In November 2016, just two weeks after the U.S. presidential election, a mysterious ad was posted on Indeed, the popular job website, seeking reporters for a one-day gig: capturing live video of the inauguration of Donald Trump. A few weeks later, a similar notice appeared in Russian on another website.
The firm behind the ads wasn’t a typical media outlet, but a virtual travel company based in Southern California that allows users to hire people to film things anywhere in the world on demand. Even more unusual is the background of its founder, a former top official of the Russian security service.
Virtravel, founded in 2015, is the brainchild of Yevgeniy Savostyanov, who has been involved in everything from shutting down the Communist Party’s central headquarters in Moscow as the Soviet Union collapsed, to consulting on Hollywood movies. His most prominent position, however, was a three-year stint as the head of the Moscow division of the Federal Security Service, now known as the FSB, during the tumultuous years under President Boris Yeltsin.
The company’s model relies on what the company calls “proxies,” people who are paid to go places at the request of users, who are the virtual “travelers.” Alexey Savostyanov, the founder’s adult son, compares the model to Uber. But instead of matching paying riders with drivers, Virtravel’s app matches proxy travelers with people who want to virtually visit places. The customers could be news agencies, or people who are too sick or busy to travel, he says.
“Let’s imagine that I’m currently sitting in Los Angeles and want to go for a walk around Washington,” says Savostyanov, who lives in Southern California. “But, now I have pretty busy schedule, so I can’t do it myself.”
With Virtravel, the would-be traveler can open the app, available for free in the Apple iTunes store, find a “proxy” near the location the user wants to visit, and the two sides agree on a price. “After that, you’ll be able to give [the proxy] any commands to go wherever you want,” he says.
Although Virtravel is incorporated in Delaware and based in California, the intellectual property and the company itself belong to Alexey Savostyanov’s father, who lives in Moscow. “He is the boss and the inventor of this idea, and I’m helping him to develop this,” Alexey Savostyanov says.
Virtravel’s launch in the United States comes at an inauspicious time. Russian firms connected to the security services, particularly those involving computer technology, are viewed with suspicion. Kaspersky, the Russian-owned cybersecurity firm, has gone from industry darling to U.S. government pariah in a few short years.
Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Kremlin-directed meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has already produced an indictment of the Internet Research Agency — an infamous Russian troll factory — and 13 people associated with it.
Ilya Zaslavskiy, the head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy, argues that Virtravel could well be a legitimate business, but “if necessary the Russian state could use them” for intelligence purposes.
The company’s business model would have “plausible deniability” for those who might want to film strategic places in the United States or other countries, he says. (The most recent post to the company’s Instagram account is of a trip to the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, which focuses on nuclear missiles and military aircraft, in Nebraska.)
A Russian-owned company that pays travelers to film things like the Trump inauguration seems tailor-made to attract suspicion, but Alexey Savostyanov shrugs off those worries. “Frankly speaking, we are Russian guys,” he says. “We don’t treat this project as some kind of Russian project.”
And so far, Virtravel has avoided any scrutiny or public criticism. “Thanks God, we never experienced any pressure or some negative impression of the project,” he adds.
For a former KGB official, Yevgeniy Savostyanov is surprisingly eager to talk. Reached by email, he immediately agreed to an interview, first suggesting a meeting at a ski resort outside Moscow, but eventually proposing an upscale restaurant in the capital owned by a friend.
Savostyanov’s biography is hard to fit into any easy narrative. A geophysicist by training, in 1989 he helped elect Andrei Sakharov, the famed Russian scientist and dissident, to the newly formed Congress of People’s Deputies. Savostyanov’s own attempts to get elected to office as a democratic reformer failed, but he nonetheless ended up working in politics.
His career took an even more unusual turn in the fall of 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, when Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him as vice chairman of the KGB, and head of its Moscow branch, at a time when the future of the security service was in doubt. A 1992 New Yorker profile described the scientist-turned-KGB official as a “card-carrying intellectual liberal.”
Two years later, the card-carrying liberal was involved in the Russian invasion of Grozny, a bloody conflict that led Chechens to rally behind the secessionist movement. Savostyanov says a Chechen leader threatened his entire family. “All my children [had] to go to school surrounded by the guards,” he says. “They were very proud.”
Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who has written about the country’s security service, describes Yevgeny Savostyanov as “an interesting guy — he has two or three faces.” Soldatov notes that Savostyanov has reinvented himself over the years but has been, at least in the past, reluctant to speak about his time in the KGB. (Savostyanov recently published a book that covers his time in the security service.)
But ultimately, his KGB career was short-lived. In 1994, he sent security forces to intervene in a raid by an unidentified armed group of a prominent Moscow bank. The armed group, as it turned out, were members of Yeltsin’s bodyguards (Savostyanov says their actions were illegal). After the bank incident, he was fired.
He remained active in politics for the rest of the decade, including a brief, failed bid for the Russian presidency in 2000, yet his KGB position dominates his resume.
Savostyanov calls his time in the KGB his “biography tax.” Everything else he’s done, whether establishing a committee to improve U.S.-Russian relations, or opening a virtual travel agency, is viewed with suspicion because of his time in the Russian security service.
“All my life, there were a lot of episodes, very interesting and very important,” he says. “Although three years in the KGB attracts much more attention than everything else.”
Not everyone viewed Savostyanov as a reformer. Former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko claimed in his book Blowing Up Russia that Savostyanov infiltrated Russia’s democratic movement and played an “important role in saving the KGB from destruction.” (Savostyanov says he met Litvinenko just a few times; Litvinenko died in 2006 after being poisoned by polonium in what is widely believed to be a Kremlin-directed plot.)
After Savostyanov left the KGB, he continued his career as a public figure — at times critical of the Russian government, but also working with it. He established a center dedicated to improving U.S.-Russian relations and helped launch a U.S. lawsuit in 2011 to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, Cold War-era legislation meant to pressure Russia on human rights. More recently, he worked on intellectual property protection with the Ministry of Culture, but quit in 2015 to protest what he described as a government crackdown on artistic freedom.
Savostyanov openly worries Russia under President Vladimir Putin is growing more isolated, its economy is in shambles, and it’s more difficult for Russians to travel abroad. Savostyanov, however, says he no longer gets involved in politics. The last time he was on television, he called Putin’s foreign policy “a big mistake and even a catastrophe.”
He hasn’t been invited back to speak on television since, but says he isn’t bothered.
His current incarnation as a tech entrepreneur is as unlikely as every other part of his resume. But it also raises the question of why he would register the company under his own name, given the state of hysteria in the United States over Russia and its intelligence operations abroad. “I have no choice, because it was my idea,” he says.
The technology for Virtravel was originally developed in Russia, but the company decided it needed U.S. experience, so it turned to software developers in California, who produced the current version. (Alexey Savostyanov won’t say how much they spent to develop the app, but describes it as an “absolutely private project.”)
Yevgeniy Savostyanov and his colleagues had discussed the possibility that Virtravel could be seen as suspect, he acknowledges, but he argues it would be impractical to use the app to order up spies on demand. Proxies have to follow local laws, he says, and, moreover, other communications apps could also be used for nefarious purposes.
“Why they cannot spy with help of Skype or FaceTime?” he asks.
The difference between those applications and Virtravel is payment, but that doesn’t make it Uber for spies, he says. “It’s an important difference, but it doesn’t answer to the question of spying,” he says. “Nobody will hire spies for 20 cents a minute. Yes?”
While Yevgeniy Savostyanov sees nothing unusual about a Russian-owned company that pays an army of proxies (“our eyes and ears” as he calls them) to film things on demand, intelligence veterans Foreign Policy spoke with expressed a mix of suspicion and befuddlement over the venture. (None had any specific information about Savostyanov or even any indication the company is a concern to the U.S. intelligence community.)
“This is wild,” says John Sipher, a former CIA official who ran the agency’s Russia operations, after having Virtravel’s operations described to him.
“It’s truly odd,” agrees Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, when asked about the company.
Hoffman says the idea of it being nefarious shouldn’t be discounted just because the company is open about its ownership (while Virtravel doesn’t advertise its Russian connections, online business records link it back to the Savostyanovs). He notes that the Russian troll factory, which has been implicated in interfering in the 2016 presidential election, also didn’t hide its existence.
Making something discoverable was part of Putin’s plot to “soil our democratic process,” Hoffman says.
Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says the travel company matches recent Russian tradecraft. “It is possible they would set up a company like this essentially as a front,” he says. But it’s “more likely” that the company is “precisely what it purports to be, but potentially open to being used from time to time when Moscow has a specific need.”
Galeotti calls this approach of setting up companies abroad to engage in occasional espionage “a rather parsimonious blend of free-market opportunism and spookery.”
But one former senior FBI counterintelligence official, who asked not to be named, was skeptical that the travel company amounted to an elaborate ruse or was part of a covert operation. The company, he says, just looks like a “bad business deal.”
And just because a business plan is implausible doesn’t mean it’s a cover, says a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was born and grew up in the Soviet Union. “Most start-ups have very stupid ideas, including start-ups that are not intelligence firms,” the entrepreneur says.
The entrepreneur also warns of overblowing the ability of Russia’s ability to use private firm to interfere in U.S. politics. “In general, all of this election meddling has been overblown, and has given Putin power he didn’t have before,” the person says. “If you have monsters in the closet, it gives these monsters power.”
But that doesn’t mean a former KGB official running a tech firm should be taken lightly. “I don’t think KGB ever become ex-KGB,” the entrepreneur says. “I don’t think you can retire from that organization.”
Zaslavskiy, the researcher on Russian kleptocracy, says Virtravel fits into what he sees as a broader trend of businessmen with Kremlin connections who have invested in U.S. tech ventures. Those include Ashot Gabrelyanov, the son of Aram Gabrelyanov, a Putin-linked oligarch, who started an organization called Babo that pays people to provide images to news media.
“Russians are very keen on penetrating Silicon Valley,” Zaslavskiy says, adding that it gives Moscow potential access to information and technology that can be used by the security services.
As for Yevgeny Savostyanov, Zaslavskiy says, he may have cultivated a reputation as a reformer, or occasionally criticized Putin, but he has remained fundamentally loyal to the Kremlin. “He is part of the system,” Zaslavskiy says.
Whether Savostyanov is a true liberal, a political insider, or a mix of both, may not matter for the company, whose aspirations go beyond the United States.
The company already has proxies “in the majority of countries,” says Alexey Savostyanov.
According to the younger Savostyanov, the Trump inauguration was supposed to be the company’s public debut, not for political reasons, but because it would be “a cool event.” As it turned out, the technology wasn’t ready until May 2017, and so the company is now looking at other high-profile events, like the World Cup in Russia.
“Unfortunately we do not yet have millions and millions of users,” he says. “I hope we will in the nearest months.”
Elias Groll contributed reporting to this article.
Jana Winter is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. (@janawinter)