Viral videos promoting the presidential election are popping up online in Russia and nobody is sure who's making them. The breadcrumbs lead back to the Kremlin
The first, most popular video surfaced on February 16, featuring an average Russian guy waking up in a country beset by gays and black soldiers
A video encouraging people to vote in the presidential election started spreading on YouTube and other social media on February 16. The three-minute clip’s star is played by Sergey Burunov, whom Russians know from the sketch-comedy show Bolshaya Raznitsa, the TV series A Policeman From Rublyovka, and the film Posledny Bogatyr. In the video, his character initially plans to skip the March 18 presidential election, but he changes his mind after having a nightmare that shows him the horrible consequences of not going to the polling station: he’s drafted into the army, despite being 52 (and one of the soldiers who delivers the summons is black, for some reason); his son, wearing a red Communist Pioneer neckerchief, asks him for 4 million rubles (almost $18,000) to donate to his school for security guards; and in the kitchen we find an “adopted gay,” because apparently the law now requires families to take in gay men who are dumped by their partners.
Speaking through his agent, Burunov refused to comment on his role in the video.
Svetlana Galka, who also acted in the video, has said in interviews that it was directed by Alexander Boikov. For casting, Galka says she filmed herself reading the script and then sent the footage to the people who offered her work.
Speaking to independent television channel Dozhd, Boikov refused to say who financed the video. According to the magazine The Village, however, Boikov reportedly said he had nothing to do with the video and doesn’t know why people claim he directed it. In the past, he’s collaborated extensively with the nextworks STS and TV3, and worked on several commercials. He also filmed an advertisement for the film Gogol: The Beginning, which featured Sergey Burunov.
Companies officially hired by Russia’s Central Election Commission to raise public awareness about the coming presidential election have denied any role in the video starring Burunov. “IMA-Consulting,” part of the IMA holding company, which regularly wins government contracts to promote elections, says it had nothing to do with the video. This year, the state is paying IMA-Consulting 37 million rubles (more than $655,600) to raise turnout for the March 18 vote. The company’s general director, Vartan Sarkisov, told Meduza that IMA wasn’t involved in the video, but he does consider it to be “well made.”
Russia’s election commission also hired Mikhailov & Partners “strategic communications agency” to distribute content produced by IMA on social media. Maria Markova, a spokeswoman for the agency. said it planned to reach out to the public using Yandex, Mail.ru, and YouTube. It wants to “raise the public’s awareness, build trust, and increase engagement,” she said.
“We had nothing to do with the production or distribution of this video. It’s not our product,” Markova told Meduza, adding that any campaign material the company produces displays the Central Election Commission’s official watermark and registration data.
Several industry insiders told Meduza that they think the video resembles the handiwork of the well-known political strategists Oleg Matveychev and Dmitriy Gusev. “When I watch the video with the gay guy, I can see Oleg Matveychev [scripting the scene while] sitting in a bar with a glass of red wine,” fellow spin doctor Ilya Paymushkin told Meduza. Another source with ties to the Kremlin mentioned Gusev in connection with the election videos.
Matveychev, however, told Meduza that he hadn’t even seen the clip. “I haven’t even watched it. I’ll only get around to it this evening,” he said on Tuesday, February 20. “I haven’t got a studio for that kind of filming. I can only film something for a blog on a handheld camera. It’s total nonsense,” he said. Gusev declined to comment.
The “nightmare” video isn’t Russia’s only viral election video of mysterious provenance
A video titled “Girl Rips This Guy Apart — 18+” appeared on YouTube on February 14. In the video, an attractive young woman catches a young man’s eye at a nightclub, and pulls him away to get hot and steamy. Just as the lip lock is getting underway, however, she suddenly asks him if he voted earlier in the day. When he scoffs and says no, she breaks their embrace and walks away, saying she thought he was an adult.
This clip was produced by the company Rosvideo, which describes itself as an “end-to-end video studio” specializing in “presentations and corporate films, advertising, and multimedia video content.”
One of Rosvideo’s managing partners is a man named Mikhail Cherepanov, who also chairs the board at the “St. Petersburg GR-club” (a lobbyist forum). He told Meduza that this is the first of a planned series of election videos. They’re planning to release another “youth-oriented” video in the next few days. Cherepanov says the studio is working independently, trying to “get noticed” by creating election promotions. “We came up with the idea and filmed it, and we pushed it out through our contacts on social media groups and wherever we could.” The studio says it wants “to take a stance humorously” about voters’ civic duty, while attracting potential new clients. Cherepanov says the studio didn’t pay bloggers, like Sergey Stillavin, to repost the video to increase engagement.
This is not the first political video Rosvideo has produced. In 2016, its ad for the Rodina party, “Enough Bullshitting — It’s Time to Get to Work,” won the prize from the Russian Association of Political Consultants for the best viral project of the season.
Cherepanov told Meduza that Rosvideo created the nightclub video in the same way it made the Rodina ad. “The ideas and initiative were ours, and we ‘sold’ it at cost price, to ride the wave of publicity,” he said.
On February 16, another professional election ad appeared and started spreading online. In this video, a pregnant woman steps into a taxi cab, breathing heavily and moaning in labor pains. She tells the driver to step on it, but leads him to a polling station, not a hospital. She casts her ballot seconds before the clock strikes 8 p.m., when voting ends. It’s still unclear who’s behind this commercial, which was originally published on a YouTube channel that has shared videos almost exclusively about the video game “Need for Speed.”
The Kremlin could have a role here
A source in Russia’s advertising industry told Meduza that the presidential administration is to thank for these viral videos. He says a group of political strategists with connections to people in Russia’s “creative business” regularly meets with Alexander Kharichev, the deputy head of the Kremlin’s internal policy department. Any of these individuals is apparently free to pitch ideas to the administration. Meduza’s source says there isn’t a mountain of cash allocated to these projects, but some “little efforts” do get approval and a bit of government funding. This, the source claims, is how Rosvideo’s nightclub commercial came about. There’s no grand, unifying concept here, he says: “Whatever people propose — for example, somebody says let’s film some video clips — that’s what gets done.”
“If the stars align, then it’s meant to be. There’s almost always someone who commissions it — an initiator,” Cherepanov told Meduza, denying that his studio’s video was commissioned by the state.
“And of course, in managing the election, the presidential administration needs visual content that conveys a message, boosts turnout, and gets people talking about the election, which at the moment just looks like a dull pile of shit,” Cherepanov says. “So it’s very possible that the idea for the clip with Burunov came from them. It had a decent budget, and celebrities were involved. And it’s possible Mr. Putin’s campaign staff are behind it, as they’re close to the administration. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I don’t rule out that someone in the end decided to ‘support’ our clip and weave it into the larger wave.”