Inside the World of Russian ‘War Reporters’ Demanding More Blood Than the Kremlin Can Deliver

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has bred a peculiar ecosystem of Telegram channels even more militant than the Moscow leadership itself. After the Wagner insurrection, they will only intensify

Inside the World of Russian ‘War Reporters’ Demanding More Blood Than the Kremlin Can Deliver
Ceremonial Russian soldiers in Moscow’s Red Square commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in WWII, in May 2023. (Sefa Karacan for Anadolu Agency via Getty)

Late on May 11, the pro-war segment of Russian social media on the Telegram messaging service was abuzz with breaking news about the supposed commencement of the long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. The reports were hysterical: Ukrainian armored columns are moving from Kharkiv toward the Russian border, proclaimed one. Ukrainians are using chemical weapons on Russian soldiers who are gasping for breath, said another. Some of these messages even made their way to Russia’s government-owned media, such as RT. It didn’t take long for the Russian Defense Ministry to declare it all fake news. There were definitely no armored columns advancing on the southern city of Belgorod, the ministry’s press office said later that day. There were no independently confirmed chemical attacks on Russian positions, nor, at that time, any signs of the grand counteroffensive operation that pro-war Russian Telegram had been anxiously anticipating for weeks.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago, such panic-mongering has mushroomed, forming a peculiar media subculture on the Telegram app. Over the course of 2022, Telegram almost doubled its subscriber base in Russia, with some 50 million Russians using it on a regular basis, according to the business newspaper Vedomosti.

Pro-war channels vary in popularity — from only a few dozen followers to hundreds of thousands or, sometimes, slightly north of a million subscribers. They are run by individuals collectively known as “voenkory,” a historic portmanteau of the Russian words “voenny korrespondent,” meaning “war reporter” (adding the “-y” makes the singular noun plural in Russian). Most of them are men; there are a handful of pro-war women bloggers and voenkors — like Nadana Fridrikhson and Irina Kuksenkova — though they lag behind their male counterparts in subscriber numbers.

These voenkors demand much more blood than the Kremlin can or may be willing to deliver. After the apparent attempted coup by the Russian mercenary Wagner Group on Saturday, their thirst may only intensify.

Traditionally, the term has carried cultural weight, and is used in the Russian language for writers like Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Jack London and John Steinbeck. The word evokes memories of the generation who built storied literary careers out of covering the most pivotal moments in the history of the 20th century, such as Boris Polevoy’s reports in Pravda from recently liberated Auschwitz, and his Nuremberg diaries, published in 1967.

But today’s usage of voenkor is a misnomer, something of a recent perversion of the original term. The Soviet war reporters were unanimous in their condemnation of war as the most horrific thing they witnessed in their lives, and they swore to protect peace at any cost. Indeed, while the Soviet Union was involved in quite a few proxy conflicts, as well as the failed invasion of Afghanistan, which ultimately contributed to its demise, the regime propaganda’s ostensibly pacifist messaging remained consistent throughout all of the post-WWII years.

Most genuine war reporters covering the invasion of Ukraine for independent Russian media outlets refuse to call themselves “voenkors.” Pavel Kanygin, who has covered the conflict from the outset in the spring of 2014, and has been abducted several times by Russian-armed “people’s militias,” tells New Lines that their experiences of the war are so far removed from each other that he and his fellow independent reporters would have nothing to talk about with today’s voenkors if they found themselves in the same room with them.

Conversely, today’s voenkors could be described as pro-war agitators. They profit from the war, celebrate it, downplay the severity of Russian losses and even openly cheer for war crimes. If they have one consistent criticism, it is that Russia is not waging as much war in Ukraine as they would like. Few, if any, will shirk from posing with a firearm, helping to load a multiple rocket launcher or incriminating themselves by interrogating Ukrainian prisoners of war on camera, in likely contravention of the Geneva Conventions. Aggressive crowdfunding for the benefit of the units with which they are embedded is the norm.

Similarly, among pro-war bloggers today, the Russian phrase “humanitarian aid” means crowdfunding for heat scopes and drones for the Russian military, various private armies, militias and volunteer battalions, whereas “charity work” involves delivering thermal gear and tourniquets to frontline units.

Even though some voenkors, especially those belonging to the older generations (the oldest of them, Aleksandr Sladkov, is 57, while some of the most popular men average in their mid-40s), are aware that the traditional moral constraints of newsgathering are at apparent odds with their day-to-day behavior, they claim to be taking a leaf out of their ancestors’ book. They often invoke the Soviet practice of assigning the most talented of young Red Army draftees as frontline reporters for the Soviet Defense Ministry’s official newspaper, Red Star — so as to place themselves in an ethical no man’s land where one’s sacred patriotic duty trumps other established norms.

There is also ambiguity about the status of voenkors — they are indeed reporting on the war, in real time and often more truthfully than the official propaganda channels, but they are also that same war’s direct participants and beneficiaries, easily fooling an outside observer ignorant of, or willfully blind to, these nuances. Kirill Imashev, a 24-year-old reporter with Readovka, a rabidly nationalistic pro-Kremlin Telegram-based tabloid, demanded that he and his fellow voenkors be issued firearms and assigned as servicemen to a frontline unit to dispense with all the unnecessary courtesies. This is where the ambiguity arises. While some voenkors may wish to cover how the army is fighting the war, others, like Imashev, desire to become participants themselves. For their readers and followers, becoming so involved in the war through the eyes of one correspondent makes them more invested in the war being won.

Few of today’s voenkors are legitimate journalists on assignment from a recognized media outlet. Many are bloggers who aren’t accredited or associated with the Ministry of Defense (in fact, some are explicitly opposed to it), unlike legitimate reporters from registered media outlets who have to apply for a permit to be allowed to enter the area of the “special military operation,” the term Russian authorities demand the media use for their invasion of Ukraine, punishing anyone who calls it a war.

Some have no journalistic experience whatsoever. One of the most prominent voenkors, Maksim Fomin, known by his nom de guerre Vladlen Tatarsky, was a small-time criminal, sentenced in 2011 in the eastern Ukrainian town of Makiivka to eight years for a botched bank robbery. He served three years until Makiivka, a satellite town of Donetsk, was overrun by the “People’s Republic” militia. After a prison break in the ensuing chaos, Fomin joined an armed group and began using his YouTube and Telegram channels to document his daring adventures as a mercenary in an unrecognized puppet state controlled by the Kremlin’s spin doctors.

By the time Fomin was assassinated in April, in a St. Petersburg cafe owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, his Telegram channel had almost half a million subscribers. His murder — he was blown up by a bomb hidden in a statuette that looked like him — grabbed headlines around the world for its brazenness. His final moment in the limelight came in September 2022, when, along with other prominent voenkors, he was invited to a gala at the Kremlin to celebrate the annexation of “new territories” that were occupied by Russia’s forces. After the ceremony, Fomin recorded a video of himself laying out the foundations of his creed: “We will conquer everyone, kill whoever needs to be killed, rob whoever needs to be robbed. Everything’s going to be just like we love it.” The newly minted “Russian” city of Kherson lasted 42 days after grand announcements that “Russia is here forever” before being liberated by the Ukrainian army. Five months later, Tatarsky himself was dead.

In previous conflicts Russia has been involved in, such as Syria, Wagner-aligned voenkors have had a distinct advantage over Ministry of Defense-accredited reporters. The latter — who form the majority of media professionals — were embedded with the official units or sequestered on the Hmeimim airbase and relegated to penning puff pieces about cooks preparing bucketfuls of porridge for the airmen. Bloggers embedded with Wagner units in Syria and other hot spots where Wagner’s thin veneer of plausible deniability was instrumental in Russian tactics could venture much farther than the confines of Russian military officialdom. They were fully loyal only to one of the many pieces of Prigozhin’s kaleidoscopic propaganda empire, and promoted his private interests over all others. Until Prigozhin himself started to viciously attack the top military brass in public, pro-war bloggers loyal to him were the most scathing critics of official inertia.

The Defense Ministry has its own media empire, including the TV channel Zvezda (The Star) and the Red Star newspaper, but its output is not that different from the anodyne daily briefings of the Russian army’s official spokesman Igor Konashenkov. His claims about having destroyed more HIMARS rocket launcher units than can be accounted for by all of the Western arms deliveries to Ukraine combined have attracted ridicule, even from Russia’s most committed pro-war bloggers.

Maria Borzunova, an independent Russian journalist in Berlin who documents and critically dissects war propaganda on her YouTube channel, tells New Lines that the biggest difference between official state media and voenkors is their audience. The former, says Borzunova, are less discerning and have a very vague understanding of where Bakhmut or any other Ukrainian city or town outside of Kyiv is. By contrast, many of the voenkors have been involved in the conflict since 2014 as former mercenaries or warlords in “people’s militias,” or as bloggers associated with them. Their followers are more involved and not so easily fooled. These voenkors and their audience are more critical of the Russian army’s efforts, and will openly criticize the official corruption and incompetence in far more explicit terms than even the independent media outlets banned in Russia, which have been ostracized and labeled as “foreign agents.” Some will break Russian media’s top unwritten rule and openly lambast Vladimir Putin himself — seemingly unworried about any repercussions. Others, says Borzunova, attempt to bridge the growing chasm between triumphalist official reports and reality on the ground with claims that Russia expected to confront Ukraine on its own but is instead now battling all of NATO.

It’s not that voenkors are an inherently more reliable source of information, as the fanciful rumors over the Ukrainian counteroffensive show. But they exist in a competitive market that emerged from the ruins of Russia’s independent media. New censorship laws adopted one week into the full-scale invasion banned, outlawed and hounded independent media out of the country, and voenkors started to jostle for influence with each other as well as legacy media.

Many of the voenkors have been active since at least the earlier, surreptitious phase of the invasion in 2014, when Russia officially denied its military’s presence in Ukraine, but the relatively low intensity of this conflict and the lack of interest among the general public relegated them to isolated corners of the internet. Some, like Semyon Pegov, aka WarGonzo, formerly of the pro-Kremlin tabloid Life News, made a name for themselves covering other wars and conflicts Russia was involved in, like Syria and the Nagorno-Karabakh region claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Voenkors are fiercely competitive about delivering “exclusives” from the front lines and will risk life and limb doing so. A few have been injured while reporting.

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine gave pro-war Telegram channels an immense boost and, in some cases, more than a tenfold gain in subscribers. Obscure bloggers previously known only to a small clique of war geeks became rock stars competing for audience with state-owned media conglomerates. Pegov’s channel WarGonzo grew by more than a million subscribers from 250,000 before Feb. 24, 2022, to almost 1.3 million today. Aleksandr Sladkov, a veteran reporter with 30 years of experience covering wars in post-Soviet countries, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and many other places, had just over 30,000 subscribers; by the time of writing this had shot up to slightly over a million. However, according to Irina Pankratova, a reporter with the independent business news outlet The Bell, who has covered the economics of pro-war Telegram channels, their growth mostly plateaued shortly after a sharp spike following the full-scale invasion. In her June 2022 report for The Bell, Pankratova cites an aggregate figure of around 3 million people in total subscribed to various pro-war channels — out of 40 million active Telegram users in Russia. Even top power players with significant resources to invest in promoting their channels, like Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, seem to be at the end of their growth potential. Kadyrov’s channel skyrocketed from barely 60,000 subscribers before February 2022 to 3 million last October, but has not attracted many more since. For reference, Meduza and TV Rain, two independent media outlets whose staff had to emigrate following the invasion and the subsequent crackdown, had 1.1 million and 418,000 subscribers on their Telegram channels, respectively.

With large audiences comes monetization. Some of the most popular pro-war channels now advertise all kinds of products, from promoting like-minded bloggers to consumer goods such as knives and military gear, and even services unavailable in Russia due to sanctions and domestic prohibitions, like Instagram-based businesses. (Instagram and Facebook have been banned in Russia since March 2022, when the Russian government declared their parent company Meta an “extremist organization.”)

A New Lines reporter, posing as a potential client, approached some of the most popular channels asking for a quote for a single, basic promoted post. Prices ranged from 38,000 rubles ($470 at the current exchange rate) to 250,000 rubles ($3,100).

New Lines approached several voenkors mentioned in this story for comment but received no responses.

As the war drags on with no end in sight, inching closer and closer to Russia itself, the rhetoric on pro-war channels grows ever more extreme. What started out as patriotic fist-pumping has transformed into an occasional menace and even a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

The voenkors’ ire toward the Russian government began to dramatically ratchet upwards last September, when the daring Ukrainian counteroffensive culminated in the liberation of the entirety of Kharkiv oblast and parts of the neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk regions, forcing the Kremlin to hastily assemble “referenda” to formally annex the territories it was quickly losing.

This time the glaring disconnect — between official silence or detached triumphalism and the doom and gloom on the channels of voenkors, who accused the top military command of everything from criminal incompetence to treason — was impossible to ignore. The most extreme of the pro-war bloggers came up with their own version of the “stab in the back” legend born in interwar Germany and blamed the corrupt “elites” for the series of humiliating defeats and withdrawals. At one point, there were anonymous leaks by the Ministry of Defense to pro-Kremlin tabloids about some of the most prominent voenkors being probed to build a case against them for “discrediting” the army, under the new laws passed to suppress independent reporting.

Ivan, an independent Russian journalist who’s lived in exile since March 2022, documents the shifting pro-war narratives on his Telegram channel called “All quiet on the Wezzzzztern front” (a reference to “Z,” the semi-official symbol of the invasion, which some voenkors and pro-war bloggers have in their channels’ names). The name, alluding to Erich Maria Remarque’s classic German anti-war novel, is meant to be ironic, reflecting the messages he has archived from the voenkors, which are filled with varying degrees of hysteria, doom-mongering and desperation.

One peculiar feature of pro-war channels, Ivan tells New Lines, is how the most vocal of them start off with the right premises — that Russia’s military was woefully underprepared for a war of such scale and that it’s rife with corruption and incompetence — but always stop right before making the logical conclusion that the war shouldn’t have started in the first place. Instead, they will often divert their frustration to officials tasked with formulating the “party line,” like the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov or Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, probably the two people most hated by the “grassroots” pro-war camp. Ivan, who declined to give his last name due to security concerns, also compares one major narrative shift to the Soviet experience during the Afghan war, which is the subject of his university thesis. According to the official Soviet version, the invasion of Afghanistan was not a loss because its explicit aim — not allowing “the brotherly nation” to be invaded by foreign armies — was achieved, since the only invading army in Afghanistan was the Soviet one.

Similarly, says Ivan, the pro-war camp now measures the grim realities of the invasion of Ukraine against increasingly nebulous and unrealistic outcomes, such as NATO troops invading Moscow. So far, the Kremlin’s media managers have tried to defuse the conflict by co-opting the loudest critical voices, inviting them to official ceremonies and galas, and even meetings with Putin himself, as happened with much public fanfare on June 13. Some have received awards and official positions. In December 2022, the former Ministry of Defense spokesman Mikhail Zvinchuk, whom Irina Pankratova exposed in her investigation for The Bell as the person behind the wildly popular pro-war channel Rybar (almost 1.2 million subscribers at the time of writing), was appointed by Putin to an official task force facilitating cooperation between civil and military authorities during mobilization. Semyon Pegov, who received the prestigious Order of Courage medal from Putin in November 2022, is also on this task force. There have even been proposals to officially recognize voenkors as military veterans, with all the perks that come with this status — although the official Union of Journalists of Russia voiced concerns about treating reporters as equal to combatants.

At his June 13 meeting with war reporters, Putin conspicuously signaled his position in the Prigozhin v. Defense Ministry conflict: For one thing, none of the Wagner-aligned or voenkors directly employed by Prigozhin were invited. (Some complained about this bitterly on their Telegram channels.) Answering a question from Sergey Zenin of the state-owned VGTRK media conglomerate about the “so-called private military companies” and their legal status, Putin stated that all “volunteer battalions” must immediately sign contracts with the Defense Ministry — ostensibly to provide them with them “social guarantees.” Such a move would deprive Prigozhin of control of his most valuable resource: fighters loyal only to him. Prigozhin first loudly protested — and then announced his “march on Moscow,” demanding the surrender of Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. After the failed Wagner mutiny, most voenkors employed by Prigozhin’s media sites such as RIA FAN, and paid from his own pocket, have gone silent on Telegram.

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