Countering the doping and hooliganism scandals: why Russia needs a good World Cup | Vitaly Kazakov

As the World Cup kicks off, all eyes are on Russia. Of course sporting mega events offer a great opportunity for political leaders to re-brand their countries in the eyes of international publics, and in recent years, leading Russian politicians pulled out all the stops to secure events such as the Sochi Olympics and the 2018 World Cup for Russia.

But the negative impact of recent doping scandals, the well-publicised activities of Russian hooligans and Russian government’s responses to them have created reputational damage that is hard to erase.

As Vitaly Kazakov explains for The Conversation, government PR campaigns will struggle to turn these perceptions around. It will be up to the Russian people to showcase an image of Russia which is different from that which is painted in the West. Read more…

vitalykazakovVitaly Kazakov is a PhD candidate at The University of Manchester. His research examines large-scale sporting events in Russia.

Mediated militarism: Affective investments in RT’s coverage of the conflict in Syria | Rhys Crilley and Precious Chatterje-Doody


Following our team’s busy past month of conference presentations, we’re pleased to be able to share with you a video of one of the papers, ‘Mediating militarism: affective investments in RT’s YouTube coverage of conflict in Syria’. Co-authored by Dr Rhys Crilley and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, this was presented as a work in progress at Comparative Media in Today’s World, Saint Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Video courtesy of Il’ia Bykov, Saint Petersburg State University.

Latest conference news

Over the last few weeks our team have been busy presenting at a number of conferences. Most recently, Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody travelled to St. Petersburg to present at The Comparative Media in Today’s World conference, held at Saint Petersburg State University. The paper, co-authored by Dr Rhys Crilley, was entitled ‘Mediating militarism: affective investments in RT’s YouTube coverage of conflict in Syria’.

CIBAR (Conference of International Broadcasters’ Audience research Service) was held in Bonn, Germany 15-18 April and our team at The Open University presented individual papers: ‘Measuring networks of influence on Twitter. Why, how and what then?’
(Dr Alistair Willis); ‘RT and the shifting sands of international broadcasting in the Middle East’ (Professor Marie Gillespie and Dr Deena Dejani) and ‘What can we learn from RT’s social media re-enactment of the Russian revolution?’ (Dr Rhys Crilley).

The team at Manchester (Professor Stephen Hutchings, Professor Vera Tolz, Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody) were joined by PhD student Vitaly Kazakov at The British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) when it held its annual conference in Cambridge 13-15 April. They presented a panel entitled ‘Russia and the “Information War” – The Role of RT’ which included the following papers: ‘RT and the calibration of Russia’s ‘war on truth’’ (Professor Hutchings); ‘Cultural memory and political legitimacy in a neo-authoritarian regime: Russian representations of the 1917 revolutions at home and abroad’ (Professor Tolz and Dr Chatterje-Doody); and ‘From Russophone to Russophobe: RT, Eurovision 2017 and the Russian-language social mediasphere’ (Vitaly Kazakov). As part of another panel at the same conference, Dr Chatterje-Doody presented a paper entitled ‘From domestic elites to transnational publics: RT’s re-framing of Russian identity for international audiences’.

Finally, the 28th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) took place on 27-28 March at LSE. The theme for this year’s conference was ‘The New Nationalism: populism, authoritarianism and anti-globalisation’ and Professor Vera Tolz appeared on a book panel discussing The New Russian Nationalism Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism 2000–2015 Edited by Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud. Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody presented her paper ‘Curating Identities and Dissent in a Globalized Media Ecology: Cross Front Populism on RT’.



Our latest articles: Russia’s media manipulation isn’t neo-Soviet propaganda and a ban on RT isn’t the answer

Latest articles

Photo by GiantsFanatic, Creative Commons

In this batch of recent articles, members of the Reframing Russia team have taken a wide-ranging look at what’s happening in the global media following the poisoning of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, and why UK responses to date leave something to be desired: Continue reading

We must rethink Russia’s propaganda machine in order to reset the dynamic that drives it | Stephen Hutchings


Community News Commons/Creative Commons

The theme of propaganda has dominated much British media coverage of the Skripal spy poisoning scandal. In this context, a narrative has emerged which sets the Kremlin at the centre of a web of cyber-warriors and media machinery, all centrally coordinated to attach a single audience.

The reality is much more complicated. There isn’t one clear media programme in play, and Russian media discourses are more complex than often presented. Yet, these misrepresentations of Russian media strategies undermine efforts to tackle them, and feed spirals of mutual hostility.

As Stephen Hutchings explains for the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, the only way to reset this cycle is to fundamentally rethink our approach to Russia’s propaganda machine.

Ksenia Sobchak ‘against all’ or everyone against Ksenia Sobchak? | Galina Miazhevich

At only 36 years old, Ksenia Sobchak is one of the most influential women in Russia. This is due both to her entrepreneurship as a TV celebrity and her social capital as a daughter of a late mayor of St Petersburg. She transitioned from the scandalous hostess of a reality TV show in 2004 to a celebrity socialite known as the ‘Russian Paris Hilton’, extending ‘brand Sochak’ to advertising, restaurant, fashion and other businesses.


Ksenia Sobchak in 2012 (Evgeniy Isaev, Creative Commons licence)

After 2011 Sobchak became a vocal opposition journalist at the only independent TV channel ‘Rain’ (Dozhd’) and a political activist. Her appearance transformed to suit her new roles: from a brassy blonde in glamourous attire (at times featuring in male glossy magazines) to a modestly dressed journalist in glasses, with shoulder-length (and less blond) straight hair. Her scandalous personal affairs gave way to a secret marriage to a Russian actor in 2013 and motherhood in 2016.

In October 2017 Sobchak undertook yet another ‘re-branding’ as she declared her intention to run for the Russian presidency in March 2018 – the first woman to run since 2004. Sobchak’s nomination was met with various reactions ranging from confusion to a glimmer of hope.

Russia’s mediascape has variously presented Sobchak as a caricature candidate, a Kremlin stooge, a publicity-hungry socialite and a controversial female ‘entertainer’ in a managed ‘election exercise’. Prominent opposition candidate, Alexey Navalny, who was denied registration, accused Sobchak of dividing and tainting oppositional circles.

But just how has Sobchak gone about re-branding herself in this campaign, and what is the impact of gender on this re-branding process?

A candidate for our times?

Sobchak’s characteristically provocative campaign slogan — ‘I represent the vote against everyone’ is intended to appeal to those who are dissatisfied with the established regime, its lack of credible democratic institutions and freedom of speech. Since ‘everyone’ presumably embraces those from the political ‘establishment’, the tabloid-style slogan is designed to distinguish Sobchak from the other ‘alternative’ candidates. Her aim, she says, is not to ‘unseat’ Vladimir Putin in 2018, but to instil ‘a hope for a change’ in the nation.

As a media personality, Sobchak has skilfully used social media to add immediacy to her campaign and target key demographic groups. She has also been given access to a broad spectrum of state media outlets to articulate her platform. At home, Sobchak appeared on high-profile TV talk shows including Malakhov and Solov’ev’s talk shows on TV Channel Rossiia 1, and Pozner’s show on Channel One. For an international audience, she gave an interview to RT.

Sobchak used her prime-time appearances to rubbish allegations that she is either a Kremlin stooge (included to give the impression of free speech and genuine competition) or part of a liberal wealthy elite that is detached from the masses.

Gender politics and the Presidential campaign

Unlike other candidates, Sobchak has had to address perceptions that her gender and age undermine her electoral credibility. A recent Levada survey (2017) showed that around 53% of the Russian population do not envisage a female president in the next 10-15 years. In a society with deeply-rooted patriarchal gender norms, appetite for women’s issues and gender equality is minimal and Sobchak is an easy target of ridicule.

Numerous attempts to discredit her include recirculation of glamour photoshoots and a video featuring her drunk, jokes involving her appearance (e.g. memes comparing her to a horse) and intellectual ability (sufficient only for the entertainment industry), and a neglect of her maternal duties. The most recent example includes on air defamation of Sobchak by another presidential candidate Zhirinovsky (previously a far-right candidate ‘normalised’ and mainstreamed by the regime) during one of the presidential debates. The insults included such epithets as ‘stupid’, ‘brainless’, ‘black dirt’, ‘whore’ and ‘a girl from the streets’. Sobchak retaliated with a glass of water thrown at the rival.

Sobchak has an extensive professional media background and utilises a range of (sometime contradictory) tactics to tackle gender-related issues on the campaign trail. At some times this means de-emphasising her gender; at others, this means using her age, gender and political inexperience as ‘weapons’. Sobchak claims that her youth, courage (smelost’) and view from outside are necessary to challenge the political establishment.

Multiple personalities

Sobchak often downplays her gender when she addresses a general audience, articulating her political position as a ‘person’ not a woman. In her November 2017 appearance on Solov’ev’s talk show, for instance, Sobchak told the presenter that now is ‘a historic moment’, but ‘not because I am a woman’. Yet, the same month, she appeared on the cover of Glamour magazine in a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Women, power’.

Sobchak has adopted many such (often contradictory) personae fluently and articulately throughout her campaign: an undisclosed feminist, a patriot, a mother, a naïve idealist, a politician cherry-picking western liberal ideas, etc. At the same time, Sobchak’s chameleon-like persona is multi-dimensional, playful and ironic. Her YouTube candidacy announcement was filmed in the kitchen, perhaps simultaneously alluding to the well-established stereotype of a woman’s place in Russian society and Mayakovsky’s poem where he claims that ‘every female cook can be taught how to manage a state’.

Gendered performances

It is partly Sobchak’s manipulation of multiple roles, which allows her to exploit the rules and the limits of patriarchal culture. For instance, at the end of Pozner’s interview (Jan 2018) Sobchak responds to a silly question about whether she likes her own appearance with a simple ‘no’. If the same question were posed to a British female politician, she would be asking ‘Have you ever posed this question to a male politician?’.

Similarly, when asked whether she’d ever been a victim of sexual harassment, Sobchak avoided a potential trap by branding the matter too ‘private’ to discuss. Her ‘western’ counterparts would likely see it as a ‘public’ issue and answer readily. Then, Sobchak cleverly responded to a question about her perfect day: one spent with her husband and child.

Targeted styles

In her TV appearances Sobchak adopts various communication styles ranging from very vocal and assertive to much more thoughtful and open (e.g. an interview with Pozner). On the whole, Sobchak seems to be oblivious to the fact that by being a proactive and assertive woman she plays into the hands of patriarchal culture with deep-rooted misogynistic views.

In other words, she behaves contrary to what a woman in Russia is expected to be and how she is expected to behave. This negates other aspects of a carefully staged image-making exercise.

The ‘F’ word

Finally, Sobchak avoids making a clear stance on feminism. She has never moved further than formulating a stereotypical image of a feminist in Russia as articulated by others (a masculine creature dressed a suit, smoking and spitting to the side). Russian understanding of feminism is largely based on the Soviet legacy and mythology of the (achieved) egalitarian status of women despite a persistent triple burden of mother, worker and wife.

This is, in turn, combined with the perception of ‘western’ feminism as something homogenous, radical and alien to Russian culture. On the one hand, Sobchak is known for a tense relationship with a token Russian feminist T. Arbatova and a controversial interview with Pussy Riot in 2014. On the other hand, Sobchak herself is a self-made woman who has been vocal about women’s rights in the past (e.g. criticising the stance of the Russian Orthodox Church on Twitter) and during this election campaign (e.g. an event dealing with violence towards women).

The 8th of March International Women’s Day celebration (beloved since Soviet times) somewhat clarified Sobchak’s stand. She congratulated Russian women and reminded them that this day symbolise years of women’s struggle for their rights. She also picketed (on her own!) outside the state Duma drawing attention to the cases of sexual harassment of women by the deputies. When she herself was congratulated on air for the festivity (by another presidential candidate who also provided a gentlemen-like apology for Zhirinovsky’s behaviour), Sobchak thanked him and replied that her ‘gender is not her ceiling’ probably referring to the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon in female career when women are stopped from progressing beyond certain level.

To conclude, Sobchak’s balancing between an embodiment of the feminisation of resistance (e.g. her participation in the 2012 anti-presidential campaign and current presidential campaign) and trivialisation of emancipatory politics is a remarkable skill. It remains to be seen how the outlook of the Russian electorate, which (for now) treats Sobchak largely with suspicion, dislike and irony, will change.

Media-managed democracy: How Russian state-funded broadcasters are representing the 2018 Presidential election campaign | Stephen Hutchings, Vera Tolz and Precious Chatterje-Doody

The 2018 Russian Presidential Elections in perspective

In a televised election debate recorded live yesterday, journalist-turned-campaigner and Presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak threw a glass of water over nationalist LDPR leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, after he encroached on the airtime of another candidate and repeatedly insulted Sobchak when she called him to order. Of the 8 candidates successfully verified, approved and registered by Russia’s Central Election Committee on February 10th, (from a record 17 candidates who initially declared their intention to stand) Russia’s incumbent President, Vladimir Putin, was the only one not present for the latest minor scandal in the stage-managed media coverage of the election.

Putin has left the overt electioneering to the opposition. This includes Sobchak, Zhirinovsky, and the Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin. Alexei Navalny – the nationalist anti-corruption campaigner whose political ambitions and protest organisation have been widely covered in the UK media – is barred from running due to criminal convictions on what many see as politically-motivated charges.

Compared to the social drama around the 2012 elections, this cycle has been pretty tame. Back then, Putin released several detailed manifesto articles, as the Russian authorities scrambled to address the mass protests that followed rigged parliamentary elections, and Putin’s shock decision to run for a third, extended, term.

This time, Putin’s rather late and low-key announcement of his intention to stand came as no surprise, and the public responded apathetically: only around 4000 people attended Navalny’s January protests. Putin has kept a deliberately low profile, with no official social media campaign but a star-studded #Putinteam website and online social movement apparently operating independently. He has made a few liberal noises about Russia’s need for effective political competition, whilst lamenting the inexperience and overall lack of credibility of the existing opposition. This is a criticism likely to resonate in Russian society, and a recent viral video of unknown provenance played on homophobic and xenophobic clichés to satirise the social preferences of opposition candidates.

Ballot box 2018

Representing the Russian elections at home

State-funded domestic TV has enthusiastically adopted Putin’s framing in its limited election coverage. The President is shown fulfilling his official duties, and in stories highlighting his popular support. Historical films broadcast for the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution implied the necessity of a strong leader like Putin for preserving state stability. Indeed, Putin’s capacity to save Russia from a repeat of 1917 was explicitly articulated in the popular tabloid Moskovskii komsomelets.

Opposition candidates receive little airtime, with news coverage related to their perceived electoral threat. Grigory Yavlinsky, the liberal economist whose party now has no parliamentary seats, received few, largely factual reports. The leader of the nationalist LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is covered with light interest and sarcasm. Pavel Grudinin, the Collective Farm manager and Communist Party candidate seen as the most credible threat to Putin’s numbers, is covered critically.

Reporting of his campaign activities shifts to questions over financial irregularities, and commentary on his personal addresses to workers is sarcastic. Similarly, one of the first questions in Grudinin’s televised interview with Vladimir Solov’ev was about his “complex political biography” and ties to the pro-Putin United Russia party.

Alexei Navalny is almost entirely absent from the coverage, aside from passing references made by fellow candidate Ksenia Sobchak. For her part, Sobchak has been represented negatively from the start – as a shameless self-publicist appealing to a disloyal liberal elite, and with no hope of electoral success.

Sobchak has been permitted several appearances on the (lesser-watched) talk-show circuit. She has roundly criticised the Putin regime. On Rossiia’s ’60 Minutes’, Sobchak questioned the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum; and in a November interview with Vladimir Solov’ev she condemned: an interventionist foreign policy that produces declining living standard in Russia; a politically-motivated justice system (including a case against Navany’s brother, Oleg); and a political model in which “nobody can win, with the exception of one candidate”. Sobchak accused the media of complicity with political elites, arguing that they spread hate and lies and refuse to cover opposition figures such as Navalny.

Sobchak’s critiques went further than other opposition figures have been permitted, but Solov’ev went out of his way to discredit her throughout the interview. Questioning Sobchak’s popularity and originality, Solov’ev even suggested that she was a “Kremlin project” to split the liberal vote. This is a widely-circulating rumour, based on Putin’s previous mentorship by Sobchak’s father, former mayor of St. Petersburg, the late Anatoly Sobchak. In voicing it, state TV is returning to pre-Crimean-annexation practices: ‘performing’ freedom of speech by appropriating some aspects of public criticism of Putin.

Ultimately, the programme, like yesterday’s debate show, degenerated into personal insults. Sobchak had only agreed to appear on the programme “out of necessity – as one would use a public toilet”; whilst for Solev’ev, her decision to so relieve herself had left her (literally) exposed, and could only damage her campaign. This crudely-worded exchange typified Solov’ev’s attempts to mobilise wide-spread misogyny against Sobchak, representing her as too bold, too aggressive, too rude – all traits unbecoming for a Russian woman. Whilst Sobchak has also used her own YouTube channel to stage interviews with well-known figures from political and journalistic circles more on her own terms, some have gone on to perpetuate viciously negative images of Sobchak in their own outputs.

Engaging an international audience

Russia’s international broadcaster, RT, has produced largely low-key election coverage with a number of similarities to domestic television. Various programmes have commented implicitly on election-related matters: the ‘Cross Talk’ discussion of the 1917 revolution that highlighted the dangers of radicalism; and the foreign talk show guests who have expressed positive assessments of Putin and his policies since announcing his decision to stand (film director Oliver Stone, and Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders, both appeared on SophieCo in December 2017).

Direct election reporting on RT’s website features in the ‘Russian politics’ section, low down on the homepage and often takes a jocular tone – including through sarcastic or flippant reporting of various female candidates; coverage that emphasises human interest or scandalous elements; and light-hearted reporting of Putin’s own joke that he might become a combine driver, should his election campaign fail.

Generally, Putin is represented fulfilling his official duties, and the activities and programmes of the major presidential candidates are reported fairly dispassionately. However, their personal credibility is subtly undermined. Grudinin, it is mentioned, is a former member of the pro-Putin United Russia party, a non-member of the Communist party, and a “mogul”. Sobchak remains primarily a celebrity rather than serious politician.

The most analytical election coverage has come within a series of pre-election interviews with political figures on the World’s Apart programme. In discussion with controversial public intellectual, Aleksandr Dugin, presenter Oksana Boiko frames questions in relation to Putin’s “liberal” candidacy for the Presidency. Sobchak’s later appearance on the same show produced an unconstrained, combative, and rather uncomfortable exchange. In airing it, RT seems to be striving to demonstrate its independence and commitment to ‘balanced’ coverage.

However, the interview draws Sobchak’s unfavourable personal attributes into sharp relief: she avoids key questions; uses aggressive body language; and refuses to articulate a programme beyond that of immediate protest. The interview also highlights the aversion to radical change shared by Sobchak and Putin; as well as her tensions with Navalny, and within the wider opposition. In a subsequent interview with former opposition MP, Dmitry Gudkov, Boiko reports the Kremlin’s view that such frictions demonstrate opposition figures’ egotism and lack of civic mindedness. Boiko herself is “more or less pro-Putin” – whilst he might not be perfect, he’s the best of a bad bunch.

This open discussion of Alexei Navalny represents the biggest different between RT’s coverage of the elections and that on domestic television. RT clearly recognises the interest that Navalny holds for its international audiences. Asked by interviewer Afshin Rattansi how he’d respond to the criticisms in the British media about Navalny’s exclusion from the ballot, Russia’s Ambassador to Britain laments that the press remains silent on the two criminal convictions that bar Navalny constitutionally from running, whilst presenting wholly negative coverage of Putin. He characterises this as “meddling” from the “free” press. At no point does Rattansi follow up on allegations that the charges against Navalny were trumped up specifically to bar his candidacy.

As with the major candidates, news reporting on Navalny combines overall neutrality with subtle techniques of delegitimation: particularly the unqualified reminder that he is barred from running due to criminal convictions. In reporting Navalny’s temporary YouTube ban  (and his attribution of blame for this to Kremlin ‘troll’ activity), RT seems to imply that social media giants police users randomly and undemocratically (thus de-legitimating Facebook and Twitter action against RT); and possibly, that Navalny is paranoid. This seems to reflect a wider RT strategy of borrowing from popular narratives about Russia and RT and re-deploying them in unexpected contexts which both expose ‘western’ hypocrisy and indirectly undermine the very basis for those narratives.

What might we expect from ongoing election coverage?

Broad similarities between domestic and international coverage of the Russian elections and their candidates reflect a shared aim: to present Putin as the most competent, relatively liberal, candidate. Nonetheless, coverage, both domestically and internationally, must continue to respond to the commercial concerns of its respective audiences.

Domestic media will rely on its audience’s conservative social values to foster Sobchak’s negative profile – through affording her greater opportunities to express (and undermine) herself than the major male opposition figures. The latest water-throwing incident is unlikely to help her in this regard.

RT, whose international audiences have easy access to news media from ‘western’ sources, will likely reflect the prevailing concerns of this coverage, whilst subverting some of its core tropes. This may include increasing intimations of direct or indirect election meddling.

In both cases, it seems likely that (barring unexpected developments) news coverage will remain relatively low-key. Analytical content is likely to appear within outputs that audiences must actively seek out (talk shows, online news reports, etc) rather than in core popular output.

Why did Putin build a monument to victims of Soviet repression? | Vera Tolz & Precious Chatterje-Doody


On October 30th, 2017, President Vladimir Putin took the unusual step of personally unveiling a monument to victims of political repression in central Moscow.

Whilst some commentators see this as a long-overdue recognition of Soviet-era state terror, others have dismissed it as a distraction from political repressions ongoing in Russia today. But making such a politically-charged statement is clearly a potentially risky strategy.

Professor Vera Tolz and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody discuss the motivations behind the move, and its implications, over on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

Did RT Influence the 2016 US Elections? | Rhys Crilley


The US Department of Justice recently obliged RT to register under the ‘foreign agents’ (FARA) law, and whilst RT has complied, the network has also stated its intention to challenge the ruling.

But as Dr Rhys Crilley points out in his recent piece for E-IRRT’s coverage of the US election wasn’t particularly unique. Furthermore, there is no reliable evidence as to the impact it may have had.

In fact, the FARA furore over RT’s overt operations may be deflecting from more pressing issues of the Russian state’s covert operations, and allegations of collusion at the highest levels… Read more



Will Alex Salmond’s RT show make him a Kremlin tool? | Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz


Over the past week or so, the British political and media establishment has expressed widespread criticism of the decision by Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland, to front a weekly political chat show on RT.

Salmond himself, by contrast, has taken pains to stress his editorial independence, and the independence of the  production company producing the show.

So what is the truth of the matter?

Professors Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz discuss the Salmond-RT “marriage of convenience” in their recent piece for The Conversation.