Masha, a 29-year-old scientist from St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of thousands of Russians who has joined protests against the invasion of Ukraine on the streets of her city in recent weeks.
But as Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine has dragged on, and speaking unfavorably about its progress has become punishable by 15 years in prison and large fines, Masha has found it difficult to find ways to vent.
“I feel like I’m a victim in a basement with a maniac,” says Masha, whose name has been changed at her request. “The police — the USA or Europe — try to negotiate, but here, we have the victim being punished by the maniac — you understand who I’m talking about, right?”
The “maniac” is, of course, Putin, but Masha — who has considered running as a political candidate in her area to break up the one-party hegemony — tries not to use his name. On social media, she has referred to him instead as “old man,” “old dude,” or “crazy man.”
In the last few weeks, Russia has waged a single-minded campaign to shut down Western social media. Russian authorities have blocked Instagram and Facebook, and the nation’s “fake news” law prompted TikTok to suspend services to Russia. Twitter has been throttled by Roskomnadzor, the Russian media watchdog. (Telegram, for its part, has said it would not cede to any Russian government requests to hand over user data.)
So Masha has turned to an app many people in the West may be excused for having forgotten existed: Clubhouse. During the pandemic, Clubhouse was heralded as the next big thing in social media, but it didn’t take long for it to fall out of vogue with the tech press. Still, it has maintained a dedicated user base of 10 million worldwide. Around 700,000 rooms are created every single day, according to app representatives, and many of them focus on big topics happening in the world, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Any time there is a wall, information finds little places to seep through.”
Plenty of ordinary Russians are using Clubhouse to discuss and debate what’s going on in their country. Some of them are talking in a room on the situation in Ukraine that has been running for more than two weeks non-stop; others are chatting in Russian-language rooms devoted to the conflict.
Masha joined Clubhouse last year as a way to discuss science with like-minded peers, connecting with colleagues at major U.S. institutions like Harvard and Yale. “I met amazing people from around the world, reading news and getting educated,” she says. She learned about the Soviet Union’s history of repressive behavior toward its people — an approach critics say Putin is trying to replicate.
“I don’t want to get problems,” she says, worrying about the ramifications of falling foul of the fake news law. “But I also don’t want to be silent. That’s what I do on Clubhouse: I just express my opinion.” (Masha was wary of going into further details, for fear of reprisals from the Russian state.)
So far, Clubhouse doesn’t appear to be on the radar of Russia’s social media censors. “Any time there is a wall, information finds little places to seep through,” says Nina Gregory, head of news and media partnerships at Clubhouse.
The use of the app has astounded Ilya Yablokov, an academic at the University of Sheffield, U.K., who studies censorship in post-Soviet countries. “I had totally forgotten about [Clubhouse],” he says. “It provides such a great example that social media could have positive effects and help horizontal connections in societies.”
Russians played a key role in the Clubhouse community well before the invasion of Ukraine, says social audio analyst Morgan Evetts. And now that the conflict is underway, anti-war Russians have found sympathetic ears all over the world. “This gives people the courage to speak with an emotional clarity that can be very powerful,” Evetts says.
Masha says she’s using Clubhouse in part to show that ordinary Russians like her aren’t the villains — their president is. “For me, a nation shouldn’t be discriminated against,” she says. “I consider myself a citizen of the world, not just Russian.”
Being able to talk about the situation, and to interact with others as equals, rather than as foes, has been a salve for her as she sees her country led into a dark place. “I try talking to my American friends a lot, and try to calm down,” she says. “It helps me to listen and to talk, and to discuss it all. I just want to know what’s happening outside.”
Ararat Gulyan, who lives in the Tver region of Russia, is also on Clubhouse. The 32-year-old is the head of an international sports organization based in Russia and runs his own flower business. He’s also avowedly anti-Putin, having run as a candidate for local government against the governing party in successive elections since 2019.
“The powers that be will crack down on all channels of communication sooner or later.”
“This is a great way to chat on various topics and listen to the opinions of popular people on certain issues,” Gulyan tells Input. “Now this is especially important, because Clubhouse gives Russians the opportunity to hear the opinion of the residents of Ukraine, and not blindly trust federal TV channels. It's just a pity that few Russians have critical thinking.”
Gulyan uses the app to discuss issues around the Ukraine invasion, including Russia’s motives, but he doesn’t want to discuss specifics with a reporter. Getting into more details could provide evidence that might endanger people, should Russian authorities choose to pursue those using the app.
While Masha says she has been confronted with Russophobia on Clubhouse, she’s largely been grateful for the ability to interact with others. “For me, it’s mental health,” she says. “I listen to what people say outside Russia and see different perspectives.”
But it might not last long. “The powers that be will crack down on all channels of communication sooner or later,” says Yablokov. “I'd argue that these free expressions of ideas will soon be stopped because of snitches and self-censorship. The Kremlin will clearly try to silence all voices.”
Masha is conscious that speaking to a Western reporter about Clubhouse could make the app a target of her government. Her access to the outside world could be cut off at any moment. But like most Russians used to years of censorship and careful conversations, she has a plan. She eventually wants to leave Russia and study abroad, and has two iOS Notes full of invitations from people she’s met on Clubhouse.
And she doesn’t plan on letting go of those connections easily. “If they try to take down Clubhouse because of my interview, I’d probably use a VPN, so whatever,” she says. “I’d find a way.”