Hacking Through Putin’s Media Cult

Putin
Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty
Julia Ioffe
March 22, 2022

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. 

I wanted to talk to him about what had led to this moment in his relationship with his mother and the generational difference playing out across much of Russia right now. (Jean-Michel was born in 1992, a year after the Soviet collapse; his mother in 1963, a year before the end of the Khrushchev era.) I also wanted to know why he felt compelled to devote himself to this project, to fight with a slingshot a massive propaganda machine whose power he knew so well. It was all the more poignant since, at the beginning of his career, Jean-Michel worked for one of the Kremlin’s most notorious media outlets. 

Our conversation has been translated from the original Russian and edited for clarity.


Julia Ioffe: Tell me about why you started this Telegram channel.

Jean-Michel Scherbak: I woke up on the morning of February 24, turned on my phone, and three different friends from Kyiv wrote to me: “Jean-Michel, Russia invaded Ukraine and is bombing it.” And I wrote a post on Instagram saying that Russia is waging a war to acquire more territory, that anyone who disagrees with the government is labeled a “foreign agent” or thrown in jail, and that I am very afraid and very ashamed, especially in front of my Ukrainian friends. 

I was in a truly awful state because I really do love Ukraine. There are people there with whom I am very close and every time I go to Ukraine, it’s like a celebration. It’s like I’m coming home. I was worried after 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, that people would be hostile to me because I’m from Russia and I speak Russian, but nothing could have been further from the truth. It’s a place where I always feel welcome. Every time I visited, I went to people’s houses and to their birthday parties. Every time I went, I met new people. Ukrainians have this internal freedom, this desire to be happy. And now these people were writing to me and saying, your country has attacked our country. 

And then I understood what my mom meant when, two days before that, after Putin recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, she texted me an emoji of a bottle of champagne popping. I didn’t react to it and we talked about other things: the surgery I was going to have and how my cat was doing living with her. And the day the war started, she messaged me—she actually sent me the same message twice, in WhatsApp and Telegram—saying she was congratulating me about the destruction of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, and that’s what these Ukrainian fascist sons of bitches deserved. 

Why was your mom sending you these messages?

Because my mom thinks that America and NATO are evil. She hates them. She is sure that Putin is our savior. She is sure that there are powers that want to dismember Russia in the same way that the Soviet Union fell apart, and she is sure that this is what America wants. According to her, Putin is the only person who can save Russia and keep it from falling apart. 

Where do you think she gets these views? 

My mom subscribes to several patriotic groups on social media, including Facebook. She really misses the U.S.S.R. I’ve heard her say that, in the Soviet Union, people lived well and that there was organic produce in the stores. But when I asked her some follow-up questions, it turned out that it was just that her family lived well back then. My grandfather was a pilot and he often brought clothes from abroad and he moved the whole family from Uzbekistan to Moscow. They had a lot of money and my mom and grandmother would stake out the lines and get spots in line so they could buy more of everything. Maybe this is why my mom thinks life in the Soviet Union wasn’t so bad, because she had all these privileges. 

Was life hard for her in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Yes, it was a hard period for her. She told me stories about how there was no work and no money, nothing. Listening to her stories about that time, I understood that she doesn’t want things to be that bad again. And she really believes that someone is trying to do this to Russia again.

When did she become interested in politics?

I’m not really sure. I think with the annexation of Crimea. 

And how did her views change?

Over the last 10 years, she has insisted that Putin will save us all and that [jailed Russian opposition leader] Alexey Navalny and all these liberals are all agents of the West and that they’re all working to destroy our country from within. My mom used to be quite aggressive when she was younger. My older brother wasn’t very obedient but I was this calm, passive little boy, which I think was perfect for my mom. And when I got older, she would get very upset; she might yell or say something very harsh or cancel our plans if, for example, I didn’t go vote for Putin. I think she very genuinely began to despise me. She thought I was stupid and didn’t understand history or politics, and that I’m being led astray by some shadowy pro-Western people who are fooling me. Because mother is smarter, mother knows best. Of course, she was never interested in my opinion or if I even had one. 

When they had this referendum on changing the constitution [to allow Putin to be president until 2036], she would write me these long messages out of nowhere. She wrote, I strongly suggest that you go vote so that you won’t be filled with painful regret later. And, Go vote for the constitutional changes because this is a vote for Russian sovereignty, and a vote against it is a vote for destroying the country. I will go to my grave with a clear conscience, but you’ll have to live with this, etc. And I said, Mom, the new constitution has already been printed out and is sitting on the shelf, ready to go, calm down. It doesn’t matter if I vote for the changes or not, they’ll still make them. She will always say, I am trying to help you, but you listen to anyone and everyone, but not your own mother. 

Were you ever interested in politics?

When [Ukraine’s pro-Western] protests on the Maidan started [in the fall of 2013]. That was the first time I started being interested in politics. I started watching LifeNews [a notorious, tabloid-like publication and TV channel with close links to the Russian state security services] and Channel One [the Kremlin’s flagship network]. It didn’t even occur to me that the people on television could be lying to me. Many Russians think the same thing. And then, at some point, I got this idea in my head that I should go to Ukraine and find out the truth. 

It turned out that my mom had a friend who had a friend who worked at LifeNews and, even though they kept giving me the run-around, I managed to get a job there. 

They had me cover breaking news, like a car crash or someone jumping out the window.

I remember that when Russia annexed Crimea, they sent me to Red Square to report on people who had come out in support of the annexation. So I got to Red Square and I saw people who had been brought there. These weren’t people who had shown up of their own volition.

How did you know that they had been brought there? 

I spoke to them. I overheard their conversations. I saw a lot of buses. Seeing how they were dressed and how they spoke, I could tell that they weren’t from Moscow. And when I started speaking to them, it turned out that they had been brought in from nearby towns and that these are people who work for the government or for state companies, and this counts as a work day for them. They were promised some vacation time for coming. Also, I had seen protests and rallies in other countries on TV and it looked different. People come out with their own home-made posters and different kinds of flags and pins, everyone looks different and unique. And when I arrived at Red Square, everyone looked the same. They had the same little flags and the same posters and the same slogans. It was immediately obvious that this was something organized. 

Honestly, it’s really hard for me to recall all this, it makes me ashamed that I was part of all this. But I was 22 or 23 and I was so curious to see how it all worked. And I had occasional doubts, but for some reason it never occurred to me that people watch this and that it influences them. Unfortunately. 

I had doubts, I thought that maybe this wasn’t right, but the atmosphere at the channel was so—we always had the top ratings, we were the most cited channel, we had all the scoops, everyone knew that LifeNews got everything first. And the owner of the channel started a journalism school that we went to after work. It was a separate universe. And it was in the air: we were doing everything right. 

Why did you decide to leave? And when?

It was in December 2015. First of all, I was really tired. Second of all, I was really disillusioned. But again, I was 22 or 23. I didn’t realize that the problem was so serious. It wasn’t such a burning issue then. Now, I can see that the propaganda machine is so merciless with the truth, so merciless with people, that it really does zombify people and convinces them that Putin is doing everything right. But the whole time I worked there, I couldn’t understand, why are we only talking about Ukraine? Why do we hear about Ukraine and America every single day? And if you’re going to ask me now how I was able to do it, I wouldn’t even know how to answer you. I went there to find some answers, and I didn’t find them. And then the questions kind of went away.

Jean-Michel Scherbak. Photo by Rost Reznichenko.

Let’s come back to the present day. What’s going on with your mom? 

When the war started, she wrote to me that I was a traitor and we have nothing to say to each other anymore. And that’s when I noticed that her avatar on WhatsApp disappeared, which means that person blocked you. So I put this whole exchange on Instagram and it went viral. It got 45,000 likes and was shared 50,000 times. By that point, I was already posting all these Instagram stories refuting [Russian disinformation] with what people were sending me from Ukraine. And my mom wrote to me a few times. 

At first, she wrote that, When they pass the law making it illegal to post fakes about the special operation in Ukraine, I’ll be the first to turn you in. Then, when I decided to leave the country on February 27, I sent her some money, and just as I was starting to write to her to tell her I was leaving the country, she wrote to say, I do not communicate with Russophobes and traitors to the Motherland. And sent the money back. 

And that’s when I realized that I have to keep doing this because there must be thousands of people in Russia like my mother. Then I started getting messages—hundreds of messages—from people in Russia as well as people abroad, even people who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia ages ago, even they are fighting with their parents, who support Putin.

Their parents are Russian immigrants who live in America and support Putin? 

I’ve seen a few stories like this, yes. But that’s not the point. I realized that since my mother disowned me, my mother is now Russia itself. Now I have to show Russia—my mother and all these people who watch Kremlin TV—that what is being shown on television is not at all what’s happening on the ground. And that’s when the work really started. I started putting up proof that there were Russian soldiers in Ukraine, that many of them were conscripts, that Ukraine isn’t bombing itself. I had people in Ukraine send me video and photo evidence, including the Russian passports of soldiers. And just so you understand what I’m dealing with, what is in people’s heads, I put up a video of a Ukrainian woman soldier and someone noticed that she was wearing eye makeup. And they said, See? How can she have time for eye makeup if it’s a real war? 

When the maternity hospital in Mariupol was bombed, state TV started saying that one of the pregnant women was a beauty blogger and that she’s sponsored by the West. I put this whole thing together proving that the photos were real, that the women were not crisis actors, and still, people said things like, How come we only saw her but not other pregnant women? Where were the other pregnant women? My god. Then Marina Ovsyannikova came out with her anti-war poster on Channel One and that’s when the Ukrainian side chimed in, saying it was fake. It’s like I cut off one head and five others spring up in its place. 

Who is your audience? Who are you doing this for?

At first, I was doing this for my mom. And then one of her relatives wrote to her from Ukraine and said, Russia is bombing us, she sent her a few videos showing what was going on, so my mom blocked her, too. That’s when I realized that there’s no hope for her, but maybe I could get through to other people. 

Most of the people who are subscribed to my Telegram channel are Russian. I never wanted to be a political blogger or to do this kind of thing. I wanted to be a famous actor. But now I see that many of my friends and acquaintances are silent and just want to bury their heads in the sand. One of my friends tried to stop me because she’s worried that I can be thrown in jail if I come back to Russia, because I’ve been posting “fakes” for two weeks now. And she said, Why are you doing this? I have three kids and, even though I know that this is all untrue, I can’t change anything. If I go out and protest, I’ll get arrested and what will happen to my three kids? 

Unfortunately, the government creates these conditions so that they really feel they don’t have a choice. Or people try not to think about it. The second thing is that they’re being told, morning to night, that they’re doing everything right and that Russians are heroes. There are some people who understand everything and can’t make their peace with it. And there are others who are willing to adjust to this so that their life doesn’t change for the worse. 

I used to think that the wonderful Russia of the future that we all wanted so badly would be built. Maybe not now, but in 10 years. Maybe not in 10 years, but it will happen, eventually. But now, I understand that it won’t. I don’t know what has to happen for our parents to understand that they’re being lied to.

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