Being a Ukrainian Social Media Influencer Anna Chukur After starting to build her career as a fitness guru a few years ago, she made a few choices to maximize her appeal – focusing on women, filming in inspiring locations like Bali, and most importantly , she speaks Russian.
That was then.
After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, she decided that her first priority as an influencer should be trying to influence perceptions of the war, calling on her Russian followers to protest their country’s actions.
The upshot: A barrage of insults from the Russians insisting Ukraine was at fault.
Then she decided to ignore her own business model. Knowing she would lose followers not only in Russia but also in the countries that once made up the Soviet Union and where many still speak Russian, she switched to teaching in Ukrainian.
“I feel from the bottom of my heart,” she said, “that this is the right thing to do to show that I support my people, Ukraine.”
Moscow’s invasion last year caused a cultural upheaval in Ukrainian society that paralleled the fighting. Monuments to Russian heroes were removed or defaced, and Russian writers, painters and composers who for decades had been deified by the Soviet education system were suddenly vilified in a process known as “de-Russification.”
At the heart of this shift is language, with an increasing number of Ukrainians — most of them bilingual — switching to Ukrainian. The transition started years ago, with independence, but has accelerated in the last year.
AIR senior director Vira Slyvinska said that, like Ms. Tsukur, thousands of influencer-created content, from children’s games to beauty tips, from science to comedy, followed the full-blown invasion. Russians switched to Ukrainian, in many cases overnight, with Media-Tech, an international company founded by Ukrainians that supports online content creators.
Some also shifted focus sharply, abandoning their original subject matter in favor of videos supporting the country’s war effort.
But by far the bigger change has been a shift in language.
During Soviet times, Russian was the language of Ukrainian higher education and professionals, as well as the language of the urban elite. Ukrainians dominate many rural areas, but with power and wealth concentrated in the cities, the appeal of Russians is obvious.
Even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, Russian was still widely spoken.
“It’s like the post-colonial situation where Russian is seen as a sign of quality,” said Vladimir Kurek, a senior research fellow at the Kuras Institute of Politics and Ethnicity in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and an expert on language politics. is a complex language with literary and educational significance, but Ukrainian is considered less modern and less suitable for contemporary purposes.”
A prominent example of language shift is that of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Before he became president in 2019, he spent his career as a TV comedian, broadcasting mainly in Russian. But he ran for president in Ukrainian.
War itself has language problems. When Moscow occupied Ukrainian territory, it forced teachers to use Russian as the main language in classrooms. Some of those who joined have been accused of collaborating with Ukrainian authorities, which have retaken much of the territory in recent months.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has made the need to protect Russian-speaking people part of his bogus justification for the war.
With prestige so valuable to social media influencers, it made sense to use language that many see as a cultural touchstone before the war. Russian also immediately expanded its audience, given how many people in the former Soviet republics knew it.
Therefore, switching languages has a significant impact on the size of an influencer’s audience. This is important because for many of the most popular stars, ratings are key to brand deals, and in YouTube’s case, influencers can be paid based on their ratings.
An analysis by AIR Media-Tech of 20 prominent Ukrainian YouTube accounts shows that those who switch languages will experience an average 24% drop in overall earnings in 2022 compared to the same period last year.
Total language-switching pageviews also fell 24% from March last year to March this year, the company said, largely because of a decline in Russian and other former Soviet republics.
Ms. Tsukur, a fitness influencer, said she has lost more than half of her business since the full-scale invasion began, not only because she switched languages, but also because some Ukrainian women could not afford her online classes or were too distracted by the war to Focus on exercising.
She currently has 149,000 fans on Facebook, over 84,000 followers on Instagram and over 58,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Still, the war has given many social media personalities new targets — and, in some cases, wider audiences.
Before the invasion, Pavlo Vyshebaba was an environmental activist whose YouTube videos sometimes received as little as 300 views, according to Ms. Slyvinska.
He has since joined the army and started making videos about his experiences at the front. He now has 94,000 subscribers on YouTube and 131,000 Instagram followers.
Oleksandr Pedan, 41, has had a different evolution. Before starting his social media career, he was one of Ukraine’s top TV stars and a household name. Before the conflict, he said, a typical YouTube episode involved him being the host of a party game such as Mafia playing with other influential influencers.
When the war started, he switched to Ukrainian and started producing content focused on volunteer work in the country. He also visited and made videos with soldiers on the front lines, and created a video to help students displaced by the conflict find new universities. One of his most successful videos, he said, compares life before and after the southeastern city of Mariupol was destroyed by a Russian siege last spring.
Mr Pedan said his viewership and revenue dropped when the full-scale invasion began. But he believes he must respond to the seriousness of the situation in the country. He currently has 647,000 followers on Instagram.
For Ukrainian comedian Oleksii Durniev, also a household name, the war brought a particularly cruel irony. He grew up in Mariupol, speaks Russian, and has a deep admiration for Russian pop culture and hip-hop music. So when he started making hilarious, irreverent YouTube videos, it was only natural that his language of choice was Russian.
“At the time we thought Ukraine needed to be closer to Russia,” he said. “Everyone in our district thinks so.”
In one video, he sits in a Kiev kitchen with Russian comedian Eldar Dzharakhov as they laugh at Instagram stories made by other social media stars. Mr Durnev, 36, has blocked the Russian cartoon on social media since the start of the war. He said he had seen a YouTube video of Mr Dzharakhov performing with Mr Putin at a patriotic rally in Moscow earlier this year.
Today, Mr. Durniev speaks only Ukrainian in his videos — he has 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube and nearly a million followers on Instagram. A typical still featuring comedy, but with a war-tinged theme. In it, he compared the rations consumed by Ukrainian soldiers with the ration packs of the Russian army.
His conclusion? The rations in Moscow were so poor that Russian soldiers could have died on food alone.
Like other social media personalities, he said the shift in language and content over the past 14 months was unpleasant but ultimately necessary.
“Ukrainians need a trigger point for us to think about who we are and our culture, mission and language,” he said. “But it’s a pity that we paid such a high price for it.”
Yuri Shivara Contribution report.