Where did you first hear Putin’s party, United Russia, called the “party of swindlers and thieves” (partiia zhulikov i vorov)? On a blog? On TV? Here, just now? Here’s an example (see image below). One of the things historians of the future will have to work out, when thinking about politics today, is how various media forms and forces combined to propagate such important political memes. The immediate instinct is to credit everything to new and social media; but having just spent a lot of the past month watching very official television, I’m not sure.
Let me back up, and explain. I left Russia December 4, the day of the elections. To tell you the truth, this wasn’t my favorite visit. I was treated very well by all the archivists and scholars there; had a wonderful visit to a collector of sleighbells in Moscow; and saw a bunch of old friends. But my general impression was of a place that was stuck in the mud, politically speaking; and this was in no small part because I spent a good many evenings watching the official pre-election debates that pitted the seven odd major parties against one another.
These debates were televised on one of the most official channels — Channel One, ‘Russia’–and were lavishly advertised and produced. They took place every night like clockwork, hosted by a popular journalist, and had all the trappings of important political events. And yet the reigning assumption of most everyone I talked to was that all this was just a circus–a play at democracy, staged not least to make the opposition look fractured and unprofessional, even as United Russia cruised to victory again. And most of the time it was a circus, not least because the official opposition parties feature such characters as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose specialty is turning public events into infantile shouting matches.
And yet what a difference a week makes. I look at the debates with somewhat different eyes now, namely the eyes of a pre-internet age low information voter, just now learning what all the fuss was about. You see, one thing that eluded me while watching three-odd weeks of debates was just where a certain phrase came from, that everyone–the liberals, the communists, Zhirinovsky, the moderator–kept using, sometimes in earnest, sometimes ironically, sometimes in anger, but without fail always and in every telecast. That phrase was, “the party of swindlers and thieves” as applied to United Russia.
Now, I knew that it must be some sort of new media cliche, and that it must have come from somewhere. But I didn’t know from where, even as my ear got used to its rhythms and began to expect it to be used as shorthand for “the party of power” (partiia vlasti) — which I’m sure Putin’s party would prefer to be called.
Now I know. As reported by Eileen Barry of the New York Times, I learned today that the “party of swindlers and thieves” epithet was coined by a Russian blogger named Aleksei Naval’ny. And Barry goes on to credit this phrase with galvanizing Russia’s fractured opposition–as further organized by Twitter and other social media–into a real protest movement out on the streets. United by this conception of the “party of power,” groups of radically different political views can imagine joining arms against it. Barry concludes, “Navalny will be credited for mobilizing a generation of young Russians through social media, a leap much like the one that spawned Occupy Wall Street and youth uprisings throughout Europe this year.”
It all makes sense, except for one thing: I imagine millions of people first heard of the “party of swindler and thieves” not through a dissident blog or on social media but through Russia’s officially sponsored debates and government-dominated Channel One. To be sure, before December 4, these same debates were widely panned as farces. But as they played out, the references to some “party of swindlers and thieves” poured out by the dozen. And I imagine many people who never heard of a blog are now finding common language with protesters because they share a vocabulary brought to them by TV. Or am I still missing something?