(Written by Andrew Higgins)
He can’t walk and can barely move his hands, but thanks to his sharp mind, a working finger and a red iPhone attached to his wheelchair, Alexander Gorbunov now ranks as one of the Kremlin’s most potent foes.
Mixing dark humor with sardonic analysis of Russia’s direction under President Vladimir Putin, Gorbunov, 27, has become a social media sensation, outpacing Kremlin propagandists in the race for attention on Twitter, Instagram and Telegram, a secure messaging service developed by Russians that Moscow tried in vain last year to shut down.
He has 1.1 million followers on Twitter — twice as many as Margarita Simonyan, the head of Kremlin-funded RT television. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner, has described him as the country’s “most important political commentator.” That, Navalny said, is a “funny and cool fact.”
Gorbunov has spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative genetic disease for which there is no cure, though some expensive and risky new gene therapy treatments offer some hope.
Born and raised in Dagestan, a southern Russian region blighted by corruption, violence and Islamic extremism, he operated for years in secrecy, hiding behind the online identity of “StalinGulag.”
He said his wife and parents, who did not know about his social media activities until a recent police raid on their home in Dagestan, worried about his security.
In an interview, he said that his online alter ego was “just a joke” and not, as many initially thought, a gesture of support for the Soviet dictator. Nor, he added, is it a sign that he believes Putin is taking Russia back toward Stalinism.
“Russia today is not Russia of the 1930s,” he said.
But it is a shocking mess nonetheless, he says, because Putin has focused on projecting Russian might and glory abroad in places like Syria while often neglecting the mundane trials that Russians face at home.
After a survey revealed that 65% of Russians have no savings whatsoever, Gorbunov on Thursday fired off a sarcastic tweet urging the Kremlin to “urgently send several billion to Syria or Venezuela so that the 35% of Russians who have some money are saved from this infection.”
He is reasonably well off himself, earning enough money as an online trader, mostly on foreign financial markets, to pay for full-time assistants, a driver and a comfortable apartment in Moscow. He first began supporting himself by selling vitamins and other dietary supplements online from his parents’ home in Dagestan.
He moved to Moscow in 2014, in part because it was impossible to move around in his wheelchair on the narrow, pitted sidewalks of his hometown, Makhachkala, the Dagestan capital on the Caspian Sea. Moscow is far easier, though he said he “nearly died” when he once tried to negotiate an escalator in the city’s subway system.
Having used a wheelchair his whole life, Gorbunov has a highly developed sense of the absurd and of the chasm between the surface glitz of parts of Russia, particularly Moscow, and daily reality for many.
He delights in skewering Putin’s cheerleaders and in denouncing the quotidian indignities of life in a resurgent superpower where, according to an April report by Russia’s state statistical agency, more than an eighth of the population lacks an indoor toilet and 12% of households have no access to hot water.
Though better than when Putin came to power nearly 20 years ago, it is hardly enough to justify a January boast on Facebook by the Foreign Ministry’s chief spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, that “Russia is an extremely rich country.” She was furious over the observation of Anatoly Chubais, a senior official in the 1990s, that Russia is “poor,” with “a significant part of the population living in poverty or in extreme poverty.”
“I am not someone who can just sit quietly when I see what is happening in this country,” Gorbunov said.
When the state news media gushed recently over Putin after he scored eight goals in an all-star hockey game, Gorbunov joked on Twitter that the president, who has a record of elevating bodyguards and other loyal dunderheads to senior positions, had nominated the goal posts as a regional governor.
In his social media posts as StalinGulag, Gorbunov rarely dwells on the problems faced by disabled Russians. But he did poke fun recently at an announcement by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service that it had acquired new, modern vans to transport women with children and prisoners with disabilities.
He posted a picture of the vehicle fitted with a wheelchair and a metal cage with the comment: “Caring for the handicapped looks like this in Russia.”
Gorbunov opened his Twitter account a decade ago under his real name but dived for cover as StalinGulag in 2013 after a harsh crackdown on protests in Moscow. When a Russian newspaper outed him as the author last year, he denied being StalinGulag.
He decided to admit his real identity after police officers turned up late last month at his parents’ house in Dagestan and at his older brother’s apartment in Moscow: They said he was suspected of terrorism.
The prospect terrified his mother, who is in her 80s and nursing his sick father, he said, because few people identified as terrorism suspects stay free or even alive for long in Russia, particularly in Dagestan, which borders Chechnya.
“I decided that the only way to save myself and my family was to show everything openly,” he said. “I am not a threat to anyone. I am not a political activist. I am just an ordinary guy who sees what millions of other ordinary people see in Russia every day.”
Like many Russians, particularly those critical of the Kremlin, he is dismayed that Putin is widely viewed in the United States as a masterful, all-conquering villain like something from a James Bond movie. The president and his supporters, Gorbunov said, “love this image of Dr. Evil, of a genius bad boy standing one against all. It makes the Kremlin very happy.”
In a post on Telegram, he gave his own, less-flattering portrait of how power in Russia works. The country’s leaders, he said, “behave like the live-in lovers of 45-year-old divorcées who found themselves alone and feared loneliness, and they, the presidents, cheekily came to us, casually removed their shoes, threw around their socks, fell on the throne, and, after belching, roared, ‘Love me as I am!’ And we loved or pretended to love, because we still had no one else.”
When 41 people died this month in a fiery crash-landing at a Moscow airport by a Russia-made passenger jet, he poured scorn on the plane, a Sukhoi Superjet. The authorities said they saw no reason to ground the planes, which were held up by the Kremlin at their introduction in 2008 as an emblem of Russia’s revival under Putin.
“This crappy plane breaks down like an old Zhiguli,” he wrote on Twitter, comparing the twin-engine jet to a notoriously uncomfortable and unreliable Soviet-era automobile. Around 50 flights using the plane have, according to Russian news reports, since been canceled for mostly unspecified reasons, most of them domestic. In one instance, passengers complained that they smelled smoke before takeoff.
What most riled him about the plane disaster was the coverage by state-controlled media outlets. Instead of asking whether the plane should be flying, Gorbunov said, they effectively blamed the death toll on passengers who had grabbed their bags before leaving the aircraft.
“According to them, the lousy Sukhoi Superjet plane, a record-holder for technical failures, is good, whereas passengers who survived incredible distress and suffered psychological traumas that will stay with them forever are bad,” Gorbunov wrote on Twitter. “Survivors cannot pay for ‘positive image,’ but state corporations can.”
Before he revealed his true identity, StalinGulag was variously accused by pro-Kremlin trolls of working for the CIA, Ukrainian intelligence and the State Department. After his identity and his physical condition became public, however, online critics — “I am not sure whether they are real people,” he said — have pointed to his disabilities as the reason for his critical and often dyspeptic view of Russia’s condition.
“They say I can’t see how great everything really is because my personal situation is not so good,” he said.
But thousands of others have sent him messages saying that “the reality of Russia I describe matches their own experience 100%,” he said. “From Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, people see the real state of our country.”
He denied being a dark cynic, saying that, on the contrary, his physical disabilities had made him an optimist. “In my condition,” he said, “you have to be optimistic.”