Russia has tried to claim that Ukraine was filled with neo-Nazis abusing and killing Russian-speaking populations in their territory as the rationale for their invasion of Ukraine. One of their main examples of this is the Azov Batallion, a far-right, neo-Nazi military regiment who are currently holding out in the besieged city of Mariupol. In the last election, Azov candidates received just 2% of the vote and did not win a single seat in Ukraine’s Parliament. Bellingcat has discovered that Russia has its own far-right group supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The Russian group, known as the “Male State,” is a group of Russian homophobes, sexists, and racists that have been making noise on Russian social media and Telegram about their support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Particularly, they support all the atrocities that come with the war.
The group has tens of thousands of members who attack anything they see that poses a threat to their motherland, Russia. They collectively embrace a far-right ideology that they describe as “national patriarchy.” The Male State is notorious for trolling, harassing, threatening, and inciting violence against people who oppose their group and their views, particularly women.
Despite being banned from the Russian social media platform Vkontakte in 2020 and being marked an extremist group in 2021, they have managed to retain a strong following as its members moved over to other channels like Telegram to spread its message of hatred.
During the build-up to the Russian invasion, and on a regular basis since then, the group has become staunch supporters of Vladimir Putin and his invasion. The group has seen significant growth in its following after shifting its focus on Russia’s conquest of Ukraine. Thus, they became Putin’s most loyal online army of trolls.
The group consistently posts disinformation and propaganda regarding civilian casualties on its social media channels. They have also praised some of the heinous crimes the Russian soldiers have been accused of committing on the battlefield.
The Male State’s channels and its members decorate their online avatars with the pervasive letter “Z,” which has become a symbol of support for Moscow’s brutal aggression towards its neighbor. They participate in the use of hate speech and have even demanded the slaughter of Ukrainian officials, soldiers, and other individuals.
SOFREP reported previously that the letter “Z” originally was a marker to determine where a Russian military vehicle came from. The “Z” means that the unit came from the Eastern Military District, while the “Z” with the square means that the unit came from the Southern Military District in Crimea.
#Ukraine: A BTR-D airborne armored personnel carrier was abandoned by the Russian army in #Kherson Oblast. Note that it seems to be loaded with crates of Kornet anti-tank guided missiles. pic.twitter.com/D0aHzNAosB
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) April 25, 2022
However, this “Z” symbol slowly became a symbol of Russian nationalist pride, as observed in Russia and Russian accounts on social media. The most infamous bearer of the Russian “Z” symbol was Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak, who created a makeshift “Z” with tape and stuck it to his leotard – all while standing next to Ukrainian gymnast Illia Kovtun in Doha, Qatar. This later drew the ire of the international community.
As you’d expect, the “Z” was also used for propaganda purposes as terminally ill children would later be forced to line up and form a “Z” in an effort to paint the invasion of Ukraine as “patriotic.”
Russian Far-right Views, with a Hint of Hitler
Although they are not explicitly neo-Nazis, posts on the group’s channels and chat rooms feature allusions to traditionally Nazi terms such as “1488” – a combination of two infamous white supremacist numeric symbols. Another term they use is “Untermensch,” which has been used to describe someone inferior or “subhuman.”
“Victory is with us, [Ukrainians] are beneath us,” one of the group’s Telegram channels, Male Legion, wrote after the invasion started, using a derogatory anti-Ukrainian slur. “The sky is above us, onward Russian brothers.”
One of the group’s channels, Shvabra, was reported saying that a strike on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his associates was “the final solution of the Ukrainian question,” which is a clear reference to the Nazi euphemism, “Final solution to the Jewish question.” President Zelensky was born to two Jewish parents and grew up in Ukraine. Members of his family perished in Holocaust and his grandfather was a Rad Army officer in WWII fighting the Nazis. It is something of a confounder for Russia to claim that Ukraine is a Nazi state with a Jewish president as Russian rockets and bombs fall on Jewish shrines like the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial and the Uman, the birthplace of Hasidic Judaism.
Posts in Shvabra echoed the call for military tribunals and even went further by advertising for public executions of top Ukrainian officials.
“It’s a shame…that the last time we’ll see you…will be at a Russian military tribunal, preferably with a noose around your neck,” a post in Shvabra wrote, referring to Zelensky.
Male Legion, an alternate account of Male State, praised the Russian shelling of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, calling it “beautiful.” At the same time, another comment read, “We’re fucking rinsing the [Ukrainians],” using an anti-Ukrainian slur.
The group’s leader, Vladislav Pozdnyakov, cheered the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv on his personal channel (which also has a tremendously significant following) with a video showing Russian mortars blasting the city at night.
“The disco of the century,” Pozdnyakov wrote. These attacks reportedly killed and wounded dozens of civilians.
Where Did the Male State Come From?
The group was founded in 2016 and was started by local medical college dropout and fitness enthusiast Vladislav Pozdnyakov on the Russian site VKontakte.
Initially, the group was largely centered around grabbing attention and earning money from advertising. Pozdnyakov and the other group leaders figured out that they could get more exposure from “posts exposing girls.”
Soon enough, women found their photos, videos, and personal information shared with the group’s members without their consent. Afterward, reports of harassment and threats toward these women emerged.
The group’s message is centered around the supremacy of the male sex and the segregation of “alpha and beta” males based on debunked gender theories derived from observing animals. The group also featured the occasional posts of hatred against Russian women who had relationships with non-white men.
After some time, the group’s ideology eventually evolved into what they call a “national patriarchy,” whose values were derived from a mix of right-wing views(“Right Wing” views understood in the European rather than US political spectrum)
Because of its activities, the Male State was banned from VKontakte in 2020 and was designated as an extremist organization in October 2021. Its leader, Pozdnyakov, now lives in Podgorica, Montenegro, after being convicted of inciting hatred against women in 2018.
Researcher Tanya Lokot believes that the origins of the ideals being peddled by the Male State did not come from nowhere. Rather, such beliefs, namely misogyny, homophobia, and the reinforcement of gender roles, have deep roots in Russia’s social and political structure.
“Given the presence of these kinds of ideas… it’s not surprising these groups emerge. State-sanctioned misogyny has given an informal blessing to groups like Male State,” Lokot said.
Currently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine enjoys much public support in the Kremlin despite a select few protesting the war. Independent pollster Levada determined that 80% of Russians supported military actions in Ukraine, leaving Putin enjoying the majority of the public support. However, much of this support is likely fed through Russian propaganda and disinformation, a campaign that the Male State directly contributes to. Putin also enjoys a favorability advantage in controlling the press and criminalizing dissent in his country.
However, this is not to say that there isn’t any pushback from the public and his own inner circle. As was said, there are thousands of Russians who actively protested the war in Ukraine(quite bravely). They risk their lives doing this as the police can arrest them for going against the state. In fact, they cracked down on dissent last March, implementing a punishment worth 1.5 million Russian rubles if Russians are determined to be spreading “false information” about Russian state bodies operating abroad. Russian insiders have also revealed that a growing number of critics within Russia’s elite have been brewing, which indicates significant dissatisfaction with the invasion. Putin could continue to lose support within his own circle if the invasion does not end with a definitive Russian victory.