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5 October 2016

The Maltsev era

How new populism operates in Russia

The election is over. Systemic and non-systemic politicians have wearily drifted home (though it seems that some of them were already fatigued even before election campaigns were launched). Those in power have asserted it. Those who had nothing anyway, lost their state financing and wandered off. The status quo of the current political system has been extended for a further five years – unless a “November 5 revolution” brings about disruption of this order in the coming years. The magical date – November 5 – relates to the unsuccessful attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up the British parliament in 1605. The date is symbolic of the fight against the totalitarian regime thanks to the dystopian novel “V for Vendetta”. It seems that the author and propagator of this prophecy, Vyacheslav Maltsev, second on the federal PARNAS list during the election to the State Duma, belongs to the ‘outsider’ category and can therefore be forgotten. Or perhaps not? According to President Putin, Russians voted in favor of stability of the composition of parliament which means that people did not believe in Maltsev’s prophecy that revolution was inevitable within the existing system. Regardless, the daily number of views of his YouTube channel rose by 24% (according to statistics from socialblade) between January and July, which would seem to contradict the popularity dynamics of opposition parties in Russia. 

The national liberal

There is no need to explain in this essay why liberal parties registered pitiful election results to those who followed the election campaign to any extent. Sociologists provided in-depth commentary on why voters shun Yabloko and PARNAS (what is more, as few as a quarter of Russians have heard of this party). In short, the reason for the failure lies in the party’s inability to present even a semblance of a clear and meaningful manifesto. Can one even speak of “maintaining constant contact with the electorate” between elections when an election campaign is launched just two weeks prior to the ballot? A complete inactivation of the democratic wing can be observed. It started long ago and is appreciated by the authorities. There is no progress since there are no new leaders and the old ones lack the will. A shift towards utter destruction, which would open up space for new initiatives, can be avoided since the authorities, quite discerningly, are in no hurry to deal the final blow to the victim. In fact, both these factors are authoritarian in nature as the former arises from the concentration of a party’s power in a single pair of hands whereas the latter, the external one, comes from the state.

Any closed caste is fearful of democratic mechanisms used to recruit new members. Hence, when the nationalist vlogger, far from the capital-based opposition establishment, ranked first in PARNAS primaries, the liberal community disapproved of his inclusion on the federal list. They have every reason to be fearful, as in all likelihood, Maltsev is seeking an opportunity to establish his own political platform. However, Mikhail Kasyanov acted in accordance with his campaign promises and the country has gained a new national-level politician. It is quite possible that Kasyanov took this provocative step in the hope of reviving the party’s image: less than 1 % of voters are prepared to vote for the existing brand. As regards Maltsev, three main factors explain the new federal-level politician’s success.

One of the guys

Although the origin and positioning of Maltsev constitute an insurmountable social barrier for a small liberal coterie, this is rather perceived as an advantage by a growing number of his supporters: the number of subscribers to the politician’s Artpodgotovka information platform currently stands in excess of 111,000. The career path of the opposition member is noteworthy not only because he has repeatedly changed political parties or because, according to him, he was one of the initiators of the establishment of United Russia which he left of his own volition. 2008 became a watershed year in terms of his biography as it was then that he began to create online resources and altered the nature of his political activity, discontinuing his power offensive, and instead choosing to focus his efforts on building a support base through the use of social media. Perhaps this shift was prompted by another failed attempt to be reelected to the regional Duma in 2007. Irrespective of this, Vyacheslav Maltsev has followed in the footsteps of other opposition members: Alexey Navalny who gained huge popularity thanks to anti-corruption investigations, or Vladimir Ryzhkov, well-known nationally not only due to (or rather not because of) his political activity but also his journalistic work for “Novaya Gazeta” and the radio station “Echo of Moscow”. Incidentally, Navalny enjoys higher recognition than many other federal-level politicians (Kudrin, Mitrokhin or Gudkov) whereas attitudes towards Ryzhkov are more neutral than, for example, attitudes towards Grigory Yavlinsky – the leader of Yabloko. Should Russia’s opposition reemerge, new leaders will make a name for themselves not based on their party careers but rather their inventive media projects.

Clear and concise

Maltsev spares himself the trouble of developing an economic program or “boringly” reproducing democratic rights and freedoms in election campaign promises. Maltsev paints a broader picture of the future, setting out global goals. He wanted to join the Duma in order to fully reform the system of governance, and to impeach Putin. The latter stated aim being what this politician is most well-known for. He made it clear during his election campaign debates on the economy, the arbitrariness of the police, and the political elite, that change is impossible as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power. It should be noted that his provocative rhetoric pays off despite his blatantly populist statements and the fact that no direct links exist between Putin, the topics addressed and the context in which he is referred to.

Graph 1

According to content analysis of Russian-language tweets (see Graph 1) which mention Maltsev, this personal “swipe” at Putin has made a great impression both on those who have already seen Maltsev’s video blog and those not familiar with it. A scandalous debate with Zhirinovsky had a similar effect. The latter seemed far less convincing than usual. In fact, Maltsev took the initiative and adopted the rhetorical style of his opponent, of which he was actually accused by the latter. However, this accusation passed unnoticed, whereas Maltsev’s tough comments about the nationality of Vladimir Volfovich, his relations with the authorities and even accusations of the LDPR leader abusing drugs proved far more spectacular. Unlike his colleagues from the liberal bloc, Maltsev does not use arguments to prove his theses. Each of his interventions is a simple idea, but one which is always clear and which sits well with a set of Russian prejudices.

Post-truth

Hence comes the third success factor: whether one’s words are true is not so important. What matters is to what extent they resemble truth. This is fundamentally different from Orwell’s “doublethink” and what has been observed by Russian sociologists since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it is a global phenomenon known in the West as “post-truth politics” - a term coined by the blogger David Roberts. This phenomenon concerns the impact on the emotions of information user rather than his or her mind. Unlike ordinary lies, “post-truth” cannot be refuted since it is not supposed to be based on facts. It is a well-known fact that a person is far more inclined to believe information which is in line with their worldview. Even if it becomes obvious that a lie has been told, inconvenient facts are hastily rejected in line with the conspiracy theory.

Yet another way to legitimize “post-truth” is to make other people accomplices. It is not in our interests to tell the truth to the world – Russians will say – since the truth can be used against us. “Official” does not equal “real” nowadays. The phenomenon of “post-truth” has been made possible around the world thanks to the growth in the use of social media; algorithms and knowledge about the behavior of each user are used to create an “echo-room” effect where only pleasant information which is embedded in user’s system of comprehension circulates. In Russia, however, the professional media outlets can also operate as closed systems. TV images shown by the national media prompt assessment and not facts as does news shared via social networks. Russians are not victims but rather players in this game, mind you, they believe because they want to believe.

Hence come the following figures (according to the polls by Levada-Centre): 85-90% of Russians have been watching TV on a regular basis in the 2010s although the trust vested in TV is fluctuating (see Graph 2); it reached a peak level of 79% when the approval ratings of the power elite were at their highest i.e. in 2009. In 2013, following protests, the trust level fell to 51% before recovering following the annexation of Crimea (61% in 2015). It fell with the aggravation of the economic crisis and the onset of Ukrainian news fatigue (41%). In summer 2016, levels sat at 59% as the panic over the crisis had passed and TV networks were busy covering sports events and relaying triumphant episodes from Syria. The figures clearly show the contrast between attitudes towards Russian domestic news and news concerning foreign policy: viewers “trust” information regarding foreign policy most of all (58%) whereas news concerning the economy is trusted least of all (25%) although both types of information are presented as positive on the whole. Therefore, attitudes of viewers determine whether they trust information or not regardless of the presence or absence of facts.

Graph 2

Maltsev has noted this nature of mass consciousness. The government is “good” and “popular” not because it has done a lot but because people want to think this way. But this is not true of all of them. Hence, his rhetoric is based on myths which are common among the people, such as the one which has it that power in Russia belongs to Zionists. The liberal audience only appear to analyze information critically at every opportunity. Like all people, well-educated and well-off liberal democrats also want to believe in something. It will suffice to repeat the mantra: “we will get rid of Putin and we will be free” and although the public remain cautious, their attention is secured.

Vyacheslav Maltsev is interesting not so much as an individual but rather as a socio-cultural and political phenomenon. He is not alone: Nigel Farage in the UK, Viktor Orban in Hungary or Donald Trump in the US – they all use populism skillfully, undermining the fundamental principles of the Western world. What is more, Vladimir Putin does so both domestically and globally. Maltsev is unique in that he is trying to use an effective tool to target a narrow stratum of the liberal community which, so far, has refused to compromise its conscience. Maltsev is unlikely to mobilize liberal sentiments. However, he is capable of seducing part of the opposition electorate as well as some of the government’s supporters.

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