The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Defying U.S. sanctions, Chechnya has created its own version of Instagram. Its strongman leader is a fan.

Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov on May 7. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Reuters)

GROZNY, Russia — Just months after the United States booted him out, Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov is determinedly back on social media.

The U.S. government banished the leader of the Russian republic late last year from Instagram, as part of sanctions against him, leading his 3 million followers to say goodbye to an account that was as much government news service as a platform for the bizarre.

A long history of alleged human rights abuses, from silencing his opponents to torturing and locking up gay men, landed Kadyrov on the U.S. sanctions list, and with it went the 41-year-old’s videos and selfies posing with automatic rifles, tossing snowballs in the air and cozying up to tigers.

But now programmers in the predominantly Muslim region have hit back at the American ban, which also extended to Facebook, the owner of Instagram, with their own version of the social networking service.

Called Mylistory, the app is available free on both Apple and Android devices, and resembles a more basic version of Instagram, with functions to post videos and photos, comment and share direct messages.

“Technically, it’s the same as Instagram,” said its creator, 30-year-old Grozny native Muhammed Eskhanov. “Only its soul is different.”

Plus, the United States government cannot touch it.

The appointee of Russian President Vladimir Putin had become something of a social media phenomenon.

Losing his beloved Instagram over human rights violations is believed to have inspired revenge-style attacks on Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organization and the only one to still have a presence in Chechnya.

Eskhanov said the app was in a testing phase when Kadyrov was banned from Instagram in December, but quickly accelerated to alpha once he had joined. Kadyrov, who laughed off the U.S. sanctions, saying he had no money in American banks nor plans to visit the States, at the time also said Mylistory was “just as good” as Instagram.

He should know. Kadyrov is Mylistory’s most popular user, with 74,000 followers.

As soon as he signed up, Kadyrov was back to his usual ways, whether by video, clad in traditional Caucasian dress atop a horse, spouting the values of the Chechen language, or in photos, his hands open in prayer at the mosque. As it was with Instagram, there is no shortage of photos with his benefactor Putin, including a recent blurry selfie of the pair in Moscow.

America’s decision to block Kadyrov’s Instagram account “was a New Year’s present,” said Eskhanov, an apprehensive smile spreading across his face. Mylistory has half a million users that span the globe.

Eskhanov created the app with seven others, part of a small team of techies for whom the app was more hobby than work. He says he received no funding from authorities.

In deference to Kadyrov’s heavy-handed, absolute rule, other Chechen government officials have joined Mylistory, though they also remain very active on Instagram.