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27 January 2023

Konstantin Kisin: “Being anti-woke isn’t making you happy”

The podcaster is the viral man of the moment. But does he really have anything to say?

By Will Lloyd

“Don’t misrepresent me,” said Konstantin Kisin, as our interview ended. Kisin, a podcaster, pundit and self-professed satirist, is a man who believes in free speech, so long as it reflects well on him.

He is also the cracklingly viral man of the moment. Invited to debate whether “woke culture has gone too far” at the Oxford Union two weeks ago, Kisin delivered a clever speech. It was not predictable. No lazy rhetorical drive-bys against snowflake statue-smashers, miserable vegans or blue-haired placard-wavers.

No, the speech was an invitation to the students that night. Kisin outlined the seriousness of climate change, with all its gloomy high stakes, and then asked them how they should solve it. By gluing themselves to paintings? Or by working, creating and building a better world? All wokeness has to offer, he said, “is to brainwash bright young minds like you to believe that you are victims”. Woke culture hasn’t gone too far, according to Kisin. Woke culture is just a dead end. Kisin’s side carried the motion by a margin of 89-60. 

In short order, Kisin appeared on the Piers Morgan show on Talk TV, the Dan Wootton show on GB News, and the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News. His speech was praised as a nine-minute interlude of sanity in an insane world. Oxford, which as far as British universities go is not particularly woke, was presented by Morgan, Wootton and Carlson as a seething hotbed of student radicalism. Kisin was introduced to their audiences as a light-bringer to this realm of academic darkness.

The speech continued to ricochet around the internet, gaining millions of views, then millions more. After he faced criticism for appearing only as a guest of right-wing media, Kisin tweeted: “Funny how people attack me for going on right-leaning media. Do you know that not ONE left-leaning publication or TV show has invited me on to talk about my speech? Not one. So whose fault is it, exactly?”

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So I decided to invite Kisin to talk to the New Statesman.

[See also: Free speech means supporting the right to criticise the monarchy]

When I arrived at his podcast studio just outside London, Kisin, his podcasting partner Francis Foster, and two young guys were finishing a late lunch. They all appeared to be eating the same thing: steak.

Dressed down in a mint-coloured hoodie, paper-clip thin and pint-sized, he looked tired as he welcomed me. He has large, wet round eyes, a fish crossed with a songbird. Foster cleared away the steaks. I told Kisin how striking I thought his speech was.

“Did you?” Kisin immediately suspected that my compliment was not genuine. I immediately felt that it was going to be a long afternoon. 

I told him what was good about it: the speech was not banal, not weighed down by predictable culture-war talking points. Kisin agreed. “People are starting to realise that you can’t just bang on about what’s wrong, you have to have a positive vision of the future.” I spent the next hour or so trying to work out what Kisin’s vision actually is.

What do we know about Konstantin Kisin? He was born in Moscow, in the former Soviet Union, 40 years ago. He was sent to the boarding school Clifton College, Bristol in 1995, without being able to speak English. He has described being picked on there, and left Edinburgh University without finishing his degree. Kisin refers to himself as a “first-generation migrant”.

In the early Nineties, with Russia in chaotic flux, his family was briefly wealthy. His father served as a junior minister in one of Boris Yeltsin’s cabinets, before being hounded out of the country on tax evasion charges. (Kisin said his father was later cleared of all wrong-doing.)

Triggernometry, the podcast and YouTube show Kisin hosts, has been a guilty pleasure of mine for a while. I listen to it before I go to bed. You would be surprised how sleep-inducing two blokes loudly going off about wokeness can be. Resembling the Joe Rogan show, Triggernometry takes the form of loose chats between Foster, Kisin and a guest that they find interesting: Jordan Peterson, Jaron Lanier, John McWhorter, Mercy Muroki.  

On the pod, Foster and Kisin are earnest and engaging conversationalists. Their topics have included: “The truth about incels”, “How elites are taking over your life”, “Trans ideology is the new homophobia”, and “The TRUTH about porn”. Some of their guests are excellent. Some of them are Douglas Murray.

The show has nearly half a million subscribers. Kisin is a considerable presence on Twitter, too, and has twice appeared on the BBC’s Question Time. Although he used to be a stand-up comedian, he is now usually packaged as a “social commentator”. 

Triggernometry, first broadcast in 2018, has surfed two waves. The first was the podcasting boom of the 2010s. The second was the simultaneous explosion of alternative media. As the culture war intensified, it became possible to attract and hold the attention of a significant audience: people who think that the world has gone mad; people who think that wokeness has gone too far; people who feel, deep in their marrow, that it is closing time in the gardens of the West.

Kisin first came to national prominence in 2018 after refusing (quite rightly) to sign a “behavioural agreement” before playing a university gig. He is skilled at reflecting people’s frustrations right back at them, making them feel less alone, and assuring them that they belong to a counterculture. Within the blind spots of the mainstream media, which has been slow to tackle many of Triggernometry‘s pet subjects, Foster and Kisin have constructed their little kingdom. Parts of the media, like the Telegraph and the Spectator, have since caught up.

“I think we are all tired of talking about woke,” said Kisin, as we took our seats on the Triggernometry set. He wanted to ripple out into new areas, away from simply pointing at people he disagrees with, laughing, and saying rude things. “We all spend far too much time doing the thing we accuse others of doing, which is critiquing and criticising.” Hence the non-pugilistic tone of the Oxford speech, which Kisin claimed has received somewhere between 100 and 200 million views across all platforms. He had effectively stopped counting: “There’s no way to measure it now, of course, because it’s gone into WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels…”

Kisin’s ambitions are similarly beyond measurement. The Big Questions fascinate him. “What is going to make you happy?” He mused, gesturing broadly to the air around him. “Because let’s be honest, you know, dating apps are not making you happy… Being anti-woke isn’t making you happy. It’s making you miserable. So what is actually going to give you fulfilment and meaning and purpose in your life?”

Kisin thinks the anti-woke, or the “sane ones” as he described them, have a duty to answer these questions. They must build new institutions and create more “actual content… that’s educational, that’s inspiring, that’s informative”. More podcasts, new television shows and films. This hinted at some submerged frustration that he is, in reality, spending most of his podcasting time talking about trans issues.

It all seems rather vague, and not deliberately so. Kisin, however, was ultra-specific about himself. He talked for a long time about where his drive came from (he spent a tough three weeks sleeping on a park bench because of financial problems when he was a student). Kisin had recently become a father. Family, he emphasised “is the one thing to truly give you meaning”. As a talking point, this is familiar to anybody who has encountered the work of Jordan Peterson, and tends to be popular with young men who don’t have children.

Above all, Konstantin Kisin was fond of making declarative statements about who Konstantin Kisin is: “I’m not a tribal person,” he said. And, “I think of myself more as a satirist.” And, “No one gave me anything.” These assertions clang and clash, and make me hear an echo of their opposites. If he is not a tribal person, he dealt in “we” and “our” when talking about politics. He told me he doesn’t “give a shit” about business, but later complained how difficult it was to be an entrepreneur in the UK.

I suppose he is a satirist, though, of a sort. The follies of the left have been his target since Triggernometry began. But like all satirists, Kisin is in a bind. He would like to reform the woke, as his Oxford speech suggested. But if the woke didn’t exist, Kisin would have barely anything to talk about. He would be stranded where the US talk-show host Jon Stewart was when the Bush era ended, and the Obama years began – nowhere.  There would be no podcast, no Question Time appearances, no audience. Asked if wokeness, which he has previously described as the “re-racialisation of society” is over, Kisin said: “No”. He has a vested interest – his entire career – in keeping it that way.  

Away from his targets, Kisin’s observations on politics and history are relatively banal, as another appearance on Question Time this week confirmed. “When was the last time we heard a politician talk about growth?” he asked me. Answer: errr, Liz Truss, about three months ago. Talking about growth ended pretty well for her, didn’t it?

Given the platform by a mainstream publication to say whatever he felt, Kisin didn’t have much to say. And when he told me, unsmilingly, not to misrepresent him, a sad thought floated into my head. Misrepresent him? There would have to be something there to represent in the first place.

[See also: What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets wrong about free speech]

This article was amended on 29 January to remove a quote attributed to Mr Kisin, at Mr Kisin’s request. Further clarifications were made on 30 January at Mr Kisin’s request.

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con