BELLEVUE, Wash. — Agata Burdonova may marvel on LiveJournal over the fact that she lives just a couple of miles from Bill Gates’ house, but I’m marveling more over the fact that I live just a couple of miles from her apartment.
The proximity is notable because Burdonova has been drawn into an international controversy over her connections to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA. That’s the infamous troll factory whose activities sparked 13 federal indictments this month, stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.
According to a report from Russia’s TV Rain, Burdonova was an aide to the head of the IRA’s media and public forums department, Katarina Aistova, who figured in a New York Times story about the operation in 2015.
Burdonova’s voluminous social-media postings paint a much softer picture, however, showing her as a selfie-loving, 31-year-old linguist who helped Russians hone their English-language skills in St. Petersburg and in Minsk, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Belarus. (Did we mention she loves salsa dancing?)
On LiveJournal as well as Facebook and its Russian analog, VKontakte, Burdonova documented her journey from Minsk to Bellevue in December, accompanied by husband, a software engineer named Dmitry Fyodorov.
The photographs show the couple enjoying some of the same haunts I frequent on the Eastside, including Bellevue’s Downtown Park, Kelsey Creek and Tiger Mountain.
“Washington is not without reason called the Evergreen State,” she writes in Russian on her LiveJournal blog, titled Philolozhka. “Here it is green even in winter.”
Other postings show their digs in a downtown Bellevue apartment complex. One focuses on the desktop where Burdonova’s computer screen is open to the English-language dictionary listing for “toboggan.”
It seems likely that Burdonova and Fyodorov won their visas to live and work in the U.S. because of Fyodorov’s software skills: His LinkedIn page notes that he used to work in Minsk and St. Petersburg but is now a software engineer at Wargaming.net.
This afternoon I stopped by Wargaming.net’s office in Redmond, Wash., not far from Microsoft’s main campus. The receptionist couldn’t say whether Fyodorov worked there; nevertheless, I dropped off a business card to pass along.
The same goes for the apartment complex: The couple’s names don’t appear on the call box at the entryway, but the building’s leasing agent took my card anyway. I also left messages via Facebook and LinkedIn.
TV Rain quotes two of its sources as saying that Burdonova was one of the “managers on duty” in Aistova’s department at the IRA, providing English-language pointers. It’s also important to note that TV Rain quotes Burdonova as denying she was involved with the troll factory.
Part of the concern comes from the IRA’s modus operandi, as reported in this month’s indictments. The group allegedly sent operatives traveling around the U.S. to get the political lay of the land and suggest social-media strategies for molding public opinion in key states.
Neither Aistova nor Burdonova are among those indicted, and there’s no indication in Burdonova’s social-media postings that she had any sort of role with the IRA, or all that much of a political bent. (One Star Wars-themed posting on VKontakte declares that “A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance.”)
Her postings do show that she worked for a while at IM Action, an internet marketing agency that’s based in Minsk. And then there’s the picture of Aistova giving Burdonova a farewell hug, which Burdonova posted on VKontakte just before she left for Bellevue.
“Before leaving for another hemisphere, it’s important to recharge the friendship and gushing joy,” Burdonova wrote.
Just friends? Or co-workers as well? It’s virtually impossible to get the whole story from here in Bellevue, especially considering that the IRA is said to specialize in fake news. (Just ask Adrian Chen, who admits that the trolls got inside his head while he was working on the New York Times story.)
But whether it’s fakery or a fluke, the fact that a mystery is swirling virtually just down the street only heightens my curiosity. I’m hoping Agata and Dmitri get my card. I’m hoping they’ll call.
Update for 12:30 p.m. PT Feb. 27: Buzzfeed News’ Adolfo Flores went to Wargaming.net’s office and caught up with Fyodorov, who told him he came to the U.S. on an L-1 work visa. Fyodorov is quoted as saying that Burdonov has an L-2 visa for dependents, which would allow her to work as long as she wins U.S. authorization.
Flores said Fyodorov told him the reports that Burdonov worked for the IRA are false. “She never worked for them,” he’s quoted as saying.