Russian anti-war YouTubers: What happens when your government doesn't allow dissent?

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Russian YouTubers Natasha and Zack attending an anti-war rally with a friend in Tbilisi, Georgia. They are holding Russian white-blue-white flags which symbolize resistance to the country's war in Ukraine. The flag's design replaces the red stripe on Russia's national flag with a white one. The colors represent peace, truth, and justice; they are also a nod to the Novgorod Republic, a proto-democratic state that existed during Russia's medieval period. (Courtesy Natasha Kurnaeva)
Russian YouTubers Natasha and Zack attending an anti-war rally with a friend in Tbilisi, Georgia. They are holding Russian white-blue-white flags which symbolize resistance to the country's war in Ukraine. The flag's design replaces the red stripe on Russia's national flag with a white one. The colors represent peace, truth, and justice; they are also a nod to the Novgorod Republic, a proto-democratic state that existed during Russia's medieval period. (Courtesy Natasha Kurnaeva)

This week, Endless Thread spends time talking with two young Russian YouTubers who've had to contend with Russia's crackdown on wartime dissent.

Natasha and Zack initially gained traction on YouTube for their videos about Russian food, culture, and daily life. Their slice-of-life vlogs became a huge hit, getting millions of views with each upload. But when Russia invaded Ukraine one year ago, both Zack and Natasha had to make tough decisions to stand by their values — which ultimately altered the course of their lives.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Megan Cattel: So Ben, hi, how are you doing?

Ben Brock Johnson: Pretty good producer Megan Cattel. I’m alright.

Megan: That’s good to hear. I want to show you this YouTube video.

Ben: I love a good YouTube rabbit hole.

Megan: Are you ready?

Ben: I’m ready.

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: We’ll try to find out why Russian people love to swim in the cold water when it's minus 15 degrees celsius outside.]

Megan: Okay so this is filmed by a Russian YouTuber, named Natasha. Her username is Natasha’s Adventures. And she’s here with a fellow YouTuber named Zack, and he goes by Zack the Russian. They’re both from Russia’s Far East, which shares a border with China and North Korea. So it’s cold, it’s really cold.

[YouTube video audio:

Zack: Okay, Zack the Russian is ready. It’s freaking cold. Oh my God!

Natasha: Good luck!]

Megan: So Ben, in this video, Natasha takes us on to this frozen river where water is blessed by priests for Epiphany.

Ben: 'Kay.

Megan. And on this frozen lake there are squares cut in the ice, and crosses, to make these openings so people can jump in for a second and cross themselves as they dunk up and down into the water. And they just hop out. And its freezing.

Ben: So they’re trying to have an epiphany by having a shock to their system?

Megan: Yeah kind of. Maybe. Hopefully.

[YouTube video audio:

Man from YouTube video: Woohoo!

Zack: (In Russian.) Very cool!]

Megan: So, Ben, what do you think? Would you ever do this? I mean, you’ve jumped off a cliff into a swimming hole before on this podcast.

Ben: Yeah, I love a good jump in the water challenge. Always. What about you?

Megan: Yeah, I would go for it.

Ben: Okay, I love a good jump in icy water. But why are we watching this video?

Megan: So we’re watching this video because this YouTuber, Natasha, kinda popped off during the pandemic. Her videos have over 27 million views.

Ben: ‘Kay.

Megan: And when I was quarantining in 2021, before vaccines, and it was a hard lockdown, I spent hours on YouTube. I was on YouTube all night. For hours and hours at a time because there was nothing else to do.

During that time, Natasha’s channel popped up on my radar. It was a dorm tour. A dorm tour in Russia. This is not something I would usually be interested in, but the video had a lot of views and I said, "Okay, hey, why not? I'm going to clicked on this."

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: Hey guys! My name is Natasha and I’m from Russia. A year ago, I entered university in the city of Khabarovsk.]

Megan: This dorm tour starts with a little disclaimer.

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: The picture you see here might look gloomy to you.]

Megan: And just to recap it for you Ben, Natasha goes around this dorm with broken, worn down facilities and she makes deadpan jokes that this looks like a Soviet-post-apocalyptic horror house.

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: As we say as a popular Russian meme says, “The picture is funny but the situation is scary”.]

Ben: It's bleak.

Megan: It's bleak. So this video went viral and has over 1 million views on YouTube. And I was hooked. I watched a ton of Natasha’s videos in 2021. Seeing Natasha document her life in the Far East of Russia, which is actually much closer to Japan than Moscow was eye opening and comforting.

Ben: Why was it comforting?

Megan: It was comforting because life in a small town, just no matter which country you come from, is pretty much the same. It's kinda nice to see the slice-of-life stuff.

But eye opening because she talks about cultural differences in a fun, wholesome way. Like in this video titled, “Why Russians don’t smile?” And it takes a lot of inspiration from Natasha’s experience as an exchange student at the University of Minnesota in 2019.

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: And the first thing that was astonishing is that people were smiling to me. I remember how a bus driver smiled to me because in Russia bus drivers 100% they never do this.]

Megan: Oh, and sometimes Zack made an appearance in Natasha’s videos too. Like in this one, about street food:

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: So Zakhar, can you first introduce yourself to the audience?

Zack: Yeah sure. So my Russian name is Zakhar but you can call me Zack. Its a more natural American style. 

Natasha: In the 1990s, shawarma was considered an unmarketable food in the train stations and markets. But in modern Russia it has gained particular popularity.] 

Ben: Love street food videos.

Megan: Yeah and just FYI: One of the memes Natasha shows in the video is a movie still from Titanic where Jack is at the bow of the ship, looking out at the sunset, but he’s embracing a kebab wrap.

Ben: Is it the "I'm king of the world"? Is it that one?

Megan: No, it's the one where him and Rose are together, fallin' in love.

Ben: "Paint me like one of your French girls." That one?

Megan: No! No! They are at the bow of the ship!

Ben: Oh, at the bow of the ship. (Laughs.)

Megan: They're at the bow of the ship together, the sun is setting, and Rose is like, "Jack, I'm flying!" That part.

Ben: Oh, yes, yes, yes. Classic.

Megan: But in this meme, he's hugging a kebab wrap instead of Rose.

Ben: (Laughs.) That's pretty good.

Ben: So, I definitely got into these videos after you showed them to me Megan. And throughout 2021, Zack and Natasha uploaded videos a lot in English. And those videos were about their home country of Russia, right? They shared slice of life content, videos about Russia’s Far East, which I think is an area Americans don't always get a peek into. Holidays, traditions, food. And occasionally, their friends and family members joined in like Zack’s great-grandmother:

[YouTube video audio

Roza: (In Russian.) Then you'll bring the firewood and take a picture of me in another robe.

Zack: This is my great-grandma. Her name is Roza Ivanovna.]

Megan: And throughout 2021, their channels grew. They were part of a small but popular group of Russian YouTubers who made content about their daily lives for English speaking audiences.

Ben: But On Feb 24, 2022, something happened that we all know, of course. After months of increasing mobilization, the Russian military launched a full-scale invasion and attack on Ukraine. The war had started.

(Air raid sirens. Explosions.)

Natasha: I tolerated this regime for so many years, I knew that I was going to leave. But this was like the last, the turning point. And I decided I have to leave.

Zack: I think like, if you're like a Russian and you have an audience, it's just kind of like you have to at least say that you're against it.

Ben: I'm Ben Brock Johnson

Megan: And I'm Megan Cattel.

Ben: And, you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Megan: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston's NPR Station. And today, we're going to hear from Zack and Natasha about what happens when you oppose your government’s actions online and your government doesn’t allow dissent.

Zack: My name is Zack. I'm 20 years old Russian from, originally from the Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the Far East of Russia.

Natasha: My name is Natasha. I'm 23. I am originally from a small town, Spassk in the East and Russia. Now I’m living in Khabarovsk, also in the eastern Russia.

Ben: We had the chance to talk to Zack and Natasha last year. Just for the record, we went through the process of double-checking their ID to make sure they are who they say they are: Russian citizens.

Megan: We also asked them how they met each other.

Zack: So basically I was looking for opportunities to go to the U.S. as an exchange student and they found out that there is a really perfect exchange program called year over year exchange in the U.S. for Russians. And I was curious, is, is this program even the real because it was like so great. It was so like, I don't know, like perfect opportunity. I was thinking maybe there is something like over here about it. Maybe it's —

Ben: A scam.

Zack: Yeah, it's a scam. I was thinking, are you going to, like, sell my organs from my body once I'm in the U.S.?

Ben: Zack found a list of participants who were already in the U.S. doing this program. That’s how he got in touch with Natasha. And thankfully, she was not caught up in a scam. They ended up meeting in person after she returned to Russia, since their hometowns are close. Zack first got interested in YouTube because of Natasha’s channel and they eventually made videos together.

Ben: Both Zack and Natasha told us that it took a bit of experimentation to find their respective styles on YouTube and to figure out what kind of videos they enjoyed making. They both said they started YouTube in part to practice their English.

Natasha: I was always fascinated, fascinated about sharing my culture. When I was a teen, I had a lot of pen pals from different countries, and I like to tell about my country, to learn about theirs.

Megan: Natasha told us she’d been posting videos on and off for a couple of years before one of her videos got picked up by the YouTube algorithm. That was around the time I found her channel. It was this video tour of her remote small town of Spassk and it got hundreds and thousands of views per week. Now that video has over 3 million views.

Ben: Why do you think that video did well once it got picked up or once it got surfaced by the algorithm?

Natasha: I noticed that for foreigners, it's really interesting to learn about remote areas of Russia. Many people know about Moscow and St. Petersburg, but many people say that it was thanks to me that they knew about my region, the Far East. And in that particular video I showed, like children rolling skates and their main square. Also there was the statue of Lenin, you know, the heritage of the Soviet past in the very city center. So probably the contrast between normal life and some maybe like some even post-apocalyptic pictures, because these gray Soviet apartment blocks and I think maybe that also looks unusual for my foreign audience.

Ben: I have to admit, hearing Natasha talk about her hometown reminded me of a popular subreddit.

'Cause here's a famous Reddit community or a subreddit called A Normal Day in Russia that like —

Natasha: Yeah, I know.

Ben: Do you know about that one?

Natasha: Yeah it's hilarious to see. Sometimes it's even too much, I think exaggerating and reinforcing some stereotypes like I don’t know. The person riding on the bear or something. Sometimes it's really fun and I don't know where they are taking these photos from.

Ben: Right but I think it's, it's interesting that you're like, you're saying it's showing it's sort of a contrast to that sort of stereotypical like isn't Russia crazy? Aren’t people who are Russians crazy and they're always doing crazy, dangerous stuff? Like, this seems like a very normal video depicting normal life in a town. 

Natasha: I think this is what I appreciate about my work, my videos that I show people in different countries that yeah, Russians, we definitely have some cultural differences, but still we're all a people. And that's what I want to show.

Megan: Natasha and Zack both made a lot of videos about Russian culture. People saw them as online ambassadors in a way.

But before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they also commented on politics. Both Natasha and Zack participated in the protests supporting jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Natasha also made a video last December 2021 called “Why young Russians don’t like the current government

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: We also have the internet, we are more broadminded and see how people live in different and we see how people should live.]

Megan: She cited the country’s oppressive LGBTQ laws, lack of in
vestment in infrastructure and lack of funding for education as reasons for the government’s unpopularity among Gen-Zers and Millennials. And yes, the TV static that you are about to hear is just an editing sound effect Natasha likes to use in her videos.

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: Why we young people don’t like the government? Because we feel unsafe and deceived.]

Ben: In the weeks leading up to the war, political experts suspected a possible mobilization by the Russian military because they saw buildup at the Ukrainian border. But when war broke out, Natasha and Zack were shocked.

Natasha: So when that happened, I thought, well, maybe it's going to be some one day action and they're going to turn the tanks away, go back. But then I saw, I saw a lot of reaction from political activists, and maybe from these public outrage, I realized that what what is going to happen, that something horrible is going to happen.

Zack: I couldn't believe my eyes literally like I just the first post I've seen the first news story about basically soldiers trying to hop up from the helicopters somewhere near Kiev. And I was like, no way. It just I was thinking, I was thinking maybe I'm actually just sleeping like this, maybe this nightmare.

Natasha: I'm in a very weird position because whatever I say, it's nothing compared to what to watch Ukrainians now are, are, are experiencing.

Megan: After Zack saw the news, he got up, went out, and withdrew all of his money from an ATM.

Zack: I was expecting it to be to be so war is so bad. So bad. So I was expecting like in the Soviet Union, they going to arrest or hold all people's money, all people saving just for the war. They're going to call like, I don't know, like an Iron Curtain. So the first hour I went to withdraw all of the like U.S. dollars, especially the guys from my trip from the U.S. And then I think 4 hours just reading news about the war. Every post, every video about bombing in cities. And like, I felt like really in pain reading this.

Ben: This was around the time Zack’s friends, many of whom he met while on that exchange program in the U.S., asked him if he was going to the anti-war protest in Moscow. Zack heard since February 24th was a workday, protestors would gather around 7 PM.

Zack: So everyone after the work, they just go in protest and the way the protest going to happen well, on Pushkin Street Square, because that's the main protest square in Russia for the last couple of years. So we decided to go there with my friends by Metro, but even one hour before 7 PM, like at 6 PM, they already blocked off the whole metro station and the whole square. And those people who were leaving Pushkin Square Metro Station to the square, they were eventually being arrested.

Megan: Zack and his friends got off the train three stops before Pushkin Square and then walked over. Eventually they saw a crowd gather. The crowd started marching together, holding signs and chanting.

(Protestors chanting “No to war” in Russian.)

Zack: That day there was only one slogan, "No War." And we joined it. And we started to scream that slogan, and it lasted only for about three or four minutes. And then we started to be blocking off from one side of the street, by the policemen, by the aftershocks as basically policemen car like cars to put protesters in. And we started to being blocked from one side. We turned around and we started to be blocks from another side. So initially we had to squeeze in a whole crowd into small, narrow street of Moscow. And we were trying to get away, but at some point they started to block our way.

Ben: Eventually, Zack and his group splintered off into all directions to outrun the police. He said he was scared that if police caught him, he would be arrested and drafted into the army. After a few minutes, when he was by himself, an unmarked car pulled up behind him, and he was surrounded by six policemen. He had no choice but to sprint. He ran for his life. Literally.

(Running, panting.)

Ben: Just remembering that incident still gives Zack a huge rush of fear and adrenaline.

Zack: Still, sometimes when I'm jogging and like in the morning, I just when I'm having low power, I'm just remembering what's happened. And, like, it gives me power to run. Like I'm running away from policemen in Russia.

Megan: Zack knew that the Russian surveillance apparatus could easily track protestors and arrest them. In the days after, he was holed up in his apartment, panicking with every knock at the door.

Zack: The next day after the protests. And at some point I heard a knock knock on my door. And my roommate, he just ran into my room and she was like, Zack, I think this is for you.

Ben: Who was at the door, in a minute.


Ben: After participating in an anti-war protest, Zack knew of the consequences. With every knock at the door, he imagined the worst possible outcome. He could be thrown in jail, or sentenced to hard labor, or completely disappeared.

Megan: In a split second, Zack thought about the options he had. He could hide under his bed or try to jump out of the window. He ultimately decided to go to his balcony and lie on the floor, to hopefully evade any police and trick them into thinking he wasn’t at home.

Zack: And then eventually, like I spent maybe 2 minutes laying on the balcony literally so people wouldn't see me. And my friend just appears like another friend. And he was like, "Zack, what are you doing here? Like, what's going on?"

One of the experiences you have in Russia, if you protest against the war all the time, you just all the time paranoia you they're going to come all worried that you're being sought. You're being looked for. If they listen to your calls, they read your SMS. So I was just really paranoid. That's one of the reasons I left. And of course, it's just not safe to speak out in Russia.

Ben: When Zack left Russia, he made his way to the city of Tbilisi in Georgia. Russians do not need a visa to enter Georgia, so a lot of people who flee Russia go to Georgia.

Megan: And Zack was lucky he left so quickly. On March 4th, 2022, the Russian government enacted two laws that closed an already narrow window for dissent and press freedom. The first law forbade anyone from calling the Russian military’s actions “a war” or an “invasion”. Anyone caught protesting could be put in jail for 15 years. Independent news coverage of the war was censored.

Ben: We asked Natasha about this law. When it was passed, she was in Khabarovsk on the other side of the country, finishing up her college thesis in order to graduate. Since Natasha had to stay and finish her coursework, she had to tiptoe around the law.

Natasha: I wanted to say some strong opinion like I am against this war, please help Ukrainians. I mean, the refugees and just the need, the money. So I wanted to, to do more. But so the Russian government adopted some really bad, stupid laws just several days after the beginning of the war. So and then the the titles of that law sound hilarious, like the “Law against spreading misinformation or fakes about the actions of the Russian military." So ...

Megan: So, Natasha was in a more restricted situation. And that meant balancing her political views with the government’s laws.

Natasha: When the war started after that, I was so paranoid I didn't know what I can say online. Should I say the word "war" or should I not? And in my video that they finally posted to with my opinion about the war, I, it's yeah, as far as I remember, I explained the situation to my subscribers, I said that like “I cannot pronounce that word but you know what I mean.”

Ben: Natasha put it to us this way. She was sure she would leave Russia after graduating. For one thing, like Zack told us before, she was scared in early 2022 the Iron Curtain would make a return and cut off Russia from the outside world like the Soviet era. She had also covertly participated in some anti-war events in Khabarovsk, though they were at a much smaller scale than the protests in Moscow. And as a YouTuber, she told us her income had been impacted by sanctions against Russian banks.

Natasha: It was really scary. It was like, you know, the last, as we say in Russian, the last drop of my tolerance and I mean, I tolerated this regime for so many years, I knew that I was going to leave. But this was like the last the turning point. And I decided I have to leave. So, it’s not even a questions or me, and I’m going to do it anyway. Like ethically, I cannot stay in Russia and continue to make videos, you know, about peaceful Russian life, about Russian beautiful nature, cities. I mean, I really want to do this. I, I still want to show the beauty, but my subscribers will not just to understand it. And also, I myself would feel that something is off. I just basically cannot make videos about peaceful life anymore when it's happening.

Megan: It’s hard to say how many Russian people are opposed to the war in Ukraine. Independently conducted surveys are hard to come by. In one poll, 83% of Russian citizens over the age of 60 support the war. In contrast, 79% of citizens aged 18 to 24 years old are in favor of immediate negotiations and 56% are in favor of stopping all hostilities as soon as possible, according to a study by three Russian research centers. This data was also re-published by The Wilson Center, which is in part funded by the U.S. government.

Ben: When the war first began in 2022, news outlets reported on the brain-drain underway in Russia. An estimated 50 to 70,000 tech workers have already left the country. Then, when President Vladimir Putin enacted the country’s first draft since WWII, some 200,000 left Russia. At the time of this recording over 700,000 Russian citizens have left the country in the past year because of the war.

Megan: Zack is 20 years old and as one of the men who’s left, Zack may not be able to go back to his hometown or see his family for a long time. We asked him how he was adjusting to life in Georgia. He said many of his friends, and other Russian YouTubers also against the war, have made their way to Tbilisi which has made things easier. He also said locals have been welcoming.

Zack: Georgian guys assume I'm Georgian and starts to speak in Georgian and I'm saying in Russian, "I'm sorry, I don't understand." And they are saying, "Oh your where are you from?" I'm saying, "I'm from Russia." And here you go, conversation about politics right away and it's like yeah, taxi drivers just asking like, "What's your relationship to the story of the war?" Uh, and as soon as I say, "I'm against the war, Putin is a war criminal." So they are saying, “You're my brother. So if you need any help, just call me.”

Ben: Like Natasha discussed earlier, Zack changed his YouTube channel to be less about Russian culture and more about anti-war efforts and his life in Georgia. He’s made videos debunking Russian state propaganda and filmed a visit to a Georgian food bank helping refugees.

Zack: So right now I'm kind of looking at myself like a political activist YouTuber in this way. I don't know if I'm going to be the same, like for the rest of my YouTube career, but who knows? But for now at least, there is a war. So I have to say something about it, and I have to show that the rest of the world, the Russians who are against it.

Ben: When we talked to Natasha last year, she was still unsure when she’d be able to leave Russia or if she’d be able to leave at all. But then, a couple of months ago, we got word. Natasha managed to successfully get on a flight and get to Tbilisi, Georgia, where Zack is. She said that Russian border patrol guards took her out of the security line for further questioning in an airport office. They asked about the American visa in her passport and to check her phone.

[YouTube video audio:

Natasha: In spring, there was a common practice for the Russian guards to check people’s like, phones. If you follow anti-governmental, anti-war chat, or what you're writing to your friends, they always checked, so people were really scared. Yeah, so you can kinda refuse to show your phone, but then they can say, “You don’t board on the plane.” I was ready to not board the plane. I was ready to turn away and get to my destination through some other country.]

Megan: It was a little harrowing but Natasha seems glad that she made it out of the country even though it's her home.

Ben: And she and Zack are still talking about how the country can improve in the future by being more open to diverse opinions, like those of YouTube creators who love their home and want others to see Russia and Russians like they do.

Zack: But what makes me stand against the war? Well, basically, you know, to be honest, shows my value as a human. When I see people dying I cannot stand out of it and say, “Oh, I don’t care.”

Natasha: We need different opinions in the healthy society. And I totally don't like this idea that Russians who are against the war have to leave. I wish we all could live in our country and be being able to speak our opinion.


Ben: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Megan: This episode was produced and co-hosted by me Megan Cattel and ...

Ben: Me, Ben Brock Johnson. Mix and sound design by Matt Reed. The rest of our team is Amory Sivertson, Quincy Walters. Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Grace Tatter, Emily Jankowski and Paul Vaitkus.

Megan: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and real life. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email Endless Thread at WBUR dot ORG.

Megan Cattel Freelance digital producer, WBUR Podcasts
Megan Cattel was a freelance digital producer for WBUR Podcasts.



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