The ultranationalist organisation has launched an online campaign to support Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine, posting anti-Semitic statements and calling for Ukraine’s leaders to be executed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military offensive in Ukraine has found unlikely support from a reactionary online group banned by the Kremlin for its toxic blend of misogyny, racism and homophobia.
The show of solidarity by ‘Male State’— designated as an extremist organisation by a Russian court last year — comes amid the Kremlin’s war propaganda machine working full steam to drum up support for the incursion which has left the country divided.
The Male State has continued to find a way to thrive and add new recruits to their cause despite the ban, primarily relying on the messaging app Telegram, where it amplifies its content on various channels.
“They look and behave as a self-isolated group,” Alexander Verkhovsky told TRT World.
Director of the SOVA Centre, an NGO monitoring nationalism and xenophobia in Russia, Verkhovsky emphasised that the group’s autonomy from the state and that its supporters inside Russia are anonymous.
Since the conflict began, members of this loose-knit cluster of ultranationalists have been boosting Russia’s attack by spreading misinformation and vitriolic hate speech on the Russian platform. Many members’ avatars have been adorned with the “Z” insignia, which has become a pro-war symbol in support of the Russian military.
According to open-source intelligence sleuths Bellingcat, the movement has used several Nazi-adjacent terms and hate symbols in reference to Ukraine.
Upon identifying Male State channels and chats on Telegram, Bellingcat journalist and researcher Michael Colborne found the numerical code ‘1488’ and ‘Untermensch’ (a word Nazis applied to those they saw as inferior) were deployed by its members to describe Ukrainians.
One of the channels posted a video of a fighter giving a Nazi salute from Task Force Rusich, a neo-Nazi Russian military unit.
And their hate speech goes all the way to the top, with anti-Semitic slurs being directed against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish.
Created two weeks prior to the invasion, a Male State channel with over 10,000 subscribers called Shvabra (‘Mop’) claimed on February 25 that an attack on Zelensky and his associates in Kiev would be seen as a “solution of the Ukrainian question” – a euphemism with obvious parallels to the Nazi’s “final solution” to the “Jewish question."
Some have demanded military tribunals, and gone further in calling for the murder of Ukrainian leaders and public figures.
“It’s a shame that the last time we’ll see you…,” went another post on Shvabra the day after the incursion began, and added that Zelensky “will be at a Russian military tribunal, preferably with a noose around your neck”.
The group has also urged its followers to share information on Russia’s so-called domestic enemies, to the point where a Kollaborant (‘Collaborator’) Telegram channel was set up and amassed over 30,000 subscribers in less than a week before it was shut down.
Male State was founded by Vladislav Pozdnyakov, a fitness instructor and blogger, in 2016 on the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte (VK).
The group gained visibility after the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, when Pozdnyakov launched a campaign of collecting “compromising” photos of Russian women seen with foreigners during the tournament to publicly shame and harass them, ostensibly in the name of preserving Russia’s traditional morals and values.
Jessica Valisa, PhD candidate at the University of Otago, told TRT World that the group’s discourse is completely in line with that of the ‘manosphere’ or ‘incel’ [involuntary celibate] community online, which promote anti-feminist and sexist beliefs, and in extreme cases, espouse violence against women.
Valisa, who specialises in pro-Russian digital media and the mainstreaming of far-right ideas online, calls Male State the “first full-fledged Russian incel group” within the Russian rightwing ecosystem.
While misogyny is a central tenet of its worldview, the community’s ideological core evolved into an idea they outlined as “national patriarchy”, which calls for the abolishment of gender equality and restoration of male dominance. Anyone deemed an opponent to it is targeted with vicious trolling, harassment and violence.
And so, the agents of degeneracy and decay gnawing at the Russian nation included not just feminism, but those promoting homosexuality and race-mixing.
Yet the belief of ideas like feminism harbouring social decadence (and by extension, Western devices to weaken Russia) are far from marginal. In fact, they are already normalised and “officially endorsed and propagated by mainstream Russian official discourse,” Valisa noted.
“I think that such official discourse has a lot in common with the broader far-right discourse as developed in Europe after the Second World War, so this sort of ideological overlap is unsurprising,” she added.
It is also illustrative of a broader trend in Russian society connected to the “besieged fortress” mentality.
“This mindset manifests itself in the constant search of internal ‘traitors’ and ‘subversives’ who undermine the traditional social foundations by engaging in intellectual or physical forms of subversion against national ‘purity’ and ‘integrity’,” wrote Kiril Avramov in The Globe Post.
Hence, why women’s bodies are linked to the prosperity of the nation; they are viewed as a precious resource to national patriarchy that must be kept under strict male guardianship.
Another element worth noticing, says Valisa, is that their ideology is informed by both Nazism and White supremacy, which she observes as typical of the American extreme right and traditional Russian Pan-Slavism, highlighting how they use White supremacist online symbols like ‘1488’ and put names of people in echo parentheses to signal they are Jews.
As the group gained more followers, it became involved in a number of public campaigns.
One last August saw it target a popular sushi restaurant chain called Yobidoyobi for advertisements that featured Black models. Pozdnyakov urged his followers to take action and demanded the removal of the ads. Under duress, the company eventually relented and apologised for causing public offence.
Another sushi chain, Tanuki, came under fire from the group after it voiced its support with Yobidoyobi.
Musicians have been targeted as well, to the extent that Male State followers managed to successfully cancel popular female musician Alyona Shvets’ concert over the content of her lyrics.
While authorities began to crack down on the group, it remains an open question as to how effective it has really been.
After the community of 160,000 users was banned from VK in 2020 for inciting violence, Pozdnyakov maintained his channel on Telegram, totalling more than 80,000 subscribers as the group moved its activities onto the platform where a network of Male State associated channels grew and flourished.
Then, in October 2021, a regional court in Russia declared the social media movement as extremist and banned its activities. Within 24 hours after the ruling, some 1,500 subscribers left the Male State’s main Telegram channel, which had almost 45,000 subscribers at that point. Since the court ruling, the group’s official Telegram channel changed to ‘Male Legion’ (Muzhskoi Legion).
As of March 2022, the movement on Telegram retains around 62,000 subscribers, while Pozdnyakov’s personal channel has 83,000 – all upticks since the October ban came into effect.
To Verkhovsky, it’s because the Russian state does not view Male State as a real danger. “It was banned, but there are no criminal cases on the attempted continuation of its activity. That would be a good indicator,” he said.
“But it’s really not easy to suppress their activity, as Pozdnyakov is abroad,” he said, adding that it may not just be the group’s founder that is behind the steering wheel. The anonymity of group members makes it harder as well.
According to Valisa, “when groups are banned because of extremism, it’s not mainly for their ideas but for the perception of threat they pose to the Russian state”. She thinks because the group voices just a more extreme version of ideas already palatable in Russian society, they are less likely to be persecuted as others might.
In July 2021, Russian activists alleged that there was active collaboration between Russia’s interior ministry and Male State, claiming that the personal data of activists that the hate group had published was identical to an interior ministry report.
“Unfortunately, it is very difficult to know what people in power positions in Russia do because a lot of things are never publicly disclosed,” Valisa said.
She also pointed out instances where the Russian government has often used extreme-right groups for their own ends, only to ban them once they crossed the line and posed a threat to the State, as with the example of Russkki Obraz, a neo-Nazi orgnisation.
“This was true in the early 2000s with the so-called phase of managed nationalism, but who knows, these could emerge again given the current situation with Russia at war.”