With his sharp and witty political commentary, wheelchair-bound Alexander Gorbunov stirred Russia's public discourse, gaining over a million followers on Twitter in a short time and attracting the attention of the police.
The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 was a critical turning point in Soviet history. The absence of his heavy hand over time gave greater breathing space to public civic life across the USSR. Discussing the violence and tension during the period became a norm in ‘kitchen conversations’ - kuhonnye razgovory – where people were able to reflect on life away from the overbearing Soviet state.
Certain talks had real political power, as these informal and joyful exchanges provided an alternative space where ideas and dissent could flourish free of the confines of state ideology. People would furtively discuss the flaws of the Soviet Union whilst they drank tea.
Seven decades after, sitting in his apartment in Dagestan, Alexander Gorbunov has redefined the concept of ‘kitchen conversations’, by taking these discussions to new digital platforms. With more than a million followers on Twitter and over 370,000 on the Telegram messaging app, StalinGulag is one of Russia’s most widely read political blogs and for a long time Gorbunov published anonymously before recently revealing his identity.
StalinGulag is known for his sharp mind, bold voice, desperately humorous language, and sardonic analysis of daily life in Russia. With his usage of expletives and slang language, he powerfully articulates his temper and outrage with Kremlin officials. He highlights the absurdities and injustices of economic instability and the widespread corruption that damages the credibility of Russian politics. He has posted about teachers who beat their students in class; an elderly patient in Irkutsk who killed himself in hospital after waiting hours for a simple blood test; and about how the Russian media manages to silence criticism, stifle activism and punish anyone seen as a threat to its preservation.
Gorbunov kept his audiences up-to-date with a mocking commentary on the events of the day and quickly became a recognisable source for examining shifting political and social trends in Russia.
It turned out that one of the most scandalous and widely read political channels in the country is surprisingly led by articulate, educated, humble, soft-spoken 27-year-old Gorbunov.
While ordinary citizens were drawn to his work, resonating with his tone and commentary, Kremlin officials were left confused and anxious. Allegations and speculation began to grow and state media even accused him of working for the CIA and Ukrainian State Department. When authorities and journalists began investigating him, he decided to reveal himself.
Alexander Gorbunov as StalinGulag
Gorbunov was born in Dagestan, in Russia’s North Caucasus. He has reduced his mobility due to an incurable muscle-wasting condition that has placed him in a wheelchair for most of his life. Suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, he now lives in Moscow where he says it is easier for him to get around. In Makhachkala, the capital city of Dagestan, he says it is sometimes impossible to even drive down the street.
Remembering his childhood memories in Makhachkala he recalls the most important advice his father gave him when he was five years old: “In this life, you should rely only on yourself,” he quietly said over the phone, speaking to TRT World.
Living in a financially vulnerable condition, Gorbunov became a successful trader, specialising in derivatives and crypto-currencies before launching his blog. It is a story that has struck many people. Nobody expected that a practically immobilised person in Russia could not only create a successful blog but also fight back against the system.
Gorbunov’s preferred battleground would have been the cosmos. However, his determined spirit wasn’t deterred because of his vulnerable physical condition, and he turned to social media, typing and using a phone attached to his wheelchair.
“I am an ordinary person who wants to live a life reflected in StalinGulag,” said Gorbunov.
Political Satire in Russia
Satirical culture in Russian society has its own tradition. Russians have always mocked their political system, from the luboks – the colourful satirical prints from the late 17th Century – to the politically-charged jokes whispered in kitchens across the Soviet Union. This transformation of the political lampoon has adapted to different forms depending on the potential facilities of the society. Later with the sudden pop of high-speed internet in Russia’s major municipalities, that political satire made a comeback.
Russia appreciates a bit of irony and dark humour. Gorbunov created his alter-ego StalinGulag when he randomly decided to write his thoughts in his new online diary. StalinGulag has captivated readers with his frank and profane commentary on current events in Russia on Twitter since 2012. He has indulged in a comedy club full of frivolity and witty pranksterism that earned him top readership across Russian social media.
“StalinGulag is a reflection of me on the internet and the blog was formed as my personality developed. It all began as a temporary joke and a form of trolling, as the Russian government is fond of Stalin’s era. That is why I just decided to put a picture of Stalin as a display picture and write anti-Stalinist remarks. This trolling joke just dragged on and it ended up as what happened,” Gorbunov said, his voice changing from serious to exuberant.
“There are situations in life that if you are too serious, you can just go crazy in this country,” Gorbunov said.
He lived for years shrouded in secrecy and did not want to reveal himself unless he was forced to do so. He decided to reveal his real identity after police officers raided his parents’ house in Makhachkala and his older brother’s apartment in Moscow. Investigators accused him of 'phone terrorism' but have yet to provide evidence.
“First, they came to my parents' house in Dagestan. My mother called me at 1am and said the police came here with papers and they were talking about some kind of terrorism. It was all so unexpected. And if state authorities declare you as a terrorist in the North Caucasus, they can easily make you disappear or kill you” he continued.
“And I was aware of how the situation may end, therefore I decided that the only way I can save myself would be to reveal and publicise it in a maximal way.”
He said: “I did not want any publicity, considering that we live in a country in which criticism is unbearable. But when the police came to my parents, to my relatives, when they said that they suspected me of telephone terrorism, I simply had no other way out.”
As the space of ‘public sphere’ shrinks regarding independent printing and broadcast media control in Russia, the online world seemed to be the only platform left for critical thinking and expression. Gorbunov’s turn to the internet reflected the reality of daily life in Russia and even backfired with regard to the concept of the ‘telephone terrorist’ -- a young man, with no mobility, who was sitting in his apartment and becoming the voice of ordinary Russian citizens seeking hope and courage in every post on social media platforms.
“I write about the details of Russian life that people disregard most of the time. People say that I analyse Russia better than many political analysts. It is all because I live through everything that happens in this country. I walk along these streets, I engage with state officials, doctors in this country. I witness how police enter my apartment. I experience it all on myself.”
The story has caused a major storm in the Russian social media sphere as many people offered their sympathies with StalinGulag. Gorbunov’s story is also a stirring reminder to the agents of technological change, who are trying to create a virtual country independent of Moscow’s rule.
“When people found out I was behind StalinGulag, I received a lot of positive messages saying that behind the curtains there is a real man who lives in Russia as we do, who walks on the same streets and goes to the same spots as we do.,” said Gorbunov.