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Icons of anti-regime propaganda in Russia: populism, propaganda & lies

As the UCL’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies graduate and an analyst with years of Russia-related research experience I have come across a wide range of Western social science literature on Russian state media, where the tags ‘propaganda’, ‘populism’ and ‘lies’ feature more than prominently.

On the other hand, research on modern Russia’s anti-regime opinion makers and their information output is far less substantial. Moreover, their media products seem to escape scrutiny on a regular basis and their dedication to honesty and truth is taken as a postulate. Nevertheless, I have been observing their work and, in particular, their presence on YouTube, which has become Russia’s most popular social network and primary political platform for the anti-regime discourse, and I decided that I  should share the discoveries I made.

In this article, we are going examine two recent videos (Guriev 2020, Navalny 2020) by the leading figure of the ’non-system opposition’, a lawyer-turned-YouTuber, Alexei Navalny, and another Russian YouTube sensation, an economist-turned-public commentator, Sergei Guriev. Both videos were made in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and feature the aforementioned individuals making a number of dubious statements about the state of affairs in Russia and elsewhere in the world and offer rather similar ’action plans’ which in reality would lead to devastating consequences for Russia’s National Wealth Fund and vulnerability of the Russian state, yet these goals are not mentioned in their ’sales pitches’.

Following a dramatic intoroduction complete with excellent visual and sound effects Alexei Navalny, in his ’5 steps for Russia’ video, is quoting an article by RBC (a Russian business news outlet) about the Russian state’s 17.7-trillion-rouble ’safety cushion’ (RBC 2020a). Apparently in the spirit of the immortal Vladimir Lenin, completely ignoring a substantial part of the article, which explains the difficulties preventing utilisation of the whole sum and gives the much lower liquid assets figures, Navalny nevertheless decides that it is that sum that should be ’given away’ to the people. Of course, when it comes to populist propaganda, details are the least important. All that is needed is high figures and big words. After another minute-and-a-half of strong emotional manipulation facilitated by cutaway footage of an Orthodox priest and an unidentified hospital, subconsciously generating hatred for the Russian system, the sales pitch begins.

The popular vlogger announces that ‘all the wealthy and developed states in the East and in the West’ demand that their people stay at home and evidently understand the critical extent of the situation. Here we can observe the use of ‘frames’ – ‘schemata of interpretation’ that enable individuals to ‘locate, perceive, identify, and label occurences’ (Goffman 1974). In this instance, speaking about ‘all the wealthy and developed states’ Navalny does not specify ‘apart from Russia’ (which would be untrue) or ‘including Russia’ (which would spoil his message). Nevertheless, the audience, familiar with Navalny’s ‘angle’, run this text through the ‘frame’ of Navalny’s discourse, which presupposes that in Russia everything is bad, and subconsciously hear ‘all the wealthy and developed states… apart from Russia’.

The next phrase about the decision to ‘give money’ is another classic example of the ‘frames’ in action. First of all, there is no subject, which completely frees Navalny from any responsibility, seeing as he has not stated who exactly has decided to ‘give money’. However, running this ambiguous phrase through the ‘Navalny frame’ the viewer subconsciously connects the ‘wealthy and developed countries… excluding Russia’ with ‘give money’. As a result, Alexei Navalny has not told a lie, and at the same time his audience understood everything as they were supposed to.

Sergei Guriev, in spite of his more intricate propaganda style, is also keen on using ambiguous wording. However, unlike his more populist counterpart, he seems to almost completely shy away from any specific formulation. Hence, while according to Guriev ‘many countries of the world’ have taken the ‘direct payments to the population’ route, Navalny names the US, UK, Canada and Germany.  One may get an impression that, due to his economic background, Sergei Guriev sees the world along the lines of an economic rather than a political map. Therefore, the US, UK, Canada and Germany, which do make up a significant share of the global economy, may well be considered ‘many countries of the world’. It should be noted that certain anti-regime media in Russia seem to follow a similar logic when talking about Russia being isolated from ‘the world’ (several NATO or EU states).

Next, once again, staying away from naming specific countries or giving exact figures, Guriev mentions ‘almost all of the developed countries of the world’, which have ‘more or less’ undertaken ‘direct payments to families’ and reaffirms that Russia ‘must follow suit’. One of the key ideas of propaganda is to withhold certain information about its object that may present it in a positive light. Therefore, after Guriev’s statement one may assume that almost all the other countries apart from Russia are giving money to their masses, even though the Russian Duma had announced an initiative on ‘targeted allowances and payments to families that found themselves in a difficult financial situation due to loss of a job’ in the first half of April and added it to the legislation soon after (GodDuma RF 2020, SOZD 2020).

Much like in Navalny’s case, Guriev had not mentioned that Russia is also making payments to families. If he had mentioned it – his message would have been spoilt, if he had said the opposite – it would have been a lie. As a result, technically Guriev has not told a lie, but his audience, having run his statement through the ‘Guriev frame’, understood everything as they were meant to – ‘many other countries are making direct payments to families, but Russia is not’.

Moving on, as Navalny begins mentioning specific countries he seems to follow the classic [True – False – False –etc.] model. The first example about the German state generously helping its entrepreneurs is true, seeing as if someone does decide to do a fact-check, they will most likely look up the first example, acknowledge that it is the truth and stop at that, without even thinking that not all German citizens are entrepreneurs.

Navalny’s second statement, however, — ‘in the US the government will transfer you $ 1,200 – that’s to every person’ – is false. The main idea must be that Navalny’s average viewer would not have the sufficient knowledge of English to be able to undertake research across English language sources. Otherwise, they would have examined the text of the CARES Act, passed in March, and found that $ 1,200 tax rebates are only payable to adult tax payers who fulfil a number of criteria (US Congress 2020). Even a less pedantic individual with sufficient English skills could come across the articles titled ‘Not everyone is getting a $ 1,200 coronavirus stimulus check’ (USA Today 2020) and ‘Who’s left out of Coronavirus stimulus payments?‘ (Wall Street Journal 2020), and find that around a third of the country’s population would not be getting the $ 1,200 payments. In fact, among those groups are ‘many college students’ and ‘adult dependants’. Considering that the aforementioned groups make up a substantial segment of Navalny’s support base, it is clear why he chose not to mention that detail.

The next statement — ‘in Canada everyone will get 2,000 dollars’ is also false. Once again, it is expected that the viewers would not go on the Canadian government’s website to check. Otherwise, they would find that not everyone is getting the CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) but rather those who fulfil a number of criteria (Canada 2020a, 2020b). When mentioning that ‘the same thing is done in Spain’ an extract from an article comes up on the screen. By this stage the audience is expected to be overwhelmed with anger, which should prevent them from zooming in on the article and reading ‘What monthly sum is in question – it has not yet been specified’.

Navalny then goes on to mention Georgia and ‘and so on’ in order to create an illusion of multiplicity. As a Brit, I am more than puzzled as to why Navalny chose to make up and inflate facts when he could have simply told his audience about Britain’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other effective measures undertaken by the UK government to ensure welfare of the British people.

Moving on, in Guriev’s pitch the emotional manipulation component comes further on and appears to be less thought through, which makes one think that he does not have a group of PR specialists behind him as does his counterpart. The statement ‘the Russian state does not have the precise information about which one of us earns more and who earns less, and who will be the first to run out of money’ is rather an odd choice of words for the following reasons.

First of all, Guriev’s attempt to relate himself to the audience by using the pronoun ‘us’ may well backfire at him if the spectator runs it through the ‘Guriev probably earns much more money than me and does not live in Russia’ frame. Also, seeing as Guriev did not leave Russia during the times of Prince Oleg, he must surely be aware of the existence of such institutions as the Ministry of Finance and Tax Service. Finally, his somewhat patronising rhetoric, which seems to portray Russians as passive people incapable of notifying the state of their financial hardship and applying for the newly introduced benefits, is also rather risky.

At the same time, stressing the fact that ‘almost two-thirds of the Russian citizens do not have sufficient savings to survive a month or two without income’ was a much clearer choice. Just like with Navalny’s propaganda this is once again a case of a one-sided presentation with a selective use of facts. Had Guriev mentioned the findings of a recent Charles Schwab survey quoted in the Time magazine that 59% of Americans live ‘from paycheck to paycheck’ (Charles Schwab Corp 2020, Time 2020), this kind of a counter-balance would have seriously damaged his angle.

However, the most interesting part is at the end of their pitches. Aleksei Navalny suggests that 10.2 tn roubles out of 17.7 tn should be given away to the people of Russia, and Sergei Guriev goes with 4 tn roubles out of 11 tn roubles of liquid assets. As per Navalny’s ‘calculations’ there would still be 7.5 tn roubles left in the National Wealth Fund, as per Guriev’s there would be 7 tn roubles left. However, they have forgotten to mention the ‘elephant in the room’ –Sberbank buyout, for which the Russian state took 2.14 tn roubles from NWF (RBC 2020b). While such an omission may well be forgiven to lawyer Navalny, it is much more difficult to understand how economist Guriev could miss 1.5 tn roubles from NWF’s liquid assets that had been put aside for this deal (Ibid). Furthermore, they also missed and did not subtract 4 tn roubles (forecast maximum budget revenues loss) and 2.1 tn roubles (RBC 2020a, 2020c).

7.5 tn – 2.14 tn – 4 tn – 2.1 tn = -0.74 tn

7 tn – 1.5 tn – 4 tn – 2.1 tn = -0.6 tn

Hence, in reality ‘Navalny’s plan’ leaves the Russian state 0.74 tn roubles in debt and ‘Guriev’s plan’ 0.6 tn roubles in debt. Can it thus be concluded that both opinion-makers are looking to make Russia bankrupt? While that may well be possible, one should never rush to conclusions. Seeing as both Alexei Navalny and Sergei Guriev are intelligent individuals they must understand that the Russian government would not follow such a self-destructive plan. Hence, it is most likely that they are merely looking to score some political points at the expense of the ‘stingy’ Russian government and intensify the anti-regime sentiments among the masses. Why do they need the latter? That is a good question.

Author: Ernest A Reid, IMESS in Politics & Security, Researcher Analyst

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