Ukrainian social media stars drop Russian in pivot to war footing
When Ukrainian social media influencer Anna Tsukur started building her business as a fitness guru several years ago, she made choices to maximize her appeal: focus on women, shoot in inspiring places like Bali and, above all, speak in Russian.
That was then.
After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, she decided that as an influencer her first task should be to try to influence people about the war, calling on her Russian supporters to protest against the actions of their country.
The result: a barrage of insults from Russians insisting that Ukraine was at fault.
Then she decided to ignore her own business model. She changed her language to teach in Ukrainian despite knowing that she would lose followers not only in Russia, but also in the countries that once made up the Soviet Union and where many people still speak Russian.
“I felt in my heart,” she said, “that it was the right thing to do to show that I support my people, Ukraine.”
Last year’s invasion of Moscow caused a cultural upheaval in Ukrainian society that ran parallel to the fighting. Monuments to Russian heroes have been demolished or defaced, and Russian writers, painters and composers, adored for decades by the Soviet education system, are suddenly vilified in a process called “de-Russification”.
At the heart of this transformation is language, with more Ukrainians – most of whom understand both languages – switching to Ukrainian. The transition had started years earlier, starting with independence, but accelerated in the past year.
Like Ms. Tsukur, thousands of influencers creating content on everything from children’s games to beauty advice and science to comedy switched from Ukrainian to Russian after the large-scale invasion, in many cases overnight, according to Vira Slyvinska, senior executive at AIR. Media-Tech, an international company founded by Ukrainians that supports online content creators.
Some have also radically shifted focus, abandoning their original subjects for videos that support the country’s war effort.
But by far the biggest change was the language change.
During Soviet times, Russian was the language of higher education and professionals in Ukraine, and was spoken by an urban elite. Ukrainian was dominant in many rural areas, but with power and wealth concentrated in the cities, the appeal of Russian was evident.
Even after Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Russian remained widely spoken.
“It’s like a post-colonial situation where Russian was seen as a mark of quality,” said Volodymyr Kulyk, senior researcher at the Kuras Institute for Political and Ethnic Studies in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and an expert on language policy. . “Although a sophisticated language with literature and education, Ukrainian was considered less modern and less well-equipped for contemporary purposes.”
A vivid example of the linguistic transition is President Volodymyr Zelensky. Before becoming president in 2019, he had built a career as a television comedian broadcasting mainly in Russian. But he campaigned for president in Ukrainian.
Language was also involved in the war itself. When Moscow seized Ukrainian territory, it urged teachers to use Russian as the main language in lessons. Some of those who joined have been accused of collaboration by Ukrainian authorities, who have taken over much of the territory in recent months.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin cited the need to protect Russian speakers as part of his false justification for war.
For social media influencers, for whom cachet is so precious, it made sense before the war to use the language that many saw as a cultural touchstone. Russian also immediately expanded its audience, given how many people in the former Soviet republics are familiar with it.
Changing the language therefore had a significant impact on the size of the audience of influencers. This matters since, for many of the top stars, audience ratings are key to brand deals, and in the case of YouTube, influencers can get paid based on their audience size.
An analysis by AIR Media-Tech of 20 prominent Ukrainian YouTube accounts showed that the overall income of those who switched languages decreased by an average of 24% in 2022 compared to the previous year.
Between March of last year and this March, the total number of views for those who switched languages also fell by 24%, mainly due to a drop in the number of views in Russia and other former Soviet republics, the company said.
Ms Tsukur, the fitness influencer, said she had lost more than half of her business since the large-scale invasion began, not only because she changed her language, but also because some Ukrainian women couldn’t afford the fees for her online classes or were too distracted by the war to focus on exercise.
She currently has 149,000 followers on Facebook, over 84,000 followers on Instagram and over 58,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Still, the war has given many social media personalities a new purpose — and in some cases, a wider audience.
Before the invasion, Pavlo Vyshebaba was an environmental activist whose videos on YouTube sometimes got only 300 views, according to Ms Slyvinska.
He has since joined the military and started producing videos about his experiences on the front line. He now has 94,000 YouTube subscribers and 131,000 Instagram followers.
Oleksandr Pedan, 41, had another development. He was one of the biggest Ukrainian TV stars and a household name before embarking on a career in social media. He said a typical pre-conflict YouTube episode involved him acting as the host of board games such as Mafia played with other glamorous influencers.
When the war started, he switched to Ukrainian and started creating content focused on the country’s volunteer effort. He also visited soldiers on the front line to make videos, and made one to help students displaced by the conflict find new universities. One of his most successful videos, he said, compared life in the southeastern city of Mariupol before and after it was devastated by a Russian siege last spring.
Mr Pedan said his viewership and income plummeted when the full-scale invasion began. But he believed he had to respond to the gravity of the national situation. He currently has 647,000 followers on Instagram.
For Ukrainian comedian Oleksii Durniev, who is also a household name, the war brought with it a particularly cruel irony. He grew up in Mariupol, speaking Russian and harboring a deep admiration for Russian pop culture and hip-hop. So it was only natural that when he started making goofy and irreverent YouTube videos, his language of choice was Russian.
“At that time, we thought Ukraine should get closer to Russia,” he said. “Everyone thought like that in our area.”
In one video, he sits in his kitchen in Kyiv with Russian comedian Eldar Dzharakhov, and together they poke fun at Instagram stories made by other social media stars. Since the start of the war, Mr. Durniev, 36, has blocked Russian comics on social networks. Earlier this year, he said, he saw a YouTube video of Mr. Dzharakhov sharing a scene at a patriotic rally in Moscow with Mr. Putin.
These days, Mr Durniev only speaks Ukrainian in his videos – he has 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube and just under a million followers on Instagram. A typical still features comedy, but with a war-flavored theme. In one, he compares the food rations consumed by Ukrainian soldiers with the rations issued to Russian troops.
His conclusion? Moscow rations are so bad that Russian soldiers could die from the food alone.
Like other social media personalities, he said the change in language and content over the past 14 months had been shocking, but ultimately necessary.
“Ukrainians needed a trigger to make us reflect on who we are and our culture, our mission and our language,” he said. “But it’s a shame that we pay such a price for it.”
Youri Shyvala contributed report.
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