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Russian Opposition, What Are You Doing? Stahp.

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Governance, Language, Protest, Technology, RuNet Echo

One of the more popular recent Internet memes has been the “stahp” comic series [1], which RuNet users have adapted into the “prekrati” (stop!) meme. For a basic rundown of the structure and origins of the meme, consult Know Your Meme [1]. For our purposes, the English and Russian versions differ in two significant ways: (1) the former typically features the same image in a four-panel comic, with a gradual zoom-effect to emphasize “a disturbed-looking subject,” whereas the Russian version usually features four different pictures that show some kind of unpleasant escalation, and (2) the Russian version adds onomatopoeic laughter (“ahahaha”) to the third panel and abandons the intentional misspelling of the word “stop” (“prekrati,” in Russian).

While noting these distinctions might seem like pointless semantics, the result is that the Russian version of the meme is better equipped to criticize—implying not just a steady awkwardness, but an absurdity spiraling out of control. Consider a few examples from around the RuNet. Pictured below are mockeries of Gérard Depardieu, (scientific) atheism, and mathematics.

Gérard Depardieu's Russian transformation. (An anonymous image widely circulated online.)

Gérard Depardieu's Russian transformation. (An anonymous image widely circulated online.)

(Scientific) atheism, what are you doing? ahahaha. Stop. (An anonymous image widely circulated online.)

(Scientific) atheism, what are you doing? ahahaha. Stop. (Panel 2 is the Sputnik satellite, Panel 3 is the first Kosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, and Panel 4 is the exterior of a nuclear power plant. An anonymous image widely circulated online.)

The meme, applied to mathematics. (An anonymous image widely circulated online.)

The meme, applied to mathematics. (An anonymous image widely circulated online.)

Now consider the case of the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition (or KSO, for short), which we at RuNet Echo have covered many times before. On February 17, publicist Stanislav Yakovlev posted [2] [ru] to Facebook a news article [3] [ru] about the KSO, writing, “Ahahaha, ‘Coordinating Council,’ what are you doing, stop.” The story to which he linked was the announcement that the KSO will not be nominating candidates for upcoming elections at any level of government, despite its ongoing pledge to promote participation in elections at all levels of government. This obvious contradiction between goals and policy is a revealing piece of the KSO's new Mission Statement [4] [ru], approved just last weekend, on February 16.

But is this one failing enough to justify attacking the KSO with the “stahp” meme? Was Yakovlev being too harsh?

Ex-partners Ksenia Sobchak and Ilya Yashin, sharing an awkward moment. 16 February 2013, screenshot from YouTube. [5]

Ex-partners Ksenia Sobchak and Ilya Yashin, sharing an awkward moment. 16 February 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

In the aftermath of that last Council meeting, the notoriously anti-opposition e-zine PolitOnline published [6] [ru] a whole collection of self-deprecating tweets from “KSO apologists,” ranging from jokes about “awkwardness” between ex-lovers Ilya Yashin and Ksenia Sobchak to accusations of national betrayal, regarding an appeal to Western foreign powers to add new names to the Magnitsky List (which bans certain Russian officials from owning property in or entering the United States).

Some general facts about the KSO will better allow us to judge just how absurd its existence has been. To simplify, I've quantified some basic information about the attendance and voting activity of all 43 members. (A note: the Council started out at 45, but Oleg Shein [7] [ru] and Ekaterina Aitova [8] [ru] later dropped out.) I also wanted to measure the degree to which individual members are committed to the Council's presence in social media. To calculate this, I visited every Twitter, Facebook, Vkontakte, and LiveJournal account belonging a KSO member, and logged whether or not they published any material—however trivial—regarding the most recent Council session, on February 16. With those figures recorded, I divided the results into the ideological camps separated on the October 2012 ballot, when the KSO held online elections [9] [ru], in order to distinguish the behavior of the four voting categories: general civil (the largest), and the leftist, nationalist, and liberal blocs.

The final tally shows that members from the general civil group both attend and vote under KSO averages. Their engagement with social media, at least as far as the last Council session is concerned, is also below the KSO average. This is due largely to the fact that several of the most prominent people elected as general civil representatives rarely attend and/or rarely vote. Dmitri Bykov [10] [ru], who received almost as many votes as first-place-winner Alexey Navalny, has yet to cast a vote. The same goes for Ksenia Sobchak [11] [ru] and Rustem Adagamov [12] [ru]. Oleg Kashin, one of the opposition's most celebrated journalists, has only attended one of five [13] [ru] Council sessions and voted in just two of ten [14] [ru] opportunities.

In terms of attendance and voting participation, the small liberal and nationalist camps have demonstrated far greater commitment, scoring well above KSO averages in both measures. These groups have also made a more serious effort to address KSO matters in their social media outreach. Whereas Oleg Kashin tweeted [15] [ru] a few ironic remarks about whether or not the Council is cool, and Ksenia Sobchak posted photographs [16] [ru] of her seat at the last meeting, nationalists Vladimir Tor [17] [ru] and Konstantin Krylov [18] [ru] penned full-length reaction pieces in the classic LiveJournal format. (Tatiana Lazareva, a general civil representative, did write a traditional blog post [19] [ru] in her LiveJournal, too, but in it she confessed to “not having the brain” necessary for understanding migration policy and the Magnitsky List.)

Does this engagement gap have any consequences? While it's difficult to know [20] [ru], perhaps it helped narrowly pass the February 11 resolution [21] [ru] “On the need to cancel the visa-free [travel] regime with the nations of Central Asia,” which complains that “the insular communities of migrants do not integrate into Russian society,” producing an “economic, cultural, language, and religious barrier.” (That vote attracted a whopping 70% participation from KSO members, 23% of whom abstained.)

The KSO voting mechanism is also something that needs to be explained. I've pulled my data from the voting records listed on the KSO's official website, which reports a total of ten votes to date. This figure, however, refers not to the body of resolutions passed at KSO sessions, but the number of online votes that have passed the 50% threshold on Leonid Volkov's democratia2.ru, where KSO members [22] [ru] are free to initiate votes on various questions and resolutions. When the Council was first established, all 45 members were assigned democratia2.ru accounts, and left to live out the dream of eDemocracy. At the moment, only 38 KSO members [23] [ru] have accounts. Oleg Shein and Ekaterina Aitova naturally lost theirs, after leaving the KSO, but another five (quite prominent) members have apparently abandoned the digital democracy experiment: Vladimir Mirzoev, Olga Romanova, Rustem Adagamov, Dmitri Bykov, and Leonid Razvozzhaev. Confusion on this score isn't limited to pencil-necked analysts: look at the voting record [24] [ru] for the visa regime declaration, and you'll find a series of questions from KSO members about why various names are missing from democratia2.ru's voter list.

So what are we seeing here? Has the Russian Opposition's Coordinating Council run off its tracks and earned itself a bullseye amidst the crossfire of RuNet memes? Is it time Russian Internet users asked the KSO to “stahp”? Have a look [25] at the numbers and decide for yourself.