Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Alexei Navalny knows who tried to kill him and he wants you to be entertained.
On the face of it, this seems quite odd. Since his poisoning in August, Navalny has become undisputedly the most prominent figure in the Russian opposition and has used his already well developed social and alternative media presence to keep supporters, foreign observers, and enemies well appraised of his progress and actions. Like fellow anti-Putinist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Navalny is an expert in using social media platforms, especially YouTube, to spread his message in a way that is friendly and accessible to young people and supporters, even those residing abroad. (A not insignificant thing, just considering the size of the Russian diaspora in places like London and New York, not to mention the many non-Russians who take an interest in seeing Putin thrown from power). And now, only months from what many suspected would be his deathbed, Navalny has returned to tell his tale and that of his would-be murderers.
The actual tale of Navalny’s (somewhat) botched poisoning makes a fascinating story in itself, which is why I would encourage you to watch at least part of the video he released on his YouTube channel a week ago. What I want to talk about here is the less-discussed aspect of this new twist: the optics.
If you’ve never seen one of Khodorkovsky’s videos, they are pretty cut and dry. 5-10 minute videos of him discussing various aspects of the Russian news, politics, and his own opposition activities. Lately, there has been a little fancy editing thrown in, but the vast majority of his content, generally released about every 3 days, sticks to that basic format. This is not to say that he isn’t doing well. The videos tend to garner between 100K and 900K views, with a few outliers at either end of that spectrum, and a majority without English subtitles available. Another version of his channel, with custom English subtitles, also exists, but typically doesn’t catch more than 100 to 1000 views per video.
Navalny, on the other hand, has two channels: Навальный LIVE, a news-based channel on which he appears but which also has multiple other anchors, and Алексей Навальный, the content of which is almost always solo videos of Navalny, although short documentaries appear on occasion. On both channels, videos regularly have between 2 and 20 million views.
Of course, part of the view disparity between Khodorkovsky and Navalny is in their relative domestic and international profiles, as well as the fickleness of the platform’s algorithm, but I think that the design of Navalny’s videos also plays a large part. Not only are Navalny’s tactics helpful in getting more attention on his anti-Putin crusade, but they may be a view for the Russian opposition at large into how they can catch more grassroots attention, and more foreign eyes, helpful in pushing legislature, like the Magnitsky Act, which can assist in their goals.
Let’s take Navalny’s expose as a test case. Naturally, any talk of the attempt on his life attracts a lot of attention, especially considering the use of the agent in question, because it has popped up in so many other cases, and the generally short life span of Putin’s opponents. Just taking those factors into consideration, the whole thing could have been rather a somber production. Likewise, he could have taken the Khodorkovsky approach and presented a very straightforward report of the facts and figures in question, throwing a few pictures up on-screen and going through the timeline he and the journalists who broke most of the story have constructed.
Instead, Navanly treats his experience as a Hollywood thriller. There are cuts to clips of James Bond movies, and little animations poke fun at the transparent falsehoods of Putin and his allies in the wake of the news about the FSB’s involvement breaking. He even invites his audience to “grab a pipe, or at least a cup of tea” and settle in for the experience of watching the 51-minute video. Throughout, the viewers are introduced to the players in question, and shown documents, interviews, recordings, maps, and all manner of other evidence, skillfully woven into the video with humorous edits and touching clips of Navalny interacting with his family, which was also under threat.
On its own, this doesn’t seem like a huge innovation. So the guy hires good editors and can spin a yarn, what’s the big deal? The big deal, as I see it, is engagement. Vladimir Putin is not in a good place right now, and Russia is full of disaffected young people, migrants (who also tend younger), and educated professionals, among others, who consume a lot of their daily news on the platforms that Navalny is targeting. The fancy editing and engaging tone encourage those people, who might otherwise ignore domestic politics as a lost cause or fall into Putin’s support because of the strength and relentless nature of the propaganda used there, to take another view of their country and opposition politics. Navalny came back from a murder attempt, a poisoning, and can joke about it. There is a risk inherent in going against Putin, but it is not an inevitable death sentence, and Russian politics are not set in stone. For the apolitical, it is a way to get drawn into the fray, because the content is so close in some ways to what they might watch for entertainment, and see the importance of picking a side. Foreign view, meanwhile, can be much bigger because of the expertly done English translation, and the appeal of such an interesting, well-presented story.
An intriguing YouTube video or two (or two hundred) won’t end Vladimir Putin’s regime. But an opposition that understands the importance of wide media engagement, especially on platforms that it is harder for the government to police, and how to appeal to young people and sympathetic foreigners, is a more powerful force, especially when Putin’s own propaganda has become only become more transparent and (unintentionally) ridiculous as his reign drags on.
So, if you’ve got 51 minutes to spare, grab your pipe and enjoy a tale that could come from the pen le Carré himself.
(The video has English subtitles. Just tick the little “CC” button on the right side of your screen. If that doesn’t come up, click the gearwheel, CC, and the English).Published in