Almost every country in the world has its own jokes and memes associated with them. Whether they come with positive or negative connotations varies, but memes about a country from both its citizens and foreigners can be found anywhere from TikTok to political discussion threads. However, of the nearly 200 sovereign states globally, there is perhaps no other nation that has been memed more than Russia.
Throughout the 21st century, Russia has played a significant role at the international level among an array of areas, including its influence on culture, particularly meme culture. But how exactly did this oft-memed nation become such a prominent point of the internet’s humor? Let’s peruse some of the most prominent Russian and Eastern European memes and explore why they have garnered so much popularity on the international web.
Before diving into specific examples of Russian memes, a couple of things need to be clarified. The label of “Russian” is usually used to describe a wide variety of memes that originate from Eastern Europe. It is also useful to note that while many of these memes have their origins in Eastern Europe, international and national meme cultures tend to be isolated due to barriers such as language, online censorship and cultural differences. The memes that we’ll dissect below are primarily of Western interpretations.
The sheer violence, insanity and chaos seen on Russian dashcams have few parallels elsewhere in the world, even though many examples don’t actually take place there. These compilations have garnered significant popularity on YouTube and the blogging service LiveJournal (owned by the Russian media company SUP Media), with particularly violent footage finding its way to Liveleak. It is that shock value and notion of “there’s no way that somebody did that” which makes this footage so intriguing, especially considering that these were one of the first outlets for many foreign netizens to get a glimpse into what precisely Russian life was like (accurate or not). Additionally, Meanwhile in Russia macro images were another noteworthy example of this. These characterizations of disorder and chaos from the dashcam videos would lay the groundwork for future Russian memes and create a “theorized” idea of Russian life.
It would be remiss to discuss Russian memes’ ideas without mentioning the whole concept of Gopnik culture. Thanks in part to the dashcam compilations, Russian life is now associated with a sort of chaos. However, what would genuinely propel Russian memes into the mainstream was an amalgamation of memes collectively referred to as “Gopnik culture.” Gopniks themselves are a group in Russian society that is best described as “delinquents.” Typically adorning Adidas tracksuits, drinking cheap beer or vodka, listening to hardbass and Slav squatting with their heels to the ground, Gopniks would quickly become the prevalent stereotype for Russians, and by extension, Slavic Europe.
Videos of Gopniks found their way to YouTube throughout the 2010s, and by 2015 to 2016, they were nearly everywhere. Videos of Gopniks and other Slavs dancing to hardbass or engaging in general shenanigans began to propagate on video hosting platforms, not dissimilar from the dashcam videos previously discussed. This was further accelerated with content creators such as Life of Boris, who openly embraced and expanded upon the international interest in Slavic/Gopnik culture.
Russian Gaming Culture
The rise of Gopnik culture was not relegated to videos and compilations. They also made waves in gaming culture that would give rise to some of the most famous Russian “meme phrases.” The indie series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was one such game. Inspired by the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, the game takes place in Chernobyl’s irradiated wastelands. It is host to a wide variety of mutants and abnormalities, but the greatest oddity in “The Zone” is the endless stream of bandits yelling “a nu chiki-briki iv damki” and “papali papali suki.” The bandit dialogue, the bandit radio song, and by extension, the entire S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series would become another cornerstone of Russo-Slavic memes that intertwined with Gopnik culture.
With all of the Russian memes mentioned so far combined into a single concept, they would be put to the test in CSGO’s online servers, among other online games like DOTA. For Counter-Strike, in particular (due to a lack of dedicated Russian servers), players from Europe and North America would often find Russian players in their matches. These Russian players soon gained notoriety amongst the playerbase due to their high ping, toxicity and inability to communicate in English. It is here that the now-ubiquitous phrase “cyka blyat” was first popularized internationally.
Between the introduction of Gopniks on YouTube, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. memes, and the CSGO lobbies, it is no longer just memes about Russia, but Russians at large. While the dashcam footage introduced people to what Russian society might have been like, this new subculture of Russian and Slavic spheres gave insight into the people themselves. While both of these perspectives are skewed and stereotypical, it is without question that they have grounded the nation and its citizens as a cornerstone in international meme culture.
Many memes have also not been mentioned, such as the significant online presence of individuals such as Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin, however, the theme that remains consistent amongst all Russian memes is that they are all virtually insights, albeit inaccurate, into a specific culture. It just so happens that these insights are chaotic, uncharacteristic, foreign and, most importantly, humorous.
Lastly, there remains a pressing question that has only briefly been touched: What are Russian memes from the Russian perspective? Unlike Chinese memes, which have been mostly separated due to internet censorship, Russians could connect with the web through sites such as YouTube. As a result, many of these Russian memes have either originated from or been embraced by Russian netizens themselves. Russia’s meme influence throughout the web is due to its ability to provide cultural insight humorously and chaotically. These memes have changed how many people view Russia and its people, for better or for worse. Memes are meant to be fun, and above all else, “fun” is why Russian memes have experienced so much popularity and prominence.
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