Russia-Trump troll suspect defends internet job

Image caption,
Sergei Polozov is relaxed about efforts to influence foreign elections

A Russian computer expert accused of meddling in the US 2016 presidential election says he simply did ordinary IT work, not political trolling.

Sergei Polozov is among 13 Russians named in the Mueller indictment, which alleges a systematic Russian state effort to influence US voters.

Mr Polozov told BBC Russian he knew nothing about a Russian "troll farm" called the Internet Research Agency.

The agency's alleged location, he said, was a business centre he had visited.

"My job was typical of co-operation between an IT company and any subcontractor: you are set a task, for example, to create a website, a visiting card, a web page."

None of those tasks, he stressed, involved use of the English language or targets in the US.

'Active patriot'

He said he had collaborated with workers at Savushkina 55, the St Petersburg address alleged to have been the nerve centre of Russian cyber-meddling in the US election, ahead of Donald Trump's victory.

Mr Polozov admitted having done tasks for Mikhail Burchik, another name on US Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment.

But he did not give details of his help for the St Petersburg "business centre". None of the other named Russian suspects has spoken to the BBC at length.

Image caption,
This building at Savushkina 55 in St Petersburg allegedly housed the "troll factory"

He described himself as "a quite active patriot". "I love Russia and like the direction in which we're going."

The Russian agency - IRA for short - allegedly spread millions of tweets and at least 180,000 Facebook posts aimed at influencing US voters.

US special counsel Robert Mueller issued an indictment in February 2018 accusing 13 Russian nationals and three Russian firms of such meddling.

It alleges that Mr Polozov worked for the Russian IRA from about April 2014 to about October 2016, managing its IT department.

It says he "oversaw the procurement of US server and other computer infrastructure that masked the organisation's Russian location when conducting operations within the United States".

BBC Russian interviewed Mr Polozov via Skype about the allegations.

'Pool of organisations'

When asked if he knew of fake social media accounts being created at Savushkina 55, he said: "I thought of it as a sort of pool of organisations doing stuff there.

"I didn't understand it to be a unified structure, whether in terms of the technical tasks or the type of people I was co-operating with."

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon close to President Vladimir Putin, allegedly ran the IRA operation. The Kremlin denies that there was any such operation to influence the US election.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Pro-Putin agents are suspected of having helped the Trump campaign on social media

Mr Polozov said the US accusation about the Russian agency "is a kind of fabrication, an inflated story, rather than a real company".

"I think lots of us have two or three fake accounts in social media," he said, adding that if the agency indeed existed "then they would be patriots doing something for their country".

"I want to believe in such a thing, that there are people transmitting not negative, but positive stuff - that's cool."

He said he was now avoiding foreign travel because of the risk that he could be arrested.