It’s not easy guarding the purity of the Russian state. In addition to the existential threats posed by rainbows, LGBT parades, Ukrainian libraries, and imported cheddar, Russia faces a new enemy: Netflix.
In the West, we’ve long been familiar with the clear and present danger of Netflix. Who knows how much labor productivity has suffered due to the latest season of Orange Is the New Black? Russia is no stranger to television-related impediments to work efficiency: when the whole country was obsessed with a Mexican soap opera in the early 1990s, state television added a second daily screening in order to save the grain harvest. In the wake of falling oil prices, the Russian Federation cannot risk even a Jessica Jones-sized calamity.
It turns out, however, that labor is not the issue. And given the price of a Netflix subscription in rubles (649-949 rubles per month), it’s safe to say that no one who is responsible for the actual work of bringing in the crops or keeping the trains running is at any risk of distraction. No, the issue is, once again, protecting Russian minds from insidious foreign influence.
Master of None
The attack on Netflix is the brainchild of Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky. If you’re not familiar with his work, just imagine the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Modern Language Association as run by Glenn Beck. In scholarly circles, he is perhaps most famous for complaining that government money was being wasted on such trivialities as a study of the “philosophy of the hare.” No one could find evidence of such a paper, but in 2014, academics across the world took part in a three-day “Bunny Philosophy” conference in Medinsky’s (dis)honor.
The “bunny philosophy” meme may well be Medinsky’s most original contribution to academia (he is one of many Russian public officials who allegedly plagiarized their dissertations). Far more disturbing is the fact that Medinsky is notoriously suspicious of variety and open-ended inquiry. He has publicly marveled at the absurdity of there being more than one Russian history textbook for the country’s children, lamented the production of films that call into question a patriotic master narrative of history, and called for “an end to the endless series of schizophrenic reflections about ourselves.”
Above all, Medinsky lives in a state of constant anxiety over the contents of people’s heads. In his lobbying for a single history textbook, he declared, “We must not breed pluralism in fifth-graders’ heads.” Which brings us to his complaint about Netflix:
“It turns out that our ideological friends [the US government] are well aware what constitutes the most important of all art forms [cinema, according to Vladimir Lenin], and they understand how to enter everyone’s homes by getting into every television with the help of Netflix. And through this television, [they get into] the heads of everyone on Earth. But we [in Russia] don’t grasp this,” Medinsky said.
Yes, the State Department is so powerful, and so evil, that it has hatched a plan to alter the minds of the world’s population via television. In the current Russian mediascape, such an assertion is not at all surprising. One of the country’s television stations has three regular programs devoted entirely to conspiracy theories: “Chapman’s Mysteries,” hosted by third-rate ex-suburban spy Anna Chapman, and two shows by Igor Prokopenko whose titles are a remarkably rare example of truth in advertising (“Fallacy Territory” and “Conspiracy Theory”). Chapman has recently alleged that allergies are part of an American biological warfare program (overlapping with a billionaire cabal’s plan to reduce global population), while Prokopenko keeps repeating scare stories about Europeans requiring that all orphans be adopted by same-sex couples.
There is something wonderfully Freudian about Russian television’s constant stories of televised “brainwashing” in Western countries. Either the producers’ limited imaginations oblige them to project their understanding of their own work habits onto the outside world, or we are dealing with the return of the repressed: the shameless, nightly televised fabrications can only be admitted when projected onto the evil Other.
House of Cards
Equally telling is Medinsky’s dismissal of the very idea of technical innovation without government sponsorship: “And, what, you thought these gigantic startups emerge by themselves? One little college student sits down, has himself an idea, and billions of dollars just rain down from above?!” Of course, there is a much more nuanced case to be made about the crucial role played by state infrastructure (the Obama argument much maligned on Fox News), but something different is at work here.
Recall the dismissal of Russian protesters as State Department puppets, the insistence that most of Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for America’s evil influence, and blaming the West for the very existence of LGBT people. Critics focus on the specific messages pushed by state television and politicians, but the metamessage is always clear: nothing can ever happen without the State.
I am thankful to Medinsky for one thing, though. Netflix has provide me with constant linguistic challenges (I would never have guessed how you say “Orange is the New Black” in Russian). But if the Medinskys of this world have there way, I finally understand that the Russian equivalent of “Netflix and chill” should be “Watch Channel One and reproduce.”
It’s not catchy, but at least it’s patriotic.