Russian-language news startup Helpdesk offers wartime service journalism

“My son could be mobilized. I panic. What can I do?” “Can I cross the border with a car that is not registered in my name? “Is it true that I cannot be called up in the army if I have a lot of tattoos ?”

These are some of the frantic questions that Helpdesk.media answered through its hotline. Over the past nine days, the Russian-language news startup has received more than 20,000 queries, according to its founder. A team of around 50 people – who work remotely and from offices in Riga, Kyiv and Tbilisi – respond to it for an audience roughly 60% Russian, 40% Ukrainian.

“We are a joint team of Russian and Ukrainian journalists – a unique situation in the current circumstances”, underlines the founder Ilia Krasilshchik.

Ben Smithco-founder of Semafor and former media columnist for the New York Times, describe Helpdesk as “service journalism for people in a conflict zone” and dubbed the news startup “one of the most interesting media projects to emerge from the conflict in Ukraine”.

In addition to operating the hotline, Helpdesk publishes articles about the war in Ukraine on Telegram and Instagram. The number of people who turn to the independent news agency for information is staggering. Krasilshchik said the Helpdesk’s Instagram account reached 2.5 million users per month, while his Telegram reached 3 million per day. (Telegram is one of the few platforms where Russians can access independent news sources and has been the most downloaded app in Russia in recent months.)

Krasilshchik launched what became Helpdesk shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine. (The English version of the outlet was previously called War.evidence.) Krasilshchik is the former publisher of Meduza, one of the leading independent Russian-language news outlets and had taken a break from journalism to work for the company. Russian technological Yandex.

“I understood that the only thing I can do now is go back to the media,” Krasilshchik said.

But, Krasilshchik continued, he also wanted to help people directly.

“And it’s an eternal conflict: you can’t combine journalism and activism,” he said. “Suddenly we had an idea: we can start a 2-in-1 project. The first part will be media on social platforms (and we have 15 years of experience in top Russian media to do it well). And the second part will be the Helpdesk, started by professional support specialists I know from my Yandex years. The second part is pure activism. But in such a scheme, these two parts help each other.

Unsurprisingly, the most frequently received questions relate to avoidance of conscription in the Russian military. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the military mobilization, Helpdesk quickly published an online guide to avoiding the draft. (“Remember that you can hide in Russia, and war can be far more dangerous than criminal prosecution and jail.”) The guide was just as quickly blocked by the Russian government. Still, Helpdesk continues to answer questions individually and publishes regular updates on the feasibility of crossing countries such as Finland, Norway, Georgia, Belarus, Mongolia and others.

Last week, for example, the Telegram Helpdesk recommended avoiding the Ozinki checkpoint in Kazakhstan because travelers waited up to three days in the queue. The wait at Komsomolsky was shorter – only “about a day” – but readers were told that the road after the checkpoint was “very bad” and the wait was “very cold”.

For response seekers in psychological distress, Helpdesk operators follow a playbook to provide support. If the operator is concerned that the person may be suicidal, they can offer professional psychological support through a partner organisation.

In addition to the social accounts he currently operates, Krasilshchik plans to launch an app within the next month that will support Helpdesk chats.

“It makes no sense to launch a website: Russia will block it in a few days,” Krasilshchik said. “The Internet in Russia is fast enough to chat, so there is no problem. The main goal is to secure these conversations.

He added, “That’s why we built our own password-protected chat system. We don’t have any authentication, it’s totally anonymous, you can delete your chat anytime. And we automatically delete the entire conversation within seven days of resolving a case. »

For reasons that are easy to guess, Helpdesk does not collect any personally identifiable information from people who submit questions. Krasilshchik doesn’t know the average age, gender, or location of people asking for help through Helpdesk — he just knows that many are terrified.

The Helpdesk team sees its journalism – which has included first-person stories about being written against one’s will and graphic evidence of torture in Russian-occupied cities – as a funnel that allows more people to discover the Helpdesk hotline.

“The support allows us to understand what is really going on with Russians and Ukrainians, which is really important because there are almost no Russian journalists left in the country,” Krasilshchik said.

Fundraising has been difficult as Visa and Mastercard have suspended operations in Russia. The organization can, however, receive money from the West and has raised funds through Maryland-based venture capital firm North Base Media. So far he has raised $1.6 million and Krasilshchik expects his annual budget to be around $3 million.

“Right now we have enough funds for a few months,” Krasilshchik said. “But after the mobilization started, we had to hire a lot of new people, so we urgently need to raise more money.”

Sylvester L. Goldfarb