It’s called HIV In Russia, The Epidemic No One’s Talking About – and it’s gotten people talking.
The sobering, nearly two-hour video by the popular video blogger Yury Dud, is credited with sparking an uptick in concern in Russia: from a rise in the number of Russians being tested for HIV since the video was uploaded to a surge in HIV-related Internet searches.
That’s in a country where more than 1 million people are infected with the virus that can cause AIDS, and where health experts and government critics accuse the authorities of downplaying the problem.
Dud, a 33-year-old sports website editor in his other job, has amassed a following of more than 6.9 million subscribers since his YouTube channel, vDud, launched in February 2017. It offers cutting-edge interviews with Russian pop stars and other cultural figures to hard-hitting documentaries, such as one about the deadly 2004 school siege in the southern town of Beslan.
Over the past two days, I’ve been asked at work seven times about the express HIV test. Until then, over the eight years of working at the pharmacy, I had been asked about that test maybe once."-- Twitter user Fryoken
Interest in Dud’s latest work has spilled out beyond the usual audience and into the halls of power.
A deputy head of the State Duma health committee said he was so impressed with Dud’s work that he organized a screening of the video in the lower house of parliament. That few members showed up, and some left early, underscored what experts and activists say is the lack of urgency and importance the government places on solving the country’s AIDS epidemic.
According to official data from December 2019, the number of people infected with the HIV virus in Russia stood at just over 1 million. Dud cites that statistic and adds others as well, including the fact that in 2018, 37,000 people in Russia died of AIDS, an average of 100 per day. All those numbers flash across the screen in Dud’s documentary.
Other data confirms Russia is facing a serious HIV problem. UNAIDS, the UN agency for HIV and AIDS, calculates that between 2010 and 2015, Russia accounted for more than 80 percent of new HIV infections in the entire Eastern European and Central Asian region.
Some point the finger at President Vladimir Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, accusing him of paying paltry attention to the problem as it has grown. In an article in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta titled Presidential Silence, sociologist Iskander Yasaveyev wrote that of the 1.4 million HIV infection cases registered in Russia since 1987, around 750,000 were recorded after 2012, the year he returned to the Kremlin after a stint in the No. 2 post.
HIV In Russia, The Epidemic No One’s Talking About opens with Dud making a statement in which he calls HIV an ignored issue that “affects each and every one of us.” Standing on a riverbank in Nizhny Novgorod, some 400 kilometers east of Moscow, Dud recounts how a camp in the city refused to host a group of children in the summer of 2019 after finding out they were infected with HIV. To Dud, it smacked of the kind of everyday discrimination people with HIV and AIDS in Russia face.
Elsewhere in the film, Dud interviews people infected with HIV as well as their partners. Topics run the gamut from HIV-positive children, HIV and drug use, myths about transmission of the virus, HIV activism, the dire state of sex education in Russian schools, and the authorities’ response to it all.
That Dud has struck a chord became apparent quickly as social-media users marveled and the view numbers quickly clicked up after it was posted on YouTube on February 11.
Within 48 hours, it had amassed almost 8 million views.
According to The Moscow Times, the number of searches for five Russian-language terms relating to HIV tests shot up by a combined 5,500 percent worldwide by February 13.
The Russian-language news site TJournal reported that pharmacies in Russia registered a higher interest among customers for HIV test kits.
A Twitter user identified as Fryoken said in a February 13 post that interest in HIV testing at the pharmacy where she works was up.
“Over the past two days, I’ve been asked at work seven times about the express HIV test. Until then, over the eight years of working at the pharmacy, I had been asked about that test maybe once, but I’m not sure,” she wrote. “That’s what the miracle-worker Dud has done.”
Among the apparent fans of Dud’s work was at least one member of the State Duma. Fedot Tumusov, a lawmaker from the A Just Russia party and deputy head of the State Duma’s Health Protection Committee, organized a screening of the film on February 14.
“Dud made a remarkable film and I thought it was essential that deputies could see it to raise awareness of this problem,” Tumusov told state news agency TASS.
But it soon became clear that many of his fellow deputies did not share his enthusiasm.
Valery Rashkin, a Communist Party deputy, let it be known on Twitter that he wasn’t too pleased with screening the film on Valentine’s Day.
“And for Valentine’s Day, we made an unusual choice at the State Duma. We are being shown Yury Dud’s film,” he wrote.
In the end, only a smattering of Duma members turned up for the film, a dejected Tumusov told Gazeta.ru after the screening.
“A few came. They watched a little, but didn’t stay till the end. I guess it just wasn’t interesting to them,” Tumusov told the Russian news portal.
While Dud’s film may have elicited a collective yawn in the Duma, at least one prominent official expressed interest.
Aleksei Kudrin, a longtime former finance minister and current chairman of the Audit Chamber, a financial oversight body, credited Dud with making a “much-needed movie about HIV in Russia.”
“Yury Dud has made a much-needed movie about HIV in Russia. More than 1 million people are infected. In 2018, 37,000 died of AIDS – that’s on average 100 people a day. Compare that with the coronavirus. #HIV in our country remains a much more real threat,” Kudrin wrote on Twitter on February 16.
In a separate tweet, Kudrin vowed the Audit Chamber would review government efforts since 2018 to combat HIV.
'We Are Not Lepers'
And while Tumusov’s effort to organize a screening of Dud’s film at the Duma fell flat, he has scheduled a roundtable discussion there on February 21 and invited the vlogger to speak, according to state-run news agency RIA Novosti. As of February 19, it was unclear whether Dud would attend.
In the same RIA Novosti report, the head of Russia’s Federal AIDS Center, Vadim Pokrovsky – who has championed robust moves to address the problem -- said Dud’s film was making an impact.
“Interest in examination and treatment has grown. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “There have been a lot of views [of the video], and many became concerned about whether or not they have the HIV infection."
Pokrovsky said the number of HIV-infected people in Russia receiving treatment this year should increase by between 100,000 to 200,000, as the Health Ministry’s budget allocates more funds.
The spike in attention suggests that Dud’s video may step up pressure on the authorities to address the HIV crisis.
In the film, Katya, a former drug user who died while it was being made, spoke of the need for more awareness.
“We are not lepers,” she said. “I hope there’ll be a free flow of information.”