This week, when a Russian court sentenced opposition leader Alexei Navalny to two years and eight months in a penal colony, a new wave of protests swept Russia. Rallies have been ongoing for more than two weeks all over the country, with the numbers of those detained climbing up to more than 10,000. But those protests also gained an unlikely name: Akvadiskoteka, or Aquadisco in English. The word appeared on signs, as a protest hashtag on social media, and as a popular chant in the crowds. Off-beat but filled with outrage, the made-up word is just one example of the memefication of Russia’s opposition politics: not only reflecting the young age of its participants, but a new way to find power in social media, and humour in the face of institutional oppression.
Akvadiskoteka first originated in the depths of a digital renderings of “Putin’s Palace”, a mega-mansion alleged to belong to the Russian President by Alexei Navalny. In a video investigation which racked up 86 million views on YouTube in six days, Navalny took viewers through imagined rooms in the palace — including the mysteriously named “akvadiskoteka” — based on both blueprints and interviews with contractors. When Navalny was arrested on 17 January, “Putin’s Palace” became a rallying point for protests demanding his release, and those merely fed up with rampant corruption. Akvadiskoteka became shorthand for the present moment: a bubbling discontent with the increasingly heavy-handed Russian government.
But if “Putin’s Palace” quickly caused public outrage, it became a meme even faster. Internet users were generous with their jokes, commenting that the palace looked like the house you’d build with unlimited cheat codes in The Sims; comparing the interior to camp outfits of Russian pop singer Philipp Kirkorov; pointing out a golden toilet brush; writing Tweets which read, “Putin’s toilet is bigger than my flat”.
Comedian Andrei Gudkov and artist L1zzka quickly responded by releasing songs titled Akvadiskoteka. These creative responses were even more popular and the songs made their way offline and onto the streets. Both Gudkov’s and L1zzka’s songs have become protest anthems; memes uniting people under a single slogan.
There is little doubt that social media has impacted protest movements globally, both in how demonstrations are organised and how we perceive the current events. Today, revolutions, uprisings, and civil protests are often narrated through tweets, Instagram stories, and video fragments on TikTok. But in Russia, this change has also exposed a bigger shift in society. In a country where police brutality and institutional injustice have been normalised for decades, the language of memes can be an entry point to finally challenge them. Memes can be endlessly empowering – because they are often too fluid to be censored, and because they bring unity among those who understand them and their often coded language and references. On the day one of the protests, TikTok was full of encouraging videos about “going for a walk”. No one, in on the joke, had any doubts where these teenagers would be walking to.
They also spread that unity far further than a single street, a single crowd, or a single chorus. Journeying through TikTok during the protests has been overwhelming, inspiring, nauseating, and funny. Clips of the crowds and the collisions with the police are mainly soundtracked by Akvadiskoteka by l1zzka, or IC3PEAK’s morbid hit Death No More. Pick one of these songs to browse and you’re guaranteed a journey across Russia; not only Moscow and St Petersburg, but smaller cities and remote regions which are rarely perceived as places perceptive to oppositional political movement.
On social media, even your bedroom can become a hotbed of protest: an important distinction in a country such as Russia where vast distances and unforgiving weather often throw up challenging obstacles for those who wish to meet in real life. TikTok makeup tutorials merge with politics to define a generation who has never known Russia without Putin, who are not afraid of arrest, and even joke about it. “Make-up look for today, gonna be the first to enter the police van,” reads the video of a girl painting a red stripe over her eyes and a miniature hammer and sickle on her cheekbone. “Let’s see how it goes today, my next photo might not be for 15 days,” says another, with a Russian flag painted over her eyelids like an eyeshadow.
Social media has long served Russian protesters for practical purposes: recording evidence of police brutality, or sharing quick updates on routes and road closures. But the era of ultra-connectivity has also allowed protests to very quickly acquire their own iconography In one smartphone-recorded video, a crowd of protesters shower riot police with snowballs as they slowly walk along the road. In another, a policeman is seen wiping away the words “Freedom” and “Change” which were written with someone’s hand on a frosty stone wall of an underpass or a metro station.
Memes harness those clips, but they also give protestors the power to change the narrative. They are something to share with friends, something positive to remember from an otherwise terrifying day, something which for a split-second looked like a victory over oppressive power. But they even take moments of brutality and reclaim them for the protestors themselves.
Protest memes inevitably poke fun at the police: whether it’s their clumsiness in the riot gear or the unjustified barbarity of their behaviour. When the police themselves tried to jump on the meme train, with government Instagram accounts posting their own big vs small doge meme (“when you’re causing trouble in the crowd vs when you make excuses in the court”) demonstrators quickly clapped back with their own remake, referencing recent cases of police brutality and stories of political convicts: “when you kick a woman in the stomach vs when someone throws a plastic cup at you”.
The truth is that memes in this context exist not only as contemporary political satire: laughter might be one of the only ways to confront the feelings of injustice and fear. As artist 9cyka pointed out in an interview with The Calvert Journal last year: “Laughter and good humour are tools probably as powerful as love. That’s why I paint policemen with pig features and toy-like pinkish faces. Laughing is helpful”.
“I try to make jokes and be sarcastic so that those feelings of disaster, self-pity and helplessness don’t overwhelm me, and what are you gonna do about it?” Fyodor, who co-runs Instagram @russiaforgays, wrote under his post about being arrested and subjected to inhumane treatment from the police. The first slide of his post was a photoshopped card which read “Happy Detainment Day”. For the protest movement in today’s Russia, memes can help to laugh in the face of grave danger: to find the power to get up again and continue the fight.
Russians are used to media lies and propaganda, and can therefore move swiftly between different kinds of realities: one online, one on the street, one on TV; one to be shared with parents, the other with friends. But as memes constantly flow from the digital world to reality and back again, it could be said that the walls between these parallel dimensions — the more liberal discourse in an online world populated by young Russians, and the authoritarian reality — are starting to crumble. For a new generation of digital natives, perhaps it no longer seems natural to keep the two apart. Raised away from the television sets where their parents got their laughs, entertainment, and state propaganda, perhaps they simply no longer understand the nature of controlled, top-down communication. Perhaps, they are simply no longer afraid.