After pressuring independent media and supporters of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the Russian authorities appear to be turning their fire on social media influencers. In the space of a few days last week, Russia’s most popular YouTube star, Yuri Dud, was charged with promoting drug use, while blogger and comedian Yuri Khovansky was arrested for ‘justifying terrorism’.
- Khovansky reached the peak of his YouTube popularity a few years ago, but he still has 4.4 million subscribers and his most popular clip — a 2016 rap-battle with rival streamer Dmitry Larin — has more than 40 million views.
- Khovansky’s arrest Tuesday took place with a heavy dose of theatrics. Police came to the blogger’s apartment, pinned him to the floor, and interrogated him for the benefit of the accompanying cameras. The resulting clip got heavy airplay on pro-Kremlin social media, and the following day the Investigative Committee published a video in which Khovansky publicly apologised for his actions — a law enforcement tactic that is commonplace in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. It all seemed like a farce, until a court ordered Thursday that Khovansky be detained for two months.
- The charges against Khovansky relate to a spoof song about a terror attack that unfolded at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002 and killed 244 people. Khovanksy’s song was made several years ago and, like all of his work, is clearly not intended to be taken seriously. The song has never been publicly performed, but another blogger uploaded fragments of a rendition earlier this year. If found guilty, Khovansky could face up to seven years in jail.
- Russian YouTube star Yuri Dud also fell foul of the law last week. Unlike Khovansky, Dud is still wildly popular and considered one of Russia’s best interviewers. On his YouTube channel, Dud releases in-depth conversations with anyone from stand-up comedians to exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Navalny. He has over 9 million subscribers and his videos regularly get over 10 million views. According to polling firm Romir, Dud is Russia’s most trusted blogger. He openly supports the opposition, and regularly appears at protest rallies.
- Dud now faces a charge of ‘promoting narcotics’, which could result in a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles ($20,800). The case became public Thursday and relates to an interview Dud did with rapper MORGENSHTERN last year and blogger Ivangai in March. Both videos garnered more than 20 million views on YouTube and included discussion of drug use. It’s difficult to see where the ‘promotion’ took place, however, as both interviews were accompanied from the outset with a caption reading ‘Drugs are evil. Don’t use them!’.
- The case against Dud was initiated by Yekaterina Mizulina, a member of the Public Chamber and daughter of conservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina who drafted Russia’s notorious legislation that banned ‘homosexual propaganda’. Mizulina Jr said she hopes in the future to be able to bring a criminal case against Dud. This would likely be for inducing others to use drugs and would carry a maximum sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Why the world should care: It could be that two legal cases in a week against prominent YouTubers is just a coincidence. But the Kremlin has been worrying for years about the influence of bloggers on young people. And RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, a leading advocate of restrictions on YouTube thinks differently. “For some time, the system felt YouTube was out of reach, and that laying a finger on its stars was not without risk – as if the millions of followers that watched these unknown freaks would take to the streets. Guess what changed the system’s mind? That’s right. When they arrested YouTube’s biggest star [Navalny] and absolutely nothing happened,” Simonyan said.