OPINION: Why you can’t get enough of those bizarre videos from Russia

Trolls and YouTubers alike may love to laugh at the neverending series of fails, but it reveals a lot more about Russian-Western relations than first meets the eye.

Fail videos – you can’t be a permanent resident of social media (especially YouTube) without tripping over them at least once in a while. For some, they’re a sign of everything wrong with the human race (along with reality TV or the Darwin Awards). For others, they’re an endlessly regenerating parade of laughs and incredulity. 

But pay attention and you’ll notice a subgenre that has proved particularly enduring: collections of Russian fails, typically between eight and twelve minutes in length, often under the labels We Love Russia or Meanwhile, In Russia…

Technically, the Meanwhile In Russia… meme predates YouTube (starting life as Meanwhile In Soviet Russia), but it’s We Love Russia that’s been cemented in the online pantheon. Uploaded by user TwisterNederland in 2012, the original post opens with a number of images that’ve gone on to be archetypes of the genre: backlogged sanitation, trucks overloaded onto three wheels, drunks struggling across freeways, youth (usually young men) jumping from buildings, animals strapped to the tops of cars. 

It’s no accident that many of this footage is taken from moving vehicles. Regulations put forward in 2009 by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs removed a number of barriers to mounting dash cams and ensured that they would become a fixture across the country. While they were ostensibly to create reliable evidence in case of traffic incidents or disputes (two years prior to the legislation, WHO released statistics claiming there were 35,972 road fatalities in 2007 in Russia, or 25.2 deaths per 100,000 people), they ended up creating an endless supply of material for savvy YouTubers.

And it became a hit – other YouTube creators appropriated the brand and posted a number of We Love Russia compilations every year, breathing life back into the broader Meanwhile In Russia… meme. 

2013 was the year that major media outlets started cashing in on the trend. Buzzfeed (in collaboration with CNN, no less) ran clickbait entries like “This Video is Definite Proof That There’s Never A Dull Moment In Russia,” claiming that “at any given time something really unusual is unlikely happening in Russia.” The Calvert Journal, a prominent, millennial-run publication focusing on the “New East”, wrote hip think pieces on the topic. The Washington Post prefaced serious news pieces with “Meanwhile, in Russia…” to garner clicks (fast-forward to 2019 for the same outlet dropping podcasts under the title “Meanwhile, in the Mueller Report”).

Russia was, as it were, enjoying a moment of fetishization and bro-worship. In the final years before the Ukrainian crisis redefined relations with the West, Russia was seen as something of a slightly unhinged, but mostly beloved uncle. The kind that would introduce his nieces and nephews to hard liquor and take them on adventures. He was the opposite of your awkward, wealthy and decidedly uptight parents. 

This was the promise held out by these compilations and listicles: a crazy, “Wild Wild East” that offered thrills and freedoms that the West had long forsaken on the road for stability and prosperity. And, best of all, it could rub off on you – take famous stand-up routines like Bert Kreischer’s ‘The Machine’ (made popular in 2016 while dating back to 2011) and Dan Soder’s ‘Russians Are The Scariest White People’ (2013). Both men, due to their contact with “those crazy Russians”, were seen as braver, bolder, more badass. 

And the brand here really was (and is) badassery. It was a rejection of a hyper-sanitized, cosmopolitan vision, both monocultural and decidedly liberal. It was decidedly unhipster and had none of the irony that more ‘cultured’ humour outlets were pushing at the turn of the decade. It was the epitome of what Virginia Woolf thought she saw in Dostoevsky: 

“Indeed, it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction… It is formless. It has slight connection with the intellect. It is confused, diffuse, tumultuous… Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.”

Dash cam compilations, as it were, had evolved into the latest opportunity for the West to fetishize the notorious Russian soul. And this was only possible because of what YouTube couldn’t show. 

The fails praised by European and North American teens for being the real thing were themselves, ironically, sanitized versions of what actual encounters on the Russian road looked like. For that, you would have to explore the decidedly unregulated video channels of RuNet. While crashes or drunkenness or would-be-fights were played up for laughs on YouTube, the uncensored Russian versions didn’t cut away. Men beat each other to a pulp with metal bars. Cars rammed into eighteen-wheelers and dissolved into particle clouds. People caught fire. 

We Love Russia, as a concept, was only possible because it maintained the illusion that Russia was a land where danger is always possible, but never really leaves a scar. Not unlike a video game, Narnia or an episode of Star Wars. 

But this, while damning, isn’t the whole story. Even with the commodification of traffic incidents, infrastructural lapses and moments of gusto, there were often jarring, even moving moments that broke through. While most compilations were designed with a juvenile, male audience in mind, certain clips didn’t necessarily fit into those parameters. Affection between local daredevils was sometimes stark and uncomfortable. Young women, instead of standing back and cheering their men, found ways of getting into ingenious trouble. Babushkas bared their teeth.

And that’s all without mentioning the day dash cams broke through the glass ceiling and were shown on repeat all over the world: Friday, February 15th, 2013, when dozens of cameras, from all conceivable angles, caught sight of a meteor crashing through over the Chelyabinsk region. This was a boon for Western russophiles and russo-fetishists alike, for what could be more indicative of the Russian soul than a set of provincial nobodies looking up to heaven in fear and awe at something they couldn’t, at that moment, understand or control? 

But, ignoring all that radio buzz, there was something else that the Chelyabinsk incident brought home. Namely, that these videos aren’t a joke – these are slices of people’s ordinary lives, taken at extraordinary moments. On that day, it was the dash cam which united people, online and in analogue, and produced the unofficial (and perhaps only) masterpiece of the genre. 

Trends change with time, of course. The fail reels lost much of their lustre after both the Ukrainian crisis and the 2016 American elections prompted the return of Russia to Public Enemy №1. The most recent viral videos, such as last year’s Satisfaction clip and its many parodies, are much closer to the style of cosmopolitan hits like the Ice Bucket Challenge or Harlem Shake. 

But while they may not have the same cultural cachet as they did from 2012-2014, Russian dash cam reels are still being produced to this day. People still get into traffic jams and fights, cameras still record them, and unnamed curators edit them into 10-minute clips. Whether they’re seen as an expression of the Russian soul, or as snapshots from lives as distant and complex as one’s own, is a decision left up to whoever it is that’s out there, still watching. 

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