Putin’s propaganda just took an exceptionally weird turn

For the past few days, the phrase “winter is coming” has haunted me. This is partly due to the fact that, like millions of others, I have begun to watch House of the Dragonthe prequel of game of Throneswho had these disturbing words as a slogan.

But there is a second reason. I recently saw a video on YouTube that aims to persuade English-speaking viewers to move to Putin’s Russia because, well, “winter is coming”. The 53-second film makes its speech highlighting the alleged attractions of Putin’s country. “Delicious cuisine, beautiful women, cheap gasoline, rich history, fertile ground, cheap electricity, ballet, cheap taxi,” solemnly notes a voice as the images, including many beautiful women, roll by.

It’s not all. Traditional values, Christianity, “no cancel culture” and vodka are all trumpeted, along with “an economy that can withstand thousands of sanctions”. The bizarre video triumphantly concludes that it’s time to move to Russia without delay. It might just be a joking reference to game of Thrones, but it has also been interpreted as a subtly veiled threat. Get out now and move to Russia, it seems to say, before Moscow somehow targets the West in the coming months.

The video is notable for a more than cheeky taste (the image accompanying the words “Russian literature” is by Nikolai Gogol, the Ukrainian-Russian writer of the nineteenth century). My first instinct was that it was supposed to be a parody, but its promotion on social media by several Russian embassies suggests otherwise. There is no official explanation from Moscow, although a fact-checking website run by Voice of America, the US-funded state broadcaster, claims that a pro-Russian channel Telegram took credit for producing the video.

Aside from trolling to the rest of the world, does this exercise make sense? There is little evidence that the video will work in the sense of attracting Westerners to Russia. Few Americans are likely to follow the path of Hollywood movie star Steven Seagal, who loudly embraced Russian citizenship and recently visited a bombed prisoner-of-war camp in a Russian-controlled area of ​​eastern Ukraine to prove his worth. support for Putin’s invasion.

It is highly unlikely that this is the intention anyway. The real meaning of the clip probably lies more in what it tells us about Russia’s enthusiastic use of propaganda in a divided digital world. Whoever created it seemed to understand that the best way to “sell” the message is to tap into the cultural landscape of the US far right. The praise of “traditional”, “Christian” and “no cancel culture” values ​​is exactly what Fox News host Tucker Carlson celebrates every night on TV. (And Carlson, it should be noted, has often expressed pro-Russian views.)

Meanwhile, the emphasis on Russia’s rich supply of “beautiful women” seems designed to tap into the fact that many members of far-right online forums such as 8kun (formerly 8chan) are supporters of the “incel” anti-feminist movement which takes its name from the phrase “involuntary celibacy”, adopted by men struggling to attract the opposite sex.

The other reason the video has haunted me is that it’s a powerful, if exceptionally curious, example of how the internet fuels the cross-border movement of cultural memes. This is not just a 21st century phenomenon: cultural ideas and symbols have always moved between different groups due to trade, war or marriage. If, for example, you travel through the lands of the ancient Asian Silk Road, you will find similar sounding words for items such as “tea”, “table”, “salt” and “sugar” in different languages, because the merchants moved beyond the boundaries. Cultures rarely exist as sealed, static Tupperware boxes, but they are in motion, like rivers, with new streams flowing inside.

But while this cross-border cultural movement was happening quite slowly, it is growing exponentially on the internet. Today our lives are connected by a digital Silk Road. This is a computer realm that has numerous echo chambers and tribal divisions. But memes sometimes jump between tribes and in unpredictable ways. After “winter is coming” it was first popularized by game of Thrones, for example, Russian dissident Garry Kasparov used it as the title of his anti-Putin book in 2015. Now, ironically, a pro-Putin propaganda video has grabbed it, but this has already sparked a fake response video. the original “Move clip in Russia”. There will undoubtedly be many more cultural collisions and contagions. It’s a sign, if you like, of how interconnected our world has become, even as ugly nationalism grows in Russia and elsewhere.

Putin’s propaganda just took an exceptionally weird turn – MagicTech