Yekaterina Mizulina is best known to Russians for two reasons that initially seem at odds with each: her self-appointed role as the country’s chief internet censor and her own prominent presence on social media.
Her sudden rise to fame in the past two years may be down to the public profile she enjoys as the head of The Safe Internet League, a body funded by a controversial ultranationalist billionaire and that was theoretically set up to protect children online, but which in reality has become instrumental in directing Russia’s censorship apparatus.
Mizulina’s modus operandi involves her reporting any online content she finds objectionable to the police and then sharing it with her followers on social media. That may sound innocuous enough, but as a video that appeared last November of Moldovan TikToker Nekoglai covered in bruises and having had his head shaved suggests, Mizulina is the public face in an thuggish enforcement chain that ultimately uses violence to ensure submission.
After seeing a clip in which the 22-year-old Moscow-based blogger parodied a viral video of a Russian soldier in a trench in Ukraine casually tossing away grenades being dropped on him by a drone, Mizulina labelled Nekoglai “TikToker scum” who didn’t understand the hardships faced by Russian soldiers.
Nekoglai later said that following Mizulina’s denouncement he had been detained by police who beat him and then tried to rape him with a Coca-Cola bottle. Nekoglai was fined and deported to Moldova for his offence, after which a criminal case for defamation was opened against him by the Russian authorities for publicly blaming his ordeal on Mizulina.
For somebody whose work has such a dark side, the 39-year-old Mizulina presents a surprisingly gentle demeanour, coming across as both wholesome and lighthearted in her copious social media content, in which she often shares glimpses into her everyday life, shoots the breeze, and wishes her followers productive workdays and fun weekends.
Yekaterina Mizulina at a Russian digital sovereignty conference in May 2022. Photo: Irina Buzhor / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press
For a decade before entering the national consciousness, Mizulina worked as a manager at the Pravovaya Stolitsa foundation, an organisation that describes itself rather elusively on its website as a fund set up to support “social and legal initiatives”.
It was while working there that she became involved with the St. Basil the Great Foundation, a Christian charity founded by ultraconservative “Christian billionaire” Konstantin Malofeev, who has had a consistent presence in Mizulina’s life since then.
Malofeev, who has been under Western sanctions since 2014 for his funding of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, made his money as an investment banker and has gone on to use his wealth to fund multiple Christian initiatives.
Known for his support of the Russian World, the belief that the presence of ethnic Russians defines Russia’s borders and that Russia should have a singular role in the world complete with its own sphere of influence, Malofeev owns the ultranationalist Russian TV channel Tsargrad, which is notorious for spreading conspiracy theories.
It was Malofeev who set up what was to become Mizulina’s vehicle for national prominence, the Safe Internet League, for which she began working in 2017. While the league boasts that its work is supported by multiple government ministries, it is funded by the St. Basil the Great Foundation, and the league’s back channels to the Russian authorities are down to Malofeev’s connections.
“Of course, not all of the league’s requests are automatically acted upon by law enforcement officials,” Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer from Russian digital rights NGO Roskomsvoboda, told independent outlet Current Time.
“However, if the goals of both parties align in an individual case, administrative and criminal charges can follow … They have connections with the FSB, and they can influence various cases.”
Yekaterina Mizulina during a Safe Internet League conference. Photo: Igor Ivanko / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press
Despite multiple claims on her time, the indefatigable Mizulina also finds time to work for another Malofeev project, the National Centre for Missing and Abused Children.
This otherwise obscure organisation made headlines in 2018 when it was denounced as a fraud by its own press secretary, who went public after she realised the centre was in no way engaged in searching for missing teens.
The whistleblower’s claim was corroborated by a representative of the Moscow police, who confirmed that not only had no attempt to collaborate with law enforcement been made by the organisation, but that the police had never even heard the organisation’s name before.
Like mother like daughter
Whereas Mizulina appears to have held deeply conservative views since her youth, her mother Yelena Mizulina initially entered politics with a far more liberal set of ideals in the 1990s.
As a member of Russia’s State Duma in 2012, Yelena Mizulina was responsible for the introduction of legislation regulating the internet and protecting children from inappropriate content. The result was the creation of a blacklist of blocked websites, something Russian Darbinyan refers to as “opening Russian censorship’s Pandora’s box.”
“Even then, it was clear that this law, though introduced in the guise of ‘protecting children’, would open up a vast array of possibilities for extrajudicial blockades. And, indeed, what we are witnessing now is precisely that,” Sarkis Darbinyan told Current Time.
Yelena Mizulina. Photo: Russian Federation Council
Yelena Mizulina played a prominent role in the writing of Russia’s notorious 2013 “gay propaganda” law, which criminalised the display of LGBT-related content to minors. Ten years later Mizulina’s legislation formed the basis for the Russian Supreme Court’s decision to brand the international LGBT movement “extremist”, effectively making it illegal.
Russia’s hurriedly introduced 2013 law criminalising “offending the feelings of believers”, following Pussy Riot’s performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, was also Yelena Mizulina’s handiwork, as was a 2017 law that decriminalised “moderate” domestic violence resulting in bruises rather than broken bones, and which capped punishment for wife beaters at 15 days in jail.
Protector of the youth
Rather unexpectedly, Mizulina’s “protector of the children” image combined with her significant online influence has led to her becoming something of an idol for Gen-Z youth with Z-patriot leanings.
The Safe Internet League may be a blunt weapon wielded indirectly by the authorities to keep public figures in line, but such is Mizulina’s influence, some of her targets have in turn begun to use her to legitimise their redemption in the eyes of the Russian public.
When Safe Internet League staff decided they had detected drug references in the music of Russian hip hop artist Scally Milano earlier this year, Mizulina announced on social media that she had issued a complaint to the police, who obliged her by forcing the cancellation of Milano’s upcoming concerts shortly afterwards.
Instead of doubling down the rapper responded by issuing a public apology and promising to take “another direction” in his music. Mizulina later posted a photo of her and Milano together taken in her office, since when visiting Mizulina to announce an end to “questionable” content has become something of a rite of passage for Russian artists targeted by the league who are hoping to avoid mainstream cancellation.
Hip-hop artist Scally Milano with Yekaterina Mizulina at her office. Photo: Telegram
While Mizulina’s harassment of Russian celebrities could have damaged her reputation with teenagers, it appears to have only enhanced it, with her popularity soaring amid a series of school visits and speaking engagements at which she talks with children about their problems.
Children increasingly turn to Mizulina with concerns about their school life, bullying, or mental health issues. For her part, Mizulina amplifies these frequently ignored problems and provides a platform for these voices to be heard.
On her Telegram channel she regularly posts videos, photos, and fanart sent to her by young people from all over Russia. “For me, an idol is someone I respect. There are only two such people for me … The first one is, of course, my mum,” says a dark-haired schoolboy in a now-deleted fan video Mizulina posted on social media.
“My mom will always support and give advice. And the same can be said of Yekaterina Mizulina. She is the second person I most respect. She is, so to speak, my second mum.”
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