MOSCOW–Thousands of Russian internet users have been piling into the audio-based chat app Clubhouse, which, of all places, has become the go-to spot to vent about living in an authoritarian political system.
This week has been chock-a-block with Clubhouse news. On Saturday, Elon Musk publicly invited Russian President Vladimir Putin for a chat on the app. Another avid Clubhouse user is Luiza Rozova, a 17-year-old alleged by independent Russian media to be Putin’s illegitimate daughter. She recently used the platform to share insights about her university major, her aspirations for a career in fashion, and her apparent affinity for wildly unhinged conspiracy theories. And in an unusual public airing of views on a typically hush-hush topic, 300 Russian journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders joined an open room on Clubhouse to discuss the spy case against one of Russia’s leading reporters covering military affairs, Ivan Safronov, who has been imprisoned on charges of treason for over six months.
In July, the Federal Security Service arrested Safronov, placing him in Lefortovo, one of Moscow’s most notorious prisons where he faces a term of up 20 years. The agency accused Safronov of working for the Czech secret service and passing along classified information about the Russian military. Investigators claim that the U.S. was the final recipient of the secret information delivered by Safronov in 2017.
“It has been nearly seven months since Ivan was put behind bars; his accusers probably hoped there would be no public attention to his case by now,” says Safronov’s friend, Ilya Barabanov, who was one of five key speakers at the Clubhouse discussion.
Some Russian Clubhouse users compare the platform to the 1980s telecasts—or Television Bridges, as they were known to the USSR—shared between Russian and American audiences. Soviet and American journalists organized the bridges to connect Moscow, Leningrad, San Francisco, Boston, and other cities for discussions about history and trends in culture, journalism or lifestyles.
Just as the bridges did more than 40 years ago, Clubhouse is now providing a platform for some unexpected speakers, including Putin’s alleged daughter, who used the app to chat away about her thoughts on working in New York, Paris, or Milan, calling the cities “boiling points of fashion.” (The Kremlin has denied that she is a relative.)
Rozova opened up to Andrei Zakharov, author of “Iron Masks,” an investigative report in Proekt media chronicling the life of her mother, the fabulously rich Svetlana Krivonogikh. According to Proekt, Krivonogikh has a net worth of $101 million. She has been Putin’s “close acquaintance” since the 1990s, and her daughter, Luiza, “bears an uncanny resemblance” to the Kremlin’s leader, according to the report. Rozova did not comment on that aspect of Zakharov’s story, but she did admit that she enjoyed the popularity it brought to her social media accounts.
Thanks to Clubhouse, Russians now know that Rozova does not watch television, gets her news from the Telegram app, believes in pandemic conspiracy theories, and approves of the Kremlin’s assassination of political dissidents. Before Zakharov even joined the discussion, one Clubhouse user asked Rozova what she thought of Putin’s comment about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, in which he said that had Russian special services wanted to kill Navalny, “they would have finished it.”
Rozova responded without hesitation: “The ‘Golden Billion’ society is behind this entire gimmick with the coronavirus. It turns out that they are killing people,” the teenager said. “If ordinary people can do it, why can’t the government, for reasonable purposes?”
Still, there is no safe place from ubiquitous Russian corruption. The government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta is warning citizens about purchasing invitations to Clubhouse discussions, urging them “not to give in to the excitement" and "not to pay for invitations from unknown people.”
Russian bureaucrats of all levels, from regional officials to the Kremlin administration, are also joining Clubhouse chats. That includes the former deputy prime minister and current president of International Chess Federation, Arkady Dvorkovich, who used the app on Monday to answer questions about Russia’s plans to host the Chess Olympiad, announcing that he hoped to “hold the chess Olympics in Moscow next year.”
The Kremlin’s political opponents are also exploring the possibilities that come with this new social medium. Valery Kostenok, a 21-year-old politician and member of the Yabloko party, downloaded Clubhouse to his phone on Wednesday. “I was skeptical at first, since there was a rumor that somebody records all the conversations and leaks them. But I realized, I don’t have any secrets from anyone and decided to download the app,” he told The Daily Beast. “The pandemic, police arrests, and persecutions made many of our favorite platforms and spaces unavailable. Russians are big fans of public lectures, debates, and discussions, so our youth is now storming Clubhouse rooms.”