Groundbreaking film on Russia's HIV epidemic goes viral

“A hundred people per day,” reads this screenshot from vlogger Yury Dud's YouTube documentary about Russia's HIV epidemic. This was the average number of victims on a daily basis in 2018.

One of Russia's most popular vloggers or video bloggers, Yury Dud, has released a documentary movie describing the HIV/AIDS situation in Russia. Since its launch on February 11, Dud's movie has received nearly 13 million views.

That makes Dud's documentary one of the most viewed YouTube videos in Russia today. And it couldn't have come at a more urgent time.

Russia faces an HIV epidemic. By the end of 2019, Russia's Ministry of Healthcare estimated the number of HIV positive Russian citizens at one million, meaning that the syndrome affects around one percent of Russia’s adult population. Meanwhile, the Russian government remains silent. As sociologist Iskander Yasaveyev wrote last November for independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta: 

Из миллиона четырехсот тысяч случаев ВИЧ-инфекции, зарегистрированных в нашей стране с 1987 года, более половины — около 750 тысяч — зарегистрировано с 2012 года, когда начался третий путинский срок.

Of the 1,400,000 cases of HIV infection registered in our country since 1987, more than half —around 750 thousand — were recorded after 2012, the starting year of Putin's third presidential mandate. 

Luckily, Russia's booming vlogosphere is there to say what goes unsaid elsewhere. Vloggers such as Dud have a significant following as they offer a rare alternative in a country whose media is heavily censored and controlled by the government. Television is the predominant source of information in Russia, meaning that most alternative media, with the exception of online television station Dozhd (Дождь), are newspapers and radio stations. This means that vloggers’ popular YouTube channels are the only real independent competition for state-owned television channels. 

Dud, a former sports journalist, is one of Russia's leading vloggers, with over six million followers on his YouTube channel. He often interviews Russian-speaking celebrities but has also produced several professional documentaries on controversial issues in Russian society.

His considerate and thoughtful approach to some truly tricky topics has made Dud nothing less than a superstar on the RuNet. Global Voices asked Zhenya Snezhkina, a Prague-based Russian journalist and expert on Russian vloggers, to explain the popularity of video bloggers in Russia today and Dud’s success in particular: 

Быстрая обратная связь дала создателям контента возможность наиболее точно попадать в свою аудиторию. По мере наступления цензуры в России, все больше людей старались уйти из-под ее влияния и переходили на площадку, которая в силу ее устройства не дает российским властям цензурировать контент. Также как и несколько десятков миллионов пользователей предпочитают неподцензурное медиа. 

С самого начала своей карьеры на Youtube Дудь говорил о себе как о человеке, который задает неудобные вопросы и старается докопаться до реального положения дел. Без осуждения, но с пониманием. Фактически он переоткрыл жанр интервью, отменив “приличия” поведения героев. По мере развития канала количество вопросов росло, как и количество тем, о которых Дудь рисковал говорить. Рекордами прошлого года стали фильмы “Колыма” и “Беслан” (у обоих по 19 миллионов просмотров). Оба фильма вызвали ярость российских пропагандистов. Логично, что одной из тем для следующих фильмов должна была стать ситуация с ВИЧ в России, потому что положение дел тут трагическое.

Quick feedback that gives content creators the ability to better assess their audiences’ needs and expectations. As censorship has intensified in Russia, more and more people have tried to find ways to avoid it, transferring to platforms whose structure doesn't allow the Russian authorities to censor them so easily. So today, several tens of millions of users now prefer uncensored media.

From the very beginning of his YouTube career, Dud spoke about himself as a person who asks inconvenient questions and digs up the reality of various situations. Without judgement, but with understanding. He's basically reinvented the format of the interview, moving beyond the need for “well-behaved” interviewees. As his channel developed, its scope expanded to including topics that are risky to discuss. In 2019, his record breakers were his films about Kolyma [part of the Russian Gulag] and Beslan [a terrorist attack on a school in the Russian Caucasus]. Both movies have over 19 million views each. Both incensed the pro-Kremlin propagandists. It was logical that the HIV situation in Russia should become one of his next topics, because it is a tragic situation.

The title of Dud's latest documentary translates as “HIV in Russia  the epidemic that no one talks about” («ВИЧ в России — эпидемия, про которую не говорят») and runs for nearly two hours. It starts by citing key statistics, including the fact that on average, in 2018, 100 people died of the virus every day. The film includes several testimonies by HIV positive people and their partners, touching upon diverse topics: couples in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other isn't, HIV-positive children, HIV and drug consumption, myths about HIV transmission, HIV activism, the need for sexual education in schools, and the authorities’ silence. The movie is revolves around real life stories and is conducted, as are Dud's other videos, in a colloquial style which differs significantly from the tenor of official media in Russia.

It is hard to overstate the impact this film is having in Russia — views are rising day by day. But its impact cannot simply be measured in digits. One netizen wrote the following in a YouTube comment under the video:

I work in a clinic and my first patient today was a young man who came for an HIV test, and he said he did so because he saw this video. It's amazing.

— Anastasiya Botushan, YouTube, February 13, 2020

Following the release of Dud's documentary, there has been an explosion in HIV testing — a fact which reflects the lack of effective governmental campaigns to prevent the epidemic. One article suggests that the demand for HIV testing in Russia has increased by 5,500 percent since February 11.

Apparently, the success of the movie has also made the authorities sit up and take notice. The Duma, Russia's parliament, organised a screening of the movie on February 14:

And for Valentine's Day, we made an unusual choice at the State Duma. We are being shown Yury Dud's film.

On February 16, the Accounts Chamber of Russia, which oversees financial control of the state budget, announced that would review the effectiveness of measures aimed at supporting HIV-positive Russians. Its head Alexey Kudrin praised Dud's movie on Twitter:

Yury Dud has made a much needed movie about HIV in Russia. More than one million people are infected. In 2018, 37,000 died of AIDS — that's on average 100 persons a day. Compare that with the coronavirus. #HIV in our country remains a much more real threat.

Snezhkina, the Prague-based journalist, does not believe that the authorities’ approach will change overnight. Nevertheless, she is optimistic about the prospects of wider social awareness about HIV in Russia:

Условно говоря “власти” услышали слова Дудя и его героев – фильм был показан в Госдуме и Министерстве здравоохранения России. Я не думаю, что сам фильм приведет к каким-то радикальным результатам. А вот то, что гораздо больше людей открыли для себя, что доступное тестирование на ВИЧ и доступные лекарства, это может иметь гораздо более широкие последствия.

Basically the “authorities” have heard the words of Dud and his heroes  the movie was shown in the State Duma and at the Ministry of Health. I don't think the movie will bring any radical changes. But the fact that so many people have found out about HIV-testing and the existence of drugs [for the condition], will have much more significant consequences.

One of the most poignant moments in Dud's film is his interview with Katya, a former drug user who died while the film was shot. Throughout their conversation, Katya, insists several times that:

Мы не прокаженные. Я надеюсь, что пойдет поток информаций

We are not lepers. I hope there'll be a free flow of information [about us].

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