Russia: “Merry Gnome” Medvedev. Story of the Meme

Few month ago, a major Russian Internet company Yandex  decided to close its rating of Russian blog posts [ENG]. This decision raised a lot of debates revolving around the assumption that the decision was a  form of political censorship. One one hand, Yandex claimed that the rating was closed since it was vulnerable to manipulation by bloggers.

One the other hand, some people claimed that the rating, which was shaped according to algorithm and not editing policy,  turned to be an alternative mechanism of agenda setting for Russian media environment since it provided significant visibility to topics that were raised by bloggers, and not only by traditional media. Because of the rating, the blogosphere turned to be not just a space of informational chaos of thousands of bloggers, but something that have actual impact on public opinion.

As we might see in the following story, the Russian blogosphere indeed might create a significant political effect threatening the image of Russian government even without the blog posts rating. It doesn’t necessary have to be a pure news story with a critical approach to one of the Russian officials.

Unlike traditional media, social media space, and blogs in particular, provide a unique environment for development of Internet memes [ENG]. Unlike news story that appears and vanish next day, memes might have a long range impact on shaping perception of the political leaders. It might be based on a particular news story, but its consequences are much far going than news. Moreover, in a case of memes, the question of credibility of information is secondary and that makes the meme immune to attempts to deny it.

At the beginning of February, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Omsk, a big city in Siberia. The visit raised a lot of media attention due the scandal around a promotion poster for Russian ruling party “Edinaya Rossiya” that had a portrait of both Russian leaders Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.

Few days before the visit, local officials have decided to remove Putin from the poster and leave only Medevedev on it. When the story was exposed, Putin was moved back and few people from local government lost their jobs. Few days later, the incident with Putin’s removal was shadowed by a story of another poster.

On February 18, one week after the Medvedev’s visit, a regional media blog on the Web site of radio station“Echo Moskvy” republished an article [RUS] titled “Tragicomedy. ‘President is coming to us: A screenplay for one spectator that was directed by the government of Omsk region.'”(Трагикомедия. «К нам едет президент». Пьеса для одного зрителя в постановке правительства Омской области). The article was written by a journalist from Omsk Andre Zaharyin. He described a long list of radical (and foolish) steps taken by the Omsk government before the president's visit (e.g.  spreading a fresh snow on the local river).

Злые языки утверждают, что перед приездом президента с театра-студии Любови Ермолаевой была снята афиша спектакля «Ждём тебя, весёлый гном». Возможно из-за того, что Дмитрий Медведев, человек невысокого роста, мог принять это на свой счёт. Правда, в театре эту информацию не подтверждают.

Evil tongues claim that shortly before a visit by the president a poster proclaiming “We await you, merry gnome” was taken down from Lyubov Ermolova theater. Maybe it was done because Dmitry Medvedev is not a tall man and he could view it as something that mocks him. However, people in theater haven't confirmed it.

The poster in question was designed for the children's New Year theater show about gnome from Lapland who came to visit Russian Santa Claus (Ded Moroz) to celebrate the New Year.  According to the report, the poster was removed from a street where the president's convoy was supposed to pass during his visit to Omsk. Other Russian news Web sites added [RUS] how the poster was actually removed:

По свидетельству очевидцев, афишу детской сказки убрали чуть ли не топорами с молниеносной скоростью.

According to witnesses, the poster with advertisement of the fairy tale for children was removed immediately and almost with hatchets.

They also emphasized that the main sources of information for this story were “regional media and blogs”. The story was soon published almost in every Russian online media outlet. Some of journalists recalled the 2008 article [ENG] from British  Guardian “Who is the shortest world leader?” that claimed that Russian president  might be the shortest leader in the world. The story about the fairy tale poster, gnome and president Medvedev also quickly reached the international media. Reuters published [ENG] a story “Gnome poster removed before Medvedev visit?”

The incident turned to be one of the most discussed topics on the Russian blogosphere. Some of comment were very brief. “Paranoids,” wrote user tankar.  “A country of idiots,” wrote kliuv.  The user hel_sim wrote [RUS]:

Напоминает советские времена с поисками вторых и третьих смыслов. Висела бы себе афиша и ничего.

It reminds me of Soviet times with its search for second and third meanings. The poster could just be there and nothing would happen.

A blogger Alek-ya shared [RUS] his concerns in regard to publication of fairy tales with gnomes in Russia.

Не везет России с кремлевскими карликами. Теперь из переводимых сказок могут странным образом исчезнуть леприконы, Белоснежка окажется в лесу в совершенном одиночестве. Даже ставший популярным “Властелин колец” может оказаться лишь путеводителем по загадочному миру, лишившись массы основных персонажей.

Russia has been unlucky with Kremlin gnomes. Now leprechauns will strangely disappear from all translated fairy tales and Snow White will happen to be all alone in the forest. Even popular “The Lord of the Rings” can happen to be only a guide for the mysterious world loosing many main characters.

A blogger Alesadov gave [RUS] an opposite interpretation while focusing on the fact that the destiny of the poster turned to be the top news:

Заголовок в ленте новостей из серии нарочно не придумаешь. Кто еще может сомневаться в отсутствии цензуры в российских СМИ?

The headline on news wires couldn’t be invented for purpose. How after it anyone can doubt the lack of censorship in Russian media?

A lot of users avoided discussions on the political meaning of the story. A typical reaction by an LJ user zlaya_zadnica was [RUS]:

У меня такое настроение плохое было, а теперь наоборот, хорошее. Словно это ко мне едет веселый гном

I was in a very bad mood and now it’s great. It’s like the merry gnome is going to visit me.

Some bloggers tried to express their opinion about the story through poetry. LJ user Efrosine wrote [RUS]:

- Где же наш весёлый гном?
– Он зарублен топором!

Where is our merry gnome? He was killed by a hatchet!

In a poem “We await you, merry gnome” LJ user  Basjad suggested [RUS] that there were not one but two gnomes

Ждём тебя, весёлый гном
В граде славном – Омске том!
Поскорее приезжай,
Нам веселья тоже дай!

Дай нам счастья и работ,
Дай нам отдых от забот!
Не один ты на Руси -
И другого привози!

Вместе будем вас встречать
И плакатами махать!
Только пусть допустит нас
Губернатор …. тарара-с…(славный НАШ)!

We await you, merry gnome
In the glorious city of Omsk!
Come here quickly
And bring us some fun! Give us happiness and jobs,
Give us a break from routine!
You are not the only one in Russia.
Bring another gnome with you!

We will meet you together
And we will wave our posters!
If only our governor
Allows us to do so!

The story also raised a wave of creativity among fans of visual art. For instance, LJ drygoj offered [RUS] everyone to repost a collage with a big Putin and small Medvedevev on a horse. Olga Gromova, LJ user vsyako, created [RUS] a picture of the Russian president as Merry Gnome. LJ user e-enotov went to more surrealistic direction [RUS].

Despite the fact that it was not the first poster scandal related to Medvedev’s visit to Omsk, some of users were not sure about its credibility since no actual evidences were presented.

An LJ user hnue wrote [RUS] in a community of Omsk inhabitants:

Люди, кто-нибудь в курсе, это правда? Меня все спрашивают, а я не знаю, что ответить.

People, does anyone know if it’s true? Everyone asks me and I don’t know what to answer.

An LJ user Dubrovska in her post “'Merry gnome’ or how myths, legends and fairy tales are born,” got a call from her friend who played a role of fox in the famous performance about the gnome’s visit. Following the call, Dubrovska shared [RUS] her version of the story.

Короче, может, теперь уже и неважно, но не висела никакая афиша про гнома и никто её не врубал ни топором, ни каким другим инструментом.

In short, maybe it is not even important now, but there wasn't any poster about a gnome and nobody took it down with a hatchet or any other tool.

Based on a conversation with the actress, Dubrovska listed a number of factors that showed that the story about poster was absolutely improbable. She also called the director of the theater that confirmed that the story about the poster wasn’t true.

Online Russian media told that the source of information was a local blogger and local media. But there was no blogger who might be identified as the source of information. The only blogger that was quoted later was a LJ user denbrough who wrote [RUS] after the story was already published:.

«Сам живу в двух шагах от этого театра, информацию об афише подтверждаю – была такая»

“Personally, I live very close to this theater and I can confirm the information about poster: there was one like that.”

Victor-korb explained [RUS] why this information couldn't be treated as a confirmation:

Свидетель говорит лишь то, что “афиша была”. Ну да, это вполне возможно. И даже то, что она провисела два месяца после окончания показов новогоднего детского спектакля, тоже возможно. А вот то, что “сняли афишу на пути следования президентского кортежа”, – глупая натяжка, потому что кортеж перемещался по улице Нефтезаводской, а не по улице Химиков.

The witness says that “there was a poster.” Yes, it is possible. It’s also possible that it was there for two month after the New Year children performance. But the fact that it was removed on a way of the president's cortege is a silly imagination. The cortege used another street.

Some of LJ users discovered that the first time the story appeared online was on February 13 – four days before it was discovered by media.  A person who presented himself as Anikey Skovorodkin (which doesn't sound like a real name) wrote [RUS] in the thread of the city forum at that was dedicated to Medvedev’s visit:

За пару часов до того, как Медведева должны были провезти по Нефтяникам в сторону нефтезавода, кто-то обратил внимание на афишу театра Ермолаевой. анонс сказки звучал так: “Мы ждали тебя, добрый гном!”)))) по словам очевидцев, афишу демонтировали чуть ли не топорами с молниеносной скоростью.

Two hours before Medevedev was supposed to go through Neftyanika street, someone’s attention was attracted by a poster from Ermolova’s theater. The poster with fairy tale advertisement said: “We await you, merry gnome.” According to witnesses, the poster was removed immediately, almost with hatchets.

The story of the merry gnome shows that social media play a significant role in diminishing the border between true and false, between joke and news. It happens due to the power of viral distribution and especially few mediators that take the information from rumors and humor and legitimize it as news. In this case, we have seen that this role was played by the blog of “Echo Moskvi” radio station and primarily the two news Web site “Noviy region” and “Delovoy Peterburg”. The last two build a bridge between the anecdote and news item.

Some people claimed that if the information is true or false doesn’t really matter in this case. The program director of “Echo Moskvy” Vladimir Varfolomeev wrote on his blog:

«Даже если снятие рекламы – всего лишь случайно совпало по времени с визитом, в усердие и перестраховку чиновников верится очень легко. Времена такие».

Even if removing the advertisement was just accidental with the time of visit, we might easily believe that the official could do it. We live in such times.

Lj user Victor_korb wrote [RUS]:

Я вовсе не отрицаю реальности этой истории. Просто мне очень не нравится то, насколько некритично, с грубыми ошибками ее принялись транслировать все СМИ.

I don’t say that the story wasn’t true. I just don’t like how the media reposted this story without any consideration and with significant mistakes.

Some of the bloggers expressed their frustration about the fact that the story probably wasn’t true.

“It’s very pity that it’s a myth,” shared [RUS] his feeling Petrosov .

An LJ user Nachiketos wrote [RUS]:

Эх, зачем же было докапываться до истины. народу нужны зрелища и мифы, должно же быть что-то позитивное в суровых жизненных реалиях. если не справедливые выборы, то хотя бы веселые гномы =)

Why should one look for the truth? People need spectacles and myth. We should have something positive in our difficult reality. If we don’t have fair elections, we at least could have merry gnomes.

LJ user Dubrovska concluded [RUS]:

История получилась красивая, хотя и неуместная, как новогодняя сказка, рассказанная в преддверии весны.

The story was very beautiful but inappropriate like a New Year fairy tale that was told right before the spring comes.

However, the people who actually questioned the credibility of story were a minority.  Nowadays, the expression “Merry gnome” as a nickname for Russian president already appears in different contexts not related to his visit to Omsk.

An LJ user akharin wrote [RUS]:

Х а, “Веселого Гнома”, приклеилось. Спасибо безымянным долбоебам-чиновникам.

Ha, “Merry gnome” stuck. Thanks to unnamed stupid government officials.

An LJ user quasar wrote [RUS]:

К запросу в поисковиках “Почему Путин краб” теперь добавится “Почему Медведев веселый гном.”

To the search engine quires “Why Putin is a crab” is now added “Why Medvedev is a merry gnome?”

Lj user Akater asks [RUS]:

Интересно, начнёт ли теперь народ на митингах кричать что-нибудь про весёлого гнома?

I wonder if people will start to yell something about a merry gnome during protests…

Unlike news, a myth doesn’t need any verification.

Lj user Victor_korb concluded [RUS]:

…приятный сухой остаток от этой истории: появление нового т.н. мема – “веселый гном”. В дополнение к другому – “злобному карлику” :-)

There is a pleasant and dry aftertaste after the story: emergence of a new meme “merry gnome.” In addition to another meme: “evil dwarf.”

In the merry gnome story, we could see how the Russian Internet works. The blogosphere and media together gave a birth to a new meme. The story shows that the Internet might be not only a space that reflects the reality in a different way from traditional media, but also shapes this reality in a way that it has political output.

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