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.

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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.”

From His Home in Russia, #Calexit Leader Plots California Secession 1 February,2017John Sepulvado
  • codobai

    Russia rose from the shambles of the USSR cloaked in the garb of a democracy but operates not much differently from its ghastly past.

  • Charles

    There is no need to rush what is inevitable… Portugal from Iberian Peninsular, England from Europe, Japan from China… are simply obvious examples of such inevitable separations… What will be will be… let the law of nature run its course… We shouldn’t try to slow nature’s course and we shouldn’t try to quicken it either… Doing either is most probably futile… 🙂

    • Jack Romero

      If you sit around and wait for something to happen, chances are, it won’t happen at all. This isn’t rain or the tides, dude – someone has to cause events in human history. They only seem inevitable in hindsight.

    • You’re rationalizing sloth. Things won’t change unless people commit to inconveniencing themselves.

    • rootvg

      Five or ten or fifteen years from now, you and I will still be sitting here arguing about this.

      It’ll NEVER happen just as splitting the state north and south will never happen. McConnell would laugh you out of his office.

    • codobai

      Japan from China? They were never joined so how could they separate?

  • Hillary Clintub

    So Russia will no doubt reassert it’s historic claim to California. Maybe Alaska and the whole west coast, too. I’m sure lots of liberal communist Californians would be much happier being ruled by Moscow anyway.

    • Damiana

      You’re disgustingly wrongheaded. It’s you rightwing arsedukkers that kiss TrumPutin’s ring. We are the real patriots of the US, not you and your ilk.

      • Curious

        Wow!

      • Hillary Clintub

        So who are you identifying as “we”? Which identity politics group are you supposedly a member of?

    • Jack Romero

      You don’t understand the word ‘independence’, do you? Being an independent nation != becoming part of Russia.

      • Hillary Clintub

        And you obviously don’t understand the word “reassert”, do you? If California was to declare its independence from the U.S., it would immediately become to Russia as Taiwan is to China now. Russia would gobble up California within a week by claiming it was “sacred ground” to them. Remember, Russia was once the owner of Alaska and large parts of the west coast of North America before the U.S. “stole” them. There are old Russian settler cemeteries all over northern California…or didn’t they tell you that when you were in grade school?

        • Vooch

          California is stronger and richer than Russia, by far

          • Hillary Clintub

            Richer maybe. Which is why Russia would want to annex you.

          • Vooch

            hilarious

            love the sarcasm

          • Diane Partsch

            You must be smoking pot!! Why don’t you people just leave CA. If CA ever becomes independent, I’m leaving and most well-off people will leave.

          • Vooch

            You must enjoy paying federal income taxes at 39%.

            California income taxes are only 10%.

            LOL

          • Diane Partsch

            Yes, and with Brown running CA, all they will do is raise our taxes (House, gas, sales, etc.) to help pay for all the immigrants coming into our country. We would be a welfare state–maybe that’s what you guys want. Not me–already seen a bunch of refugees coming through the Tijuana border (from Brown & Obama). They put quite a few up in Victorville. Anyone wanting an independent CA is a traitor and you will get what you deserve. I would definitely sell my home and leave–before the mass exit of the middle class.

  • Curious

    Last time this ended in civil war.

    • Hillary Clintub

      Give it time. We’ll get there eventually.

      • rootvg

        With all these military bases? Fat chance. This isn’t the UK.

        • Hillary Clintub

          What would you do with military bases, grow avocados? Without weapons and munitions and equipment those bases might as well just be corn fields. You don’t really think the U.S. would leave that stuff behind if California seceded, do you?

          • rootvg

            There will be no secession. Find a hobby. How about deep sea fishing? Flying! Yeah…get a pilot’s license.

          • Hillary Clintub

            Aw, darn. A lot of us were counting on it.

            And I already have a pilot’s license.

          • Vooch

            US military already has hundreds of military bases in foreign countries.

            red herring argument yours is

          • Hillary Clintub

            You mean like Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor?
            Yeah. Okay.

          • Vooch

            some US military bases have been in place for 75 years in various foreign countries.

            there is every reason to believe CALexit will result in little change to the most important US military bases in California.

    • Things have changed in the last 150 years or so. That is explained about half-way through https://www.californianational.party/en/california-national-party/faq/

    • George Poitras

      And it will again. You don’t really think the rest of the country will let them leave do you? The people are free to leave. But all of their resources will remain in the union. The day after they secede they will be invaded and slaughtered.
      After all, the vast majority of people that support secession have given up their weapons because they believe guns are evil.

  • SnapsMcKenzie

    There are groups, like the California National Party, working for separation who have no ties with either Russia or Marinelli. Marinelli is a quack, a legend in his own mind who acts like a mini-Putin and dreams big dreams with no thought into what’s necessary to make them happen.

    • Charles

      This story falls under FAKENews… to make what’s already a reality to 99.99% of Californians… Trump found this out the hard way when he showed up uninvited this year… 🙁

  • creekside408

    #CalExit obstacles are many. Aside from the obvious Constitutional issues and obtaining the consent of Congress, where will the nascent state: get its water (after losing access to the Colorado River!), get its energy, collect its taxes, and most importantly provide for local and international defense? California is dependent on foreign trade protected by the US Navy. Mexico still considers California a lost province and wants her back. Who exactly would fight to defend California when she does not trust her citizens with sticks and brass knuckles, let alone rifles?

    • Charles

      California is anything west of the Mississippi…. 🙂

      • Have that discussion with Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas or Oklahoma.

    • Jack Romero

      1. We actually don’t get that much of our water from the Colorado River, percentage-wise. We will have to be more frugal with water resources, for one thing – we don’t need to be growing rice and cotton in the Central Valley, and frivolous uses of water will need to be toned down on – and we will have to increase our use of techniques such as desalination. 2. We already produce a fair amount of energy. We can see to our own energy needs the same way other nations do. For example, see Germany’s example with solar panels. 3. We already collect taxes. I think we can figure this out. 4. We will indeed have to answer the military question, whether and how much of one to have, but that’s something that will need to be worked out over time. 5. You vastly underestimate the number of guns and gun owners in CA. Having strict gun laws is not at all the same as not being gun friendly. This is a state with many, many hunters and gun enthusiasts. I routinely hear shots from people hunting turkey, deer, feral hog, coyote, et cetera. And I live in a more or less suburban area. But there’s JUST enough undeveloped land in the hills for there to be good hunting, and near enough the unincorporated part of town to be close to the line where you’re no longer considered ‘within city limits’. I used to see a doctor, here in the SF Bay Area, whose walls were covered in photos from his hog hunts. We may not be frivolously violent, but we can take care of ourselves, and if forced, we will do our best to do so, like any other nation. Also, you seem to assume that we’d be international pariahs for some reason. The idea is to leave as peacefully as possible, by mutual agreement. If that were accomplished (note the ‘if’), we would certainly have friends and allies in the world.

      • Vooch

        the Colorado River water compact is a deal signed by the individual state governments; CALExit wouldn’t change it

  • Max Factor

    Dear KQED – please notice that there are many groups promoting Calexit, not just one. Yes California and its oddball leader Louis Marinelli are just one of many. You’ve made it appear that Marinelli is the leader of the entire Calexit movement and he is not. He merely leads a small PAC promoting the exit referendum. Please also cover the broader Calexit movement, including the California National Party. There is a bigger and broader story here and you’ve missed it.

    • Charles

      California is already separate from the rest of the States…. if you are a non-believer, just take a walk downtown San Jose and you will convert!! 🙂

      • Chuck, pay attention. Max wasn’t talking about shifting demographics in the state – he was talking about people who support an independent California.

  • What this article misses is that the Californian Independence movement is much bigger than Mr. Marinelli and his organization. There are literally dozens of independent grassroots groups all over California and the CNP – a new pro-independence political party with no ties to any foreign government – now has chapters in a dozen cities, hundreds of volunteers, and thousands of supporters. If anything, the dominant feeling in the movement is deep disdain for Russia and their meddling in the recent election.

  • Jack Romero

    Actually, the idea of Californian secession predates Yes California and goes well beyond that organization. You would have done well to look for other groups to talk to for a more balanced perspective. There is much more grassroots support for this idea than your article acknowledges.

    • Hillary Clintub

      There are secessionist movements in Hawaii and Alaska, too. And here in the Southland, we’ve been talking about forcing the northeastern states to secede for a long time.

  • Vooch

    Los Angeles TV station funded by Washington strongly against losing its funding when Calexit.

    Yawn

Author

John Sepulvado

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.

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