Geolocating Russia’s Disgraced General Surovikin

On September 4, a user posted a photo on the Telegram channel of Russian media personality Ksenia Sobchak. “General Surovikin has emerged. He’s alive and well, home with his family in Moscow” read the accompanying text in Russian.

The BBC’s Verify team reports a “high probability” that the man in the image is indeed General Sergey Surovikin and that the woman standing next to him is “almost certainly” his wife, Anna. The BBC was also unable to find any earlier appearances of this image.

Post from Ksenia Sobchak’s Telegram account showing an apparent photo of General Surovikin and his wife Anna. “The photo is from today”, concludes the text.

The photo garnered public attention in both Russia and Ukraine amid widespread speculation about General Sergey Surovikin’s whereabouts. Last October he was placed in charge of Russian forces invading Ukraine, but was replaced by General Valery Gerasimov this January. Surovikin was then appointed commander of  Russian Aerospace Forces but was removed from that role months later.

Meanwhile, doubts over his loyalty to the Kremlin have circulated. US officials told Reuters in June that Surovikin was “sympathetic” to the Wagner mutiny. CNN, citing documents from The Dossier Center, that suggested he was a “secret VIP member” of the Wagner group. Surovikin was last seen in public when he recorded a video urging Wagner troops to end their June mutiny.

Given the General’s fall from the Kremlin’s favour, his reappearance in this image could be politically significant. Open source researchers hurried to geolocate it, initially with difficulty, to the Terrazza Restaurant in an upscale Moscow suburb (55.738352, 37.242541).

To confirm the location of the image, some contextual information was useful. RFE/RL’s Mark Krutov pointed out that the couple were unlikely to be far from their house in “Park Vill,” an elite neighbourhood on the outskirts of Moscow, whose location was made public on an online map hosted by the independent Russian outlet Proekt Media.

The background of the image posted on Sobchak’s channel showed tall pine trees with long, bare stems, suggesting they grew in a forested area. Looking through satellite and on-the-ground imagery of the Surovikins’ neighbourhood, it became clear that the image had to have been taken in the forest to the south of “Park Vill.” 

The white stripe on the cobblestones suggested the couple were walking through a parking lot. One obvious place for a couple’s outing would be a restaurant. A search for restaurants in the area of interest yielded a handful of results on Bellingcat’s open street map search tool, which allows you to identify starting points for a geolocation search based on objects and structures you can identify.

Screenshot of results from Bellingcat’s Open Street Map tool, in which blue dots represent restaurants

A few of these locations looked good, but most lacked the plant-covered wall visible in the background of the photo of the Surovikins. One place stood out as particularly promising, with similar background and appropriate tree density. Results of a Google Image search of the restaurant complex Подмоскоvные Vечера (‘Podmoskovnie Vechera’) looked good enough to warrant looking for more angles of the venue in search of a match. 

This search yielded photos of the venue published by the Russian media outlet Sobesednik, in a November 2022 article about Surovikin and his wife attending a party at this restaurant in the company of Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and propagandist Margarita Simonyan. Facial recognition searches appeared to confirm this, however facial recognition alone may not be sufficient to ID someone due to its limitations. When running a facial recognition search on Surovikin’s wife using as a source image the photo from Sobchak’s Telegram channel, the PimEyes tool suggested several matches — one of which was Sobesednik’s photo of her at the party with her husband in the Terrazza restaurant.

Emboldened by Surovikin’s connection to Podmoskovskie Vechera, we extended the search to include neighbouring properties which may have been in the background of the image. Immediately we found similarities in the neighbouring “Terrazza” restaurant, which featured highly similar awnings and rooftop railings as those seen above the plant-covered wall in the image on Sobchak’s channel. 

Top image from the Telegram photo of Surovikin and his wife Anna. Below left photo from Yandex Images results for Terrazza restaurant, below right image from Posta Magazine.

While images of Terrazza were scarce on the restaurant’s Google Maps and Yandex pages, Benjamin den Braber of the Centre for Information Resilience was able to nail down a location where the image was likely taken, pointing out in a tweet the similarities between the angle of the parking lot corners and the black planters for the hedge at Terrazza.

Looking at other businesses in the area, it became apparent that Terrazza was attached to the beauty salon and spa Aldo Coppola, which had significantly more images of the location to reference. One image in Yandex Maps stood out as it showed the parking area, which had white stripes and cobblestones matching those in the source image. When this image was posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, in connection with the geolocation, user Thomas Bordeaux pointed out how it showed the exact same location as the image posted on Sobchak’s Telegram channel. 

The annotated image matched multiple features in the Terrazza parking lot, including an off-angle pole and vertically misaligned curbs. Further inspection of the images also revealed that the same tree was clearly identifiable in the background of both images.

Detail from a tree seen in the background of Sobchak’s image (left) and a Yandex Images photo of the Terrazza restaurant (right)

This geolocation was another case study in the strengths of crowdsourcing in open search research and geolocation. The contributions by those mentioned in this article, along with other X (formerly known as Twitter) users such as erich_auerbach, cut down the time the geolocation would have taken if it was just one person attempting to nail down the precise location.

While this image appears to show that Surovikin is indeed alive, key questions as to his fate and current standing remain unanswered. When attempting to follow up on questions about a possible investigation into the General by Russian law enforcement, Moscow-based Radio Mayak asked Peskov whether it could ask a question about Surovikin. “No, you can’t,” responded the Kremlin spokesperson.

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