At the Well blog


Fan communities drive cultural change in Russia

Fan communities on social media create representations of sexuality that are alternative to mainstream culture and disregard norms and laws, writes Saara Ratilainen, a bold research fellow, who has studied young internet users in Russia.

In my research, I have analysed Russian culture, particularly in the context of online communication. The sharing of content between internet users on various forums creates a diverse context for the production and reception of culture, and it is through these channels that Russian culture reaches an entirely new level of globalisation.

Young people and sexuality are often opportune targets for media scandals in which young women, in particular, are portrayed as objects of disciplinary actions. At the same time, fan communities on social media are in the process of constructing a new kind of media culture that blends mainstream gender norms with representations of sexuality; this becomes an arena of creativity and experimentation. Fan communities create spaces for alternative representations of sexuality that transcend national and cultural borders.

I have been particularly interested in amateur videos, their reception in different communities of media users, and their significance to how Russian culture is generally perceived. What types of meanings do we in Russian studies give to media users, on the one hand, and to international and global cultural phenomena, on the other?

In Russia, as everywhere else, media is used mundanely for a variety of purposes. The majority of consumed content does not fall within the sphere of direct political control, even if the content deals with topics that are marginalised through legislation in an attempt at restriction. An example of this is the ”portrayal of non-traditional sexuality to minors” adopted as the so-called ”gay propaganda law” and signed into effect by president Putin in 2013. This piece of legislation functions to institutionalise and legitimise homophobia in modern Russia.

The twerking scandal and its punishments

The many media scandals connected to young people and sexuality serve to convey an alternative view. From this approach, any representations of sexuality that run against the norm carry severe consequences. An example of this is the so-called twerk scandal from just over two years ago. The scandal began when a video shot at the spring showcase of a dance school in Orenburg in southern Russia was uploaded anonymously to YouTube. The video shows teenage girls dressed in black and orange, colours reminiscent of the ribbon of St. George, today the most famous symbol of Russian patriotism, twerking to the tune of fast-paced reggaeton music on the stage of a local culture centre. One week later, a new dance video surfaced on YouTube of young women performing a dance containing twerk moves at a World War II monument in the city of Novorossiysk. In the following months, several more videos of young women twerking at symbolically significant locations across Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok, were distributed through social media.

Local authorities in both Orenburg and Novorossiysk reacted harshly to the videos. Charges were filed against the dance school for violations against minors, and a few of the dancers on the video were sentenced to prison for hooliganism. The twerk videos also launched a months-long media discussion and moral panic that revolved around patriotic values, in general, and the sexual upbringing of young women, in particular.

Through this discourse of scandal initiated by twerking teenage girls, the double standards dominant in society are easily revealed. The prevailing portrayal of women in media and popular culture as hypersexualised representations effectively limits the role of women in society to mainly biological functions – either childbirth or sexual gratification produced for the male viewer. In the context of advertising, a hypersexualised woman is comparable to a commodity.

The moral panic was clearly linked to young women taking such representations into their own hands and using them from their own perspective. This moral panic is, therefore, an attempt by various sectors of society to revert symbolic power to the system that governs and controls the sexuality of young women.

Popular culture and experimental sexuality online

Despite the above, I believe that too much focus on scandals in media and cultural studies restricts our understanding of Russia and exaggerates the role of state control. At times, it is more interesting to examine media productions that are less scandalous or lesser-known but very popular and influential among certain audiences. Through them, we can see, for example, how young people deal with values related to gender norms and sexuality without the presumption that they will be suppressed, punished, or shamed for sexuality that is ”non-traditional” or crosses norms.

From this starting point, I have analysed the amateur series Stervotški, which has risen to cult fame among young internet users. It is based on videos shot by young internet users themselves, in which they create content through a dialogue between local and global cultural influences, for instance, international crime dramas and soap operas. Amateur video production also makes it possible to break the conventions of mainstream media in a culturally identifiable way. Online amateur culture is also built with the help of an active and visible fan community. As an active online community, the makers and fans of Stervotški can be compared to other areas of amateur culture that have developed online, such as literary fan fiction.

According to Natalia Samutina, who has researched the Harry Potter fan community in Russia, fan fiction has the potential to produce different tools of expression for the depiction of feelings and desires, thus making the members of the fan community more tolerant of accepting different forms of sexuality. She goes on to state that, as a result of fan fiction, Russia has seen the spread of so-called slash stories, in which two same-sex characters from popular culture are portrayed as the couple of a romantic or erotic story.

In general, it appears that the Stervotški series contains plenty of sex, by request of the fan community. In the discussion threads on the series fan page, plot suggestions for homosexual relationships are prominently featured, and sex and romance involving the lead women are especially desired. In the series’ fourth season, one of the main female characters, Marina, does indeed have a relationship with another young woman, Nadja. Afterwards, Marina is confused and wants to continue their relationship ”just as friends”.

Although a plot line dealing with homosexual love is not developed to its full potential in Stervotški, like in Harry Potter fan fiction, it broadens the space for the representation of sexuality in Russian-speaking popular culture and demonstrates that young Russian internet users can process the theme of homosexuality without clinging to the judgmental or stigmatising discourse produced by conservative mainstream media. Among popular culture fan communities, sexuality is an area for processing feelings and using imagination.

Sexual awakening and the transnational message of love

In my opinion, twerk videos, slash fan fiction and the Stervotški series are all, in their own ways, portrayals of that phase of life during which teenagers experience a sexual awakening. In connection with sexual awakening, young people contemplate different alternatives of sexuality as part of their identity process as they discover their place in the world. Sexual awakening also holds societal and cultural importance, as young people become independent and recognise themselves as autonomic agents by identifying their internal desires and including them as part of a personal social reality.

An important addition to the study of Russian fan and teen culture would, therefore, be the analysis of texts in which the sex lives of teenagers and their feelings of romantic love are a central theme of the original text. This would be in contrast to being included as a footnote or a subplot, as is the case, for example, in Harry Potter and Stervotški, where young actors portray older characters.

An opportunity for this is presented by the Norwegian teen series Skam, which has an extensive and dedicated Russian-speaking fan community. Skam, of course, is produced not by amateurs but by the Norwegian public broadcasting company. With its fan community on social media, however, it broadens to a transnational field of civic creativity and thought exchange.

Russian-speaking fans of Skam are an active part of the series’ international community. For example, in the comments section of a YouTube video produced by the Norwegian public broadcast company, in addition to comments written in English, the ”lingua franca of fans”, there are comment threads by Russian-speaking fans. This indicates that despite a language barrier of some degree, Russian fans have integrated into discussions that take place on global platforms. At the same time, they participate in the formation of an excited discourse that praises the diversity of love and sexuality. On VKontakte, the national platform known as the Russian Facebook, discussions on the series also follow the style of the international fan community, and there are no references to, for example, the Russian gay propaganda law, even as one of the central plots of the series follows the romantic relationship between two sixth-form boys Isak and Even.

Communication between fans also draws parallels between international and national contexts. For example, the Skam fan page on VKontakte celebrated Norway’s National Day on 17 May, which coincides with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. This was emphasised by a picture of the Norwegian flag embedded with a screen capture of Isak and Even kissing. About a week earlier on 9 May, the forum had celebrated Victory Day, the most important Russian state holiday, with a picture of the ribbon of St. George and a bunch of red carnations, which suggests that Russian patriotism and sexual tolerance are not mutually exclusive values in online fan communities. However, the birthday of the site’s administrator was again marked with a picture of Isak and Even who have, as a result of communication among the community, grown into a symbol of love and mutual respect among people.


Saara Ratilainen

The author is a research fellow specialised in Russian culture and media at the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki. Her research project Global Information Economy and Creative Online Communities in Russia has received funding from Kone Foundation.