When a car bomb exploded on the outskirts of Moscow, killing 29-year-old Darya Dugina, the eyes of the West immediately turned to her father, Alexander Dugin – the ultra-nationalist philosopher credited with being the “spiritual guide” to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
But Dugina herself played a smaller, public role in advancing Russian soft power – assailing the West in TV appearances at home, while operating a disguised English-language online platform that pushed a pro-Kremlin worldview to Western readers.
In recent years, she had sought to build influence publicly, often with an international audience in mind.
And she was not alone. Dugina was one of a number of influential Russian women on the front lines of Russia’s disinformation war, representing the public face of the wider propaganda effort, both at home and abroad.
“There is a huge machine that works for this propagandistic effort, (and) she was a part of this machine,” said Roman Osadchuk, a Ukraine-based research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), who has investigated Dugina’s writings and digital output since 2020.
“She probably had potential to become an important player,” Osadchuk told CNN.
Her death provides a window into that vast operation, which exists on multiple levels; Dugina emulated the work of high-ranking Kremlin spokespeople, firebrand TV anchors, activists and countless content creators who – like her – pumped out Kremlin-friendly content on Western-facing blogs and websites, many of which have camouflaged origins.
Whatever their reach, “the thing that is similar for all of them is the direction of their effort,” Osadchuk said. “The main idea is (to) sow division and distrust towards the governments in the Western world … (to) create further polarization, or to expose problems and divisions in Western societies.”
A shady website that lambasted the West
For much of her life, Dugina had “followed in her father’s footsteps,” according to Osadchuk.
She used her public speeches, media appearances and website to advance a worldview similar to her father’s, which placed a “heavy-handed basis of the power of traditions,” and saw religion as “a primary part of governance itself.”
“They juxtaposed themselves against the West, which (they argued) is fighting not for family values but for sodomy, sin and represent the worst in people,” he added. Central to her beliefs was a steadfast commitment to Russian imperial objectives.
Dugina’s own appearances on domestic television placed her firmly in the group of analysts and talking heads who advocated for Russia’s war aims on a nightly basis. In one televised discussion before her death, she said the West needed to be “nourished” by Russia’s war in Ukraine in order to “wake up” from its uneducated worldview, according to a clip posted online by BBC Monitoring.
“Many are calling her a ‘child,’ But she wasn’t,” wrote Kamil Galeev, an independent researcher and former fellow at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy think tank in Washington, DC, in a lengthy Twitter thread that described Dugina as a “propagandist” and likened her appearances to a number of Russian male pundits.
According to the US State Department, Dugina in 2020 became chief editor of United World International (UWI) – an English and Turkish-language foreign affairs site created by the corporatized propaganda effort “Project Lakhta,” which the department says used fictitious online personas to interfere in US elections.
The website mimics the format of Western think tanks and news blogs, featuring articles by guest contributors from around the world, and aside from the occasional mistranslation, it bears few traces of its Russian origin.
“On the surface it looks like (it holds) a fringe view of the world, but you couldn’t immediately tell that this is something Russian,” said Osadchuk, whose investigation in 2020 revealed that social media accounts owned by Dugina were responsible for creating UWI’s Facebook presence.
“But if you go into the articles themselves, you could read it and see the Russian position all over,” he added.
“If Ukraine is admitted to NATO, it will perish as a state,” one headline on its site declared. A story published four days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine baselessly claimed that Putin was acting in defense of his country after receiving information of an imminent Ukrainian attack on Russia; another claims that “Ukraine’s accession to NATO would lead to the disappearance of the state called Russian Federation from the world map.” Other op-eds are focused on European affairs; often scathing of Western leaders or emphasizing the growth of far-left and far-right groups in the West.
The site worked to give a platform to fringe academics and thinkers, while also nudging Western readers skeptical of mainstream political institutions towards Moscow’s worldview, Osadchuk said.
“The Kremlin propaganda machine has different target audiences. They have their own citizens … (but) at the same time they need to find allies abroad,” he added. “This is where Dugina comes in.”
Facebook said it had removed UWI from the platform in September 2020, after it received information from the FBI about its activity on other parts of the web.
“The people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identity and coordination,” a Facebook statement said, adding that its probe had uncovered links to people previously involved with the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), a notorious Russian troll farm known for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Dugina was also sanctioned by the US and the United Kingdom, along with her father, for her involvement with UWI. The UK government concluded that she was a “frequent and high-profile contributor of disinformation in relation to Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Ukraine on various online platforms,” and therefore “provided support for and promoted policies or actions which destabilise Ukraine or undermine or threaten (its) territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence.”
But UWI remains accessible across the internet, frequently posting Russian-friendly opinion articles on foreign affairs. Its website made no mention of its chief editor’s death in the days following the explosion, despite the event dominating global and Russian news channels, nor has it ever acknowledged Dugina or her position on the site.
UWI’s reach is decidedly middling; it had around 5,000 followers each on Facebook and Instagram before being banned, while a cached version of its also-banned Twitter account had around 6,800 followers. (A new account which posts articles from the site is still live and has about 4,200 followers).
“The problem is that it always could be cascading,” Osadchuk said. “Even if the website itself isn’t that influential, it still provides the ideas and the platform for others to cite it as a credible source.”
Russia’s ‘disarming’ young activists in Europe
Websites like Dugina’s are not uncommon, according to Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), who labeled their output “extremely important” to Russia’s soft power objectives.
“It’s a very systemic method … you will see all these sites pumping out the same identical message, the same talking points,” she said.
“The reader reads it in their language, they’re comfortable reading it, but they’re not necessarily sure where the information is stemming from,” Lautman added. “The whole point on a bigger scale is to shift the balance of power from the United States to Russia, and to allow the rise of authoritarianism and the subversion of democracy.”
Dugina’s interest extended beyond Russia and Ukraine; her website and talks frequently focused on elections across Europe, and in 2017 she was particularly involved in promoting far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen
In a public appearance before the first vote round of voting in 2017, Dugina told a Moscow crowd during a talk that Le Pen was a “leader for the people” while criticizing eventual winner Emmanuel Macron, according to a write-up by nationalist Russian group Rodina.
The fringes of European politics were a space Dugina shared with a number of other young Russian activists and provocateurs, including Maria Katasonova – a content creator who set up an online “Women for Marine” movement and greeted Le Pen when she visited Moscow to meet Putin in 2017.
And Lautman suggests it is no coincidence that young women often find themselves on the frontlines of the global information war. “Russia has always known to use women as operatives,” she said. “Women happen to appeal to a bigger crowd … “they are more disarming, (in the case of Dugina and Katasonova) they are younger, they can relate to the younger population.”
“I can’t picture a group of 20-, 30-year-olds hanging on every word of (Alexander) Dugin, whereas Dugina is more energetic and can engage more with that age group.”
The domestic front
At home, the fruits of Russia’s communications campaign are pumped into living rooms via TV sets every evening on a scale that vastly dwarfs the output of younger, largely digital activists like Dugina.
State media spin-doctors such as Vladimir Solovyov, a popular talk-show host singled out by the US State Department as perhaps being the Russian government’s “most energetic” propagandist, figure prominently in the Kremlin’s information war.
But that effort, too, is frequently helmed by prominent female personalities, experts note, many of whom rushed to pay tribute to Dugina and called for harsh retaliation against Ukraine for her death, despite Kyiv’s repeated denials that it was involved in her murder.
Lautman pointed to several high-profile women at the top of Russia’s news and media apparatus – starting with Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of state TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today), which was banned from broadcasting in several Western countries following Moscow’s invasion.
Following Dugina’s death, Simonyan said on her Telegram channel that Russia should target “Decision Centers!” in Ukraine.
A January report by the US State Department outlined “close ties between Russian government officials and RT” and concluded that “on RT’s television shows, disinformation and propaganda that makes the Kremlin look good (and its perceived adversaries look bad) is repeatedly stated as fact.”
Simonyan herself has been front and center during many of the Kremlin’s spats with Western powers. She conducted the much-derided interview with the two men identified by the British government as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, in which the men claimed they were merely visiting the English city of Salisbury to admire the cathedral and its tall spire.
After Russia’s government claimed to have identified Dugina’s killer and said the person responsible had fled to Estonia, Simonyan appeared to reference what the two Salisbury suspects told her – joking on Twitter that Russia has professionals who “want to admire the spires near Tallinn.”
Lautman described the media empire that Simonyan oversees as “very influential,” particularly in appealing to older viewers nostalgic for the former Soviet Union.
Simonyan told Time magazine in 2015 that she has a yellow telephone on her desk with a direct line to the Kremlin, which is installed “to discuss secret things.” “There is no objectivity,” she told Russian newspaper Kommersant in 2012. “When Russia is at war, we are, of course, on the side of Russia.”
The heavily slanted, jingoistic world of Russian state-run TV is perhaps most forcefully occupied by Olga Skabeyeva, a firebrand TV presenter who regularly calls for dramatic escalations in Russian attacks on Ukraine and has urged Moscow to “demilitarize all of NATO too.”
She has elsewhere said that the rise in the LGBTQ+ population in the West will ultimately mean “people will run out” in the West as they “stop reproducing,” and has said Russia will “have to de-nazify ‘trans-fascists’ too,” according to clips compiled by BBC Monitoring correspondent Francis Scarr. During Europe’s recent heatwave, she said “nature is on Russia’s side too!”
“Their role is specifically to push Kremlin talking points for (Russians),” Lautman said. “Whatever it is, that’s what they will repeat from morning to night.”
Often, those talking points will first be sounded by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who frequently issues fierce statements attacking Western countries alongside the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“They want to make sure to cover everyone; Lavrov will appeal to some generational older men (but) they have someone for every crowd, and having her as a press secretary is powerful,” said Lautman. “Here you have this younger woman who’s taking on these (Western) powers, and isn’t afraid of challenging them.”
Though Dugina and many other women in Russia’s misinformation machine operate on dramatically different levels and in contrasting spheres, “they definitely look at each other as examples of what and how they could actually work on this,” Osadchuk said.
Dugina’s death has shone a light on one aspect of this operation. “They are doing this task differently,” he said. “(But) they are different parts of the same body.”
CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this article.