Too big to be anonymous? Russian journalists unmask a famous anti-Kremlin blogger, sparking ethical debate

At the time of writing, StalinGulag's blog on Telergram had 355 thousand subscribers. In a highly unusual move, Telegram's creator Pavel Durov even gave StalinGulag a verification badge — something that only a few select blogs on Telegram can boast to have // Photo by Runet Echo

StalinGulag is an immensely popular Russian political blogger. He has more than one million followers on Twitter, and 347,000 subscribers to his channel. This places him among the top five most followed bloggers on Telegram, an essential platform for politically active Russians.

His acerbic, profanity-laden critiques of Russia's political system and latest news generate thousands of likes and retweets. Here’s a typical one:

While Kim Jong Un is visiting Vladivostok, five days worth of classes were cancelled for 23 thousand students of the Far Eastern Federal University. Can you imagine Harvard closing down for a visit of a plump dictator? Because somewhere the people are citizens and in other places they are nothing but cattle.

Until recently, StalinGulag’s identity was a mystery. But in July 2018, RBC, a business news outlet known for its investigative exposes of the infamous St. Petersburg “troll factory,” used open source intelligence methods to trace StalinGulag's true identity to that of one 26-year-old Alexander Gorbunov, an online trader from Makhachkala, the capital of the North Caucasian republic of Dagestan.

When RBC’s investigation came out, StalinGulag dismissed the report as conjecture based on hearsay and attacked the journalists for “blaming an unsuspecting person for something they didn’t do.”

There were no further corroborations or follow-ups on RBC’s story, but theories about the real owners of StalinGulag and their motivations kept emerging.

Some wondered if there was a real person behind the account. Others suggested it was run by a group of individuals. A former Ukrainian special services officer even alleged that the StalinGulag blog was secretly controlled by the SBU — Ukraine’s primary intelligence agency and successor to the KGB.

Things took a dramatic turn in April 2019, when StalinGulag announced on his blog that police were searching the home of Alexander Gorbunov’s elderly parents, on the premise that his phone number was used to commit an act of “telephone terrorism.” The author of StalinGulag continued distancing himself from Alexander Gorbunov, while offering the latter support and even promoting a separate channel called “Sanya [short for Alexander] from Dagestan.”

Then, on April 30, the online investigative outlet Baza interviewed Gorbunov’s mother who confirmed that Alexander Gorbunov was indeed the same person who ran the StalinGulag blogs — thus finally corroborating RBC’s original report and confirming StalinGulag’s true identity.

It turned out that StalinGulag is indeed Alexander Gorbunov — now 27 and living in Moscow, but originally born in Makhachkala. Gorbunov is wheelchair-bound and suffering from a chronic, rapidly progressing condition known as Werdnig-Hoffman disease, the most severe type of spinal muscular atrophy.

When it became clear that any further denials would be pointless, Gorbunov himself finally came out in an exclusive interview with BBC Russian — coincidentally, the same outlet where the author of the original exposé of his identity, Andrey Zakharov, currently works as an investigative reporter.

Here’s how BBC Russian described the first public appearance of one of the most sought-after anonymous political bloggers in Russia:

For someone whose pithy tweets frequently contain expletives and slang, Gorbunov in real life comes across as articulate, educated and thoughtful.

He arrives at the BBC office smartly dressed in a black polo-neck and tweed jacket. He speaks softly and with the quiet confidence of someone who is used to being listened to.

In the interview, Gorbunov spoke of the difficulties of growing up as a disabled person in one of the least wheelchair-friendly places in Russia. He expressed his desire to provide the best care for himself and his forays in online business, from selling dietary supplements to dreams of setting up his own investment fund. These ambitions were crushed, he said, when StalinGulag’s real identity was revealed in 2018 and his prospective partners bailed out of the deal for fear of political repercussions.

One might wonder why he chose this particular name. His intention, he explained, was to troll Stalin fans who would flock to a familiar name and the avatar of Joseph Stalin smoking a pipe, expecting to read praises of the dictator but seeing instead something radically different.

An outpouring of sympathetic messages on Russian social media followed his BBC Russian interview. Even those who disliked StalinGulag’s crude, populist messaging lauded his strength of spirit and will to live despite his severe physical impairments.

Stalingulag is a great guy after all. If life poured so much shit on me, I’m not sure I’d have the strength to even breathe. And this dude is doing something, carrying on. huge respect to him, I’d say.

This man is a goddamn hero.

Many would badmouth stalingulag for the crap he’s been putting out there (and for good reason, his writing is sometimes atrociously bad), but it turned out today that he is an independent, strong person who makes his living on something quite unrelated [to his blog] and lives a full life. So it happens, yes.

The case also prompted fierce debates in the Russian media community about the justification for such unmasking anonymous bloggers in an atmosphere where any government critic could be targeted for persecution or harassment.

Roman Volobuyev, a former journalist and currently a film director, wrote on his Facebook page, addressing the editors of RBC, the outlet which ran the original expose of StalinGulag’s identity:

В чем ценность этих неполных анкетных данных фигуранта для общества? В чем та большая польза, которая перебивает приход ментов к маме, слежку и прочие радости, которые ему в итоге прилетели? Какое «информированное решение» общество не могло принять, не зная что человека зовут Саша? (Это даже если прекраснодушно предположить, что общество у нас способно на какие-то решения, а не просто жрет информацию и забывает о ней через день)

What is the societal value of publishing these incomplete biographical details? Where is the public good that outweighs the cops’ visit to his mom, the surveillance and other “bonuses” now heaped on him? What “informed decision” was society prevented from making while being unaware that the man’s name is Sasha? (Even if we naively assume that our society is capable of acting on the information instead of just passively consuming it and forgetting about it the next day.)

Valery Igumenov, who was editor at RBC when the original investigation of StalinGulag came out in 2018, responded to Volobuyev with a comment that left many scratching their heads:

нам было интересно, кто это пишет, зачем и почему. самый популярный политический телеграм-канал, 300 тыс человек в среднем читает пост, и никто не знает, кто это. вопрос, который люди задавали друг другу все время. почему надо об этом рассказать? автор каждый день транслирует в мозг другим людям безусловно идеологически заряженные послания – вокруг пиздец, все плохо, все еще хуже, жить невозможно, головы не поднять, ложись и помирай. при этом сам человек находит силы как-то жить, зарабатывать деньги, интересоваться чем-то еще, кроме этого пиздеца, но на других вываливает только отчаяние и желчь, без просвета, без вариантов, без выхода. я не считаю, что такой человек имеет право на анонимность, потому что он просто умножает беспомощность и депрессию, оставаясь где-то там в тени за кадром.

We were interested in who was writing this and why. The most popular Telegram channel, 300 thousand views per post, and no one knows who it is. This is a question people have been asking each other all the time. Why tell about it? Day in, day out the author is sending these, without doubt, ideologically charged messages, getting into people’s heads: everything is going to shit, it’s all bad and only going to get worse, life is impossible, can't even keep your head upright, just lie down and die. Meanwhile, the man himself is still somehow finding the will to live, to make money, to have other interests outside this neverending torrent of doom and gloom, but still is dumping on others nothing but despair and bile, without hope, without options, without an exit in sight. I don’t think a person like this deserves the right to anonymity, because all he’s doing is just multiplying the helplessness and despair while staying out of sight himself.

Valery Igumenov argued that there was public interest in knowing the person behind an immensely popular political blog, even though it did not in the end, contrary to the original assumption of the investigative reporter, turn out to be the work of a shadowy team of professionals waging an information war.

Since RBC is a business publication, those who agreed with Igumenov said, there was still merit in exploring the one-man media empire which brought its owner considerable profit in advertisement. StalinGulag also offered sponsored posts for upwards from 150 thousand rubles, or approximately 2,300 US dollars.

However, many of Igumenov's colleagues and members of the public were disgusted by the idea that a person should be denied anonymity if their writings are too “depressive.” Screenshots of Igumenov’s comments started circulating online, with many former and current media professionals condemning the lapse in judgement that, in their minds, led to exposing a vulnerable person to danger because an editor didn’t like his style.

Liusia Shteyn, an opposition politician and a local council member in Moscow, wrote:

Не люблю стиль недовольного постинга скринов комментариев, но не сдержалась! Это бывший главред РБК так обосновывает деанон Сталингулага прошлым летом. Не транслируйте в мир свою фрустрацию, а то справедливые журналисты решат, что вы не имеете права на анонимность, и к вашей маме придут с обысками

I don’t like the style of angry posting of screencapped comments, but here I couldn’t help myself! That’s how RBC’s former editor justifies Stalingulag’s deanon[ymization] last summer. Don’t transmit your frustration into the world, lest a fair-minded journalist decides that you don’t deserve to be anonymous, and cops will bust into your mama’s home!

But others thought that, Igumenov’s peculiar emotional arguments aside, there still was journalistic value in RBC’s investigation of Stalingulag’s identity.

Amid these debates, some government loyalists found silver linings in the story:

It’s ironic, after all, that an opposition blogger like StalinGulag demonstrated through personal example that Russia is a land of opportunity where a disabled person can make a good living with his own mind, dabble in politics and live a full life in the most expensive city in the country.

The debates about whether StalinGulag’s unmasking served any public interest are still ongoing, but it’s already clear that it’s a landmark case in history of Russian independent media.

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