The TV vs the fridge: A Russian joke shows why Putin's propaganda isn't working on his own people

  • Ordinary Russians joke that watching Putin’s propaganda is like seeing a “battle between the TV set and the fridge.”
  • The idea is that the Kremlin keeps lauding Russia’s greatness on TV, while fridges remain empty because the country’s economy is so bad.
  • Olga Ivshina, a BBC journalist in Russia, repeated the joke while explaining Russia’s efforts to deny involvement in the Sergei Skripal attack.
  • The Russian economy has been hit by multiple international sanctions, falling oil prices, and a weak ruble.

A joke circulating among ordinary Russians about government propaganda shows how Putin can struggle to win over his own people: they say life is like watching “a battle between the TV set and the fridge.”

Here’s how it goes: Russia’s sanction-ridden economy is weak and it’s hard to get what you want in stores, resulting in empty fridges.

Meanwhile, state media continues to show propaganda lauding Russia’s strength in the world – so people don’t know what to believe.

The joke was repeated recently by Olga Ivshina, a BBC correspondent in Russia, on the “The World This Week.”

She said:

“Ordinary people feel that their lives are becoming less and less easy, and to support Putin they need a very strong narrative.

“As many people in Russia joke, there is a battle between the TV set and the fridge. The fridge reminds you that things are not that good, but the TV set says: ‘No, it’s all good, it’s all mighty, we’re back on the international agenda, we are strong, we are a great power.’

“But the fridge is saying: ‘We may be a great power, but we are empty.'”

The joke anecdote is well-known among Russians and Russia-watchers, and has been mentioned in articles by Foreign Policy and Russia’s Novaya Gazeta.

It’s taken on a new significance as Russia’s diplomatic conflict with the West intensifies, and new economic sanctions loom.

Putin often frames Russia as a nation standing up against hostile Western countries.

Ivshina said: “Since 2014, Russian state TV has been portraying Russia as a besieged fortress, and [Moscow as] the only capital in the world standing against the western conspiracy and fighting for the truth.”

“Putin’s approval rating heavily relies on the narrative that Russia is fighting against the West,” she added.

Last month, the Russian President warned foreign countries as he unveiled a new range of nuclear weapons: “You have failed to contain Russia.”

Despite Putin’s bravado, Russia is suffering economically due to international sanctions, diving oil prices – a major part of the country’s export economy – and a weakening currency.

The EU and US have levied heavy sanctions on Moscow since 2014 over its efforts to annex Crimea, aggression toward Ukraine, and cyber crime.

The US has threatened to impose new sanctions on Russia to retaliate for its support for the Syrian regime, but that plan has yet to come into fruition.

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