Jean-Michel Scherbak is a young actor and model from Moscow. I’ve never actually met him in person because my friend started dating him after my last visit to the Russian capital, and then the pandemic and now the war have kept me away. I started following him on Instagram, where he posts photos from his modeling shoots and videos from his travels. He was always funny and upbeat. He danced, he gave people witty tours of the cities he found himself in, including Kyiv. And then, as for so many Russians and Ukrainians, everything turned dark.
War tore everything apart–—including, it seemed, Jean-Michel’s family. His light-hearted posts about overheated games of Monopoly were now replaced by screenshots of his Russian mother’s angry messages to him, calling him a traitor and disowning him. Soon enough, to enlighten his mother and people like her, Jean-Michel turned his Instagram into a stream of debunking and deprogramming. He started posting messages from other Russians who believed Kremlin propaganda, juxtaposed alongside information from his Ukrainian friends—presenting the nationalistic myth versus the gruesome reality. When Russia banned Instagram, he started up a Telegram channel to keep the truth flowing.
What struck me most about Jean-Michel’s battle was its utterly familiarity. After four years of Donald Trump, a year and change after January 6, after reading countless stories about people losing family members to QAnon and fighting to get them back, I recognized Jean-Michel’s story: a son losing his mother to the insane world of a right-wing autocrat’s warped propaganda.