What became of the kid who groped a thousand women for Putin? Arthur Galchenko used to be one of Russia's biggest YouTube stars. Not anymore.
The YouTube mediasphere moves fast in Russia, where whole generations of viewers and stars change in a heartbeat, and your popularity can crash the moment you stop publishing new content. Arthur Galchenko, better known as “Sam Nickel,” was one of the biggest stars in the early days of Russian video blogging. As cofounder of the studio “My Duck’s Vision,” as well as its leading actor, Galchenko not only created parodies and danced for the camera, but he also participated in the first phase of YouTube’s politicization, producing videos that either directly or indirectly supported Vladimir Putin. In a special report for Meduza, correspondent Evgeny Berg looks at Galchenko’s time in the spotlight, and what’s become of him since.
In September 2011, a 20-minute video appeared on YouTube showing a young man zealously groping the chests of a thousand young women, one after another. The whole scene was recorded on the streets of Moscow and, though the women appeared to be passersby, only a few of them seemed to object to being touched by the stranger. Outlier “Girl Number 133,” for example, reacted by slapping the video’s star in the face.
The macho premise of this whole “experiment” was that the young man doing the groping planned to attend the “Seliger” youth forum 30 days later, where he would encounter the former and future Russian president. With a simple handshake, he could supposedly transfer the “recently received tactile information,” thus gifting Vladimir Putin the thrill of grabbing 2,000 breasts.
The original video drew more than 15 million views, and its various re-publications have attracted at least 40 million more. Much of the audience, moreover, seems to be outside Russia, judging by the many YouTube comments in English.
By the time this video took off, the production studio My Duck’s Vision already had a few other viral hits under its belt, including other videos with political overtones. The star of the groping experiment and many other productions by My Duck’s Vision was an actor calling himself “Sam Nickel.” Sam’s real name is Arthur Galchenko, and he also cofounded the studio.
“It was a really fun job. It wasn’t easy, I’ll admit,” Galchenko told Meduza. “We filmed for two months, in the heat, working from morning until night. One day we’d get 13 boobs, and the next it would be 87. We approached about 10,000 [women], and only one in ten agreed. Ten thousand times I had to explain [what the video was about]. But later on I even got recognized in Turkey, when I’d go out to buy a shawarma. People would take pictures with me.”
A pair of real comedians
Galchenko is what you might call a YouTube veteran. His first videos started appearing on the platform when the concept of a “video blogger” was still largely unknown in Russia. As a child, Galchenko says he dreamed of becoming a comedian, and his idol was Jim Carrey, whose breakout films, like Ace Ventura and The Mask, hit theaters in the mid-1990s, when Galchenko was barely ten years old.
“When I watched him [Jim Carrey], I completely lost my mind, and started copying him in every way,” Galchenko recalls. “I dreamed of becoming an actor like him. To be a star, to goof off and go nuts. I loved that stuff, and I still like it today.”
Galchenko admits that he never got any professional drama training. The only experience he says he picked up even remotely related was when he took two months of classes in high school. “I saw how students in acting schools live. They get in at 9 a.m. and don’t leave until 9 p.m. And I thought to myself: damn this takes too much time. I guess I won’t do it. So I dropped it.”
Instead, Galchenko majored in management at the Modern University for the Humanities in Moscow (“I wanted to work more than I wanted to serve [in the army],” he says), and in his third year he met Yuri Dyagterev, his future My Duck’s Vision cofounder.
“We’d just landed in the same class and our lecturer had a face that looked a lot like Schwarzenegger’s in Total Recall,” Dyagterev told Meduza. “I made a joke about it, and only Arthur laughed. And I thought to myself, ’Finally somebody in class with a sense of humor.’”
School never quite worked out for Galchenko, who found a job as a courier, while also going on various adventures with Dyagterev. “My bro Yuri loved to make prank calls. Once, he called a local cable TV station, where there was a morning show that invited all kinds of different guests,” Galchenko said. “He presented himself as a professional standup comedian (this was when The Comedy Club was popular) and he told them that he had a sketch comedy troupe (he was lying, of course), and he said that we were professionals traveling the country. So they invited him. I agreed to come, too. Why not? Back then, I agreed to anything, so long as it kept me moving.”
Despite the jokes they prepared, it was obvious on air that Galchenko and Dyagterev weren’t the comedians they claimed to be. Nevertheless, the two young men kept at it, telling people about their nonexistent comedy tour. In order to get more media coverage, they even asked their friends and family to call the morning show and sing their praises. “Everything went well,” Galchenko says, “and Yuri agreed that we’d bring video sketches with us, the next time. Then we started making videos. Yuri worked as an administrator at a fitness center, so we had a place to film.”
A few weeks later, the duo returned to the TV studio with prepared material, only to learn that the morning show had been canceled. So instead they decided to share their work on YouTube, which was just getting off the ground in Russia. These first few videos, recorded on a handheld camera and edited using Windows Movie Maker, are still available on the My Duck’s Vision YouTube channel. They’re simple sketches, parodies of popular Russian commercials, and so on.
“The likes and comments start rolling in, and we say to ourselves, ‘Wow! We show our creative work to people and it’s not for nothing. There’s some big potential here. Let’s make more!’” Galchenko says, explaining that the studio based its early content on Western Internet trends, like a video where he dances inside all of Moscow’s subway stations (in 2008, there were 177). The two men took the idea from Matthew Harding, the American traveler known as “Dancing Matt” for his “Where the Hell is Matt?” video compilation, released in 2005, showing him performing a unique “jig” in locations all over the world.
Another hit was a video called “A Breathtaking Array of Thoughts on Emos” — one of the first viral videos on YouTube in Russia, where a 12-year-old girl melodramatically discusses the finer points of “emo” and “ska” subcultures. Galchenko and Dyagterev say they didn’t have any grand plan: they just filmed what came into their heads. Then they created a parody of the video, calling it “A Breathtaking Array of Thoughts on Queers,” which also did quite well online. Soon, other parodies about programmers, blondes, an even racoons started appearing. The public didn’t learn until much later that My Duck’s Vision was behind the original video and responsible for the whole phenomenon.
Galchenko gets emotional today when he remembers his work as a YouTube star. By the standards of 2017, his videos were made quick and dirty, but in 2007 and 2008 YouTube in Russia was a new and almost open field, and the lack of competition made it easier to draw views and comments. Before long, even the mass media started to take notice of his small studio.
“There were several times that the website Adme assumed that our parody videos were actually paid advertisements,” Galchenko recalls happily. “It wasn’t true, but we said it was, just to raise the hype. The truth is that we were only screwing around. That’s how ‘DuckVision’ emerged. We were churning out ‘ducks’ [hoaxes] and people were grabbing them and sharing the videos like real stories." Galchenko claims he came up with the name “My Duck’s Vision” well before he even met Dyagterev, who says he just liked that “My Duck” sounds like mudak, the Russian word for “jackass.” But now the phrase took on new meaning.
Yakemenko vs. McDonald’s
Dyagterev, who describes himself today as a “professional storyteller,” confirms that he has a whole notebook full of ideas — enough for 150 “good, quality videos” — and he keeps the collection in a safety-deposit box, “just in case something happens to him, and the studio needs to keep operating.”
The third person to join My Duck’s Vision was Timur Konstantinov, a designer from Izhevsk. It’s precisely this man who crafted the studio’s now iconic graphics. At first, Konstantinov created five-second video bumpers as introductions for the studio’s content, where a rubber duck fired lasers from its eyes at television sets. Then he moved to Moscow and became a full member of the team. The signature “My Duck” style emerged in 2009, in an ad for the online broker AForex called “How Do You Survive an Economic Crisis?” — a satirical promotion for comas as a way to escape financial hardship, followed by a genuine commercial for AForex’s money-making services.
But the studio’s most spectacular hit was undoubtedly “The Scandalous Truth about the McDonald’s Project,” where My Duck’s Vision claimed that the fast food chain was created by the U.S. government to disguise a national network of bunkers in case of a nuclear war.
To this day, the video is still pinned on MDV’s YouTube page, where it now has more than 7 million views, at least one of which was by then President Dmitry Medvedev. In 2011, members of Spasibo, Eva! (Thanks, Eve!), a video bloggers’ association created by Dyagterev, met with President Medvedev and showed him the McDonald’s video, among others. The president seemed to enjoy it.
“These videos about ‘scandalous truth’ are like checkpoints for us. The mass media really embraced this idea,” Galchenko says. “We just took things that are familiar to people — McDonald’s, iPhones — and we twisted them until they were psychologically unbalanced, and lots of people believed it. ‘Wow this is real. There are bunkers and missiles there,’ they’d say.”
The studio’s videos about “scandalous truth” regularly “exposed” American brands, like Apple, Walt Disney, and McDonald’s. In August 2011, the group even took on “the scandalous truth behind Russia’s presidential elections,” warning that the United States planned to disrupt voting by distracting Russians with Hollywood movie releases. The video depicts a bald eagle attacking Russia’s coat of arms, and shows images of opposition activists Alexey Navalny and Eduard Limonov, as the narrator says, “There are those in Russia whose efforts to destabilize the country always end in failure.”
By that time, Yuri Dyagterev had already been acquainted for two years with Vasily Yakemenko, the creator of the pro-Kremlin youth group “Nashi” and the head of Rosmolodezh, the government’s Youth Affairs Agency. Yakemenko was looking for ways to promote his own projects, like the annual summer youth forum “Seliger,” which Vladimir Putin attended in 2012, 2013, and 2014. According to Kristina Potupchik, Rosmolodezh’s former press secretary, “Yakemenko was searching for talented young people, and that’s how he came to the studio.”
“He gave us carte blanche to make videos, which suited us all perfectly. This was one of our best clients, even if you ignore our attitude about the political situation and just judge it by the approach to the work, looking at how much creative freedom he was ready to give to people who knew better than him about certain things,” says Dyagterev, who it should be noted never gave his YouTube channel’s viewers any indication that the content was a paid advertisement. The studio’s cooperation with Rosmolodezh, Dyagterev argues, was worthwhile both commercially and ideologically. “We wanted to contribute to the cause,” he says.
“I was far removed from it all, and it was really interesting to break in,” Dyagterev recalls. “It won’t surprise anyone when I say that I’m a supporter of the current government. Of course, I’m not going to hit the streets, waving a flag around for every holiday, but I’m all for stability, and I’ll do whatever I can to sustain it. Of course, this word has now become obscene, and using it automatically throws me in the same camp as [Alexander] Zaldostanov [a Russian motorcycle club leader and pro-Kremlin political activist]. But I’m going to use it, anyway. Stability is the greenhouse of development. I prefer the idea of patching up the metaphorical holes that emerge over time to the idea of using a bunch of incompetent builders to make an entirely new greenhouse.”
Having supervised the collaboration with My Duck’s Vision, Potupchik told Meduza that it was Dyagterev's initiative to reach out to the government agency: “It wasn’t like we came to him directly and placed an order. He came to us himself with ideas, and we decided to move ahead if one of them was cool.” Potupchik says MDV’s videos had an indirect influence on the public. “Through joking and humor,” she argues, “there were sometimes the undertones of a political discourse.” And she says the government’s expectations of its work with Dyagterev paid off: “He cultivated a lot of bloggers, creating a kind of incubator.”
The politicization of MDV drove the two cofounders’ functional roles at the studio even further apart. While Dyagterev managed the ideology, Galchenko started avoiding any work but acting. “I wasn’t too involved in advertisements or promotions. I was earning some money, but it just wasn’t for me to go around saying ‘We’ll make this for you, and you’ll pay us this much cash,’” Galchenko says today. “And I didn’t like it that we’d become so political. I’ve never liked politics — it’s just too dirty. But the whole thing gave me a lot of creative energy, and I just wanted to film more videos — to do more anything — and I didn’t really care who was signing the paychecks. Whether it was Jesus or Hitler, it just had to be funny.”
Dyagterev admits that he and his partner argued about this issue, and he says he knew that Galchenko didn’t care for politics. “I think 90 percent of it is just that he doesn’t understand it. He’s not an expert when it comes to politics,” Dyagterev says. “This led to a few things. For example, before we filmed the video where he groped a thousand women, he said, ‘Let’s do this, but without Putin.’ But it wouldn’t have worked without Putin. Without Putin, there would have been no video.”
There was in fact a demand for other videos casting Putin in a good light, as well, like a cartoon sketch about Putin donating $10 million to Wikipedia through [Vkontakte and Telegram founder] Pavel Durov (at the end of the cartoon, Durov only donates a tenth of the money).
The video appeared four months before the election, in February 2012, right around the time hackers exposed MDV’s collaboration with Rosmolodezh, leaking correspondence with Yakemenko and Potupchik that showed the state was actively spreading online propaganda, working with bloggers, and simultaneously monitoring social networks and independent media outlets for anti-government rhetoric and “provocations of opposition sentiments.” According to the leaked emails, bloggers were paid to post content in coordination with Potupchik. The records directly mention Dyagterev, My Duck’s Vision, and the Spasibo, Eva! bloggers’ association.
Dyagterev insists the hackers’ revelations didn’t influence his work at all, though he recalls that some bloggers participating in Spasibo, Eva! were outraged about his ties to the Kremlin. Comedian Yuri Khovansky, for example, started publicly criticizing the group that summer.
In response, MDV released a satirical rap video where Galchenko describes how the news about the studio’s Kremlin financing had affected him personally. The performance contains lyrics like “Snubbing me like I’ve never been snubbed before / Snubbing me like Jesus for his Jesusy valor / I’d like to be like you, and stop being sleazy / But giving up that Kremlin cash just ain’t so easy.”
Growing up and apart
Despite his jokes about a ruined reputation, Galchenko started showing up in videos less and less, after 2012, and the Spasibo, Eva! association kept shedding more and more bloggers. In the past year, the group has published just five new videos. Dyagterev says he’s sure that most of the bloggers who have left the association went because of creative ambitions, not for political reasons, and he insists that the project is merely “paused, and not over.”
My Duck’s Vision itself has also published new content far less often, though Dyagterev says the studio is busy as ever making commercials, which he says appear on other YouTube channels.
Galchenko, on the other hand, has moved away from video blogging. These days, he spends his time working on music (performing in the band “CANDID8,” singing songs like “Chainsaw” and “Brainf*ckers”) and he’s busy raising a family. In 2012, Galchenko’s daughter Agatha was born, and four years later his son Robert followed.
“Somehow it all happened at once. I started to get tired of it [video blogging]. I was traveling with the band, doing concerts, and then I became a dad,” Galchenko says. “It knocked me from one path to something else. YouTube, all these videos — it’s hobbies and it’s fun, but eventually you start to mature and think about the future. I never thought about the future. Now I’ve got kids, and I feel responsible for them, and I want to raise them to become good people. I don’t want to be the star anymore, so to speak, but the producer.”
In 2015, Galchenko landed a part on a new TV show called “ChOP” about a private security company, created by alumni from the Spasibo, Eva! group. Like the ill-fated band CANDID8, the television program didn’t take off, and it was canceled after two seasons. The same year, Galchenko returned to MDV’s YouTube channel with four videos, only one of which cracked 100,000 views. For the next year, he shared content on his own channel, “Old New Nickel,” but these videos drew even less traffic.
Galchenko’s new content differs dramatically from the stuff that made him famous at My Duck’s Vision. His rubber-faced comedic antics are all but gone now, and instead his attention goes mostly to his family. His Instagram feed is also filled with photos of his children, about whom he gushes lovingly.
“They’re such little sweetiepies! Damn, I’ve always loved children, but when I had my own — it was a completely different feeling! You feel like you’re a god. You’ve created a human being. And you start to think, ‘And to think he’ll go even further.’ I mean, you can scatter your own genes! You can almost send them out to outer space! You start thinking that you’ve got to protect them and show them love,” Galchenko explains. “Because, honestly, I didn’t have a father. I had a stepfather and it was hell. He was always drunk. There were fights, cops, and I fought with him myself. I’ve seen enough of that bullshit, and I don’t want my kids to see the same thing. Maybe I’m trying to compensate or something, but I feel that I’ve got to give them the very best.”
When asked how he makes a living today, Galchenko’s answer is vague: “I’ve got different [income] sources, and I’m not going to reveal them. But it’s nothing sinister. I’ve got creative projects, mostly music stuff, I’m DJing, and I’m filming things here and there. I run an Instagram account with Fila [Galchenko’s wife], where we also post paid advertisements. I’m spread a bit thin right now. There are things I’d like to do for work, and I also want to be raising the kids.”
He almost shivers in horror at the mere thought of going to work in an office. The year and a half he spent as a content editor for the Russian video hosting website RuTube, where he worked together with Dyagterev (who was its chief editor), led to health problems, Galchenko says.
“I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. I like my current schedule, when my wife and I divide duties equally. While she’s on set, I’m changing diapers, and then we switch,” he says.
Shared in October 2016, Galchenko’s last YouTube video goes like this:
“Hello to everyone, my friends!” Galchenko says. “Nothing’s working with the blog because this fu… Agatha, I’m recording a video. Try to be quiet, sweetie. Our videos aren’t working. Did you know that?”
“Yes,” says a little girl, climbing onto the couch.
“So anyway. It’s because of this computer,” Galchenko says, pointing to a broken computer monitor. “And the blog isn’t working. I hope the situation improves, but for now I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Agatha then moves toward the monitor, and Galchenko asks, “Where are you going? Are you gonna set it up?”
“No,” she says.
“Well, it’s impossible, anyhow,” her father says wearily. “It’s going to be sad without the blog. But you can subscribe to us on Instagram! Anyway, we’re hoping for the best.”
Galchenko then makes a peace sign with his hand, and his daughter copies him.
“Peace, everybody,” they say together.