Killing time between protests — between December 10’s post-election rally and this weekend’s repeat performance — I have been reading Vladimir Putin comics.
That such a genre exists is amusing, but hardly surprising. Putin has been the subject of everything from pop songs to Chippendale-like wall calendars for much of the past decade. If his mock-heroics lend themselves to anything, it is surely the comic book format.
Super Putin, Man Like Any Other first emerged online in May and quickly gained a million-plus following, as well as the attention of Western media outlets. At the time, only one chapter had been completed: a bizarre mash-up of Speed and The Walking Dead in which Putin, a.k.a. Everyman, and his trusty sidekick Medvedev, who has the ability to transform into an iPad-carrying bear, battle a flesh-eating wave of protesters.
Instead of brains, these zombies cry for reform: “Free Khordokovsky! Let us elect governors! Give us NTV back!” The chapter ends with the tandem squaring off against a giant troll who — the allusions coming thick and fast in a narrative whose logic tends towards the arbitrary — may or may not be Alexey Navalny, the nationalist opposition blogger who will this attend this weekend’s protest after fifteen days in custody.
In the months since the first chapter appeared, three more have done so. In the second, Putin battles the troll using signature moves like “strengthening the [power] vertical”, before a Jabba the Hutt-like Yelena Bonner, “a level 85 dissident”, opens a portal allowing the troll to escape. Bonner and the troll proceed to formulate a plan to take over the Ostakino radio and television tower.
“Meanwhile,” a caption reads, “the tandem preserved stability …” Everyman and Medvedev the Bear are shown defending themselves against the zombie intelligentsia when reinforcements — headed by United Russia’s Boris Gryzlov and riding in on even more bears — arrive. The resultant allows the tandem to take off in a helicopter and make their way to a “Godzilla-breeding farm” that has been set up “for the defence of Russian territorial integrity from invasions”. They speak to a Vader-helmeted Boris Yelstin, who suggests they fight back with democracy, the torch of which he hands to Medvedev. “Only you can know what to do with it,” Putin admits. “Formally, you are our leader.”
There’s still plenty of bite in Vladimir Putin Action Comics. Taking their cue from Chuck Norris jokes — he’s not doing push-ups, but pushing the earth down — these give their titular character’s famous photo-ops a new, nastier spin. In “Right to Counsel” Putin tells a story. “Then this journalist said to us, ‘I’m not saying anything until my lawyer gets here,'” he begins. “And we were like, ‘Okay, alright, settle down, we’ll get your lawyer.” So we just threw his ass off the roof.”
In “Nashi Youth Rally“, he addresses a crowd: “Earlier today a small boy came up to me and said when he grew up he wanted to be president of Russia just like me. I was touched. And he was promptly arrested.”
Vladimir Putin Action Comics petered out about eight months ago — “I think the man himself may have murdered the author for his impudence,” one commenter suggested — but retained its satirical edge until the very end. If Super Putin has failed to do so, it’s worth pointing out that its creator, Sergei Kalenik, is Russian where the other comic’s, Sam Derse, is American, and as such ran greater risks.
These were not limited to the obvious — that the regime might get wind of the project and shut it down — but also included the obvious’s opposite: that the regime might actually like the comic’s depiction of them, and of their enemies. A satire on propaganda might be confused for the very thing it sought to ridicule.
This actually appears to have happened. While Kalenik told AgenceFrance-Presse in May that the strip was designed “to stir Russia’s depressing political scene and create some dialogue”, the wire service also quoted some internet users who were convinced the comic was a Kremlin-backed PR stunt and who took particular offense at the representation of the opposition. (“I think this is a stupid stunt paid for by Surkov!” said one, referring to the Kremlin’s chief ideologue, and the brains behind the country’s system of managed democracy, Vladislav Surkov.)
In October, Kalenik again denied that the comic was being bankrolled by the authorities, though he also admitted that the comic had received their tacit permission to exist. “There are rumours that it triggered a negative reaction among the administration at first,” Kalenik told Vice: “But then Putin and Medvedev read the comic, liked it and suggested to let us keep going.”
It wasn’t long before the Ostankino plot gave way to the Warcraft one and in November Kalenik appeared on state television with Medvedev, showing the outgoing president the comic and getting him to pledge, not that he would accept the torch of democracy, but rather that he would give World of Warcraft a crack when he got back home to his computer.
Something very similar happened with one of those aforementioned pop songs, A Man like Putin, which was conceived, not as satire, but as a cynical attempt to write a number one. Former “rock ‘n’ roll dissident” Alexander Yelin told PBS that he wrote the song in 2002 on a bet. “I bet $300 I could spin a hit without a big budget for videos and the rest,” he said.
After Putin gave the results the thumbs up — “I would like to meet the girls who sing it,” he told a press conference — it reached number one on the charts and was used extensively throughout his 2004 presidential re-election campaign. A Man like Putin did not set out to satirise propaganda, but rather to become it, and it did so for purely cynical, as opposed to ideologically pure, reasons. Yelin understood where Kalenik perhaps did not that any use of the prime minister’s public image, whether earnest and heartfelt or even satirical and ironic, could and most likely would be co-opted and put to work to official ends.
While Western media outlets like to post photo galleries and slideshows of the prime minister’s mock heroics as a way of making fun of him — “Can you believe they buy this shit?” they almost seem to be asking — it is worth pointing out that, for a long time, perhaps even until his announcement three months ago that he was planning to again run for the presidency, this image was accepted uncritically by great swathes of his country’s population.
Irina Kozlova and Yana Danieko, who sing A Man like Putin, told PBS’s Alexis Bloom that the prime minister “was not just their political leader. He was their ideal man.”There’s a reason the strongman image was cultivated in the first place, and that’s because people genuinely responded to it. It makes sense that the authorities should choose not to pursue those who satirise it, whose criticisms can be played down or ignored in the interest of in fact perpetuating it, or those who milk it for financial gain, whose success be milked for political gain in turn.
What is perhaps most striking about Super Putin and A Man like Putin, however, is how out-of-date they now seem in light of this month’s protests. There was never any truth to them, of course, but their phantasmatic power in the popular imagination was real. That no longer appears to be the case.
More than Kalenik’s black-belted crime-fighter or Yelin’s sensitive new-age guy, Putin increasingly resembles the self-absorbed hard-liner of Derse’s much more critical comic. Using last week’s annual televised call-in to petulantly berate the protesters and their aims, Putin came across as petulant and unrepentant at the exact moment when he should have been at least faking contrition. With Navalny back on the streets and organising — “these 15 days convinced me there is nothing to fear,” he told reporters upon his release yesterday, “let [the regime] be afraid instead” — the last thing a self-preserving prime minister would do is add to the protesters’ sense of injury. Unless, that is, the image he now wishes to co-opt is that of this year’s fallen tyrants.
I don’t think it is, of course, and despite his reckless insensitivity in the face of the protesters’ demands, my money nevertheless remains on his regime surviving this unrest intact. But it remains true that the image he has cultivated for a decade will not serve him any longer.
He now faces a choice between Derse’s Archer-like dictator — and that way lies more protests, and a gradual transformation into Bashar al-Assad — and some other model, as yet unknown, so far outside his natural range that to offer a prediction about what it might be would be to invite derision at a later date. The only thing that is certain is that Putin can no longer pretend to be A Man like Putin, because the definition of who such a man even is has so irrevocably changed in the public’s mind.
Just as the protesters in the streets to do not resemble Kalenik’s living dead, so Yelin’s lyrics sound more bitterly ironic today than they did only a month ago. “A man like Putin, who won’t run away” now suggests a president for life, who refuses to leave, ever.
*Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba, and will cover the presidential elections in Russia next year for Crikey