No Victory in Sight in Russia’s Great Memetic War

by Mark Galeotti


As I write this, Moscow is clearing up after the latest Great Patriotic War nostalgia-fest. The Victory Day parade is a chance to remember past glories, drink, wear a pilotka and, for those of us disposed to that kind of thing, ooh and aah at the squat-turreted tanks and phallic missiles clanking and clattering their way through the city.

It is also a regular opportunity by the Kremlin to restate and redefine its own narrative, of an heroic people unified against an external force by and around a powerful leader. Now, of course Putin is no Stalinist (after all, he told us so), but nonetheless in a time when the state is busily trying to characterize liberal NGOs as “Foreign Agents” and ultra-leftist Sergei Udaltsov a Georgian agent, then there to a considerable extent this narrative is again coming to the fore.

However, this is by no means uncontested and one of the interesting current developments is the way that the opposition, especially that wing of it dominated by Alexei Navalny, for all its evident divisions and weaknesses, does seem to be beginning to have a genuine impact on national conversations. After all—and this is something which emerged from discussions I had with RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin, and Sean Guillory from the University of Pittsburgh in a recent RFE/RL Power Vertical podcast—the political struggle taking place within Russia is in no way a conventional organizational one. Navalny is much more than the “anti-corruption blogger” as he is often described, but he is not (yet?) a leader of a coherent movement. There is no rival to Putin and the United Russia bloc within the regular electoral context.

Instead, what is taking place is an asymmetric struggle by a range of actors to define, to brand themselves and their rivals and in the process Russia itself. This kind of memetic (as in relating to memes, ideas that spread from person to person) is one in which creativity and passion can be — almost — as effective as the size of a propaganda machine. And, of course, it happens to be an area in which the liberal middle class opposition have demonstrated considerable skill, especially arch mememeister Navalny.

A particularly good index of this has been a recent Levada opinion survey, also somewhat covered in the Russian press, about attitudes to United Russia, Putin and the elite in particular. I reproduce them below, although in some cases I have eliminated some columns, especially of earlier samples, in the interests of space. This must be pretty uncomfortable reading in the Kremlin.

WITH WHICH THESE STATEMENTS ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO ARE IN POWER NOW DO YOU AGREE?

These are people who…

2/06

3/10

1/12

8/12

4/13

care about the welfare of the people

10

12

19

14

10

are concerned only with their privileges and income

56

40

37

33

41

are educated, knowledgeable professionals

15

22

22

25

18

are organizers and practitioners, able to work with people

12

14

15

14

12

are convinced ideologists

6

10

9

7

6

are advocates of the ‘pre-perestroika’ (Soviet) order

3

2

2

2

2

are concerned with the government itself

43

27

34

32

34

Other

1

1

<1

1

1

Hard to tell

6

10

11

12

9

 

TO WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING STATEMENTS ON CORRUPTION IN RUSSIA DO YOU AGREE?

3/12

11/12

4/13

Putin will be able to succeed in the fight against corruption, purging the ranks of top officials and toughening the punishment for such crimes

27

27

20

Putin will try to fight against corruption, but he is unlikely to make significant progress because it is deep-rooted in Russia

35

35

35

Putin will find it hard to fight corruption, as he himself is largely dependent on corrupt officials

15

21

21

Putin will not seriously try to fight against corruption, as he is in some way involved

15

12

17

Do not know

6

6

7

 

WHAT, IN YOUR OPINION, IS MORE IMPORTANT TO THE PEOPLE WHO NOW HOLD POWER IN RUSSIA?

The prosperity of the country

26

To maintain and strengthen their own power

62

Hard to tell

12

 

DO YOU THINK THAT PUTIN IS NOW MORE INTERESTED IN THE STATE OF THE COUNTRY OF HIS OWN INTERESTS?

1/05

1/07

1/08

1/12

4/13

The country’s problems

31

48

56

40

33

His personal financial interests

55

36

29

41

52

Hard to tell

14

16

16

19

16

 

DO YOU BELIEVE THAT THE INCOME DECLARATIONS OF SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS, MEMBERS OF THE FEDERATION COUNCIL AND STATE DUMA DEPUTIES REPRESENT ALL THEIR AVAILABLE INCOME AND PROPERTY TAXES OR ONLY PART OF THEM?

4/10

4/11

4/12

4/13

All

2

1

2

3

Most

10

11

13

15

Minority

44

43

38

43

Infinitesimal part

34

34

32

28

Hard to tell

10

11

15

11

 

WHY DO YOU THINK THE RICHEST STATE DUMA DEPUTIES BELONG TO THE “UNITED RUSSIA” BLOC?

Because “United Russia” unites and protects the interests of the rich

31

Because the administrative resources of “United Russia” open up opportunities for rapid enrichment

44

This is a historical process

15

Hard to tell

10

 

DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE VIEW THAT “UNITED RUSSIA” IS THE PARTY OF CROOKS AND THIEVES?

2/12

6/12

8/12

9/12

11/12

2/13

4/13

Definitely yes

15

17

15

13

13

16

18

Probably yes

21

24

30

25

25

24

33

Probably not

30

28

30

27

26

27

24

Definitely not

17

12

12

17

14

14

9

Hard to tell

17

19

13

19

22

18

16

Take, for example, the last, specific point about UR being the “Party of Crooks and Thieves”–something which was, after all, Navalny’s inspired “PZhiV” memetic salvo. Over half, 51%, of respondents definitely or generally agree. Remember, that 51% should not also be considered devoted Navalny groupies (most have not heard of him, and of those who have, most express dislike or mistrust of him), but nonetheless his meme has spread well beyond his own circle, and it is also supported by those separate indices that see United Russia as the rich man’s (or woman’s) home and the elite habitually understating their true incomes.

The steady rise of the PZiV meme

 

So let’s summarize the poll’s findings. Most respondents (51%) broadly or completely agree that United Russia is a bunch of crooks, the largest proportion (41%) consider the elite wholly self-interested and almost two-thirds (62%) believe they will rule in their own interests. A clear majority (71%) believe they substantially deceive the public about their real incomes. Putin himself (52%) is primarily motivated by his own rather than the country’s interests, and (73%) will be unable or unwilling seriously to fight corruption within the system.

This must be discouraging reading for the Kremlin. However, it is only a partial boon for the opposition. After all, while more and more Russians have heard of Navalny, Levada polls also suggest that his popularity amongst them is actually falling. It is likely not so much that former supporters are changing their minds, rather than those who now known who he is have internalized the government’s efforts to smear him.

The sad and worrying thing about the present struggle for the hearts and minds of Russia, though, is that it is pretty much entirely negative. Navalny is presenting the elite as self-serving and corrupt; the Kremlin is trying to do the same to him. How long will it be before anyone is able to start presenting some positive visions for Russia’s future? Meanwhile, the Great Memetic War in Russia is looking more like a Siege of Leningrad, a slow, brutal, grinding battle of attrition…

 

An earlier, shorter version of this post appeared on Mark’s own blog, In Moscow’s Shadows.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *