Darya Dugina’s death sheds light on the women fronting Russia’s propaganda machine
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.
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.
“But if you go into the articles themselves, you could read it and see the Russian position all over,” he added.
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.”
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.
“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
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.
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.
Lautman described the media empire that Simonyan oversees as “very influential,” particularly in appealing to older viewers nostalgic for the former Soviet Union.
“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.