Secretive 'hero' blogger rips into Kremlin, one click at a time
He is wheelchair-bound and has limited use of his hands but Alexander Gorbunov, the author of hugely popular social media accounts in Russia, has emerged as one of President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critics.
Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy and using his right index finger to type, the 27-year-old author of StalinGulag skewers the "hypocrisy" of Putin's system and the everyday injustices ordinary Russians face.
Known for his dry wit and generous use of profanities, StalinGulag has built a near 1.5 million strong army of followers on Twitter and Telegram, with a total media outreach believed to include several million more.
For years the StalinGulag author's identity remained one of Russia's best-kept secrets but Gorbunov blew his cover after authorities began harrassing his 65-year-old mother and 80-year-old father last week.
Gorbunov, an intelligent, soft-spoken man with a goatee, said he and his wife have been on tenterhooks.
"They can easily arrest and put in prison anyone," Gorbunov told AFP in an interview, saying that even a short stint in jail could kill him.
"They don't care."
In an increasing crackdown on dissent, Putin in March signed laws that allow courts to fine and briefly jail people for showing disrespect towards the authorities and to block media for publishing "fake news".
- 'Damn hero' -
Gorbunov, who is a successful self-taught financial trader by day, dreads publicity but this week revealed his identity to BBC and later spoke to AFP after gun-toting police inspected his parents' home in the North Caucasus city of Makhachkala.
His relatives in Moscow have also been intimidated, he says.
"If the authorities are afraid of what I write they are worthless," he said.
Gorbunov's story has stunned Russia.
"This person is a damn hero," said screenwriter Andrew Ryvkin, while author Denis Bilunov called Gorbunov "the person of the year."
In a show of solidarity, Pavel Durov, the self-exiled founder of the Telegram messenger app, verified the StalinGulag account and offered his author help in moving abroad.
Gorbunov said he was heartened by the outpouring of support from Russians who have flooded him with offers of help and money. He has chalked up some 40,000 new followers over the past week.
The blogger insisted he was neither a hero nor an opposition activist. He said he merely puts in writing his thoughts on everything from Russia's foreign policy blunders to the excessive lifestyle of Putin's inner circle.
"What's happening in the country is terrible," Gorbunov said. "Injstice is what angers me the most."
In a 2018 post, he issued a dark warning to his readers.
"Really scary times are coming," he said, urging Russians to look out for each other. "This is the reality and not everyone will get out alive."
Gorbunov lives with his partner of seven years in a comfortable Moscow apartment, employs two drivers and a live-in aide and enjoys an active social life.
He does not want to reveal his income but says he forks out around 400,000 rubles ($6,145) every month just to cover his rent and pay his helpers.
He refuses to take any medication, saying his condition is incurable and he had no illusions about his future.
"I don't want to turn my life into a silly battle," he said. "It's a battle I am going to lose."
- 'Not an optimist' -
A lawyer by training, he works more than 10 hours a day, sometimes waking up at night if the market moves. He writes posts for his StalinGulag accounts when the mood strikes him and he needs a short break from work.
He appears to take some of his inspiration from his favourite book, "Journey to the End of the Night" by French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
The 1932 World War I classic filled with profanities expresses disgust with the hypocrisy of society and laments the misery of human existence.
Gorbunov is fiercely protective of his wife who sometimes holds his hand as he speaks to AFP and helps him drink from a cup. They met seven years ago but refuse to reveal details about their relationship.
His story has generated huge media interest in Russia but Gorbunov hopes the buzz will soon subside. He wants to get on with his life, watch the last season of Game of Thrones and keep trading and writing his blogs.
He travels sometimes but has never been to Europe.
Not that he plans to leave Russia, even though life for people with disabilies here is a relentless daily struggle, saying he wants to be together with his loved ones.
For all his dark humour and keen intelligence, Gorbunov refuses to make any predictions about the future of the country -- or his own.
He has a feeling however that he will not see a change of leadership in his lifetime.
"I am not an optimist in this sense."
? 2019 AFP