Wagner communities continue to thrive on VK despite Russian government crackdown

VK pages temporarily removed “Wagner” from their names and used other tactics to avoid the Kremlin’s wrath following the failed June 2023 mutiny

Wagner communities continue to thrive on VK despite Russian government crackdown

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BANNER: Screen capture of the VKontakte self-hosted website of the pro-Wagner community “PMC Wagner return of the heroes.” (Source: PMC Wagner return of the heroes/archive)

Despite efforts by Russia’s telecommunications regulator to crack down on social media content supportive of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner Group following the failed June 2023 mutiny, pro-Prigozhin and pro-Wagner communities continue to flourish on VKontake (VK), which effectively serves as the Russian equivalent of Facebook.

Alongside Telegram, VK served as a major online outpost for Prigozhin and Wagner, particularly when it came to recruiting new fighters. The platform hosted multiple communities that promoted pro-Wagner content and encouraged potential recruits to enlist at its regional offices across Russia. These VK communities also leveraged the platform to disseminate propaganda and support the Russian war effort in Ukraine, as well as Wagner’s military operations in Africa’s Sahel region.

During the mutiny, the Kremlin ordered Rozkomnadzor, the Russian telecom regulator, to restrict Wagner and Prigozhin influence on Telegram and VK. While Rozkomnadzor successfully cracked down on much of their presence, including the VK pages for Wagner headquarters and its regional offices, others slipped through the cracks by temporarily changing their names to no longer refer directly to either Prigozhin or Wagner. Meanwhile, additional VK pages were either created or repurposed in the days and weeks ahead to serve the Wagner community. Not only have these communities survived on VK, they have thrived, growing from around 193,000 subscribers collectively in October 2023 to more than 530,000 subscribers by January 2024.

A partially successful crackdown

Prigozhin’s headquarters in Saint Petersburg, the Wagner Center, maintained a robust presence on VK prior to the June 2023 mutiny. In a VK post on June 24, 2023, the second and final day of the mutiny, it wrote, “Due to the current situation and good weather, PMC Wagner Center recommends that residents and employees spend a productive weekend in nature and in good company!” This would be the Wagner Center’s final VK post, with Rozkomnadzor’s crackdown on Wagner social media properties quickly coming into effect.

Prior to its shutdown, the Wagner Center VK community reposted propaganda from Prigozhin-owned media properties and promoted Wagner-related activities and events. Beyond its St. Petersburg headquarters, Wagner Group operated recruitment centers across Russia. The DFRLab identified thirty-one regional Wagner VK communities used for recruitment prior to being shut down by Rozkomnadzor. The description sections of these regional VK communities typically contained local contact information and a link to the domain wagner2022.ru, which also served as an enlistment platform for Wagner recruits.

VK users attempting to visit one of these defunct communities are now greeted by a message: “This community has been blocked in compliance with a request from Roskomnadzor. This material is blocked at the request of Roskomnadzor based on the decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation dated June 24, 2023, No. 27-31-2023/Treb431-23.”

Screenshot of Wagner Moscow office VK page noting it had been blocked by Roskomnadzor.
Screencap of Wagner Moscow office VK page taken on January 19, 2024, noting it had been blocked by Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor. The moderator’s comment in Russian reads, “This material is blocked at the request of Roskomnadzor based on the decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation dated June 24, 2023, No. 27-31-2023/Treb431-23.” (Source: VK.com/archive)

The thirty-one VK communities were spread out across Russia. While their original pages are defunct, eighteen of them were preserved by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Map of the Russian regions represented by the VK Wagner office communities. Click on a region to access their original VK link and check if they have archives on the Internet Archive.

The pro-Wagner VK communities that persisted after the mutiny

Despite Rozkomnadzor’s June 2023 crackdown on the regional offices pages, other Wagner-related VK communities managed to survive. Among these are some that appear to have circumvented the ban by temporarily changing their names around the time of the mutiny. This would suggest that the Russian telecom regulator briefly conducted searches for channels containing “Wagner” in their names but did not keep up enforcement measures on the platform once the mutiny had passed.

VK’s own records documented these circumvention efforts. For example, on June 24, the VK group ЧВК Вагнер | Евгений Пригожин (“PMC Wagner | Yevgeny Prigozhin”) initially renamed itself to ЧВК Вагнер (“PMC Wagner”), dropping Prigozhin’s name from the title. The following day, it changed its name yet again to Новостник патриоты (“Newsman patriots”). On June 27, three days after the Rozkomnadzor crackdown, it reverted back to to ЧВК Вагнер (“PMC Wagner”). At the time of publishing in January 2024, the community featured more than 107,000 members.

Screencapture of the community history information for the VK group “ЧВК Вагнер | Евгений Пригожин” (PMC Wagner | Yevgeny Prigozhin), which was renamed to “The newsman patriots” (in green) on June 25 and then renamed once again to “PMC Wagner” (in red) on June 27, after the mutiny was halted. (Source: VK/archive)

In another instance, one VK community founded in January 2021 renamed itself twice on June 25, first to МУЗЫКАНТЫ (“Musicians”) and then to ИНФОРМАТОР (“Informer”). Its post archive was also erased, starting fresh with an initial post acknowledging the Rozkomnadzor crackdown:

VK is no longer publishing information about PMCs, citing the Prosecutor General’s Office. Today, many have already noticed that all public pages who write about “musicians” [e.g., Wagner fighters] have been banned. Don’t unsubscribe. Tomorrow we will update the community and clarity will be made regarding the PMC.

The following day, the name expanded to ИНФОРМАТОР | ВАГНЕР (“Informer | Wagner”); it also resumed posting, though it also suggested that community members subscribe to its Telegram channel in case Rozkomnadzor deplatformed the VK page. By June 28, it settled on the name ЧВК ВАГНЕР | ИНФОРМАТОР (“PMC Informer | Wagner”). As of January 2024, the VK community remained active and featured more than 70,000 followers.

Screenshot of the community history information for the VK group “ЧВК ВАГНЕР | ИНФОРМАТОР” (PMC WAGNER | INFORMATOR), which showed that the community was named “Musicians” on June 25, then once again renamed to “Informer” and then to “Informer | Wagner” (Source: VK/archive)

Another community, launched in December 2022, was originally named after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. It changed its name three times in the months prior to the mutiny. First, it renamed itself on February 12 after Russian General Sergei Surovkin, who aligned himself with Prigozhin during the mutiny. Then, it switched on April 28 to ЧВК Вагнер. Сводки СВО (“PMC Wagner Special Military Operation Reports”), followed by БЕЛГОРОД ШЕБЕКИНО ОБСТРЕЛЫ (“Belgorod Shebekino Shelling”) on June 4. The community kept this name throughout the rest of June 2023, including during the mutiny. On July 4, after the crackdown had passed, it changed names again to Евгений Пригожин | ЧВК Вагнер (“Yevgeny Prigozhin | PMC Wagner”).

Screenshot of the community history for the VK group Вагнер | Евгений Пригожин (Wagner | Yevgeny Prigozhin) showing that the operators renamed the community on July 4, 2023, after the mutiny ended. (Source: VK/archive)

At the time of publishing, the community featured prominent imagery of Prigozhin.

Screencap of Евгений Пригожин | ЧВК Вагнер ("Yevgeny Prigozhin | PMC Wagner), which featured Prigozhin imagery and footage as of January 19, 2024.
Screencap of Евгений Пригожин | ЧВК Вагнер (“Yevgeny Prigozhin | PMC Wagner), which featured Prigozhin imagery and footage as of January 19, 2024. (Source: VK/archive)

Wagner VK communities established after the mutiny

In other cases, some VK pages were created freshly after the crackdown. These, too, changed their names periodically. One group, also named ЧВК ВАГНЕР (“PMC WAGNER”), originally appeared on June 25; at the time of publishing it had subsequently changed its name twenty-three times, reaching an audience of 23,000 followers.

Screencapture of the community history information for the VK group “ЧВК ВАГНЕР” (PMC WAGNER), showing that the community changed its name nineteen times on June 25, 2023. (Source: VK/archive)
Screencapture of the community history information for the VK group ЧВК ВАГНЕР (“PMC WAGNER”), showing that the community changed its name nineteen times since June 25, 2023. (Source: VK/archive)

Additionally, the DFRLab observed the creation of another pro-Wagner VK community on June 25, ОРКЕСТРАНТЫ ВОЙНЫ (“war orchestrators”). Wagner fighters often refer to each others as “musicians” in Wagner’s “orchestra.”

Screencapture of the VK community “Orchestrators of the war” showing it was created on June 25, 2023, the day the mutiny ended. (Source: VK/archive)

In another instance, the VK community ЧВК WAGNER GROUP ВОЗВРАЩЕНИЕ ГЕРОЕВ (“PMC Wagner Return of the Heroes”) acknowledged in its page description that it was established immediately after the mutiny after Rozkomnadzor shut down its original VK presence. “Our community PMC WAGNER was founded in September 2022,” it stated. “During the Wagner Justice March on June 23-25, 2023, it was blocked. We have never betrayed and will never betray the Musicians of the Orchestra. That’s why we created this group now.”

Repurposed VK communities, intentional typos, and mysterious pages for sale

The DFRLab also found several pre-existing VK communities that appear to have changed their focus to Wagner after the mutiny, further demonstrating how the platform’s Wagner community reorganized itself despite Rosokomnadzor’s June 24 attempt to ban its presence.

For example, one community launched in 2020 featured the name нахайпе (“On Hype”) until June 25; this appears to be the name of an online shop for discounted electronic devices. On June 25, it changed its name to ЧВК ВАГЕР (“PMC Wager”), missing the letter N in Wagner, followed by Патриоты (“Patriots”) later that same day. The following day, it switched two more times, first to ЧВК ВАГНЕР (“PMC Wagner”) and then to ЧВК ВАГНЕР | Евгений Пригожин (PMC Wagner | Yevgeny Prigozhin). This raises the possibility that the misspelled version ЧВК ВАГЕР (“PMC Wager”) might have overlapped the time period Rozkomnadzor targeted communities on the platform with “Wagner” in their names. Either way, the change to a misspelling was likely an intentional effort by the community owners to avoid de-platforming.

Screencapture of the community history information for the VK group “ЧВК ВАГНЕР | Евгений Пригожин” (PMC WAGNER | Yevgeny Prigozhin), which shows that it started as “нахайпе” before being renamed after the mutiny. (Source: VK/archive)

There are also VK communities whose histories remain somewhat murky. One channel, also known as ЧВК ВАГНЕР (“PMC Wagner”), was known as ОТМОРОЗКИ (“scumbags”) for five months prior to the mutiny, though for a brief period of time on February 3, 2023, it was given the name НАБОРЫ В ОФФ КОНТОРЫ МОСКВА (“Moscow office recruits”). These names suggest it might have been focused on Wagner the entire time rather than being repurposed per se. Its oldest post dates to June 30, 2023, less than a week after the mutiny. Given that it was founded in 2020, it is unclear what content existed prior to that.

Screencapture of the additional information of the VKontakte community ЧВК ВАГНЕР (Wagner PMC) with the handle @wagner_oficial. The community reportedly changed its name to Wagner PMC on June 30, 2023, after the Wagner mutiny ended. (Source: VK/archive)

Interestingly, this community was reportedly put up for sale in October 2023. The DFRLab found posts in two other communities dedicated to buying and selling VK pages claiming it was available for 10,000 RUB ($113 USD). It is unclear whether it was ever sold, though its current administrator, who is listed as Vanya Efremov, does not appear to be the same individual who posted the sales ads in 2023, whose account name was Max Gromov. Notably, both the Efremov account and the Gromov account had been suspended at the time of publishing, though the community is still operating, with an audience of more than 26,000 subscribers.

Screencapture of postings putting up the Wagner PMC VK community for sale for 10,000 RUB on October 11, 15 and 24, 2023. The URL to the VK community is squared out in red, the name of the community’s operator is squared out in green. (Source: VK/archive)

Additionally, the DFRLab discovered an August 2023 VK post that called out the original operator, Max Gromov, for scamming other users into purchasing the community.

Screencapture of a VK post mentioning the VK account responsible for posting the sale announcement as an alleged scam. (Source: VK/archive)

Other VK users raised additional questions about some of these VK communities, questioning their authenticity and intent. In one instance, a commenter alleged that one particular PMC Wagner community might actually be attempting to recruit soldiers to a rival private military company, PMC Redut. The DFRLab could not independently verify this claim.

Running the numbers

When the DFRLab examined subscription levels across these twelve VK pages in September-October 2023, they had accumulated approximately 190,000 followers. At the time of publishing in January 2024, that number had skyrocketed to more than 530,000 followers. While some groups made modest gains by the hundreds or low thousands, other experienced explosive growth. One group, ЧВК ВАГНЕР | ИНФОРМАТОР, grew more than elevenfold, from fewer than six thousand members to more than 70,000. Another, one of the several named ЧВК Вагнер, jumped from around four thousand followers to more than 85,000, nearly a 2000 percent increase. ЧВК Вагнер | Wagner, which was among the smallest groups initially at around 1,600 members, rocketed to approximately 68,000 followers, a whopping 4000 percent increase.

Though it is difficult to account for the reasons for this growth, one likely factor is the simple fact that they continue to exist. After the failed mutiny and subsequent Rozkomnadzor crackdown, VK became an unwelcome environment for channels referencing Wagner and Prigozhin, creating a void for Russian discourse that had once been supportive of them. In the approximate seven months since then, the small number of VK pages that survived through temporary name changes managed to hold their ground and thrive, filling that void, alongside a handful of others that were newly established or repurposed from unrelated VK pages after the mutiny.

While Rozkomnadzor’s VK-wide crackdown on pro-Wagner communities significantly impacted pages linked to Wagner’s regional offices across Russia, the emergence or re-emergence of other Wagner/Prigozhin communities raises significant questions about the telecom regulator’s enforcement measures. In particular, temporary name changes appear to have been successful in helping some of them circumvent the Roskomnadzor crackdown. Newly repurposed and fresh communities also indicate that the broader Wagner community on VK has managed to sustain audiences and grow them, despite the June 2023 mutiny debacle. And while the alleged selling and buying of VK communities dedicated to pro-Wagner content raises questions in some cases, overall it appears that Wagner community on VK dodged a bullet in June 2023, maintaining their foothold on the platform and growing it.

Cite this case study:

Valentin Châtelet, “Wagner communities continue to thrive on VK despite Russian government crackdown,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), January 23, 2024, https://dfrlab.org/2024/01/23/wagner-communities-continue-to-thrive-on-vk-despite-russian-government-crackdown.