When Russian Trolls Attack
Anna Zhavnerovich knew she was taking a risk when she publicized the details of her assault online. But in doing so, she joined a growing movement of survivors fighting back against Russia’s Kremlin-influenced trolling machine.
Anna Zhavnerovich woke with a start, her purple eye sockets and swollen lips throbbing. It had been two days since she woke up to her ex-boyfriend, Mikhail, pinning her down on the couch, his face twisted in rage. He slammed his fists into her eyes, cheeks, and chin. She went limp. She felt furious that she would die on her couch.
But Anna didn’t die. Instead, the then-28-year-old journalist peeled herself off of the couch, dripping blood as she hobbled to the bathroom. The next day, she phoned her editor, Katya. In the white-walled calmness of Katya’s apartment in Moscow’s Red Square, just a few blocks from the Kremlin, the two women made a calculated choice: They weren’t going to let Mikhail get away with it. To the two women, writing about the attack felt like a professional duty—a chance to save lives using the only tool at their disposal: the internet.
Going public was a risky move. In Russia, at the highest levels of government and society, violence against women is tolerated and even defended. According to Human Rights Watch, each year roughly 12,000 women there are killed, most often by husbands, lovers, and other men close the victims. Police in Russia are often slow to respond to calls for help from women, or don’t respond at all—which means that the internet is often the place of last resort. And women who talk about their abuse, on television or the web, are punished with a startling amount of online abuse.
For Anna, the risk felt worth it. Her words might lay the groundwork for other battered women to seek help; she hoped that picking apart the details of her own assault would help her heal. Anna started small: She chronicled her experiences in a diary, scrawling pages with details about every incident, every emotion, and the topography of every purple bruise. By the spring of 2015, just four months later, Anna had exhaustively chronicled her story. She compiled the brutal details of her attack in two dispatches for the hip Russian website W-O-S, where she normally wrote lifestyle articles. Alongside the stories, she posted photographs of her injuries, copies of legal papers, and advice on how to stay alive.
“I wake up from the sound of my own name,” she wrote. “My boyfriend sits on me and fixes my hands and feet so I cannot move, and starts to beat: he strikes my head and face. He screams that I have a conspiracy against him with my friends. After probably two dozen strikes, he stops and says: ‘Now this is your true face, Anechka.’”
Almost as soon as they posted the story, people began to read it. Anna’s words had the effect she’d hoped: Hundreds of women reached out to her, sharing their own stories of violence and survival. Then, like clockwork, the trolls surfaced. Thousands of them.
Bitch, they called her. A hysterical wretch.
You’re lying, they said. You provoked the man. Nothing bad happens to good girls.
The abuse went beyond harsh words. Anna’s harassers photoshopped her bloodied photographs into memes on Reddit, mocking her wounds. Hateful, threatening messages poured in on VKontakte (or VK, Russia’s leading social media site) and through W-O-S’ site itself. Readers replied to her story with a viral meme called “Smack the bitch up,” which had been around for years. Leading bloggers and journalists penned op-eds and articles about her attack; many of them blamed her for her assault, while others questioned the newsworthiness of her article, calling the topic “old.”
She’ll end up in a mental hospital soon, they wrote.
Anna’s story became one of the most widely read articles ever published by W-O-S. In publishing it, Anna joined the ranks of a small but growing club: the group women facing down a spree of online abuse intended to drive them off the internet. All because they talked about rape and violence against women in Russia—the country with the most organized trolling culture in the world.