It’s no secret that the West, and particularly the US, doesn’t understand Russia or Russians. For one thing Russia’s leaders and intelligentsia say as much all the time, while at the same time Western leaders such as Angela Merkel speak of Vladimir Putin as seemingly living in a different version of reality. Who hasn’t seen Western journalists with far less knowledge about Russia seem utterly stultified by the fact that in spite of Russia’s economic tailspin Putin still enjoys ridiculously high approval ratings of 84-85%? How did Putin manage this only two years after the emergence of mass protests against his managed “democratic” system and his own corrupt rule?
Kremlin ideologues, journalists, and their foreign supporters in the West love to attribute this to a strong sense of patriotism among the Russian people. They hold to a romantic, paternalistic, and utterly patronizing idea of a child-like Russian populace which compensates for its lack of critical thinking with solid devotion to a national father figure, traditions, and the invincible will to resist any external enemy who seeks to subjugate the motherland. Central to this idealistic image of the Russian people, aside from a very selective knowledge of history, is the idea of the mysterious and enigmatic “Russian soul.” It seems that only in discourse about Russia is one allowed to invoke the supernatural influence of souls. Even among opponents of Putin’s regime, the idea that Russia is utterly unique and impossible for outsiders to understand is taken quite seriously.
Of course this idea of the Russian soul as well as the idea that Russians will happily endure any hardship out of a sense of patriotism is utter nonsense, spectacularly debunked at least two times in the 20th century alone. The Russian people had ample opportunity to show their willingness to endure consumer goods shortages and economic privation indefinitely under Perestroika and they did not. Quite the contrary, there was a scramble for hard currency and Western luxury goods which ripped the country to shreds, left it largely devoid of moral principles, and established a society in which it was acceptable to sell out anyone in order to get behind the wheel of a BMW or Mercedes. The truth about Putin’s regime is that its strength never had anything to do with unswerving loyalty of a population that thinks of the collective first. In reality it is founded and sustained by a totally atomized society where no one can trust anyone and there’s always someone willing to sell out at what would be called bargain bin prices in the West. While one constantly hears self-proclaimed Russian patriots use the word “we,” there is no “we” in Russian society. There is only the individual in his or her personal struggle for the trendiest Western brands and luxury goods.
What then can explain this apparent Russian obstinacy? Surely the polls that show Putin’s overwhelming popularity can’t be lying, can they? If the Russian soul cannot explain anything, what can? Good questions, which I will answer with my own. What if I told you that a Russian internet meme holds a very important key to understanding Russia, or at least its recent political atmosphere? Sounds crazy? No more crazy than attributing phenomena to the existence of national souls. At least we can definitively prove that this meme exists.
Meet the Vatnik
I first noticed the vatnik in 2012 or 2013, though Russian sources say he appeared in 2011. The original drawings were so crude I had no idea what he was supposed to be. I mistook him for a gray glove, fingers extended and together. In fact, the vatnik is a square piece of material with humanoid legs and stick arms. Vatnik is a term for a particular type of traditional Russian cotton-padded jacket, sometimes referred to in Russian as telogreika. The term ‘vatnik’ for the jacket comes from the fact that the cotton material which serves as the padding is known as ‘vata.’ The Red Army wore such jackets and pants during WWII, though the vatnik is gray, matching the color of jackets worn by Gulag inmates. Put simply, the vatnik is representative of a certain archetypical Russian who slavishly supports the regime out of fear, hatred of others, or most often a combination of both. Understand the vatnik and vatnost, his mentality, and you will understand what is going on in Putin’s Russia behind the media curtain.
The vatnik character appears in pictures, animated cartoons, multi-panel comics, and even modified computer games. He even has his own website, vatnik.today. Like many internet memes, thousands of anonymous artists make their own images of the vatnik, ranging in quality from childish to quite professional. Whatever quality the drawing, all vatnik images will have two key facial features. His nose is red from non-stop consumption of Putinka brand vodka, and one eye has been blackened from a fistfight with some other vatnik, possibly over a bottle of Putinka. The seat of his pants is usually stained with what one can only hope is mud. My humorous description might lead the educated reader to believe that this is nothing more than a childish internet meme no more explanatory than “doge.” If we look deeper into vatnik’s personality and psychology, however, we will discover something far more valuable than the non-answers our traditional Russia experts have been giving us for years.
Vatnik’s hierarchy of needs
Aside from drinking, the vatnik craves “stability,” the magic word Putin trotted out during his 2012 presidential campaign. Of course the vatnik doesn’t get stability; he got steadily rising prices and a flagging economy exacerbated in severity thanks to Putin’s policies. Nevertheless, the vatnik doesn’t want to rock the boat because that precious stability he never receives might be imperiled. People who value things such as personal freedom, prosperity, or actual stability over non-existent stability are viewed as national traitors by the vatnik. Protest? Protesting doesn’t solve anything! The proper Russian tradition is to constantly complain while not doing anything to rock the boat. It’s not that the vatnik is satisfied with Russian society; he’s absolutely livid about every real or imagined problem the country has. Yet if asked, he’s happy to declare his love of Putin, even if it is slightly less than his love for Putinka. Something to keep in mind when reading about the president’s approval rating.
The vatnik has nothing but white-hot hatred for Ukraine. They rocked the boat. They thought they had a way out of the Russian sphere. Why should they have it better? The vatnik spends a good portion of his time regurgitating the same tired old tropes about Ukraine. They whored out to the Americans, just like every other country which doesn’t submit itself under Moscow’s vassalage. The vatnik always puts the relationship between individuals or countries and the US in explicit terms of sexual dominance, a telling sign of Russia’s sometimes amusing but ultimately disturbing masculinity crisis. Refusal to bow to Putin’s Russia is bending over or getting down on one’s knees for the United States, the only other country in the world that matters. To this end the vatnik likes to portray his enemies as prostitutes or passive homosexuals, unwittingly revealing his fears and insecurities about sexual domination and humiliation. Insults revolving around oral and anal sex are par-for-the course when discussing politics with the vatnik, regardless of age.
While on that topic, the vatnik despises homosexuals. He knows from watching Russian state-owned media that the West is “Sodom and Gomorrah.” He refers to Europe as “Gayropa,” and his best argument against the EU Association Agreement at the heart of Maidan was that it would lead to same-sex marriage in Ukraine- even though it had nothing to do with that. The vatnik is utterly unconcerned with the fact that thousands of Russian children in the country’s dilapidated orphanage system are subject to physical and sexual abuse. His concern is that those children might be adopted by citizens of countries which allow same-sex marriage. He doesn’t care if children as young as 9 and 10 smoke in the park, drink alco-energy beverages, or watch their father and mother drunkenly fight at 1 AM, but he’s terribly concerned about the dangers of “gay propaganda.”
The vatnik is happy to tell you about his deep regard for the Russian Orthodox faith and its traditions in spite of never going to church. He believes Putin is defending Russia’s Christian traditions from the degenerate West, even as he sees young women emerging from discotheque on the arms of shady businessmen, ten to twenty years their senior and with wives and children at home. He considers Russia a bastion of morality in spite of the fact that men stand outside metro exits handing out catalogs of prostitutes.
By and large the vatnik’s most uncanny ability is holding mutually exclusive ideas at the same time while being utterly oblivious to the glaring contradiction. He laments the destruction of Lenin monuments in Ukraine while insisting that the Ukrainian nation and its language were insidious inventions by Lenin, the bastard who murdered the Tsar and his family. He can never shut up about how Russia’s grandfathers fought and singlehandedly won the Second World War, yet he harbors a soft spot for Nazi Germany and fascism out of his unflagging admiration for strong, authoritarian leaders. To the vatnik, the only bad side of Nazi Germany and fascism in general is that they attacked the Soviet Union, beyond that the vatnik has no qualms about racism, anti-Semitism, or authoritarianism. He insists that anyone living in Russia should speak Russian, but he squeals with bristling anger at the idea of Russians living in former Soviet republics being required to learn the local language. He says that Ukrainians and Russians are “brother peoples” and yet despises the “invented” Ukrainian language and any cultural distinction between the two.
What the vatnik fears most of all is freedom and the responsibility that goes along with it. His idea of stability requires Russia to be governed by a “strong hand.” On a certain level he resents that strong hand, but in the absence of any will to do anything about this, he settles for Schadenfreude at others’ expense, be they younger Russians who think differently, national minorities, or countries on Russia’s periphery. As he is utterly dominated by the state and its elite, he revels in the dominance over these groups and the misery it produces. He cannot possibly imagine a powerful, prosperous Russia based on strict rule of law, democratic institutions, and a wise policy of using state resources to benefit the people at large and spur on private innovation. For the vatnik, Russia can only be great by either dominating other countries, or by instilling fear in them. This is why the vatnik is almost orgasmic at the thought of Americans or Europeans living in fear of nuclear war with Russia.
Aside from skyrocketing sausage prices, this was the other terrible outcome of the Soviet Union’s collapse- People in the West stopped fearing Russia. The vatnik would rather live in filth and muck and believe that Americans are worried about what Russia might do than to live in prosperity and freedom while enjoying friendly and mutually-beneficial relations with Russia. No, that is surrender. That is bending over for Uncle Sam in the prison cell. Better to bend over for Putin instead. This is how the vatnik sees the world, and the sad irony is that what he sees as stoic defiance is in fact the most submissive act of all.
Vatnost is a slang term associated with the vatnik, an abstract noun which describes his attitude and the vatnik phenomenon in aggregate. What Westerners need to understand is that what we are seeing in Russia, going back till about 2013, has experienced a rise in vatnost. For a variety of reasons, both organic and deliberately cultivated by the Kremlin and its media machine, the number of apparent vatniks in Russian society has multiplied exponentially. Some do it out of fear that the tide turned against the opposition after 2012. Others do it because they find a sense of purpose and belonging within the ranks of online and offline Astroturf movements sponsored by the Kremlin. Whatever the case, the vatniks are real; vatnost is a real phenomenon. Vatnost is the reason why a person who once protested against Putin and spends all their time agonizing over the deteriorating economy is willing to tell a pollster that they support the president 100%. When you look at those poll numbers with vatnost in mind, they start to make sense, or at least they cease to be utterly baffling.
Naturally, there will be some academically-minded people who scoff at the idea of understanding Russia via a satirical internet meme. Obviously it is not a silver bullet that brings total enlightenment on the subject. But again I remind these people that discourse on Russian politics not only often invokes such metaphysical concepts as the “Russian soul,” but other assorted nonsense about some historical psychic damage caused by the Mongol-Tatar yoke, or the idea that Josef Stalin is still somehow directly influencing the mentality of people born around or even after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the study of other regions, this kind of talk might be called “Orientalist,” racist, and out-of-date. Russian discourse is still mired in the Cold War past, unfortunately.
Understanding vatnost means understanding the expression of a certain crucial segment of the Russian population, of people who for lack of a better term, get it. After all, the vatnik was created by young, internet-savvy Russians who oppose Putin’s dilapidated, decaying empire. The ever-drunk, belligerent, anthropomorphic square of material represents the regime’s strongest base and its target demographic. By all means keep insisting that the “Russian mentality,” another patronizing synonym for the “Russian soul,” is hopelessly enigmatic and inaccessible to all but Russians and Russian studies professors. Vatnost and vatniks are by stark contrast neither enigmatic nor terribly difficult to understand once one knows what to look for and where to look for it. I humbly suggest that our previous generation of Russia experts has clearly failed miserably, as is evident from the situation that plays out on our TV screens and Twitter feeds in Ukraine today. Study the vatnik, his fears, his hopes, and his beliefs, and you will go far toward understanding the essence of Putin’s Russia.
Jim Kovpak is the founder of Russia Without BS.
Vatnost – Why the West can’t Understand Russia by Jim Kovpak was originally published in Russia! Magazine in March 2015.