In November 2018, Vladimir Samovolkin hit rock bottom.

The 34-year-old, who had struggled with alcoholism for much of his life, was broke and in hospital with alcohol poisoning after a particularly heavy binge.

“I was going through a difficult time,” said Samovolkin, from his home in Yaroslavl, a historic, church-studded city of 600,000 that straddles a bend in the Volga river, 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

Salvation — of a sort — came when an old friend rang, inviting Vladimir, who had just been discharged from hospital, to appear on his live stream, drinking and partying in exchange for financial contributions from viewers.

“I didn’t even know what a stream was, but I went along anyway,” he said.

It was the start of Samovolkin’s career in trash streaming, an underground online subculture on Russia’s still largely uncensored internet, featuring physical abuse, sexual assault and even manslaughter.

Russia’s raucous internet

The idea behind trash streaming, which emerged on the Russian-language internet in the mid-2010s, is simple yet lucrative. Invite some friends over, get drunk, broadcast the proceedings live and invite viewers to donate small sums of money in exchange for dares of their choosing. The outrageous nature of the phenomenon has prompted heated discussion in parliament and calls for it to be banned.

For Samovolkin, who has drunk to excess, fought in bare knuckle brawls and jumped from third-floor balconies on webcam, the subculture represents an unvarnished depiction of life on the margins of Russian society, with the promise of instant money from paying customers.

“Trash is just the stuff that you wouldn’t show to kids,” he said. 

“Everything is about interaction. When a customer pays for a task and a streamer performs it, there’s an element of power.”

Initially taking advantage of loopholes on Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte — which thoroughly suppresses anti-Kremlin political posts, while largely declining to enforce other community standards or copyright laws — trash has since expanded onto new platforms, including the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

With many of its first stars emerging from pre-existing video game livestreams, trash streaming was in many ways simply a new and extreme take on long-established fashions for DIY broadcasting on Russia’s often raucous internet. Precedents were also set for it by a number of U.S.-based vloggers and phenomena such as the “Jackass” TV and movie franchise in the early 2000s.

“Trash streaming, or something like it, has always been around,” said Katya Kolpinets, a lecturer in internet culture at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “It’s the essence of the internet. It was even there in YouTube’s original slogan: broadcast yourself.”

Though the world of online trash had been pioneered initially by established, successful streamers like VJ Link, a popular gamer and YouTuber with 433,000 subscribers, its biggest celebrities are now invariably from humbler backgrounds.

“We’re all on the margins of society,” said Samovolkin, who had drifted between casual jobs for several years before devoting himself full-time to streaming.

“Most of us are alcoholics, and a lot of us are gay. Trash streamers tend to be people who don’t have many other options.” 

In Russia’s economically depressed provincial towns, the promise of money has proved highly attractive to a demographic of streamers who have rarely been able to hold down formal employment.

Even a trash streamer with only a few thousand subscribers can expect to earn up to 8,000 rubles ($108) a day, around half the average monthly salary in the Russian provinces.

For Samovolkin, who had mostly lived a hand-to-mouth existence, the stability that trash streaming offered was transformative.

This year, he was able to save enough money to marry his girlfriend in a wedding that was livestreamed to his followers, raising 15,000 rubles ($202).

Meanwhile, the trash streaming community in Yaroslavl, into which Samovolkin had stumbled, swelled into one of Russia’s largest. He and his co-stars would invite friends onto their broadcasts to drink and party, before they, in turn, spun off their own channels.

“For viewers, who are seeing the same characters in each stream, it becomes kind of like a serial,” said Samovolkin. “They get to know us personally, and they start to wonder what will happen next.”

For many trash streamers, the performative aspect of their work, in which shock value is all and dramatic twists can bring rich financial rewards, has cultivated a sense of professional pride. Many of them view their work as an entirely unscripted, purified take on reality television formats.

“Not everyone can do what I do,” said German Vasiliyenko, a St Petersburg-based streamer who has previously worked as an actor, a reality TV contestant and pornstar.

“I have a talent for interacting with people,” said the former student of Moscow’s prestigious GITIS drama school, his elocution crisp and precise. “Viewers can see that.”

Other trash streamers take a similar view of the profession. For Samovolkin, the subculture’s unfiltered displays of debauchery are less a distasteful byproduct of the internet age than an active social good, warning young viewers of the perils of a dissolute life.

“I actually think what we do has an educational element,” said Samovolkin. “When people watch us, it’s like saying to them ‘Hey guys, this what will happen if you drink and take drugs’”.

Livestreaming violence against women

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded in 2020, trash streaming began to attract mainstream media attention.

With the entire country cloistered at home, the audience for trash — never more than a few thousand at a time, according to streamers — began to grow. Samovolkin’s Yaroslavl trash collective’s YouTube channel notched up over 30,000 subscribers and 8,500,000 total views by May 2021.

That year, Alexander Timartsev, a businessman and rapper, launched, a formalized, round-the-clock trash stream, with around 10 participants living for weeks at a time in a dilapidated, camera-filled house in St Petersburg. Viewers were invited to donate cash to view a sanitized version of trash, with sex, violence and drug-related dares banned.

Elsewhere, however, trash streaming’s growth has shone a light on the worst facets of the subculture.

In October 2020, Andrey Burim, a 22-year-old Belarusian national who streams under the name of Mellstroy, was broadcast repeatedly smashing 21-year-old Instagram model Alyona Yefremova’s head against a table, during a party he had livestreamed from a luxury Moscow apartment. Burim is now awaiting trial for assault.

In April 2021, video blogger Stanislav Reshetnyak — known to the streaming community as Reeflay — was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter, after his girlfriend Valentina Grigoryeva froze to death as a result of him locking out on the street in sub-zero temperatures dressed only in her underwear. His arrest, after carrying her dead body back into the flat and vainly calling an ambulance, was streamed live on YouTube.

Trash streaming is a tight-knit world. For Samovolkin, who had got to know Reshetnyak well, with both appearing on each other’s streams, the news came as a shock.

“This was extreme stuff, at the very limit of what we do,” he said.

But, according to Katya Kolpinets, violent misogyny has been built into trash streaming from the start.

“Violence against women is just streamers responding to market incentives. There is always a section of the internet that enjoys seeing women humiliated and demeaned,” she said. “It’s a way to get attention.”

Incident by incident, dark clouds of scandal drew closer to Samovolkin’s trash streaming base in Yaroslavl.

In March 2021, two 18-year-old men in the city — both of whom had been introduced to the subculture by Samovolkin’s own live streams — were accused of raping a 30-year-old woman, after they streamed themselves ransacking her flat on live camera in return for viewer donations.

Police in the western city of Bryansk have also opened an investigation into the treatment of Valentin Ganichev, a man with learning difficulties who featured on a number of different streamers’ broadcasts over a period of four years, often being beaten and humiliated on camera. In one stream, he was filmed being buried alive on camera, pleading for his life as the money flowed in.

For Samovolkin — whose band of trash streamers was instrumental in Ganichev’s rise to trash streaming fame, dressing him in a suit and flag pin and introducing him to unsuspecting passers-by as a legislator in Russia’s State Duma — the story is a matter of some regret. It has also hit his own streaming livelihood hard.

“It’s very sad what happened to Valentin,” he said. “What happened in Bryansk has definitely reduced the demand for trash. We’re seeing fewer viewers now.”

“Banning trash is like trying to ban fake news”

For many in Russia’s political establishment, however, the decline in demand is not enough. 

A number of political figures, including Alexey Pushkov, an influential member of the Federation Council — the upper house of Russia’s legislature — have publicly thrown their weight behind a ban on trash streaming.

It’s part of a wider turn towards internet censorship by the Russian authorities, who in recent months have been increasingly vocal about the perceived excesses of the free internet. 

In recent weeks, Russia’s internet watchdog RosKomNadzor has announced legal probes into YouTube and deliberately slowed down Twitter, accusing the platforms of hosting criminal material, including content promoting teenage suicide. 

In an unusually emotional March television appearance, President Vladimir Putin referred to social media users who share illegal content as “bastards” and “monsters.”

Meanwhile, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has mulled ending online anonymity by requiring Russian internet users to register using their passport details.

Even so, few experts believe that a ban on trash streaming has much chance of success.

“The only way to ban trash streaming would be to convert Russia’s internet into something more like Cuba’s or North Korea’s,” said German Klimenko, a digital entrepreneur and former adviser to Putin.

Even those in favor of a ban admit that internet trash is most likely here to stay, as streamers will simply migrate to new and less readily controllable platforms if they are banned from mainstream spaces.

Anton Orlov, director of a Moscow-based think tank named the Institute for Investigation of Problems of Modern Politics, recently proposed the extension of a law against xenophobic hate speech to cover livestreamed trash. 

“Of course you can’t fully eradicate this stuff from the internet,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fight it.”

Others note that a prohibition on trash — itself an internet era neologism — is so vague as to defy any meaningful legal definition.

“Banning trash is like trying to ban fake news,” said German Klimenko. “No one can even agree on a definition of what this stuff is.”

And yet, regardless of official crackdowns and grim headlines, at home in Yaroslavl, Vladimir Samovolkin has no plans to quit.

Having recently secured a job as an optician — his original career path — but still struggling with alcoholism, he plans to combine the trash-streaming that provided him with a stable income at his lowest ebb with his new professional life.

“I’ll probably keep streaming once a week, just out of habit,” said Samovolkin. “I kind of got used to always having my life on show.”

This article was supported by Russian Language News Exchange