13 February 2012

On New Media, Memory and Identity in Russia by Vera Zvereva

Russia has now become the European leader in terms of the number of internet users. ComScore statistics from September 2011 indicate that there are currently around 50.8 million internet users, i.e. unique visitors aged 15 and above, in Russia. In other words, roughly one third of Russians now use the internet.

There are several important factors to note here. First, the huge numbers involved, and the diversity. The internet has succeeded where (centralised and non-diversified) TV has failed: ‘everyone’ has now suddenly seen ‘everyone else’. Access to the same technologies, the same means of expressing one’s views in public, the same social networks, etc, means that Russians are coming face-to-face with their real-life ‘others’, rather than their imaginary or phantom ‘others’. And they are learning that these others often have completely different ideological world-views. Sometimes this difference arouses curiosity, and sometimes, intolerance.

Russian social life in the 2000s was characterised by a crisis of social trust and a tendency to rely on close circles of friends and family. How, then, does this sit alongside the very different model of social relations offered by Web 2.0? In my view, this question represents the most important identity challenge facing Russian new media users since the advent of the social web. How can one find a way of forging solidarity and relationships in this environment? On the one hand, this new communication space is structured in such a way that one is enveloped by like-minded people nearby, and surrounded in turn by a sea of ‘others’, all socialising with equal rights. On the other, the internet facilitates communication and the construction of communities (eg via social networking), as well as their rapid mobilisation for action. Here the degree of diversity is mirrored in the diversity of the solutions being offered in response to this challenge.

I would identify three significant trends here.

The first is the most simple and predictable: the drive to find new mythologies. There is a sense that the old myths have been ‘desecrated’, but new, genuinely viable ones have yet to be proposed. Russians in the 2000s are living in a de-mythologised world (mythology should not be confused with propaganda here). This is a highly cynical reality, in which all the mechanisms of violence, both symbolic and real, have been laid bare and are visible to all. In these conditions, people are looking for a future and, failing that, then at least a mythological past.

One related process is the practice of searching for myths together with like-minded people. The most predictable option here is the Soviet myth. The current internet nostalgia for the USSR is understandable. This nostalgia, it seems to me, is somewhat different from that of the television generation a few years back. Previously, this nostalgia was linked to the desire to find ways of making sense of one’s own personal experiences of the USSR, to endow one’s past life with meaning, and to escape from the joyless existence of the present.

In contrast, for today’s young internet users, nostalgia for the USSR is a kind of reaction against cynicism. This nostalgia takes the form of a new myth of the USSR, now constructed as a distant mythological or magical country, providing refuge from the present (eg. Savok_name; or the ‘soobshchestsvo SSSR’ on VKontakte; or the popular Youtube clip, ‘Underwud – ochen’ khochetsia v Sovetskii Soiuz’). Curiously, they want to escape from the stagnation of the 2000s into the stagnation of the 1970s.

In my opinion, the interest in history characteristic of such communities, for example in VKontakte, where historical events serve a significant self-identification function), can be linked to this same drive. Some users, of course, have their own personal reasons for their interest in history; but the majority are attracted by myths about the White Movement, Tsarist Russia, and Victory in the Great Patriotic War, and this attraction is linked to the use of these myths as a means of constructing identity.

Again, as a means of self-identification, there is something new about this current trend. In communities devoted to unproblematic memories of the war, a large place is occupied by official rhetoric, but the discourse of family memory is also being interwoven here, and learning about the past is being produced as a process of discovery or revelation. The past takes the form of oral history, witness testimony, personal reminiscences, but is also harnessed very tightly to official discourse, which penetrates into every last nook and cranny here.

Moreover, this is not simply a matter of the mechanical reproduction of official stock phrases. In her recent study of internet memory, Elena Trubina finds parallels with European examples of memory of the war, and the new tendency for communities to develop new formulas of identification and empathy for all victims, irrespective of nationality.

At the same time, however, there are a great many groups dedicated to the Great Patriotic War which are organised against someone or something (eg against falsification), and which are used as sites for battles with ‘enemies’. The language of hatred is the most powerful element of the discourse of such communities.

The second important aspect of the self-identification of Russian internet users today is the practice of coming together around a particular project. The advent of social networks and Twitter made this possible. When they first appeared, several years ago, everyone was saying: ‘Finally, we have a civil society!’ Under this model, one identifies oneself through a connection to a temporary group set up in order to carry out a practical task. As a rule, these tasks are linked with helping others (eg, Pozharu net/ set up during the 2010 forest fires; Liza Alert for missing children), or mutual aid (eg the Blue Buckets movement, which campaigns against the illegimate use of emergency sirens on cars), or for a joint cause (eg the ‘positive-creative ecological movement’Musora Bol'she Net).

A large number of such associations have now appeared, and participation is an everday widespread practice. Here we find networked identity in its fullest sense: short-term, non-political, but intensive, and linked with a ‘good cause’ (through which I can also assert my identity as a good person). Such activities are focused not on the past, but on building the present.

The Quest for Community and Obstacles to its Formation

The troubled quest for community is a very important process characterising the recent period. I argued above that the internet has given everyone the opportunity to see everyone else. But in the majority of cases, the eyes of RuNet users are focused on the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is a key point: people want very much to find ‘us’, but they have great difficulty in doing so.

In 2005 I conducted a study of comments posted on news stories by mail.ru users. This was a platform spontaneously taken over by users in order to express their dissatisfaction with life; any event or news story would immediately prompt a trail of negative connotations. For the users, this commenting was a ritual which enabled them to use aggressive communication as a means of ‘letting off steam’, to express themselves, to reinforce their views on how social and political reality is constructed. In this media space, where ‘simple people’ can express themselves with regard to ‘the powers that be’, a kind of tacitly accepted inversion of the offline social hierarchy takes place. The ‘ordinary person’ – the main personage of such conversations – complaining about life, exposing the regime’s evil intentions, warning, threatening, boasting, was proving his own superiority over and over again, demonstrating his power in this conversation. This power was realised via the practice of the re-definition, appropriation and arbitrary substitution of meanings in the original text.

‘Us’ and ‘them’ clusters served as a means of categorising all possible events. These commentators had no problem dealing with ‘them’. It was relating to ‘us’ that turned out to be more problematic: doubts were constantly arising with regard to interlocutors, and the slightest pretext could led to conflict, alienation and rejection. It seems to me that it is precisely this feature – apprehension or a lack of desire to recognise the other as ‘one of us’ – that indicates the depth of the social crisis that Russians went through in the late 2000s.

But today, too, in monitoring the current (mighty) protest movement on the internet, we find exactly the same thing. A general dissatisfaction with the regime and a desire for a ‘normal life’, on the one hand; but very strong distrust and hostility towards those who think differently, on the other.

Take, for example, the White Ribbon. The use of avatar badges has become a widespread method for recognising like-minded people on the internet. Let’s say, you are ‘in favour’ of something – then you can add this element to your userpic. Originally an online method, this was then transferred to the street: if you are opposed to the contempt for road-rules shown by VIP-drivers, you can show this by displaying a ribbon on your car (incidentally, white ribbons were used for this cause, too).

In practice, however, the end result is suspicion. Consider, for example, the following discussion of the white ribbons. A commentator writes, ‘Well, I think, if I see someone with a white ribbon, I’ll smash them in the face for sure. Not out of meanness, but to make them smarten up. They’ll smarten up, and they’ll thank me.’

The original author then responds: ‘It’s not worth it. This is not our way. More than this: I suspect that this is precisely what the ‘White Ribbon’ masters are hoping for.’

Next, another user responds, commenting that he would like to punch the first commenter in the face:
‘I recommend buying good medical insurance, and then taking a trip on the metro for half an hour or so. Find someone who for example has been wearing a white ribbon for three years now as a sign of the struggle for safe births and safe pregnancies. Punch them in the face. Get punched in the face. Smarten up. Good luck.’

And he ends by noting that he himself wears a white ribbon: ‘P.S. I wear a white ribbon with the text ‘I am against falsifications of elections’. I have strong negative feelings towards those wearing white ribbons with ‘revolution’ on them -- re: those who wear blank ribbons, I’m wary -- FIIN what they mean by that.’

In this context of visibility, connectedness, and suspiciousness, there is a strong desire to ‘tune out’ from political language, to operate on the basis of ‘common sense’. This is an important position today, characteristic of many civic interactions and featuring a strong nationalistic component. Here nationalism plays a new role as an identifier associated with ‘common sense’ and ‘simple positive values’, as well as with dissatisfaction with the authorities and with life.

Take, for example, the new formula coined by Belkovskii as a label for ‘the new discontent’, and which has already moved into everyday parlance: ROG: Russkii obrazovannyi gorozhanin (Russian Educated Urbanite), ‘located beyond the field of influence of political parties’, as in the following quote: ‘Russian Educated Urbanites (ROG) are the main driving force behind the protest’).

Of course, steb versions have also emerged, such as the following by Petrovich”:

ROG – Russian educated citizens
NOG – non-Russian educated citizens
RNG – Russian non-educated citizens
NNG – non-Russian non-educated citizens

To sum up, there are no new or unexpected versions of positive identity to be found on the Russian internet; but there are substantial semantic shifts taking place, and there are transforming the previous picture. There are no influential universal versions of identity. Then again, perhaps the time for these has passed. What has appeared is a multitude of diversities, joined together in the form of a network. The medium is the message, and the network itself is the content of this new form of identification.

Vera Zvereva (MAW Bergen / RGGU, Moscow)

This article is a translated excerpt of a presentation delivered at the seminar Russian Schools, Church, Media and 'Working Through' the Soviet Past, the eighth open seminar of the project Democracy in Russia, 22 December 2011. A Russian article based on the talk is also forthcoming in Vestnik Obshchestvennogo Mneniia.


  1. Internet is broadcasting whole the world so that's best way for the community purpose. The Internet has given everyone the opportunity to see other people. However, the user's eyes are focused on us and them sharing out information and do well communication.

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