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How to investigate Russia’s shady business world online

Russia can be a difficult place to operate, made tougher by increasing sanctions. But how open is its corporate data?

Russian dolls

Russia has a reputation as a crooked, dangerous place to operate. Businesses often seem shady. Shell companies abound, and low-level money-laundering – to obtain cash for nefarious purposes like paying bribes or more mundane reasons like paying salaries in cash, evading tax – is commonplace. Political involvement in business creates significant corruption risks for international businesses dealing with Russian partners. And today there is the added pressure of increasing US and EU sanctions.

With all the stories of deals gone horribly wrong, it sometimes seems surprising that anyone manages to do business in Russia at all – even Russian companies.

In such a risky market understanding business partners is of critical importance, and it’s not surprising that in fact Russia has a deep and thriving business information market. What is perhaps more surprising is that official records are generally well-maintained and relatively easily accessible. The main thing that dragged Russia down to 129th place (out of 215 countries) in the recent Arachnys Open Data Compass was the fact that the majority of corporate information available was, at the time of creating the Compass, paywalled. 

However, next year I can safely say that Russia will do even better in the Compass. The country has taken the unusual step of putting even detailed director and shareholder information online – for free. (The new site still carries a disclaimer about being in “test mode” but it seems to work reliably and well).

Subject company

For this blog we’re going to look at OOO Agentstvo Internet Issledovanii (Russian: ООО Агентство Интернет Исследований; roughly translated into English as Agency for Internet Investigations LLC), a company that has been exposed by Russian internet activists as housing a paid army of news site and social media trolls, possibly carrying out the Kremlin’s bidding. For more read Max Seddon’s piece on Buzzfeed. Below I’ll refer to the company as AII.

Information availability summary table

Company structures

There are three main types of company in Russia:

  • Open Joint-Stock Company (often seen with the Russian abbreviated form of its legal form, OAO)
  • Closed Joint-Stock Company (ZAO)
  • Limited Liability Company (OOO)

OAOs are roughly equivalent to publicly-owned companies. They are often listed and must disclose their shareholders, directors and related parties in their annual and quarterly reports and similar documents.

ZAOs are a less-transparent legal form for smaller companies. They are exempt from various filing requirements and so information obtained from public sources discussed below tends to be out of date.

OOOs are the most common vehicle for small, privately-owned companies. They are obliged to register centrally but do not have to make public disclosures in the same way as OAOs. Information on these companies comes almost exclusively from central registration and regulatory services in Russia. Our target, AII, is an OOO.

Sources of information

The main source of interest to us is the Russian Federal Tax Service portal which allows you to search the EGRYuL – or “Single State Register of Legal Entities”. This is accessible through Arachnys (included in our Russian country library) but you can also search manually through the agency's own website. I searched for Агентство Интернет Исследований.

Clicking the link gives you access to a PDF including:

  • Name (Наименование)
  • Address (Адрес/место нахождения)
  • Registration number (ОГРН/OGRN) and tax registration number (ИНН/INN)
  • Registration date (Дата регистрации)
  • CEO (Генеральный директор)
  • Shareholders (Учредители)

The registry also gives a full history of updates to the record:

In order to get financial information, it’s necessary (as far as we know) to purchase. The service charges RUB 600 (£15/$25) for an accounting statement (бухгалтерская отчетность). Unfortunately data for 2013 is not yet available online and so (because AII was only registered in 2013) we can’t show you an example here. 

Searching by individual

We have seen that company information is now freely available online.

If you want to search by individual name, you have a couple of options.

Our preferred free source is Kommersant’s relatively new Kartoteka site which has a clean interface, query auto-completion and allows you to make sure that the information you’re looking for is worth paying for. For example we can search for AII’s CEO…

… and confirm that there is relevant information available before making a purchase.

It’s also possible to do a full report on an individual from a number of sites. Here is one that I ordered from the EGRYuL:


On the face of it, Russia’s information sources are modern, accessible and relatively clear. 

That is not to say that they are without problems, however. One common problem is that different sources have slightly differing information. We have actually seen this in the case of AII. The documents from EGRYuL list two shareholders, but only one of them appears in the documents from Kartoteka:

These sorts of inconsistencies are normally a result of official updates taking time to filter down to commercial providers, but also of the information being sourced from different agencies. There is no simple solution to resolving inconsistencies. In general, we find information directly from EGRYuL is more reliable than commercial sources, but your mileage may vary.

Setting aside issues like this, Russia’s business information resources are continuously improving and generally high quality. It’s a contrast with its sometimes hostile behavior that, if you work with or in Russia, you learn to put up with.

This post was originally published on the Arachnys research blog and is republished here with permission. ICIJ research editor Margot Williams wrote about the Arachnys Open Data Compass report earlier this year.

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