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Memories on demand: Narratives about 1917 in Russia’s online

authoritarian publics

Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

Disclaimer: This is the Authors’ Accepted Manuscript of an Article that has been
accepted for publication in Europe-Asia Studies.

To cite this article: Litvinenko, A. & Zavadski, A. (forthcoming). Memories on demand:

Narratives about 1917 in Russia’s online authoritarian publics, Europe-Asia Studies.

Funding: This work was supported by the German Research Foundation DFG under an
Emmy Noether grant.

About the authors:

Anna Litvinenko, PhD, Researcher, Free University of Berlin, Institute for Media and
Communication Studies, Otto-von-Simson-Strasse 3, 14195 Berlin, Germany. Email:

Andrei Zavadski, Researcher, Free University of Berlin, Institute for Media and
Communication Studies, Otto-von-Simson-Strasse 3, 14195 Berlin, Germany. Email:
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

Memories on demand: Narratives about 1917 in Russia’s online

authoritarian publics

Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

This article analyses the digital remembrance of the Russian Revolution in the year of its

centenary. It examines what memory narratives about 1917 were constructed by leading

Russian online media in 2017, in the absence of an overarching narrative about the event

imposed by the state. The authors reveal a multiplicity of digital memories about the

Revolution and discuss their implications for the regime’s stability. The flexible nature of

digital remembrance, they argue, does not necessarily challenge authoritarian rule but

can work in its favour by allowing one to target – and satisfy – various sections of a

fragmented society.

Keywords: authoritarianism, communication, digital memories, on-demand culture,

online media, public sphere, Russia

Number of words: 10,440

On 7 November 2017, a military parade took place on Moscow’s Red Square. The very

fact of it happening was not exceptional: each year on this day, Russia officially

recollects the military parade that was held by Joseph Stalin in 1941, in commemoration
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

of the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution. What was notable in 2017, however,

was that, while reporting on the event, the two main TV channels, Pervyi kanal (Channel

1) and Rossiya-1 (Russia-1), as well as a number of other media, refrained from

mentioning the Revolution. They described the parade simply as ‘a march-in-review to

mark the 76th anniversary of the military parade of 1941’ 1. This emphasis on the ‘Great

Patriotic War’ (World War Two, hereafter WWII) aspect was not coincidental. The 1941

march had been of great symbolic importance to the subsequent fight against the Nazis.

As such, it has been instrumentalised by the current Russian regime’s official memory

politics, which holds the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII as the central event of Russia’s

history (Boltunova 2017; Malinova 2017; Wijermars 2018a). However, the failure of

major state-owned and pro-government media to link the 1941 parade with the October

Revolution in the year of the latter’s centenary is significant. It illustrates the reluctance

of the Russian authorities to mark the 100th anniversary of 19172 and, more broadly,

signifies the ambiguous place of the Revolution in the official memory politics (see also

L. Gudkov 2017).

That said, the anniversary did not go fully unacknowledged. Unable to ignore it

completely, Russia’s authorities decided, if only as late as December 2016 (Malinova

2018), to organise a series of events in commemoration of both the February and the

October Revolutions. As a result, the Russian Historical Society, the association tasked

with this, held 118 commemorative activities in the forms of museum exhibitions,

conferences, and public lectures (Zavadski 2017). Various media, including state-owned

‘Na krasnoi ploshchadi otmetili godovshchinu parada 1941 goda’, Vesti, 7 November 2017, available at:
https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=2951434, accessed 29 October 2018.
See ‘Revolutsiya-100: obzor yubileinykh tendentsii’, Gefter, 13 September 2017, available at:
http://gefter.ru/archive/22684, accessed 29 October 2018.
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

TV channels, participated in marking the centenary (Tolz & Chatterje-Doody 2018).

Besides, numerous attempts to commemorate the Revolution were made by intellectuals,

both oppositional3 and not (see Sidorchik 2017). In other words, pointing to the state’s

‘ear-deafening silence on the topic’ (Wijermars 2018b, p. 52) seems like an exaggeration.

While the authorities did seek to give the event ‘an obviously lower symbolic profile’

(Malinova 2018, p. 273) than it deserved, the efforts to mark the centenary undertaken by

various, pro-government and oppositional, mnemonic actors resulted in a limited, but

nevertheless noticeable commemoration. Crucially, however, an overarching memory

narrative typical of authoritarian regimes’ official memory politics – or ‘historical

politics’, in Alexei Miller’s (2009) terms – was, in this case, absent.

Against this background, the current article focuses on the digital remembrance of

the October Revolution in 2017, the year of its centenary. Set at the intersection of

communication studies and memory studies, it analyses what memory narratives about

1917 were constructed by leading Russian online media in the situation of a whole range

of commemorative formulas offered by state officials (Malinova 2018) and, hence, the

absence of one comprehensive narrative about the event within the official memory


As the analytical framework, we have employed Florian Toepfl’s (2018) theory of

authoritarian publics. Following him and others, by ‘publics’ we mean here partial

publics that constitute any modern society’s ‘multiple public sphere’ (Asen 2000, p. 425;

see also Breese 2011; Fraser 1990). According to Toepfl (2018), partial publics operating

within the multiple public sphere of an authoritarian regime differ with regard to their

See ‘Revolutsiya-100: obzor yubileinykh tendentsii’, Gefter, 13 September 2017, available at:
http://gefter.ru/archive/22684, accessed 29 October 2018.
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

discursive practices, specifically their ability to circulate critical statements about that

regime’s political leadership. He distinguishes three types of authoritarian publics:

uncritical, within which virtually no criticism of political authorities can circulate, (2)

policy-critical, which allow for limited criticisms of lower-level officials and institutions,

and (3) leadership-critical, in which even the highest-ranking officials can be criticised

(Toepfl, 2018). Utilising this theory, we have examined the memory narratives about the

October Revolution that were instrumentalised in Russia’s three types of partial publics.

To that end, we have conducted a qualitative content analysis of the articles published by

leading Russian online media, which have served as the environments to these publics, in

the period between 25 October and 7 November 2017.

Our findings demonstrate a patchwork of memory narratives constructed by the

media and a diversity of strategies used to do so. Leadership-critical publics typically

offer assessments of the Revolution’s reasons and consequences. Policy-critical publics

largely focus on news stories about anniversary events, as well as reviews of relevant

films and exhibitions; still, analytical content is present. Finally, uncritical publics tend to

refrain from clear assessments of the Revolution’s consequences, highlighting instead its

reasons (with one particular – that of foreign interference – standing out) and focusing on

news stories about entertainment products dedicated to 1917. A key aspect that

differentiates the publics’ strategies is the ways in which they actualise the revolutionary

events, that is, link the past to the present. In leadership-critical publics, the link to

today’s status quo is very frequent and manifests itself in, among other things, parallels

between the pre-revolutionary Russia and the current situation in the country. Policy-

critical publics link the past to the present less often and do so mainly by expressing the
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idea that the elites and society-at-large should, at all costs, prevent any revolutionary

events, as well as by invoking the consequences of the ‘colour revolutions’ of today.

Finally, in uncritical publics, the actualisation level is very low: in rare cases of linking

the past to the present, they either refer to the ‘horror of the Revolution’ or simply

condemn revolution as a phenomenon.

Based on our findings, we discuss how these memory narratives relate to the

process of memory fragmentation triggered by the digital and reflected in the concept of

‘the memory of the multitude’ (Hoskins 2018a). The latter seeks to account for the

unprecedented flexibility of online remembering communities that are hard to control and

vulnerable due to human and non-human weaknesses (Hoskins 2018a, pp. 105–6). We

argue that the recollection of an event that has not been incorporated into an authoritarian

state's official memory politics assumes differing patterns in this state's multiple public

sphere. Reinforced by the high flexibility and low controllability of the digital realm, this

affords particular opportunities for leadership-critical publics formed by oppositional

actors, allowing them to instrumentalise the event for their own purposes. On the other

hand, in a situation when an authoritarian regime is struggling with incorporating an

event into its historical politics, the digitally enabled fragmentation of memory can work

in that regime’s favour. The digital ‘on-demand culture’ (Tryon 2013) creates affordances

for strategic audience targeting, that is, constructing narratives on demand that satisfy

different publics without enabling cross-public discussions. This, we argue, can

contribute to maintaining the existing status quo and thus further stabilises the regime.

To add nuance to this and develop related lines of argument, this article is

structured as follows. First, we review the extant literature on digital memories and
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

multiple public spheres, as well as contextualise the October Revolution within Russian

historical politics. Then, we formulate our research question, outline the methods of data

collection and analysis, and describe our findings. The following section is dedicated to

discussing our results against the background of the extant writing on digital memories

and memory politics in authoritarian contexts. We conclude with paths for prospective


Digital memories beyond democratic contexts

The Internet and related technologies, often collectively labelled as ‘the digital’ (Hoskins

2018b), have transformed the way people engage with the past. The shift that has taken

place is so complex that efforts to grasp it have given rise to a whole new area of

scholarly inquiry: ‘digital memory studies’ (Garde-Hansen, Hoskins, & Reading 2009;

Hoskins 2018b). Born at the intersection of memory and communication research, it

investigates how the digital has changed old mnemonic practices (e.g., alterations in

remembrance during the move from analogue to digital photography – Keightley &

Pickering 2014), led to the emergence of new ones (e.g., searching the Internet for

information about the past – Zavadski & Toepfl 2019), and transformed our

comprehension of memory more generally (Garde-Hansen et al. 2009; Hoskins 2018b;

van Dijck 2007).

The rise of the digital has resulted in the emergence of a ‘fluid, de-territorialised,

diffused and highly revocable’ (Hoskins 2009, p. 41) network of memory. This memory

network has been conceptualised as ‘an emergent ecology of memory’, which is

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‘[e]ntangled in the transformations of our new media ecology’ and accounts for the

intricate interrelations of memory and media as co-existing in balanced environments

(Hoskins & O’Loughlin 2010, p. 104, our emphasis). But what kinds of memories

constitute this new media/memory ecology? In an effort to capture the unprecedented

flexibility of new remembrance communities, Andrew Hoskins (2018a) proposes the

concept of ‘the memory of the multitude’: ‘bound to the singularity of the individual as

fundamentally the new centre of media’ (p. 92), this memory structure, according to him,

has replaced ‘collective memory’ (pp. 85–6). For Hoskins (2018a), a crucial question is

whether the memory of the multitude can be translated ‘into some kind of usable past’ (p.

105). As memory is indispensable for a social group’s identity (Erll 2011a), digital

memories’ flexibility and inclination towards fragmentation, while relevant for all

political contexts, can be deemed an especially significant issue for authoritarian states,

which actively instrumentalise the past for power consolidation and regime stabilisation

(Malinova 2018; Miller & Lipman 2012; Wijermars 2018a; Zavadski & Toepfl 2019).

Despite this rather obvious fact, digital memory studies have been lamented as lacking

‘perceptiveness to transcultural variation’ (Rutten & Zvereva 2013, p. 4): concerned

primarily with Western democracies, they pay marginal attention to non-Western and

non-democratic contexts. The specificity of digital remembrance in an authoritarian state,

for example, the new media/memory ecology’s potential to challenge the imposed

conceptions of the past, has been noted (Rutten, Fedor, & Zvereva 2013) but remains


In an effort to fill in this gap, Ellen Rutten and colleagues (2013) defined the

scope of ‘post-socialist digital memory studies’ by pointing to, among other things, the
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transference of the region’s old conflicts into the digital realm. As a result, post-socialist

states’ ‘heightened proclivity to … memory wars’ is increasingly manifesting itself online

(Fedor 2013, pp. 239–40, original emphasis). Along similar lines, Seth Bernstein (2016)

concluded that a ‘broad-scale analysis of digital commemoration in post-socialist space

shows a large degree of conformity with existing [offline] narratives’ (p. 433). Moreover,

while noting ‘the ongoing online dominance of the Russian language beyond the physical

borders of the Russian Federation’, which results in a certain degree of memory

deterritorialisation in the region, Julie Fedor (2013) nevertheless has drawn attention to

the concurrent process of its reterritorialisation (pp. 241–2). Post-socialist states

demonstrate a growing usage of digital memories for re-imagining national borders

online (Kuntsman 2009, p. 17), as opposed to memories increasingly travelling across

borders and thus acquiring transnational and transcultural dimensions in democratic

contexts (Erll 2011b).

However, Rutten and colleagues’ (2013) volume as well as other studies (see

Uffelmann & Etkind 2014) centre on the instrumentalisation of Soviet and post-Soviet

events by the official memory politics and/or on vernacular memory projects that in one

way or another react to the latter (Bernstein 2016). This study, by contrast, focuses on the

digital remembrance of an event that was largely disregarded by a post-socialist state’s

memory politics. Our principal aim is thus to examine how the absence of a

comprehensive official narrative about 1917, in the context of Russia’s overarching

historical politics, influenced the digital remembrance of the October Revolution. To that

end, we turn to the multiple public sphere theory.

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Publics, authoritarianism, and the digital

The multiple public sphere concept grew out of the critique of Jürgen Habermas’s (1991)

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Pointing to the fact that his notion of

a single ‘bourgeois public sphere’ (Habermas 1991, p. 1) simplifies social reality,

scholars like Nancy Fraser (1990), Robert Asen (2000), Michael Warner (2005), and

others have theorised the existence of a multiplicity of publics within a larger (for

instance, national) public-at-large. Today, ‘nearly all scholars of the public sphere agree

that our social world is composed of multiple, overlapping, and unequal publics’ (Breese

2011, p. 132). In the context of this study, two issues need to be discussed in relation to

this theory: 1) its applicability to authoritarian contexts and 2) its applicability to the

analysis of the digital realm in general and of digital memories in particular.

The majority of existing studies on publics have dealt strictly with democratic

contexts (see Fraser 1990; Sunstein 2001; Warner 2005). The reason behind this amounts

to the fact that, for a long time, civil society was held as a crucial factor in the formation

of a public sphere (Calhoun 1993; Downey & Fenton 2003). Consequently, authoritarian

regimes, with underdeveloped civil societies, were thought to demonstrate deformed

public spheres, if any at all (see Berry 1998; Chebankova 2013; Olukotun 2013).

Applying the multiple public sphere theory – instead of the early Habermasian concept of

the unitary public sphere – has opened new opportunities for the analysis of public

discussions in non-democratic contexts. For example, Eiko Ikegami (2000), studying pre-

modern Japan during the period of the unification of power under the Tokugawa shogun,

has showed that a whole range of ‘communicative spheres’ co-existed there ‘without
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creating a unitary, and interconnected public sphere’ (p. 1023). Olga Malinova (2013), de

facto applying the multiple public sphere theory to the Russian context, has talked of ‘a

specific configuration’ of the Russian public-at-large (p. 63). According to her, in the

course of the 1990s and especially after 2000, the public-at-large increasingly came to

consist of ‘nucleus’ publics formed by audiences of federal television channels, and

various ‘peripheries’ created by less significant communication channels (p. 65).

Toepfl (2018) has advanced these debates by theorising ‘authoritarian publics’.

He has argued that, unlike the Habermasian model of the bourgeois public sphere, the

multiple public sphere model can be used for the analysis of publics within authoritarian

contexts. Understanding publics as a constellation of three elements – participants (both

speakers and audiences), environments (technological platforms or physical spaces in

which participants communicate), and discursive practices (specific types of talk in

which participants engage), he has chosen the latter as a key element for delimiting

authoritarian publics (Toepfl 2018). Selecting as the principal discursive practice

‘political criticism that circulates within’ such publics, Toepfl (2018) has distinguished

uncritical publics, policy-critical publics, and leadership-critical publics. Uncritical

publics, according to him, circulate no negative statements about the regime’s officials or

institutions ‘unless these negative statements echo criticism previously voiced by the

country’s political leadership’. Policy-critical publics can be critical, but only of lower-

level policies, institutions, and officials. Finally, leadership-critical publics can criticise

even the country’s highest-ranking political leaders. Characterising Russia as a

leadership-critical public-at-large, that is, one in which all three types of publics co-exist,
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this theory offers a means for painting a more nuanced picture of public discussions in

the country.

Regarding the application of the multiple public sphere theory to the online realm,

scholarship in this area has advanced significantly in recent years. While the

meaningfulness of the Habermasian conception of the public sphere in relation to the

digital was questioned early on (see Papacharissi 2009), many found danah boyd’s (2011)

concept of ‘networked publics’ useful for the analysis of online interaction.

Conceptualised by boyd (2011) as publics that have been ‘restructured by networked

technologies’, networked publics are both the space (re)shaped by these technologies and

collectives emerging ‘as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice’

(p. 39). As she has explained, networked publics are in many ways similar to other types

of publics and, crucially, will increasingly affect them: ‘While marking networked

publics as a distinct genre of publics is discursively relevant at this moment, it is also

important to acknowledge that the affordances of networked publics will increasingly

shape publics more broadly’ (boyd 2011, pp. 54–5). This observation has proved to be

the case: scholars analysing publics emerging online have often used boyd’s (2011)

‘transitional’ concept (see Jackson & Foucault Welles 2015; Papacharissi & de Fatima

Oliveira 2012; Renninger 2015), but are now increasingly moving towards the

application of the multiple public sphere concept (see Eckert & Chadha 2013; Leung &

Lee 2014; Toepfl & Piwoni 2018).

When it comes to authoritarian contexts, both the theory of networked publics and

the multiple public sphere theory have been employed in efforts to analyse debates in the

digital realm. For instance, Irina Shklovski and Bjarki Valtysson (2012) have examined a
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popular online discussion forum in Kazakhstan and concluded that not only are

networked publics present in its authoritarian ‘environment rife with online blocking and

censorship’, but they also ‘take on a range of forms’ such as mundane-publics, issue-

publics, and counter-publics (p. 417). In turn, Adrian Rauchfleisch and Mike S. Schäfer

(2015) have scrutinised discussions on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and

argued that it is able to forge various types of publics ‘in which open and critical debates

can occur under specific circumstances’ (p. 139). In relation to Russia’s Internet, the

multiple public sphere concept was first applied quite early on: as early as 2006, Henrike

Schmidt and Katy Teubener (2006) stated that Fraser’s conception of multiple, unequal,

and mutually contesting publics ‘might be preferable to a homogenized public sphere’ (p.

72). Along similar lines, Malinova (2013) has talked about ‘periphery’ publics created by

online alternative media (p. 65); Svetlana Bodrunova and Anna Litvinenko (2013) have

analysed the Russian segment of Facebook as a ‘counter-sphere’ of the Russian public-at-


Finally, can the highly flexible memory of the multitude give rise to publics?

While asserting that ‘the collective noun for memory is no longer the group, or the

community, but rather hyperconnectivity itself’, Hoskins (2018a) nevertheless has not

denied the possibility of the formation of ‘connective publics’ (pp. 97, 86). The question,

however, is the latter’s durability, that is, the ability of these connective publics to remain

publics long enough to influence the public-at-large and its collective identity.

Against this backdrop, we examine publics that emerge around the digital

remembrance of a past event within the media/memory ecology of an authoritarian

context. Building on Toepfl’s (2018) theory of authoritarian publics, we focus on the

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remembrance of an event that has not been incorporated into the official memory politics.

This allows us to contribute to Rutten and colleagues’ (2013) analysis of digital

memories in non-Western contexts. More broadly, it develops a novel tool for analysing

media’s memory work in authoritarian contexts, offering a contribution to the extant

research on the relationship between journalism and collective remembrance (see Zelizer

& Tenenboim-Weinblatt 2014).

The October Revolution and Russia’s memory politics

The founding event of the USSR, the October Revolution legitimised the country’s

existence over the course of Soviet history (Koposov 2018, p. 248). However, its

symbolic meaning did not remain unchanged, especially after WWII. The victory in

WWII gradually came to be inextricably linked to the Revolution: the former was thought

to have originated in the latter (the argument was that if the Revolution had not taken

place, the victory would have been impossible). However, after the mid-1960s, the

memory of the October Revolution was pushed into the background by the memory of

the war: even though the Revolution remained the main legitimising historical event of

the USSR until the latter’s very demise, the place that the victory in WWII occupied in

Soviet memory politics grew increasingly more significant. Eventually, memory of the

war overshadowed that of the Revolution (Boltunova 2017).

During the Perestroika reforms of the mid-1980s, the symbolic significance of the

October Revolution faded further (L. Gudkov 2017; Malinova 2018). The dissolution of

the USSR in 1991 was accompanied by a review of Soviet legacy, with original, pre-1917
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

names returned to streets and cities, etc. (Koposov 2018, p. 212). However, since the first

Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, had other things to worry about (the collapse of the

country’s economy, for one thing), the Bolshevik legacy was never fully denounced.

Instead, Yeltsin’s ‘episodic’ (Koposov 2018, p. 220; see also Wijermars 2018a) memory

politics turned towards reconciling Russian citizens with their past. To continue the

example of the October Revolution vs. WWII, the 1995 federal law ‘On the days of

military glory and the memorable dates of Russia’ directly connected 7 November,

formerly celebrated as the ‘Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution’, to the

1941 military parade (see Introduction). Thus, the war was now used to legitimise the

Soviet period and, consequently, the Revolution (Boltunova 2017). This was taken even

further with Yeltsin’s edict №1537 (of 7 November 1996), which proclaimed 7

November as the ‘Day of Accord and Reconciliation’. As observed by Kathleen E. Smith

(2002), at that point ‘Yeltsin wanted to promote stability and reconciliation, but without

encouraging historical amnesia’ (p. 179).

After Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000, the Kremlin began to build on

Yeltsin’s largely unsuccessful search for a unifying ‘national idea’ (Koposov 2018, p.

238). In an effort to create a consensual understanding of Russia’s history, Putin’s

memory politics borrowed various, and often mutually exclusive, interpretations of the

past and united them into a ‘fragmented and eclectic’ narrative (Malinova 2018, p. 280).

In one of the first steps, the new authorities renamed Yeltsin’s ‘Day of Accord and

Reconciliation’ as the ‘Day of National Unity’ and moved the old-new holiday to 4

November. This decision was one of many that Putin’s regime undertook in order to

legitimise and stabilise itself (Malinova 2018). The process involved distancing from the
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pre-WWII Soviet past, especially from the Revolution (L. Gudkov 2017). Mariëlle

Wijermars (2018b) notes that the regime has long tried ‘to dismantle the symbolic legacy

of October’ (p. 46). The nation-wide commemoration in 2014 of the beginning of World

War One, an event that had been practically absent from the Russian collective memory

and the official memory politics, was one of the ways to do so. The Revolution,

according to Wijermars (2018b), ‘has been recast in official statements as the closing act

of the tragic demise of the Russian empire’ (p. 46). In sum, the official memory politics

has sought to belittle the significance of the October Revolution and minimise its

discussion in Russia’s dominant publics, a strategy that became most visible during the

centenary of 1917.

Malinova (2018) has analysed interpretations of 1917 ‘in texts, official

documents, and public practices performed on behalf of the state’ and arrived at two

important conclusions: 1) there were several commemorative formulas of 1917, as

articulated by Russia’s officials, and 2) the emphasis was placed on one that contained

the idea of ‘reconciliation and concord’ (pp. 274, 283). However, this commemorative

formula did not become part of the overarching official memory politics. It becomes all

the more remarkable if one considers how prescriptive Putin’s memory politics has been

in relation to other major events of Russian history (Koposov 2018; Miller & Lipman

2012; Wijermars 2018a). The quintessential example here is the victory in WWII. The

official narrative has turned it into a strictly regulated cult, blind to any ‘unpatriotic’

vernacular war memories and ignoring even some established historical facts (Koposov

2018, p. 249).
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

At least in part, the Kremlin’s indecisiveness regarding the interpretation of the

October Revolution can be accounted for by the fact that Russian citizens feel very

differently about it. Sociological surveys show a polarisation of respondents’ attitudes

towards the event. According to one survey4, 45% supported the statement that the

Revolution had expressed the will of the majority of the people, while 43% disagreed

with it. According to another 5, 48% of Russians believed that the Revolution had been

inevitable and played a positive role in Russian history, while 31% did not concur.

In a situation where the official memory politics took an indecisive approach to

the anniversary, Russian citizens demonstrated polarised opinions on the event’s

significance, and intellectuals strove to bring it into public focus, we set out to investigate

this ‘limited remembrance’ in detail by answering the following research question: What

kind of memory narratives were constructed by leading online media in Russia’s

authoritarian publics?


Adopting Toepfl’s (2018) theory as the analytical framework, we have explored memory

narratives about the October Revolution constructed in three types of Russian

authoritarian publics. By ‘a memory narrative’, we understand here a discursive utterance

based on one or several memories about the Revolution. For the purposes of this article,

we use the terms ‘the October Revolution’, ‘the Revolution’, ‘the Revolution of 1917’,

‘Oktiabr’skaya revolutsiya 1917-2017’, VTSIOM, 10 October 2017, available at:
https://wciom.ru/index.php?id=236&uid=116446, accessed 29 October 2018.
‘Oktiabr’skaya revolutsiya’, Levada Centre, 5 April 2017, availiable at:
https://www.levada.ru/2017/04/05/oktyabrskaya-revolyutsiya-2/, accessed 29 October 2018.
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

and ‘1917’ interchangeably and consider them neutral (for a discussion of terminology

related to 1917, see Malinova 2018). In order to answer our research question, we

conducted a qualitative content analysis (Mayring 2010) of the journalistic pieces

invoking the Revolution and published in the leading online media in Russia in the period

from 25 October to 7 November 20176.

We have sought to analyse online news media (environments) that boast the

largest readerships (participants as audiences) and whose writers (participants as

speakers) engage in certain patterns of discussion (discursive practices). The online

media outlets that constitute the units of our analysis were selected in the following way.

In the first step, we identified 20 most visited news websites in Russia based on the

traffic they received from within the country in November 2017, as provided by Alexa

(alexa.com). In the second step, we selected from this list three online media for each

type of the authoritarian publics, drawing on data from Toepfl (2018) and building on our

own expertise. As a result, we compiled the following list of media:

uncritical publics: (1) 1tv.ru/news (Vremya), the website of the most-viewed TV

news programme in Russia, produced by the state channel Channel 1; (2) vesti.ru (Vesti),

the website of the second most-viewed TV news programme, produced by the state

channel Russia-1; (3) rg.ru, the website of the official state newspaper Rossiiskaya


policy-critical publics: (1) kommersant.ru, the website of Kommersant, a quality

daily that used to be a liberal/oppositional high-brow outlet but, since 2014, has been

becoming more and more loyal to the state; (2) kp.ru, the website of the tabloid

According to the Julian calendar, which was used in Russia before 1918, the October Revolution started
on 25 October 1917. The beginning date of the Revolution was 7 November 1917, according to the
Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1918.
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

newspaper Komsomol’skaya pravda; (3) lenta.ru (Lenta), a state-loyal website that, prior

to 2014, was the leading liberal/oppositional online outlet in Russia (Fredheim 2017);

leadership-critical publics: (1) echo.msk.ru, the website of the oppositional radio

station Ekho Moskvy (hereafter Echo Moscow), controlled by the state company

Gazprom; (2) novayagazeta.ru, the website of the oppositional newspaper Novaya

gazeta; (3) meduza.io (Meduza), the oppositional news website produced outside Russia

(in Latvia) under the direction of Galina Timchenko, Lenta’s former editor-in-chief.

In each of these news outlets, we searched for materials about the Revolution

published in the period specified. The keywords we used were ‘Revolution’ (revolutsiya),

‘1917’, and ‘October Revolution’ (oktiabr’skaya revolutsiya). In the cases of the two TV

channels, we watched all the evening editions of the respective news programmes,

including their Sunday analytical editions. In the case of Echo Moscow, we limited our

search to the popular section ‘Blogs’, which features opinion pieces by journalists and

guest writers and thus depicts the whole range of opinions presented by the radio station.

Our sample contained 170 subunits of analysis.

Prior to developing a codebook, we closely read a corpus of 30 articles from the

sample in order to identify key recurring characteristics of the narratives about 1917. As a

result, we discerned the following categories relevant for the discourse about the Russian

Revolution: 1) its naming (whether it is called neutrally ‘the October Revolution’,

positively ‘the Great October [Socialist] Revolution’, or negatively ‘the Bolshevik coup

d'état’); 2) the mentioning of the Revolution’s actors (Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin,

Leon Trotsky, and others) and the voicing of attitudes towards them; 3) the presence of
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

parallels to the situation in today’s Russia; and 4) attitudes towards revolution as a


Based on these categories, we developed a codebook that consisted of three parts:

1) formal characteristics, including the size of the journalistic piece, the date of its

publication, and the author; 2) the dominant narrative about 1917, including the use of

emotional terms when referring to the Revolution, assessments of reasons for and

consequences of the Revolution, attitudes towards Lenin, Stalin, and other actors; and 3)

links to today’s Russia: parallels to the current status quo in the country, and attitudes

towards revolution as a political tool.

All the attitude variables were coded as ‘neutral’, ‘positive’, ‘negative’,

‘ambivalent’, or ‘n’ (if not expressed). The coding was conducted by two coders, both

fluent in Russian. One third of the sample (60 subunits) was double-coded, and the

agreement rate was between 89% and 96%. The lowest, yet still satisfactory, agreement

was achieved for the variables ‘Attitude towards Lenin’ (89%) and ‘Parallels to today’s

situation’ (91%).


Below, we describe the memory narratives about the Revolution that were constructed in

the three types of publics analysed, focusing on five key aspects: number of articles,

assessments of the Revolution (its reasons and consequences), attitudes towards its

actors, parallels to today’s Russia, and attitudes towards revolution as a political tool.
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

Leadership-critical publics

Forty-seven articles dedicated to the Revolution were published in the three leadership-

critical outlets under review: 24 on Echo Moscow’s website, 17 in Meduza, and 6 in

Novaya gazeta. The Revolution was neutrally called ‘October Revolution’ by Meduza

and Novaya gazeta; in turn, 11 out of 24 Echo Moscow articles made emotional

assessments when naming the event, with negative connotations prevailing. This may be

partly due to the specificities of the media: Echo Moscow positions itself as a platform for

exchanging opinions, while the other two outlets focus on traditional news reporting.

Reasons for the Revolution were mentioned only in Echo Moscow. Its

consequences, on the other hand, were assessed in both Echo Moscow and Novaya

gazeta, with the latter seeing them as exclusively negative. Overall, Echo Moscow

presented the widest range of contested narratives about 1917.

The main revolutionary actor of the Soviet narrative, Vladimir Lenin, was rarely

mentioned; when referred to, it was mostly in a negative way. There were not any notable

mentions of Stalin.

What united the narratives of these media outlets were parallels to today's

political situation in Russia found in almost every article (in 40 out of 47 cases). Linking

the Revolution to today’s status quo was conducted in three ways. First, it was done by

using historical analogies to support the author’s arguments about current Russian

politics (mostly in Echo Moscow’s case). For instance, one commentator claimed that the

country was ‘irrevocably moving towards the fifth revolution’ (G. Gudkov 2017).

Second, it was done by using the present tense in historical reports about the
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

revolutionary events. One of them, published on Meduza, was part of the independent

project ‘1917. Free History’, which presented the course of the historical events in the

format of a social-network feed and thus created the impression that the Revolution was

happening in Russia in 2017 (for a detailed analysis of the project, see Wijermars 2018b).

Finally, the link was made by reporting about the protests of 5 November 2017 led by the

nationalist Vyacheslav Mal’tsev, who presented them as a ‘new revolution’.

Attitudes towards revolution as a political tool were not expressed in any notable

way (only 3 out of 47 articles contained some sort of relevant sentiment).

Policy-critical publics

The number of articles in this category was slightly higher compared to the first type of

publics: 62. Of those, 27 articles were published on the website of the tabloid newspaper

Komsomol’skaya pravda (kp.ru), 26 appeared on the daily Kommersant’s website, and 9

came out on the online news media outlet Lenta (lenta.ru). Each of the outlets used a

variety of terms for the Revolution, with the neutral one, ‘October Revolution’,

prevailing. In Kommersant and on kp.ru, the Revolution was referred to several times as

‘a tragedy’. On kp.ru and lenta.ru, the Soviet term ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’

was used, among others.

Entertainment content, trivia about the Revolution, and the coverage of cultural

events and the film series produced by TV channels to commemorate the anniversary

prevailed for all the outlets. On Lenta, there was not a single piece of analytical material.

Reasons for the Revolution were discussed only on kp.ru: these discussions partly
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

reflected the Soviet narrative, according to which the Tsar’s inability to lead the country

and people’s intolerable living conditions were the Revolution’s main triggers (in 4

cases), and partly followed the now popular narrative about the alleged foreign influence

(in 2 cases). Consequences of the Revolution were discussed in Kommersant and on

kp.ru. In the former, the assessment was mostly negative or ambivalent, whereas, on the

latter website, the Soviet (positive) narrative prevailed, as articulated in three pieces by

the historian Aleksandr Kolpakidi (Grishin 2017a, 2017b, 2017c). He claimed that, by

initiating a revolution, Lenin and Stalin ‘saved the country that was in the state of falling

apart’ and that Stalin ‘created a superpower’ (Grishin 2017b). Nostalgia for Soviet times

was present in many of Komsomol’skaya pravda’s articles and manifested itself in the

praise of the ‘good old days’ and in the Soviet-style dramatic rhetoric: ‘Ordinary people

took history’s centre stage and created a great state’ (Grishin 2017a).

As for revolutionary actors, Lenin was mentioned much more frequently than in

the other publics; the overall assessment of his role was rather ambivalent, with only two

cases of outspokenly positive attitudes observed on kp.ru. Stalin was discussed in seven

pieces (which is more than in any other public under review), also in an ambivalent way,

with two positive mentions on kp.ru.

We observed parallels to today’s Russia in 11 cases out of 62, which is less

compared to the leadership-critical publics. Here, the authors also tried to support their

arguments with historical parallels. However, their key strategies differed from those

found in the oppositional media. On kp.ru, parallels to the so-called ‘colour revolutions’

were very prominent: ‘among them [revolutionaries] were people who just wanted

changes in their lives, as it is the case today in Kiev … but … they just gave power from
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

one clique to another’ (Ryabkov 2017). One more way of linking the past to the present

was highlighting the non-comparability of 1917 and 2017: some authors claimed that

today, as opposed to 100 years ago, society ‘does not have that tragic social cleavage that

divided the people in two parts’ (Tyazhlov 2017). Kommersant thematised the elites’ fear

of discussing the Revolution: if they ‘were to talk about the Revolution, they would have

to answer the uncomfortable questions about the social inequality and the current

situation in the country’ (Kudelya 2017).

Attitudes towards revolution as a political tool were expressed in only nine cases,

five of which were on kp.ru, all of them unequivocally negative: ‘a violent solution to a

conflict does not lead to welfare and peace’ 7.

Uncritical publics

Uncritical publics presented 61 subunits of analysis, with the majority of them

(43) published on rg.ru, the website of the governmental newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta,

and only nine on the websites of the two TV news programmes analysed, Vesti and

Vremya. The Revolution was, for the most part, named neutrally as ‘Revolution’ or

‘October Revolution’; the term ‘Bolshevik coup d'état’ was more frequently used,

compared to the other publics, by the state TV channels.

Much of the coverage constituted news pieces about events and exhibitions

dedicated to the Revolution’s anniversary; another significant part focused on

entertaining facts about the Revolution: excerpts from memoirs about daily life during the

‘Na stsene RAMT pokazhut misteriyu “Aleko” k yubileyu revolyutsii’, Lenra.ru, 2 November 2017,
available at: https://lenta.ru/news/2017/11/02/aleko/, accessed 29 October 2018.
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

revolutionary years, anecdotes re-published from revolutionary papers. The majority of

the TV coverage, as well as four articles on rg.ru, discussed the film series produced by

the state TV channels. Some videos were obviously aimed at the audiences nostalgic

about the USSR, conveying positive memories about the Soviet past.

Rossiiskaya gazeta’s articles contained ambivalent assessments of the

Revolution’s consequences. In TV programmes, this aspect was not prominently

discussed. Reasons for the Revolution were mentioned six times, only once on TV

(vesti.ru). When discussing the latter topic, the idea of the Revolution’s artificial nature

was dominant: in one of the articles, a historian said that the opposition’s ‘excellent PR

activity’, and not the ‘poverty of people’, was a key factor in the Revolution’s success

(Mironov 2017). Moreover, the German government’s role in financing the

revolutionaries in order to ‘weaken Russia and help Germany win the war’ (Alperina

2017) was prominently mentioned both on rg.ru and on TV.

In the two TV news programmes, attitudes towards the Revolution could be

traced only in the video reports about the film series ‘Trotsky’ (Channel 1) and ‘Demon

of the Revolution’ (Russia-1), and the overall assessment was negative. For example,

talking about ‘Trotsky’, the moderator used the metaphor of ‘bloody times’ reinforced

with stills from the series8. In a news piece about the series ‘Demon of the Revolution’,

the journalist underlined that the Revolution had been conducted with the help of a

foreign state that aimed at ‘destroying the country from the inside’ 9.

‘Fil’m “Trotskiy”: radi velikoy mechty vsego chelovechestva ubit’ cheloveka v sebe’, Vremya, 7
November 2017, available at: https://www.1tv.ru/news/2017-11-07/335812-
film_trotskiy_radi_velikoy_mechty_vsego_chelovechestva_ubit_cheloveka_v_sebe, accessed 29
October 2018.
‘Demon Revolyutsii’, Vesti, 4 November 2017, available at:
https://www.vesti.ru/videos/show/vid/735308/cid/58/, accessed 29 October 2018.
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

Lenin was the most frequently mentioned revolutionary actor in these publics,

with neutral and ambivalent assessments of him dominating over others; Stalin was not

prominently present in the coverage. Two other figures – Alexander Parvus, a Russian

revolutionary activist who had allegedly taken money for the Revolution from the

German government, and Trotsky – were among the key figures of the coverage due to

the film series that were prominently discussed in these publics. The attitude towards

Trotsky was ambivalent, while towards Parvus mostly negative.

Parallels to today’s situation were absent in TV programmes, and very few of

them could be observed on rg.ru. In these few cases, the linkage to today’s Russia was

carried out in two ways: 1) by appealing to the necessity of learning from the past in

order to avoid the ‘revolutionary disaster’ and 2) by stressing that no parallels could be

drawn between the pre-1917 revolutionary situation and today’s Russia.

The TV news programmes avoided mentioning the Revolution even in the

coverage of events that had a direct link to the anniversary, such as, for instance, the

parade on Moscow’s Red Square (see Introduction) or a light show on Saint Petersburg’s

Palace Square. The commemorative rallies of the regime-loyal Communist Party were

covered with a focus on entertaining details and not on the main purpose of the

commemoration; hence, the impression was that a carnival, rather than the Revolution’s

centenary, was being celebrated. Compared to Vremya, the coverage of Vesti contained

more information about the events dedicated to the anniversary, as well as more

references to the Soviet past, but, overall, it also avoided analysis and links to today’s

Russia, and stayed focused on secondary details.

Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

Explicit attitudes towards revolution as a political tool were observed in eight

articles on rg.ru; in all cases they were negative. An implicitly negative attitude towards

any kind of revolution was also evident in the TV coverage of the film series mentioned


Comparing narratives about the Revolution in three types of publics

The findings presented above support our initial assumption that memory narratives

about the Revolution would differ in three types of Russia’s authoritarian publics. We

observed a number of significant differences between the three types of publics, as well

as some less evident discrepancies between the different media within the types of


A key aspect that differentiates the publics analysed is their actualisation of the

revolutionary events, that is, how they linked the past to the present. In leadership-

critical publics, it occurred very frequently, with the media following three main

strategies: (1) drawing parallels between pre-revolutionary Russia and the current

situation in the country; (2) discussing the Revolution in the present tense (as opposed to

the past and even the so-called ‘historical present’), which created the impression that the

Revolution was happening in 2017; (3) focusing not on the commemoration of the past,

but on current protests, and linking the latter to the anniversary. Policy-critical publics

demonstrated a much lower degree of linking the past to the present, mainly by

expressing the idea that the elites and society-at-large should prevent any revolutionary

events, by invoking the consequences of the so-called ‘colour revolutions’, and by

Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

emphasising the necessity of maintaining the current status quo. Finally, in uncritical

publics, the actualisation was very low, with links to today’s situation observed only in

two of the three outlets. In cases of linking the past to the present, the authors either

referred to the ‘horror of the Revolution’ or simply condemned revolution as a


Besides, in leadership-critical publics, we observed more analyses and

assessments of the Revolution’s reasons and consequences (except for Meduza, where

news stories prevailed). Policy-critical publics demonstrated a large number of news

pieces about cultural events dedicated to 1917, as well as film and exhibition reviews. At

the same time, several articles analysing reasons and consequences of the Revolution

were present. In uncritical publics, the authors typically avoided clear assessments of

1917; the prevailing genre was news stories about commemorative events, with a focus

on trivia and entertaining details. No substantial analysis of the past could be observed on

the state TV channels, and only a few articles tackling reasons for and consequences of

the Revolution were present in Rossiiskaya gazeta.

Film reviews prevailed in the coverage of the Revolution by the two state TV

channels in the sample and were also an important part of Rossiiskaya gazeta’s coverage.

Whereas the media of uncritical publics, in their coverage of exhibitions and series,

focused on formal details (interviews with actors, reports from the set), the policy-critical

outlets, especially Kommersant, offered their readers more sophisticated reviews, with

critical perspectives hidden between the lines (e.g., Arkhangel’skii 2017).

There were differences in the coverage of the anniversary by outlets within the

different types of publics. For instance, the amount of coverage differed a lot within all
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

three groups, which could be accounted for by specificities of each media outlet and its

(un)willingness to dedicate time and space to the event. Four outlets had comparably little

coverage: the oppositional Meduza (17 articles) and Novaya gazeta (6), as well as both

TV news programmes (Vremya and Vesti, 9 each). The motivation for this could be

different in each of the two public types: while the state TV channels potentially avoided

talking about the Revolution due to the ‘party line’, the oppositional media were likely to

be reluctant to discuss the October Revolution that had led to Bolshevism, preferring the

‘democratic’ February one.

Interestingly, the Gazprom-owned Echo Moscow showed the biggest variety of

opinions on and analyses of the event among the oppositional media. This fact highlights

an important function of leadership-critical publics for authoritarian rule: they provide the

elites with an opportunity to assess citizens’ mood and serve as a feedback tool (Toepfl

2018). Echo Moscow’s editor-in-chief, Alexei Venediktov, has recently mentioned this

function when asked why the Kremlin tolerates the liberal radio station 10.

Recurrent across the publics analysed was the absence of any positive attitudes

towards revolution as a political tool: they were either negative or simply missing (see

also Tolz & Chatterje-Doody 2018). This illustrates a certain post-communist agreement

across the publics that a revolution is detrimental to a society, which is in line with the

official view of the Russian state.

Separately, our results have also shown the importance of the above-mentioned

series, ‘Trotsky’ and ‘Demon of the Revolution’, produced by state TV channels on the

occasion of the anniversary (see also Tolz & Chatterje-Doody 2018). In several cases, the

‘Venediktov – Putin, Putin, Lesya, Putin’, Vdud’, 13 March 2018, available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0wv89CdksM&t=4805s, accessed 29 October 2018.
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

coverage of the series obviously substituted discussions of the Revolution. As argued by

Astrid Erll (2011a), film ‘is a medium with a distinctly double mnemonic dimension’: on

the one hand, it ‘appears … as a (fictional) re-presentation of history’ and, on the other

one, it can be perceived as ‘an archival source’ (p. 136). Consequently, the first

implication effectively means that making a film about a past event allows one to forego

historical facts, while the second one allows one to create ‘myths’ about the Revolution

that might be reworked by the audience into memories. For instance, the relationship

between Lenin and Parvus, placed at the forefront of ‘Demon of Revolution’, is largely

fictitious; however, emphasising in the series that Parvus was the one who passed

German money on to Lenin and was thus ‘the sponsor’ of the Russian Revolution can

result in audience members perceiving this fictional narrative as a historical fact. Besides,

film creates an experiential relationship to the past (Erll 2011a, p. 137), at the root of

which are emotions. And finally, discussing fictional accounts of the past shifts focus

from reflecting on the reasons for and consequences of the actual historical event (for

more on how the official memory politics is translated by Russian television channels

into historical entertainment, see Wijermars 2018a).

Alongside their political orientation, the media market factor seems to have

played a role in how the outlets analysed tackled the topic of 1917. They all target their

specific audiences, and this certainly affects the narratives about the past that they

communicate within the given political framework. For instance, the mass tabloid

newspaper Komsomol’skaya pravda (kp.ru) has to consider its older readers, who, to a

large extent, still feel nostalgic about the Soviet times; this could account for the fact that

kp.ru had published articles praising the Soviet past and mentioning Stalin positively or at
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

least neutrally. Similarly, the news programme Vesti tries to meet the demands of their

core audience: senior, state-loyal citizens. At the same time, Vesti and Vremya also target

younger generations with reports about the Netflix-style film series created by their

respective TV channels. The target audience of the policy-critical outlet Kommersant is

more educated and liberal compared to the tabloid kp.ru, which allows for more

sophisticated, analytical texts, with criticisms between the lines.

Challenging or stabilising the authoritarian rule?

This study has explored narratives about the October Revolution in Russia’s authoritarian

publics. The findings demonstrate a patchwork of digital memories of the historical event

that has been largely ignored by the regime’s official memory politics.

The diversity of memory narratives about 1917 within the media/memory ecology

of the Russian public-at-large could be accounted for by a number of reasons. First, in a

situation of numerous ways to talk about the Revolution voiced by state officials

(Malinova 2018) and an absent overarching memory narrative about the Revolution

within the historical politics, the political orientation of the media – and thus, the types of

discursive practices in which these media engage – determined their approaches to the

past. Pro-state media (uncritical and policy-critical publics) and oppositional media

(leadership-critical publics) used different ways to actualise the event in the present:

while the latter made parallels to today’s situation, the former avoided any substantial

discussion and tended to distance themselves from the actual past by considering fictional

content instead.
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

The coexistence of different and often contradictory narratives can challenge the

stability of an authoritarian public-at-large: despite Bernstein’s (2016) pointing to ‘a large

degree of conformity’ of online memories to offline ones (p. 433), the digital memory of

the multitude can offer alternatives to the monolithic historical politics and thus

potentially destabilise it and challenge the regime as a whole (see also Rutten et al. 2013).

However, we argue that, when a comprehensive official memory narrative about a

historical event does not exist, the fluid and flexible nature of digital memories does not

necessarily challenge the authoritarian rule. Even more, it can work in the regime’s

favour by allowing one to target various sections of a fragmented society and to de-

escalate the tensions between them. In the realm of the digital on-demand economy

(Cockayne 2016), different media – depending on their political orientation and the

market factor – offer their audiences different types of memory narratives within a given

framework of political restrictions, thus creating what we call ‘memories on demand’.

Such a ‘customisation’ of memories can, in our view, contribute to maintaining balance

in a society, ‘letting off steam’ by major societal groups and thus preserving the status


The ‘liquid’ nature of the state’s historical politics towards the Revolution

reduced the likelihood of social tensions that could have escalated, had the state

attempted to impose an overarching memory narrative about the event. As a result, what

we observed by drawing on the example of the coverage of the Revolution’s 100 th

anniversary was not a ‘memory war’ with a clear front line, but rather a multiplicity of

‘echo chamber’ discussions (Sunstein 2001). This seemingly corresponded with the main

aim articulated by officials: ‘reconciliation and concord’ in Russian society (Malinova

Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

2018). However, this ‘reconciliation’ was based not on dialogue, but rather on a

compilation of monologues, which throws into question the ability of these memory-

based ‘connective publics’ (Hoskins 2018a) to actually connect and thus relates them to

the idea of disrupted and disconnected publics recently discussed by W. Lance Bennett

and Barbara Pfetsch (2018). Due to limited spill-overs from oppositional media to state

and pro-government media, this has led to further isolation of liberal/oppositional

intellectuals within the Russian public-at-large, and thus to a strengthening of the echo

chambers that exist in the Russian multiple public sphere (Bodrunova & Litvinenko


At the same time, the spill-over of memory narratives from the uncritical publics

to the policy-critical and leadership-critical ones seems to have functioned, as the

coverage of the two film series demonstrated (that is, the series were covered not only in

the uncritical publics, but in the other two types of publics as well). This could have been

determined by the specificities of the Russian media landscape, in line with Andrew

Hoskins and Pavel Shchelin’s (2018) conclusion that Russia presents ‘a case of a

distinctive digital media ecology’, which is ‘paradoxically in flux, yet contained’ by the

authorities (pp. 251, 262).

Conclusion and future research

Operationalising Toepfl’s (2018) theory of authoritarian publics, this study has

empirically demonstrated that publics with different levels of political criticism can

coexist in the new media ecology of an authoritarian regime. We have shown that these
Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies

publics have different relationships to the state and employ manifold discursive practices,

which contributes to the communication literature on publics and expands the

possibilities of analysing them in non-democracies. However, focusing on the media’s

construction and mediation of memories, this study has only briefly touched upon the

publics’ relationship to state actors, one of the foremost lines of inquiry in multiple public

sphere theory today (Jackson & Foucault Welles 2015). More empirical research is

needed in order to better understand the mechanics behind the state’s communication of

policies to the various media and the latter’s response to these policies.

This study also contributes to the understanding of new digital memory ecologies

and especially the under-researched memory ecologies of authoritarian regimes. We have

argued that, when applied to a non-democratic context, Hoskins’ (2018a) concept of the

memory of the multitude can have a twofold effect. In a situation when there exists an

overarching official memory narrative in relation to an historical event, the flexibility of

the memory of the multitude – lamented in democratic contexts as unable to create ‘a

usable past’ and thus unite people – can act as a space where alternative memories are

articulated and mediated. At the same time, in the case of the absence of a memory

narrative imposed by the state, the memory of the multitude not only fails to challenge

the regime, but can also work in its favour. It allows one to target – and potentially satisfy

– different audiences by offering them memories on demand.

However, we have studied a particular case of memory-based digital publics, with

journalists as the principal mnemonic actors. More research is needed on how different

participants in these publics actually relate to the digital memories conveyed by the

media and whether these memories can, in their flexibility and vulnerability, add to the
Anna Litvinenko & Andrei Zavadski

participants’ general understanding of the past and influence their views on the current

regime. Besides, a large-scale comparative analysis of the publics emerging around

significant historical events could demonstrate whether the patterns identified in our

study apply to all authoritarian media/memory ecologies.

Authors’ Accepted Manuscript / Europe-Asia Studies


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