In a courtroom in the city of Nizhny Novgorod on October 18, the future of a gang of online misogynist thugs who call themselves the ‘Male State’ (Muzhskoye gosudarstvo in Russian) looked to be hanging in the balance.
A few weeks before, regional prosecutors had filed a lawsuit to have Male State banned as an extremist group. Founded by Vladislav Pozdnyakov — a man convicted of inciting hatred against women in 2018 — Male State’s tens of thousands of members have been at the forefront of a backlash against gender equality in Russia, winning its fair share of headlines in Russia and around the world.
Judge Anna Belova wasn’t convinced by the attempts of Male State’s lawyer Dzhambolat Garabayev to defend the group — “these are women who themselves discredited the male population,” he claimed in response to well-documented evidence of the group’s misogynist harassment campaigns. After a few minutes’ deliberation, Belova ruled that Male State was to be designated as an extremist organisation in Russia, banning the movement’s activities in the country. Male State reportedly plans to appeal.
The verdict comes after a particularly busy year for Male State. In just the past several months, they’ve harassed and threatened retailers who use Black models in their advertisements, posted the private contact details of a member of feminist protest group Pussy Riot— who soon found herself the target of abuse — and reportedly sent threats to Russian women in relationships with non-Russian men.
Their increasing belligerence had prompted growing revulsion against the group in some sectors of Russian society, leading to demands for action against Male State.
It is unclear whether Male State can survive in its current form. Yet its model of extreme harassment, taking advantage of social media platforms like Telegram that have been accused of enabling hate speech, is easily replicated.
The group recently deleted all the posts from its Telegram account made before September 2021. But Bellingcat researchers have been able to archive them all, including posts from a private group chat, allowing us to piece together the growth of the archetypical online misogynist hate group — a trend which is, alas, hardly unique to Russia.
Founding the Male State
In 2016, fitness fanatic and dropout from a local medical college Vladislav Pozdnyakov started a group called Male State on Russian social media site VKontakte (VK).
From the beginning, Pozdnyakov seemed hungry for public recognition; according to Male State’s onetime second-in-command Dmitry Popov, at first the group was largely just interested in attention and money from advertising, both of which they soon learned they could get from “posts exposing girls.” Whether because they’d fallen afoul of a member or posted something which displeased Male State, women found their photos, video and private contact information shared in the group without their consent. Harassment and threats often followed.
The group’s language echoes the so-called ‘manosphere,’ complete with discussions of ‘alpha’, ‘beta’ and frequently ‘omega’ males rooted in long-debunked theories drawn from the animal kingdom. But Male State’s members and leader Pozdnyakov have also shown a particular hatred for Russian women in relationships with men from perceived non-white backgrounds, particularly Black men.
So while misogyny remained at the core of Male State’s worldview, the group’s ideology eventually coalesced into something they described as “national patriarchy,” In its name, they railed against what they saw as Russia’s decay and degeneration at the hands of a number of perceived foes, from feminists and LGBT+ activists to people from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
This cocktail of extreme right-wing views did not come from nowhere. According to Tanya Lokot, a researcher whose work focuses on the Russian-language internet, the kind of ideas espoused by Male State — misogyny, homophobia and a strong belief in traditional gender roles — are already a “normalised” part of Russia’s social and political discourse, even if not expressed as radically.
“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, who is eastern Europe editor with international citizen media website Global Voices, told Bellingcat in an interview.
By 2017, cells of Male State began to be formed in cities across Russia. One of these was in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, which was infiltrated by an informant from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Four members of the cell were arrested that December and eventually convicted on extremism charges. Despite Pozdnyakov being alleged in media reports to have overseen the group and his name coming up often in the investigation, he was never officially interviewed or interrogated.
During the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia, Pozdnyakov posted photos and videos of Russian women who, in his and his followers’ view, were “disgraceful” for being friendly with foreign men who had come to watch matches in the country. These women were subsequently harassed and threatened, both online and offline.
This was too much for Russian authorities, who charged Pozdnyakov in September 2018 with inciting hatred against women. He received two years’ probation, but his verdict was overturned in 2019 when the law under which he was convicted was partly decriminalised. He claims to have left Russia soon after.
In July 2020, Male State and its group of 160,000 members was banned from VK for incitement to violence. Afterwards, Male State moved its activities to Telegram, where a network of channels centred around Male State and Pozdnyakov continued to grow.
“We hope that you’ll become our faithful companions and together with us wage an information war against…[the] enemies of our people,” Male State wrote in an August 2021 post on their Telegram channel, celebrating an influx of followers as the movement came into the media spotlight.
“Our goal is to bring together and unite the Slavic peoples: Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, Poles and other Slavs,” the post continued. “Return patriarchy to white families, because only with that will families have order and prosperity. To get back to concepts of morality and decency, to get rid of the nonsense imposed by tolerant liberal trash. To suppress any manifestations of LGBT trash and other leftist infections on the minds of our children.”
The possible mainstreaming of extreme misogynist views came to the fore again in July 2021, when Russian activists alleged that a body within Russia’s interior ministry (MVD) “actively collaborates” with Male State. They alleged that the personal data of activists that had been published by Male State, which led to them being harassed and threatened, was identical to that seen in an interior ministry report.
Then-parliamentarian Oksana Pushkina, a former television host who has made headlines for her pro-LGBT stances despite representing Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party from 2016 to 2021, issued a formal request to the interior ministry about the activists’ allegations. The ministry, legally obliged to respond, denied any such connection.
“Whenever any initiative in Russia becomes hugely popular, the assumption that it has been directed by the state naturally arises. But I am sure that Male State was an autonomous project, with no influence from above”, explains Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Centre, an NGO which monitors nationalism and xenophobia in Russia (SOVA is designated a ‘foreign agent’ in Russia). “There are of course radicals who are not dangerous and sometimes even useful to the authorities, and there are tiny groups of radicals whom they could tolerate indefinitely,” he continued.
Male State was neither of these, added Verkhovsky. “It became too popular, it had too many members, and too much was being said about it… there was no way this could be useful. It’s possible for the government to move against feminists, but not explicitly against women as a whole, that would be madness. Male State was simply too radical.”
Whatever the political optics of the ban, the court’s ruling came as no surprise to the human rights activist. “[Male State] explicitly incited violence and other crimes”, he concluded.
Telegram: Male State’s (mostly) safe space
After being banned from VK in July 2020, Male State made a new home for itself on Telegram, where it founded a new channel. This main channel, under the title ‘Male State’, had almost 45,000 subscribers as of October 2021.
Though the channel was made private in August 2021, after being formerly accessible to anyone — it can only be joined with a specific invite link and is not searchable on Telegram — its content, including deleted posts, can still be accessed and analysed using third-party websites like telemetr.io as of October 2021.
From around 27,000 subscribers in January 2021, the channel’s subscriber count grew slowly over the next several months, reaching 29,000 by May 2021. Over the summer, however, the channel’s subscriber count grew much more quickly, corresponding with the publicity and profile of some of its harassment campaigns. The channel reached 40,000 subscribers by August 2021, reaching a peak of 46,000 at the beginning of October 2021. The channel also has an accompanying private group chat with almost 2,300 members as of October 2021, a chat with thousands of messages per day.
In the wake of increased media coverage in Russia of the group’s activities and of efforts to have it banned in the fall of 2021, the channel lost more than 1,000 subscribers, something the channel responded to angrily in a now-deleted post insulting those who left.
In October 2021 Male State deleted almost all of its old posts on the channel, with those from before September 2021 no longer available. The channel changed its name and profile photo several times in the hours after the group was banned by a Russian judge on October 18, going from “Male Power” to “Male Path” to “Male Legion.” More than 1,500 subscribers left in the 24 hours following the ruling, and the channel subsequently deleted all posts from before October 17, 2021 (the day before the ruling).
Yet Male State is more than just the official Telegram channel that until then bore its name — a channel which Pozdnyakov recently denied managing. Pozdnyakov’s personal outlet, which he started in 2017, proved to be more popular than that of the movement he founded.
From approximately 82,000 subscribers in January 2021, Pozdnyakov’s following grew very slowly — he had only 83,000 subscribers in July 2021 — followed by a spike in August 2021, in the midst of some of Male State’s high-profile harassment campaigns.
As the main Male State channel had done, Pozdnyakov made his channel private to his almost 100,000 subscribers after reports that his channel would be banned by Apple and Google, which would make it inaccessible on apps downloaded from the App Store and Google Play Store. His channel subsequently became inaccessible on these apps in October 2021.
That month, Pozdnyakov directed subscribers to his backup channel; by mid-October, having become his new main channel, it had more than 63,000 subscribers. Pozdnyakov then set up another backup channel, which gained 17,000 subscribers in only one day.
However, Pozdnyakov’s original channel is still accessible on apps not downloaded from Apple or Google’s online stores; to that end, Pozdyankov posted instructions to his followers on alternate ways to download the Telegram app to still be able to access the original channel — a channel from which he promised they would soon start “raids”.
Pozdnyakov’s other main channel is ‘Butylka’ (Bottle), another reference to Russian internet slang. Affiliated with and promoted by Pozdnyakov as one of his channels, the channel’s name in the public link, ‘butylka1488,’ uses a well-known neo-Nazi numerical symbol. Started in July 2020, by January 2021 the channel had approximately 45,000 subscribers, spiking in July and August — as with all other Male State-linked channels — until reaching a peak of 60,000 subscribers in October 2021.
Another smaller Telegram channel linked to Pozdnyakov and Male State is ‘NAP’ — standing for ‘Nationalism and Patriarchy’ — with 9,100 subscribers as of October 2021 after being founded in October 2020. Poznyakov also runs a personal channel focused on fitness with approximately 32,000 subscribers as of October 2021.
A read through these various Telegram channels is to descend to the darkest recesses of the Russian language internet. Post after post is laden with abuse — against women, against LGBT people, against members of minority groups and against anyone who’s perceived to be an enemy of the group. Group members use racist epithets and hate speech against anyone they perceive as non-white. People from the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as people of African origin, are subject to particularly vile slurs. Despite Male State’s talk of ‘Slavic unity’, even Ukrainians are not spared from hatred. Openly anti-Semitic posts and messages are also not hard to find on the group’s channels and chats.
However, Male State’s activities on Telegram over September and October 2021 suggest that the group is worried about its future, and may have foreseen its eventual designation as an extremist group. As mentioned above, Male State began deleting older posts on its Telegram channel in October 2021, as Pozdnyakov made his once-public channel private and urged subscribers to flock to his backup channel.
In a since-deleted October 2021 post on Male State’s Telegram channel, subscribers were told that “the risk of being blocked is very significant,” and that the name and the avatar of the channel would soon change but “the content on the channel will remain unchanged.” Pozdnyakov himself has even tried to distance himself from Male State, claiming he hasn’t led the group for more than a year. Still, Pozdnyakov posted to his followers in October 2021 that they should “slow down for a month in terms of raids so that all the hype will die down a little,” while also pledging to find a source of financing for the group.
Telegram head Pavel Durov refused to ban Pozdnyakov’s channel as recently as last month, seeing no clear legal grounds to do so. However, Durov saw fit weeks earlier to ban certain Telegram bots, including the ‘Smart Voting’ bot used by the movement of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Durov claimed he was essentially forced to do so by Apple and Google, who had earlier controversially acceded to Russian demands to ban the Smart Voting app on their stores.
All three of the aforementioned channels — the main Male State channel, Pozdnyakov’s personal channel and ‘Butylka’ — were specifically named and banned in Russia by the court decision on October 18. However, at the time of publication of this article, these channels are still accessible on Telegram.
The company did not respond to Bellingcat’s emailed request for comment.
One world, online or offline
The threat of violence from Male State members isn’t just hypothetical. In August 2020, a female blogger was attacked on the street, punched in the face by a man who said she deserved it for posting “lewd videos.” Afterwards, Pozdnyakov noted that the attacker was a subscriber to his Telegram channel
When popular Russian sushi chain Yobidoyobi posted ads in August 2021 that featured Black models, Pozdnyakov urged his followers to take action. Using anti-Semitic ‘echo’ parentheses to refer to the company and its apparent “little agenda,” he urged members to attack Yobidoyobi, including placing fake orders, and demanded it apologise and remove the ads. Threats were made against the owner of the company and even to the models featured in the ad after Pozdnyakov posted their contact information; the company’s website was also hacked. Eventually, Yobidoyobi relented, apologising for “offending the public” with its post.
Male State then turned its attention to another sushi chain, Tanuki, that had expressed support for Yobidoyobi. In addition to a barrage of harassment, threats and attempts to take down the chain’s website, Tanuki’s restaurants in Moscow were even the target of bomb threats, from which Pozdnyakov tried to distance himself. The chain, however, was defiant, posting on Instagram that “representatives of different religions, nationalities, races and orientations” would continue to appear in their ads.
Alyona Shvets, one of the most popular female musicians in Russia, also found herself in Pozdnyakov and Male State’s crosshairs. Claiming that there was “LGBT propaganda” in Shvets’ music, in June 2021 Pozdnyakov urged followers to report the singer to the department in Russia’s interior ministry responsible for fighting extremism — the same department which activists have accused of collaborating with Male State. He directed followers to try to get Shvets’ upcoming concert in the city of Astrakhan cancelled. They were successful.
Besides Shvets, there are numerous accounts of Russian women who have been harassed, bullied and threatened by Male State. In 2020 a number of them who had been targeted by Pozdnyakov and company spoke to a Russian journalist about their experiences.
“At first I didn’t care,” one woman told Wonderzine’s Anton Danilov on condition of anonymity. “But then I found out that Pozdnyakov encourages subscribers to go offline and look for victims in real life. And then it got scary. It’s scary when you don’t know what these people are willing to do to please Pozdnyakov.”
What victims of harassment at the hands of Male State and similar groups experience can’t just be downplayed as something ‘just’ online, caution experts. “There isn’t a tripwire or a switch that’s flicked when online harassment spills offline,” Nina Jankowicz, a Global Fellow focused on Russia and eastern Europe with the Wilson Center and author of a forthcoming book about online misogyny, told Bellingcat.
“Online harassment and abuse is meant to keep women offline and keep them from participating in public discourse,” said Jankowicz.
There are also several references to past acts of misogynist terrorism that can be found on Telegram channels associated with Male State.
“Forgive the mistakes, I had 15 minutes to write this,” begins a rambling June 2020 post on Pozdnyakov’s Telegram channel.
“I consider myself a rational erudite who has been forced to take extreme acts,” it states a few paragraphs later. “For why persevere to exist if it is only to please the government? […] feminists have always enraged me [….] they are so opportunistic they do not neglect to profit from the knowledge accumulated by men through the ages. They always try to misrepresent them every time they can.”
This text, as Pozdnyakov notes briefly at the end, is a translation of the suicide note of the perpetrator of one of the world’s most infamous acts of misogynist terror — the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, Canada in 1989. A hateful young man targeted women, murdering 14 of them, claiming during his massacre that he was “fighting feminism.”
Research suggests misogynistic attitudes are associated with support for violent extremism. Misogynist hate, particularly from ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) men who blame women for their lack of social success and sexual satisfaction, has been a motivating factor in several violent attacks in recent years. From the 2014 Isla Vista shootings that killed six, to the Toronto, Canada truck attack in 2018 that took 10 lives and the August 2021 attack in Plymouth, England that killed five, misogynist hate lies at the core of a number of acts of violence and terror.
Pozdnyakov does not appear to have ever explicitly called for this kind of violence — though, as in the above example, he appears happy to allude to it. He has ended his posts with a vague “get to work, brothers.” Bellingcat was able to identify almost 70 uses of this phrase by Pozdnyakov on his personal Telegram channels, which he has used after sharing contact details or profiles of those he wants his followers to harass.
This particular phrase was originally used in Russian internet culture as an expression of support for Russian riot police during violent dispersals at protests. It has been used by several prominent pro-government figures in this context, such as RT’s Simonyan and Governor of the Stavropol Region Vladimir Vladimirov.
Moreover, in an August 2021 post in response to the aforementioned Plymouth attack, Pozdnyakov offered a sympathetic explanation of what he predicted to be a coming rise in incel terrorism.
“Incel terrorism will only gain momentum,” Pozdnyakov wrote, arguing that attacks are inevitable in the near future in Russia. For this, he blames feminism, leftist policies “oppressing” white heterosexual men, and even alleged decreased testosterone levels and what he calls “vaginocapitalism and matriarchy.”
Groups like Male State are not unique to Russia. In early 2021 a similar group in North Macedonia and Serbia was shut down after numerous women were subject to harassment and abuse after photos and information were shared. Another Telegram group, this one with an estimated 36,000 members across the former Yugoslavia, was shut down in March 2021.
Despite claiming that he no longer has anything to do with Male State, Pozdyakov is still widely seen as the leader of the movement. Russian media have alleged that Pozdnyakov is based in Poland, Germany, and in August 2021 claimed he was in Northern Cyprus, the breakaway part of the island whose de-facto independence is recognised only by Turkey.
Still, he has been more than happy to lie about his location in the past, admitting in September 2021 that his claim of being arrested on the border with Azerbaijan was a complete fabrication. In June 2020, Pozdnyakov even faked his own death as part of what he admitted was a publicity stunt .
Pozdnyakov wasn’t interested in talking to Bellingcat. “With a question like that, you can be on your way” he replied less than ten minutes after we reached out via Telegram with a short list of questions. The Male State founder took umbrage at being asked about his 2020 post about the École Polytechnique shooter.
“What does it mean to ban an organisation, when no organisation per se exists? When there’s no office or bank account you can shut down?” asked SOVA’s Verkhovsky, who nonetheless believes that fear of prosecution under Russia’s strict anti-extremism laws could seriously discourage members from attempts to continue Male State.
But the group’s beliefs, he warns, will live on.
“Male State will probably slowly die. But these are popular ideas, and there are effective and tested instruments to spread them,” continued Verkhovsky. “You don’t need much to set up a Telegram channel, anybody can do so. It doesn’t have to be Pozdnyakov.”
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