In his 2014 book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” Peter Pomerantsev describes modern Russia as a decadently surreal place where the ruling regime fuses propaganda with over-the-top entertainment to systematically distort and re-create reality.
Pomerantsev, the British son of Russian émigrés, had worked in Russia’s state-controlled television industry, and portrayed it as a hypnotic circus full of wild, melodramatic extremes. Rationality, he wrote, “was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hatemongers were put on prime time to keep the nation entranced, distracted, as ever more foreign hirelings would arrive to help the Kremlin and spread its vision to the world.”
We still don’t know the details of Donald Trump’s possible collusion with Russia, but as a result of his election, the febrile atmosphere Pomerantsev described has spread to the United States. Our politics feel dreamlike in their garish improbability; a running joke on Twitter is that the showrunners for this season of America have jumped the shark.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the strange saga of Anastasia Vashukevich. She is a Belarusian woman, a self-described “sex expert,” who is now in a Thai jail and who claims, in a desperate Instagram video, to be the “the missing link in the connection between Russia and the U.S. elections.”
It sounds, of course, like an outrageous scam, and perhaps it is. But Vashukevich, who goes by the alias Nastya Rybka, has a documented link to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who figures prominently in one of the scandals surrounding the Trump campaign. Indeed, that link may be why she’s locked up in the first place. Whether you believe her or not, her bizarre, sordid story offers real clues to the chain connecting Trump’s circle to the highest level of the Russian government.
Vashukevich first came to the attention of close watchers of the Trump-Russia story last month, thanks to a 25-minute video by Alexei Navalny, a Russian dissident famed for exposing corruption in his country. Like many domestic opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Navalny had regarded the American uproar over Trump’s Russia ties skeptically. But his investigation – which he said led to the “most scandalous findings in the history of our work,” according to the video’s English-language subtitles – appears to have altered his thinking.
It began in September, when a group of women in scanty bondage gear walked into the Moscow office of Navalny’s organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation. At that very moment, journalists from a pro-Putin media outlet just happened to be passing by, and recorded their presence.
Navalny wanted to find out who the women were and who had sent them. He discovered that they were, as he put it in the video, a “mildly insane” squad of activist sex workers who specialize in weird pranks, like picketing the U.S. Embassy naked in support of Harvey Weinstein. And one of them, Vashukevich, had lots of photographs of herself and the politically powerful Deripaska on her Instagram account.
Deripaska, remember, is the oligarch that the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered to brief privately on the American presidential campaign. He’s been connected to Russian organized crime, and Manafort appeared to owe him a lot of money. (A court filing in the Cayman Islands said Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, couldn’t account for nearly $19 million that they were supposed to invest for a business controlled by Deripaska.) After joining the Trump campaign, Manafort emailed an intermediary, asking, apparently in reference to Deripaska, “How do we use to get whole?”
Navalny initially dismissed speculation that Deripaska had served as a back channel between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. “Among all the conspiracy theories of American mass media, this part was the most unconvincing,” he said in the video. “Many oligarchs are close to Putin,” and there was no evidence that Deripaska was transmitting secret intelligence to him.
But then Navalny and his team looked closely at the Instagram account of Deripaska’s nubile consort. Vashukevich had posted video from an August 2016 trip to Norway on Deripaska’s yacht with several other escorts. And on that yacht was a Russian deputy prime minister, Sergei Prikhodko. In the video, you can even hear Deripaska and Prikhodko talking about Russia’s bad relations with the United States, for which Deripaska blamed Victoria Nuland, Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Seeing it, said Navalny, “the pieces of this puzzle fell into place.”
Within 24 hours of Navalny posting his investigation, a Russian court issued a ruling trying to block access to it. Deripaska filed a claim against Vashukevich and Alexander Kirillov, a self-styled “sex guru” she’s close to, for invasion of privacy. And at some point Vashukevich and Kirillov took off for Thailand.
They were arrested there Sunday, while teaching a “sex training” seminar for Russian tourists in the resort city of Pattaya. (The charges were working without a permit.)From what was apparently the back of an open-air police vehicle, Vashukevich made an Instagram video begging Americans for help. “I’m ready to give you all the missing puzzle pieces, support them with videos and audios, regarding the connections of our respected lawmakers with Trump, Manafort and the rest,” she said, according to CNN’s translation.
When the news about Vashukevich’s arrest broke, my first thought was that it was some sort of dirty trick, a sideshow designed to make the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections look ridiculous. After all, one thing we’ve learned from this whole affair is that Deripaska maintains relationships with sex workers who participate in gonzo political theater. (That itself is useful knowledge in evaluating the more salacious claims in the infamous dossier compiled by the British former spy Christopher Steele.)
But Vashukevich and Kirillov really are being detained, and, speaking from a police van, Kirillov told The Associated Press that he believes Russia is behind their arrests. He has reportedly sent a handwritten letter to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand pleading for asylum in exchange for information.
Navalny told the AP he didn’t know what to think. “Shows like ‘Homeland’ begin to look entirely realistic when you look at what is happening in Russia now,” he said. “We thought the scriptwriters made the most impossible things up, but in Russia the most absurd things are possible.”
They are in America, too. Could a social-media-obsessed escort help explain the degrading nightmare of the Trump presidency? It seems like the preposterously lazy plot of a sub-B movie. But these days, so does everything else in our politics.