Photo: Netflix.

Youth Populism and the Aesthetics of Dread in Je suis Karl

Right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces. This commentary reviews the 2021 German-Czech film Je Suis Karl, about far-right agitation and radicalization among young people. 

By Heidi Hart

“Just crossed the border!” squeals a middle-aged Frenchwoman in a car, in English, filming herself. She and her German husband have just smuggled a Libyan refugee out of Hungary; his face jumps into the screen from under a blanket. This jittery, found-footage effect carries over into the next scene, as the couple’s teenage daughter returns home to Berlin from visiting her grandparents in Paris. The family, with two young sons they call “the Bonsai,” have a comfortable, bourgeois life that seems a bit smug in their “multikulti” do-gooding and cooking with fresh herbs. 

After the father Alex (Milan Peschel) accepts a package delivered for an elderly neighbor, tragedy strikes as a bomb inside the box decimates half of the apartment building. Outside in the street, Alex struggles to stand up in the falling ash and cradles a dead blackbird in his hand. A pulsing soundtrack follows emergency vehicles onto the scene. Alex’s wife and sons have been killed in the explosion. 

Filmed partly around Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, Je suis Karl (2021) recalls the protests and counter-protests there in 2015-16, when I lived in that area and passed rows of police vans every Monday night to lead a Quaker vigil for nonviolence and inclusion. After the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, tensions were high all over Germany, as the populist PEGIDA organization drew supporters who feared the “Islamification” of Europe. My community’s own do-gooder impulses felt small in response to the rising wave of nationalist fervor, especially in the former East Germany (Jegic, 2018).

Je suis Karl also recalls the “Je suis Charlie” slogan popularized – and polarized in right-wing circles – after the 2015 attack. As the film’s plot unfolds, Maxi (Luna Wedler), Alex’s daughter who has survived the bombing, finds herself recruited by a confident young man involved in a pan-European youth group armed with pamphlets, YouTube videos, concerts, and conferences that stoke young people’s socio-political anxieties. Maxi’s father has identified the courier of the explosive package as having a “dark beard,” unintentionally feeding the xenophobic biases of groups like the film’s fictional Re/Generation Europe, based on the “hipster” far-right group Generation Identity in Germany. 

The truth turns out to be even more twisted, when group leader Karl (Jannis Niewöhner) reveals that Re/Generation planted the bomb to stir up anti-immigrant fears. Because this is genuinely multicultural Berlin, however, public reaction has been more compassionate than enraged. At a conference in Prague, where Karl seduces Maxi to win her over more completely to the cause, plans emerge for more staged violence. 

Karl plots his own shooting in France, amid campaign events for a far-right female candidate who comes across as a younger version of currently embattled Marine Le Pen. Named Odile (like the “evil twin” ballerina in Swan Lake), this seemingly fun and engaging young woman draws Maxi into her circle of approval and influence, with a campaign slogan that reads simply “POUR” (“FOR”). 

After the shooting, the feel-good, ostensibly female-friendly, rhetorically upside-down appeal of Re/Generation Europe (their pamphlet includes language about “protecting diversity”) explodes into openly racist attacks in the streets. Maxi escapes with her father and his refugee rescue Yusuf (Aziz Dyab), who have tracked her down and cradle her in an underground tunnel while Yusuf sings soothingly in Arabic.

As several reviewers have noted, the film’s plot is contrived and Maxi’s conversion not entirely convincing (Van Hoeij, 2021Kenigsberg, 2021). German director Christian Schwochow’s efforts to frame a tale of right-wing infatuation is strategically similar if ideologically opposite to the left-wing teenage drama Wir sind die Welle (We Are the Wave, 2019), in its treatment of rising political zeal amid hormonal surges and generational resentments. In that case, students who feel their comfortably liberal parents are not doing enough to counter environmental and racial issues take things into their own increasingly radical hands. 

While this youthful phenomenon is nothing new, right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics (Somaskanda, 2017) were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion, though the movement’s various iterations have faced de-platforming and outright bans in the past four years (Hume, Langston, and Bennett, 2021). Conceived before the Covid-19 pandemic, Je suis Karl seems even more contrived today, when anti-vaccine sentiment has joined with far-right ideology seemingly overnight, especially in German-speaking countries (Morris, 2021).

Photo taken from Netflix.

 

What Je suis Karl does convey effectively, aside from plot, is a material sense of dread in an uncertain world. The film includes several overt visual references to the German series Dark (2017-20): dead birds falling from the sky, and a feathery black mask that Maxi wears, recalling the pattern over young people’s burned eyes in that complex time-travel series. Particularly striking moments occur when Maxi’s father Alex keeps trying to answer his cell phone and sees instead the dead bird, over and over, in his hand, or when he buries the bird in a flowerpot under the bonsai that recalls his dead sons’ joint nickname. 

Just as Dark is not only about time and missing children (its sidelong theme is environmental-existential dread), Je suis Karl is also, by unavoidable default, about the malaise and anxiety facing those coming of age in a time of climate crisis and seemingly unbridgeable political divides – even before the pandemic threw school and social life into numbing disarray. Recurring visual motifs like the dead bird might seem heavy handed, but the film’s cinematography treats those moments with equal parts jitter and blur, creating a palpably unsettling quality. 

The sound of dripping water in the tunnel in the film’s final scene recalls similar aesthetics in Andrei Tarkovsky’s sensually rich work, for example in the toxic chemical plant where he filmed Stalker (1979) near Tallinn, Estonia. This final sound, more than Yusuf’s singing, undermines what would otherwise be an easy or sentimental ending. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces. 

Je suis Karl is now available for streaming on Netflix.

Hundreds of immigrants had to wait at the border between Greece and FYROM waiting for the right time to continue their journey from unguarded passages on September 24, 2015 in Idomeni, Greece. Photo: Ververidis Vasilis.

Ethnographic Reflexivity: Why listening to individuals matters in an age of populistic cacophony

Populism and migration studies should be a vital voice to people and should include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves with the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.

By Dilek Karal

In a book club or let it be an intellectual cafe of castaway academics, one of us said: “How weird is that we all are KHK[i]people…” KHK was the abbreviation for governmental decrees that cost more than a hundred and fifty thousand people their jobs and more in Turkey… Among them were bureaucrats, state officials, journalists, teachers, and us: a group of academics trying to survive in different countries rounded in a Zoom meeting discussing “ethics.” 

Another meaning of KHK –that you could not find any international report or local dictionary was that– the labeled, scapegoat, the unwanted… one step further: terrorist. All times’ usual suspects, persona non grata. Its effect grew in your gut and your surroundings after you got it like an epidemic. If you become a KHK person, you get scapegoated, isolated, have to explain yourself, or keep your silence to have a second chance out of humiliating, pejorative legal mechanisms. 

All of us paused and thought over the memories of the past 6 years that drastically changed our lives after the controversial coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Not all of us had the KHK but some of us were still unwanted ones of the state since we either were families with people, the state found dangerous or we were dangerous because of our opposing positions or views to government. This was a scene beyond overarching holistic discourses and populistic cacophonies. Life experiences and stories of real individuals, where their life is directly affected by any populistic discourse or action. Like it happened to me and my colleagues.

The problematic aspect of generalist or data-centered perspectives in social science is that when a bad happens to thousands of people, you get the feeling that a personal story is of non-significance. Just a thing, among other things. All the pain, social isolation, curfew, fear become unfortunate “normal” as if it does not count. Overall, the immigrants in this personal example are just numbers in totalistic data-centric perspective of today’s migration studies, however, as being one of them, I can personally tell beyond data or any dictionaries. This personal example reminded me of the two major problematic perspectives that we encounter in today’s populism studies: responding to generalist and data-centric claims of populists with generalizations. Second, limited space is given to populism in ethnographic studies.

Taking anti-immigrant discourse as a departing point example, I suggest digging into reflexive ethnographies more to make human narratives more vivid and distancing migration research (or any kind of social research) from highly populistic and politicized discussions on migration today. In this short introductory discussion, I claim that populism studies to be a vital voice to people, should and must include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves within the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.

Populism vs. Individual

Defined as a “thin-centered ideology and rather a discursive frame” (Mudde, 2007), populism is a meta-discourse between discourse and ideology playing in with the “antagonism between people and elites against the backdrop of popular sovereignty” (Aslanidis, 2015: 88). As Frank (2017) pointed out earlier, as individuals evanesce from the public space, populism speaks for the masses. “The defining claim of populism emerges from the democratic necessity and impossibility of the people speaking in their name. Populism emerges as an event by exploiting this tension between the authorized representation of public authority and the enactment of popular power that proceeds without authorization” (Frank, 2017: 631). That is how populism stands against the individualization of discourse. 

Anti-elitism, people centrism, popular sovereignty stands as the core dynamics of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012) along with xenophobia and anti-immigrant discourse. However, the populistic perspective considers people, the nation as a collective or as if an organism that moves in tandem. That is why we encounter much of a terminology “our nation”, “others”, “elites” as if there are groups of people carrying fictitious banners of their group. Similarly, immigrants are the modern scapegoats for populist leaders. They are considered as the perfect other of populist vision of the nation. However, immigrant as a general term is more generalized in the hands of populists where they are counted as long as they are considered as a nation of immigrants.  

There is no space in populistic policies for the individual. The only individual at the center is their “charismatic leader” in the Weberian sense. As once philosopher Carl Jung used to define Hitler: You cannot speak to Hitler, such an initiation is alike speaking to a whole nation. Rather than an individual with weaknesses, psychological problems, or clumsiness, populistic leaders are perfectionated personalities as “nation” in their terms.[ii]

Possibility of an Ethnographic Reflexive Critique towards Populism

As expected, populism did not find a large resonance in ethnographic studies or anthropology though it is largely handled as a topic of political science or more generalist frameworks. The growing political wave was “anathema to anything and everything anthropological thought has ever represented” (Bangstad, 2017). While ethnographic studies centered upon individual experience as a core starting point to evaluate social, populism and alike ideologies are mostly seen as topics of the more holistic kind not suitable for ethnographic studies. Similarly, Mazzarella (2021) names populism as an awkward topic to discuss for anthropologists, criticizing the ethnographic and anthropological studies’ distancing themselves from political or popular topics. 

In this regard, anti-immigration discourse is overall highly populist where individuals’ stories dissolve from the scene while answering populists’ holistic claims. For example, when a populist leader calls immigrants a burden on the economy, we are trying to prove that they are not. However, within this dichotomic thinking, we are underestimating the humanitarian value of individual for just being a human being, even this individual is a person who cannot make any contribution to the economy. Think about immigrants who are elderly, living with disabilities, or just children. I insist that instead of defending immigrants via generalizing data before any populist policy, we should propose the value of the individual through developing more of an individualistic discourse both in populism and migration studies.

I claim that reflexive ethnographies can present alternative research methodologies both for the study of immigration and anti-immigrant populistic discourses. Ethnographic reflexivity, on the other hand, is mainly the researcher’s positioning herself as a part of research and adding her insights, observations, distance or closeness to the narration of the research and analysis. While “postmodern individual is structuring itself via language, that is narrative” (Neyzi, 1999: 3), we should seek new frameworks to develop a critique of populistic meta-narratives, epic and didactic stories that consider people as long as they belong to a group with clear boundaries such as a nation. 

Reflexivity values ethnographies though the critique of the categorical and national character of migration research claiming perspectival, political and performative nature of categories are lacking to describe migration phenomenon (Dahinden, Fischer & Menet, 2015: 31-33). Alike reflexive methodologies can develop objective and realistic research that inherently facilitates a critique towards populism: irrational populistic cacophonies vs. human narrative and experience.

Contrary to dichotomic thinking present in sociology, in search of a more social constructivist way, autoethnography also functions as a passage “by definition operates as a bridge, connecting autobiography and ethnography in order to study the intersection of self and others, self and culture” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 446). Researching of the self through autoethnographies, qualitative researchers develop introspection via “diaries, journals, freewriting, field notes and narratives of his or her lived experiences, thoughts and feelings, and then using these as data” (Ellis, 1991 as cited in Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). Through a reconstruction of experiences, reflections and memories, the researcher became both the subject and the object of research (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). I argue that reflexive ethnography can fully integrate reflexivity without abandoning its claims to develop valid knowledge of social reality before populistic claims (Davies, 1999: Preface). Autoethnography provides us means to deconstruct the dichotomy between the researcher and the researched. In this regard, “Author’s own experiences emotions and meanings become data for exploration” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). 

This type of knowledge is omnipresent in multiple mechanisms of migration policies however, has it given value in social science apart from ethnographers or sociologists? As Fischer (2017) claims “anthropology has to “reinvent itself as a vital public voice, activating society and supporting values of the social good for the contemporary worlds emergent around us.” That sound critique can be reversed and directed towards any studies around popular topics including but not limited to populism studies while “all the apparently informal sayings, doings, and feelings that in fact become decisive for formal political outcomes, especially in populist times” (Das, 2006; Gutmann, 2002; Spencer, 2007 in Mazzarella, 2021: 54). If so, why do not we activate the power of the individual as an agent who produces multiple, vivid discourses instead of assigning individual a presupposed subaltern, subordinate, pathetic role in politics and research?[iii]

References

Aslanidis, P. (2015). “Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective.” Political Studies. 64 (1_suppl):88-104. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12224

Bangstad, S. (2017). “Academic freedom in an age of populism.” Anthropology News. Feb. 13.

Dahinden, J.; Fischer, C. & Menet, J. (2020). “Knowledge production, reflexivity, and the use of categories in migration studies: tackling challenges in the field.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2020.1752926Das 2006

Davies, C. A. (1999). Reflexive Ethnography: A guide to researching selves

and others. Routledge: London and NY.

Ellingson, L. L., & Ellis, C. (2008). “Autoethnography as constructionist project.” In: J. A. Holstein & J. F. Gubrium (Eds.), Handbook of constructionist research. (pp. 445-465). New York: Guilford.

Frank, J. (2017). “Populism and praxis.” In: Rovira Kaltwasser et al. The Oxford Handbook of Populism. pp. 629–643.

Mazzarella, W. (2021). “The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 48:45–60. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011412.

Mouffe C. (2018). For a Left Populism. London: Verso.

Mudde C. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mudde, C. & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2012). (eds). Populism in Europe and Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy. 

Neyzi, L. (1999). İstanbul’da Hatırlamak ve Unutmak: Birey, Bellek, Aidiyet. Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları: İstanbul.


[i] After the controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the government in Turkey, using emergency decrees, dismissed more than 152,000 civil servants, including academics, teachers, police officers, health

workers, judges and prosecutors. Turkish government has taken more than 150,000 people into custody during the state of emergency and arrested more than 78,000 on terrorism-related charges, 50,000 of whom are still in jail (European Commission, 2019). 155,560 people are still currently under investigation due to their alleged links to the coup attempt (Hurriyet Daily News, 2019). (Information retrieved form the report: Political Persecution and Intersections of Violence against Women in Turkey by Hand in Hand for Women).

[ii] For a detailed discussion on totalitarian leadership and its reflections among public please see Arendt, H. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press

[iii] For a detailed discussion of subordinated individual please see Spivak, G.C. (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. London: Macmillan.

Demonstrators hold placards in support of Syrian refugees during a protest in Istanbul on July 27, 2019 against Turkish government's refugee policies. Photo: Huseyin Aldemir.

The populist zeitgeist in Turkey: A Cornelian dilemma ahead

Increasingly, Turkey is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment because of a rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties and regardless of political or ideological roots, people have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility.

By Fatih Karakus*

Turkey, hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world with around 4 million, is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, a result of the last decade’s rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political party leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties across the spectrum. However, the parties differ in their target groups. 

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu announced that he will make sure that Syrian refugees will be repatriated if his party wins elections. In a more critical tone, the CHP mayor of Bolu municipality, Tanju Ozcan, declared that they will charge non-Turkish citizens ten times higher than ordinary residents to encourage them to leave their city, stating that “this hospitage has lingered too long.” 

In a similar vein, the leader of far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli also voiced his concerns over the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees, arguing for “safely sending back” all the refugees. Another nationalist party, the Iyi (Good) Party, also defends anti-immigrant policies. Its leader Meral Aksener promised to send 4 million refugees back to their countries if she was elected. 

However, none of these parties has defended repatriation as fervently as the leader of the newly established Zafer (Victory) Party, ex-academic Umit Ozdag. He incited violence against refugees (including recent Afghan immigrants) in both open and subtle ways. To this end, he even posted a photo of a corner store run by an Afghan refugee which resulted in the owner changing the store’s name to avoid potential attacks. As an example of a textbook definition of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ozdag alleged once that Syrian refugees will be instrumentalized in the upcoming civil war. Zafer Party, through its ideology, rhetoric, and activities, resembles Germany’s anti-immigrant AfD(Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) Party and France’s RN (Rassemblement national – National Rally).   

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also kept a populist agenda but used a more religious tone. While its partner MHP and the opposition parties (except for the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party – HDP) maintain similar stances on immigration policies, AKP’s populism has targeted non-Muslims, including Turkish citizens such as Armenians, Jews, etc. Erdogan, on many occasions, has also instrumentalized Syrian refugees against the European Union (EU) by threatening to open the borders to Europe. In many cases, Erdogan proved that his stance on immigration is not an indication of humanitarian concerns, but a practical one.

At this point, we should note that citizens from each voter base, regardless of political or ideological roots, have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility. As far as the economic and employment-related anti-immigrant sentiments are concerned, there are studies supporting the claims of increased unemployment that is associated with increased immigrant flow in Turkey (Isiksal et al., 2020; Ceritoglu et al., 2017). When it comes to cultural incompatibility, Turkish citizens are perpetuating a widespread argument, which is also the case for the West (Huntington, 1996; Mondon & Winter, 2020) and accepted as “cultural racism” by many (Fanon, 1967; Bonilla-Silva, 2014), a subtle replacement of biological racism (Parker, 2018). Cultural incompatibility is especially raised against the Afghan refugees who fled from the Taliban regime and voiced mostly by secular and Kemalist circles based on their fears of Islamic extremism. 

Again, we should note here that while criticizing Europe and the United States for Islamophobia and Xenophobia, Turkey is no better in its approach towards immigration and foreign nationals. Greece’s recent pushbacks and violence against refugees, as reported by Amnesty International, have been criticized by all political parties including the ruling AKP and its opposition. On the other hand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Syrian refugees are being forced to sign “Voluntary Return Forms” by Turkish officials. 

Based on the economic variables, current figures of refugees hosted, potential for other waves of immigration within and across the regions, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiments among voters, we may project a similar agenda between major political parties during the upcoming presidential election campaigns. Even Erdogan’s AKP may change its tone towards refugees as well as Europe. As implied in the title, Turkish voters will probably have to choose between similar options that will all lead to problematic results in immigration policy. What makes it even worse is the lack of institutional and economic leverage that can benefit refugees as they struggle against the rising anger about their very existence in Turkey. The looming tension and pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment are causing refugees to be on tenterhooks. Policy makers and practitioners in the field should be hypervigilant about waves of immigrants at Turkish borders on the chance that Turkey decides to send them back to their home countries. 


 

 (*) Fatih Karakus is a doctoral student at the Criminology Program, the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University. He is researching the impacts of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric on the sense of belonging and integration of Muslim newcomer communities and the ways to build resilience. Previously, Karakus worked for the Turkish National Police Istanbul State Security Department as the Chief of Social Movements Bureau and Political Parties Bureau. He also served as the Chief of Bureaus at Immigration (Foreigners) Division at Diyarbakir Police Department and directed the in-take procedures of Syrian Refugees fleeing from ISIS threat.


 

References

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of

racial inequality in America. (4th ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ceritoglu, E.; Yunculer, H. B. G.; Torun, H. & Tumen, S. (2017). “The impact of Syrian refugees on natives’ labor market outcomes in Turkey: Evidence from a quasi-experimental design.” IZA Journal of Labor Policy. 6(5), 1-28. 

Fanon, F. (1967). Toward the African revolution. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Isiksal, H., Isiksal, A. Z., Apeji, Y. (2020). “The impact of Syrian refugees on the Turkish labor market.” International Journal of Operations Management. 1(1), 27-34.

Mondon, A., & Winter, A. (2020). Reactionary democracy: How racism and the populist far right became mainstream.Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Parker, C. S. (2018). “The radical right in the United States of America.” In: J. Rydgren (Ed), The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right (pp.738-769). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a virtual interview from Moscow with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 5, 2021, addressed a number of pressing issues. Photo: Nick Raille.

The Contours of Populism in Russia: An Elite Strategy to Preserve the Status Quo

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West applies unproblematically in Russia. Being different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues.

By Ilkhom Khalimzoda

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West (Western Europe and North America) applies unproblematically in Russia. Although Russia has a very long history of populism dating back to the Narodniki of the late 19th century, the renewed focus in the West means that populism in Russia is again in the spotlight. This renewed attention requires a clear idea of what Russian populism is and how it manifests through the political system.

Minayeva (2017: 130) has described the differences between populism in the West and Russia as follows:

For Europe and the United States, populism is a technological component of liberal democracy, which at the present stage is more competently used by opposition parties. In Russia, populism does not entail a change of political elites while maintaining the political system but is a way of preserving the existing state of affairs. The current President of the Russian Federation decided the issue of countering the Populist movement, effectively leading it as the leader of the country.

Of course, scholars have long recognized distinct regional forms and manifestations of populism. We can now turn to unpack that idea in more detail.

How Should We Understand Populism?

As is well understood, populism remains a contested concept in political communication research and is studied heavily in political manifestos and the mass media (Engesser et al., 2017: 1109). For some, populism is a political style or logic, and for others, it is an ideology, discourse, or a strategy of governance (Burrett, 2020). In sum, there is no broad consensus concerning the conceptual definition of populism, which is inherited chiefly from the democracies, because— as noted above— it is described as a component of liberal democracy that is most skilfully used by opposition parties (Minayeva, 2017). One scholar has even described it as a “slippery slope” that escapes precise definition (Ylä-Anttila, 2019). Nevertheless, there is a core of at least five key elements that comprise populist communication. Thus, populist discourse manifests in advocacy for the people, attacking elites, ostracizing others, invoking the heartland (Engesser et al., 2017: 1111), and making unfeasible promises to the electorate (Kynev, 2017).

The Contours of Populism in Russia

Populism manifests itself differently depending on contextual conditions (Priester, 2007). Its appearance may also change depending on the needs of the actors (right- or left-wing) and the political system (democratic or authoritarian). For example, in Western Europe, it is opposition parties that adopt populist rhetoric the most, while in Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, populists have acquired sufficient support to gain power and govern. Naturally, populism differs in Russia. Populism is undoubtedly used both by the establishment and the opposition. Indeed, Mamonova (2018) speaks of “populism in power” in Russia, “where governmental leaders use populist rhetoric and practices to gain popular support and maintain their positions.”

In Russia, populists spread their message through party press, mainstream mass media, and also more recently, through digital platforms. The most intensified media visibility of the populists is seen close to election time. In his investigation on electoral populism, Kynev (2017) has found that both the ruling party and oppositional actors adopt populism in practice. For example, he notes that mediatized public discourse—or, indeed, any political demand that enters the public domain—forms part of the ruling class’ populism. The opposition, however, promises more legislative achievements, such as raising salaries and pensions or ensuring prices remain low and stable, neither of which, needless to say, are ever implemented. Readers can find plenty of case studies in Kynev’s work.

Populism in the Russian Media

In a recent paper, Burrett (2020) examines the Russian media from 2000 to 2020 to analyze whether the label “populist” is appropriately applied in the case of President Vladimir Putin. The study uncovered a range of different political communication strategies used by the president during his 20 years in power. For example, Putin’s first term in office covered the war in Chechnya and the discourse around that, as well as his initial attempts to paint himself as an anti-elite president, ready to fight for the country against a corrupt elite. However, according to the study, once he became the core of the new Russian elite, he changed his rhetoric to position himself against the global elite. In all this, his control over the media has allowed these shifting (and somewhat contradictory) messages to be disseminated to large audiences in Russia. Overall, Burrett finds that Putin can be described as populist in discursive terms only since he has consistently deployed some aspects of populism while avoiding others.

Populism and Popular Culture

In a chapter titled “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet,” Vera Zvereva (2020) has analyzed in depth the way populist messages have been crafted strategically for maximum impact with Russian audiences. She notes how in Russia, “political messages are often … expressed in the language of popular culture.” As a result, populists translate “complicated ideas—i.e. the workings of modern social systems—into simple categories that are clear to everyone, while its arguments are often based on the ‘politics of fear’.” She further points out that populist messages are often overly “simplified, black-and-white constructions around ‘the people, their ‘enemies’ and the ‘dangers’ they bring are borrowed from the genres of popular culture, with noble heroes and innocent victims, scheming enemies and evil powers” (Zvereva 2020: 236).

Populists Love Affairs

As many scholars have noted, a central element of populism today displayed in the media is the idea of the virtuous “heartland” set against the villainous Other (immigrants, globalists, liberals, etc.). Russia is no exception. In their recent edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, Tumbler and Waisbord (2021) bring together several chapters that show how anti-immigrant disinformation has a long history across the globe and how a diverse network of actors pushes anti-immigrant disinformation, bolstering and promoting anti-immigrant attitudes among the wider public. This sort of disinformation is strongly associated with the ideology of exclusion and nativist supremacy that underpins right-wing populism and far-right extremism. The modus operandi is to spread fake, incomplete, or manipulative information on given topics through social and mass media. In this regard, scholars stated that “anti-immigrant disinformation is part of a culture war in which an ecosystem of actors (far-right, alt-right, populist, and conservative) reinforces a common opposition to a pluralist worldview” (Culloty & Suiter, 2021: 10).

Also, on the Russian media sphere, among others, political actors like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the Liberal Democratic Party) have normalized anti-immigrant disinformation, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, often in cahoots with sympathetic media outlets. Another very intriguing example is a Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (now in prison), who released YouTube videos describing himself as a “certified nationalist” and advancing thinly veiled xenophobic ideas (Luxmoore, 2021). Although he has retreated from his ultra-nationalist stance in recent years, it is still interesting to observe how populism is an appealing strategy.

Conclusion

As we can see, different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse (Zamiatin, 2018) when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues. As Zvereva (2020: 234) puts it, “the state authorities try to present politics as either too complicated for ‘ordinary people, or as a battleground of malevolent forces, or a stage for eccentric individuals. This strategy helps to marginalize the political voices of the opposition and exclude the very possibility of critical public discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues.”


 

References

Burrett, T. (2020). “Charting Putin’s Shifting Populism in the Russian Media from 2000 to 2020.” Politics and Governance. Vol 8, No 1 (2020): Leadership, Populism and Power. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i1.2565

Culloty, E.; Suiter, J. (2021). “Anti-immigration disinformation.” In: T. Howard and W. Silvio (Eds.). The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Engesser, S.; Ernst, N.; Esser, F. & Büchel, F. (2017). “Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology.” Information, Communication & Society. 20:8, pp.1109–1126, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697

Kynev, A. (2017). “Elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah [Electoral-populism-in-Russian-elections].” Вестник общественного мнения. No. 1–2 (124). P.65–84. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Luxmoore, M. (2021). “Navalny’s Failure To Renounce His Nationalist Past May Be Straining His Support.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertyhttps://www.rferl.org/a/navalny-failure-to-renounce-nationalist-past-support/31122014.html(accessed on September 1, 2021).

Mamonova, N. (2018). “Vladimir Putin and the Rural Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Russia.” Open Democracyhttps://www.opendemocracy.net/en/vladimir-putin-and-rural-roots-of-authoritarian-populism-in-russia/ (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Minayeva, A.V. (2017). “Russian Populism: Political Reality or Perspective? [ROSSIYSKIY POPULIZM: POLITICHESKAYA REALNOST’ ILI PERSPEKTIVA?” Вестник Пермского университета. ПОЛИТОЛОГИЯ. 2017. NO 4. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/rossiyskiy-populizm-politicheskaya-realnost-ili-perspektiva/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Priester, K. (2007). Populismus: Historische und aktuelle Erscheinungsformen. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus.

Scoones, Ian; Edelman, Marc; M. Borras Jr. Saturnino; Hall, Ruth; Wolford, Wendy & White, Ben. (2018). “Emancipatory rural politics: confronting authoritarian populism.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 45:1, 1–20, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1339693

Tumber, Howard, and Silvio Waisbord, (Eds.). (2021) The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Ylä-Anttila, T. (2019). “Populismista, eli meistä ja muista.” Media & Viestintä. 42(2). Noudettu osoitteesta https://journal.fi/mediaviestinta/article/view/83377.

Zamiatin, Alexandr. (2018). “Depolitizatsiia: kak nas otluchali ot politiki.” Colta. July 3. https://www.colta.ru/articles/society/18498 (accessed on September 3, 2021).

Zvereva, V. (2019). “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet.” In: M. Wijermars, & K. Lehtisaari (Eds.). Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere. (pp. 225–247). Routledge. BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429437205-12