Limitations of an English-Speaking Reader: The Yarovaya Law, Meduza, and News Media Bias

Katya Tikhonyuk

 

A great deal has been said in Russian and Western media alike about the set of new Russian anti-terrorist policies.i This package of laws (often referred to as the “Yarovaya lawii) have catalyzed proliferous debates regarding, among other issues, concerns about online anonymity, private communication, and religious practices.iii While it is certainly difficult to remain impartial to the legislative changes that are already starting to affect real people,iv I nevertheless believe that we as a global society owe it to ourselves to get to the root of the strategies that different media sources employ when talking about changes in policymaking that have been enacted in Russia over the past few years. Doing so is especially important if we as readers are interested in pushing against our own predisposition to “selective exposure.”v

Original Image Caption: “Deputy State Duma Speaker Irina Yarovaya and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) parliamentary group in the State Duma Vladimir Zhirinovsky before the meeting with Federation Council and State Duma leaders.”

December 25, 2017. Digital Image.
Source: Official Website of the Russian President | en.Kremlin.ru.

The Kremlin Position: Russian Government-Affiliated Media

The official stance of Russian policymakers, followed by the pro-government media, has been to cull the most beneficial reasons for enacting the new laws. Stressing the urgency of the security threat that terrorism poses globally, in its 2014 overview of what was back then only a proposal of the new legislation, Channel One emphasized the necessity of the changes by centering on the fact that the new policies will “increase the severity of punishment for the preparation and financing of acts of terrorism[,]… establishment of terrorist organizations[, and]… assistance in preparation and organization of terrorist attacks.”vi In 2016, shortly after the set of new laws was signed by the President, Channel One released another brief report hailing the policies as “important amendments to the law meant to combat terrorism.”vii

Western Media

Akin to Russian government-oriented news sources that have been consistently stressing the positive aspects of the new policies without much regard for the more controversial components (e.g. lowering the age of criminal liability for certain crimes to fourteen years oldviii), Western news media sources also seemed to favor certain unanimity in their coverage of these legislative changes. In the best traditions of the Red Scare,ix one of the most widely used techniques appears to be an invocation of the Cold War image of the oppressive USSR regime. The “Yarovaya lawx is referred to as being “reminiscent of Soviet-era surveillance,”xi[re-enacting] …very infamous provision[s] of Soviet law,”xii and forcing the country to regress to “Soviet-era practice[s].”xiii

Presenting the law as an acute infringement on human rights emerges as another trope. Human Rights Watch underscores that “[the new] provisions… severely undermine the right to privacy and are particularly detrimental to freedom of expression on the Internet.”xiv A review by Forbes paints an even gloomier picture: “Hello, brave new world …with jails for children, with global surveillance and prison terms for non-snitching.”xv

Preoccupied with George Orwell’s “Big Brother”xvi narrative, Western Media aims at portraying the new anti-terrorist legislation as an alarming and unequivocally backward movement on the part of the Russian government.

The (Unbiased?) Russian Media: Export Vs Import

How should one view sources like Meduza which claim objectivity?xvii In fact, a close analysis of Meduza’s English and Russian pieces quite unambiguously reveals this resource’s aim to not only express its own stance on the “Yarovaya lawxviii but also to appeal to two different audiences. Meduza is consistently pursuing the familiar Western trope of Soviet tyranny for its English readers, while with regard to the Russian-speaking audience it passes judgement on the new policies and brings this message home to a general news content consumer. Specifically, Meduza’s English-language publications are often filled with buzz-words and tropes which are common in Western news sources. Conclusive examples of this strategy can be found in Meduza’s Englishxix and Russian-languagexx articles on the “Yarovaya lawxxi which are based on Levada-Center’s public opinion survey available in Russianxxii and in English.xxiii

Contrary to Meduza, Levada-Center clearly prioritizes impartiality in its publications. Both articles basically represent an assortment of tables filled with survey data – there is no judgement or assessment whatsoever – and this is precisely what Levada-Center’s translation strategies reflect. With regard to their subject matter, both English and Russian versions of Levada-Center’s piece are virtually identical; the only difference lies in the resource’s assumption that its English-speaking readers might need more context for the report, hence the more detailed English headline.xxiv

Meduza, on the other hand, not only chose to make its English headline more informative but also took this approach one step further by including the familiar “Big Brother” trope and mentioning Vladimir Putin for greater effect.xxv With regard to content, Meduza has definitely done away with Levada-Center’s objectivity; the original report was transformed into a rather evocative piece by selecting and organizing Levada-Center’s findings in a way that was most reflective of Meduza’s own agenda. Unsurprisingly, the English version of Meduza’s article seems to have taken the brunt of this tactic. Namely, in the English article the new anti-terrorist regulations are referred to as “controversial,” as well as “[echoing the] Big Brother [surveillance technique],” and “grant[ing] the government sweeping new powers,” whereas none of this expressive language can be found in Meduza’s Russian-language post.xxvi

All of this is not meant to suggest that a news source should not have their own stance on the events that they are reporting on. Besides, the effectiveness of objectivity as a concept is debatable. What good is an article with no specific message? However, while this might be true to a certain degree, one would do well to be aware of the existence of such selectivity bias on the part of a given informational resource. In fact, the next question we should be asking is: Whose interests are being represented by a certain source?

Unfortunately, at the time of writing this blog, all I was able to confirm was that while this newspaper is primarily targeting a Russian-speaking audience, it is actually officially registered in Latvia.xxvii As for the issue of ownership, one of Meduza’s own articles claims that the founder of the company, Galina Timchenko, remains and has always been its sole owner.xxviii As for Meduza’s funding, I could not locate its exact source (and this alone sends a certain message).xxix

Where Does This Leave Us?

It would not be a revelation to suggest that bias is deeply ingrained within the industry of news media reporting,xxx and Russia is certainly not an exception. As I have attempted to demonstrate, even the seemingly objective sources might still be culpable for manipulating public opinion. It is also important to be aware of the fact that, especially when it comes to reading about Russia, English-speaking audiences may be at a disadvantage. Without a comprehensive knowledge of the Russian language, the readers are often denied the opportunity to access less ex parte content, or at the very least compare the English and the Russian-language publications, and thereby risk falling prey to agendas beyond their control.

 

References


i Here I am referring to a set of two laws: “Федеральный закон (от 06.07.2016 № 374-ФЗ) о внесении изменений в Федеральный закон “О противодействии терроризму” и отдельные законодательные акты Российской Федерации в части установления дополнительных мер противодействия терроризму и обеспечения общественной безопасности,” Pravo.gov.ru | Государственная система правовой информации. Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, July 6, 2016 and “Федеральный закон (от 06.07.2016 № 375-ФЗ) о внесении изменений в Уголовный кодекс Российской Федерации и Уголовно-процессуальный кодекс Российской Федерации в части установления дополнительных мер противодействия терроризму и обеспечения общественной безопасности,” Pravo.gov.ru | Государственная система правовой информации. Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, July 6, 2016,  which were created to modify the existing anti-terrorism law “Федеральный закон (от 06.03.2006 № 35-ФЗ) “О противодействии терроризму”” Pravo.gov.ru | Государственная система правовой информации. Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, March 6, 2006.

ii Anthony Cuthbertson, “Russia Approves ‘Big Brother’ Surveillance Law,” Newsweek.com, June 27, 2016.

iii A comprehensive overview of the specifics of these legislative changes and what they might entail for regular people as well as for companies interested in doing business in Russia can be found here: The Meduza Project, “Russia’s State Duma Just Approved Some of the Most Repressive Laws in Post-Soviet History,” Meduza.io/en, June 24, 2016.

iv Rebecca Flood, “Russian Man Arrested under Anti-Terror Law after Talking about Philosophy of Yoga,” The Independent | Independent.co.uk, January 14, 2017.

v Florian Arendt, Temple Northup, and Lindita Camaj, “Selective Exposure and News Media Brands: Implicit and Explicit Attitudes as Predictors of News Choice,” Media Psychology, July 17, 2017, 1–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2017.1338963.

vi My translation of several excerpts from the following article: “Госдума рассмотрит в первом чтении антитеррористический пакет из трех законопроектов,” ПервыйКанал | Новости | 1tv.ru, February 28, 2014.

vii My translation of several excerpts from the following article: “Президент Владимир Путин подписал пакет поправок в антитеррористическое законодательство,” ПервыйКанал | Новости | 1tv.ru, July 7, 2016.

viii See Article 1.2.2. in “Федеральный закон от 06.07.2016 № 375-ФЗ.”

ix History.com Staff, “Red Scare,” HISTORY.com, 2010.

x Cuthbertson.

xi Anna Borshchevskaya, “‘Brave New World’: Russia’s New Anti-Terrorism Legislation,” Forbes.com, July 8, 2016.

xii Alec Luhn, “Russia Passes ‘Big Brother’ Anti-Terror Laws,” The Guardian | TheGuardian.com, June 26, 2016.

xiii Reuters Staff, “Russians Protest against New Anti-Terrorism Law,” Reuters.com, August 9, 2016.

xivRussia: ‘Big Brother’ Law Harms Security, Rights,” Human Rights Watch | HRW.org, July 12, 2016.

xv Borshchevskaya, “‘Brave New World’: Russia’s New Anti-Terrorism Legislation.”

xvi George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Knopf, 1992).

xvii The Meduza Project, “Meduza – About,” Meduza.io/en, accessed February 11, 2018.

xviii Cuthbertson.

xix The Meduza Project, “Almost Two Thirds of Russians Have Never Heard of the New Anti-Terrorist, ‘Big-Brother’ Laws Recently Signed by Putin,” Meduza.io/en, July 28, 2016.

xx The Meduza Project, “Большинство россиян не знают о «пакете Яровой,»” Meduza.io, July 28, 2016.

xxi Cuthbertson.

xxii Levada-Center, “Закон Яровой,” Levada.ru, July 28, 2016.

xxiii Levada-Center, “Yarovaya Anti-Terrorism Legislative Package,” Levada.ru/en, August 24, 2016.

xxiv Levada-Center, “Yarovaya Anti-Terrorism Legislative Package.”

xxv The Meduza Project, “Almost Two Thirds of Russians Have Never Heard of the New Anti-Terrorist, ‘Big-Brother’ Laws Recently Signed by Putin.”

xxvi The Meduza Project, “Almost Two Thirds of Russians Have Never Heard of the New Anti-Terrorist, ‘Big-Brother’ Laws Recently Signed by Putin.”

xxvii LURSOFT, “Medusa Project, SIA, 40103797863 – Company Data,” Company.lursoft.lv, February 13, 2018.

xxviii Илья Жегулев, “Корпорация «Ходорковский»: Что сделал бывший олигарх за два с половиной года на свободе. Репортаж Ильи Жегулева,” Meduza.io, August 11, 2016.

xxix Елизавета Сурганова, “Галина Тимченко: «Никто из нас не мечтает делать «Колокол»,” Forbes.ru, September 15, 2014.

xxx For more information on this topic see Chun-Fang Chiang and Brian Knight, “Media Bias and Influence: Evidence from Newspaper Endorsements,” The Review of Economic Studies 78, no. 3 (2011): 795–820 and Tawnya J. Adkins Covert and Philo C. Wasburn, “Measuring Media Bias: A Content Analysis of Time and Newsweek Coverage of Domestic Social Issues, 1975-2000,” Social Science Quarterly 88, no. 3 (2007): 690–706.


Katya Tikhonyuk is a graduate student in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University. Her current research focuses on Russian new media and culture of dissent. After the completion of her undergraduate studies at Moscow State Regional University in 2012, Katya spent an academic year at Davidson College in North Carolina, teaching Russian as a recipient of the Fulbright FLTA grant. Her time in Davidson was followed by two years in Wuhan, Central China, where she taught English and Russian at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law prior to arriving at Ohio State


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He’s a Real Man? Vladimir Putin as Meme

Nadia Hoppe

 


When thinking of the current Russian President, most minds conjure the image of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, thanks to countless official photographs that attempt to illustrate the leader’s exaggerated masculinity. A hypermasculine display, Putin’s photographs—both those that work to promote him and work to oppose him—work to establish the leader’s political legitimacy and illegitimacy through gendered, heteronormative means using the body as an imaginative tool. 

 


 

 


Besides being recognized for his political fame, Putin is also known for the persona he projects, particularly through photographs. As seen by comical reproductions of official photographs, the image of Putin that comes to mind for many is a shirtless Putin, sometimes riding a horse. Though many recognize a shirtless Putin because of comedic representations of the leader, that particular image is warranted, as can be seen by the photographs posted on his personal website.

The homepage of Putin’s personal website defaults to a photo album. The website visitor can browse through photographs of content from as early as 2010, to find not only photographs of Putin fulfilling his role as national representative of Russia, but also images of Putin engaging in traditionally masculine activities as part of his contribution to the country. In October 2010, a series of photos recounts Putin’s visit to a nature preserve. He is pictured trudging through the brush, gun in tow, riding a horse through the river, and handling a large fish with his bare hands. In November 2010, Putin drives a race car. In February 2011, Putin skis on slopes of the Caucasus. And the list goes on. Furthermore, evidence of his love for Russia is overwhelming. Scattered among descriptions of his interests are statements such as: “Putin prefers Russian ski slopes” and “Putin prefers Russian cars.”

 


 

This legible masculinity, which is present in so many aspects of Putin’s image and continues to be emphasized, suggests the use of  hypermasculinity as a political strategy of the Putin administration. In her book chapter “Putin’s performance of masculinity: the action hero and macho sex-object,” Helena Goscilo[1] argues that Putin displays a “carefully calibrated public image” which “slots quite neatly into traditional, fantasy-fueled paradigms of ideal masculinity” (182). As she writes, by illustrating a simultaneous “warrior” (through militaristic imagery) and “philosopher” (through excellent command of rhetoric and speech strategy) status, Putin propagates himself as a a type of “ruler” that she argues only exists on the silver screen (183). Most importantly, Goscilo writes, “Putin’s masculinity is grounded in the body and what the body can withstand—a material guarantor that, as Putin learned, reassures the public” (184). Because Putin’s masculinity is grounded in the body, the medium of photographs is an apparent choice for displaying his machismo. Furthermore, Valerie Sperling writes in her 2015 book Sex, Politics, and Putin[2], gender norms and sexualization are internationality used as a means of political legitimacy and the “assertion of masculinity” is often used as a “vehicle for power.” (4) Through photographs, the body as a physical representation can be foregrounded, therefore also foregrounding Putin’s heroic masculinity, and thus, his ability to rule effectively.

The Putin administration uses images to construct an identity. However, images can also be used to challenge and confront that identity. These comedic and satirical reproductions often attack or exaggerate Putin’s performed masculinity, further entrenching his public persona with an image of him as a machismo, heroic figure. These images can speak to particular social issues and act as a form of political protest. For example, a classic photograph of Putin looking straight into the camera was altered to illustrate Putin with long eyelashes and heavy make-up with a rainbow flag in the background—a clear statement against Putin’s recent nontraditional sexual relations propaganda legislation. Sometimes displaying the words “stop homophobia” across Putin’s forehead, this image is heavily used in protests against Putin’s federal laws banning “homosexual propaganda.”

 

 

In the same way that images of Putin are used in serious political protest, internet-circulated images and “memes” are used to call to attention the humorous nature of Putin’s exaggerated masculinity and strange tendency to showcase it through a plethora of photographs, which are almost as extensive as the officially-produced photographs of Putin.


 

A popular photograph of a baby weasel riding on a flying woodpecker is altered to picture Putin riding on top of a baby weasel, which is on a flying woodpecker.


 

The viral music video “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus, is altered to feature Putin’s head on Miley Cyrus’ mostly naked body swinging on a wrecking ball. 


 

A photograph of Putin hunting shirtless, gun in tow, is altered to picture Putin holding a net, catching butterflies. 


 

Furthermore, contemporary art calls into question the validity of Putin’s hypermasculinity. In August 2013, police seized a controversial painting by Konstantin Altunin from a St. Petersburg gallery. The painting illustrates Putin wearing negligee and brushing the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev:

 

 

In another painting by Vera Donskaia-Khilko titled Wrestling (2011), Putin is again pictured, yet in an exaggerated display of phallocentrism. The painting originally appeared in Moscow’s first sex museum, whose curator and founder, Alexander Donskoi, is a vocal critic of the Putin regime.[3] Alongside Soviet condoms and paintings of orgies is Donskaia-Khilko’s oil painting, which features Putin and American President, Barack Obama, standing face to face in preparation for a battle between their enormous phalluses. Obama stands tall with a string of money in his hand, a single yellow penis, and two liberty bells in the place of testicles. Directly across from Obama is Putin with his two penises (one green and one red), donned in bear and fox fur. Both presidents are surrounded by other absurd phallic images, such as small dragons with similarly exaggerated penises and phallic-shaped mushrooms. The text on the wall explains, “Putin has two members, as a symbol of hyperpotency, a symbol of the gray cardinal,” making it abundantly clear who is the most powerful figure. Similarly to Altunin’s painting, the work was considered an apparent attack on Putin’s constructed hypermasculine identity and a reproduction of Donskaia-Khilko’s painting was also seized by police from a museum in St. Petersburg, just a week after Altunin’s painting was seized.[4]

 

 

In their book chapter “A Personality Cult for the Postmodern Age: Reading Vladimir Putin’s Public Persona,” Julie A. Cassidy and Emily D. Johnson explain that this overwhelming propagation of Putin imagery which gives rise to his canonization has caused journalists to compare Putin’s popularity to Soviet-era “cults of personality.”[5]  However, these instances as “Soviet-style strategies” for maintaining social control and cultivation of an image of Putin as a strong, successful leader, “break down down as soon as we move beyond the state controlled media” (39). As they explain, while the party-controlled personality cults of the Soviet era were “both monolithic and static,” Putin-mania is “inherently polysemantic, highly mobile and easily individualized” and also defined by the “two most important cultural practices of the post-Soviet era— nostalgia and consumption” (40). They write, “It offers Russians, many of whom felt deprived of both cultural and individual identity during the chaotic 1990s, the opportunity to articulate new modes of subjectivity” (40).

It is important to note that much of the anti-Putin artwork and internet memes examined here delegitimize the leader by employing traditional ideas of masculinity. Their oppositional efficacy stems from the recognition and use of gender norms; as official photographs of Putin exaggerate traditional masculinity in order to produce a narrative about the leader’s political identity, anti-Putin images appropriate these masculine traditions in order to create an opposing narrative. Above all else, the body is used as a malleable object in the effort to legitimize or delegitimize Putin, naming itself as a main marker of political image and voice.


[1] Goscilo, Helena. “Putin’s performance of masculinity: the action hero and macho sex-object.” Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon. ed. Helena Goscilo. New York: Routeledge, 2013. Print.

[2] Sperling, Valerie. Sex, Politics, Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.

[3] Elder, Miriam. “Moscow Museum Celebrates Sex.” The Guardian. 12 July 2011. Web. 11 May 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/12/moscow-sex-museum-sparks-controversy

[4] Brooks, Katherine. “Russian Police Nab Painting Of Nude Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.” The Huffington Post. 5 September 2013. Web. 11 May 2015.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/05/putin-obama-painting_n_3873023.html

[5] Cassidy, Julie A. and Emily D. Johnson. “A Personality Cult for the Postmodern Age: Reading Vladimir Putin’s Public Persona.” Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon. ed. Helena Goscilo. New York: Routeledge, 2013. Print.


Nadia Hoppe is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include Soviet and Post-Soviet literature, art, and film as well as gender and critical theory.

 

 

 


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