Irish-Ukrainian seeks help to cold call Russians over Putin’s propaganda

Tech industry executive has helped to build campaign with other Russian speakers

A Ukrainian-born Irish citizen is appealing to the 21,000 Russian speakers living here to join an international campaign to cold call 40 million people in Russia with information about the war in Ukraine, in an attempt to breach the wall of censorship erected by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Anton Krasun, who has worked in the technology industry here for 11 years, is part of an international group of activists that this week launched the Call Russia campaign. The group has built a database and online platform at callrussia.org, which uses algorithms to scrape 40 million private telephone numbers in Russia from publicly available sources, sorting them into a database.

Russian speakers abroad are being urged to log on to the site, which will randomly give them a verified Russian home phone number. They can then cold call the person at the other end of the line to convince them that the highly controlled picture reported by state-controlled media in Russia is wrong, and try to reason with them to spread the word. By Thursday, more than 500,000 calls had already been made through the platform.

Mr Krasun, who helped develop the system, has brought five family members from Ukraine to safety in Ireland since the invasion started more than two weeks ago, although some of his wife’s family are left behind in the strategic southern city of Mykolaiv, which is currently surrounded by Russian troops and under intense bombardment.

“We have to stop the war from inside Russia. All independent media there is blocked. Many Russians don’t know what is really happening. So we are trying to appeal directly to the people in Russia, to their human feelings and their empathy, so that they understand better,” he said.

The Call Russia campaign, which has its headquarters in Lithuania, includes more than 60 tech industry employees. It has received help from psychologists to draft non-confrontational scripts for Russian speakers abroad who volunteer to make calls.

Family

Mr Krasun is originally from the western Ukraine city of Lviv and was educated at Oxford University before moving in 2011 to work in Dublin for Google and then Twitter, which he recently left for a new job. He lives here with his Ukrainian wife, Inga, who is also an Irish citizen, and their 20-month-old daughter, Erin.

His parents, including his father who is in his 70s and is in need of medical care, fled from Lviv as soon as the war broke out, arriving in Poland after a marathon journey that included 20 hours on foot. They flew to Ireland days later.

Mr Krasun’s cousin has also made it to Dublin with her son. His wife’s family live in Mykolaiv, between the captured city of Kherson and Odessa and is the scene of intense fighting. His mother-in-law escaped the city this week, and arrived in Dublin on Friday evening along with her two dogs, after travelling via Moldova. Her husband has refused to leave his home city in the face of the Russian advance.

“It is not safe there but he wants to stay. My wife’s family have sent me terrible pictures of the war, of burnt Russian soldiers,” said Mr Krasun.

His mother, who is a pianist, and his father are now brushing up on their English language skills to fit in here better, while Mr Krasun is trying to arrange medical care for his father who needs an operation. Mr Krasun is also involved in organising help for Ukraine through a website, irelandhelpukraine.com, which takes the contact details of potential donors.

Cold calling

Data collated from the tech platform by the Call Russia campaign suggests that more than a third of the Russians who get calls will not engage in the calls, but a small percentage are prepared to listen. Mr Krasun said he had so far made three “successful” calls to Russia through the platform, where he was able to discuss the war in Ukraine with someone on the other end of the line.

“Two were negative and said I was spreading lies from the evil west. But one call went okay. The guy sounded like he was aged about 40. I could tell he was nervous but I didn’t try to tell him Putin was evil. I told him the information he was getting was not right and I gave him some sources to go to online.”

The 2016 Irish census identified almost 21,707 residents here who also speak Russian at home, although the true number of people here who can speak the language is probably far higher. Many Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians can also speak the language, as can large numbers of Ukrainians. Mr Krasun said he wanted to appeal to them all, and also Russians in Ireland who “know the truth”, to log on and make calls.

“I know cold calling is hard; I used to work in sales and got used to it. But we give guidelines on what to say and how to talk to people. When the war broke out, I was planning on moving to my new job. Now I am still here and I have three families in Ireland instead of one. We need everybody’s help.”