Taking on Putin through porn: how Russians are finding out the truth about Ukraine

Six weeks into the invasion of her country, Anastasiya Baydachenko made an emotional plea. She wanted money: not for weapons, not for clothes, but for adverts.

Vladimir Putin had been aggressively turning Russia’s internet into a fortress and, as a CEO at a Ukrainian digital marketing company, Baydachenko knew a way to infiltrate it. The plan was simple: buy ad space across websites in Russia and Belarus and use them to link to independent news on the war in Ukraine. The adverts could be direct, or they could be oblique, even titillating, to conceal their true nature and evade the censors.

At first Baydachenko targeted the usual suspects – Google, YouTube, Facebook and other sites with high traffic. But with each passing day the task became harder. The introduction of Russia’s “fake news” law catapulted the country’s internet into a darker realm. And so Baydachenko moved into a darker one too: the world of online gambling and pornography. These sites were perfect – little moderation, huge audiences and people behind them whose allegiances were with the highest bidder. If all else failed she’d try to take on Putin through porn.

Baydachenko wasn’t a lone ranger. Instead she was part of a bigger network and through this network money began to come in. The operation expanded. Baydachenko reckons that their ads have reached hundreds of millions of Russian internet users. “Informational resistance works,” Baydachenko says with confidence, adding that she believes pushback to the war from mothers of Russian soldiers is partly because of the campaign.

This is just one example in a growing list of people and organisations exploiting digital loopholes in Russia to challenge Putin’s control. Last month alone, hackers have turned the mobile version of news radio station Kommersant FM into a jukebox of Ukrainian anthems and have placed an appeal to end the war on smotrim.ru, the main website for accessing state-run TV channels and radio stations.

Rob Blackie is one of the directors of Free Russia, a campaign to bring independent news about the war to Russians through ads. He spearheaded the campaign (first doing so in 2014 when Crimea was invaded) and now works with Baydachenko. He jokes that from Putin’s perspective he’s running “a criminal spam operation”.

What he and the other people in this space actually operate is a modern-day samizdat network. Samizdat, the Russian word for clandestine material, was highly influential in the USSR, helping spread a mass of protests, banned work and documents. The method was the typewriter, the means people’s hands – now upgraded to the internet and its offshoot of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and the encrypted apps Telegram and Signal.

Even TikTok was recently used by US-backed news organisation RFE/RL to track the movements of troops across the country as they made their way to the front. RFE/RL – which has suspended operations in Russia after pressure from police and politicians – is still working with journalists there and breaking important stories. Its message is clear: we’ll find ways to get information in and out.

Some are fighting the information war by merging the modern with the old, such as the team behind Zvezda, an independent digital publication. When their site was blocked in early March they began publishing a weekly text edition on their Telegram channel in an A4 format that could be easily printed out. Stepan Khlopov, the editor-in-chief, 前記 he hoped people would leave the newspaper lying around for passersby to pick up.

Resistance isn’t always in the form of hard-hitting news. The Kopilka Project, an online repository of anti-war poetry from over 100 Russian speakers, was launched a few months ago in the form of a live Googledoc to which readers can request access. Kopilka translates from Russian as “piggy bank”, and Julia Nemrovskaya, one of the organisers, told me they consider their efforts to be “throwing a tiny copper coin into a bigger kopilka: the collective effort to defeat Putin”. Kopilka’s aims are twofold: to challenge Putin’s propaganda and to keep the poems safe from the Kremlin’s destructive arms.

At Index on Censorship, where I am editor-in-chief, bad-news stories are our bread and butter. When I stumble on positive stories I embrace them. And even in the middle of this awful war, there is some good. Protest still exists in Russia. It exists in headline-grabbing instances of journalists brandishing anti-war signs on the evening news and thousands taking to Russia’s streets. But it also exists in large-scale, high-impact digital operations, meticulously planned and involving, もちろん, a hefty dose of bravery.

Putin can ban journalists all he wants – as he did in mid-June when he banned 29 UK journalists from entering Russia, including correspondents from the Guardian. He can saddle protesters with hefty prison terms and fines. He can block independent, critical sites. Yet people are finding ingenious ways to get the non-airbrushed truth out and to pass the message on.

はい, it’s important not to overstate their role. Today’s dissidents play a high-stakes game. Putin isn’t a man to mess with. His punishment is swift and harsh, and while he might not run as well-oiled an online censorship machine as, いう, Xi Jinping does in China, he’s fast catching up. But allow us a moment to rejoice in the image of people in Russia visiting porn sites only to be served the naked truth about the ボリス・ジョンソンのベン・ジェニングス war. If anything deserves to be called a “special operation”, it’s surely that.

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