In his new vlog, Leonid Parfyonov spends most of the time talking to camera in his apartment (or hotel room when travelling), with a glass of wine to hand.

Amid Russia’s quick-fire world of YouTube celebrities this approach might appear to be a shortcut to failure — but the first episode of the former television presenter’s YouTube show was watched more than a million times and, two months later, his channel has over 330,000 subscribers.

“I have never seen any other vlogs. Never. I don’t know the rules of this genre. Moreover, I know that I have broken all the rules,” Parfyonov, 58, says during an interview in a Moscow café.

His clear-sighted reporting made Parfyonov an authority for many Russians in the 1990s when he was a regular face on television, but he faded from the mainstream after 2004 when he left state-controlled NTV and switched to making big budget documentary films. Many are wondering whether his YouTube channel will mark his return to a more prominent public role.

Leonid Parfyonov at a book presentation in 2013. Image: Dmitry Rozhkov under a CC license

He describes the show, called Parfenon, as a “weekly diary” and it includes a variety of topics from interviews, book reviews, thoughts about his childhood, travel advice and wine tasting. Nor does he shy away from sensitive political topics, and in recent weeks has addressed a deadly fire in Kemerovo and the banning of Telegram by a Russian court.  

YouTube in Russia has become an increasingly important platform for political debate in recent years as Internet access grows and independent media outlets are squeezed by Kremlin pressure. State-owned television, where the majority of Russians get their news, remains off limits to most dissenting voices.

But Parfyonov cuts an unusual figure among Russia’s YouTube personalities, who range from entertainment channels presented by Maxim Golopolosov (9.1 million subscribers) and Stas Davidov (5.9 million subscribers) to Yuri Dud, who became a media celebrity last year with 3 million subscribers for his no-holds barred video interviews. Prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny (2 million subscribers) is also a prolific user.

I have never seen any other vlogs. Never. I don’t know the rules of this genre. Moreover, I know that I have broken all the rules

The appearance of Parfyonov on YouTube was met with much rejoicing. Navalny commented “hurrah” at the news, while writer Boris Akunin recommended that everyone subscribe. Interviewer Dud has described Parfenon as a show for “intellectuals”.

Since leaving NTV in 2004, Parfyonov has devoted himself to making documentaries and books based on the Namedni programmes, which look in detail at the culture and politics of Russian history after the Russian Revolution. Most recently, he produced a three-part documentary on the history of Jews in Russia and he is currently working on a similar project about the Georgians. While broadcast by Russia’s biggest channels, Parfyonov’s documentaries have never reached the same audience as his television presenting or, now, his YouTube channel.

Much of the initial popularity of his online shows is likely down to those who remember him from his television days, but he says viewing figures show he has begun to attract a new following. “Among a specific social layer it seems like almost everyone watches it: there is a layer in which I have landed and everyone knows about it.”

A screenshot of YouTube celebrity Yuri Dud interviewing socialite and presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak in 2017

He says he chose the name of the show because it was a nickname he had at school, as well as being a nod to his focus on classical culture and love of wine (in each episode he introduces the reader to a new vintage). He does all the filming himself, with a selfie stick when not indoors. “From the beginning, it was clear that it had to be very simple and without art,” he says of the style he chose. He sends the raw footage to a production studio that does the editing and adds pictures, quotes and context that flash up while he talks. “It is much harder than I thought,” he says.

The way he talks to camera is consciously different to that for which he became famous in the 1990s when he presented cult programme Namedni and the weekly news round-up Itogi for the then-independent television channel NTV. “My main task was to make it not look like what I had already done,” he says. Parfyonov’s style was always objective and detached, if ironic, but for YouTube he has made a conscious effort to be more intimate, and the episodes are deliberately modelled to feel like a conversation in the kitchen.

Despite the new format, there is no hiding Parfyonov’s three decades of experience as a television presenter and his extensive knowledge of of culture and history — the show is littered with quotes that he recites by heart. And his clarity of expression, which won him an army of followers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is still very much in evidence, particularly when he talks about politics.

“Putinist public life: formally there is a choice but actually there is no choice, no competition and no future. Parliament is not parliament, parties are not parties, courts are not courts and the media is not media”

When discussing the recent fire in Kemerovo that killed over 40 children, he denounced the “beyond-the-pale cynicism” of the authorities. And in a segment about the banning of messaging service Telegram, he made a comparison with Soviet times. He told his viewers that: “Over the last week, in fact since Parfenon started appearing, we have been living under the slogan ‘forward into the past!’ Or even ‘catch-up and overtake the past!’” — references to Soviet-era propaganda slogans. 

While Parfyonov has always been keen to stress that he is no opposition activist, his views on the current regime are clear to anyone who has followed his public statements. “This is not totalitarianism, it is authoritarianism,” he says. “There is no Putinist architecture, Putinist paintings or Putinist cinema. But there is Putinist authoritarianism and Putinist public life: formally there is a choice but actually there is no choice, no competition and no future. Parliament is not parliament, parties are not parties, courts are not courts and the media is not media.”

A screenshot from Parfyonov's documentary trilogy <em> Russian Jews </em>

In 2010, Parfyonov caused a minor scandal at an awards ceremony when he branded Russian state-owned television as little more than an obsequious branch of the civil service. “Journalists are not journalists at all but bureaucrats, following the logic of service and submission,” he told a shocked audience of TV executives and officials. The popularity of YouTube in Russia today as a forum for political and social debate is in no small part due to the inadequacy of Russian television, says Parfyonov. Though he also says it is a response to general rise in distrust towards experts.

One of the points he repeats is how much of contemporary Russian culture and politics reminds him of the Soviet Union. And, unlike most of his fellow Russian YouTube vloggers, he can draw on his personal experience to warn about the dangers of returning to the practices and mindset of the dying days of communism.

“I don’t understand how people don’t see how this neo-Sovietism in public life will end. People are now entranced, but they will be disappointed,” he says. “Sooner or later it will end — and what then?”

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