Explaining the Atomic Heart Controversy & How It Connects to Russia’s War in Ukraine

video game Atomic Heart controversy explained connection between developer Mundfish and Russia Ukraine war invasion / VK Play

Mundfish is a new developer whose recently released game, Atomic Heart, has drawn some controversy for its ties to Russia. The studio was founded in Moscow. It’s funded in part by Russian investors, which leaves a very small pool of people closely connected to Putin. The game itself has you playing as a KGB operative in a highly advanced alternate history of the Soviet Union. These facts, and the developer’s refusal to condemn the invasion, have linked the game to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So let’s talk about what we know about the controversy surrounding Atomic Heart and Mundfish.

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Most information about Mundfish is in Russian, and while that means there won’t be as many sources as there could be, I’ll be citing English sources.

Russia and Ukraine in the Lowest Detail Possible

In 1932 and 1933, the Soviet Union caused a man-made famine in Ukraine, which was ruled by the Soviets. It was called the Holodomor. High grain quotas combined with a complicated web of repressive policies and a generally low crop yield to kill millions of Ukranians. It’s regularly included in lists of genocides, and Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, called it “the classic example of Soviet genocide.”

In the aftermath, settlers from Russia were moved in to repopulate the countryside. This changed the ethnic makeup of people living in Ukraine, tilting it towards ethnic Russians. After the Second World War, Ukrainian Tatars, an indigenous ethnic population, were deported en masse from Crimea, further setting the stage for 2014’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russians.

In February 2014, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula, claiming that ethnic Russians needed its protection. Russia later annexed Crimea after a highly suspect referendum’s result showed the populace voting to become part of Russia.

In February 2022, Russia once again invaded Ukraine. In Russia, the invasion is called a “Special Military Operation,” and calling it a war is likely to get you censored. Russians troops have bombed the capital city, have deported Ukranians, and seem to have been killing civilians and burying them in mass graves.

Mundfish’s Reaction to the Invasion of Ukraine

So what does this have to do with Mundfish and Atomic Heart? Many game developers and publishers have spoken out against the war, stopped selling games in Russia and Belarus, and donated to humanitarian causes. Wargaming, which makes World of Tanks, World of Warships, and World of Warplanes, even took the step of announcing the closure of its office in Belarus, apparently without communicating in advance to the developers working there.

Currently, Mundfish’s website claims the company is headquartered in Cyprus, which appears to be true as of now, and makes no claims about where the company was founded. However, until recently, the company was agreed by most to be Russian and to have an office in Moscow. Mundfish’s About Us page says it has “an incredible team… from 10 countries including Poland, Ukraine, Austria, Georgia, Israel, Armenia, UAE, Serbia, and Cyprus.” In case you weren’t counting, that’s nine named countries, with no mention of Russia. It’s an attempt to portray the developer as not tied to any one place and definitely not Russia. Notably, this entire section isn’t in the Russian-language version of the same paragraph.

However, Atomic Heart has been in development since at least 2017, and back then the war in Ukraine hadn’t progressed past the 2014 invasion of Crimea. The press, by and large, didn’t care as much about small Russian companies, and sanctions were not as extensive as they are now. Almost all reports from 2018, when one of the game’s trailers got good coverage, report that Mundfish was a Moscow-based developer.

A Russian website reported on the game while visiting Mundfish’s Moscow office, which is mentioned in this English-language article. Eurogamer matter of factly claims Mundfish is based in Moscow. A Mundfish developer Discord post copy and pasted to Reddit claims they’re opening another Moscow office. Gematsu agrees, and so does everything I can find from the time.

So it seems from available facts that Mundfish was founded in Moscow and moved its headquarters to Cyprus sometime in 2022.

On January 16, 2023, Mundfish put out a statement on Twitter with the following:

Guys, we have noted the questions surrounding where we, at Mundfish, stand. We want to assure you that Mundfish is a developer and studio with a global team focused on an innovative game and is undeniably a pro-peace organization against violence against people.

We do not comment on politics or religion. Rest assured; we are a global team focused on getting Atomic Heart into the hands of gamers everywhere.

We do not, and will not, condone contributors or spammers with offensive, hateful, discriminatory, violent, or threatening language or content.

There is a possible reason for the phrasing of this statement that doesn’t require financial ties: the threat of retaliation against their friends and family. Protests against the war have been met with mass arrests, and even people making Instagram posts critical of the war may face up to 10 years in prison. Russians have been fleeing the country in historic numbers, fearing conscription, sanctions, and increased political crackdowns on any dissent.

Speaking out would be a dangerous choice, and although that doesn’t necessarily mean management at the company is against the war, it means they could be avoiding speaking out for other reasons.

The Mundfish Store’s Privacy Policy included language suggesting it was a Russian company complying with Russian laws and would give your data to the FSB (Federal Security Service). Mundfish then said in a statement to GamesRadar on January 27, “Our game and website DO NOT collect any information or data. The website’s privacy statement is outdated and wrong, and should have been removed years ago. We have shut down the shop to assure our fans of the integrity of our studio and products. We apologize for any confusion on this matter.” This doesn’t necessarily answer whether the company once did provide user data to the FSB, but the rest of the statement seems kosher.

VK, a major Russian technology company, ran a press event styled after the game’s Soviet art and setting, featuring slogans like “Glory to Soviet engineers!” which is at minimum a little glorifying towards a regime that starved Ukraine while Russia is currently waging a war against Ukraine.

Mick Gordon, who composed for Atomic Heart, has donated his fee for the game to the Red Cross’s Ukraine Crisis Appeal, which is a nice show of support for the Ukrainian people. It’s also a lot more than Mundfish can seem to manage, for whatever reason that may be.

Financial Ties Between Atomic Heart and Russia

That said, Mundfish has financial ties to Russia as well. Mundfish’s primary investors in its second round of funding were Tencent, a Chinese megacorporation that invests in myriad gaming companies; Gaijin Entertainment, a Hungarian games publisher; and GEM Capital, a Russian fund founded by Anatoliy Paliy, who has worked for a subsidiary of Gazprom, a state-owned Russian energy corporation.

Outside of Russia, Atomic Heart is published by Focus Interactive and 4Divinity, an Asian region publisher, on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox. In Russia, Atomic Heart is published via VK Play, whose president, Vladimir Kiriyenko, is the son of Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Sergey Kiriyenko. That same chief of staff is under U.S. sanctions (Vladimir has also been sanctioned.) and is reportedly involved in communication between Russia and the DNR and LNR, which are the organizations running referendums in contested areas of Ukraine over whether they should be annexed by Russia. Essentially, he’s directly involved in the invasion of Ukraine.

Robert Bagratuni, one of Mundfish’s founders, is a former manager at Mail.ru, now known as VK, which is both the owner of VK Play as well as Russia’s censorious social network that appears to be helping in Russia’s information war. This is probably the shakiest connection — plenty of everyday Russians disagree with Putin’s war and work whatever jobs they have to — but it does connect Mundfish further with a company that carries out Putin’s whims.

It really is only one or two steps of separation from Mundfish to Putin. But these connections are made through the business world, you might say. Surely businesses are independent from Putin. And of course, businesses are not run directly by the Kremlin. But Putin exercises his control over the oligarchs that run Russia’s businesses. For anyone to be truly wealthy in Russia, they must at minimum not get on Putin’s bad side, or he’ll put you in jail or take your entire business empire. Add to that the increased control Putin has exercised over VK’s social networking websites since the invasion of Ukraine, and you can see there isn’t much distance there.

While Mundfish itself isn’t closely tied to Putin, its publisher and some of its investors are, and if it wants to be published in a country where censorship is used both against “LGBT propaganda” and people calling the war in Ukraine a war, then it’d be smart to not say anything about the war.

Russian citizens and companies don’t have to agree with the illegal and brutal war their country is waging. But disagreeing publicly can be bad business or even a risk to their safety.

That’s our rundown of the Atomic Heart controversy and how it connects Mundfish, Russia, and Ukraine.

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Author
Elise Avery
Elise Avery is a freelance video editor and writer who has written for The Escapist for the last year and a half. She has written for PCGamesN and regularly reviews games for The Escapist's YouTube channel. Her writing focuses on indie games and game design, as well as coverage of Nintendo titles.