Two Russian pranksters posed as representatives of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny to successfully dupe an Australian Senate committee into taking their evidence on a sanctions bill.
Vovan and Lexus, who have played pranks on celebrities from Elton John to the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, obtained a hearing from the foreign affairs and trade committee in April 2021 to discuss a Magnitsky sanctions regime.
According to the Sydney Morning Heraldthe pair revealed the prank at the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia on Wednesday in a session titled The many faces of truth: how to win the information war?
The pair reportedly told Russian state radio Sputnik: “At the end of the conversation [with the committee] we said: ‘There is such a problem … Russian spies are stealing kangaroos from you, platypuses, echidnas are stolen, all this is delivered by direct flights to Russia for fun from the crazy Russian oligarchs who arrange dirty safaris on these kangaroos’.”
Guardian Australia has confirmed the unofficial private hearing was attended in person by the now deceased Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching and the Greens Senator Janet Rice. The former Liberal senator Eric Abetz dialed in remotely and Jacqui Lambie heard some evidence via phone.
Suspicions were raised when the pair, whose real names are Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, began their evidence with questions about why Australian senators didn’t appear upside down and which way the water flowed down the bath plughole. One gave evidence in a bathrobe.
After routine questions about Navalny’s health and the effectiveness of Magnitsky sanctions, the pair gave their evidence alleging that Russian oligarchs were involved in stealing Australian wildlife.
The pair suggested Australia could help Navalny by sending money via bitcoin and subscribing to their YouTube channel.
The pair said they had been warned against meeting the Australian senators due to allegations of sexual harassment in the parliament, including the incident of a Coalition staffer masturbating on his boss’s desk. The senators acknowledged the issues and condemned such behaviour.
One of the pranksters then used a sock puppet named “Phil” to share his thoughts about sexual harassment. The committee’s secretariat then ordered technicians to switch the audio off when the same man began waving a toy fish and the meeting was terminated.
Stanislav Budnitsky, an academic in Russian media and politics at the Wilson Center in Washington, told the Sydney Morning Herald that Vovan and Lexus’ actvities strengthened “the anti-western consensus within the Russian society thanks to the consistent, widespread, and positive coverage of the pranks by Russian state-aligned media”.
He said the pair helped exacerbate internal divisions within the west to substantiate the Kremlin’s longstanding narrative about the chaotic nature of liberal democracy.
“In the United States, liberal media outlets cover the Russians’ pranks on Republican politicians to mock their gullibility for being duped, while conservative media outlets do the same for Democratic politicians,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism