Putin’s propaganda took a strange form

Putin’s propaganda took a strange form

Winter is coming, is it time to move to Russia?

The phrase “winter is coming” has been haunting me for the past few days. That’s partly because, like millions of others, I started watching House of the Dragon, the prequel to Game of Thrones that has those ominous words for a motto, writes Financial Times US editor-in-chief Gillian Tett.

But there is a second reason. I recently watched a YouTube video that purports to convince English-speaking viewers to move to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia because, well, “winter is coming.” The highlight of the 53-second film is the supposed appeal of Putin’s country. “Delicious cuisine, beautiful women, cheap gas, rich history, fertile soil, cheap electricity, ballet, cheap taxis,” a voice solemnly notes as various images, including several beautiful women, flash past.

This is not all. Traditional values, Christianity, a culture of non-exclusion and vodka are praised alongside “an economy that can withstand a thousand sanctions”. The strange video triumphantly concludes that it is time to move to Russia immediately. This could just be a joking Game of Thrones reference, but it also comes across as a thinly veiled threat. Move to Russia, the video seems to say, before Moscow attacks the West in some way in the coming months.

The video is notable not only for its bad taste (the image accompanying the words “Russian literature” is of Nikolai Gogol, a 19th-century Ukrainian-Russian writer). My first instinct was that it must be a parody, but its promotion on social media by several Russian embassies suggests otherwise. There has been no official explanation from Moscow, although a fact-checking website run by VOA, the state-funded US electronic media, says the pro-Russian Telegram channel has taken credit for producing the video.

Besides trolling the rest of the world, is there any point in this exercise? There isn’t much evidence that the video will work in terms of luring Westerners to Russia. Few Americans will follow Hollywood star Steven Segal, who ostentatiously embraced Russian citizenship and recently visited a bombed POW camp in a Russian-held area of ​​eastern Ukraine to demonstrate his support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

It is highly unlikely that this was the intention. The real meaning of the clip probably lies more in what it tells us about Russia’s enthusiastic use of propaganda in a divided digital world. Whoever created it seems to have intuitively guessed that the best way to “sell” the message was to tap into the far-right cultural landscape in the US. The praise of “traditional,” “Christian” values, and a “culture of non-exclusion” is exactly what Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson extols every night on television. (Carlson, it should be noted, has often expressed pro-Russian views.)

Meanwhile, the emphasis on the abundance of “beautiful women” in Russia appears to be aimed at capitalizing on the fact that many members of far-right online forums such as 8kun (formerly 8chan) are supporters of the anti-feminist movement “incel”, which derives its name from the phrase “involuntary celibates” (involuntarily celibate)adopted by men who have difficulty attracting the opposite sex.

The other reason the video haunts me is that it’s a powerful, if extremely curious, example of how the Internet fuels the cross-border movement of cultural memes. This is not just a 21st century phenomenon: ideas and cultural symbols have always moved between different groups as a result of trade, war or marriage. For example, if you travel through the lands of the ancient Asian Silk Road, you’ll find similar-sounding words for things like “tea,” “meal,” “salt,” and “sugar” in different languages ​​because traders crossed borders. Cultures rarely exist as capsules, but rather like rivers into which fresh streams flow.

But while this cross-border cultural movement used to happen rather slowly, it is now growing exponentially on the Internet. Today, our lives are connected by a digital silk road. It is a cyber realm that has multiple echo chambers and tribal divisions. But sometimes memes jump between tribes, and in unpredictable ways.

After “winter is coming” first became a popular phrase via Game of Thrones, Russian dissident Garry Kasparov used it as the title of his 2015 anti-Putin book. (also published in Bulgarian – note trans.) Now, ironically, a pro-Putin propaganda video is exploiting the phrase, but this has already prompted a video response parodying the original “Move to Russia” clip. No doubt there will be many more cultural clashes and contagions. It’s a sign, if you will, of how interconnected our world has become, even as ugly nationalism rises in Russia and elsewhere.