On March 15, 2019, an Australian man killed 51 people in a horrific attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Shortly before, he released a bombastic manifesto, in which he argued that mass immigration and high fertility rates in developing countries constitute a form of genocide against white people. Within days, an anonymous Russian translation of the more than 70-page document began spreading among far-right sympathizers in former Soviet countries. This happened primarily via Telegram.
One of the translation’s earliest appearances was on the Russian-language Telegram channel of the neo-Nazi platform WotanJugend, which currently has just over 15,000 followers. The document was also circulated on the site’s Telegram channel, as was a related photo of a graffiti portrait of the Christchurch shooter in full battle gear, manifesto in hand. “Blessed be your name,” read the accompanying caption.
The translated manifesto was eventually removed, but saved copies can be still found via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. For authorities wishing to exert more control over this kind of dangerous material, the platform presents a unique challenge. Telegram was designed by avowed libertarians with the goal of helping people living under authoritarian regimes circumvent censorship. Removing extremist or violent content hinges largely on the company’s cooperation, which it has only begun to grant over the last several years. This makes for a volatile situation in general, but in a fragile, nascent democracy like Ukraine, where authorities are focused on the threat of Russian aggression, extremists have been able to flourish with relative impunity.
On a website announcement last July, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization, dubbed Telegram “the online weapon of choice for [the] violent far-right.” The report highlighted its role as a knowledge-sharing platform for far-right extremists, particularly on the subjects of Nazi ideology, military survival skills, and at-home arms manufacturing. The Wiesenthal Center also mentioned another report by the SITE Intelligence Group, a terror-tracking organization, which looked at a sample of 374 far-right channels and found that 80% of them were created within six months of the Christchurch attack. It’s difficult to say with any certainty how many of these channels exist in total, and given that the majority of them are anonymous, it’s impossible to say where their administrators are located.
Created by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov in 2013 and operated out of Dubai, Telegram is best known as the preferred tool of pro-democracy activists in authoritarian countries. But its lax rules regarding inflammatory content have made it popular with extremists purged from other platforms. In 2019, Facebook banned accounts associated with far-right groups and figures such as Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos. According to a recent study by University of Bern researchers, the Facebook crackdown precipitated a massive “simultaneous migration” of far-right actors to Telegram, where they were able to “swiftly re-create connections and gain prominence.” Telegram did not respond to requests for comment.
To map out how the “terrorgram” is evolving in Ukraine, we reached out to Alexsey Levkin, a prominent far-right spokesman who describes himself as a veteran of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. While Levkin maintains that he doesn’t endorse terrorism, he does call himself “the mastermind” of the WotanJugend platform and claims to have coined the name, which alludes to ancient Germanic mythology and the Nazi youth movement, Hitlerjugend. Levkin also said he had nothing to do with the publication of the Christchurch manifesto, although he spoke approvingly of its content. Just last week, the channel posted a statement in support of NSO-North, a Russian Nazi gang whose members are serving lengthy sentences for a series of deadly hate crimes in the 2000s. “Terror has brought its fruit, but for these people, it turned out to be a suicidal path.”
Despite denying he is a WotanJugend admin, Levkin clearly exerts a great deal of influence over the channel — a substantial amount of the content is dedicated to him or his projects. He also claims not to be as active online as he once was, because, as he puts it in a disturbing joke: “I faced Endlösung [the final solution] on Facebook and other platforms.” He is, however, still prolific on Telegram. Levkin’s own channel, called Thule Signal in reference to an occultist society that influenced prominent Nazis at the beginning of Hitler’s ascent to power, has over 3,000 followers. (Levkin denies any connection.) When he is not propagating far-right views online, Levkin is often doing so IRL. He is the lead singer of the national socialist black metal band M8L8TH — the Russian word molot means hammer, and H stands for Hitler — and he runs a far-right fashion brand.
“Oh, the bill comes to 88,” he joked mischievously as we ordered coffee outside Kyiv’s Independence Square, popularly known as Maidan. In far-right parlance, “88” is the numerical code for “Heil Hitler,” the Nazi salute. We were just around the corner from Cossack House, a former hotel seized by far-right militants during the 2014 Maidan revolution, which Levkin now uses as an event space.
Muscular, bearded, and blue-eyed with a shaved head, Levkin looks every bit like a Viking in a Netflix series. He is in fact a Russian citizen — one of a few dozen Russian nationalists and outright neo-Nazis who joined the Ukrainian army in fighting separatist forces backed by Russia during the Ukrainian revolution. Having grown disillusioned with Russia’s leadership and tolerance of Muslim immigrants from Central Asia, exiles such as Levkin saw Ukraine’s revolution as a victory for nationalism. It was seen as a model that could be replicated elsewhere. In conversation, Levkin referred to Ukraine as the “promised land.”
While Ukraine’s revolution was spearheaded by pro-democracy forces, the country’s nationalists played a visible role. They gained even more prominence when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and fomented conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass. Far-right activists were among the first to form combat-ready units, and word spread through international networks that these groups welcomed foreigners. Soon, Swedes, Americans, Poles, and Georgians as well as many anti-Putin Russians were joining Ukrainians on the frontline. As international media outlets began covering this phenomenon, more people started to show up. The most prominent of these volunteer groups was the so-called Azov battalion, which later became an autonomous regiment under the auspices of Ukraine’s National Guard. From that, a number of political, veteran, and paramilitary organizations emerged, which members now refer to as the Azov movement.
Although polls and election results show that the far-right in Ukraine has very little public support, members of these networks have infiltrated government institutions and security bodies at the highest levels since 2014. Vadym Troyan, a former deputy commander in Azov and an alumnus of a white supremacist group, is currently a deputy minister in Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs; Azov founder Andriy Biletsky was a member of parliament between 2014 and 2019. Although the Ukrainian government was cautious about accepting foreign fighters, which likely helped stem an influx of extremists, the country still developed a reputation as a welcoming destination for the far-right. In a report published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, journalist Tim Lister says that the success of Azov made ultranationalists around the world regard Ukraine as a “field of dreams.” According to an official government inquiry into the Christchurch shooting, not long before the massacre, the perpetrator told his family that he wanted to relocate to Ukraine.
As social and political pressures have prompted Facebook and YouTube to purge extremist content, Telegram has transformed into a nerve center for far-right sympathizers, many of whom come from the former Soviet Union. Content is shared widely within this ecosystem, and posts typically celebrate Hitler, explore far-right philosophy, satirize and denigrate people of color, and glorify perpetrators of terror attacks motivated by racial hatred. The channels also advertise offline lectures and workshops — and the occasional rubber knife tournament — and promote like-minded Telegram channels in Russian, Ukrainian, various Eastern European languages, German, and English. These outlets don’t seem to be focused as much on luring people to specific far-right groups as they seem to function as propaganda for autonomous terrorism — that is, “lone wolves.”
Most Russian and Ukrainian channels promote what they call a “traditionalist and conservative” agenda, which consists of a mix of open racism and hate-mongering against feminists and the LGBT community. Levkin says that, in a world constricted by political correctness, many far-right channels have been successful in reaching out to “normies” — ordinary people, in the movement’s parlance — and providing them an outlet for transgression. An especially popular source for far-right content is a Telegram channel run by Sergey Korotkikh, the most prominent living neo-Nazi from the former Soviet world. Originally from Belarus, Korotkikh helped create what was once a large Russian neo-Nazi organization before fleeing the country and ending up in Ukraine, where he assumed a leadership role with Azov. His Telegram channel, which has 23,000 followers, churns out hatred and obscenity on an industrial scale. One recent post argued, in a quasi-philosophical vein, that humanity needs psychopaths because normies are incapable of leadership.
Other channels specialize in doxxing political opponents. The Ukrainian-language Volier has only 1,500 subscribers, but it posts photographs and personal details of left-wing, feminist, and LGBT activists in regular bursts, and hosts detailed discussions about such topics as the pros and cons of assassinating political opponents. In a recent treatise, one writer considered how to determine whether a political murder would be deemed acceptable by society or if it would lead to the “demonization of right-wingers.” (A former Volier administrator denied that the channel had ever been responsible for inciting violence.)
Last June, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) arrested two men for allegedly printing and circulating copies of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. This was the first time Ukrainian officials had ever taken action against online far-right groups distributing the manifesto. One suspect was a Ukrainian veteran of the Azov regiment; the other was a Russian volunteer who fought in a different Ukrainian nationalist volunteer unit. Of the two Telegram channels, one ceased operation in the wake of the arrests, while the other is still active and even spearheaded a successful campaign to raise bail money for the Russian.
While there have been major Telegram purges — in November 2019, Europol worked with the company to remove more than 5,000 ISIS-related Telegram channels in two days, and the platform itself has also staged purges on this scale — it’s nonetheless rare for authorities anywhere to crack down on dangerous Telegram channels. It’s very difficult to gather information from encrypted digital platforms, and studies have shown that de-platforming extremists is not a silver bullet solution. When far-right groups migrate from mainstream social networks to less well-policed ones like Telegram, these outlets tend to lose followers but become more radical. Additionally, there are no barriers to prevent administrators from simply creating new groups if old ones are banned. In response to questioning, a spokesman for Ukraine’s interior minister expressed skepticism that much could be done to police the far-right on social media. “It’s the internet,” he said. “It’s impossible to shut down everything.”
On a miserably cold December night, as icy rain turned Kyiv into a skating rink, far-right sympathizers gathered in a Soviet-era culture club for Levkin’s annual black metal festival. The event was promoted primarily via Telegram. “The plague of 2020 feasts among the ruins, the darkness gathers… The borders are in fact closed, but [the show] must go on,” read the invitation. While as many as 1,500 people had turned up in previous years, with Covid-19 restrictions preventing large gatherings, this crowd was a fraction of the size.
As Levkin took the stage to chants of “Heil Hitler,” spectators forcefully raised their right hands in a Nazi salute. Many showed off their fluency in the far-right scene on Telegram to an undercover reporter. A well-built man with a tight haircut in a white power T-shirt described his interest in pan-European national socialism. A long-haired man who looked like a typical heavy metal fan said that he mostly read channels about right-wing culture and philosophy. A woman dressed in black offered that she followed channels dedicated to national socialist black metal.
A young Ukrainian couple mentioned that they ran a Telegram channel affiliated with a far-right political party. Their goal, they explained, was to reach a wider audience of Ukrainian patriots, beyond the radical fringe. To avoid encounters with law enforcement, they recommended erring on the side of caution and following a set of simple rules: “Don’t call for toppling the regime — instead talk about your vision for the future. You can still talk about [the Christchurch shooter] but in a biographical way.” The key to success, they said, was in mixing political propaganda with entertainment content. By doing that, they had managed to attract mainstream followers. Even, they added, some on the left.