Russia satirists use YouTube to challenge Kremlin

Screengrab from YouTube video of cartoon character Mr Freeman Cult cartoon character Mr Freeman is part of a digital onslaught on the political establishment

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Media control has been one of the key factors that have allowed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to dominate Russia's political landscape since he was first elected president in 2000.

As the country prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections, though, there are signs that the Kremlin is facing a fresh media challenge in the form of an increasingly politicised audience on YouTube.

Over the past few weeks, a number of Russian politics-themed clips on YouTube have achieved over one million views.

The videos are in a variety of genres - political polemic, satire and song - but they have one thing in common: a critical or irreverent attitude to the country's leadership - Mr Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev and their party, United Russia.

Earlier this year, anti-corruption campaigner and blogger Aleksey Navalnyy launched a web campaign against United Russia under the banner "Party of Crooks and Thieves".

One of the latest instalments in this campaign is a clip on his YouTube channel entitled: "Let's remind the crooks and thieves of their 2002 manifesto". The video lists what it says are United Russia's failures and broken pledges, and concludes: "They have not just lied, they have brought the country to such a state that these and other promises seem to be mockeries". It also urges viewers to vote for any party but United Russia in December's parliamentary election.

The video was posted on YouTube on 7 October. By 28 October, it been viewed more than a million times.

Satire

YouTube is not only giving a powerful voice to the opposition, it is also helping to revive subversive art forms.

TV political satire has been virtually extinct in Russia since the puppet show Kukly (along the lines of the now-defunct UK satirical programme Spitting Image) disappeared from the screens shortly after Mr Putin came to power.

Now, though, this kind of satire is making a comeback on the internet. Not all the satire is anti-government, but it is generally irreverent towards authority.

Screengrab of Youtube satirist Kamikadze_d Kamikadze_d is a popular online satirist

One of its brightest exponents on YouTube is Dmitry Ivanov, who uses the online nickname Kamikadze_d.

Ivanov's fast-talking stand-up routines on the Russian political scene have been growing in popularity for several months now.

The first of them to break the one-million-view mark was a lampoon of a TV debate between leading politicians that was posted on 9 September.

Ivanov quickly repeated the feat with a routine called "Putin's terrible secret", in which he suggests that hidden clones of the prime minister are taking over Russia.

For those who like their satire a bit darker, there is Mr Freeman, a spooky black-and-white cartoon character whose nightmarish visions of the modern world have won him a cult following among Russian internet users.

On 11 October Mr Freeman abandoned satire and posted an "open letter" to President Medvedev, urging him to stop Mr Putin from becoming president again. By the end of the month it, too, had got over a million views.

The clip says Mr Putin's first stint as president "plunged Russia into a medieval gloom" and that the only way to prevent a repeat of this is for Mr Medvedev to sack him from the post of prime minister.

Protest music

YouTube has also helped revive Russian protest music, which, like satire, has been virtually banned from popular mainstream media outlets.

In 2010, hip-hop artist Ivan Alekseyev, aka Noize MC, got over a million views with a song about his imprisonment for singing anti-police lyrics at a concert in Volgograd.

Another protest song that has gone viral is "Our madhouse is voting for Putin" by the Yekaterinburg-based band Rabfak, which has already reached an aggregate audience of over one million since being posted on YouTube on 11 October.

The song describes how Russia is awash with corruption and abuses, but says that people will still support Mr Putin. And it warns that those who question this will be given "an injection in the backside".

The jaunty refrain runs:

"Our madhouse is voting for Putin; Putin is just the candidate for us"

Politicisation

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Mr Putin has been the target of numerous satirical videos recently

According to the latest research by polling organisation the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), some 60 million Russians now have access to the internet out of a total population of just over 140 million.

Until recently, though, political content on the internet has not tended to attract a mass audience.

In 2010, there were some signs that this was changing - most notably, the growing popularity of protest songs.

The appearance of a spate of overtly political videos with one-million-plus audiences in just a few weeks is unprecedented. The Russian website Gazeta.ru lists its 10 favourites. Only six Russian clips got over one million views in the whole of 2010. And it is a further sign that the internet audience in Russia is becoming increasingly politicised.

Moreover, the prevailing political mood is distinctly anti-government.

Since Mr Medvedev became president in 2008, the authorities have made great efforts to influence the internet community. The president himself launched a videoblog and then a Twitter account, which currently has over 625,000 followers.

But on Twitter, as on YouTube, the political traffic appears to be mainly one-way. In October, a pro-government activist tried to celebrate Mr Putin's birthday with the hashtag "SpasiboPutinuZaEto" (ThanksPutinForThat). But his plan backfired, as the hashtag became a magnet for jokes at the prime minister's expense.

Changing perceptions

Anti-government or satirical clips on YouTube are unlikely to have a decisive effect on the outcome of the forthcoming elections.

But they may already be changing perceptions.

Recent research by academics from Moscow State University found that Mr Putin is regarded in a much more negative light today than before the previous presidential elections he fought in 2000 and 2004.

The researchers found that just 17.1% of respondents had a positive view of his professional capacities as against 69% in 2000 and 64 per cent in 2004. According to the website Gazeta.ru, among the negative sides of Mr Putin's rule listed by respondents were "unfulfilled promises", "failure to solve corruption problems", "excessive populism" and "excessive authoritarianism".

Watching political content on YouTube is likely to reinforce these perceptions.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

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