From donkeys to private jets: a history of Russian political campaign ads

A summer of political campaign videos, banners and broadcasts will soon come to a close as Russians cast their votes in the parliamentary elections this weekend.

The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is currently made up of four parties: the pro-Kremlin behemoth United Russia, and three smaller opposition parties which provide a mere semblance of competition.

But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 1990s, after a period of political “opening up” and the subsequent fall of the USSR, there were more than 100 registered parties in Russia vying for the support of the people.

With everything to play for, politicians resorted to bizarre methods to attract voters, from cute cat animations to films depicting apocalyptic near-future scenarios.

So which were the strangest, and what do they tell us about the politics of the past 20 years?

1993: ‘Yes you do’ support Boris Yeltsin’s policies from-donkeys-to-private-jets

In April 1993 a referendum was called to ask Russians four questions on their confidence in President Boris Yeltsin, his socio-economic policies and whether early elections should be called.

The campaign slogan in support of Yelstin, rather crudely, instructed voters on exactly how they should mark their ballot: “Yes! Yes! No! Yes!” is all essentially all that this advert repeats, over and over.

1996: Grigory Yavlinskyenlists a tap-dancing professor

Grigory Yavlinsky’s 11-minute-long surreal campaign film featured a dancing police officer, a tap-dancing professor and a singing pilot, but it didn’t stop 5.5 million people from voting for him.

Despite his popularity, it wasn’t enough to get the liberal opposition candidate into the runoff vote against Boris Yeltsin, who won the vote and kept his job as Russian president.

2000: Yavlinsky take 2 – Soviet scare tactics

Four years after trying to win over voters with his musical campaign, Yavlinsky tried another approach with three videos recycling the same theme in different nightmarish near-future scenarios. In one version two prisoners sit in what appears to be a post-Soviet gulag, in another soldiers dodge bullets from unseen enemy, and in the final instalment a man and woman wait in a panicked food line.

In every setting, one person asks the other who they voted for in the recent election. “I should have voted for the economist – that Yavlinsky fellow,” is the reply.

As direct as the ads were, they couldn’t resuscitate Yavlinsky’s political career. He got 1.2m fewer votes than in 1996, and Putin won his first presidential election with ease.

2003: The ‘young reformers’ and their private jets

Featuring Russia’s “young reformer” politicians of the 1990s, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) released an advert showing Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada on a luxury jet, deep in discussion while typing on a laptop.

The video was meant to emphasise the “personal success” of the party’s leadership, but Russians mocked the film for demonstrating the candidates’ wealth and alienation from ordinary voters.

In 1999, the SPS entered the Duma as the parliament’s fourth-largest party with 29 seats. In the 2003 election, however, it only narrowly remained, winning just three seats. In 2008, a year after failing to win any seats, the party formally disbanded.

2005: Xenophobic campaigning

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