Vladimir Putin: The Man and the Meme

Few world leaders are as easily recognizable as Russian President Vladimir Putin.  His unique looks, as well as his antics, have made him a favorite subject for many silly jokes and memes on the internet, which I will post here for your enjoyment.


Meanwhile in Russia…

The first image which should come into your head if you’re thinking about Putin, or Russia in general, is of course the President riding a bear.  If riding bears isn’t impressive enough for you, he also has been photographed riding sharks, eagles, meteors, whales, mammoths, skydivers, and ICBM’s.  I suppose when he isn’t busy trying to mount some of the deadliest animals or objects known to mankind he sometimes finds the time to ride his motorized tricycle around Moscow.article-0-0DA0177300000578-915_634x449tumblr_kuxr34jtOb1qzeu38o1_400


I think that’s Russian for ahsdufuhsabedb

People complain about Russia’s obstinate negotiating strategies, but Putin must care deeply about what the rest of the world thinks of him  judging from the notes he was jotting down during recent talks over the civil unrest in Ukraine.


Putin on the Ritz

I wonder if Putin realizes that he has become such an internet phenomenon?  If he did, then maybe it would make him happy to be so well loved across the world and Russia would become a much more welcoming and less staunchly conservative place.  Even though he might not get the reference, how could he not smile at this?

Putin will undoubtedly be riding high into Russia’s 2016 national elections, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of Vladimir’s hi jinks before its all said and done and the internet will be there, waiting intently for the next meme-worthy moment to transform it into comic gold. ae6a3220-7269-0131-c44f-4e3b4eb21dea

The Island: Unique, Yet Strangely Familiar

The Monastery

The Monastery where most of the action of “The Island” takes place.

Pavel Lungin’s The Island or in Russian: Oстров (2006) is the tale of a Russian holy man named Anatoly (Petyr Mamonov) who works as the stoker at a monastery on an unidentified and barren Northern Russian coast.  The movie begins with Anatoly and his commanding officer Tikhon (younger version played by Aleksei Zelensky) working aboard a Soviet coal barge during World War II.  The Germans capture their ship and give Anatoly two options: either shoot his commander or be shot.  In a fit of cowardice Anatoly shoots Tikhon, who falls overboard.  The Nazis then leave Anatoly to die on a nearby island, but a small cloister of monks rescue him and he lives with them for the remainder of the movie.

Thirty years later Anatoly has converted and still lives with the monks, but does not live in the prescribed monastic lifestyle.  He sleeps in the coal, never bathes, and constantly works with laypeople from around the region – giving prophecies, healing people, and performing exorcisms.  Despite this, his guilty conscience consumes him, driving him nearly to madness and forcing him to row out and pray alone on an abandoned island near the monastery.

While this does not seem like a recipe for excitement: with just a single setting, muted colors, dim lighting, and several middle aged men living together, the film manages to combine an intense psychological drama with a truly inspiring story of faith and forgiveness into a masterpiece of cinema.  Indeed, the film has won several  awards including “Best film” at the 2006 Moscow Premiere festival, “Best film” at the 2007 Chinese Golden Eagle Awards, and “Best picture” at Russia’s most prestigious award ceremony, the Nika Awards in 2007.

Petyr Mamonov

Petyr Mamonov as Father Anatoly

Of course, the film has some highly religious themes and seems to really resonate with Christians of all denominations including this Catholic blogger, The Rad Trad, who praises the film’s portrayal of a “fool for Christ”; however, I believe the film’s brilliance lies in the universality of its message and the outstanding performances of the actors.  Petyr Mamonov (a truly remarkable artist, here is a good article about him) provides a blend of ridiculous humor and serious dialogue in his performance as Father Anatoly, without which the film likely would not have worked at all.  Supporting actors include Viktor Sukhorukov and Dmitrii Diuzhev, famous for their roles in the Russian gangster films Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000).

The Island presents all the ironies of the nominally atheist Soviet state along with those of Christianity in a way which any viewer can understand, and does it all without dragging the plot or getting too preachy.  I highly recommend it even to those who don’t know Russian, its subtle beauty and award winning performances by the actors are well worth seeing for anyone.  Best of all, the film can be found with English subtitles for free on Youtube.




From Compton to the Kremlin: hip hop’s presence in Russia

Ever since my cousin introduced me to Mos Def when I was 13, I’ve had an obsession for hip hop.  I listen to all the greats from the 80’s and 90’s, some from the 00’s, and remain on the lookout for new talent coming around today.  Although I love the genre, my perspective has always been limited to American rappers, because I never believed that anyone could do hip hop justice outside the U.S. of A.  Little did I know, there exists a thriving hip hop subculture in a place where I least expected, the vast expanse that is Russia.

Dino MC 47

The Russian Hip Hop group Dino MC 47, infamous for denouncing the Russian government after two suicide bombers killed 40 in Moscow in 2010

Now, just because you exist does not necessarily mean you’re out there throwing down fresh rhymes, and that goes for all rappers everywhere.  So admittedly I was skeptical of these Russian upstarts.  After all, my favorite rappers usually hail from the deadly streets of Compton, CA or the run down projects of Brooklyn, NY.  Could Russian rappers ever hope to channel the same level of swagger, angst, and danger that MC’s like Biggie Smalls did?

That’s probably not a fair comparison for anyone, but guys like Artyom Tatischevsky  out of the Samara region in Russia have caught my attention.  His beats are chill, he has a nice flow, and his poetry (as far as I can tell) comments on the struggle of being a rapper in Russia today.  He’s aware that he isn’t big, but he’s not afraid to take bold shots at the musical tastes of the pop music loving majority in his track “Titmice Sang”:


Timati, an international pop culture icon just following the trends.

MC’s like Artyom are undiscovered.  He does’t have his own website, but instead uses the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte to advertise his upcoming albums and performances.  He doesn’t get a lot of media attention, but he is honest about his roots and about his opinion of society, and for that he has my respect.

On the other hand, there are a whole slew of rappers in Russia who seem to be doing their best to emulate the direction which hip hop has been going in the U.S.  These guys are all about the money, women, cars, and clubs – they are widely known in Russia and abroad.  Timati has his own website and has done songs with several American rappers including Long Beach’s own Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion).  He appears in articles for popular networks such as MTV, and appears to be interested in branding himself as some sort of russified P. Diddy.

Hip hop is clearly still in its early stages of development in Russia, but Vladimir Putin himself publicly recognized its importance when he addressed a crowd of youths at a rap battle meant to discourage drug use:

“These youngsters who work at this art in our country – they bring unique Russian charm.  Street rap may be a little bit rough, but it contains social meaning, raising social problems.”

While this statement is probably more meant to rescue Putin’s approval ratings than to express his actual feelings about hip hop, I agree with the gist of what he is saying.  Hip hop began in America as a way for the underprivileged, the forgotten, and the angry to voice their perspective on life and produced what is some of the most visceral, meaningful poetry I’ve ever heard.  It could certainly come out that way in Russia if artists like Artyom Tatischevsky continue to rap about what’s in their soul, and don’t fall under the glamorous spell which American pop culture has cast on the genre.

The Cold War that never thawed

The political upheavals in Ukraine, and subsequent intervention by the Russian Federation in Crimea have once again brought the ugly specter of war to the attention of discerning people across the globe.  Along with the tension brought by this specter inevitably comes the finger pointing and gnashing of teeth, a classic East versus West match-up played out through various news agencies, online forums, and face-to-face arguments.


Separatist and Russian troops like these have seized local government centers in Ukraine – a move reminiscent of the Cold War past.

Before picking sides and readying the battle-lines, casual observers like me need to take a step back and ask a simple question.  How did a functioning, albeit slightly impoverished democratic country like Ukraine devolve so quickly into a maelstrom of political depositions and nationalistic violence?  The answer lies in the simple fact that almost nothing has changed since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the supposed end of the Cold War.

According to the Muskovite-based blog “The journal of Arkady Babchenko“:

“Indeed look at this also, even such actions as the beginning of wars and the annexation of the territory of an independent state in the minds of Russians now fully depends on the decision of one man – Putin.  Not Parliament, not the Senate, not a referendum – Putin.”

This is the age old assertion that Russia is overly autocratic and unwilling to compromise with anyone, let alone NATO or the EU.  Of course much the same could be said of Cold War Russia, but they are not the only ones perpetuating this obsolete foreign policy.  That’s right, the United States and her allies are equally to blame for the turmoil which has unfolded.

Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt

Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt touring an opposition camp in December. These two worked to initiate the uprising in Kiev.

In early February evidence surfaced of a telephone conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and the Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.  They not only chided the EU for its inability to influence events in Ukraine to their liking but also spoke about their plans for the leaders opposed to then President Yanukovich’s government.  In short, Russia and the U.S. have been up to their old tricks, using smaller, weaker nations as proxies for their ongoing struggle to control international affairs.

However, unlike the archaic days of the Cold War, ordinary citizens now have access to information emanating from both sides of the conflict so that big news is no longer our only source.  Yet, as the U.S. based blog Da russophile aptly points out:

“I assume that most of the people who read this blog agree that a great deal of what might be called the ‘Standard Western Media Narrative on Ukraine’ could better be termed propaganda. That is to say that it is a constructed narrative designed to produce deep-rooted convictions. Or, more bluntly, constructed lies and selected truths designed to shape opinion.”

So tell me, what has changed between 1969 and now?  Russia and the U.S. still maintain the largest nuclear arsenals on the planet and continue to exercise the same international power politics which defined the Cold War era.  My advice to you?  Educate yourself with info from as many angles as possible and don’t buy into the same old good-guy bad-guy routine.  To Putin and Obama?  1989 called, it wants its foreign policy back.

Here is a good blog originating from residents inside Ukraine who are just trying to get on with their lives.  Probably the closest we can get to a down to earth, unbiased perspective on these events.


Sochi: The Symbol

The Olympics have always been a rallying point for nations to set aside their various disputes and come together to celebrate diversity and athletic excellence.  This year, that aspect of the games will be more important than ever as Russia continues to work for unity in a region known for ethnic disputes.  According to the Associated Press, even as work crews were putting the finishing touches on the brand new sports complex on December 29th last year, an explosion triggered by a suicide bomber ripped through a railway station in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, killing 13.  The attacks were blamed on a known Chechen terrorist and are indicative of the turbulent nature of the whole North Caucasus.

The Olympic rings

Olympic rings near Sochi’s new sports complex

This year marks the very first winter Olympics to be held in Russia, and the first time any Olympic games have been held there since 1980. Needless to say, the pressure is on for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. This is especially true considering the fact that human rights groups such as The International Crisis Group have been actively keeping tabs on this volatile region for decades, monitoring the ongoing struggles of native Circassian and Chechen rebels against the Russian authorities.

The location of the games serves as a strong symbol of Russian authority in the North Caucasus. According to Sochi’s official website, the region did not fall under Russian control until 1864, after the Russian Empire forced out the Ottoman Turks. Large numbers of Circassians were forcibly deported or killed shortly afterward, beginning a long and uneasy history of Russian control. Even now, Sochi is positioned close to the contested region of Abkhazia, which was the cause of a Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and remains to this day a source of conflict between the two countries.

Sochi Russia

A Soviet-style statue overlooking the city

Undoubtedly, Putin plans for the winter games to showcase Russia’s ascendancy in the post-soviet era and put to rest allegations of misconduct which have been brought against his regime for its policies towards the North Caucasus. According to the blog “Russia!” the Russian government has allocated about $15 billion to alleviate the North Caucasus from its economic stagnancy and its political turmoil, mostly through efforts to encourage tourism in the region through the construction of numerous resorts and the Sochi sports complex.

The Russian Federation means to use the games as a focal point for international and local attention.  They will be a source of inspiration which will both advertise their efforts to revitalize the North Caucasus and provide legitimacy to all of their ongoing diplomatic disputes. Of course, this all hinges on the ability of Russian authorities to keep the games clear of any major protests or violence.