Soft Power: cats, branding and the Ukrainian far right8 min read
“There are three secrets to successfully interviewing gangsters,” declared the keynote speaker. “First, convince them your work is irrelevant. You’re an academic, that’s usually not too hard”. “Second”, he continued, “is alcohol. If you can hold your drink, you’ll usually win respect and get them to talk”. And the third trick: “Have a cute dog”. I was attending my first major political science conference since starting a PhD. Three days packed with panel discussions, roundtables, keynotes and fried breakfasts to really get my teeth into. As a relative newcomer to the field I was more than keen to soak up any drops of wisdom that those who’ve been in the game for a while had to offer. But something about his advice didn’t quite sit right with me.
The next day, I managed to chat to the speaker during a coffee break, seizing the opportunity to pose the question that no doubt half the conference had also lost sleep over. “Those three secrets you mentioned last night”, I started. “I’ve got plenty of colleagues who would agree my work is largely irrelevant, and, to be fair they’d have even less qualms about vouching for me on the alcohol front as well. But as for the third… does it have to be a dog? Because I have a cat instead”. He looked at me with a concerned expression. Was he imagining yet another academic career disintegrate before his very eyes on account of a critical flaw in the ontological and epistemological foundations of its protagonist? After a brief discussion of my research dilemma, I was eventually reassured that my pet’s failure to be a dog would in fact prove less of an obstacle to my career aspirations than my limited networking skills. I offered my thanks and left him to enjoy the rest of the conference.
Cool for Cats?
But this got me thinking. What if academic researchers were not the only ones employing their beloved pets to engage people they otherwise have little or nothing in common with? We only need to go back to last year when The Guardian drew attention to right wing Italian PM Matteo Salvini’s posting pictures of cute cats on his Facebook page to distract from his less than cuddly approach to immigration. However, Salvini is more of a copycat than trendsetter in this regard, as Front National leader Marine Le Pen began blogging about her own kittens in 2016 to demonstrate a softer side to her anti-Muslim views. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders leader of the Far-right Party for Freedom went one step further, opening an Instagram account for his two cats ‘Snouty and Fluffy’, which quickly gained over 9,000 followers and raised serious questions about what actually constitutes news. And what about Mostik, the Crimean stray who not only became the endearing face of illegal annexation, but also upstaged Vladimir Putin in a feelgood Russian propaganda campaign after being adopted by Russian construction workers in the Kerch Strait? Mostik had no intention of waiting for Putin to arrive at the official opening of a controversial new bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland, brazenly stroll across it ahead of the Russian President. Yet, in stark contrast to the disdain met by fellow disobedient felines Pussy Riot, calls for one of the unofficial supervisor’s nine lives to be seen out in a Siberian jail were not forthcoming.
So, why cats? Contrary to the mantra that ‘no publicity is bad publicity’, even more extreme far-right groups like Ukraine’s Azov Battalion take exception to being called Nazis or fascists. It’s simply not good for business. And whilst playing with ambiguous symbology may earn populists and the far-right a degree of denial plausibility, cats exist alongside other farmyard animals as a key feature of much larger and increasingly sophisticated ecosystems utilised to build and promote brands that sell. Azov in particular, and their affiliated political party National Corpus, have demonstrated a keen eye for branding, based around their headquarters in the heart of Kyiv. After starting life in 2016 as a squat, ‘Cossack House’ now offers members free sports facilities, English lessons, a cinema club, hosts lectures on far-right ideology and provides a base for associated literature club ‘Plomin’. In short, it’s a whole sub-community promising that ‘Tomorrow the world will either belong to us, or no one’, with young ‘Azovets’ also offered the chance to join summer camps preparing them for a life of patriotism and combat. Yet a cursory glance at Plomin’s Instagram account shows that even photos of attractive girls posing with nationalist reading material can’t hope to rack up as many likes as snaps of sleepy cats snoozing next to those same publications.
One of the major challenges in studying the far-right in Ukraine is the fine line between patriotism and nationalism, which groups like Azov are skilled at treading. Taking its name from the sea separating the annexed peninsula of Crimea from the Russian Federation, Azov initially comprised of volunteers from the sieged port city of Mariupol, which it successfully fought to protect from Russian invasion. Accusations of sympathy for Nazis or allegiance to neo-pagan religious cults do little to detract from their effectiveness as a line of defence against Russian advances in the East. Is it therefore any surprise that Azov’s image of brave warriors repelling the enemy from the homeland has, at the very least, earned them the kind respect amongst certain sectors of Ukrainian society that allows them to get away with a little bit of ideological dubiousness? But even if it could be argued that wearing one of their stylishly designed t-shirts around town is not quite the same as waving a swastika flag or making Nazi salutes, which Azov members have been also been seen to do, then where should the line be drawn? As it turns out, the picture is not so simple.
Take Lviv’s Kryjivka restaurant, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Western Ukrainian city and proudly located in a former hideout of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose controversial wartime Nazi connections are frequently pointed out by both the Russian and Western media. The establishment’s appeal is down to a theatrical and slightly tongue-in-cheek take on Ukrainian nationalism, which begins before even entering the door. Visitors are required to use the ‘secret’ password ‘Slava Ukraini’ (‘Glory to Ukraine’ in English) to gain entrance to the Aladdin’s cave of wartime memorabilia where they can enjoy generous servings of borsch and take advantage of the opportunity to fire guns at pictures of Lenin and Stalin, all while swigging on a bottle of award-winning locally produced ale ‘Putin Huilo’ (‘Putin is a Dickhead’). Yet until the events of Euromaidan in 2013/14, with Kryjivka as a notable exception, ‘Slava Ukraini’, and the expected response ‘Heroim Slava’ (Glory to the Heroes) were still most commonly associated with the far-right. Since then the salutation has undergone something of a makeover, re-emerging as a statement of defiance in the face of Russian aggression. Continually returning to impassioned debates about ‘Slava Ukraini’’s highly- disputed origins is at best unproductive. However, it is worth considering the knock-on effect that adopting slogans far-right nationalists remain very fond of into official practices might have on legitimising other less desirable features of their brand philosophy.
And so, in a moment of inspired procrastination, I decided to heed the advice I’d received at the conference and, just like Geert Wilders before me, created an Instagram account for my cat. Rescued from the streets of Amman, and now happily dwelling in the EU, my furniture scratching brown-eyed companion recently used the platform to congratulate her followers on the occasions of Eid and Ukrainian Independence Day. So, it came as something of a surprise when putting the finishing touches to this blog that she’d attracted one particular new follower. ‘Right Comp’, an online store selling an impressively broad selection of black and red mugs, baseball caps, fridge magnets, pens and more, all marked with the unmistakable Tryzub logo of Ukrainian far-right group Pravy Sektor. Their merchandise looks much more professionally produced than the rather amateurish children’s rucksacks helpfully described as ideal icebreakers or perfect fathers’ day gifts still available on amazon.co.uk. But, despite Right Comp’s claim that their gear is all you need to be stylish, Ukrainians casually browsing the internet for the latest Azov Battalion t-shirt with the aid of a Pravy Sektor wireless mouse are very much in the minority. However, if even my unsuspecting cat can be targeted by the marketing departments of militant nationalists, is it any surprise that a cuddlier, fluffier version of the far-right could seduce people into thinking they’re actually quite tame.
FATIGUE project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under grant agreement No. 765224.