Astakhov Sergii and The Idiot Box

Critics of the media scene in Russia today, where the state’s grip on the largest media outlet has grown stronger and more obviously in the past few years,  posit an imaginary Russian media consumer, a post-Soviet couch potato whose gullibility helps the regime ruin the country.  Hence the frequent accusation that so-called “patriots” and the majority of the population that allegedly supports Putin are victims of zombification, an accusation that Putinists in turn, hurl at the supporters of Maidan (essentially conflating crowds at a street protest with the proverbial zombie hordes).  In both cases, the primary tool for zombification is said to be television, the “zombie box” (зомбоящик), which is the Russian equivalent of the boob tube. 

The critique of the zombified television audience is a revolution that will, in fact, be televised.  It is not just the material produced on state television (whether in Russia or Ukraine) that justifies the zombification paradigm; it is the videos that viewers make of themselves for YouTube that are invoked as evidence of the zombie box’s power.  In the past few years, the zombified viewer has  has taken on a specific face: the video blogger turned cult figure who refers to himself as “Astakhov Sergii.” 

“Astakhov Sergii”, a Muscovite in his early thirties, has been posting videos to his YouTube Channel since July 2010.Though his video archive is an object lesson in the perils of bad metadata (six videos in a row bear the title “My new Russian Orthodox video,”  by 2013, he was accumulating viewers through both YouTube and VK, becoming one of the Russian Internet’s most famous “фрики” (freaks). That same year, Antaloly Ulyanov related a 20-minute documentary compiled from Astakhov’s clips, under the inevitable name “My New Russian Orthodox Video.” Whatever else one might think of Ulyanov’s work, this distillation of more than 200 videos is something of a service to viewers, in that it functions as a “greatest hits” reel.

Astakhov describes himself as an “invalid,” referring casually to his “many physical and psychiatric diagnoses” (most of which remain unnamed).  Kinder viewers have speculated that he might be schizophrenic, or that he falls somewhere on the autism spectrum (less charitable commentators choose from a variety of insulting epithets).  

Ulyanov’s video (along with a more recent documentary  called “Дуракам здесь не место” (No Country for Fools) by Oleg Mavromatti) are careful to show some of Astakhov’s more amusing and idiosyncratic behaviors (dancing nearly naked, kissing the computer screen, talking about his favorite foods ad nauseum), many of which would be familiar or at least legible to people who have watched some of the many autobiographical videos of neurodiversity that YouTube facilitates.

But both Ulyanov and Mavromatti are particularly taken by Astakhov’s discussion of religion, politics, patriotism, and sexuality, which vary from the oddly profound to a confusing word salad in the course of under a minute.  In one breath, Astakhov will refer to himself as a “Russian Orthodox Patriot” who demands the elimination of “sodomy” and “gays” from his motherland, yet who refers to his own sexuality by explaining that he “understands men” because “he herself is  a man” (потому что я сама мужчина). 

Next: Can the Zombie Subaltern Speak?