A pair of Russian pranksters, pretending to be imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s right-hand man, duped the Canadian House of Commons foreign affairs committee during a closed-door meeting in late April.
On April 22, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development held a meeting to hear about the plight of Navalny—and they called a mysterious “Witness 1.” The meeting was held in camera, meaning it cannot be broadcast and members are forbidden from discussing the details outside of the committee room.
Witness 1 was supposed to be Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff. Instead, the committee heard from Russian pranksters Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stolyarov, posing as Volkov.
According to minutes for the meeting, the committee of parliamentarians heard from the fake Volkov for about 25 minutes before the meeting was suspended. When it resumed, the committee moved on to other business.
Kuznetsov and Stolyarov confirmed to VICE News they tricked the committee, and provided screenshots confirming the ruse. They said a video of the prank would be uploaded to their YouTube channel in due time.
Asked why they pranked the Canadian politicians, Kuznetsov was evasive. “I would not like to comment on this in detail before publishing the prank,” he said in an email. “In general, we wanted to make... video pranks with the largest number of deputies around the world, because now video meetings are very popular.”
Confusingly, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee is now slated to hear from the real Volkov on Thursday. A staffer on the committee told VICE World News while they could not comment on the April 22 hearing, they are now confident the real Volkov is slated to appear.
In a statement released Tuesday, the committee said shortly after its meeting began “it became clear that the individual was misrepresenting himself, and the committee promptly suspended—and then terminated—the meeting to investigate further.”
The committee condemned “these repeated attempts aimed at misleading parliamentarians on a very serious situation. As the Russian authorities continue to arrest and harass those protesting Mr. Navalny’s arbitrary detention, this incident has only made the committee more determined to be fully and properly briefed on the situation as soon as possible.”
VICE World News has reached out to Volkov himself, but has not received a response. A government source with knowledge of the incident confirmed to VICE World News the committee, in fact, heard from the pranksters and not Volkov.
The Canadian MPs were not the only ones to fall victim to the pranksters recently. The Verge reported last week that politicians in the United Kingdom, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were also duped by the pair of ne'er-do-wells. While media outlets initially reported the politicians had fallen for a deepfake image of Volkov, the pranksters admitted to the Verge it was just a matter of some make-up and lighting.
Kuznetsov and Stolyarov have a long history of duping and humiliating Western politicians. Last year, they convinced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office that they were, in fact, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. They have also tricked Lindsey Graham, Bernie Sanders, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Elton John, and Prince Harry.
Their constant targeting of Western figures has led to accusations that the pair are working for the Russian state—they have made frequent appearances on Russian state TV, and have openly stated their unwillingness to target Russian political figures.
The rash of pranks targeting Russia’s critics appears particularly conspicuous. Moscow is currently facing intense scrutiny, and the possibility of new sanctions, over its treatment of Navalny—who is currently sitting in a Russian prison on trumped-up charges for his role in leading a popular protest movement. The charges were brought forward after a failed assassination attempt, linked to Russian intelligence, failed to bring down the outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin.
In recent weeks, Navalny’s Headquarters—the organization for which Volkov works—was declared an extremist organization. Volkov disbanded the group in order to protect its staff from arrest and prosecution.
Asked directly whether their pranks were in serve of Putin’s government, Kuznetsov wrote, “No, it’s just for fun.”
“It is unlikely that the stories with Greta Thunberg were of interest to the Kremlin, as well as pranks with Billie Eilish and Joaquin Phoenix :),” he said. “It is more convenient for a shattered image to say that this was a super special operation of the KGB for millions of dollars, than to admit that you were fooled by only two pranksters. Although quite famous.”
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This story has been updated to include a statement from the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.