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A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Pot Calls the Kettle Black: Russian Report Describes the Spread of ‘Modern Technological Populism’

By Lisa J Walters, on 16 June 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

When it comes to political dirty tricks, you can rely on the Russians to know how to call things by their right name.  Russians also have the habit of using terminology to describe the wider world that is reflexively useful for conceptualising Russia itself. A recent Report by a new Russian think-tank on ‘Modern Technological Populism’ has therefore caused quite a stir; both because Russia has been accused of not-so-covert support for populists like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, and because the Report is the first product of an institution directly linked to the Kremlin.

The think-tank in question is the ‘Expert Institute of Social Research’ (which in Russian has the acronym EISI), founded in the autumn of 2016 and launched in March 2017. The EISI is attached to the Presidential Administration and is presumed to reflect the thinking of the new Kremlin propaganda chief, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his ‘Strategy 2030’.

KIrienko is the third or fourth grand wizard of Russian propaganda, installed in October 2016. The first was Vladislav Surkov, from 1999 to 2011 (although he was actually subordinate to Aleksandr Voloshin until 2004), who powers of manipulation earned him every possible label: ‘puppet master’, ‘grey cardinal’, ‘the privatiser of Russian politics’, and ‘demiurge’. Then came Viacheslav Volodin, who oversaw the conservative turn in 2012. According to one local analyst with a dialectical cast of mind, “Surkov was a creator, Volodin was a brutish creator. Kirienko is only a manager. His job is not developing the system, just controlling it”. By appointing Kirienko, “Putin is thinking that propaganda is working well, it doesn’t need further development”.[1]

But there may be external threats to domestic stability. Kirienko’s primary job is t guard the home front. The first EISI Report, prepared by the general director of the media group ‘Public Opinion’ Aleksei Kolobrodov, is therefore interesting in at least three ways. First, it is always useful to look at Russian analyses of the wider world, because they tell you a lot about Russia’s own modus operandi, both at home and abroad – partly because the Kremlin elites assume everyone follows the same rules of realpolitik. Or as one commentator, Nikita Asayev, leader of the New Russia movement, put it, “politics and populism are synonyms”.

Second, a lot is compressed into the three words of the Report’s title. ‘Populism’ is not far from ‘political technology’. It is defined as ‘communicating with voters [with] a special – populist rhetoric’, full of ‘calls for social justice, change, confrontation with big business and transnational corporations, etc.’, ‘but only in general, without outlining any more or less clear plan of action’.  Shadow boxing against shape-shifting opponents is a technique straight out of old-style Russian political technology (and Soviet propaganda), albeit with a new class of enemies defined by the world since the global recession of 2008. These global enemies are a useful part of Russian foreign policy when it rails against American ‘mondialism’, but the Kremlin prefers enemies it can control. And the Kremlin is run by rich men, with Aleksei Navalny’s recent anti-corruption protests clearly gaining some traction.

The rest of the title is presented as a tautology: populism, in order to be ‘modern’, has to be ‘technological’. ‘Populism is primarily a set of technologies, note the authors of the report’.  ‘Each voter in particular develops a distraction syndrome’. So the key technique of ‘modern technological populism’ is not just the wild promises of old, but the micro-targetting of such promises, to ‘manipulate the behaviour and opinion of the audience’ with ‘self-distributing content – memes, virus videos, hashtags’, twitter accounts and ‘first-person’ leader communication. In other words, this is the marriage of political technology with information technology that began in Russia in the 2000s. Russia knows this world very well, but knows that it cannot control everything in it.

Third, therefore, the Report predicted that ‘modern technological populism’ might spread to Russia. This might initially seem unrealistic, as all Russian politicians are on such a tight leash. But the idea is at least partly to explain away the Navalny phenomenon as simply an artificial ‘technology’.

But the implication is also that Russia fears that the rest of the world may turn its subversion tactics back against it. The Kremlin may think that its ‘special operation’ in the 2016 US elections was just revenge for Hillary Clinton’s similar interference in the 2011-2012 Russian elections; but it was hardly fighting like with like. More likely, the Russians think they have raised the stakes and will face tougher challenges when Putin faces re-election in 2018. The Report, in other words, may be more about Kirienko’s domestic priorities than it is about the wider world.


[1] Author’s interview with Dmitrii Kozlov, expert from the Centre of Amy, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, (cacds.org.ua/en), Kyiv, 12 May 2017.

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