MOSCOW – Two Russian pranksters whose hoax telephone calls have fooled politicians and pop stars laugh uproariously in a Moscow bar as they read the reports about their latest stunt.
The pair, 30-year-old Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and 28-year-old Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, regularly pull off high-profile pranks on the famous and powerful — but target mostly Kremlin foes.
Opposition supporters have even suggested they are working on the orders of the Kremlin or the nation’s security service, the FSB, but they both deny the claims.
In September they convinced Elton John that Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the line — and wanted to meet to discuss gay rights.
Delighted, the openly gay British pop star gushed online about the call, only for the Kremlin to deny it ever happened.
Putin then contacted Elton and offered him a genuine meeting, apologizing for the pranksters who he described as “harmless.”
In their latest headline-grabbing wheeze, they tricked the legal team of Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who is on trial in Russia over the killings of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine.
Posing as advisors of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, they persuaded Savchenko’s lawyers to relay a message from the head of state, imploring her to halt her hunger strike, which she did.
Savchenko later claimed that “whole departments of Russian special services” were behind the ruse.
Kuznetsov mocked her suggestion.
“If her lawyer’s an idiot, what’s the FSB got to do with it?” he said.
Alongside him sat his partner in crime Stolyarov, sporting a Beatles T-shirt and leather jacket.
“According to the Internet comments, we became (FSB) colonels or majors long ago,” said Kuznetsov, a quietly-spoken man wearing a black overcoat.
Yet their detractors have suggested that the pranksters could have only contacted such high-profile individuals with help from Russia’s spy agency.
Savchenko, who risks a long jail term if convicted, might not seem an obvious target for a light-hearted prank.
But the pair insist that their stunts — which are usually broadcast on state-run national television — are in the public interest.
“We consider it benefits our country,” said Stolyarov.
“We don’t have the aim to change anything, but if it works out for the best, we’re all for it.”
The pair also claim to have duped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pretending to be Poroshenko and his Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk after Ankara shot down a Russian fighter plane on the Turkish border with Syria last year.
In a recording aired on Russian television, Erdogan apparently vowed not to apologize to Putin. A source in the Turkish strongman’s office denied to RIA Novosti news agency the call was genuine.
“We need to show the essence of such politicians,” said Stolyarov.
He said that while planning their stings, the pair “definitely always think about what consequences it could have” for the country’s image.
They even claim to have won plaudits from Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee and Natalya Poklonskaya, the chief prosecutor of annexed Crimea.
The comedy duo claim that when planning hoaxes, presidents have proved easier to track down than ordinary people.
“They are more simple, they are more trusting,” said Stolyarov.
“At least you know where to phone first,” added Kuznetsov.
They say that they personally carry out the calls but have staff to help set them up, trawling Facebook and online journalism resources for contacts.
Perhaps surprisingly for two men who have attained notoriety for their ability to fool people on the phone, they admit they are no good at impersonations.
Instead they rely on their marks not being well enough acquainted with the figures they claim to be.
Their tactics are particularly effective at fooling Russians, they claim.
“People are more relaxed about talking about serious matters on the phone. I feel there’s more trust in phone calls in Russia,” said Stolyarov.
Top of the hoaxers’ dream hit list are U.S. presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and even leaders of the Islamic State group.
But they are cautious about divulging their immediate plans, saying only that one stunt will center on the doping scandal currently engulfing Russian athletics.
Kuznetsov, who comes from the southern city of Krasnodar, trained as a lawyer before a stint working as a showbiz reporter.
Stolyarov traces his roots to Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. He studied economics and met Kuznetsov after founding a website called Prank.ru, saying that Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 inspired him to devote his life to political pranks.
They are now working on a weekly show for a national TV channel, which they say will focus on current affairs, but they are reluctant to give more information.
“So far we haven’t made any mistakes,” said Kuznetsov.
The Kremlin has yet to return their calls.