They come from all over Russia: A fitness instructor from Vladivostok in the Far East; a barbershop owner from Chita near the Chinese border; young influencers from Angarsk and Ulan-Ude in Siberia; a health consultant in Moscow; a photographer from Dagestan in the North Caucasus; and a content expert from Krasnodar in the south.
They all spent years – in some cases, nearly a decade – pursuing their passion while building up a large following on the picture-sharing social network Instagram.
They learned the rules of the game or hired someone who did. They posted content on a regular basis at specific times of the day, with hashtags tailored to get the most views possible.
And in some cases they actively cooperated with other bloggers, promoting one another to accelerate subscriber growth and, hopefully, their earnings.
Suddenly, these Russian influencers, shop owners, photographers, and others who rely on Instagram for income are facing an uncertain future, after their government banned the popular social media platform as part of what experts say is a wider move to tighten censorship following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
They are far from the astounding carnage Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed in the neighboring country, where thousands of people have been killed and some 10 million -- about one-quarter of the population -- have been driven from their homes.
But they are among the growing number of Russians feeling the adverse effects of their government’s war on Ukraine, which has prompted unprecedented Western sanctions. The Kremlin has tightened the screws at home, stepping up a clampdown on dissent and seeking to banish independent voices.
“One day, and these nine years are gone. It turns out that my life -- my work -- has been blocked,” a popular Russian landscape photographer who goes by the hashtag @sveta_13 posted on her Instagram page on March 12. “Punished for what?”
Roskomnadzor, the country’s communications regulator, had announced a day earlier that it would ban Instagram starting March 14 after the social media platform’s parent company, U.S.-based Meta Platforms, said it would temporarily allow Ukrainians to express hate toward the invading Russian soldiers.
A Moscow court reiterated the block on March 21 after labeling Instagram “extremist” for the change in the hate policy and refusing to remove several thousand posts the government claimed either contained “fake” information about Russia’s attack on Ukraine or calls to join unsanctioned rallies.
Analysts say the Russian government seized on Meta’s temporary change in its hate policy as grounds for essentially outlawing Instagram, one of the most popular social media apps in the country that remained outside its control.
Just days earlier, Russia had blocked Facebook, another popular Meta subsidiary, and Twitter for allegedly discriminating against Russian state-owned news outlets.
The move came a little more than a week after Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Many Russians continue to use the platforms with the help of virtual private networks (VPNs), but service can be very slow.
The social media bans are part of a larger move by Putin to build what some have described as a "digital iron curtain" in order to maintain the state’s hold on the dissemination of information inside the country.
The government has sought to restrict accurate information about the devastating military campaign. It has barred media outlets and individuals from calling the war a war or the invasion an invasion, insisting on the term “special operation.”
Putin’s efforts to control the media and the dissemination of information go back to his first weeks in office, in 2000. He quickly moved to reassert Kremlin control over NTV and ORT, the two largest television stations, prompting their owners to flee the country for fear of prosecution.
By the 2010s, as more and more citizens received their information through social media platforms, Putin sought to extend Kremlin influence over those mediums as well.
In 2014, Kremlin-friendly tycoon Alisher Usmanov purchased VKontakte, Russia’s largest social media company, whose main platform is analogous to Facebook. Usmanov last year sold VKontakte to Sogas, an insurer partially owned by Putin’s longtime associate Yury Kovalchuk.
Over the past few years, as popular frustration with Russia’s political stagnation and economic woes grew, Putin’s government began targeting U.S. social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, demanding they take down content it did not like.
The latest bans take state censorship “to another level entirely,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Right Watch, told RFE/RL.
“Previously, they pressured social media platforms to censor ‘unwanted’ content. Now they are using this moment to try to exercise absolute control over information in the country,” Denber said. “They are trying to turn the Internet into a zone of repression.”
Instagram has historically been much less of a political platform than Facebook and Twitter, with content focusing heavily on fashion, beauty, crafts, travel, and photography.
It has become widely popular, including in Russia, because it is a mobile-friendly platform, simple to search, and is also better designed for commerce and brand promotion than its peers, according to industry analysts.
A range of users such as shop owners, entrepreneurs, artists, and bloggers have gravitated to the platform to promote their businesses and work.
“There is simply no 100 percent analog to Instagram,” said Anastasia Kulikova, an Instagram content creator from Krasnodar.
Instagram is tens of thousands of small businesses across Russia and 1 million of their customers.”-- Aleksei Navalny
She said a “huge amount of money” flowed through Instagram in Russia as followers bought goods and service -- such as online courses, clothing, and beauty products -- promoted by businesses or the influencers they paid.
Many businesses, entrepreneurs, and influencers made very good money on Instagram, and paid taxes, she said.
“It is a big loss for us,” she said.
Some officials have expressed disdain for people who use social media to make a living or enhance their incomes.
“An address to bloggers: As all of you are out of work – whether that is good or bad, I don’t know – it is time to get smart,” Nikolai Panin, the mayor of Timashevsk, a town in the southern Krasonodar region, said after Roskomnadzor announced it would block Instagram. “Come to us. We have vacancies – grass cutters, cleaners, street cleaners. We are waiting for you.”
Imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who has deftly used Instagram and other social media to reach millions of Russians, wrote in a post that the authorities “do not understand” that everyday people – Russia’s middle class or those who strive to join it -- use the social media platform for their livelihoods.
“Instagram is tens of thousands of small businesses across Russia and 1 million of their customers,” wrote Navalny, who has often been derisively referred to as “the blogger” by high-level officials, who avoid uttering his name. “This is where a single mother from Perm earns money by advertising her manicure services. Here a man from Yaroslavl shows how cool he makes parquet and is looking for clients.”
The Kremlin appears more concerned about how Instagram chips away at its narrative.
The visual essence of the platform has made it a natural tool for disseminating images of the war’s death and destruction to people around the world, including in Russia, circumventing Kremlin censorship.
Meanwhile, some global influencers, including athletes and movie stars with millions of followers, have been posting about the war.
There are about 80 million Instagram users in Russia, or more than half the population, and roughly 80 percent of those users follow people outside the country.
U.K. football legend David Beckham, who has 71 million followers, said on March 20 that he would turn over his Instagram feed to the head of the regional perinatal center in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine that has faced some of the most brutal Russian attacks in the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy currently posts several times a day on Instagram, including occasionally in the Russian language, to share the latest developments about the war.
Instagram's Last Hours?
Shortly after Roskomnadzor announced its upcoming ban, Tina Kandelaki, a Moscow-based celebrity who backs Putin and the war in Ukraine, said in a post that “Instagram is living its last hours in Russia,” encouraging her 3.1 million follows to subscribe to her VKontakte and Telegram accounts.
Kandelaki hasn’t posted on Instagram since March 11.
Other influencers are trying to get their subscribers over to those platforms as well, but it’s going to be a difficult process, Kulikova said.
Telegram, a messaging and blogging platform, doesn’t have a scrolling feed, requiring users to click on each account they follow to a post, an inconvenient process. Meanwhile, many consider VKontakte’s interface out of date.
Kulikova expects Russians to slowly leave the platform.
Russia will not punish citizens for continuing to use the platform through a virtual private network, but it will remove any financial incentive for people to be active on the site.
Russian companies will not be able to advertise on Instagram or Facebook, as such activity will be viewed as financing extremism, according to state media. Russian users will also not be allowed to buy or sell through either platform.
The ban will be an additional blow to Russian business, entrepreneurs, and bloggers already reeling from surging inflation and a crumbling ruble resulting from sanctions imposed by Western nations over the invasion of Ukraine.
Magomed Shapiyev, a landscape photographer from Daghestan, a poor region in the North Caucasus, told RFE/RL that Instagram “completely changed my fate.”
Since he started posting photographs of Daghestan’s mountains and countryside on his Instagram account in 2013, his followers have surged to 168,000.
Shapiyev’s popularity has enabled him to earn money from doing what he loves.
He said it is going to take prolific users like himself “a long time” to break the habit of opening Instagram on their phones and posting.
“I so don’t want to leave Instagram,” he said.