This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
It’s not that pop culture has been weaponised. It’s more that Russia’s geopolitical adventures over the last several years owe at least as much, if not more, to Jerry Springer as they do to Soviet military doctrines.
Ukraine’s Eurovision victory with a song by Jamala - an ethnic Crimean Tartar - about the deportation of her people in 1944 pressed all of the right buttons in Russia. The performance at Eurovision - a pop music contest that is apolitical de jure but so political de facto - fit squarely within the context of Russia’s standoff with the West and particularly its role in the Ukraine conflict. So much so that Russia’s deputy prime minister for defense, the hawkish, nationalistic Dmitri Rogozin, weighed in with a proposal to send rocker Sergei Shnurov (Shnur), known for his expletive-ridden anthems, to the next contest. “Don’t know if he’d win,” Rogozin wrote on Twitter, “but he’ll tell everyone where to go.”
As in years past, there was, predictably, a whole chorus of indignation, most likely genuine, over the Eurovision results - Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested that Russia could enter a song about Assad at the next contest (with suitably atrocious lyrics: “Assad bloody, Assad worst. Give me prize, that we can host”) while other Russian politicians riled over “demonisation” and “politicisation” in the contest. The pro-Kremlin RT network declared, meanwhile, that the music had died and the contest had become “the latest front in the Western elite’s obsessional and relentless new Cold War against Russia” and that the music had died. But even against that backdrop, Rogozin’s half threat, half promise materialised as the apotheosis of Russia’s weaponisation of pop culture.
The sheer fact of a response from the deputy prime minister for defense – however much in jest – escalated what is at best a pop contest deployed to serve in an information war to a different level of warfare. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, after all, played into this – or merely took the bait – when he admitted that Jamala’s song was initially slated to be called “Crimea is ours”, but the title was changed to 1944, the year of the Tatar deportations, so as not to sound too political.
On one level, Rogozin’s response appears to show that everything – including an innocuous pop song contest with, incidentally, a heavy LGBT following – is fair game to be deployed in Russia’s sabre rattling. Russia has previously weaponised journalists, and now it is weaponising its pop singers and rock stars.
But on a closer look it might seem that, to the contrary, it’s not that pop culture has been weaponised. It’s more that Russia’s geopolitical adventures over the last several years owe at least as much, if not more, to Jerry Springer as they do to Soviet military doctrines. The troll factories in St. Petersburg, the proselytizing by Dmitry Kiselyov about turning the USA into radioactive ash, even, to some extent, the provocative buzzing of US ships by Russian fighter jets – taken together all of this looks less like a cohesive strategy of aggression and more like an incoherent reality show where there is only one rule - the more tasteless the scandal the better, because after all that’s what gets the audience going.
In this respect, the gleeful meme-fest that followed Rogozin’s post was telling, and arguably more entertaining than Eurovision itself: a cartoon of Shnur smashing his guitar and at least one confused Travolta gif at a lackluster Eurovision 2017 showed up on my Facebook feed. Violetta Volkova, once a lawyer for Pussy Riot whose Twitter leans towards the patriotic, pro-annexation camp, seconded Rogozin’s suggestion about Shnur entering the next Eurovision, adding, “preferably on an Armata [tank]”. (In the thread that followed, one skeptic suggested the Armata would break down on Red Square). Whether intentionally or not, Volkova’s reference is doubly telling: the Armata is made by Uralvagonzavod, the tank factory whose workers became synonymous with Vladimir Putin’s loyal base. Ostensibly, they are the viewers of this reality show, so, of course, if Sergei Shnurov heads to Eurovision, it should be on their tank.
But it was Shnur himself who took the game to the next level. “It turns out”, he wrote in an Instagram post, “that out of 140 million citizens only one can tell someone to go f*** themselves. That is what was written on Twitter by the deputy prime minister of a nuclear power.” Then Shnur took Rogozin’s remark, itself hyperbolised by the very fact that its author was a deputy prime minister of a nuclear power, and hyperbolised further, to the epic proportions that only a Russian reality show could take: “The Russian people, as a mythic hero, appeal to Shnur, as an unclean force of the lower orders, to join forces and win against absolute mythic evil.” It is unclear to what extent Shnur was serious about equating either Europe or Eurovision with “absolute mythic evil”. And even though his responses warranted an entire article in Russia’s Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid, it doesn’t really matter.
At the heart of comments by Rogozin and Zakharova are hits and ratings, not policy. In the context of their reaction to Eurovision, these officials are people who use social media for vanity’s sake, rather than those who decide who will live and who will die. The danger lies in the fact that they are also a little bit of the latter no matter what they do. Rogozin didn’t only show that he can joke on Twitter – having met him and interviewed him a number of times I have little doubt that his views and his jokes are genuine and hardly calculated. He has demonstrated that Russia’s entire policy of “aggression” is as much about spectacle, whether tragic or comic. At home, this spectacle entertains and distracts. Abroad, it distracts and dismays. The actors of this show are competing for attention from an audience which, initially domestic, has extended to the realms of the international, and recalling Shnur’s hyperbole, perhaps divine too.
So why is Russia reacting so disproportionately to a pop song contest? Because its policy, however lethal, has hardly risen above a televised brawl on Jerry Springer. There is no endgame here, just a cry for attention.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.