Prankster Lexus: ''We will call Putin as soon as the president’s term runs out''
Interview with the main Russian prankster about pranks played on first persons, links with FSB and the role of phone prank calls in the information war
Prankster Aleksey Stolyarov, who is widely known as Lexus, has recently played member of the European Parliament Rebecca Harms a joke: disguised as a worker of the Ukrainian president's administration, he convinced the European deputy Poroshenko wasn't against legalising homosexual marriages in his country. So the long list of politicians and famous people pranked by Lexus (such as President of Turkey Recep Erdoğan, US Senator John McCain, Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg and even British singer Elton John) has got another 'victim'. Realnoe Vremya talked to Aleksey Stolyarov and asked him where the Turkey president's phone number could be found, whether Russian special services helped him and how prank became a new weapon in the information war.
''Prank can be used as an element of information war or propaganda''
Aleksey, your recent prank with gay marriages and Rebecca Harms caused quite a great outcry and provoked a pile of publications in both the Ukrainian and Russia media. How did you get the idea to play the European Parliament member a joke?
The idea itself appeared quite a long time ago. We were just thinking about how to use it: either to stage a hoax that the president of Ukraine would chair this parade himself or provoke the rumours he would visit this procession. But it was like it was.
You started to prank in the noughties. However, in 2012, you sharply changed the course and switched to politics. What dictated such a decision?
In general, politics was present previously too. But, indeed, certain changes took place in 2012. The case is that a person grows up, and as time goes by, he becomes interested in what surrounds him than some simple jokes. When a person becomes older, he becomes interested in what a country he lives in, what events take place there and so on. For this reason, we've completely focused on politics now.
You pay quite a lot of attention to Ukraine. Why does it interest you so much?
Now less, of course. Once we paid enough attention to it. It's interesting for Russians: everything that happens in this country affects us from a geopolitical perspective anyway.
Did the conflict between Russia and Ukraine serve as a catalyst?
Yes, if it hadn't happened, this topic wouldn't have interested us so much.
The idea itself appeared quite a long time ago. We were just thinking how to use it: either to stage a hoax that the president of Ukraine would chair this parade himself or provoke the rumours he would visit this procession
There is a feeling that prank is reaching a new level: roughly speaking, if previously there were just jokes like ''Hello, is this ATS?'', now pranksters have switched to international politics. Can we say a prank in 2018 is a weapon in the information war?
Both a prank in 2014 and 2012 could be called a weapon. Many people want to benefit from these methods. But I would note there are different genres here. For instance, in Russia, it's not a simple prank but prank journalism. But, in general, prank can be used as an element of information war or propaganda – nobody keeps this in secret. However, we are the chief editors who determine the policy of our records. This is why all we do is done only because it's our will.
Could you give a couple of examples of using pranks in propaganda or information war?
We can remember pranks staged on behalf of the president of Russia when he allegedly replied phone calls – this story was used as a publicity stunt to support him. We can remember a Ukrainian example when a tragedy in Kemerovo happened. While the prankster favoured rapid multiplication of rumours about the number of victims. There is plenty of different cases.
If we are talking about prank as an international occurrence, there have been many records with the same presidents of France or Venezuela or even with Queen of the United Kingdom. Moreover, it's not a new occurrence at all: there was a team of pranksters in the USA in the 90s that sold almost millions of its records on CD. Even a feature film was shot about them. Undoubtedly, we can't help but privatise this occurrence. However, we can say it's in Russia where prank gained popularity as a political fight.
''We haven't received any federal contracts or financing from the Kremlin''
After pranking Harms, you're called homophobe in the Ukrainian press, moreover, ''under the supervision of FSB'. It's not the first time when you are accused of working for Russian special services or the Kremlin. How can you comment on such accusations?
It's useless to comment, as all these accusations have no foundation or intelligible argumentation. I, in turn, can accuse other bloggers who attribute us links to FSB of this. For instance, blogger Kamikadze, he is much closer to Russian authorities, as he made different videos and commercials. Many current oppositionists have collaborated with the Kremlin anyway. Judging by the contracted videos or articles they published, these oppositionists can be called Kremlin. We can't be called Kremlin, as we haven't received any federal contracts or financing from the Kremlin. Moreover, we've never criticised oppositionists. As for attribution of supervision to FSB, I can call a half of the current YouTubers belongs to the US State Department in the same way, but I don't. It was funny in the past, but now it doesn't amuse.
''Blogger Kamikadze is much closer to Russian authorities, as he made different videos and commercials.'' Photo: vladtime.ru
Have you ever staged pranks on our politicians? Those who often accuse you of having links with the Kremlin or FSB provide arguments that you allegedly choose politicians from of other countries only as victims.
There are such records, they can be found on the Internet. We've talked with both Vitaly Milonov and chief ideologist of United Russia Isayev, we had both ministers and governors. But this all was recorded as early as 2012. I can say even the authorities existing in our country now treat us quite carefully because they are afraid of becoming the next victim anyway. Not the joke itself but a reaction to it is the most important thing.
As for argumentation, it seems people are bad at the topic. If they weren't lazy, they would find records with same Mutko and other politicians on the Internet. But I will repeat it was a long time ago. When we called all our key politicians, we understood we needed to reach another level, and now we are interested in geopolitics.
''Personally for me, many things Volnov does are unacceptable''
Your colleague Vovan and you offered to adopt a law on fakes on the Internet. Isn't it too cruel to punish people who simply record their opinion on camera, in fact?
I'd say we're talking about the responsibility for fake information's source, not those people who transmit it. When this bill was discussed, we met with the head of the committee supervising this document and made our offers. As you know, there is a bill created by deputies Boyarsky and Alshevskys. I personally wrote Alshevskys, and I disagree with this law because I don't like the way it was presented in. It is about the regulation of the Internet by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, about the return to registries where bloggers need to register and so on.
And we offered to introduce responsibility in case of deliberate fake that entailed a crime. If somebody spread a fake, and a person was killed or something similar happened due to this, the fake's author must assume the responsibility like a killer. Our Criminal Code already has such an article as 'Incitement', it can be complemented with a separate clause. There is an administrative article. For instance, if a person spread a fake due to which a demonstration took place, the fake's author is also administratively punished like the people who were arrested in this demonstration. This is the sense of our offer. We already have the necessary norms, we just need to adjust them to the Internet. And we didn't offer the regulation of the Internet Boyarsky and Alshevskys talk about.
How is the bill doing now?
Now everything is publicly discussed again. If I'm not mistaken, this bill is already one year old. I think if it is adopted, it will only after deputies' holiday – not in the short run.
''As strange as it sounds, if not we, Volnov wouldn't exist. If we didn't develop this branch of 'hooliganism', its followers wouldn't appear.'' Photo: ntv.ru
A prank of Ukrainian blogger Evgeny Volnov whom you already mentioned above was the reason to start the discussion of this bill. It was he who decided to use the tragedy in Kemerovo. Do you know him personally? What can you say about him?
Such an occurrence as a prank was quite known in the 2000s when the site Prank.ru (that I had created), which was a kind of social network for pranksters, existed. Same Babka ATS comes from there.
This character [Volnov] registered on this site in 2008 when the culture had already formed. He learnt the main negative elements in this culture – trolling relatives and so on. While a prank is much wider. Volnov's popularity rose because he covered the most sinister topics. He became famous among people like him thanks to it.
In general, we don't have any code to criticise his actions. But everybody has moral limits, including him. Personally, many things he does are unacceptable.
Looking at you and Volnov, there is an impression you represent two completely different 'movements' in prank…
As strange as it sounds, if not we, Volnov wouldn't exist. If we hadn't developed this branch of 'hooliganism', its followers wouldn't have appeared. But, in my opinion, in this period – from 16 to 30 years – a person must have some evolution. In case of Volnov, this evolution didn't take place. He remained at the same 16 years when nothing creative comes to one's mind. While we managed to transform our previous activity into something global.
And Volnov's audience also raises questions.
Absolutely. It's different from our audience. Our audience, as a rule, consists of people who are interested in politics and all happening around them.
''We find a person whom it would be interested for us to call first…''
Aleksey, could you tell how a prank is prepared? Where do you find contacts, how do you prepare for a joke? Or how to make a victim trust you?
Speaking about our case, we find a person whom it would be interested for us to call first. Then we think whom we could approach him through: we think of details, look whether this person communicated with the people we talk with. We also think who could quite logically call this person: for instance, if it is the president of Ukraine, it's clear he would talk with the president of Georgia with pleasure.
''All people use phones, phone line, moreover, not the government. We are reproached that we allegedly use government line. But it's laymen's rubbish who don't know how it happens in fact.'' Photo: aa.com.tr
Then we simply look for a phone number on the Internet – everything was digitalised a long time ago, all contacts of administrations are on the Internet. Later we call the administration, find a necessary person. And if we talk with the person, we aren't nervous, as a rule. And we organise a talk with the official person through the person we need, in fact. A standard scheme looks this way.
Speaking specifically about the episode with Erdoğan, did you use the same scheme?
Yes, the same scheme. We reached out to his administration, including through the embassy of Ukraine.
Does it mean that any person can reach out to even Trump if there is a will and enough IQ?
Completely correct. All people use phones, phone line, moreover, not the government. We are reproached that we allegedly use the government line. But it's laymen's rubbish who don't know how it happens in fact.
''We published a record with the governor of Kansas, and it is funnier than usually''
Last year, you called US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker. His reaction to the joke was quite positive, he praised your sense of humour…
By the way, he said not only about the sense of humour – he was amazed we knew the subject.
Yes, he said the questions you asked were worth admiring. But back to the sense of humour, I want to ask, do you often tell jokes in talks with officials?
Quite rarely now. We did more before. Some of our records are humorous, some of them are informative. By the way, we published a record with the governor of Kansas, and it is funnier than usual.
Which of the first persons had a good sense of humour when talking with you?
I find it difficult to assess because we managed to talk to many politicians. But, undoubtedly, we should appreciate those who treat our calls with humour. Talking about Russian politicians, we can remember Milonov: we joked about him a lot, but then he met with us and talked calmly.
Aleksey, can you name the prank you're especially proud of?
I can say about the most difficult one: it's Igor Kolomoysky, of course. It was the longest one. In addition, it wasn't a prank phone call but a video prank. When a person sees you – even on the Internet – and talks for a long time, this work is more complicated.
''I can say about the most difficult one: it's Igor Kolomoysky, of course. It was the longest one. In addition, it wasn't a prank phone call but a video prank.'' Photo: ipnews.in.ua
Whom would like to joke about? Who is the victim of your dreams?
As a rule, these people aren't alive now. In general, I dreamt of talking with Gorbachyov, but this already happened.
Wouldn't you like to call Putin one day?
As soon as the president's term runs out and if there are questions for him, it's possible. Not yet. He knows we exist, and he commented on us several times. This is why it will be quite complicated to stage a prank.
How fast do you think he will crack you?
In my opinion, it's quite possible, though everything depends on the preparation. In general, I think what's the sense in calling if you understand you will be seen through? But I think he would certainly ask clarifying questions. Russians have such a mentality – when we feel something is wrong, we immediately ask clarifying questions.
Don't the foreign fellows whom you've pranked have such a feature?
No. Whatever can happen there, they are ready for everything. They are ready to listen, not clarify.