The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J.K. Rowling thought she was talking to Zelensky. It was Russian pranksters.

Author J.K. Rowling, seen in 2018, was pranked by Russian comedians. (Christophe Ena/AP)
4 min

In a video posted to a Russian website this week, renowned author J.K. Rowling is seen sitting in a sun-drenched room on what was supposed to be a video call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss her foundation’s efforts to support children in the country invaded in February by Russia.

“Out of solidarity with Ukraine, I am not proceeding with certain business interests in Russia,” the author of the Harry Potter series said at the start of the 12-minute video.

But as the conversation continued, the faceless voice that claimed to be Zelensky made increasingly bizarre suggestions on how the British author could punish Russia. Among the requests was a suggestion to change Harry Potter’s lightning-bolt-shaped scar to a Ukrainian coat of arms, because the current iteration looks like a “Z,” a symbol of support for the Russian invasion.

“It might be good for me to do something with that myself on social media, because I think that would get into the newspapers,” Rowling responded.

Toward the end of the video, it becomes clear to the viewer that Rowling was never talking to the Ukrainian president — it was a Russian prankster duo known as Vovan and Lexus, who support Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a statement to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for Rowling lambasted the prank, calling it “distasteful.”

“J.K. Rowling was approached to talk about her extensive charitable work in Ukraine, supporting children and families who have been affected by the current conflict in the region,” the spokesperson added. “The video, which has been edited, is a distorted representation of the conversation.”

The two men, Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and Aleksei “Lexus” Stolyarov, are known for pulling off high-profile hoaxes. Since at least 2014, they have fooled singer Elton John, former president George W. Bush, Vice President Harris, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Prince Harry. They duped lawmakers in Canada and the United States by pretending to be Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist. They persuaded lawmakers throughout Europe that they were a top aide to Alexei Navalny, the jailed Kremlin critic who was poisoned in 2020.

Kuznetsov and Stolyarov denied working for or being involved with the Kremlin in a 2016 interview with the Guardian.

The duo took credit for the Rowling prank by uploading the video on Rutube — Russian’s answer to YouTube, which banned the pair earlier this month. The video was first reported by the Rowling Library, a website dedicated to news about the author and her work.

The conversation with the Zelensky impersonator began with the prankster praising Rowling. He then asked the author if she could “demand that Russians don’t read your books at all.” He also suggested imposing sanctions on a Russian actor who appeared in the new movie from the Potter prequel series “Fantastic Beasts,” which was released in April, because it was too late to cut him out of the film.

“I will certainly talk to people and see what we can do,” Rowling said in what appeared to be a direct response.

The fake Zelensky also discussed Rowling’s donations and fundraising through her foundation, Lumos, which is working west of Kyiv in the Zhytomyr region of Ukraine to help orphaned and displaced children. He said that the money was going toward buying “a lot of weapons and missiles … to destroy Russian troops.”

“I hope you are all for that,” he added.

Rowling replied, “We’ll look after the kids, but I really want Ukraine to have all the arms it needs.”

The faux Zelensky also said the Ukrainian military was writing “Avada Kedavra” — the killing curse in the Potter series — on its missiles.

About halfway through, the pranksters asked about one of her characters, the wizard Albus Dumbledore, being gay and inquired whom the Hogwarts headmaster had slept with, adding “hopefully not a transgender.” The comment was an apparent reference to Rowling’s controversial comments that have been criticized as transphobic.

The call ended with the appearance of three people who claimed to be members of a group called “The Order of the Ukrainian Phoenix” that reads Potter books to soldiers. They wore matching purple T-shirts.

“Only Putin,” it says in Russian, in support of the country’s leader.