If they put me in charge of Russian agit-prop, here’s how I’d do it.
Forget about “winning” social media. Forget about demonstrations of pure power.
Come at it from the other direction. Stop trying to confuse minds. Warm hearts instead.
Find someone likeable with a ready-made global platform who is Russian, but not too Russian. Two types of people leap to mind – artists and athletes.
Allow that person to do the propaganda for you, pro bono. They don’t have to be out there waving the flag. They don’t have to be in on it. They may not even want the job.
They just have to be talented and engaging where the rest of the world can see them. Enough likeable Russians on enough media outlets chips away at the idea of Russia as an international villain. Because if I like her, how can I disagree with them?
Too simplistic? Of course it is. Welcome to 21st century. We now have more forums for discussion than have ever existed in human history, and about 60 per cent of them are about Harry Styles and the new Barbie movie.
You can’t create a cohort of charismatic Russian stars. It has to occur organically.
Were it me, I’d be pulling for teenage sensations. Easier to empathize with. The younger and more prodigious the better.
The stage matters. It’s great if you have the world’s best new pole vaulter or mime artist, but who’s going to see them, and so who’s going to care?
A solo performer doing a glamour job on a major stage making international headlines – that would be best.
Wimbledon is giving Russia that right now. It very literally could not buy marketing this valuable. It can only be given.
The breakout star of this fortnight is 16-year-old Russian Mirra Andreeva.
She has the markings of a generational star, and her tennis is the least of it. It’s her presence – that indefinable “it” – that makes her stand out.
Born in Siberia, tutored in Moscow and based in France, Andreeva is one of those born-to-greatness players.
A week ago, no one in Wimbledon knew her. On Monday, she was the crowd’s clear favourite in her fourth-round match against American veteran Madison Keys.
When Andreeva was up and cruising early, the crowd was buoyant. When it started to come apart in the third set, they grew hushed and funereal. When Andreeva began wiping away tears after another shot pranged into the audience, you could feel a thousand consoling looks directed at her.
In keeping with the poignancy of the loss, it ended perfectly. Andreeva had already thrown a racquet in frustration – a big no-no on a court that cannot be buffed out if it is gouged. On the second-to-last point, she appeared to slip. In the midst of the fall, her racquet ended up on the ground. The umpire docked her a point.
Andreeva walked toward the official angrily.
“No, it is wrong decision,” she said. “I don’t understand what you’re doing.”
The crowd took up her cause and began jeering the official. A tragic collapse ending with an institutional injustice. You couldn’t write it up any better.
Andreeva lost the match, but she won the postmatch pressers. Twice as many journalists showed up for hers as the one preceding it for Keys.
Her English is good – a prerequisite for making an impactful initial impression. Players from the Soviet sphere have a tendency to be robotic speakers. Not Andreeva. She has an instinctive understanding of what journalists want – quips, insights, anecdotes.
She happily, but also politely, picked a fight with the umpire in her remarks – “For me, she didn’t do a right decision. That’s why I didn’t want to shake hands with her.”
Refusing to shake the opponent’s hand is so 2022. The hot new thing is not shaking hands with anybody.
This ability to draw attention without appearing to be trying to draw attention – that’s another thing that can’t be taught.
Russia doesn’t need international spokespeople. It has plenty of those. They are all terrifying.
What it needs are nice Russians, cool Russians, fun Russians. Andreeva is a fun Russian. Very soon, she will be an exceedingly famous Russian.
Watching her puts you in mind of Stalin’s jibe about the Vatican – “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”
Great line, but it’s not really how geopolitics works any more, is it? In today’s connected world, famous people are like divisions. Better than, in some cases.
Again, were I designing this nefarious PR campaign, Wimbledon would be my unwitting launching pad. So refined. So urbane. So dim.
The people you’re using have no clue whether they’re coming or going any more. Listen to this bit from Wimbledon CEO Sally Bolton on the decision to ban Russians last year, and readmit them this year: “An awful lot of thought went into the decisions … but we believe in both cases, they were the right decisions for the championships at the time.”
Diametrically opposed moral choices, and both completely right. Sure.
The athletes may not want to be tools of the state’s propaganda machine, but that’s the function they serve. Last year, Wimbledon understood that. This year, after the polling numbers didn’t go its way, it has given in to it.
Just a few days ago, everyone wanted to know what the Russians and Belarusians here thought about the war. This week, everyone’s grown tired of asking about it. Much more fun to listen to Daniil Medvedev quip his way through an on-court interview (which he, another cool Russian, is very good at).
So what’s the easiest way to win an international propaganda campaign? Wait for your enemies to organize, fund, hype and broadcast the campaign. Then you just have to show up.