Ukraine’s Social Media Stars Ditch Russian in Pivot to a War Footing

Ukrainian social media influencers make anna Having started building her business as a fitness guru a few years ago, she’s focused on women, shot in inspiring locations like Bali, and, above all, speaks Russian. I chose to get the most out of it.

It was then.

After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, her first job as an influencer was to influence people about the war and urge Russian supporters to protest their country’s actions.

The result was a flurry of insults from Russians who claimed Ukraine was responsible.

After that, she decided to ignore her business model. She switched her language to teach in Ukrainian, even though she knew she would lose her following not only in Russia, but also in the countries that once made up the Soviet Union.

“I felt it in my heart,” she said.

Last year’s invasion of Moscow caused cultural turmoil in Ukrainian society alongside the fighting. Monuments to Russian heroes have been demolished or defaced, and Russian writers, painters and composers who have been touted for decades by the Soviet educational system have been dubbed “de-Russianization”. In the process, they are suddenly slandered.

At the center of that change is language, with many Ukrainians (mostly understanding both languages) switching to using Ukrainian. The transition started years ago with independence, but has accelerated in the last year.

Thousands of influencers like Ms. Tsukuru, who create everything from kids games to beauty tips, science to comedy, found themselves in Russian, often overnight, after a full-blown invasion. to Ukrainian, said AIR senior executive Vira Slyvinska. Media-Tech is an international company founded by a Ukrainian who supports his online content creators.

Others have drastically changed their focus, abandoning the video’s original topic of supporting the nation’s war effort.

But the much bigger change was the language switch.

During the Soviet era, Russian was the language of higher education and professionals in Ukraine and was spoken by the urban elite. Ukrainians controlled many rural areas, but the attraction to the Russians was obvious, as power and wealth were concentrated in the cities.

Even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, Russian continued to be widely used.

Volodymyr Kulik, a senior researcher at the Kras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and an expert in language politics, says, “It’s kind of like the post-colonial situation when the Russian language was seen as a sign of quality. is,” he said. “Despite being a sophisticated language with literature and education, Ukrainian was seen as unmodern and poorly suited for modern purposes.”

One striking example of a gradual transition is President Volodymyr Zelensky. Before he became president in 2019, he made a career as a television comedian, mostly in Russian. But he ran for president in Ukrainian.

Language is also an issue in war itself. When Moscow occupied Ukrainian territory, it put pressure on teachers to use Russian as the primary language of instruction. Some of those who agreed have been accused of collaborating with Ukrainian authorities who have recaptured much of their territory in recent months.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has cited the need to protect Russian speakers as part of his false justification for war.

With cachet being so valuable to social media influencers, it made sense to use the language many saw as a cultural touchstone before the war. The Russian language quickly expanded its audience as well, given the large number of people who knew Russian in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

As such, switching languages ​​had a significant impact on the influencer audience size. For many of the hottest stars, viewership is key to brand deals, and for YouTube, this is important because it allows influencers to be paid based on the number of viewers.

An analysis by AIR Media-Tech of 20 key Ukrainian YouTube accounts found that the overall income of those who switched languages ​​fell by an average of 24% year-over-year in 2022.

Users who switched languages ​​also saw a 24% drop in total views from March of last year to March of this year. This is mainly due to declining views in Russia and other former Soviet countries.

Fitness influencer Tsukuru said he has lost more than half of his business since the invasion began in earnest. Not only did she switch her language, but some Ukrainian women were unable to pay for her online courses or were too distracted by the war to focus on exercising.

She currently has 149,000 followers on Facebook, over 84,000 followers on Instagram, and over 58,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Still, the war gave many social media personalities a new purpose and, in some cases, a larger audience.

Slyvinska said that before the invasion, Pablo Vischebaba was an environmental activist whose YouTube videos had only 300 views.

Since then, he enlisted in the military and began making videos about his experiences on the front lines. Currently, he has 94,000 subscribers on YouTube and 131,000 followers on Instagram.

Oleksandr Pedan, 41, has undergone another evolution. He was one of Ukraine’s top TV stars and his household name before embarking on his media career. He said his pre-conflict typical YouTube episodes included acting as the host of his game party where the Mafia played with other glamorous influencers.

When the war started, he switched to Ukrainian and started making content focused on the country’s volunteer work. He has also made videos visiting frontline soldiers and helping students displaced by conflict find new colleges. He said it compared life in the southeastern city of Mariupol, which was ravaged by a Russian siege.

Pedan said viewership and revenue declined once the full-scale invasion began. However, he believed that the gravity of the situation in the country must be addressed. Currently, he has 647,000 followers on Instagram.

For Ukrainian comedian Oleksiy Durnyev, the war brought a particularly cruel irony.He grew up in Mariupol, spoke Russian, and was deeply impressed by Russian pop culture and hip-hop. So it was no surprise that Russian was his language of choice when he started making his zany and irreverent YouTube videos.

“At the time, Ukraine thought it needed to get closer to Russia,” he said. “In our area, everyone thought that way.”

In one video, he sits in a kitchen in Kiev with Russian comedian Eldar Zarrahov as they jointly tease Instagram stories created by other social media stars. Since the war began, 36-year-old Durnyev has blocked the Russian cartoon on social media. Earlier this year, he said he saw a YouTube video of Mr. Zarrahov standing on the podium with Mr. Putin at a patriotic rally in Moscow.

Recently, Mr. Durnyev speaks only Ukrainian in his videos. He has 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube and just under 1 million followers on Instagram. The typical still features comedy, but with war-flavoured themes: one compares the ration packs consumed by Ukrainian soldiers to the ration packs given to the Russian army;

What is his conclusion? The rations in Moscow are so meager that a Russian soldier might die from just one meal.

Like other social media personalities, the change in language and content over the past 14 months was jarring, but ultimately necessary, he said.

“Ukrainians needed an impetus to think about who we are, our culture, our mission, our language,” he said. It’s a pity.”

Yuri Shivala contributed to the report.

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