Activist Ambassador Lawyer Journalist: What It’s Like to Be Hated Online in Russia Today

Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

From time to time, RuNet Echo translates into English some of the Russian media’s best work about Internet-related issues. Earlier this week, Nina Nazarova, a reporter at the Russian magazine Afisha, published a small collection of fascinating interviews with four public figures who have played major roles online and in the news in Russia. Each of these people has faced intense harassment on the Internet and in ordinary life, and their stories serve as revealing accounts of what it’s like to be prominent and hated on the RuNet today.

“It Happened to Me: How to Live and Work in an Atmosphere of Hatred”

There are some jobs in Russia that invite a daily stream of hate mail and even threats. Nina Nazarova at Afisha recently spoke to four individuals who have encountered particularly aggressive harassment—an LGBT-rights activist, a former US ambassador to Russia, a lawyer, and a journalist—and asked them what it’s like to live and work in an atmosphere of hatred.

Photo: Facebook

Lena Klimova
LGBT-rights activist, creator of the project Children-404

I got the idea to create the photo album “Beautiful People and What They Say About Me” [a collection of threats Klimova has received online] a long time ago. I would look at the photos of the people who write me these terrible things, and marvel at the disparity between their appearance and the content of their threats. Beautiful people: they’ve got children, they’re smiling—and then they write me this. I made the album so others could enjoy the contrast. And judging by readers’ comments, they've enjoyed them indeed. People saw exactly what I wanted to show them.

I can’t remember the first time someone wrote to insult me. It was probably in early 2013, when I was writing for [the news agency] Rosbalt about different issues. Readers provided feedback either in comments on the article itself, or they found me on social networks and told me there. The responses were all over the place: ranging from “smart girl” to “dumb whore.” I remember feeling hurt and confused.

Later, though, after I started heading Children-404, I had to get used to it. If you’re at all a public person, any passerby might up and spit on you. You’ve just got to live with it, and gradually it becomes easier. After hearing the same words over and over for several years, they lose their meaning. Right now, I’m “attacked” 1-3 times a day. Sometimes it comes in bursts—mostly when someone famous writes something nasty about you, or when a big organization launches an attack on you. This happened to me with [conservative Russian actor] Ivan Okhlobystin and the Anti-Maidan movement, which has half a million subscribers.

The haters don’t faze me—they’re too predictable. For instance, they often write that I’m hideous and no man will ever want me. How upset could this possibly make me, given that I live with the woman I love and have no interest in men? They can always swear at me, but without a certain passion, even this becomes boring to read.

I’ve been attacked by “my own people,” too. Once, a certain gay person told me that he used to live like everybody else, “without sticking out.” He’d go to gay clubs and he never asked for anything more. But then, because of folks like me (that is, the activists), the state decided to come after LGBT people. He said all kinds of terrible things to me. It hurt. Though it’s my guess that most people think like this—that gays owe all their problems to the activists.

A lesbian once approached me and claimed that the authorities approved the “anti-gay” law because of my project Children-404, saying it used to be okay before, but now she can’t even hold her girlfriend’s hand while walking down the street—and she blames me for this.

I didn’t try to explain that I started my group precisely as a response to the threat of this law coming to be.

A year ago, a gay-rights activist asked me to help persuade youths to take part in the May Day parade, carrying rainbow flags. I refused, saying (1) I wasn’t sure I could ensure their safety, and (2) that I didn’t think we could call on children to take to the streets. The activist responded sarcastically, “Now there’s a winning strategy!” and our conversation ended there. Thirty minutes later, he denounced me publicly, and then he started to write to my friends, telling them what a hysterical asshole I am. This was really hard for me. I remember that I even cried.

But now—now it makes no difference to me. I’ve simply understood that there are no LGBT people who are “mine”—that only exists among those who share your views.

Does my life resemble the life of Children-404? No. For me, things are simpler. I’m an adult. I’m independent. I can block someone who offends me [online] and forget about him. But the parents who reject you, and the classmates who bully you—you can’t block these people. If you find yourself confronted by hatred and in pain, it’s vital to remember that it will pass. It hurts at first, but then you move on. The main thing is not to become too cold. Whenever you do anything, there will be those who hate you for it. Just take the abuse and the praise as it comes. Do your thing and don’t listen to anyone.

Photo: Facebook

Karina Orlova
Radio host, Echo of Moscow

The threats started last January, after I recorded a show with Maxim Shevchenko about the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. We discussed Ramzan Kadyrov’s reaction to a tweet by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who called on journalists to reprint the Mohammed cartoons, to show terrorists that Western society doesn’t fear them. Kadyrov called Khodorkovsky his personal enemy and said there’s no shortage of people in Switzerland who are ready to bring the “fugitive” to swift justice.

I asked Shevchenko how Kadyrov could threaten a public figure with violence, and he said that Ramzan Kadyrov is one of the finest men around, and denied that it was really even a threat. But I didn’t leave it at that, and I pressed him further on this issue.

The very next day, I got my first threat on Facebook. It was waiting in the folder marked “other.” I opened the message, read it, and simply deleted it. Then I started getting these messages regularly—and not just “I’ll get you, bitch,” but detailed, thought-out threats from people with real profiles. For example, the profile picture of one of these people showed him standing next to his car in Grozny. There were about nine of these letters in total.

For two months, I didn’t dwell on this, just thinking of it as the cost of working at Echo of Moscow. It’s the liberal media, and there’s such an atmosphere of hatred these days.

And then Boris Nemtsov was murdered, and I got another three death threats in early March. Suddenly, I realized that my life was in real danger.

The value Russians place on life is precisely zero. And I’m not talking about the state apparatus, but the way ordinary people think generally. Some people I know tried to calm me down, saying, “C’mon now, who cares about you.” Before Nemtsov’s murder, even I treated the threats like they were just white noise. I spent a month in the United States on a training program, and the Americans asked me, “So what’s it like over there in Russia?” and I’d tell them, “Oh well, heh, they’re accusing us of being a fifth column, traitors to the nation, and I get threats in the mail.” They’d just look at me astonished.

American journalists tell me, “You’re so small, so courageous, and so brave. I wouldn’t be able to manage.” And now I see it’s merely that they place a different value on life—a decent value. And I realize that I’d been treating myself the way the [Russian] government does—the way the [Russian] President does.

Sure, it’s unlikely that they’ll come after me to the degree that they came after Boris Nemtsov. But if there are ten people who sent me threats, maybe there is some other number of people who haven’t written me, but are discussing the same thing in private. And in a country where you can murder Boris Nemtsov right outside the Kremlin, and be called a patriot, who’s to say what separates threats from murder?

The police opened a case into the threats against me on March 26, after I spent a week talking to investigators. In all that time, the authorities never even asked me for my Facebook password. Let’s assume that our police are able to access my account without a password, but it seems to me like it is just basic propriety to say, “You know, we need to look at the IP addresses of these people, so please give us access to your account.” Nope!

Using my iPhone, I showed the investigator the Facebook profiles of some of these people, saying, “Look—here they are.” She just looked at me and asked if their profiles also listed their home addresses.

In the end, I left Russia on April 1 and I’ve got no plans to return anytime soon.

When you live in such conditions, you start to pay less attention to all the nonsense—all scandals about twerking bees, about when you can call women “chicks,” and all the rest of the stuff that clutters up the news. These stories are obviously planted by the authorities to distract people from really important issues. For example, why did Ramzan Kadyrov order his men to “shoot to kill” any Russian police found operating in Chechnya? If Navalny up and called on people to shoot the police, they’d charge him on the spot with plotting to overthrow the government. Meanwhile, we’re talking about bees.

I honestly hope Russia reaches the point someday when the discrimination against women is the nation’s worst, most pressing and unresolved problem. But for now, you know, it’s like walking up to a drunk on the street and saying, “Go get a manicure—your nails are awful.”

Photo: Facebook

Oleg Khabibrakhmanov
Lawyer, Committee Against Torture

Any kind of human-rights activism is a thankless job. It all makes sense: the investigators don’t want new cases, the police don’t want to go to prison, and so everyone stonewalls and puts up roadblocks. The question is where the limits are. When you work in Chechnya and the republic’s chief of police, Deputy Minister of the Interior Apty Alaudinov, says openly, “Guys, I can no longer guarantee your safety,” this, it seems to me, is an outright threat.

Our joint mobile team in Chechnya started operating in 2009, after the death of journalist Natalia Estemirova. We took the cases she had in progress that she wasn’t able to finish investigating. Our colleagues, let’s call them, from the human-rights sector in Chechnya immediately made it clear that we were dead men walking. They did not wish to speak to us publicly. It was a nervous time, to put it mildly.

Of course, we tried to minimize the risks, but no amount of iron doors, armored vehicles, bulletproof vests, or anything else will help you, if they really want to get to you. This line of work requires clear commitment, an acceptance of the risks, and the understanding that you’re doing something vital. Everyone who joined the Committee Against Torture agreed to these terms in advance, so there’s no reason to get emotional.

At first it was difficult, but later on, some forces realized that it was easier to ignore us than interfere with our work. So there was a period of cold war—they completely ignored us in legal terms. We couldn’t accomplish anything: we went to the courts, we appealed to the district attorney and the investigative committee, and everywhere we were confronted by illegal rulings and resolutions. For a few years, we struggled desperately, and nothing really worked. But it was all relatively calm.

And then in December last year, when they announced after the attack on Grozny that the homes of terrorists’ relatives should be burned to the ground, we sent a signed letter to the federal Attorney General, as well as the head of the federal Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, asking them to study Kadyrov’s statements as a possible call to illegal activity. How everything came apart after that!

The persecution, the arson of our office, and the massive attack in the media—even the local human-rights activists who’d called us their colleagues suddenly spoke out sharply against us. They said we were ruining everything, slandering that kind man, Ramzan Kadyrov—Chechnya’s greatest defender of human rights.

And this turn to open confrontation—we’re still living it today.

The most insulting thing is when the locals don’t support us. People think we put them at risk, and they want to keep their distance. When our office was burned down in Grozny, our neighbors only berated us with demands that we pay them to replace the things in their apartment damaged by the smoke. Or, on the contrary, people write me on Facebook to say things like, “Withdraw your troops from independent Chechnya, and we’ll deal with Ramzan ourselves! Everything you’re doing in Chechnya is with the Kremlin’s approval.” Put simply, it’s a bunch of nonsense.

How do I find the strength [to do this]? I don’t know. I think what I do is awesome—it gives me serious drive. I’m certain that I’m fulfilling a truly important function: we’re refusing to let Russia slip into totalitarianism, and we’re waging a war against the violation of human rights. Our research has helped convict 109 police officers of misconduct, and all of them have served criminal sentences.

I sincerely believe that our cause is just and that everything we do helps both Russia and the world, in general. I like my organization, our team, and I like that I’m not the only one who shares these ideals. So I can say that I honestly do enjoy my work.

Photo: Facebook

Michael McFaul
Professor of Political Science, former US Ambassador to Russia

It started when I was ambassador to Russia, right after I joined social media. I would say it’s gotten much worse since February 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Just in general, the Russian-language debates on Twitter have gotten much more personal and unpleasant. Often one doesn’t feel there is a dialogue anymore. Whereas before people would disagree with me, which is normal, but we would have a polite exchange.

Now it’s more impolite. Sometimes it’s just a few very unpleasant tweets, usually using swear words—language you wouldn’t want to see in your emails. Sometimes it’s hundreds of Twitter messages with the exact same message, so that seems to me they must be coordinated. (Sometimes they include unpleasant photographs.) Occasionally—not everyday—but occasionally people are tweeting threatening tweets to me about my physical security. And on occasion they even threaten my children. Right now, I live at the States, where I teach at Stanford University, and it’s only become worse.

I didn’t expected it to be so vicious—I’m surprised by that, I’ve got to tell you, honestly. And then I block people. I have a policy that if someone insults me personally, I block them. And they write back: “Ah! You’re against free speech.” And my response is: “You have the right to say whatever you want, but I have the right to read whatever I want.” When I was ambassador, we did investigate threats. We took it very seriously, and so so did the Russian government, by the way. They cooperated with us a couple of times.

One time, there were consequences for one person. By the way, one of the people who follows me confessed to me that he is paid to follow me and say nasty things, and he said in a direct message to me “Just so you know I personally admire you, but this is what I am paid to do.” Very cynical. And I took a photo of this message and I’ll release it someday.

There is no doubt that these attacks induce self-censorship. It worked with me, I confess. I no longer write in Russian, so maybe they are succeeding. They want to chase me away from debates on Twitter, and their threats are succeeding. I’m not as interested in talking in Russian on social media anymore. I’m on social media much less now. And I can tell you that hundreds of Russians—hundreds!—have written to me privately to say they just don’t want to participate in social media engagements with me because of all the hatred that’s our there.

When I was ambassador before the crisis in Ukraine, there was a dialogue and there was joking and interaction with me, including the Russian government officials. It was a much freer platform to engage in this kind of discussion, joking about sports sometimes, and talking about serious stuff. This has decreased dramatically since the conflict in the Ukraine, because people don’t want to be associated with all this hatred, with all these trolls. There are a hundred messages saying “how evil you are” and “you need to go to hell” and “you need to burn,” “you need to be shot,” and people don’t want to deal with that, and I perfectly understand that.

The current ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, does not have a Twitter account. I did not advise him to do that—he decided to have his press secretary do it, instead. And that is fine. Different ambassadors have different styles, and I respect that.

I just find it personally very depressing in terms of contact between our societies. In the earlier era, it seemed to me like Twitter especially was a place where Russians and Americans could interact and learn from each other and have a dialogue, which was unique. And I, as a government official, was willing to engage with anybody and everybody, and that’s very unusual in diplomacy.

If President Putin wanted to reduce the hatred on Twitter, it would take him five minutes. If he just said something critical of this kind of activity, that would have a giant effect, of course. There is no doubt in my mind. Whether he wants to do it or not is a different question, but he has the power. Especially in the wake of murder of Nemtsov, it seems to me that a campaign to reduce tension in society would be a very useful thing for a responsible politician to do.

There are a lot of crazy people in the world—not just in Russia—and they do things motivated by international politics, motivated by nationalism. And I think it’s very scary. And I do think that the encouragement of violent disrespect to people is going to lead to bad consequences.

The Russian media today reports some very distorting facts, distorting messages about Americans—about the West—and that stirs people up. And then, in the name of being a good nationalist, people do stupid things. I think it’s very dangerous to use this form of propaganda. When I see President Obama being compared on Russian television to the leader of the Islamic State, that’s crazy. And that stirs up crazy people. I think the people in control of those media outlets should take responsibility. They have an obligation to be more responsible, because this could lead to some nasty and unintended consequences.

And there is an important thing that all Russians should understand: there is the constant complaint that Russia doesn’t get respect from other countries, right? This is a theme for many Russian politicians. And yet, when Russians act so disrespectfully on social media, they are doing damage not to whomever they’re targeting, but to their own country’s image.

If you really care about your country’s image in the world, you don’t want people swearing at others and saying disgusting things about their children. What does this say about you? You don’t gain respect by disrespecting people.

This text is a full English translation of interviews conducted by Nina Nazarova that appeared in Russian on the website Afisha on May 18, 2015.


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