As a documentary subject, Astakhov appeals to both his directors as an embodiment of everything that is wrong with the Russian media in general, and the Russian media consumer in particular. In the description of his film on YouTube, Ulyanov writes:
Neither director is at all interested in considering the ethical dimensions of using Astakhov as a subject, since Astakhov himself made these videos public. Nor do they seem particularly concerned with the ramifications of their work for the disability community (though Ulyanov is quick to point out that new media has given shut-ins an unprecedented opportunity for public self-expression). Yet Astakhov’s apparent disability (whether defined neurologically or psychiatrically) is part of their overall point: his cognitive deficits are what allow the directors to critique the current Russian media/political environment.
For each of them, Astakhov is something of a limit case that clarifies the condition of a notional average Russian media consumer (one of the first things Astakhov says in Ulyanov’s film is “I like to watch Channel One.”) His blind faith in Russian state television and his ability to hold multiple, seemingly irreconcilable beliefs at once, are set up for the viewer as the proverbial mirror of satire (Gogol’s famous “Don’t blame the mirror if your mug’s on crooked”). Viewers are meant to recognize themselves (or, more likely, the neighbors they disdain) in Astakhov image. Mavromatti is usually less explicit on the matter than Ulyanov, but the fact that Mavromatti’s film debuted in a festival entitled “Signals: Everyday Propaganda” speaks volumes. These films attempt to expose the weakness and gullibility of the Russian viewing subject by suggesting that said subject is, by definition, an idiot. Ulyanov and Mavromatti assault the imagined Russian viewer through identification with a person who no one, presumably, would want to be.
Ulyanov calls Astakhov “defenseless” in the face of the media onslaught to which he willingly exposes himself everyday, thereby offering him up in support of the most simplistic model of propaganda:
In one interview, Olga Riabukhina asks Mavromatti point blank: “So you’re equating Astakhov and the new Russia that is being born right before our eyes?” (Вы ставите знак равенство между Астаховым и новой Россией, которая рождается на наших глазах?”) It should come as no surprise that Mavromatti answers in the affirmative.
Ulyanov and Mavromatti juxtapose Astakhov with the imagined television viewer in a manner that insults them both: Astakhov, in that every simile and metaphor used here completely deprives him of agency (when even Ulyanov had also recognized the power of YouTube precisely for self-expression), and the Russian “patriotic” viewer, who, in addition to his presumed passivity, is also implicitly being called an idiot. By denying viewers agency, Ulyanov and Mavromatti fall into the very trap that the imagines awaits the Russian media consumer: if there are messages in the media, their content is irrelevant and unworthy of evaluation. Instead, we pay attention only to the manner of presentation. It is the metadata, rather than the medium, that are the message.
On Wednesday: Words versus Bodies