In late February, when global news outlets reported that Russian soldiers were raping women in areas under occupation, 24-year-old influencer Elvina Borovkova shared a video describing why she did not think the story was true.
“Russian women are the most beautiful women in the world, and for better or worse, our soldiers are in demand among them,” Borovkova says in the video. “Do you really think they need Ukrainian women? It’s scary to even touch them, full of venereal diseases.”
The video, which goes on to use far more explicit and graphic detail to describe sexual assault and insult Ukrainian women, immediately went viral.
Before the war, in which conservative estimates say at least 3,675 people have been injured or killed, Borovkova had a hectic life on social media. Her Instagram had a decent 30,000-odd followers, but her TikTok was blowing up — 637,000 followers, 30.9 million likes, a growing audience that watched videos of her dancing, making funny faces, and telling irreverent jokes about Russia’s conflicts with the rest of Europe. But after her commentary on Ukraine, some followers began calling for her to be doxed or banned. Borovkova switched to posting only and exclusively on Telegram, where she has 55,000 subscribers.
The war has created an audience in Russia, whose residents are starved for information thanks to the Roskomnadzor, the federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling, and censoring mass media in the country. Russia’s ban on Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, as well as Google News and hundreds of news outlets that are reporting on atrocities in Ukraine, has created an information vacuum that is being filled by state-sponsored media and Russian influencers whose opinions resemble the pro-Putin party line.
Putin and Russian influencers alike see growing economic sanctions against the country as evidence of their victimization and persecution. In his speech in February, soon after the invasion, Russia’s president said Western sanctions were being carried out “regardless of the situation in Ukraine” and with the sole purpose of restraining “the development of Russia … just because we exist.” In March, when sports and cultural performances by Russians began to be canceled across the world in light of the war and in solidarity with Ukraine, Putin claimed that the West was trying to “cancel a whole 1,000 years of culture,” comparing this to the 1930s, when Nazi supporters burned books they deemed “unwanted literature.”
This week, Anna Kalashnikova, a singer and actor with 2.4 million followers on Instagram, posted on the app about her own experience with “Russophobia in action,” when she walked into a Chanel store in Dubai and learned the brand no longer sold its bags to Russians. Kalashnikova, a self-confessed lover of Chanel, said the incident reminded her of the fact that Coco Chanel was “the mistress of a Nazi” and that the brand’s actions were “supporting fascism and Russophobia.” Subsequently, Russian influencers like model Victoria Bonya (who has 9.3 million followers on Instagram) and TV presenter Maria Ermoshkina (300,000 followers) have uploaded videos of themselves cutting up Chanel bags to protest against the brand’s “disrespect.”
Reacting to recent news reports, photographs, and video evidence of a massacre in Bucha, Borovkova claimed the deaths were staged by Ukrainians trying to blame Russians for a “fake atrocity.” The message was similar to what Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for the Kremlin, was telling reporters: What happened in Bucha was “a well-directed — but tragic — show,” and “a forgery aimed at denigrating the Russian army."
In March, when the Roskomnadzor banned Meta, Russian influencers uploaded tearful videos bidding adieu to their audiences, mourning the loss of their livelihoods and platforms. But as the war on Ukraine enters its third month, many of those influencers have found an enraptured following on Telegram, an app that was hugely popular in Russia and Ukraine even before the invasion. The app features a self-deleting “secret chat,” sets no limits on media size, and allows as many as 200,000 people in a chat room — much more than WhatsApp, which allows up to 256 people in a group, and Signal, which limits a group chat to 1,000 people.
For Veronika Stepanova, a Russian psychologist and sex therapist with more than 2 million followers on YouTube, Telegram has offered a path to continue reaching a wide audience. Soon after the Russian invasion, Stepanova began sharing pro-Putin content on her Telegram channel, claiming that her Ukrainian followers had been dismayed at her posts on the app.
“Dear Ukrainians: I love my country, not yours,” she wrote on her Telegram channel. “I love my people, not yours. I love my family, not yours. I care about what will happen to my country, not yours. I'm worried about my army, not yours. I support my president, not yours. I care more about mine than yours. So don't expect the impossible from me.”
In the weeks that followed, Stepanova pivoted to posting multiple times a day about a wider array of subjects: The COVID virus was “a government conspiracy,” she said, and Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock was a cowardly, liberal Hollywood conspiracy to make people watch the Oscars and convince viewers that American men are capable of protecting their wives.
“Only a Black, deaf-mute, transgender midget receives an award for a film today,” she wrote after the Oscars.
Russian influencer Telegram accounts' disdain for what they describe as "liberal values" reflects an online movement present around the world, from the propaganda-spreading troll farms in South Asia and Africa to the US’s alt-right. Common themes include undermining the media and the frequent use of sexually explicit, violent, and anti-LGBTQ language while invoking some form of puritanical “family values” they claim are represented by authoritarian figures like Putin, Modi, or Trump.
This slew of opinions on the war, punctuated with random makeup recommendations, memes, and life hacks, might seem like a regular feature of our times, no different from the otherwise well-meaning uncle or aunt who forwards hate-filled WhatsApp videos and fake news on the family group chat. Sometimes they’re chastised into silence; sometimes they’re embarrassed and belligerent. Except imagine that uncle or aunt posting to 395,300 subscribers on a Telegram chat, or to millions on Instagram or YouTube, in a country that has banned almost all social networks, Google News, and hundreds of media channels describing the Russian invasion. Imagine the person posting — not a tech-bewildered uncle or auntie but a legit and hugely popular celebrity, like Roma Acorn, a 26-year-old singer who has been compared to Justin Bieber in Russia and has 373,000 followers on Instagram, or Mikhail Litvin, a self-described “prankster” who has 14.6 million followers on Instagram and 8.76 million followers on YouTube.
Acorn, the Russian Bieber, recently posted a video to his YouTube channel about Russians being denied entry to restaurants and being attacked on the street.
“In Germany, Russians are being annihilated, they want to burn us, kill us all,” Acorn says in the video, sipping an energy drink, shaking his head sadly as he plays with a dog. “Does anybody touch you, Ukrainians? Nobody touches you. Russian people are being destroyed right now, and everyone supports it, says that we should be bombed and killed.”
Litvin, the noted Russian prankster, recently summed up his defiant attitude to his 1.6 million followers on Telegram. “I’m not even talking about sanctions but about general opinion. … Anyone who says Russia should be ashamed of itself, or that they are ashamed of being Russian, suck my fucking dick.”
Videos and social media posts were translated by Daryna Prudnikova.