In Soviet Russia Memes & Me

thoughts on surveillance culture, memes, and the left

A few weeks ago, when my brain went in and out of a quarantine-induced panic fog, I couldn’t stop thinking about Russian Reversal jokes. I can’t help but think about being a fifteen-year-old soviet diaspora kid with little connection to my own roots laughing at jokes about the USSR. It felt like a fever dream of sorts to look back on, that weird period where the funniest thing to me was always something so oddly rooted in American exceptionalism and an anti-left perspective. Everyone at my school made the jokes, not just sharing memes that would go around about them, but actively in conversations.

This one made me lol. Some of the jokes honestly were funny but it is interesting to think of what Russian Reversal jokes and memes mean in the greater political context, both in their origin and now. I was in high school during the Obama era in the Bible Belt, everything in retrospect seemed to have some hidden ideological meaning of conservativism. Even as I look back on some of the things I used to laugh at online, I have to sit back with the reality that there is a huge portion of people who were very online during that era who are now people who hold fundamentally scary and violent ideologies close to their heart, literal fucking nazis. It’s insane the number of conversations I’ve had with people my age who talk about falling into a Reddit hole to stumble across something really racist, homophobic, or well you fill in the blocks really. I do think the Russian Reversal “In Soviet Russia” jokes were mostly made by boys I used to know who laughed online who grew up to be white supremacists.

It’s funny but when I actually unpack my emotions around the “In Soviet Russia” jokes (which have an origin that goes back to Bob Hope hosting the Oscars in 1958….I’m sure it shocks no one this joke originated during the Cold War) it’s mostly just fascination at what came after. The Russian Reversal jokes had a comeback during the Obama era in a way that didn’t at the time feel insidious or like it was leading to anything out of the ordinary. I feel like there are a lot of jokes or things that were shared online during the Obama era that looking back become incredibly uncomfortable. I suppose that is the nature of hindsight on the Internet though, you never know what joke, image, or thought will be shared beyond intention or warped for what purpose.

The “In Soviet Russia” jokes were the first joke (that existed both online and IRL) that I remember that were wildly normalized that specifically did poke at both geopolitical tensions but also an ideological conflict that was (and still is) deeply rooted in the American political landscape.

This one for example, even though definitely something I would have laughed at in 2010, from the viewing perspective has a lot of assumptions. There is the assumption for example that those viewing it live in a state that doesn’t hyper-surveil its citizens and it is obviously meant for an English-speaking audience, but I don’t know a single English-speaking country that hasn’t had an increase in surveillance technology to hyper-surveil its citizens. Well, for that matter, I can’t think of a single country that hasn’t in general. But in this case, the meme is focused on Russia, but specifically, Soviet Russia which says everything about what they’re really trying to say. They’re trying to imply that surveillance would only exist in the context of leftism, I mean obviously it’s all funny because it’s literally just a ton of cameras on a wall but so much is said in memes.

This meme that features Putin and “In Soviet Russia” which is on the Wikipedia page for Russian Reversal (love that) obviously isn’t talking about literal Soviet Russia that dissolved in 1991. I mean it’s not like people even pretended like they weren’t talking about Russia in the modern sense either, which makes sense because in the United States there still is an overall anti-Russian sentiment, partially due to the likelihood of Russian involvement in the 2016 election that is completely separate from the Cold War era sentiment. If anything, currently there is a stronger left-wing feeling in the United States than ever before, especially around young people. Memes have moved to the left and people don’t share “In Soviet Russia” memes anymore, which I’m personally pretty chill with, but I just have to think about how the “In Soviet Russia” memes represent weird American exceptionalism combined with some lowkey anti-left propaganda. We all know memes can be propaganda or very literal political pushing (hiya Bloomberg) but it’s odd to think of them as documentation of a historical moment and sentiment.

I suppose that’s why in quarantine I find myself all of a sudden obsessed with them because we truly are in a different political moment. Even though the American left movement is still figuring itself out after the fallout of Bernie Sander’s campaign (a good reminder that the left should always be more than just one candidate, just in the same way movements are made up of many people and not figureheads [ideally]), there are more people who are willing to identify with leftism in the United States than ever before. It’s fascinating to have grown up in a time where jokes about the USSR were regular conversation fodder, only to have a growing understanding of leftism in the United States outside of the Cold War teachings and what was fed to us during the Bush-era. Americans are starting to think for themselves and it shows in the memes. The memes are no longer as simple as some strange ideological re-pushing of the same garbage ideas that generations before us believed. I mean, meme pages are even unionizing, which I couldn’t have imagined happening in that early era of memes or even as recent as the 2016 election.

Of course, I’m talking about those on the Left. We know what happened to those who followed one forum down too many a Rabbit hole into conservative Reddit, 4chan, Tumblr (rest in peace you beautiful former home of queer youth that now is a hotbed for nazis) and I honestly don’t know what to do about them. I don’t know what to do about the Internet and the problem of extremism, how memes can be used to push harmful ideologies, and how to avoid it. I do know that memes can simultaneously be a force for educating the mass populations about healing, leftism, how to be a decent person, LGBTQIA+ issues, and building community. I do think the biggest lie told to my generation (I was born in 1995 for context) is that the Internet was automatically liberatory, that it would lead to more information and therefore more power to the people. There may be more information but we also know that the Internet is a hotbed for far-right extremism in a way that has had real human costs, and we also know that the data we actively give Internet platforms get used to sell us things against our will. The future wasn’t how we expected it but we can still determine what comes after this.

The meme above is made by meme creator Aiden Arata, it is an example of a left-leaning meme that critiques surveillance culture specifically focused on those with leftist views. It’s obviously a funny meme that implies that one should try to show off their best looks to the “webcam spy” (this is an overall internet joke at this point imo, which also shows the normalization of surveillance culture in our society) while also telling people to cover their webcams. It’s a great meme, funny, hilarious, beautiful, while also calls for a specific kind of action that is at once against the government to the left. I’m a huge fan of Aiden’s memes, so I’m going to end this little blog with the fact that I’m really glad I live in a time where people on the left are making memes and it isn’t just Russian Reversal memes, even though I’ll always think of them.