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‘I hope this won’t influence viewers’ In their own words, actors in Russian pro-war videos explain why they accepted roles in invasion propaganda
Story by iStories. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.
Almost every day, new videos encouraging Russians to join the military appear on “I’ve Been Mobilized,” a public page on the social media site VKontakte. Most of the clips depict poor and debt-ridden villagers whose lives are radically transformed for the better after stints in the Russian army. Journalists from the independent news outlet iStories contacted some of the actors from these videos and asked them why they agreed to the roles, whether they support the ads’ mission, and how they feel about Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Sergey used to spend every waking hour struggling to make ends meet; in his rare free evenings, he would get drunk with his best friends, but the booze couldn’t quiet his sense that he was wasting his life. Then he decided to fight in Russia’s war against Ukraine as a volunteer. Now, he has a new car and a new apartment and is the envy of his friends.
Dmitry used to be skinny and shy. He and his girlfriend talked about getting married, but in the end, she didn’t appreciate him enough and wasn’t ready to make his dreams of having two children come true. Then he went to war in Ukraine. Now, his ex-girlfriend is ready to leave her husband and son to be with him, but with his newfound confidence as a military man, he doesn’t need her anymore.
Alina was saving up for an iPhone. But when her pitiful father’s meager paycheck was delayed yet again, he had no choice but to ask her to pitch in, crushing her dreams of purchasing the iconic American device. Then he spent six months helping his country wage aggressive war in Ukraine. When he returned, he was greeted as a hero by his neighbors and the local media and was finally able to buy an iPhone for his daughter.
None of these people are real, of course; all of them are characters from propaganda videos that have appeared on the pro-war social media page I’ve Been Mobilized. Journalists from the independent Russian outlet iStories reached out to some of the actors that took part in clips like these ones to find out why they did it.
Like several of the actors, Alexey Zheleznyak told iStories his decision to be in a pro-war ad was strictly mercenary: he couldn't say no to the 8,000-ruble ($115) fee the producers were offering. He played the best friend of a character who decided to go to war because his city offered “two life options: either you drink yourself to death or you go to prison.”
When asked whether he supports the premise of these videos — that more people should sign up to go to war against Ukraine — Alexey Zheleznyak paused for a moment before saying yes and ending the conversation.
In another clip, ex-TikToker Denis Dekhan played a young man who works in a factory and is unable to make ends meet. After reminiscing with his friends about experiencing “real life” in the army, they decide to enlist to fight in Ukraine.
In a phone conversation with iStories, Dekhan said that he “doesn’t care” whether people volunteer to go to the front, and that he doesn’t like the war because it led TikTok to ban Russian users from uploading new content. “Of course [I have a] negative [view of the war]. I wish it hadn’t happened. It’s caused me a lot of problems. They shut down TikTok,” he said. “[…] But I support my country and my president. In my view, whatever he chooses — that’s the right choice. I don’t support the fact that people are being killed there, but I support the fact that our enemies are being confronted.”
“And who are our enemies?” iStories’s correspondent asked.
“America,” Dekhan said. “What do you want from me? What are you bothering me for? These are unpleasant questions, if I’m being honest. What are you asking me for? Ask the people fighting the war or ask Putin.” The actor then swore before hanging up the phone.
Oleg Kosyanenko, who played a character in the same video, was also short-spoken: “I don’t want to express my position officially, but I participated in this, which means I’m not against [this video],” he said.
Another actor played a man living in a small village who decides to sign a military contract because he’s sick of earning only 10,000 rubles ($155) per month and waking up at 4:00 a.m. Requesting anonymity, the actor told iStories that he didn’t learn what kind of video he would be acting in until he was already on set. He was also paid 8,000 rubles ($115).
“I don’t share the position that people should sign up to serve as volunteers in Ukraine,” he admitted. “The majority of actors [in the video] were already on set by the time they learned what was happening. Plus, we were told that this video was for some company’s internal use. They deceived us somewhat. I didn’t learn I would end up in a military uniform until I was on set, and I didn’t process it until afterwards. It was mostly just a job.”
Still, the man said he doesn’t believe videos like the one he acted in will convince anybody to go to war: “I don’t think anyone takes these clips seriously. These videos are very poorly made, of course. This one was terribly made, which is why I thought they were [for internal use]; I didn’t think this crap would ever actually be released. They could have been done better. Next time, I won’t act in these kinds of [propaganda videos].”
In another video, actor Alexander Knyazyev played a factory manager whose employee resigns with the words, “I’ve been driving a tractor for 15 years; I raised my son [in that time], and the tractor hasn’t changed. [But] I’ve signed a contract at the military commissariat, and now I’ll be driving a new armored personnel carrier.”
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Knyazyev told iStories he only agreed to act in the clip for the money, and that he didn’t read the script ahead of time: “I was only interested in the fee. Not because I’m greedy, but because I need to live — you can’t survive on a pension.”
Knyazyev said the video’s message is at odds with his own beliefs. “I’m not such a bad guy, not completely. I signed a contract, but I didn’t even read the script. During the shoot, the director or his assistant told me that this guy was joining the army as a contract fighter. But I’d already signed the contract. I should have looked ahead of time and read the script, [or at least enough of it to know] what this was about, but I didn’t. [It was] a minor sin, I think. But in general, it’s important to figure out what shit you’re acting in. It was a lesson for me,” he said.
At the same time, Alexander said he doesn’t think these videos will cause significant harm, unlike the aggressive military propaganda shown on Russian television. “My role in this small clip was so meager, so tiny, that you can’t compare it to the propaganda playing on all of the television channels in our country. It’s a drop in the sea. I don’t even know who’s going to see this video. I have some regrets [about the video], of course. But I hope it won’t influence viewers. And viewers, of course, should use their brains. [...] Decide for yourself whether to get on this armored personnel carrier or not. It’s people’s own fault that they’re going to die, not mine. We have a lot of idiots. A lot of idiots who are going voluntarily and who are being drafted without asking any questions,” said Knyazyev.
English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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