Mike Collier in Riga -
Franz Kafka's most famous short story, "Metamorphosis", begins with the main character, Gregor Samsa, waking up one morning to discover he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant beetle. It causes a good deal of nuisance, but makes surprisingly little difference to his basic standing in society.
That's rather how your correspondent felt on October 10 when he awoke to discover that – according to one wacky Ukrainian website – he had been transformed overnight into Modest Kolyerov, former Regnum news agency boss and master of the dark arts of Putinist information warfare. Admittedly, there is a passing resemblance – we are both bald with beards – though I like to flatter myself I am not quite such a dead ringer for Trotsky as my doppelganger.
According to this eccentric piece of news, Kolyerov has in fact been slumming it as a hack writer in the Baltic states for the last decade and is a dangerous spy about whom something should be done.
Putting aside for a moment the probability that if Russia's security services can carry out assassinations with rare radioactive isotopes, they are probably capable of coming up with names for their agents that aren't quite so similar to their real names, plus the fact that Kolyerov is actually banned from visiting the Baltic states, attention turns to why this backhanded compliment was paid.
Entirely coincidentally, two days previously I wrote an article for Latvia's public broadcaster, LSM, about another man with identity issues. His name is variously given as Sergey Melnikoff, Sergei Melnikov and his preferred moniker, 'MFF' (presumably pronounced “Mfffff”).
What is not in question is that Mr MFF is a photographer. According to himself, he is a world-famous photographer; according to others, a photographer of somewhat lower rank. He runs a variety of colourful websites showcasing his abilities and others outlining a strongly anti-Russian slant. For once, the world 'Russophobe' seems justified (despite the fact that he is Russian-born himself and now a US citizen), as he also has pet theories about the physiological degeneracy of the entire Russian nation.
In an article on one of his websites (which later repeated the allegation that your correspondent is a master spy), he advocates the deportation of 300,000 Russians from the Baltic states in cattle trucks and various other extreme views. Police are investigating.
Melnikoff is the creator of an exhibition titled 'The People of Maidan' that opened in early October in central Riga, which purports to show his photographs of the Ukrainian uprising centred on Kyiv’s main square that ousted the corrupt former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, along with lots of biographical information about MFF and his tenuous connections to the rich and famous.
Within minutes of the first couple of boards being erected outside the main Latvian government building, the Cabinet of Ministers, it was attacked by two young men apparently incensed by what they took to be a Pravy Sektor flag flying proudly in the breeze. They took the surprising measure of filming themselves carrying out attack and immediately uploaded it to social media.
Following a police appeal for witnesses, two men were arrested on suspicion of vandalism, though they have yet to be tried. A few days later, the exhibition was attacked again at 2:00am. The extent of the damage is unclear. In some reports, MFF says it was completely destroyed, in others that he has a reserve exhibition ready to be erected at a moment's notice. Curiously, the security that the organizers of the exhibition had promised to provide to both police and Riga City Council failed to materialize for two nights in a row. Because of that, the council revoked the licence for the exhibition – sparking accusations that Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs was censoring 'The People of Maidan' – and it is now seeking a new home while Melnikoff demands compensation of €150,000 to avoid litigation. That is colloquially known as a shakedown.
But in among the furore about vandalism, the main findings of the LSM investigation appear to have been overlooked, and it is these that appear to have irked MFF and his allies.
Chiefly these relate to an organization called the Soul of Ukraine Foundation, a US-registered entity founded by MFF and chaired by his daughter. Its mission is to spread the word about Maidan far and wide by means of MFF's own exhibition, while collecting charitable donations that can be spent on such items as three cars, a truck and €50,000 for the Foundation's board members.
The Soul of Ukraine Foundation is represented in the Baltic states by one Sergey Alekseev, who also heads a “patriotic” Latvian business entity called the Latvian Renaissance Foundation (LRA). It is the LRA that is the actual organizer of MFF's exhibition and that in turn is linked to the 'MayDay news agency' run by Russian Mikhail Alekseev, which seems to exist not so much to disseminate news but to channel Russian money through none other than the LRA as part of a tax-reduction scheme.
As the LSM investigation shows, the links between MFF and the two Alekseevs are strong – a fact made evident on October 15 when Collier/Kolyerov received a phone call from Mikhail and then an email signed by Sergey within minutes, asking him to confirm he was a Russian spy as reported on MFF's noxious news site. Tellingly, Sergey signed himself 'editor in chief'.
One final fact uncovered by the LSM investigation is perhaps the most important of all. The pictures MFF claims he took standing on the barricades “from day one” of the Maidan protests in Kyiv are not all his. Distinguished Ukrainian photojournalist and Pulitzer finalist Efrem Lukatsky confirmed October 14 that a spectacular shot of riot police in flames – used by MFF to sell his forthcoming book of Maidan pics at $1,000 a pop – is in fact his. Other images emblazoned with Melnikoff's name have been identified as the work of Evgeny Feldman of AP and even as coming from online photo library Shutterstock.
The attempt to undermine the credibility of your correspondent is perhaps one last desperate attempt for MFF and friends to keep their unravelling circus on the road. Once you start digging into the weird and colourful world of MFF, all sorts of bizarre facts emerge.
It may also be worth noting that despite his anti-Putin views, in his own promo video, Melnikoff shows himself hanging out with the Russian president in what may be a sun-drenched mountain top or possibly just a crude photomontage.
What's really surprising is that no one at the Latvian Foreign Ministry thought it was worth checking out the bona fides of MFF – the world famous photographer no one has ever heard of.
However, in amongst all the dirt, one piece of information did emerge to lend weight to MFF's claims for photographic credibility. In 2009 he did indeed win an award, at a festival in northern Spain for a picture of a mountain. The regional newspaper, La Nueva Espana ran a gushing story that reads suspiciously like a press release about how the “famous millionaire American adventurer” would soon land to collect it “in his private jet”.
A few days later it ran another, rather more downbeat story, about how Melnikoff had failed to show up to collect his award. However, that didn't stop MFF faking the front cover of La Nueva Espana at the end of his promo video to make it appear he was given the front page splash – dressed as a cosmonaut!
You couldn't make it up. Or maybe you could.
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