Social networks are full of claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin surrounds himself in various public events, not challenging him, especially in some situations where some appear in multiple frames. In his New Year speech and previous events. But who are these people really? BBC It used facial recognition software to verify some of these claims.
Surrounded by soldiers on New Year’s Day Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Profimedia
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a history of posing at events where some of the attendees don’t look like themselves. We also remember the famous meeting in November with the “mothers” of Russian soldiers who died in the war in Ukraine. It was then revealed that the women in the meeting with Putin actually belonged to pro-government organisations.
A 2020 BBC Russia investigation found that some of the events presented as instant conversations with ordinary people were actually full of friendly local authorities.
Posts on social media and news sites such as the Sun and the Daily Mail suggested a blonde woman played different roles at several events with Putin, including a fishing trip in 2016 and a church service in 2017.
Others, including a Ukrainian news site, say he may be part of Russia’s Federal Guard Service (FSO) – a security force that protects high-ranking leaders.
The BBC used facial recognition software to compare the face of the woman in the New Year’s picture with those from 2016 and 2017, which produced 29% and 28% lower matching results respectively.
“In general, a similarity score of 75% or higher should be considered when looking for an identity match,” says Professor Hasan Ughel, director of the Center for Visual Computing at the University of Bradford.
The BBC compared footage from events held in 2016 and 2017 and scored 99.1%, strongly indicating it was the same person.
The woman was identified in the Russian press as the owner Larisa Sergukhina. Both of his appearances took place in the Novgorod region, where he is a regional member of parliament for the pro-Putin United Russia party.
Putin and Sergukhina on a fishing boat in 2016 / Photo by Alexey Truzhinin / Sputnik / Profimedia
When the BBC compared its 2016 boat image to the official profile on the regional parliament’s site, it scored a 99.8% match. Sergukhina is also listed as the founder of a fish trading company in Novgorod.
The woman in Putin’s New Year’s message was dubbed the right in the Russian press Anna Sergeevna Sidorenko, Captain and Army Doctor. A comparison of his face from the event with an image taken from a video interview posted online by Russian newspaper Isvestia yielded a 99.5% match. His name also appears in a list of members of a Russian military regiment published by Ukrainian intelligence services.
The BBC looked into the claims of a group of male fishermen who were photographed on a boat with Putin in 2016, including Larisa Sergukhina. The same men were also allegedly photographed at a 2017 religious service.
Fishermen from Novgorod with Putin and Medvedev, 2016 / / Photo by Alexey Truzhin / Sputnik / Profimedia
Comparing the faces on the boat with those in the church using facial recognition software yielded similarity scores above 99% for all four men.
The BBC has found evidence that all of them worked in the Novgorod region, with at least three of them believed to be fishermen.
Photo by Facebook/east2west news / WillWest News / Profimedia
Alexey Lyashenko, head of the fishing group, photographed with Putin.
The BBC was able to verify this through its social media accounts and the crew’s published online profiles.
Yevgeny Lyashenko is Alexey’s son and is part of the fishing team. Both Alexei and Evgeny have social media accounts that confirm they are father and son.
The team is part of a local agricultural conglomerate called Eurohimservice, whose deputy general manager is Larisa Serkhina.
About Sergey Alexandrov, Russian media say he is a fisherman, and the BBC found his social media profile, which shows him dressed as a fisherman on a boat.
The BBC couldn’t find a social media profile for the No 4 man, but asked “What was Putin like?” Someone commented that he found his picture. And the answer: “He met Putin several times at work in Novgorod.”
Another image posted on the Internet shows two of these fishermen meeting Putin posing as farmers in the Stavropol region. But when the BBC compared the faces of two fishermen with the faces of raised farmers, facial recognition showed less than 8% similarity between the two.
An ice cream seller
There have been several examples of blonde women being singled out as potential actors at events in the past, including two images of a woman serving ice cream to Putin at an air show in 2017 and 2019.
The images are side-on and low-resolution, which makes facial recognition unreliable, so they can’t be used for comparison.
But the BBC found a 2019 Russian TV interview with a woman claiming to be an ice cream vendor who served the president on both occasions.
If they are the same person, it’s not surprising that the two photos were taken at the same air show that Putin attended two years apart.
The same woman who sold ice cream to Putin posed as an employee of the Russian airline Aeroflot, but again, people have said that facial recognition is not a reliable tool for comparing images in this case.
We remind you that Putin chose the safest option for the Christmas service, Pictured alone in a cathedral in the Kremlin, instead of joining the faithful, For the first time in recent years, the Russian press notes.
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