When a court in Nizhny Novgorod, over 400 kilometers east of Moscow, declared a radical chauvinist movement “extremist” and outlawed it on October 18, its notorious leader, Vladislav Pozdnyakov, was not present to argue his side of the story.
“Where is Pozdnyakov right now?” Judge Anna Belova asked the activist’s lawyer in court, according to a report by the news outlet Meduza.
“I can’t tell you, your honor,” the lawyer, Dzambolat Garabayev, answered.
“The reason?” Belova enquired.
“I myself don’t know where he is,” came the answer.
What is publicly known is that Pozdnyakov, a 30-year-old fitness coach, fled Russia in late 2018 after receiving a suspended sentence on charges of “inciting hatred toward women.”
It was the first sign of problems for Male State, the movement he founded and led and which was finally banned by the authorities this week after years operating with relative impunity.
Rather than a physical organization with a dedicated headquarters and volunteer base, Male State is essentially a loose network of social-media profiles, most of them on Russia’s Facebook equivalent, VK, and the messenger app Telegram.
They function as virtual forums for proponents of an ideology that adherents describe as “national-patriarchy” — a worldview aimed at reinstating the allegedly suppressed status of men who have been shunted to the sidelines by women taking leading roles in society at their expense.
The movement first came to notice when it began campaigning against the introduction in Russia of a law on domestic violence, a persistent scourge in the conservative country. Feminist activists working to lobby the legislation through parliament reported receiving death threats from the group, which also took part in rallies against the legal initiatives.
In one incident in February, a feminist activist who took part in protests supporting female political prisoners and asked to be identified only as Ksenia, told RFE/RL that Pozdnyakov had posted her personal information on social media (doxing) and warned her against participating in further rallies.
“His followers began sending me all sorts of insults, some even saying it would be good if I died,” Ksenia told RFE/RL. Her fellow activists also reported being doxed by Male State and receiving death threats online.
After one of the rallies on February 14, Pozdnyakov wrote on his Telegram channel that “feminists and LGBT activists are bio-garbage” and “psychologically sick people who have no place among normal people.”
Male State also gained notoriety for targeting women in relationships with black men and mothers of mixed-race children and for online posts claiming to expose women who had allegedly appeared in pornographic videos. In some cases, activists blackmailed the victims into paying them money in exchange for a promise that their husbands wouldn’t be informed of their actions.
But Male State finally came to the authorities’ attention when, earlier this year, it began launching attacks on Russian companies that published progressive advertisements. In August, the Vkusvill health-food chain removed an ad featuring an LGBT couple after Male State activists threatened it on social media, alleging it had crossed a red line in its apparent advocacy of gay marriage.
The lesbian couple subsequently fled Russia, citing fears over their safety in Russia because of the homophobic attacks.
At the time, Vkusvill was widely criticized for its decision to cave in to pressure from online trolls, and some customers announced that they would boycott its stores throughout Russia. But another company that was targeted by Male State decided to instead fight back — and it was this stance, the company says, that led to Male State finally being outlawed.
Vyatsky Kvas, a fizzy-drink manufacturer based in Kirov, was attacked by Male State after it published an Instagram ad featuring a black model holding a bottle of their product.
But instead of withdrawing the ads, it doubled down: It continued to post similar images and in September it launched a special project titled Racism In An Online Format, which featuring a photo shoot with residents of various countries who had moved to live in Kirov, a city of half a million people 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow.
On September 23, Pozdnyakov denounced the project on his Telegram channel. “Don’t drink Vyatsky Kvas. Ochakovsky and Russky Dar are better,” he wrote, citing other brands of the traditional Russian fermented beverage. “Drink like real Russian men.”
In the comments section, his supporters began publishing personal details of the company’s management, according to screenshots later posted on Live Journal, and threatening them with retaliation.
‘The Strength Of Our Traditions’
On October 5, the company responded to the attacks with a strongly worded Instagram post in which it called on the authorities to declare Male State an “extremist” organization. “We believe that Russians’ best trait is the ability to welcome any individual regardless of gender, age, and skin color,” it wrote. “That is precisely the strength of our traditions.”
The very same day, prosecutors in Nizhny Novgorod appealed to the regional court, asking that the group be outlawed. Telegram and YouTube began blocking various accounts tied to Male State, sending a clear signal to its activists.
The ruling on October 18 came as a triumph for feminist and LGBT activists who had long campaigned to get Male State banned. But immediately after it was announced, it was Vyatsky Kvas that took responsibility and proclaimed its “victory” over the patriarchy.
In an emotional Instagram post, it thanked not only the Nizhny Novgorod prosecutors but also “anyone who was personally affected by smear campaigns and bullying.”
“Thanks to you, buoyed by your support, we found in ourselves the power to demand that the authorities solve the problem of Male State,” the company wrote.
Svetlana Sidorkina, a lawyer for the rights group Agora, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the legal campaign against Male State should have come much sooner. “You could launch numerous cases based on the information that is published on their channels,” she said.
Looking back on three years of racist and homophobic attacks by the group, she alleged that Male State was able to get away with so much because it tapped the conservative zeitgeist in contemporary Russia.
“Our minds are still dominated by the notion of a supremacy of the male over the female,” she said. “And all of this is treated like a normal state of affairs.”
With reporting by Karina Merkuryeva of RFE/RL’s Russian Service