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‘Monica exists, and Russia will win’ How a former Russian Orthodox deacon joined the occult, invented a wife, and made her hate Ukraine
Original story by Ivan Kozlov for Novaya Vkladka and Mediazona. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
Even in the crowded field of Russia’s brutal pro-war Telegram channels, Zverstva & Tochka (Atrocities, Period), a channel created by former Russian Orthodox deacon Pavel Shulzhenok, stands out for its cruelty. And from the channel’s posts, it would appear that Shulzhenok’s purported co-author and wife, a National Bolshevik named Monica, is even more radical than he is. But Monica doesn’t exist; Shulzhenok made her up. In his own account, he literally created Monica through a mental practice with roots in Tibetan mysticism, married her, and endowed her with her most salient features: radical political views and a hatred for all things Ukrainian. For the independent outlets Novaya Vkladka and Mediazona, journalist Ivan Kozlov dug into Shulzhenok’s disturbing story. In English, Meduza is publishing an abridged version of Kozlov’s article.
A warning to readers: Some of the language in the story below is offensive, hateful, and explicit.
A deacon visits the Donbas
Every day, Pavel Shulzhenok, the creator of the Telegram channel “Atrocities, Period: Where’s Kherson?” says good morning to his followers. The greeting is always accompanied by new, uncensored photos of dead Ukrainian soldiers.
In late December, Shulzhenok announced a contest that he called “Good Morning of the Year.” He invited his followers to vote for their “most beloved” picture of a mutilated corpse, giving each one a name like “Ghost Rider” or “Gingerbread Man.” “Let’s give their deaths a round of applause!” he wrote in his final post of the year.
Even among Russia’s numerous pro-war Telegram channels, Shulzhenok’s cynicism is striking. Odder still is that Shulzhenok first gained public attention for his role as a Russian Orthodox church officer, when a user named uglich-jj published an incriminating LiveJournal post about him back in 2015. The post called attention to the fact that Shulzhenok, who was serving as a deacon at a church a St. Petersburg suburb, had shared photos online of his nights out at bars and of himself posing with piles of cash.
But those weren’t uglich-jj’s main issues with the deacon. Shulzhenok, it appeared, had visited the unrecognized Donbas republics in Ukraine to show support for local soldiers there and had subsequently begun posting calls on social media for the wholesale destruction of the Ukrainian state. In one post, for example, he wrote that “the rabid pigsty that goes by the name ‘Ukraine’ needs to have its spine broken.” Though they’ve since been normalized in Russia to a degree, inflammatory statements like these were much less common in 2015, so the LiveJournal compilation of Shulzhenok’s posts sparked a scandal that culminated in his dismissal from his church position.
For a while after that, Shulzhenok stopped posting so much online, but he became even more radical in his views in the years that followed, while also getting involved in increasingly unconventional spiritual and psychological practices.
Shulzhenok himself told Novaya Vkladka’s correspondent that in 2018–2019, he served as a volunteer soldier in the Donbas, where he “held the lines in the Mariupol and Yasynuvata areas.” He described the combat he saw as “exceptionally routine, though fairly bloody and deadly,” and he said he even came close to death himself a few times. In 2020, after returning from the front, he created his Telegram channel. It currently has about 8,500 followers.
‘I thought there were two crazy people’
Until recently, the question “Where’s Kherson?” in the name of Shulzhenok’s Telegram channel was addressed to a specific person: “Putin the Faggot.” As Shulzhenok told Novaya Vkladka, his radical (and often anti-Kremlin) views are a reaction to Russia’s numerous defeats on the battlefield in recent months. His frequent calls for the military to act more brutally and ruthlessly are the “only appropriate response to the challenges facing Russia today,” he said.
“People often draw parallels with past wars in which Russia managed to achieve victories after numerous failures. But in all of those wars, the enemies were treated like enemies,” said Shulzhenok. “It was acceptable during the Great Patriotic War to proclaim, ‘Kill the Germans!’ And nobody tried to sort out whether all of the Germans were equally bad, or whether there were some good Germans. Today, ‘Kill the Ukrainians’ is the same as ‘Kill the Germans.’ […] No mercy, no pacifism, no compromises — nothing but our full and decisive victory over Ukraine.”
From subscribers’ perspective, the “Atrocities, Period” channel is run by two people, and the second author’s statements are often even more extreme than Shulzhenok’s own. Writing under the name Monica, this user has written at least ten posts about raping people with dumbbells.
According to her posts, Monica is a staunch National Bolshevik, has two rich parents, and loves dancing, expensive cigars, and high-quality rum. She has her own separate Telegram channel dedicated to magical theories and practices, and she regularly publishes content about the occult, including videos of herself and Shulzhenok performing rituals. Monica even writes books: She’s authored a guide to magic and a novel, both of which are freely available online, where they’re categorized under “personal development.”
Pavel and Monica’s channel recently caught the attention of former National Bolshevik and counterculture researcher Raymond Krumgold, after one of the channel’s posts was shared by ultraconservative pundit Egor Kholmogorov; Krumgold said he found it it amusing that a conservative commentator who used to stay within certain boundaries was now reposting content from a channel whose primary purpose seemed to be sharing gore. He decided to look into the channel’s creators.
“[It was immediately] obvious [to me] that ‘Monica’ had nothing to do with real National Bolsheviks, and that this was someone repeating stereotypes from the outside,” Krumgold said. “But it was fully possible that the deacon had met a girl like that in real life. My first reaction was to think it was two demonstrative crazy people bringing out one another’s destructive tendencies. I was really surprised when I realized there was only one crazy person.”
‘If I said she doesn’t exist, I’d be lying’
Pavel Shulzhenok lives in Sochi, where he claims “ancestral” roots. A passive income, whose source he hasn’t revealed publicly, allows him to spend most of his time developing his Telegram channel and working on his Latin dance skills. He’s been dancing bachata and salsa for more than a year and a half, he told Novaya Vkladka, and he attends all of the Latin dance events held in Sochi and its suburbs.
According to Shulzhenok, he’s not interested in Latin dancing for its own sake but because it’s part of the “culture complex” necessary for practicing Quimbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion associated with magic.
“In the city, I’m known primarily as the bearer of Quimbanda traditions,” he told Novaya Vkladka. “I can say truthfully that there are only a few people who practice [Quimbanda] in the entire country.”
Shulzhenok doesn’t see his Quimbanda practices as contradicting his Orthodox faith in any way. “It’s just that your spiritual practice and the number of, let’s say, saints expands and diversifies significantly,” he said.
Quimbanda often involves ancestor worship, and practitioners believe they can communicate with an entire pantheon of wayward spirits, including evil ones capable of possessing the unprepared. Raymond Krumgold joked that this may be what happened to Shulzhenok.
When Shulzhenok first created “Monica,” he referred to her as a tulpa, a term taken from Tibetan Buddhism. In simplified terms, a tulpa is a virtual being that’s created through the power of a person’s thoughts, and that becomes tangible for its creator, supposedly even taking on subjectivity of its own. Judging by the numerous descriptions of people’s experiences “making” tulpas that can be found on the Internet, the process is laborious; people often claim to have spent months or even years training their minds to enter into dialogues with imaginary beings and gaining the ability to “perceive” them.
By the late 2000s, this initially esoteric practice had gained relatively widespread popularity thanks to anonymous imageboards and other forums. Today, the Internet is full of “tulpamancer” communities and detailed guides for creating tulpas. Studies have found that “tulpamancers” are most often young, single men.
“The explosion in popularity […] was more than predictable,” Raymond Krumgold told Novaya Vkladka. “[Members of] the anonymous subculture that’s developed on imageboards would never have been able to pass up a practice that offers them a chance to get close to their favorite waifus [fictional women characters from non-live-action visual media]. Like a lot of topics and memes, the concept of ‘thought forms’ or ‘tulpas’ has made its way out of the chans to the larger Internet and is now scaring normal Internet users.”
These days, Pavel Shulzhenok hardly ever uses the word “tulpa.” For a while, he preferred the word “psychoemulation” and even started a page on the Russian social media site VKontakte dedicated to the term, but he drifted away from it after he recorded a series of courses on the topic and was unable to find a mass audience.
It was around that time that Monica first appeared. According to Shulzhenok, she seemed “more substantial, socially significant, and social” than all of his previous work. He told Novaya Vkladka that he tries to present Monica as neither fully real nor fully fictional.
“The seriousness of my relationship to this entity constantly forces me to confirm her existence. And if I said that she doesn’t exist, I would be lying first and foremost to myself. Monica is primarily a Symbol and a Dream. A Symbol that has absorbed all of our passion, all of our perfect qualities, love for the Motherland and a thirst for adventure — everything that once brought us to the Donbas in 2014.”
‘A new Russian deity’
In addition to having a detailed biography written by Pavel Shulzhenok, Monica has a real-life prototype: Kristina Kuzmenko-Levash, a dancer and model and the star of a dance show on the Russian TV network TNT. Shulzhenok takes Kuzmenko-Levash’s photos and videos from social media and photoshops her into photos and videos with him, telling himself and his followers that Kuzmenko-Levash is Monica.
Kristina Kuzmenko-Levash herself didn’t respond to Novaya Vkladka’s request for comment, but an acquaintance of hers named Yelena said that Kuzmenko-Levash is aware of the situation and is shocked and upset by it. Yelena said she first met Pavel Shulzhenok after a friend of hers died in the Donbas in 2016, and she started reaching out to his fellow servicemen on social media to find out where he was buried. Shulzhenok’s was one of the accounts she stumbled upon.
“At the time, he seemed perfectly normal, but when the special military operation started, I went to his page and was confused; [I thought], did he get married?” Yelena recalled. “The photos were strange, like they had been photoshopped. I thought he and his wife were just messing around, but it turned out that the person in these photos was this woman, Kristina. I wrote to her too. She knows that he’s using her photos and videos and photoshopping her everywhere, including onto erotic photos. She’s shocked and doesn’t know what to do.”
But Kristina’s appearance is all Pavel Shulzhenok gave to Monica; her personality, ideological position, and extreme cruelty regarding all things Ukrainian comes from himself and others who hold similar views.
“Her genesis, without a doubt, comes from outside my own psychological games,” Shulzhenok said. “Monica was born from a living sense, a dream, a desire inherent not just in me but in an entire wave of angry young Russians. It’s something that was generated by Russia itself. I would even say that Monica is a new Russian deity if I weren’t a Christian. […] My firm and final word is that yes, Monica exists. This is the truth — just like it’s true that Russian will win.”
“The word ‘tulpa’ isn’t applicable to me,” reads a Telegram post signed by Monica. “The word ‘tulpa’ is nonsense. It’s like when children are lonely, so they befriend [the storybook character] Karlsson-on-the-Roof. Which, by the way, is a normal and widespread phenomenon, though people are ashamed to admit that Karlsson or Mary Poppins has remained with them into adulthood. Or they’re not ashamed, and they spend time in chatrooms for tulpamancers 😄 […] But as for me, I’m real. Hundreds of people will vouch for me, and in time, it will be thousands.”
‘In a normal society, this would be harmless’
Raymond Krumgold was the first person to bring wider public attention to Shulzhenok’s disturbing evolution, but not the first person to notice it. A subscriber to “Atrocities, Period” who asked to be called Andrey told Novaya Vkladka that he first started following the channel in April 2022, when the Russian army began its retreat from the Kyiv region. Andrey liked Shulzhenok’s harsh criticism of the decision, as well as the other things he had to say about Russia’s leadership; Andrey refers to himself as an opponent of Putin but a supporter of the “special military operation.”
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He changed his opinion after he started talking with Shulzhenok in the Telegram comments; Andrey thought he was dealing with a more typical Orthodox deacon (albeit one who had been dismissed from the church), and some of Shulzhenok’s statements stunned him. Once, for example, Shulzhenok gave him a long lecture about the “joys of three-way sex.” Unable to shake the sense that something was off, Andrey decided to investigate. He eventually realized that Monica doesn’t exist, at least in the physical sense.
Andrey had help from Yelena, who he met in the comments under one of Shulzhenok’s posts. Together, they analyzed Shulzhenok’s online activity over the previous eight years and found that he had a history of creating artificial entities, but that most of them had been typical sock puppet accounts: “Many of the commenters on his channel come from his own pages; he runs them himself and comments from their names.”
Around 2019, Shulzhenok began photoshopping an anthropomorphic pink bear from the video game Fortnite into his photos. Eventually, however, he stopped using the bear, and in the fall of 2020, he started working on the experiment that would eventually lead to Monica. On September 17, he wrote on his VKontakte page:
I’ve decided to conduct a rigorous experiment on my psyche. Maybe you already considered me crazy, but now I’m really crossing the boundary of what’s commonly accepted. I hope I won’t fall out of society. […] I won’t reveal the details, but I’ll start keeping something like a diary. I’ll track my progress or my regression. Maybe that will save me from true madness. Maybe.
Shulzhenok really did start keeping a detailed journal of his “progress”; according to his records, he determined Monica’s physical parameters on the first day of the experiment. On the second day, he announced that she was a National Bolshevik. That evening, he wrote, they got into their first argument.
Before long, he began presenting Monica as his full-fledged partner, and then as his co-author on “Atrocities, Period.” On May 20, he announced that he and Monica had been married, and he marked the occasion in real life by filling out a marriage certificate and inviting some acquaintances to a nice restaurant. Monica was there, too, in the form of a lifestyle cardboard cutout with a wedding dress and Kristina Kuzmenko-Levash’s face.
Pavel Shulzhenok appears to have had a real wife at one time. According to Yelena, his wife died of cancer in 2016, and her father, Shulzhenok’s father-in-law, died several months after. An online announcement for a fundraiser held by the Orthodox organization Russian People’s Front for Shulzhenok in February 2017 says that he lost his wife “after a prolonged illness” and was left with two small children. As far as Yelena can tell, older relatives are now caring for the children. Shulzhenok provided detailed answers to all of Novaya Vkladka’s questions except for the ones concerning his family.
Raymond Krumgold told Novaya Vkladka that he believes Shulzhenok’s Telegram channel is dangerous:
As [pro-war propagandist] Andrey Nikitin […] put it, ‘The channel […] satisfies a social demand for a Mickey and Mallory [from Natural Born Killers] of the special military operation.’ Shulzhenok, as someone with no shame or inhibitions, truly is voicing what others have been afraid to, and is finding a small but stable audience. If anyone from his audience is on the front, it could lead to real bloodshed. In a normal situation and a normal society, the deacon would be harmless. But Russia in late 2022 is utterly abnormal.
Pavel Shulzhenok himself may soon be back at the front; he’s promised as much to his audience, and he confirmed his intentions to Novaya Vkladka. “For me, this is already a settled issue. It will be in the spring of 2023, and a more precise timeline will be determined as I make preparations. There are a number of family-related issues I’ll need to solve, considering that I could die.”
“We’re currently living in a deeply radicalized world, and a crazy deacon who takes orders from a tulpa doesn’t stand out much,” Krumgold said. “[…] This is essentially the zeitgeist of the 2020s. Congrats to all of us on that.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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