The rise of the Z stars indoctrinating a new generation of Russians
She doesn’t have the flowing locks, soaring voice, or radiant smile of Vera Lynn. But for Russian “turbo-patriots” who cheer Putin’s war with Ukraine, there’s a modern forces’ sweetheart every bit as inspiring: Yulia Chicherina.
Her dark, short-cropped curls often encased in a black balaclava, her guitar strung over military fatigues, she performs her self-penned songs to troops in draughty halls in occupied Ukrainian towns and forest clearings behind the trenches.
At a recent impromptu concert in an icy glade, shared across Russia on video, exhausted, burly soldiers clambered onto armoured vehicles, applauding as she sang “This is our land and we’re here to stay” and rushed up afterwards to get her autograph.
Chicherina, 44, is one of the biggest stars of Z-culture, named after the letter that denotes support for the invasion. Most Russian cultural figures have either condemned the war – with many fleeing abroad – or keep quiet about it. And many of the 100,000-strong flag-waving audience at a glitzy invasion anniversary concert addressed by Putin last month appeared to have been ordered to attend by their employers.
But across Russia, there are Z-singers, Z-poets and Z-writers whose output finds an enthusiastic audience, at live events and on social media, among citizens convinced by Kremlin propaganda that it’s their country – not Ukraine – that’s fighting a war for its very survival. They add emotional weight to the strident anti-Western political message conveyed relentlessly by TV news shows, and now also by compulsory “patriotism” classes in schools.
Сhicherina enjoyed success as an indie-rock artist in the early 2000s, but then dropped out of public sight. She resurfaced in 2014, soon after Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and became a zealous propagandist for the pro-Russian breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
An intense, angular woman who seems to enjoy bantering and sharing rations with the troops, her ideological commitment is unbending. “This is a war of orthodoxy against the antichrist,” she says.
That apocalyptic theme is repeated again and again by Z-artists.
“Frankly speaking, nowadays, so-called Western values are Satanism,” Ivan Kondakov, who describes himself as a “poet, singer and comedy maker”, tells me on the phone from Moscow.
Kondakov, 39, with a sandy beard and mischievous twinkle in his eyes, is a successful aviation engineer, who’s worked on Sukhoi jets.
He speaks fluent English, and describes London as one of his favourite cities. But his Telegram posts – with more than 47,000 mainly young followers – depict a West beset by decline and depravity.
“I don’t understand how people can like to be tolerant,” he says, and recites a poem he’s written mocking gay and transgender people.. “In English, there are a lot of words meaning genders.. Everyone needs their own toilets.. There is a simple word in Russia: f----ts.”
Ivan grew up in the northern city of Arkhangelsk amid the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We lost the Cold War,” he says. “It was a feeling of shame, of absence of the future.”
As with Chicherina, it was Putin’s annexation of Crimea that ignited his interest in politics. And later, during the Covid lockdown, he took up his guitar and started composing.
“I know the Russian mentality. I know what people are worrying about. And I try to make them smile a little,” he says.
The targets of his humour include all opponents of the war, whom he brands as traitors – guilty, as he sings, of “pacifistution”. On his widely followed social media channels, he promotes all things Russian – including men’s underwear from the Velikoross (“Great Russian”) brand, a favourite of nationalists, whose slogan is “Be Russian from head to toe.” And on Ukraine, he strikes a note of crude, triumphalist militarism. “We’re on our own land,” he sings. “Get out the whip!”
Ivan denies he’s sponsored by the state. His often slickly-produced videos are crowd-funded, he says. But he gets interviewed by state media and to his delight, is now sometimes recognised by strangers in the street.
Meanwhile, professional singers who back the war, such as Oleg Gazmanov, 71, earn good money from Kremlin-organised tours. He headlined at Putin’s anniversary concert – along with 31-year-old pop idol “Shaman” (real name Yaroslav Dronov), who recently had his trademark blonde dreadlocks shorn off, on video, as he knelt before a white-bearded monk. His soulful “We’ll Rise Up”, viewed tens of millions of times, has become the unofficial anthem of the war.
It’s impossible to know how many Russians back the invasion. The independent Levada Centre polling organisation put support last month at 75 per cent. But research by social anthropologist Sasha Arkhipova suggests most Russians accept the war, rather than approving of it. Many “choose to believe” the Kremlin’s narrative, she says, because alternative online information is too painful to bear, in a situation where they dare not protest.
Russia’s most celebrated war correspondent
Many turn to military bloggers and reporters such as Alexander Kots, Russia’s most celebrated war correspondent, who’s often on the front line in Ukraine. “We’ve become leaders of public opinion for certain social groups,” he tells me. “People may not trust official statements on TV, but they’ll certainly read war correspondents on Telegram.” He has nearly 670,000 Telegram followers, 1.5 million readers in the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, and is regularly interviewed on state radio and TV.
Bearded, shaven-headed Kots, 44, clearly feels at home among soldiers. He’s thoughtful and down-to-earth, avoiding the rhetoric of many nationalists. But he says openly that his aim is to raise morale. Despite reports of mutinies on the battlefield – and many young men evading the call-up – Kots paints a picture of patriotism and camaraderie at the front. One artillery unit, he says, “told me it’s an indescribable feeling when they hit the target, an explosion of emotion. And their commander said their eyes light up at that moment, they’re happy as children.”
Kots doesn’t explore what Ukrainians feel. It’s them, he claims, not Russians, who are committing atrocities. And the Z-star Yulia Chicherina has some simple advice for the people she calls “Ukrops” (a contemptuous term for Ukrainians). “Surrender!” she says in one video. “We will cut out your sins in our gulags. Then you can return clean into our Russian world.”
Watching the hatred contort her face, you realise, of course, she’s no Vera Lynn. And if Russia prevails in this war, there’ll be no bluebirds over the cliffs at the mouth of the Dnieper river.
Tim Whewell is a BBC reporter. His documentary with Nick Sturdee on Russian support for the war, Analysis: From Brother to Other, is available on BBC Sounds