the FSB investigators to fabricate their next criminal cases, since no one, except for the authors of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and the investigative protocols, would have thought to describe the political system operating in Russia as based on constitutional order. At least such associations do not come readily to anyone in the West.

Also, according to “Vesti”, Browder gave Navalny the secret pseudonym assigned to him in the CIA (or MI6), which completely matched his Skype login (so as to leave no doubt). Both the recruitment and assignment of tasks were also done through Skype – obviously, there were no more reliable channels for Navalny, who had visited the US numerous times, to contact the US security services. This correspondence between the two skype-nicks shown on the big screen served as the main (and only, not counting the “CIA printouts”) “evidence” in the case. Of course, we do not hear the voices of Navalny and Browder, and we only see how the text appears on the screen in perfect Russian, with some of the dates between the question and the answer being two years apart.

In short, the story of Navalny and his recruitment was so clumsily molded by Dmitry Kiselyov and his team that even an ordinary, loyal-to-the NTV Russian viewer became skeptical.  In the new series, this story was presented much more artistically: instead of Skype, reading information from a microcircuit on a metro pass, instead of a boring “blowing up of the foundations of the constitutional system” – literally, blowing up a large crowd of like-minded people in the center of Moscow. And, of course, the assassination of the main oppositionist by a killer from the CIA’s intelligence network looks like either an awkward attempt to justify the murder of Boris Nemtsov, or a clear hint of a possible murder of Navalny.

And the last moment is the most frightening. The message of “Sleepers” is not only to show the opposition as spoiled, cruel, deceitful, unpatriotic and corrupt. It’s an open, direct acknowledgement that the oppositionists are being killed and will be killed, terror acts during protests are possible, and the main victims of these crimes were (or will be?) those who expose the FSB most of all.  The story is based on real events, right? Hence, the plot refers to real crimes and deaths, real charges of real corruption, real torture and threats. And, judging by the fact that “the enemies are not asleep”, such “intrigues of the CIA” will continue in the future.

It’s for this turn of events that filmmakers warn the viewer: if you encounter such things in reality, do not believe your eyes!  Corruption evidence is fabricated by the CIA, dissidents are either bribed or being used, anything that looks like the action of the FSB is the action of the CIA officers, disguised as Chekists. It turns out that in Russia, where special services track even the Internet correspondence of single mothers and opposition-minded saleswomen, American intelligence officers feel at home: they kill, kidnap, blast, torture and lie. Any person who disparages those in power, even if he speaks the most proper, clever, true and forceful words is necessarily a hypocrite, a rich man, and as it turns out in the end, he is also the main villain, the right hand of the CIA resident, personally responsible for the most brutal murders and provocations.

By the way, in the serial, which on the whole is as mediocre as a political propaganda of the late Soviet period, there are still a couple of strong parts, and they are the dialogues: the disputes between the “statesmen” and the “liberals”. Perhaps, they are given strength by the fact that they reflect the inner dialogue of the director himself, Yuri Bykov – a person, by his own admission, “infinitely floating and doubting”. It is not known how accurately they follow the scenario of Sergei Minaev, but it seems that Bykov, confused in a tangle of conscience and compromise with his patrons, argues with himself about what is more important – to preserve fragile “stability” in a corrupt dictatorship or to change the situation “at any cost”.

However, the brilliance and credibility of opposition statements in the film are even more harmful than if they sounded like mediocre clichés. For example, the right words about an honest court, the dominance of corruption, democracy, civic stand and Chekists, who stole the country and old hopes from the people, are proclaimed by, as already noted, “the main villain”, the person responsible for all the murders and intrigues of the series. And the more refined the  juxtaposition of the hero’s honesty and charisma with the falsity of his image, the deeper the immunity to any opposition arguments that is being implanted into the consciousness of the TV-consumer, since they are now associated only with treachery and betrayal. In addition, every such “liberal” in the film necessarily faces a “patriot” who blasts all his arguments to bits. Truly, if something cannot be destroyed, it’s easier to discredit it.

By the way, Yuri Bykov has already issued a repentant statement, where he called himself “a weak and confused person.”

I, apparently, until the end did not realize how unforgivable it is to not be clear, honest and accurate with the theme in the series” Sleepers “. Hundreds of honest people suffered from the regime and arbitrariness of power that I tried to protect in this series… I betrayed all the progressive generations that wanted to change something in this country, “the director confesses, promising to” go off into the shadows “and” not to mislead people who really want to believe that changes are possible.

Indeed, Bykov, judging by his own words, “did not fully understand” that he went too far, possibly hoping to justify a compromise with his conscience by showing his real doubts. Yes, among the Russian opposition there really are unscrupulous people who hypocritically denounce the authorities and at the same time are friendly with them, there are pseudo-liberals and people indifferent to their country. But there aren’t as many of them as the propagandists would have us believe.  And most importantly – this is not an excuse to slander a huge number of honest people, and to justify their murders.

And that’s why the “Sleepers” are much more frightening than the “Anatomy of the Protest” or even the broadcast about Navalny and the CIA. The above subjects were also thoroughly slanderous, but at least they didn’t justify murders and terrorist attacks. The message of “Sleepers” is the “black mark” on the Russian opposition, it’s a clear hint that behind the badge of the CIA new “sacrificial victims” will appear. And director Bykov with his colleagues, whether he wanted it or not, passed this mark on to the Russian civil society.


Feature Photo: Navy Day Celebration 2016, Kremlin.ru, 2017

Inset Photo: Weapons Training at US Moody Air Force Base, Moody Air Force Base, 2017

DefenceReport’s weekly recap is a multi-format blog that features opinions and insights from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports and analysis, which are based on independent and objective reporting.


By Kseniya Kirillova

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist that focuses on analyzing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Center for Army, conversion, and disarmament studies and the Free Russia foundation.