For the past week, fans of Stepan, a 13-year-old black-and-brown-striped rescue cat based in Kharkiv, Ukraine, have been in anguish. They’ve refreshed the cat’s Instagram and TikTok feeds and begged for updates in the comments since the accounts went quiet on March 3, as Russia continued its invasion of Ukraine.
On Wednesday, nearly two weeks later, Stepan’s more than 1 million followers breathed a collective sigh of relief. He was safe and in France.
Stepan is the latest example of how influencers in conflict regions — even nonhuman ones — are able to tap into their audiences to escape danger, and how a community that creators usually may rely on to source brand deals or sell merchandise can transform into a lifeline overnight. “When you’ve got that many followers you can use them as a network to provide aid, find shelter or even help find escape routes in a war zone,” Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi, a former fundraiser for Muslim Aid Malaysia who has worked extensively with refugees, said. “Having an online network will help you survive difficult times.”
Stepan is one of the most famous pets in the world. He has amassed a huge following on Instagram and TikTok for his Grumpy Cat-esque nonchalant expressions, and he’s often posed next to a large glass of wine or a cocktail. Stepan’s solo, at-home parties have entertained millions, including many celebrity followers. Stars like Britney Spears, Diane Kruger and Hailey Bieber have shared Stepan’s photos and videos. In November, he appeared in an ad for Valentino.
Stepan the Cat with Zelensky#LoveYouStepan #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/vhHRHyYztQ— Giant Military Cats (@giantcat9) March 8, 2022
But then Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, came under attack, and Russia bombed the city’s Freedom Square and opera house. Stepan’s owner, known to followers as Anna, lost electricity, and they took shelter in a basement. Stepan’s account went dark and followers feared the worst. Many left desperate, frantic comments and even launched a hunt for the cat in his native city to no avail.
“I started checking the account every single day to make sure they were okay,” Kalina Newman, 24, a graduate student in Washington, said. “It’s a testament to how powerful these Internet figures can be.”
By the time Stepan was tucked away on a train to the border of Poland with Anna and her two sons earlier this week, he had an online army ready to assist. Anna and her sons stood in line for nine hours before crossing into Poland on foot. That’s when the World Influencers and Bloggers Association stepped in.
The World Influencers and Bloggers Association was founded in 2019 as a global organization aimed at uniting influencers around the world. The group hosts an annual awards ceremony crowning the top content creators across continents, and its members include high-profile social media stars in Brazil, France, Ukraine, Russia, Italy, India, the United Kingdom, China and more.
Last year, the association named Stepan one of the world’s top petfluencers. So, when Maria Grazhina Chaplin, the association’s CEO and founder, found out about Stepan’s plight, she sprang into action.
The organization helped shepherd the famous cat and his family through Poland to a safe house in France. It rented an apartment for Stepan and his family to stay in for as long as they need. “It was not so easy, on each stage we were in touch with them,” Iryna Savchak, a spokeswoman for the World Influencers and Bloggers Association, said. “Now, we are personally taking care of them in France.”
There was widespread relief and rejoicing when Stepan’s account announced on Wednesday that he and his owner were finally safe. “My favorite cat I follow on Instagram in Kharkiv has made it to safety in France as refugee,” tweeted the author Ben Judah. Others posted photos celebrating the occasion.
When war breaks out, a social media star’s network abroad can become a crucial asset. In August, Aryana Sayeed, one of Afghanistan’s top influencers (she has more followers online than the country’s former president), was able to escape to Istanbul after the Taliban took over Kabul. Earlier this month, a Ukrainian Twitch streamer known as @bobuubi and his family were guided through the war zone by the devoted community he had cultivated on the streaming platform. “They tracked the family’s location day and night and fed them lifesaving information,” WNYC reported.
Bobuubi and his family have spent the last 8 days trying to flee safely to the Ukrainian border with a surrounding country. So many of you have followed their journey and offered your support, and it has kept them going in times when they wanted to give up. (1/6)— Bobuubi (@bobuubi) March 2, 2022
Jamie Cohen, assistant professor of media studies at CUNY Queens College, said the unique bond followers feel with their favorite creators primes them to come to their aid in times of need. “A fan does not want to see their favorite influencer die or get hurt,” he said. “And by participating in helping secure the safety of the influencer you feel partially responsible for their success going forward.”
Currently, the World Influencers and Bloggers Association isn’t working on extracting other influencers from Ukraine, but Savchak said it would try to help any stranded Ukrainian creators who reach out. “We will do our best because we are also Ukrainian,” Savchak said. “Our association is engaging a lot of people who are influencers and opinion leaders.”
Stepan’s owner was able to travel with him in a carrier, but countless pets have been left behind in the war zone as their owners flee the country. Animal rescuers from Poland have been working overtime to rescue cats and dogs from Ukraine, and a German organization recently set up an animal shelter at the Ukraine-Poland border to help.
And while content creators on the ground share their stories and seek aid from followers, influencers abroad are shaping the external narratives about the war. Last week, the Biden administration briefed top TikTok stars on the crisis. Meanwhile, Russia is paying TikTok influencers to post videos promoting pro-Kremlin propaganda, according to an investigation by Vice News.
The World Influencers and Bloggers Association has also focused on mobilizing its network of creators to promote messaging. It is encouraging top content creators to use their voices and speak out against Russia’s aggression. “Influencers are the new media,” Chaplin said. “We have to emphasize that in the 21st century, the world can’t turn a blind eye to the insane actions of villains and violent dictators making other humans endure suffering, devastation and death. We call on Influencers and all our members to support an initiative to address the needs of those affected by the Russian military attack in the very heart of Europe.”
Stepan is adjusting to his new life in France. Anna said the entire family is “shocked and very much stressed” and traumatized by what they’ve been through. The comments and messages help. By Wednesday night, more than 14,400 people had left messages of love and support on Stepan’s latest Instagram post.
“So glad to hear that you’re safe now,” one follower commented. “… We’re with you!”