A Very Dark Humor: Memes as a Tool of Russian Propaganda

Article by Volodymyr Solovian and Anton Khimiak, HWAG/UCMC


“People respond to images faster than text, so you can use images to wage an effective meme war and convey the necessary narratives.”

A Handbook of Media Warfare

Memes now surround us in various dimensions of the information environment – social media, media headlines, conversations with friends, and even official statements. Memes, as a product of the entertainment industry, have become an essential part of political communication. 

Due to the hybrid nature of modern wars, memes serve as propaganda soldiers. Long before the Kremlin’s large-scale aggression, they were at the forefront of the information conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Because visual images are deeply ingrained in people’s minds, the Russian propaganda machine employs memes to spread favorable narratives.

This study identifies the characteristics of a political meme during a war. The authors also take a trip through political satire history, describing and reconstructing the “life path” of memes in Russian propaganda. This research will teach you about the origins and significance of memes in the Russian propaganda system.

The primary characteristics of memes

Humour is one of the components of human thinking and sociocultural existence. In this study, we look at humor as a communication modifier. In the context of propaganda, its primary function is to change the form of the message without changing the content. Kremlin narratives, such as “Ukraine is a Nazi state,” can be disseminated not only through traditional formats such as news, official statements, articles, videos, and so on, but also through humorous artistic images known as memes. Several important characteristics distinguish such communication from traditional Russian propaganda.

As a result, a meme (or media meme) is a type of message that combines informational content with a vivid visual form. Memes are casts of a community’s values at a specific historical stage; they capture significant symbols, rituals, events, and so on.

Memes are a type of humorous product that is based on image logical simplification and generalization. Exaggeration, analogies, contrasts, and allusions can all be used when things are simplified. The use of a generalization and an appropriate artistic image “wraps” the true meaning of the propaganda message in a graphic wrapper that is more accessible to the target audience than textual information. 

A meme (as a message unit) is endowed with additional features for more successful image consolidation in people’s memories: contextuality and emotionality. 

The emotionality of memes is an artistic attempt to elicit a viewer’s reaction. This reaction could be positive or negative. However, it is primarily intended to mock the meme’s subject. In his account of the French Revolution, international communications professor Michael Waller noted that “the constant, vicious, often crude parody and ridicule of the king as an individual and the monarchy as a system, the aristocracy and the church, probably motivated and radicalized the public more than the high-minded philosophies of the revolutionaries.” 

1.A cartoon depicting the peasantry’s oppression in pre-revolutionary France.

2.A contemporary meme about the French Revolution

Contextuality improves the accuracy of meme images and actually increases the effect of influence.  This characteristic explains why there are so many meme studies. A significant amount of research has been conducted in academic and analytical circles on the phenomenon of memes in election campaigns and political protests. The presidential elections in the United States in 2016 (1, 2, 3) and 2020 (1, 2) drew special attention.

At the same time, while contextuality aids in the spread of memes, the duration of their “life” is an important consideration. The majority of political memes spread quickly when they are most relevant. For example, just before the election, Internet users most frequently searched for campaign memes depicting Donald Trump as Pepe the Frog. A similar situation occurred in 2020, when Trump supporters spread memes about “Sleepy Joe” (US President Joe Biden). Both memes quickly faded, and their relevance remained sporadic.

For example, this image of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shapes perceptions of him as a “insufficiently mature politician” who is only interested in Western partners’ assistance and Ukrainians’ lives. In this case, we can see that only the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine is being documented, whereas the rest of the Western equipment has already been destroyed.

The Mysterious Meme

The Internet’s accessibility has enabled ordinary citizens to create their own images and instantly distribute them via online platforms. Memes spread through the constant reproduction of an interested audience in the cultural space. “The potential of any meme is that it can not only infect others, but also encourage them to create. An image or a statement provokes people to write reviews, comments, modify it in some way, transform it, and thus promote it. That’s why a meme can spread through the information space in a short period of time without any additional effort. It doesn’t require a propaganda machine or information resources,” says political scientist Petro Oleshchuk.

At the same time, meme culture, with its inherent emotionality and expressiveness, contributes to the consolidation of clip thinking. Memes make readers more vulnerable to fake news: news is not taken seriously, and it is read for entertainment and relaxation rather than for information. The audience does not want to strain their minds, preferring to focus on emotions and drama. This weakens the foundation for critical thinking.

Memes in Contemporary Political Culture

Memes have moved from the realm of entertainment to the realm of political communication with ease. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t politicians who suddenly began using memes to communicate with the online public; rather, it was voters who created the demand for this method of expressing political views. 

This trend can be traced back to online subcultures and niche forums like Reddit and 4chan. Political memes have become a means of expressing even the most difficult ideas for traditional means of communication on these platforms. They have spread from these forums to global social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, where they have gained popularity among the general public.

Because almost anyone can express their political views through social media in the form of provocation, trolling, and memes, a general trend has emerged.  Politicians, particularly in Western political culture, eventually began to use memes to communicate with voters.  

This type of communication, however, has expanded beyond domestic interactions and has reached the international level. The practice of using humor in official interstate communication has even taken hold. According to Jason Hannan, a researcher at the University of Winnipeg, “Embassies resort to trolling in the form of deliberately provocative, short messages that mock external actors (governments, media, public figures) and often lead to the exchange of humorous insults.”

1.The Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom uses The Simpsons to manipulate news of a missile falling in Poland in 2022.

2.The American Embassy in Moscow mocks Russian media for fabricating information about funding LGBT organizations in order to destabilize Russia (2015).

What is it about memes that makes them so appealing for political communication?

For starters, they enable us to express complex ideas in a simple and understandable manner. Politicians can reach a large audience, particularly the younger generation, who are typically uninterested in politics, by using well-known memes or creating their own.

The election of Trump as president has even sparked what has been jokingly dubbed “The Great Meme War,” which has essentially become a political debate between Trump supporters and critics using trolling and meme language, with each side attempting to provoke the other and prove their case.

Military Publicity 

Visual images may appear to be a product of the Internet warfare era today. However, we must remember that propaganda has been a constant companion to wars for thousands of years. 

Pharaoh Ramses II destroying Egypt’s enemies (Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites), 13th century BC, is one of the earliest examples of propaganda.

The goal of military propaganda is to create a positive image of “our own” (fellow citizens or allies) by disseminating “high symbols” (national flag, coat of arms, anthem, images of the head of state, military figures, national heroes, religious shrines, etc.). This awakens the collective feelings of patriotism, solidarity, and self-sacrifice that are required during wartime. 

Military propaganda, on the other hand, ruthlessly humiliates and ridicules the enemy. The antagonist is endowed with a variety of derogatory epithets and characteristics. He is blamed for all disagreements and, more importantly, for starting the war. As a result, the task of negative propaganda is to free the aggression complex, which is imprisoned during peacetime. By instilling hostility towards “outsiders,” negative clichés strengthen the sense of in-group solidarity.

Historical Context for Caricature in War

The caricature is the meme’s ancestor. Sir Thomas Browne, a doctor of medicine and now-forgotten writer, popularized the term “caricature” in the 17th century. He proposed to call caricatures drawings in which the artist exposes the internal characteristic features of the depicted person – cunning, stupidity, insidiousness, and so on – by distorting and hyperbolizing facial features and proportions of a person’s body.

Thus, the caricature genre was influenced by physiognomy ideas, in the modern sense of pseudoscience, the main point of which is the assertion that the human psyche is dependent on the external forms of the face and its expression. 

Caricature became a component of mass visual culture during the 18th and 19th centuries, as the newspaper industry developed in European countries. 

The First World War was a golden age for political cartoonists. The art form, which had previously communicated with the viewer through the language of satire and humor, took on an ominous tone and became a component of military propaganda. Of course, the primary function of political cartoons during wartime is to mobilize society to fight the enemy.

To spread propaganda among the enemy’s soldiers and civilians, the parties used a variety of cartoon delivery methods, including airplanes, dirigibles, balloons, and artillery shells.

Many governments quickly recognised the value of colorful symbols and images in mobilization efforts. A 1914 military poster depicting Lord Kitchener calling for recruits during World War I (Britons, Lord Kitchener Wants You) is one of the earliest examples of a popular political meme.

Artist James Montgomery later adapted this image for an American audience. This is how Uncle Sam and the iconic “I Want You” became a well-known patriotic symbol with a call to action.

It was during this time that the practice of depicting nations as animals became popular. Cartoonists used grotesque plots of famous myths, epics, and fables to hyperbolize the negative features of enemy nations’ national character. Animalistic images contributed to the mythologization of public perceptions of foreign policy and the formation of persistent negative stereotypes.

In 1915, cartoonist Louis Ramakers for the Amsterdam newspaper De Telegraaf depicted German soldiers as pigs.  

Russian Military Memetics’ Origins 

Caricature images popular in 1914-1918 were widely used in Second World War and Cold War propaganda. Some of them continue to shape contemporary perceptions of each other in the West and the East.

The image of a pig was frequently used by Entente propaganda to portray Germans. In this way, the German people were associated with the human vices that this domestic animal represented in European culture.  

The image of the pig was firmly established for the German Nazis in caricatures created during WWII. 

“No pork until these pigs are killed,” reads a Second World War American poster. 

Russia chose to use the image of the Germans created by the Allies during WWII, and today the pig “character” dominates the image of the “collective Ukrainian,” as Russian propagandists “hint” at the “tendency of Ukrainians to fascism.”

A comparison of the Kukriniks cartoon from the 1940s and contemporary Russian memes

During the Cold War, Soviet cartoonists actively promoted the theme of the restoration of “fascism” in the West. 

The Kukriniks, a creative association of graphic artists, played a special role in this area of Soviet propaganda. Its members documented the Nuremberg Trials and took part in international artistic life, including the Venice Biennale, despite the Iron Curtain.

The Kukriniks have played an important role in the geopolitical conflict between Moscow and Washington for more than a half-century. Their satire frequently targeted “capitalist warmongers” and “American/NATO warmongers.” Today, Russian propaganda readily exploits these images and stories. 

“The audience of Russian state television, which pours sarcasm on the enemies surrounding the country, is the audience of yesterday’s Kukriniks consumers…”, write the authors of “State Laughter. Stalinism and the Comic” (Yevhen Dobrenko and Natalia Johnsson-Skradol).

SMO Kukrinix

LiuLi Telegram Channel 

Kukuffka Telegram Channel 

DaZbastaDraw is a Telegram channel

The Function of Memes in Z-discourse

The narratives used by Kremlin propaganda on the eve of the large-scale invasion and in the early weeks of the hot phase of the war contradicted traditional military propaganda principles. The propaganda clichés about the positive image of an ordinary Ukrainian (“one/brotherly people”) were ingrained in the minds of most Russian soldiers who crossed the border on February 24, 2022, which was contrasted with “a bunch of Ukrofascists who seized power.” The outlines of the enemy were so vague that the mass consciousness of Russians simply could not “digest” the goals of the so-called “SVO” announced by Putin.  

This was a cruel prank on Moscow. The reality that the occupation forces faced from the first days of the invasion attested to the breakdown of long-held perceptions of Ukraine on Russian television. This caused a collective “cognitive dissonance” in Russian minds, resulting in a drop in troop motivation and a high percentage of refusals to perform combat missions. 

In fact, it was only after the initial plan to capture all of Ukraine failed that Russian state propagandists began to construct a unified ideological framework for the war. The Russian propaganda machine was forced to rebuild itself from the ground up in order to create a new image of the Ukrainian enemy. The enemy was being elevated to the level of the entire nation, regardless of origin, communication language, or even political preferences. 

Memes became the foundation of the “new language” of the “SVO” era under these conditions. They became tired Russian propaganda clichés: “Where were you for 8 years when Donbas was bombed?” “We were left with no other choice”, “Not everything is so clear,” “We don’t know the whole truth,” “A gesture of goodwill,” and so on. 

Simultaneously, a true meme war has erupted in the domestic Russian information field between war supporters and critical citizens. “What happened?”, “Negative offensive” (a reaction to Russian army defeats), “Thanks to my son for the car” (similar to “Thanks to my grandfather for the victory,”) “No vobla” (“No to war,”) and other euphemisms are frequently used as ammunition in Internet wars. 

The Characteristics of Z-memes

  • Imposing modern contexts on Soviet agitprop products  
  • Reproduction of Soviet posters’ artistic compositions and slogans
  • “Self-criticism” is limited

To increase the regime’s adaptability to political upheaval, the Kremlin leaves few opportunities for “letting off steam.” The so-called non-systemic Telegram channels remain the last media platforms for expressing dissatisfaction with the government and satire. The elimination of public leaders of potential right-wing radical protests is a top priority for Kremlin technologists. However, the Russian security forces do not appear to see the meme protests of PMC supporters Wagner or Strelkov-Girkin as a significant threat.

The Use of Memes to Influence Foreign Audiences 

Memes’ “viral” nature makes them an ideal tool for broadcasting messages to international audiences. Russian bot farms and other “useful idiots” regularly inject narratives favourable to the Kremlin into the information space via the web of social media. A special emphasis is placed on Western audiences, as public opinion in Europe and the United States has the potential to significantly influence the amount of aid provided to Ukraine.    

The Most Popular Pro-Russian Political Memes: 

  • Discrediting Ukraine (the threat of Ukrainian “fascism,” “Ukraine is a US puppet”)
  • Ukrainian Armed Forces offensive “failure” (“it is impossible to defeat a nuclear power,” “all Western equipment will be destroyed”)
  • The West cannot afford the war (“Stop financing Ukraine at the expense of our taxes”)

Should We Scream or Cry?

In summary, we can reach the following conclusions:

  • The simplicity of the message, the emphasis on emotional response, and the contextualization of messages about current events are the main characteristics of memes as a communication format.
  • Russian political satire and memes adhere to well-established “laughing patterns.” The main images, compositional elements, and plots are inspired by Soviet anti-Western satire and anti-German propaganda from World War II. It is worth noting that images of German Nazis are frequently used to depict Ukrainians. 
  • Russian media frequently uses images from anonymous authors, blurring the traditional distinction between political cartoons and memes. As a result, despite strict censorship and control of the information space, there is a synthesis of laughter from both the top and bottom of Russian society. This technique allows propagandists to give the impression that the propaganda narratives illustrated by these cartoons-memes are “popular.”
  • Satire techniques are used to improve the Russian government’s image. To that end, Russian propaganda actively employs memes and caricatures to minimize the Kremlin’s failures while exaggerating Ukraine’s losses.
  • Russia is attempting to use Western social media to spread favorable narratives, particularly in the context of war. Memes, due to their rapid spread, are useful carriers of the necessary information, which is “sewn” into a visual image to discredit Ukraine.

Based on these findings, the authors make the following recommendations for countering Russian propaganda, particularly through memes and other visual images:

  1. Improve your media literacy. One of the key recommendations is to implement educational programmes that teach media literacy at all levels of education. Fact-checking, source analysis, recognising manipulative techniques, and the role of memes and cartoons in disinformation could all be covered in the programme. It is also critical to conduct public awareness campaigns aimed at increasing media literacy. Campaigns that teach critical thinking and information analysis skills can include videos, webinars, interactive trainings, and games.
  2. Active counter-propaganda (creation of positive myths). Ukraine has a long history of creating memes that expose flaws in Russian propaganda arguments and expose internal contradictions. The international online community NAFO is also involved in this conflict, and its activities should be expanded. It is critical to disseminate such content via social media and other platforms, as these are the primary channels for spreading Russian propaganda. 
  3. Collaboration with social media sites. It is critical to strengthen algorithms for detecting manipulative content in order to reduce the influence of Russian propaganda on social media platforms. In the social network “X” (formerly Twitter), for example, such a tool is the ability to add context notes to other people’s posts.