As Monty Python pointed out, jokes can be the deadliest weapon of war. In the current atmosphere of Russophic hysteria, therefore, we should not be surprised that NATO this week has accused the Kremlin of weaponizing comedy. At first, given the topic, I thought that this must a Pythonesque spoof, but it appears that the accusation is deadly serious.
In response to a request from the Latvian Ministry of Defence, NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre for Excellence has this week published a report entitled ‘Stratcom Laughs: In Search of a Strategic Framework’. The report states its purpose as being to study humour as a ‘strategic communication tool’. The first part of the report undertakes a long academic analysis of what humour is and what purposes it serves. In later parts it then looks at how the Russian state allegedly uses humour as a propaganda tool and how Ukrainians have countered it with humour of their own.
The basic conclusion of the report is that in Russia, ‘the entire “official humour industry” … is directly Kremlin-controlled’. Working for the Kremlin, Russian comedians use humour to reduce their compatriots’ stress and make them feel more comfortable and thus more accepting of the political system. They provide audiences with a positive sense of social identity, which is contrasted with a negative view of others. The ‘in-group’ – Russia – is portrayed as victimized by the ‘out-group’ – the West. And in the context of Ukraine, through comedy, ‘Russian propaganda has been trying to use and exacerbate a number of differences between social groups so as to create an atmosphere of total distrust and panic.’
To make this point, the report analyzes a number of comedy shows on Russian TV, most notably the show KVN in which teams (normally of students) compete for the prize of League Champion. One of the most successful teams has been that of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), an elite university which trains future diplomats. The MGIMO team known as Parapaparam comes in for particularly close attention in the NATO report.
According to the NATO report, ‘KVN is a ready-to-act tool of strategic communication’, and its owner enjoys a ‘special relationship with the Kremlin’. Parapaparam’s sketches serve to reinforce ‘positive social identity’, aid ‘the reduction of internally reduced stress’, promote the division of Russia and the West into ‘us’ and ‘them’, support ‘aggressiveness’, suggest Russia has ‘superior power, manpower, and military power/capacity’, and denigrate foreign leaders. Particularly criticized is a sketch in which Parapaparam delivered their own version of a US news report about Russia.
Indeed, Russian comedians do indeed often mock foreign countries, their leaders, and their attitudes towards Russia, and no doubt this does contribute to some sense of moral superiority or ‘stress reduction’. But it’s hardly an uniquely Russian phenomenon. To take just a couple of examples from my youth – remember Spitting Image’s ‘The President’s Brain is Missing’, anyone? Or Whoops Apocalypse’s portrayals of Leonid Brezhnev?
The problem with this report, like so many other commentaries on Russia, is that it is rather lacking in solid evidence to back up its primary claim, in this case that all this comedy is ‘directly Kremlin-controlled’? The NATO report contrasts Russian state-led humour with the spontaneous humour generated by Ukrainian activists to fight ‘Russian aggression’. As it says, ‘A horizontally organized post-Euromaidan Ukrainian civil society had to combat Russia’s vertically constructed propaganda machine. … That is why Ukraine [sic] counter propaganda and use of humor were and still are more a product of a variety of independent and spontaneous initiatives, rather than a systematic approach.’
But this is just a claim. It lacks proof. It sounds good, but as anybody who follows Russian affairs should know, there are no shortage of ‘pro-Russian’ humorous cartoons and memes circulating around the internet. Are we to believe that these are all part of a ‘vertically-integrated’ comedy machine, that there aren’t any ‘independent and spontaneous’ Russian humourists too? Is every cartoon which mocks anti-Russian sentiment really the product of some hidden comedy troll factory?
The question which the report should have asked, and which it didn’t, is why Russian audiences laugh at the jokes of Parapaparam and the like, and why Russian comedians choose to make them. They laugh because the jokes make sense to them, and they make sense because they fit perceptions they already have. For instance, if they find Parapaparam’s references to Jennifer Psaki funny, it’s because Psaki really did come off as rather clueless on Russian-related topics. And the reason the comedians make these jokes, then, is because they know that the audience is going to laugh at them. In short, it’s demand-driven.
In addition to Parapaparam and KVN, the report denounced a number of other comedians and shows, such as Maksim Galkin’s Maksim Maksim and the show Yesterday Live. This produced an immediate response from those concerned. Galkin declared, ‘It’s never entered my head that anybody could use me for any sort of goals. I never been anybody’s instrument, and have always made fun of all politicians.’ And Yesterday Live’s director VAsilii Barkhatov said that the NATO report was the product of ‘phobia’ and that he had ‘never worried about either the [Russian] regime or NATO’.
To be fair, all states engage in propaganda – that is to say they use information to try to influence others; and propaganda can, and often does, involve humour. But that doesn’t mean that every comedian is a government propagandist. Is Russia weaponizing humour? Don’t make me laugh.