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March 19, 2022 7:00 AM PDT

On Thursday morning, Katia Zalkind, a vice president at a medical communications firm in Chicago, dialed an unfamiliar number. A man picked up.

“I’m a volunteer, and we’re calling people in Russia to answer questions about what’s going on in Ukraine,” said Zalkind, who is 48, speaking Russian. “May I talk with you?”

“Yes, let’s do it,” he said.

“We have a free press, so we see lots of scary things: dead children, elderly people. Do you have any questions for me?”

“No,” the man replied, revealing that he got his news from the messaging app Telegram. Heartened that he hadn’t mentioned state-sponsored media, Zalkind asked whether he planned to protest the invasion.

“I’m for the war,” he said.

“May I ask why?”

The man muttered a Russian curse word—“blyat”—then hung up.

“That was fun,” Zalkind said wryly. Zalkind, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they,” wore red plastic–framed glasses and a blue hoodie from Northwestern University, where they are completing a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. “At least I had a conversation,” they said.

Zalkind was ringing strangers as part of Call Russia, a grassroots initiative launched last week that mobilizes volunteers to phone Russian citizens and deliver factual information about the war in Ukraine. Drawing on a database of 40 million contacts, the website randomly generates a number that Russian speakers around the world can dial through WhatsApp or Telegram.

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