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Russia's internet party

Does Russia's online community have anything resembling a common philosophy? New analysis of social media suggests the only idea shared right across the political spectrum is xenophobia. Emil Pain presents the research.

Over the past few years, the Russian language internet (RuNet) has seen an extremely high rate of user growth. Today, over half of Russia's adult population are internet users, spending on average more time on social networks than any other nation bar Israel and Argentina. This turnaround, together with the coordinating role played by social networks in the opposition movements in 2011-2, has set many people thinking about RuNet's extraordinary political potential.

We know from research provided by the independent Levada Centre (2012) that the ideological profile of internet users mirrors that of the population as a whole: a majority are still pro-regime, followed by people with leftist leanings (although with a narrower gap between these two groups than at the time of Putin’s re-election), with nationalists and ‘liberal democrats’ bringing up the rear. So any data we can obtain from social media is likely to be a reasonably reliable source of information about Russian society, and in particular about how it divides along political lines. What’s more, it is likely to reflect the whole spectrum of opinion, including the nationalists, the new left, the religious fundamentalists and so on, whose views are largely absent from mainstream media.

Analysing the data allows us to take a closer look at these new groups and what they might mean for Russia’s future. 

The ideological divide 

Our research into both mass market internet communities and elite blogosphere groups has revealed four clear ‘identities’: liberal, left, nationalist and pro-regime – all of them ideological tendencies that existed in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution and that have remained part of historical memory despite the 70 year monopoly of the Communist party in the USSR. This renewed ideological spread in Russian society is fairly amorphous, which is understandable: people identify themselves with historically recognisable concepts, of which left-right and liberal-authoritarian are the most familiar. Groups on popular internet sites such as VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, have names instantly revealing their political alignment: ‘I am a Russian’; Our Home is the Soviet Union’; ‘The Commune’ and so on. But who do they actually represent?

1) The continental mass of Soviet citizens

Formally, the largest group of internet users represents supporters of the Putin regime. But after looking at them in greater detail we dubbed them, ‘The continental mass of Soviet citizens’. These are the conformists, people who are always in the majority and always support the government of the day, whatever it may be. At the moment they are supporters of United Russia and other parties close to it, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LPDR , as well as Orthodox Christian groupings, but back in the 90s many of them supported Boris Yeltsin’s ‘Our Home is Russia’ party, and at other moments, liberals such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. The inert, homogeneous mass that was Soviet society is breaking down, albeit very slowly and painfully. This process isn’t particularly obvious from popular sites such as VKontakte, but a study of Facebook and Twitter shows how numerous elite splinter groups are appearing within all these ideological tendencies, making them more complex and diverse, even though they all still call themselves ‘the Left’ or ‘nationalists’.

2) The Left    

It was the Left that was the first contingent to be affected by change. Here we can see tendencies that are entirely new to Russia, and that to some extent confirm Francis Fukuyama’s conclusion that the Left (so far mainly in the west) has switched its love and protection away from its traditional object, the working class, which has embraced higher living standards and bourgeois habits and is no longer in need of support. In its place, the Left now aims its support at the peoples of former colonies; cultural minorities; LGBT groups and so on. And in Russia we can also see enormous differences between people who call themselves Marxists and left-wingers. They all seemingly stand for egalitarianism and social justice, but Zyuganov’s ultra-xenophobes have little in common with Antifa’s anti-fascist defenders of minorities; and, likewise, feminist punks Pussy Riot attract the hostility of ex-communist, but now patriarchal, old women who see them as blasphemers. But having said that, the ‘new left’, even on RuNet, is a tiny group compared to Communist Party supporters.

'The inert, homogeneous mass that was Soviet society is breaking down, albeit very slowly and painfully. Numerous elite splinter groups are appearing within all ideological tendencies, making them more complex and diverse, even though they all still call themselves ‘the Left’ or ‘Nationalists’.'

3) The Nationalists

This faction is going through major change. Russian nationalism as an explicit concept  first appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, with organisations such as the ‘Black Hundreds’ and the ‘Union of the Russian People’, notorious for their pogroms against Jews.  Then, nationalism meant the defence of Empire and Tsarist autocracy, but today’s nationalists are increasingly hostile to Russia’s  present imperial aspirations, as the slogan ‘Down with the Caucasus’ suggests (this is their main bone of contention with the Putin government). The nationalists’ anti-Kremlin mood is growing and spreading, as is clear not only in Moscow and St Petersburg but around the regions. In some areas, for example the Stavropol region, it forms the main opposition grouping.  

4) The Liberals

The liberals have changed the least, but then there is less difference between their ‘ordinary’ and elite members. This group has three particular characteristics. Firstly, it is the most dispersed and divided of the internet communities, without even a consistent self-identifying term for itself – the word ‘liberal’ is rarely used in liberal circles. They talk about being ‘handshakables’ (and others as ‘not handshakables’), and their most popular self-description is probably the seemingly negative ‘Anti-Seliger’.

The second characteristic of this community is its deep pessimism about the possibility of a European-style liberal political scenario for Russia. They think of themselves as a minority in a hostile social environment, among people with a ‘slave mentality’, and therefore doomed to fail. This has led to their third characteristic: they have no general political agenda for Russia, producing, at best, ideas for their own members.

Ideology – or kittens?

The dispersal of Russians into ideological groups is now a fait accompli. In one way this is a positive development compared to the amorphous mass of Soviet times. It would now be impossible to mobilise the whole population in peace time, and it is much more difficult to manipulate it. On the other hand, international comparative studies of internet communities show Russia’s as the most fragmented, its ideological ‘clumps’ bearly linked with one another, with no conversations or connections between them.

To understand how this ideological spectrum will develop over the next few years, we need to look at the ability of the various tendencies to organise and coalesce. And in this respect the picture looks very different from the one outlined above. It is the Left and the Nationalists that have shown the greatest ability and willingness to organise themselves. The pro-regime conformists are way behind them (they get organised from above), and the liberals show the least interest in organisation, which doesn’t bode well for their future. So, what is the impetus behind the mobilisation of these ideological groups – what issues bring them together in the Russian blogosphere?

It’s the Left that is most interested in ideology. They discuss old Marxism, neo-Marxism, alienation, justice and interests. The nationalists come second; the liberals last. They prefer the category ’Other’ – a hotchpotch of personal photos, book discussions, arguments about characters in films and kittens… actual political content is reduced to a minimum. Interest in people’s personal lives is of course perfectly natural, but these were political internet groups we were looking at! 

'It is the Left and the Nationalists that have shown the greatest ability and willingness to organise themselves. The pro-regime conformists are way behind them (they get organised from above), and the liberals show the least interest in organization'

It is of course true that liberalism as an ideology is rather washed out in the west as well, but that is because its central tenet – the primacy of human rights – is taken for granted there. Our situation is very different: human rights don’t carry any weight in Russia, and are at present the target of a focused campaign whose message is that the west is using the very concept as a pretext for interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. One would have thought that this harassment might galvanise Russian liberals into action, but alas, they are too busy discussing (though not in so many words) whether human rights are that important after all. Some liberals (even such prominent ones as Vladimir Milov) have even defended the Nationalist slogan ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’.  So much for human rights.

But the liberals’ main sin is their belief in historical predetermination. This has led, on the one hand, to pessimism – Russia, they complain, has an authoritarian political culture, a slave mentality. Its population is incapable of casting off its historic yoke and supporting their liberal values. On the other hand, it has led to outbursts of strained optimism, especially at protest rallies, where they assure their audience that historical progress will spontaneously bring about the triumph of freedom and democracy in Russia. They do not, however, specify the time frame for this triumph: centuries, millennia? If we look at the present moment of history, it’s clear that victory is slipping away from the liberals. It can’t be denied that they were instrumental in instilling hatred of the ‘Party of Crooks and Thieves’  in more than half of the Russian population. But a recently published list of millionaire government ministers , described as supporters of economic liberalism, sparked an immediate online post: ‘Done OK for themselves, the liberasts: they do the thieving and then blame Putin.’  No one trusts the liberals.

A future of mutant ideologies

Unstructured, splintered, pre-national societies go through a long period of rule by either dictators or the mob, and it is difficult to say which is the greater evil. In 1979, Iran’s monarchy fell and was replaced by an Islamic theocracy. The Arab Spring of 2011-2 toppled a number of stagnant dictatorships, but, again, led to government by Islamic fundamentalist ideologists. Any relaxation of Russia’s present authoritarian tendencies and consequent destabilisation could see the rise of a completely new breed of potential political leaders – ideological mutants, spawned by the union of xenophobic nationalism and left socialist populism: reflecting, in other words, what the public wants.

Communists marching alongside nationalist protesters: the red-brown ideological mutants are on the rise. Photo: (cc) Demotix/Anatoly Medved

Our research shows that the only idea shared by all four tendencies of the the social media ‘mass market’ is xenophobia. Hatred of Islam, people from the Caucasus and migrants of all kinds is common even among liberals, and even more common in the other three groups. Another increasingly popular concept is social justice: Russians are more interested in quality of life, comfort and a feeling of security than in pay rises, whereas it’s easier of course for the government to increase salaries and index pensions than to sort out housing and utilities departments. Public dissatisfaction is growing, and the leftwingers and nationalists are mutating in response to this real issue. The most active elements of left and right are borrowing each others’ slogans and fusing into a Russian variant of national socialism.

'Any relaxation of Russia’s present authoritarian rule and consequent destabilisation could see the rise of a completely new breed of potential political leaders – ideological mutants, spawned by the union of xenophobic nationalism and left socialist populism: reflecting, in other words, what the public wants.'

A leaflet produced by the ‘Volya’ [Will] party, a small but typical fringe group, hits all the right notes, being anti-government – ‘Our country is dying, murdered by the very people appointed to look after its interests, the officials’; nationalist – ‘The people’s movement ‘For Ivanov’’  (i.e. in support of the indigenous Russian population against colonisation by members of ethnic minorities), and leftist in its rhetoric against the international bourgeoisie – ‘During perestroika all our factories were sold off to the west, a pillage they called ‘privatisation’’. Statements like these have a real resonance in Russia today. History shows us that in similar situations there are two models for uniting a country’s people. One is the Spanish model, when after the death of Franco various political groupings came together and signed the Montcloa Pacts, which rejected dictatorship and laid out a ‘roadmap’ for a transition to democracy. The other is that of the Weimar Republic, which evolved from authoritarianism to dictatorship. The first model was based on dialogue and a respect for other people’s opinions; the second on the annihilation or crushing of all opponents of the regime. I’m not saying that the first path is impossible for Russia, but the danger of the second is obvious: it is much simpler, and could happen out of sheer inertia if nothing is done to prevent it.  


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