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Putin on a Show

Illustration by Carmina Lopez '25

How often do you think about “girl dinner”? What about Handsome Squidward? Or the Duolingo green owl? Regardless of whether or not you recognize those specific references, if you have ever used the internet, it is a near certainty that you have encountered memes in one form or another. In 1999, Richard Dawkins defined these online creations, reflecting their most striking feature: Despite being a modern mode of communication, they are as persistent as any age-old storytelling tool, surviving through replication. They serve as “artifacts of remix culture,” resulting in an endless chain of layered irony that can communicate covert messages. Memes are a thread stitching together the fabric of the internet and its five billion users.

With governments increasingly employing soft power, memes have grown in importance as a political tool. Some claim that such an approach is logical because memes can serve as a subtle weapon in the great psychological battle for hearts and minds. Others go as far as to claim that memes had an impact on Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory or speculate that Russian trolls actively employ them to polarize Americans. However, these viewpoints focus on a “top-down” approach to memes, presenting state agencies as masterminds of online humor who pull the puppet strings of loyal troll armies to pursue a specific state-led goal. Those goals often concern either international relations—like humiliating an opponent to gain an advantage in a conflict—or domestic gains—like using propaganda to subconsciously manipulate public opinion in favor of the people in power. This article seeks to avoid such a narrow perspective, instead highlighting the use of memes by the Russian opposition and government critics as a form of covert online resistance.

Russian citizens politicize memes from the bottom up—an influential strategy of guerilla protest—to speak out against their government. Covert online resistance, secured by the anonymity, rapid spread, and replicability of memes, provides a unique opportunity for both the organized Russian opposition and ordinary citizens holding anti-Kremlin views to express political opinions and attitudes that would otherwise have them jailed for years due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s harsh censorship of anti-war sentiments.

Even mildly significant political events spur waves of meme content in Russian-speaking communities on X, Telegram, Reddit, and other platforms. Tucker Carlson’s February interview with Putin, for example, sparked substantial comic commentary from the opposition—the absurdity of the president’s half-hour, reality-detached “brief historical note” on the joint pasts of Russia and Ukraine evidently struck a chord with online users. In a spiraling “meme frenzy,” Russian internet users mocked Putin, deriding his history lesson and posing Carlson as a victim of this unnecessary discourse. This form of political expression exists solely within the online dimension and actively resists Russia’s otherwise alarming lack of free speech.

“Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin be like…”
“Mister Putin, why did you attack Ukraine?”
“Carlson, my dear boy, did you know that in the year 862 Rurik…”

In response to the opposition, the Russian government used memes about the same interview to favorably present itself—a testament to the fact that the state feels threatened by dissenting memes. Kremlin-sponsored accounts on X and other platforms used memes to declare the conversation a victory for the president. These accounts—which have been agents of Kremlin misinformation operations in the past—capitalized on Russian nostalgia, superimposing an image of Karlsson, a beloved cartoon character used widely in Kremlin memes, over Carlson. Moreover, state-backed memes hailed Carlson for “educating the West” and deemed the interview a sign of international support for Putin’s regime.

In an attempt to preserve its legitimacy amid surges of criticism, the Russian government has employed memes defensively, using stereotypes and distorted facts to diminish the reputations of the government’s many opponents. The victims of Russian propaganda meme blasts have included Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration, NATO, and President Joe Biden, among others. The characteristically non-factual nature of memes allows the Kremlin to distort reality, augmenting opponents’ blunders while downplaying its own losses. Such a strategy aims to gain a soft-power advantage by appealing to Russia’s internet generation in a familiar language. Thus, although many view government-backed memes as the genesis of online political fights, these top-down memes are merely responses. Instead, memetic warfare from the general population brings political contestation to the digital battleground.

What makes political memes such an effective form of political expression, criticism, and resistance, especially in Russia? As Dr. Anastasia Denisova notes, “Resistance by the means of social network conversations can become the entry-level point of political engagement for users in oppressed countries.” The anonymity of meme expression gives a voice to the otherwise voiceless. While memes do not employ well-crafted arguments, their entertaining format and potential for virality attract considerable attention to their political messages. Just as the Kremlin uses memes to subconsciously curry the favor of Russian citizens, when employed by the opposition, a meme’s layered irony can impact its audience’s attitudes toward the critiqued subject.

A meme’s sophisticated levels of irony and lore allow its creators to convey several messages at once, all while receiving cover from the durable armor of comedy: When faced with the consequences of expressing political beliefs, an online poster can simply step aside and claim that the meme serves no purpose except pure entertainment. This plausible deniability, coupled with the fact that memes are easy to produce and instantly shareable, allows creators to freely express their political beliefs in a large online arena of like-minded individuals. While the Kremlin uses the non-factual reputation of memes to disseminate falsehoods, the opposition wields it as a tool to safely express politically risky truths.

With the jaws of Russian censorship biting deep into the flesh of anti-war activism, memetic warfare provides a perfect weapon for a (relatively) safe form of guerilla resistance. In an authoritarian state, where the price of political expression is the safety of your loved ones and a jail sentence, people have to invent new ways to protest. While political memes might look similar to more surface-level classics, they are not just pictures with funny captions: They convey Russians’ bitter attitudes toward the war in Ukraine and their government. The ability to exchange opinions in non-state channels makes memetic warfare one of the most effective non-violent forms of protest, rapidly spreading layered messages safe from the government’s draconian witch-hunt against dissenters.With time, however, the Kremlin is likely to recognize the threat emanating from online meme communities and take measures to diminish posters’ anonymity. Last February, the Russian government filed an administrative charge against a woman who posted a crude meme mocking Putin’s subservient relationship to the United States. In it, Putin’s speech bubble declares, “We’ll suck it and spit it out, but the Americans won’t wash their [male genitals] clean of our saliva any time soon.” Having humiliated the Kremlin, she is liable to face a fine of up to 100,000 rubles (almost two times the average monthly salary in Russia). While this is just one example of a Russian online user facing political retribution for a transgressive meme, it is unlikely to be the last. As Russia rapidly descends toward totalitarianism, this last vestige of political protest might, too, fall to the wayside. For now, though, it remains an invaluable tool in the hands of Russian dissenters.