Russian restaurants are harassed for ads featuring black models – what is going on?

In the course of a single week, two Asian restaurant chains in Russia fell victim to online bullying campaigns over ads featuring black men. Both campaigns were mounted by members of the same online community.

A black man surrounded by three young women, all white, is eating sushi, rolls and noodles – an ad featuring this photo was posted on VKontakte on August 14, 2021 by the YobiDoebi sushi and roll delivery chain.

The ad was not to the liking of  Vladislav Pozdnyakov, the founder of the Men's State movement, which espouses ideas of patriarchy and nationalism. Members of its online community often engage in cyber-bullying and threats targeting a variety of victims - for example, female models for appearing naked in a music video by Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann, Russian women for going out with men of other ethnicities, or LGBT people for their sexual orientation. The community's and Pozdnyakov's accounts on the social network VKontakte and on TikTok have already been blocked, so now he runs a Telegram channel with an audience of some 95,000 subscribers.

Pozdnyakov urged his followers to place "rogue" non-prepaid orders with YobiDoebi to fake addresses in 65 cities in Russia so that the company would incur losses. In addition, his subscribers began to leave negative feedback on different review sites, online maps, and in AppStore and Google Play applications, while the chain's official website was subjected to cyber-attacks. The channel also leaked phone numbers and social media accounts of models from the ad and of the chain founder, Konstantin Zimen, who began to receive all sorts of  threats. Zimen reported it to the police and pledged not to remove the photo at the center of the controversy.

“Many brands use images of different models, who may differ in terms of the color of their skin, their gender, and so on. There is nothing provocative in it - it’s just the voice of our time. I am sorry that someone thinks that posting a photograph of a black man (especially next to supposedly 'Slavic' girls) is unacceptable,” Zimen said.

And yet, the chain soon removed the photo from its VK community and also issued an apology.

“On behalf of the whole company, we would like to apologize to the Russian nation for having offended Russians with our photographs. We have removed all the content that has caused this hype,” the company said in a statement.

On August 29, Men's State launched a similar attack against another chain of Japanese restaurants, Tanuki, over photos of gay couples and black models.

“Why are you advertising this 'Russian man'? Are we in Africa?”, “Cringey, thank you”, “When your cafes shut down, then you will learn how to promote sodomy in Holy Russia!” – these are some of the posts left by members of Men's State.

Because of the attacks, Tanuki turned off the cash option of paying for orders in order to reduce the number of "rogue" orders without prepayment, while the chain's website experienced intermittent problems. Furthermore, Moscow's law-enforcement agencies received hoax calls about bombs planted at Tanuki restaurants.

Nevertheless, the chain continues to operate normally. Tanuki decided not to take down photos with the black model, instead publishing another similar ad. Also, the company asked the founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov, and the Russian Ministry of Communications and Digital Development to block all of Pozdnyakov's and Men's State channels on Telegram.

“'The sub-men's sub-state' picked the wrong target. <...> Our social media posts will continue to feature photographs of wonderful people – who belong to different religions, nationalities, races and orientations. We are convinced that no-one is defined by any of these characteristics. There are good and bad people everywhere, regardless of", Tanuki said.

Social media and official reaction

In the meantime, Tanuki clients have launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #ямытануки (I/we Tanuki) and called for blocking the online community and the channel of the Men's State founder. Below are some of the comments users have posted on social media:

“Pay attention to extremist content on Telegram channels. How can rhetoric of discrimination and racism be possible in this day and age?!”;

“Give it to them, medieval devils! In future, in the long run, freedom, equality and brotherhood always win”;

“Today, my boyfriend and I will order sushi from Tanuki.”

At the same time, some anonymous bloggers believe that the whole controversy was just a PR stunt.

“Dear me, girls. You are being played. They contracted Pozdnyakov to write that post and it is they who are removing themselves from the aggregators. No one cares about Tanuki or their wretched black models,” says one anonymous Telegram channel.

For her part, State Duma deputy Oxana Pushkina has appealed to Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov to check the activities of the Men's State movement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov too has commented on the controversy.  

“If there are any actions leading to a violation of the law and if there are complaints about it, then, of course, the relevant authorities must take action,” Peskov said.

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