Horror novelist Stephen King said he is embarrassed to have fallen for a prank call in which two well-known Russian pranksters pretended to be Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“The guys were good, I’ll say that,” King said in an email to the Press Herald Thursday morning.

Stephen King was the latest victim of two Russian pranksters known for tricking celebrities and politicians into believing they are speaking with well-known political figures and activists.

King, a Bangor resident and vocal liberal who has written dozens of world-famous books, is the latest celebrity to fall victim to two Russian pranksters known as Vovan and Lexus. The duo is known for duping prominent western figures, something one expert says is as much propaganda as it is entertainment.

In a peculiar video call with King posted online, the pranksters asked King to come to Ukraine and fight as a soldier, asked to get an acting role in a movie and referred to the evil clown in one of King’s novels as a hero. They also baited King into praising Stepan Bandera, a known anti-Semite responsible for brutally murdering thousands of Jews in the 20th century.

King said Thursday that he did not know who Bandera was at the time of the call.

Right-wing media immediately jumped on that portion of the video, posting accounts under headlines such as “Stephen King praises war criminal Stepan Bandera as a ‘great man’ during call with Russian pranksters.”


During the call, the fake Zelensky described Bandera as a national hero before asking King for his opinion.

“He was in the second world war and he fighted against Soviet Union but yeah he had some crimes but it’s not so big crimes. It’s of course accidentally crimes against Jews, but it’s important to keep him opposed to (Russian President Vladimir ) Putin and he is (used as) propaganda,” the fake Zelensky said.

“You can always find things about people to pull them down,” King responded. “Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do many good things for the United States of America. There are always people who have flaws. We’re human, you know there are things we do that are bad choices and then there are things we do that are great choices, so on the whole I think Bandera is a great man and you’re a great man and viva Ukraine.”

In Ukraine, Bandera’s legacy is contentious. Bandera was an ardent Ukrainian nationalist who promoted “ethnic cleansing” and is seen as responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews. But because he was a leader in the fight for Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union throughout his life he is seen by some as a symbol of Ukrainian freedom. In Russia, however, there is only one main view of Bandera, that he was an evil villain and that his followers alive today are neo-Nazis.

But in the United States Bandera is not a household name the way it is in Russia and Ukraine. King told the Press Herald he assumed Bandera was one of Zelensky’s generals or advisers.

“Short form, I was cyber-pranked. They had Zelensky on video – not an imitator – and a supposed translator. I made the (video) call and heard Zelensky, but of course the translator was a fake. I think I did pretty well, except for the Bandera question. I didn’t know who he was, so assumed he was one of Zelensky’s generals or advisers. So I went with it,” he said. “My take-away: fool me once, shame on them.”


King declined an interview request and it was not clear what King meant when he said Zelensky was on video. The video posted online only shows King sitting at his computer and the person on the other end of the call is not visible.

Emerson Brooking, an expert in disinformation, terrorist communication and internet policy and a senior fellow at the think tank Atlantic Council, said there was likely a video of the real Zelensky superimposed on the call and controlled by Vovan and Lexus to make it look like he was present.

King is not the first of Vovan and Lexus’ victims. The duo, whose real names are Vladimir Kuznetsov (Vovan) and Aleksei Stolyarov (Lexus) have duped well-known politicians and other celebrities including Vice President Kamala Harris, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and singer Elton John, among many others.

Brooking first heard of Vovan and Lexus back in 2015, after they tricked then Arizona Sen. John McCain, he said.

The two have often been described as pranksters or tricksters, but Brooking said he doesn’t think those words appropriately describe their work.

“What they do is quite a bit more pernicious than that,” he said.


Brooking said they would better be described as propagandists.

Vovan and Lexus joined forces in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea. Brooking said Vovan and Lexus’ work has always been linked to the Russian war effort in Ukraine and the videos they create help to advance Russian propaganda.

“For example with the targeting of Stephen King, the goal is to make western cultural figures look uncritical or overly acquiescent to Zelensky,” Brooking said. “To basically suggest that people in the West are stooges of Ukraine.”

In Russia, Bandera is seen as the Ukrainian equivalent of Hitler, and Putin cited the presence of Bandera followers in Ukraine, whom he conflated with neo-Nazis, as a reason for his invasion of the country.

Brooking said a video shared with Russian audiences of a prominent western figure voicing support for Bandera advances Russian propaganda about a threat from Bandera followers and could be used to justify Russia’s deadly violence against innocent people.

Based on King’s initial Twitter post about the call on Wednesday afternoon, it seems it took him a minute to realize he had been pranked.

“Stephen King was prank called by Vovan and Lexus,” he tweeted. “They asked him what he thinks of Bandera. His answer, ‘I think Bandera was a great man.’ Pure crap … No truth to it.”

On Thursday, King followed up with another Twitter post.

“Actually, turns out I WAS pranked. Had no idea who this guy Bandera was. So … I’m embarrassed. But it turns out I wasn’t alone. Other victims who fell for these guys include J.K. Rowling, Prince Harry, and Justin Trudeau.” In a separate tweet he wrote, “as the Buddha once said: ‘(Expletive) happens.’ “

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