Russian keyboard generals turn Telegram into a pro-war propaganda platform
All eyes are on the Trump trial this morning, including those of Russian state media outlets. Their coverage of the run-up to the trial has been remarkably in sync with that of Fox News. Both focused on the convoy of Trump supporters headed toward New York. Both Fox and several Russian pro-government voices, like this one, have also noted the fact that Trump is in the good company of many other world leaders who have faced criminal charges: Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Memes and AI-generated images of Trump retiring happily in China are going wild on Chinese social media. People on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, are calling the former president a “Comrade Nation Builder” and say his indictment made the U.S. look so bad — and China so good — that he might as well just hang up his MAGA hat and join the Communist Party of China.
On Sunday, the Ukraine war came to St. Petersburg when a bomb exploded in a cafe. Vladlen Tatarsky (real name: Maxim Fomin) was a middle-aged, pro-war blogger. A seemingly unlikely target for assassination, he was caught on video accepting a small statue as a gift at a meeting of pro-war conservatives. It was a bomb. A woman has since been arrested for apparently bringing the statue into the cafe. Tatarsky was one of the many obscure bloggers who rose to fame after the full scale invasion of Ukraine, turning Telegram into a major platform for war disinformation.
TELEGRAMMING WAR PROPAGANDA
By: Ivan Makridin
The recently assassinated blogger Vladlen Tatarsky liked to criticize President Vladimir Putin. On his fiercely anti-Ukrainian, pro-war channel on Telegram, he bashed the Russian president and other Kremlin officials for not being tough enough in what he described as a “Holy War against the Antichrist.”
Before the full scale invasion of Ukraine, Telegram, run by the reclusive Russian billionaire Pavel Durov, was seen as a platform for Russian liberals — a “hotbed of liberalism,” in the words of the Russian state media. Next door, in Belarus, Telegram played a crucial role three years ago in the uprising against the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, Putin’s closest ally. And then the Belarusian government figured out how to turn the platform into a weapon against the opposition.
Telegram has followed a similar path in Russia, transforming from an alternative platform into a platform for war-mongering and propaganda.
Vladlen Tatarsky, who had nearly 600,000 followers on Telegram, was part of a new wave of bloggers who became popular for their gung-ho coverage of the war. They signposted their supposed independence by fiercely criticizing the Kremlin’s management of the war, although always from the position that Russia was not being forceful enough. But Tatarsky was definitely a tool of Russian propaganda, used to fan the hatred and misplaced patriotism driving the popular support for the war.
It is a strategy that proved to be remarkably effective. A recent investigation by the Riga-based Russian and English-language website Meduza revealed that the Russian authorities set up a front organization, a non-profit called “Dialogue,” and tasked it with sending instructions to individual bloggers and media groups on how to cover the war. These individuals — supposedly offering their unfettered, patriotic views on the war — were actually mere mouthpieces. Tatarsky’s channel was just one example.
Another is a channel run by Readovka. Just a few years ago, Readovka was a small, regional and independent media outlet. It was hard to pin down politically but, as the journalist Irina Pankratova wrote, “never considered a pro-government outlet.” Since the invasion of Ukraine, Readovka has rebranded itself as ultra patriotic and is now enjoying more success, renown and reach than it ever has. Currently, Readovka has more than 1.5 million subscribers on Telegram.
Now, the Readovka feed, like many other pro-war Telegram channels, includes propaganda posts about the secret biological weapons allegedly developed and stored in Ukraine and about the White House forcing TikTokers to blame Putin for the rise of gas prices in the U.S.
In exchange for their loyalty, Readovka’s creators were given the contract to supply winter coats from China to the Russian Defense Ministry and the Wagner PMC group. Individual bloggers like Tatarsky also received perks, including funded opportunities to embed themselves with the Russian military or the mercenaries of the Wagner Group. In fact, Tatarsky, like other bloggers, grew close enough to the Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin to start parroting the more radical sentiment that a timid Kremlin was holding back certain Russian military success with its tactics.
Pankratova, an investigative reporter with The Bell, told me these pro-war Telegram channels are not homogenous. While they all have in common a blind faith and belief in the rightness of the invasion of Ukraine, they often disagree about how the war is being conducted. Some of the channels, she added, also employ credible journalists and produce accurate work. “But then,” she said, “the next piece will be blatant disinformation.”
As an observer of these channels myself, I am often surprised by the vigor with which they express disagreement with and disapproval of the Kremlin. These bloggers bicker and argue about battlefield tactics and about government funds being misspent and criticize both the Kremlin and Putin so harshly that I’ve sometimes wondered how they don’t get into trouble.
Perhaps it’s because they never disapprove of the decision to invade Ukraine, they never wonder if the war is wrong. Not surprisingly, a day after Tatarsky was murdered in that St. Petersburg cafe, Putin posthumously awarded him with the Medal for Courage, for valor displayed on the field of battle, even if that battle was being fought from behind a keyboard.
WHAT WE ARE WATCHING
- In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who is a general in the army, has been causing his father a number of foreign policy issues with his erratic tweets. Last year, for example, he threatened Kenya with invasion. Now he is calling on Uganda to send soldiers to “defend Moscow if it’s ever threatened by the Imperialists!” His father is plenty pro-Russian himself, as we reported last week.
- It is quite incredible to see footage of hundreds of Russians being allowed to demonstrate. These rare protests in the Kostino-Ukhtomsky district of Moscow have not been broken up by the police or raided by security services. Of course, this seemingly government-sanctioned protest has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine. These concerned citizens are upset about the plans to build a new mosque in the area. Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the Muslim leader of the Chechen Republic, suggested that the protesters be mobilized and sent to the front.
- This Vice documentary is about anti-Xinjiang propaganda that hides behind young women influencers posting about puppies, travel and make-up. If you are more of a reader than watcher, here’s a piece from Coda’s archives on the same subject.
- This video investigation from our partners at Ukrainskaya Pravda tracked down the wife of Russia’s deputy defense minister spending time in Courchevel, the world’s ski capital, “while her husband orders attacks on Ukrainian cities.”
WRITING TO EVAN GERSHKOVICH
The arrest of the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich in Russia has sent a chill down the spine of all journalists who cover the region. Evan’s friends and colleagues are encouraging people from around the world to write to him in prison. Evan is allowed to receive letters, although only in Russian. But you can email your message to [email protected] and it will be translated, printed out and mailed to the Moscow prison where Evan is spending two months in pre-trial detention. He faces up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges.
And I also want to encourage you to read this piece that Evan wrote for Coda back in 2019, when he reported on Putin’s then brand new charm offensive on African nations. “To set Russia apart from the pack, Putin is leaning on a unique pitch: that only Russian support can help protect the sovereignty of African countries,” Evan wrote. A remarkably prescient take, given the extent to which Putin’s bid on the African continent has paid off since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.