Russian television has become full of awful political propaganda long ago. Most sensible people have stopped watching it altogether and escaped to the internet. However, the horrible parasites from the state-owned TV channels have found a way to suck out money even from those who never watch their shows.
There is a certain political TV show in Russia that is truly abysmal even compared to its competitors from other channels. This travesty of a news satire is called “International Sawmill”, comes out on Saturdays on NTV and is hosted by Tigran Keosayan. He makes horrible jokes about world leaders (for instance, he finds it hillarious to constantly talk about Emmanuel Macron’s homosexuality), pulls faces every ten seconds he’s on screen and, of course, never stops praising Vladimir Putin. Upon analyzing all 138 of the show’s episodes, we’ve counted a total of 3300 mentions of the Russian president (including the 426 times he was referred to as “Chief”). That’s an average of 24 mentions per episode.
Normally, such shows are taken off the air within a few months and quickly forgotten. But “International Sawmill” is actually one of the most profitable TV shows for its creators and is filling their pockets with hundreds of millions of rubles. There obviously must be a catch here, and we’re going to tell you all about it now.
Upon studying photos from the set of “International Sawmill”, we noticed that it looks awfully familiar. As it turns out, Keosayan’s show for NTV is actually shot at the studio of state-owned RussiaToday (RT) channel headed by his wife Margarita Simonyan. “International Sawmill” uses RT’s cameras and lighting equipment, all people working on it are RT employees. Even the table Keosayan sits at in his show is borrowed from another show on Simonyan’s channel.
Luckily, someone anonymously sent us a huge amount of financial and accounting documents related to Simonyan and Keosayan. This allowed us to uncover the actual production costs of “International Sawmill” and the amount of money our couple makes on it. After carefully studying these documents and verifying their authenticity by comparing their contents to information from open sources, we are now ready to present you a full analysis of the business empire of Margarita Simonyan and her family.
To start off, NTV buys “International Sawmill” from Tigran Keosayan’s production company “Gold Vision”. Each episode costs 3.4 million rubles ($52 thousand), and an average of 35 episodes come out every year. This means that Keosayan receives around 120 million rubles ($1.8 million) from NTV annually. Keep in mind that NTV is a state-controlled channel, which means that these 120 million come from the pockets of ordinary Russians. It’s worth noting that “Gold Vision” only pays RT 370 thousand rubles ($5.6 thousand) for every episode shot at their premises, which is much fewer than the actual costs of renting the channel’s studio, equipment and personnel.
Sadly, that’s not the only way Keosayan and Simonyan make money on ordinary Russians.
State-owned airline Aeroflot has paid our couple over 1 billion rubles ($15 million) since 2017 for advertising it in “International Sawmill” and Larry King’s show “Politicking” shown on RT America. Needless to say, spending this much money on advertising your company on the most atrocious show on Russian TV, as well as a show that barely gets any views on RT’s Youtube channel, seems like a highly questionable investment.
Even though Aeroflot issues a new tender every year, its contractor is always the same advertising agency called “Invento”. It’s a pocket company of Margarita Simonyan registered to a nominee, and its sole purpose is to transfer money to the personal bank accounts of Keosayan and Simonyan. “Invento” is also the official owner of at least 8 cars and 2 motorcycles worth a total of 45 million rubles ($700 thousand). Our spouses can be frequently seen driving one of these cars, a Mercedes-AMG S63 convertible worth 11 million rubles ($170 thousand).
Every month, “Invento” receives money from Aeroflot under a state contract, pays the real price for placing the ads to NTV and RT and keeps the rest of the money. For example, in 2019 the company received 228 million rubles ($3.5 million) from Aeroflot and paid 59 million ($900 thousand) to NTV for the ads on “International Sawmill” and 30 to RT for the ads on Larry King’s show, resulting in an annual margin of 139 million ($2.1 million). In total, “Invento” has received 660 million rubles ($10.1 million) from Aeroflot under state contracts between 2017 ad 2019 with a total margin of 404 million ($6.2 million). This means that “Invento” has kept around 60% of all the money it has received in this period for itself.
But where exactly does this money go afterwards? Most of it is transferred to the aforementioned “Gold Vision” production studio. This means that for every episode of “International Sawmill” two payments are received: first by NTV and then by Aeroflot. In total, it gets to a whopping 6.6 million rubles ($101 thousand) for the production of every single episode of this show.
If “International Sawmill” has such a high budget, then everyone working on it must have a really high salary, right? Wrong. The main actress gets 10 thousand rubles ($150) per episode. Keosayan himself makes 74 million rubles ($1.1 million) a year, but there’s one person working on the show who earns even more than him: Margarita Simonyan, artistic director of “International Sawmill”. Her annual salary is 76 million rubles ($1.2 million). The fact that she works on this show is actually a well-kept secret: Simonyan isn’t mentioned in the credit, and she’s never publicly admitted it. However, payments received by her with a clear explanation of their purpose leave us absolutely no doubt.
The relatives of our couple also got a piece of the pie. Tigran Keosayan’s brother has earned 9 million rubles ($138 thousand) as the formal director of “Gold Vision”, and his daughter-in-law Yunona Glotova, who works as the executive producer of “International Sawmill”, has made another 7 million ($108 thousand) over the past two years.
According to our calculations, over the past three years, 480 million rubles ($7.3 million) have been transferred to the accounts of Simoyan and Keosayan for their work on “International Sawmill”. They will receive another 160 million ($2.5 million) this year, meaning that they will have pocketed 640 million rubles ($9.8 million) over four years.
But of course, this isn’t nearly enough for our couple. Between 2017 and 2019, “Invento” has received another 398 million rubles ($6.1 million) from Aeroflot for the company ads disguised as news stories on NTV. For instance, the channel has aired a story about Aeroflot receiving some sort of an award, and another one about a meeting of the company’s public council. These amazing news stories cost Aeroflot 1.85 million rubles ($28 thousand) each.
Another example of these paid “news” can be found in form of the payments to a company called “Center for political strategies”. It was formerly owned by Andrey Kondrashov, first deputy director of VGTRK, host and head manager of “Vesti” news program and close friend of Margarita Simonyan. Kondrashov was literally selling ads in the programs he was in charge of. In total 80 million rubles ($1.2 million) was paid for airing the “news” about Aeroflot on the Russia-1 TV channel.
It’s worth noting that Aeroflot is currently very stingy when it comes to anything else but Simonyan. It has recently refused to employ a cleaning company for domestic flights and is forcing cabin crews to clean the planes themselves. Crew members are also never provided single hotel rooms if they have to spend the night in the arrival city. Even the food rations get smaller. And, of course, the ticket prices keep rising. Basically, instead of making life better for its employees or making its flights more affordable, Aeroflot prefers to spend almost 1.5 billion rubles ($23 million) on advertising itself through “International Sawmill” and paid news.
The money that doesn’t end up directly on the accounts of Simonyan and Keosayan gets laundered through a number of pocket companies that provide fake services or loans to each other and make dozens of transactions in order to hide all traces before finally transferring the money to our couple or their relatives and friends.
The key companies in this scheme are two other advertising agencies called “Marskeos” and “Coliseum”. While “Marskeos” is registered to a nominee, its beneficiaries are easy to identify from its name: MARgarita Simonyan and Tigran KEOSayan. “Coliseum”, in turn, is directly owned by Keosayan.
“Coliseum”’s main client was the organizing committee of the 2018 FIFA World Cup that took place in Russia. The company allegedly provided some PR services for the committee for a total of 209 million rubles ($3.2 million). One of the few evident examples of these services is the purchase of fan hats by “Coliseum” for a total amount of 300 thousand rubles ($4.6 thousand). 70 more millions ($1.1 million) were paid to “Coliseum” from sanctioned oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, and another 50 ($770 thousand) - from the Skolkovo Foundation.
The activities of “Marsekos” are much more fun. Since 2018, this company receives 8.3 million rubles ($128 thousand) every month from an FSB’s charity fund for “continuous PR support for the activities of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs”. It’s important to note that FSB and the MoI are usually considered to be fierce rivals in the fight for power in Russia. Thus, the former paying for the “PR support” of the latter sounds extremely odd. The fund itself hides this fact from its financial reports, which is a serious offense.
In total, these two companies have transferred 57 million rubles ($877 thousand) to Simonyan and her husband and another 47 million ($723 thousand) to her sister Alisa.
Both companies have also paid a total of 3.1 million rubles ($48 thousand) to Danila Gromov, the 24-year-old son of Alexey Gromov, who is the key figure of Russian TV. Gromov is the first deputy head of the presidential administration who oversees all issues of propaganda and television. He regularly gathers all the media leaders and explains to them what they should talk about this week. Alexey Gromov was the one who appointed the 25-year old Margarita Simonyan as the head of RT back in 2005. Gromov’s elder son also works for RT. They have even created a separate micro-media there just for him to manage.
Two more companies of Simonyan’s business empire, audit company "Korsakov and Partners" and "Personnel Center “Prof Personnel Resource", have used similar schemes to transfer a total of 48 million rubles ($738 thousand) to both her personally, another 48 million to her husband and 19 more million ($292 thousand) to her sister. This brings the total income of Simonyan and her family members over the past three years to 720 million rubles ($11 million).
To sum up, Margarita Simonyan is a perfect representative of Putin’s regime. She’s a dreadful journalist and manager, her TV channel has become a laughing stock for all the civilized world, but she’s still managed to steal more than half a billion rubles from the state-owned enterprises, i.e, from all the citizens of Russia.
Our video with English subtitles can be found here.