A middle-aged woman lies on a rug, propped provocatively on one elbow; spread out next to her is a gigantic catfish. A young man in a wifebeater and bandana wields an AK47 in his right hand and a vacuum cleaner in his left. A skinny ninja poses in front of a rug on a wall…
Welcome to the world of Russian dating. Or rather, to the internet’s version of Russian dating sites. Buzzfeed’s latest detour into the wacky world of kerraaazy Russia™ has been something of a viral hit: 28,000 Facebook shares may not be a record, but it’s pretty good from where I’m standing. The photostory’s success can be attributed to its fusion of two viral favourites: the dating site freakshow and Mother Russia, the inscrutable and inebriated land of dashcams and dancing bears.
As with a lot of recent virals, the lure for punters is the promise of something weird and inexplicable — fresh meme-meat for a jaded online audience. In the attention marketplace of the internet aggregator, novel ranks high on the list of virtues, alongside simple, sexy and feline.
It is no coincidence, then, that in the past few years Russia has become a rich hunting ground for easily consumable visual content (This special relationship took on an official character when market leader Buzzfeed chose the Guardian’s Russia correspondent Miriam Elder as its new foreign editor). The Russian-language internet has all the characteristics necessary to be the perfect fail-farm for those in search of a photo-fix: it is huge and active (with 70m users in 2011, it’s Europe’s biggest internet market) and, in contrast to inaccessible behemoths China and India, the dweebs and doofuses starring in Russian photobombs and facepalms don’t look so very different from English-language users. Bluntly put, they’re white.
This is crucial for an audience that is – quite rightly – wary of the toxic role of race in humour. Laughter on the internet exists in a constant state of tense negotiation: we justify what is often just base voyeurism with the (largely false) excuse that the people in the photographs have given consent by uploading the pictures; sneery schadenfreude is only acceptable when it doesn’t openly replicate historical hatreds, and, which is worse perhaps, it operates best when it’s based in some sense of recognition. That’s not your auntie posing with the catfish, but it could be.
(I’m aware of the multicultural make-up of western internet users, and, in fact, of Russian society; but don’t pretend that bored-at-work viral sites, or the internet, or even culture in general, reflects this diversity.)
Unlike their counterparts from, say, Austria or Canada, Russia’s loons and losers continue to be characterised by their country of origin: they’re not subsumed into the homogenous online country of Internetia; the word “Russian” always has to feature in the title. Russianness has, it seems, become a powerful online brand, a good way of guaranteeing clicks and thus ad revenue.
There are several reasons for this. First, there is indeed a certain aesthetic that means a photograph can be identified as originating in Russia, or at least the Russophone post-Soviet space: the ubiquitous wall-rugs, the squatting men in tracksuits, the omnipresent combed-down fringes.
"Russia is not the west’s antagonist anymore, but its slightly unhinged stepbrother"
Second, because the Russian language is incomprehensible to most, the images are unmoored from any context and become more open to different interpretations. It’s telling that Buzzfeed’s non-Russian version of the dating photostory coupled the images with captions: as cringe-inducing as these are, they humanise and rationalise the subject of the image. An inability to read Russian means you can turn a blind eye to existing explanations, and to the actual origin of most images — many pictures in the dating selection had nothing to do with online romance at all. No explanation, just action.
Finally, Russia works as a viral brand because most people at least both know what and where it is, and have a few preconceptions that will tempt them into clicking a link.
A quick look at the comments below these articles seems to suggest that Russia is returning to its traditional position in global culture, after the long aberration of the twentieth century. Russia is not the west’s antagonist anymore, but it’s slightly unhinged stepbrother — familiar, similar even, but also very different. The polarities of the Cold War era, when Russia was constructed as the opposite of the dominant American culture, are now over. In fact, their last gasp may have been the now moribund “In Soviet Russia…” meme originated by Seventies comic Yakov Smirnov. You know it: “In America you can always find a party; in Soviet Russia the party can always find you” etc repeated ad infinitum. It’s essentially a verbal re-enactment of the logic of superpower rivalry, with Russia as the inverse of America: all the same words and ideas just turned the other way around.
"To drinke drunke is an ordinary matter with them every day in the weeke"
As that meme has faded, the internet’s dominant discourse around Russia has come to be one of unbridled excess, the triumph of the impulsive id over the whiny ego: while people in the west are gazing whinily at their twentysomething navels, the Russians are drinking, climbing big buildings and swearing at flaming lumps of space-rock.
This reputation for untrammelled emotion originated long ago, but was interrupted by the Cold War, which turned Russia into a byword for scientistic rationalism. In The Russian Point of View (1925), Virginia Woolf gave her not inaccurate summary of Russian literary culture and, in particular, Dostoevsky:
“Indeed, it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction. … It is formless. It has slight connection with the intellect. It is confused, diffuse, tumultuous... Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.”
Across the eras the idea of Russia as a spiritually freer, less rule-bound alternative to western society has prevailed. A place that is on the edge, literally and metaphorically. This image is also, of course, eagerly promoted and exploited by Russians looking to emphasise their spiritual exceptionalism.
Go back even further in time and English traveller Jerome Horsey’s account of the Russia in the reign of Ivan the Terrible could be a comment on YouTube:
“To drinke drunke is an ordinary matter with them every day in the weeke. …. The whole countrie overfloweth with all sinne of that kinde. And no marveile, as having no lawe to restraine whoredomes, adulteries, and like uncleannesse of life.”
"Russia may have regressed even further, back to its medieval role as 'Barbarous Tartary'"
One thing has changed, however: with the introduction of new homophobic legislation, there are now plenty of laws against alleged "uncleannesse". Luckily for online aggregators, reports on these quasi-medieval governmental invasions into bedrooms and classrooms are also eminently clickable. The internet’s penchant for mix-and-matching evil tyrant stories with freewheeling freakshows also feels like a return to pre-Soviet models. The USSR might have been the Upper Volta with rockets, as US diplomat Dean Acheson memorably described it, but contemporary Russia may have regressed even further, back to its medieval role as “Barbarous Tartary” — home to vicious despots, dog-headed men and not much else. It’s reminiscent of the classic orientalist model of the east: the cruel, vain, impetuous sultan may strangle civil society, but, compared to the buttoned-up west, it is a land of adventure and boundless possibility.
The "monstrous races" of the edges of the world, from a 12th-century manuscript
It’s not a completely false portrait and some things are just not going to change. While we can hope against hope for political change, we know for sure that portly provincial princesses will continue to pose in front of rugs in leopard-print lingerie; that skinny nerds will always think that nunchakus will make them irresistible; that Russians will still be lousy drivers. To rescue its online reputation, therefore, Russia needs a collection of YouTube-era Dostoevskys and Gogols, native Russians who can keep in all the trademark crazy that westerners love, but inject it with homegrown genius and rational, intellectual brilliance. We’ll still get the Slavic kicks we crave, and there’ll still be all sorts of imperialist issues at play, but at least the Russian component will be acknowledged as something more than an affinity for the inexplicable.