On paper, the leader of the California secession movement lives in an apartment complex near San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood. But in reality, the Calexit campaign is being run by a 30-year-old who lives and works in a city on the edge of Siberia.
Louis Marinelli heads the secessionist group Yes California. Following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the organization has gone from an unknown fringe group to one discussed seriously in mainstream media.
What has not been discussed as prominently is Marinelli’s deep ties to Russia.
A former right-wing activist from Buffalo, New York, Marinelli first moved to Russia almost a decade ago. He studied at St. Petersburg State University, the alma mater of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He returned to the United States to campaign against LGBTQ rights as part of the National Organization for Marriage.
Marinelli then returned to Russia. He would marry a Russian citizen, and the couple moved to San Diego, where Marinelli launched a political career based on a platform of California secession.
“I immigrated to California, and I consider myself to be a Californian,” Marinelli says from his apartment in Yekaterinburg, a city of about 1.4 million just east of the Ural Mountains and about 1,000 miles from Moscow.
In an interview with The California Report, Marinelli confirms he’s living and working in Russia as a teacher.
“I wanted to handle some personal issues in my family, regarding immigration,” Marinelli explains of his long stay in Russia. “My wife is from Russia. I’m here handling various personal issues. But at the same time, we have some political goals we can achieve while I’m here.”
Those political goals include establishing a California embassy in Moscow, Marinelli says.
“We’re starting a dialogue about California becoming an independent country,” Marinelli says. “And I’m able to speak with the media here. I’ve been in the TV and the radio and the newspaper several times here in Russia.”
In fact, Marinelli’s movement was covered almost exclusively in outlets funded by the Russian government and Communist Party before picking up more mainstream attention in the past few months. The ascendancy of his secessionist organization says just as much about the state of media as it does about the Russian government’s ability to sway U.S. public opinion.
Russian Coverage Turns Into American News
The Yes California campaign aims to get a referendum question on the primary ballot in 2019. It would ask voters to strike language in the state Constitution that recognizes the supremacy of the U.S. government. It would also ask voters whether California should secede.
Similar proposals to split up the state or have it withdraw from the Union have failed to make the ballot on legal grounds. Prior to November, the Yes California campaign had not filed required paperwork with the state, let alone started the signature-gathering process.
Despite these significant obstacles for the group — and with little, if any, grass-roots support for the campaign — Russian media outlets covered Marinelli’s effort in earnest. Several times, the Communist Party’s Pravda newspaper covered the Yes California campaign, including this September, when he met with other secessionists at a conference sponsored by the Russian government.
“[Marinelli] is sure that his organization will manage to carry out a referendum and attain California’s independence,” a Pravda story said.
The Yes California group has also been profiled several times on RT, Russia’s government-funded, globally focused TV network.
“Is secession possible?” an RT host asked during a segment in July. “Could that ever occur under [U.S] laws?”
As for U.S. outlets, those that covered Marinelli and Yes California did so with a tone reserved for weird and outlandish stories.
In August 2015, the Los Angeles Times did a light Q&A with Marinelli during his quixotic run for the state Assembly (when Yes California was called Sovereign California). And Newsweek profiled Marinelli in June, after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote.
“By the year 2020, Louis Marinelli hopes to be the Alex Salmond of California,” Newsweek wrote, referring to a leading proponent of Scottish independence from the UK.
It wasn’t until Trump’s victory last month that mainstream U.S. outlets — including the Sacramento Bee, the L.A. Times and NPR — covered the group more seriously.
The story got new legs because several influential tech figures took to Twitter to voice their desire for California to leave the union after Trump’s election. Among them was Shervin Pishevar, an investor and co-founder of Hyperloop One, a startup promoting a futuristic new transportation technology.
“If Trump wins I am announcing and funding a legitimate campaign for California to become its own nation,” Pishevar tweeted. That message would be retweeted almost 2,000 times, and soon the idea was trending on social media.
Business Insider picked up on the social media fervor and published a story mentioning both Yes California and Pishevar. Soon, Pishevar was linked to Yes California, bolstering the movement’s credibility. And as people, including journalists, searched for terms like “California sovereignty” or “Cal Exit”, they found the
Russian coverage of Louis Marinelli’s fringe movement.
“This is what Russia is great at,” says Robert English, an expert on Russia and associate professor of international relations, Slavic languages and environmental studies at USC. “Their media apparatus is so good at spreading disinformation. It makes the line between nutsos and normal people hard to draw.”
The Evolution of a Propaganda War
English, who also serves as deputy director of USC’s School of International Relations, worked as a foreign affairs analyst in the Reagan administration Department of Defense. English says during his time there, he would often see outrageous and patently false stories produced by Soviet propaganda outlets.
Some of them would make their way into Western media outlets.
“Take the story that AIDS was created in a lab in Fort Detrick,” English says. “Not a true story. Horribly offensive. Cited people who didn’t exist. The [Soviets] planted that story with friendly Indian newspapers. Soon it was in Latin America, and eventually the AP would pick it up, and then U.S. officials are being asked about it on the record.”
English says Russia has greatly improved its disinformation techniques.
“But today it’s more nefarious because it looks better,” English says. “It doesn’t look like it’s on the fringe.”
English says the goal of Russian propaganda is not to create an instant calamity that leads to revolution. Rather, it’s designed to exploit existing tensions in Western and U.S. society. For example, the AIDS-Fort Detrick story was planted to amplify existing distrust between India, Latin America and the U.S.
English says sowing domestic political divisions in the U.S. appears to be the motivating factor in supporting Yes California.
Marinelli’s effort is endorsed by the Kremlin, which hosted Yes California as part of an anti-globalization conference in Moscow in September. The conference was paid for by the Russian government, and the pictures of Marinelli flanked by other “freedom fighters” from Texas (“Texit,” anyone?), Catalonia, Ireland and Puerto Rico provided Yes California a veneer of legitimacy.
It’s a similar approach Russia took when Nigel Farage — the leader of the anti-EU party UKIP — was still considered a fringe character.
RT even offered Farage his own show on the network.
These efforts by Putin’s Kremlin to prop up fringe causes have been a concern of U.S. officials for several years. In a speech last year at the Brookings Institution, Vice President Joe Biden warned of Russian attempts to influence Western elections in 2015.
“The Kremlin is working hard to buy off and co-opt European political forces, funding both right-wing and left-wing anti-systemic forces,” Biden said. “President Putin sees such political force as useful tools, to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic, which he can then exploit.”
Biden added: “These actions are abetted by a hyperaggressive Russian propaganda machine that actively spreads disinformation, and does it very well.”
USC’s English says it’s important to remember that the U.S., too, is waging a campaign — against Putin.
“In 2011, you had President Obama’s administration breach the norm and suggest Putin’s party committed election fraud,” English says. “There couldn’t be more direct interference than having the U.S. administration saying, ‘We don’t want Putin.’ ”
English also notes that the U.S. is believed to be behind recent Ukrainian hacks of sensitive Russian government emails. Meantime, the CIA has concluded that Russia was behind the effort to hack and release Democratic campaign emails in an effort to get Trump elected.
Russia has also been tied to fake news stories that were damaging to Clinton’s candidacy.
“We’re in this place where news consumers honestly have no idea what they’re consuming,” says Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute. “Some of the fake news is really bad actors trying to negatively influence the American democratic process in order to change the balance of world events. You know, somebody sitting on the other end, clicking their fingers together, going
‘Mwha-hah-hah-hah.’ Like, it’s really that bad.”
Russian Influence Seen in Secession Debates Across U.S.
Russia supports other secessionist efforts in the U.S., including the Free Vermont movement, and the “Texit” movement in Texas.
In an interview, Texas Nationalist Movement President Daniel Miller says his group got a “small grant” from the Russian government. However, Miller declined to disclose how much money the Kremlin gave his group.
He does say the cash helped offset costs of attending a Moscow conference of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, a Kremlin-backed group that supports Western separatist movements.
Miller says he welcomes Russia’s — and any other countries’ — support in his quest for local “self-determination.”
He also dismisses concerns that Russia is working with a movement that could weaken the United States if its aims are achieved.
“Our viewpoints are aligned, in that both Russia and us agree that local self-determination is the best form of government,” Miller says. “But ultimately, Russia is not our concern.”
While initially dismissed as a fringe group, the Texit movement has come close to inserting secessionist language into the platform of the Texas Republican Party. Miller expects his movement will be successful at the party’s next state convention.
“We also plan on having legislation filed [at the statehouse],” Miller says. “We’ve been working with a couple prominent Republicans and I expect to see this issue to be talked about in Austin.”
Miller adds that his movement existed long before Vladimir Putin came back to power in 2011.
“This isn’t a Manchurian candidate situation,” says USC’s Robert English. “There has to be divisions that exist for Putin to exploit.”
Louis Marinelli acknowledges that Putin is helping secession movements –- including his own Yes California campaign –- as part of a broader strategy to curb U.S. influence.
“I kinda don’t blame them,” Marinelli says. “Because it’s what the United States has been doing to them, and to every country around the world.”
But while the Texit and other secessionist movements may have existed before the Kremlin took the strategy of influencing Western elections, Yes California did not.
Marinelli denies he has received direct support of any kind from the Russian government, including financial grants similar to those given to the Texit movement.
Marinelli says he’s happy to talk to anyone about California secession –- although while he’s in Russia, it will have to be by email or over the phone.
“I’m a proud Californian,” Marinelli says. “And I intend to return to California to help this campaign for independence.”
John Sepulvado is the morning host of The California Report. Prior to joining KQED in September 2016, John was the local host of NPR’s Weekend Edition at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). He has also served as a producer for America Public Media’s Marketplace Weekend and worked as a national correspondent for CNN and as news director at WUSF in Tampa, Florida. John has earned prestigious RTDNA Murrow and PRNDI awards for investigative reporting, and helped CNN take home a Peabody Award for coverage of the 2010 Gulf oil spill. John attended Florida A&M in Tallahassee and is also a member of Phi Theta Kappa.