‘Lawmakers don’t give a damn about the children’ A Russian version of the YouTube channel ‘HiHo Kids’ faces felony charges for featuring an interview with a gay man
State Duma Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy is outraged about a YouTube channel called Real Talk, where children have conversations with “unlikely companions.” In one episode, for example, children speak to a gay man. In another, a child questions a pornographic actress. A month after Tolstoy’s complaint, Russia’s Investigative Committee launched a felony case against the channel’s unidentified owners for alleged “sexual violence against minors,” and child protection services have visited the parents of the children who appeared in the videos. Meduza spoke to someone with ties to Real Talk, who requested anonymity and answered our questions through the messenger app Telegram.
State Duma deputy Pyotr Tolstoy and Russia’s pro-government mass media has emphasized that the channel Real Talk broadcast what they’re calling lewd videos with a gay man and a porn actress. How would you describe most of the content that appeared on the channel?
There were videos with a different social dimension that aimed to satisfy children’s fixation on people who differ somehow from most others. For example, they spoke to a young woman or man with dwarfism; there was an interview with an elderly man, to see the difference between generations; there was a man from another race (a black man), and a woman with an eating disorder. The children could ask these people the questions that interest them. And all this was recorded with the parents present.
We created a public channel that addressed genuinely uncomfortable issues. Why? Today, a lot of YouTube channels, groups on Instagram and VKontakte, and even shows on state television are teeming with all kinds of trashy stories. The “boob tube” is exactly how we got Pyotr Tolstoy, who spends all day every day imposing his ideas about right and wrong on children and adults alike.
Look at the comments under any story or meme in any online group, and you can see the vulgarity and lewd posts. Those of us who are a bit older can remember how kids used to come to school and try smoking at the age of nine. We were scribbling swears on our desks and trading obscenities at recess. Children don’t know how to react to this correctly, and by inertia they continue this cycle instead of going to parents with their burning questions. The show Real Talk was created to raise the level of trust between parents and children, to try to diffuse different sensitive social issues.
How did you get the idea to have the kids speak to these “unlikely guests”?
Were the children interested in these people? What did the parents say?
One of the children who took part in that episode has a member of the LGBT community among his close relatives. Before we recorded, the kid’s mother overheard her son talking to his peers about it, and saw how derogatory they were and how hard they went at these taboo issues, and so on. After filming, the boy stopped questioning [LGBTQ] issues and the relationship within the family improved, and there was finally some trust. It was a chance to see someone like this up close, and not just hear more “burn and ban the gays” from the television.
Were there any children or parents who refused to participate, after learning who would be interviewed?
There were practically no cases like that, since the parents themselves applied to take part.
Were there any concerns about the show? After all, the Russian authorities consider issues like homosexuality to be “undesirable” and even illegal.
Before we started recording, we thought maybe the video might be considered homosexual propaganda. But the topic of sex wasn’t addressed at all — the kids didn’t care about that. The kids wanted to know: does this person have friends? What makes him tick? What does he do for a living? How does he dress? And did he go to school? The children were invited to be totally open with their feelings, even if they weren’t always kind. Why not? No one would have allowed the conversation to turn down a “wrong street.” There were at least five adults closely observing to make sure of this.
It came as a complete surprise to all the channel’s creators that anyone [from the government] took any interest in the videos. [Officials] immediately started harassing and terrorizing the parents. They wouldn’t stop calling, ordering them to different addresses, threatening to take away their kids. Everyone was scared and worried, and it was clear that the authorities didn’t give a damn about the rights of the children or their parents, and lawmakers just wanted to use the story for some hype.
Why do you think the authorities are pursuing a felony case, instead of misdemeanor charges for, say, “propagating homosexuality”?
Because it’s a political matter. Maybe it’s somehow connected to the legislation on preventing domestic violence, which supposedly is also destroying Russian families, just like videos about particular people.
How big was the channel’s audience? Did that change after the criticism from Pyotr Tolstoy and the pro-government media?
The channel had a small audience — literally several tens of thousands of subscribers. Of course, the conversations with the elderly person, the dwarfs, the black people, and the women with eating disorders weren’t all that interesting for viewers, but there was a lot of heart here, and the kids and parents thanked us for inviting them to participate in such interesting and positive videos.
Did the channel’s creators ever receive any threats in comments on the videos or by email?
There were absolutely no threats. The stats were positive: the video with the gay man had about 2 million views, with 80,000 likes and 6,000 dislikes. There were tens of thousands of positive comments, where viewers thanked us for the video. After all, not every parent can correctly explain that there are a variety of people in society, including those who are oppressed.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock