Russia's anti-Kremlin troll StalinGulag finally breaks cover

By Svetlana Reiter and Andrei Soshnikov
BBC Russian

Image caption, StalinGulag is in a cat-and-mouse game with powerful Russian bureaucrats

The secretive author of a hugely popular Russian social media channel lampooning the Kremlin has revealed his identity, after years of speculation.

Alexander Gorbunov, alias StalinGulag, has notched up 300,000 followers on the Telegram messaging app.

He has over a million more on Twitter, his witty and acerbic posts deploring the current state of affairs in Russia.

Now he has decided to speak out to prevent reprisals against his family, he has told BBC Russian.

Police visited his elderly mother's flat earlier this week.

Who is StalinGulag?

In 2017 Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, called him "the most important political columnist in Russia".

StalinGulag's recent targets include: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's visit to Russia; government plans to introduce 5G technology; the Ukrainian presidential election and Russian proposals to ban Spanish ham and Parmesan cheese imports.

Alexander Gorbunov often highlights the absurdities and injustices of everyday life.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, St Petersburg food inspector: StalinGulag mocked restrictions on foreign food

Last month he posted about a family in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk whose HIV-positive adopted child had been barred from school, and a sick, elderly patient in Irkutsk who reportedly killed himself in hospital after waiting hours for a simple blood test.

"It is impossible to be silent when mad things happen [in Russia]," he told the BBC.

The man behind StalinGulag has a back story that was extraordinary long before he became the Kremlin's biggest social media critic.

Born in Makhachkala in the North Caucasus in 1992, he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, an incurable muscle-wasting condition that has made him a wheelchair-user for most of his life.

Gorbunov started his first business aged just 13, selling dietary supplements online.

From these humble beginnings he moved on to become a successful financial trader, specialising in derivatives and crypto-currencies.

He now lives in Moscow with his wife, enjoying what he describes as a good life with regular outings to restaurants and the theatre.

But he's keen to stress that someone with his disabilities needs to be able to make money in order to pay for all the support he requires to have a normal life.

'I just wanted to write'

For someone whose pithy tweets frequently contain expletives and slang, Gorbunov in real life comes across as articulate, educated and thoughtful.

He arrives at the BBC office smartly dressed in a black polo-neck and tweed jacket. He speaks softly and with the quiet confidence of someone who is used to being listened to.

It's clear that Gorbunov is a man who wants to make the most of however much time he has left.

He knows that medication will not stop the progression of his condition, and for that reason refuses to take drugs which could prolong his life.

"One year more to live, one year less - it doesn't matter for me," says Gorbunov. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life in a medical institution."

Gorbunov set up StalinGulag as an anonymous Twitter account in 2013.

At the time he was still living in Makhachkala, spending most of his time at home because, he says, it was not an easy town to get around for someone in a wheelchair.

"I just wanted to write," he says. "My computer and the internet meant I could follow what was going on in the rest of the world... I've always been interested in politics."

A taste of StalinGulag's tweets:

Image source, StalinGulag/Twitter
  • Kim Jong-un's limo arrived in Vladivostok. It was brought from Pyongyang on an Il-76 cargo plane. To allow the North Korean dictator to travel in his limo, a wall was torn down at Vladivostok railway station. Everyday life in a superpower
  • Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova says Russians will stop drinking when they find interesting work and hobbies. In other words: we'll never stop drinking
  • The national meat association proposes to ban individuals from importing meat and dairy produce for personal use. Soon a kilo of cheese will get you the same jail sentence as a bag of heroin
  • "Around 40% of Russians don't have any savings" - it would be great to invent another tax, because someone still has some savings
  • A military coup in Sudan. Hooray, there's something that can use up billions from the Russian budget again - otherwise the money will just rot in Saratov, for lack of anything to spend it on.

Why the name StalinGulag?

He chose the name, in his words, "as a form of trolling" and to call out what he says are the false parallels between Stalin's era and Russia today.

"The people in power want us to think that they are scary and terrifying like the [Stalin-era] secret police," he says. "But it's not like that. At heart they are just commercial people who like luxury and money."

By 2016 he had more than 400,000 followers and decided to branch out and set up a channel on the newly-established Telegram messaging app.

Telegram was set up in 2013 by Russian IT-entrepreneur Pavel Durov, founder of VKontakte - a Russian version of Facebook - and who now lives in self-imposed exile abroad.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, The Russian government tried to block Telegram last year

Telegram allows users to set up groups of "channels" anonymously and send news and content directly to an unlimited number of followers.

Its channels have become hugely popular in countries such as Russia and Iran where freedom of speech is restricted. They are used by politicians, activists and social groups communicating news and information, and by businesses targeting new customers.

Stories from Russia on similar topics:

"Telegram channels are the only non-moderated political space in Russia," says political scientist Andrei Kolyadin.

Telegram's popularity and independence from the government is a key reason why the Russian government tried unsuccessfully to block the app last year.

But attempts continue and a desire to rein in Telegram is widely believed to be a motivating factor behind new legislation to regulate the internet in Russia which was signed into law on 1 May and comes into force in six months' time.

How StalinGulag lost his anonymity

By 2018 StalinGulag was one of the most popular Telegram channels in Russia. His darkly humorous take on life seemed to capture the zeitgeist.

There's a big demand now for posts saying everything is going wrong, says Telegram expert Fyodor Skuratov.

For years StalinGulag's identity was a closely-guarded secret.

When the media outlet RBC published a story in 2018 linking Alexander Gorbunov's name to the Telegram channel, StalinGulag hit back with a strong denial.

But that all changed this week with the news that police in his home town had paid a visit to his mother's apartment.

Police told her that someone had used his mobile phone to make a fake bomb threat.

The BBC contacted the police in Makhachkala to confirm the story but no-one was willing to comment.

Other relatives in Moscow have also been contacted by the police.

Media caption, How Russia wants to control the internet

The story has caused a big storm on social media in Russia, with many people speaking out in defence of StalinGulag.

The fuss finally convinced Gorbunov to speak out, in the hope that if he revealed his identity the authorities would leave his family alone.

"It would be awful if one of them suffered," he told the BBC. "Not just from the authorities, but also from [pro-governmental] fanatics."

When his name was published in the Russian media last year, Gorbunov says some of his trading partners became scared and backed out of long-cherished plans to set up an investment fund with him.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Alexei Navalny - Russia's best-known anti-corruption campaigner - praises StalinGulag

At that time it was perhaps risky, but not illegal, to be so outspoken.

But new Russian legislation in March prohibited individuals from spreading "fake news" and information insulting to state officials.

In future this could make things a lot more difficult for social media personalities like StalinGulag.

So far police have not been in touch with Gorbunov himself, and he remains philosophical.

"I'm not afraid for myself," he says. "They can't take any measures to restrict me, because I've been living with restrictions all my life."

"Nothing has changed," he adds. "I'm going to carry on writing the way I always have."

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