The Russian trolling Putin


MOSCOW — Crossing swords with Russias ruthless President Vladimir Putin is not for the lily-livered: Even imprisonment could be a blessing compared with the possibility of being poisoned by nerve agents or radioactive polonium.

Its even more impressive then that one of the Kremlins fiercest critics today is a writer suffering from incurable spinal muscular atrophy and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. A Russian dissident version of Stephen Hawking, the 27-year-old Alexander Gorbunov — who tweets under the provocative handle @StalinGulag as a way of trolling the Kremlin — has amassed more than 1 million followers on Twitter, and almost half that on his private Telegram channel.

Hailed as the “most important political columnist in Russia” in 2017 by Putins nemesis Alexei Navalny, Gorbunov blogged anonymously for years. He only revealed his identity in May after the Kremlin targeted his family. In April, police visited his mothers apartment in Mahachkala, the capital of the Muslim Republic of Dagestan in the Caucasus, where he was born and raised before moving to Moscow over five years ago. They accused him of “telephone terrorism” and claimed that his mobile phone had been used to make a fake bomb threat.

It was these scare tactics that pushed Gorbunov to speak out, gambling that being in the public spotlight would make it harder for the Kremlin to intimidate his family. He was right: Charges against him were mysteriously dropped after he appeared on Russian television and was profiled in the countrys major newspapers.

For now — and despite restrictive laws passed in March making criticism of public officials a crime — hes still free to tweet and hector the Kremlin for its corruption and ineptitude. For critics in Putins Russia, thats a major victory.

It was these scare tactics that pushed Gorbunov to speak out, gambling that being in the public spotlight would make it harder for the Kremlin to intimidate his family.

Meeting with him at Moscows glamorous pre-revolutionary Café Pushkin for an interview, I expected StalinGulag to be larger-than-life given his provocative online persona, but hes very small, almost disappearing into his hi-tech wheelchair. His voice is firm and strong though, while his bold gaze and Trotsky-like goatee hint at a rebellious spirit.

Were meeting in mid-June after a historic week for press freedom in Russia. A freelance journalist for Russian opposition site Meduza, Ivan Golunov, arrested and beaten on trumped-up drug charges, was unexpectedly released after mass demonstrations and a rare show of solidarity by pro-Kremlin newspapers that united in his defense with synchronized front pages proclaiming “We are all Ivan Golunov.”

It was a rare climbdown by a righteous Kremlin that never admits its mistakes, and it had galvanized Russian civil society with an energy not seen since the anti-Putin demonstrations of 2012.

Gorbunov hadnt taken part in the protests personally, quipping that his “demonstration is on the internet.”

When I asked Gorbunov whether he feels safer after the journalists release, he just shrugged and sunk back into his wheelchair. “It was a small victory for civil society,” he admitted reluctantly. “But the system is still the same, and the mentality hasnt changed.”

Bundling his small hands into fists, he pointed out that the police had arrested hundreds and cruelly beaten those participating in a demonstration after the journalists release.

He had tweeted about the police brutality, writing: “A typical holiday in Russia — prison vans, policemen, arrests.” (The demonstration had taken place on Russian Independence Day on June 12.)

Gorbunov hadnt taken part in the protests personally, quipping that his “demonstration is on the internet.” Thats understandable given his fragile health and disability. Whats more surprising, however, is that hes not even a full-time dissident or politician like many of Putins critics.

He makes a comfortable income day trading in derivatives and cryptocurrencies from the comfort of his Moscow flat, where three assistants help him with his daily needs. (He tweets while waiting for the markets to make their next move.)

Its a rare privilege to earn top dollar with brains alone in a country like Russia, where most eke out a living on a few hundred dollars a month. Yet he feels compelled to stick his neck out and attack the Kremlin instead of enjoying the good life with his wife and friends.

Alexander Gorbunov emerged as one of Vladimir Putins most vocal critics on social media | Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

“Why?” I ask.

He pushes his wheelchair closer and flashes a rare smile. “I was always interested in politics, and StalinGulag is a blog and not a project. I just write about what worries and concerns me about Russia.”

He then locks his eyes with mine and declares with conviction, “If everyone keeps quiet, then nothing will change.”

Born in 1992, Gorbunov is a millennial (“an older one,” he jokes), and like many younger Russians of his generation, hes keenly aware of whats happening in New York or London and considers himself to be living in a free, globalized world.

Its the contrast between the freedom and dynamism of the West and the authoritarian stasis of Putins Russia that angers young Russians hungry for change. Most of the brave demonstrators that came out in support of the arrested journalist Ivan Golunov were under 30. Its also no coincidence that hip-hop, wiRead More – Source