A short analysis of the cultural specificity of a Russian meme
March 6, 2015 9:03 PM   Subscribe

It's often suggested that Russia and the West have fundamentally different worldviews. In this article, author Jim Kovpak attempts to illustrate why that is by analysing the vatnik internet meme.
posted by averysmallcat (23 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This piece seemed surprisingly devoid of primary sources; is there a collection of vatnik meme images with english translations of russian text? (perhaps, ideally, with context explanations?) A cursory google search doesn't seem to go much deeper than the gloss in the article.

This is not to say that I am trying to badmouth this link; this is a whole new cultural artifact I'd been unfamiliar with! But I'd love to know more about how it's manifested in day-to-day russian internet culture.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:48 PM on March 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Naturally, there will be some academically-minded people who scoff at the idea of understanding Russia via a satirical internet meme.

What it reminds me of are things like anthropologist Michael Herzfeld arguing for deeper study of culture-specific stereotypes a good while back or John Russell's more general work on racist stereotypes in Japan as clues to something specifically Japanese. Good article--thanks for posting it.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:52 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

from the article:

Of course this idea of the Russian soul as well as the idea that Russians will happily endure any hardship out of a sense of patriotism is utter nonsense, spectacularly debunked at least two times in the 20th century alone.

Everything we know is wrong, which, of course, we already knew. This is usually good.
posted by philip-random at 10:26 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Greg Nog: This piece seemed surprisingly devoid of primary sources; is there a collection of vatnik meme images with english translations of russian text? (perhaps, ideally, with context explanations?)

The best source I can find for translated or English-language versions of the vatnik memes is this Vatnik-Today Tumblr. I'm not a native Russian speaker but I'm reasonably sure this represents the concept well enough for our purposes. There's a crudity and an aggression to the meme that really comes through in these versions, in case you were expecting elegant Russian-to-English translations :)
posted by averysmallcat at 10:44 PM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

There's a crudity and an aggression to the meme that really comes through in these versions

oh hell yes
posted by Greg Nog at 10:48 PM on March 6, 2015

Somehow this 'Vatnost' attitude reminds me of Nixon's 'Silent Majority', or Reagan's 'Southern Democrats'. That is to say: the young and middle aged men who were formerly agents of oppression, who suddenly find a prevailing progressive oppression that no longer allows them free right of their patriarchy.
That is to say, I don't think it's a matter of attitudes that are uniquely endemic to the Russian people. It's the spirit of the German Dolchstosslegende, the post-imperial malaise that fueled the National Front in Thatcher's time. It's a attitude of curdled entitlement that percolates in any formerly nationalistic imperialist state that is caught in the transition to corporatocratic neo-liberalism.
Vladimir Putin isn't really pushing an ideology that is substantially different from of Reagan and Bush, or of Thatcher for that matter. Just as surely as the CIA and Reagan felt the 'right' to topple governments in Central America, or as Mitterand felt the right to alter events in the Central African Republic.

What is upsetting to the Western MSM and international establishment is that Russia is challenging what Theda Skocpol might call 'the monopoly on unconventional state violence'. All of a sudden, the powers of the West do not like another state running the same tactics and strategies that the West has been using in Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

We should have implemented a Marshall Plan for Russia in the 1990s. We could have treated the 1998 crisis with lenity. Instead, we have shown that we learned nothing from our 1929 treatment of the Weimar republic, and we have gained a repetition of history: an embittered fascist revanchist state that seeks a rematch of The Great Game.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 10:50 PM on March 6, 2015 [18 favorites]

TL;DR: Russia has Tea Partiers too.
posted by PsychoTherapist at 10:56 PM on March 6, 2015 [12 favorites]

Interesting that the examples in the Vatnik-Today Tumblr have a lot that use "Thanks, Obama" as a punchline. Just like the American right-wing racists. My respect for Ol' Barack just rose a notch.
with enemies like that...
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:11 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hm, a Google image search suggests that's not a particularly representative sample, foop.

Psycho, I think we should resist the urge to look for counterparts, because it automatically locks us into our own conceptual world. The whole point here is understanding a different one. Also, there's little resemblance other than patriotism.
posted by Segundus at 11:51 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I listened to this BBC radio documentary Maskirovka: Deception Russian-Style which is combining with the article in the FPP to give me interesting insights into the WTF that is Russia today. (mp3 can be downloaded here for a while, if desired)
posted by hippybear at 12:34 AM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

This was indeed quite interesting. However, I am not sure if what the author describes is a "fundamentally different worldview". Basically, the Vatniks seem to be chauvinistic, drunken, resentful simpletons with an inferiority complex and sometimes contradictory views on world matters. Maybe there are more of those in Russia than elsewhere, but which aspect of this is difficult to understand for non-Russians? Or is it supposed to be the combination? And why do I need a cartoon character to understand those, umh, character traits?

I don't mean to shit on the article, which still has a lot of interesting and new (to me) information on the (apparently non-existent) Russian soul, but I am not quite sure yet how the Vatnik figures in. Also, what's with the four-ended head?
posted by sour cream at 1:24 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Even among opponents of Putin’s regime, the idea that Russia is utterly unique and impossible for outsiders to understand is taken quite seriously.

Remarkable how common a meme, worldwide, "we are uniquely unique" is.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:11 AM on March 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

It seems like the author is asserting that the ~85% approval ratings that Putin has are entirely due to the majority of the Russian populace being made up of these kinds of 2-dimensional caricatures of humanity. I find this to be just as reductionist and inadequate as cold war stereotypes about Russians and the "Russian Soul." I don't feel like I've gotten any real insight from this article, other than perhaps some notion of how some Russians feel about other Russians. But the assertion that analysis of this vatnik Internet meme provides special insight into the Russian worldview is overstating it dramatically, I think.
posted by dubitable at 5:54 AM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

This article is total, 100% bullshit, on a level with the kind of piece where the author claims that the way the French drink their morning coffee is the key to all of French life and culture. There's a certain sort of mind that is drawn inexorably to the One Ultimate Explanation, the key that once understood will unlock the mysteries of some complicated subject. Thomas Friedman is a master of this trope, and MeFi regularly (and rightly) mocks him.

The vatnik is a crude stereotype of a particular sort of mindless patriot that, as others here have pointed out, exists in all times and places. It is not the key to any great understanding, any more than samovars or matryoshka dolls or troikas or any of the other popular symbols. Russia is a vast and complicated place with a complicated and tragic history, and the only way to get a handle on it is to read as much as possible about it, talk to as many actual Russians as you can, and in general let go of your preconceptions and immerse yourself in a different way of seeing the world. And if you really want to understand it, sorry, you're going to have to learn Russian. (It's not that hard, and the rewards are great!) Case in point: there's a superb site, Lurkmore/Lurkomor'e (a lovely pun on a famous Pushkin poem plus "lurk more"), which I depend on to explain unfamiliar Russian internet memes, and they have a good article on the vatnik. But to be able to read and understand it you have to know not only the Russian language but a whole bunch of other memes and slang, because the site is written in slangy meme-talk. Which doesn't stop it from being comprehensive and as authoritative as crowd-sourced internet sites get.

There is no royal road to knowledge. Obviously most people aren't going to devote a substantial chunk of their lives to learning Russian and reading it obsessively, but what you can do is constantly keep in mind that anyone telling you "here's the one simple thing you need to know to understand Putin and Russia" is peddling snake oil.
posted by languagehat at 6:28 AM on March 7, 2015 [26 favorites]

I think a lot of the animosity stems from the differences in the Western and Cyrillic alphabets.
posted by Renoroc at 7:05 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Czar losers.
posted by Chitownfats at 7:13 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

This article is interesting: it attempts to explain Russian populous opinion through a specific cultural artifact. It definitely highlighted something I was not aware of. I'm not sure of its accuracy, but I appreciate the effort.

For anyone interested in the topic, I've found the Foreign Affairs July/August 2014 issue to have excellent essays that discuss current Russian actions in the context of its world view.

FA: Preparing for the Next Cold War

FA: What the Kremlin is Thinking ** A couple ex-Soviets I know really like this one.
posted by teabag at 8:31 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Somehow this 'Vatnost' attitude reminds me of Nixon's 'Silent Majority', or Reagan's 'Southern Democrats'. That is to say: the young and middle aged men who were formerly agents of oppression, who suddenly find a prevailing progressive oppression that no longer allows them free right of their patriarchy.

One of the first things that I thought of was Cloyd Rivers, who I found out about thanks to one of my cousins' sons. Cloyd at first seems like the sort of mulleted trailer-trash stereotype celebrated by the likes of Joe Dirt and David Cross' Ronnie Dobbs character, but this young man and his friends seemed to enjoy Cloyd wholly unironically.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:08 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

For an insider look at the current brand of Russian nationalism, I found this video (I am a Russian occupier) rather disturbing. My husband (who speaks Russian) tells me that it's gone viral in Russia at the moment, and that people rather agree with the sentiments expressed in it.
posted by peacheater at 10:52 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Okay, so Vatnik is essentially the Russian Archie Bunker?
posted by evil otto at 3:32 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Naturally, there will be some academically-minded people who scoff at the idea of understanding Russia via a satirical internet meme.
I don't see anything inherently wrong with studying culture through what is, essentially, folk art. The real problem is he's proposing to learn something about the so-called vatniks through caricatures created by a third party. Even the name vatnik is an external invention, as is the idea that the vatniks even exist as some cohesive whole.

This is a little like attempting to understand the worldview of an ISIS supporter by reading political cartoons in an American newspaper; you're analyzing possibly poorly-informed, oversimplified commentary, satire, and humor, you're not analyzing the actual thing you're hoping to understand.
posted by Western Infidels at 4:33 PM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

The third parties happen to be Russians as well. Perhaps the point is that this is how Russians see Russians in a contemporary context. The second Foreign Affairs piece is probably a better guide to the thinking of Russia's leadership. The piece on vatnost is about a mentality seen in Russia by Russians mocking other Russians. If it is an unfair bit of mockery it is still one that informs foreigners (us) as to some of the problems that any sense of Western liberalism (the philosophical kind) has in taking a foothold. Frankly the video linked to by peacheater is a strong confirmation of the kind of mentality that the vatnik seems to represent.

Yes these types are always around in just about every country (possibly not Bhutan). The question of how prevalent they are is the real one. We have Tea Party members of questionable intellect and low levels of civic knowledge. They lack a sufficient base to drive us to invade Cuba, Canada, or Mexico. Sure they want the government to keep its hands off of Social Security and know that Obamacare is bankrupting the country. They may even think that America is the only real power on Earth and wonder why Obama is letting Putin get away with being an unruly child. What they lack is the ability to support an American President to the point of silencing the voices of all possible dissent.

Thinking of the these folks as Russian Archie Bunkers is deeply misleading. Archie Bunker represented a generation of the American white blue-collar class that was supposed fading. They still had clout to be sure but much of the nation was trying to change the way the world worked. Part of why Archie was funny was the dated qualities he exhibited. He was supposed to be the voice of a generation on its way out. That he could be painted as a man capable of much love and turned into a character that people loved, even if the disagreed with him points to a great deal of human empathy. The Russians who came up with and continue to use the vatnik seem to find that kind of human empathy and sympathy missing in their countrymen. And they seem to see that attitude growing in acceptance. This may be less third-party critique and more inside baseball then some may want to admit.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 9:14 PM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to have some friends who ran Sovok of the Week, and the Vatnik reminds me a lot of the Sovok — sort of a Sovok minus the Soviet.
posted by klangklangston at 6:37 PM on March 9, 2015

« Older Even More Tiny Beautiful Things   |   Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments