They were banned and designated as extremist by a Russian court in October 2021. But Male State — the online gang of racists, homophobes and misogynists Bellingcat investigated last year — has retained a significant following and managed to become a vocal and vile online booster of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has stated that one of the main aims of his country’s military action is the “denazification” of Ukraine, vile anti-semitic posts and calls for Ukraine’s leaders to be executed are a regular feature on Male State channels.
As we detailed in our previous investigation, Male State’s tens of thousands of members fight against everything they perceive as a threat to Russia. They wrap up their hate in an extreme right-wing ideology they describe as “national patriarchy”, all under the informal leadership of a college dropout named Vladislav Pozdnyakov.
Although the movement is not explicitly neo-Nazi, posts previously made on Male State channels and chats identified by Bellingcat include references to terms used by neo-Nazis. These include the “1488” numerical code and the term ‘untermensch,’ (‘subhuman’), a word used by the Nazis to describe those they deemed inferior — and also by some in Male State chats to describe Ukrainians.” One Male State channel even posted a video with a clip of a fighter from Task Force Rusich, a neo-Nazi Russian military unit, giving a Nazi salute.
In October 2021, Male State was designated an extremist organisation in Russia, and its activities in the country were banned. Although the Russian authorities might have encouraged ultra-conservative movements for its own political ends, “Male State was simply too radical,” the Russian human rights activist Alexander Verkhovsky told Bellingcat after the court’s ruling. “[They] explicitly incited violence and other crimes,” Verkhovsky said.
Despite stating at the time that they would appeal the ruling, as of March 2022 Male State remains officially banned in Russia.
But none of this appears to have been any great obstacle to the group and its operations. Despite some of its associated channels occasionally being banned on Telegram, Male State still relies on the Russian social media platform that has long been accused of providing a home for hate speech.
Now, Male State — or ‘Male Legion’ (Muzhskoi Legion) as the group’s official Telegram channel has been called since the court’s ruling — has turned its attention to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, becoming some of Putin’s most loyal online soldiers. They parrot disinformation about civilian casualties of Russian attacks and praise possible war crimes. They use dehumanising hate speech against Ukrainians and antisemitic slurs against Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. They even demand the murder of Ukraine’s leaders, soldiers and other public figures, including summary executions.
What is Male State?
Male State was founded in 2016 by Pozdnyakov on Russia social media network VKontakte (VK). There, they focused on trolling, harassing and threatening anybody they deemed an opponent to their ‘national patriarchy’, particularly women. These efforts led to Pozdyakov being convicted of inciting hatred against women in 2018.
After being banned from VK in 2020, Pozdnyakov and Male State took their activities to Telegram where, despite occasional bans of some of the channels they operate, they continue to grow in subscribers and propagandise openly. Pozdnyakov, according to a February 14 post on his Telegram channel, currently lives not in Russia but in Podgorica, Montenegro.
The ban initially led to some users unsubscribing from several Male State channels (there are currently at least six core Male State channels on Telegram). Nevertheless, the movement retains a significant following – at the time of writing, ‘Male Legion’ had 62,000 subscribers (a significant increase since the Russian court ruling) and Pozdnyakov’s personal channel had 83,000 subscribers.
In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and on a daily basis since, Male State has become a vocal, profane and chauvinistic defender of Putin’s war. With many adorning their avatars with the ubiquitous “Z” that has become a symbol of support for Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, Male State’s channels and many of its members leave no doubt as to where they stand.
“Victory is with us, [Ukrainians] are beneath us,” the Male Legion Telegram channel stated in the days after the invasion, using a derogatory anti-Ukrainian slur that is common across all Male State’s channels. “The sky is above us, onward Russian brothers.”
‘The Ukrainian Question’
Two days after the invasion began, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published an article that appeared to be, according to several observers, a premature victory lap. In this February 26 article the author refers to the “solution of the Ukrainian question”.
Shvabra (‘Mop’), a Male State channel with more than 10,000 subscribers created two weeks before the invasion, claimed on February 25 that a strike on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky — who is Jewish — and his associates in Kyiv could be seen as a “solution of the Ukrainian question”. This language clearly evokes the same euphemistic terms used by the Nazis in their efforts to destroy Europe’s Jewish population.
Shvabra went further days later, commenting on Vladimir Putin’s March 5 statement questioning Ukrainian statehood: “is this the final solution of the Ukrainian question?”, the words “final solution” an allusion to the Holocaust. Commenters in Pozdnyakov’s own Telegram chat haven’t been shy about using the term either; “the time has come for a final and irreversible solution to the Ukrainian question,” wrote one on March 1.
As we described in our 2021 investigation, Male State has long made use of openly anti-semitic slurs and imagery. Despite Putin’s pledges to ‘denazify’ Ukraine, Male State continues to do use antisemitic language to describe Zelensky and his government. They have referred to Zelenskyy as a “clown kike” who has in their view divided Russians and Ukrainians. They have posted crude antisemitic caricatures that are often also used by neo-Nazis. They have highlighted the Jewish heritage of Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow’s (‘Ekho Mosvky’) a radio station that closed this month in the wake of Putin’s increasing censorship of domestic media. Pozdnyakov subsequently called the station “Echo of Matzo” on his own Telegram channel, referring to the unleavened bread observant Jews eat during Passover.
It’s All Fake but they Deserve it Anyway
“Beautiful,” Male Legion posted on March 1 with an image of Russian forces shelling the Kyiv television tower — an act that took the lives of five civilians, including that of a journalist. “We’re fucking rinsing the [Ukrainians]”, read another comment, using a derogatory anti-Ukrainian slur. Despite this, Pozdnyakov claimed on his channel that, after grisly footage of the victims of the strike emerged in the hours after the attack, that it was all “fake.”
That wasn’t the only act of civilian harm that Pozdnyakov cheered. The same evening, the Male State founder posted a video of Russian bombardment of Kharkiv showing blasts of Russian artillery fire lighting up the night sky. “The disco of the century,” Pozdnyakov wrote. These attacks, which according to local officials killed or wounded dozens of civilians, were cheered on by Pozdnyakov.
Male State has also denied that Russian military actions have harmed civilians in any way despite significant evidence to the contrary. According to Ukrainian authorities, a missile attack on the regional administration building in the centre of Kharkiv the morning of March 1 killed at least seven people and injured 24 others. The Shvabra channel claimed that “no civilians” were killed. The building had, they claimed, been used by the Azov Regiment – a far-right military unit integrated with Ukraine’s National Guard – as a recruiting station. This, in the view of the Shvabra channel, made it a legitimate military target.
Pozdnyakov even told his followers on March 4 that all Ukrainian claims of civilian buildings being hit with Russian strikes were fake, taken either from old news clips or from ‘false flag’ attacks Ukrainians themselves had staged to discredit Russia.
Male Legion, in a since-deleted post, also claimed that a viral video of a teenager surviving Russian shelling of a school in Chernihiv was fake and suggested she was a paid actor. Male Legion did not answer Bellingcat’s question about why they deleted the post, replying to our request for comment with the message: “Go fuck yourself.”
‘Preferably With a Noose Around Your Neck’
In his February 24 speech announcing his invasion of Ukraine, Putin announced that. “we will…bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”
Echoing Putin’s language, Male State has filled their feeds with pleas for military tribunals. But they have also gone further in calling for executions of Ukrainian public figures. Among the many statements made by the Shvabra channel was a false claim that any members of private military companies encountered by Russian troops “can be killed on the spot without trial or investigation”. They also wished for journalist Dmitriy Gordon and Ukrainian far-right figure Sergei Korotkikh to be summarily executed on the streets of Kyiv. Posts also demanded that the mayor of Lviv Andriy Sadovyi be executed after a military tribunal for stating that Molotov cocktails should be renamed ‘Bandera smoothies’ after Ukrainian nationalist icon Stepan Bandera.
“It’s a shame…” stated a post on Shvabra on the first day after the invasion and referring to Zelensky, “that the last time we’ll see you…will be at a Russian military tribunal, preferably with a noose around your neck.”
Pozdyankov himself boasted on March 1 that the mayor of the city of Chernihiv, in response to reportedly offering a bounty for Russian equipment and soldiers, was “an excellent candidate for the scaffold.” Pozdnyakov had earlier declared, on February 26, that the reason for Russian politicians’ statements about reinstating the death penalty was “the execution of the war criminals from the Zelensky junta.” These words echoed Russian state media use of the term “junta” to describe Ukraine’s democratically elected government.
“It’ll all be over in less than three days,” Pozdnyakov boasted on February 24, the day Russia invaded. Of course, that hasn’t transpired. Russia’s armed forces continue to face fierce resistance from Ukrainians, reportedly taking heavy casualties from a country they apparently expected would see them as liberators.
But Male State’s focus, of course, is always Russia itself. As Putin undertakes increasingly dictatorial efforts to stamp out domestic criticism and discussion of his faltering war effort‚ Male State has urged followers to archive and share information on so-called domestic “enemies of Russia”, even setting up a Kollaborant (‘Collaborator’) Telegram channel that, to Pozdnyakov’s dismay, was shut down after less than a week by Telegram after amassing more than 30,000 subscribers.
“Give the nationalists of Russia a full carte blanche,” Pozdyankov stated hours after the invasion began on February 24, “and we’ll quickly put things in order.”
Pozdnyakov, however, did not have much to say to Bellingcat. The Male State founder ignored our questions about why his channel contained so much antisemitic and violent content. “We are fighting against Ukrainian Nazism. Do you support it?” Pozdnyakov replied via Telegram. He then sent a video of a pro-Russian protest he said was from Podgorica, Montenegro.