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Pop culture in translation How ‘Chernobyl,’ the Stonewall riots, and more resonated on the RuNet in May and June

Source: Meduza
HBO / Amediatika / Capella Film / Netflix

Meduza in English publishes stories about Russia, but much of what circulates in the Russian language — big names, TV shows, political news — isn’t Russian at all. This list is the second in our new series highlighting how viral phenomena that seem fundamentally Anglophone take on new and unexpected meanings in the Russian-speaking world.


Craig Mazin’s HBO series was by far the most widely resonant Anglophone pop culture event to shake the RuNet in recent weeks following a similarly enthusiastic response to the final season of Game of Thrones earlier this spring. According to Google search data, the end of Game of Thrones attracted more attention from Russian viewers overall. However, it was Chernobyl that prompted them to shift their attention from the plot of the series to the context of its production: Chernobyl had Russians searching at significant rates for information on HBO itself.

A graph depicting the number of Google searches in Russia for “HBO,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Chernobyl” over the past 12 months.

Of course, that contextual curiosity focused primarily on the history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Of the more than 15 articles Meduza published in Russian on Chernobyl, there were even more fact-checks, survivor testimonials, and book reviews about the disaster itself than there were episode-by-episode commentaries. You can check out various Russian responses to the series firsthand, from rave reviews to CIA conspiracy theories, in our English-language translations of those articles.

Queer icons onscreen

Two of Russia’s June 6 film releases featured major figures in Anglophone LGBTQ history. In critical and popular responses to the films, however, that’s where the similarities ended.

The Russian debut ofVita & Virginia (2018) followed something of a broader Russian moment for Virginia Woolf. Last year, a biography of the British modernist writer by prominent scholar Alexander Livergant was released at the country’s leading publishing house for contemporary prose, and translations of Woolf’s own novels have recently been reprinted in a popular series of world classics. Vita & Virginia occupies a different, riskier niche: it centers specifically on Woolf’s romantic and sexual relationship with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. Perhaps because the film’s profile was quite low, Russia’s usual opponents of “gay propaganda” appeared to sit this one out. Careful observers noticed, however, that official summaries of the film glossed over the specifics of its plot while its Russian-language promotional materials added digital makeup to both its heroines’ faces.

Most public attention to the film came in the form of cast interviews and reviews from independent and semi-independent Russian media outlets.

Not so with the Elton John biopic Rocketman. The Russian version of that film ran into trouble even before it hit theaters: its distributor, Central Partnership, had excised every scene that showed two men kissing or having sex as well as scenes that depicted drug use. Central Partnership’s claims that the deletions were needed for the film to comply with Russian law didn’t hold water with Elton John himself or with the Russian LGBT Network, which called for a boycott of the film. Even the censored version of the film was rated 18+.

Rocketman — Russian trailer

Stonewall at 50 years

It goes without saying that the Russian LGBTQ community has plenty of violence to mourn and creative survival to celebrate within Russian borders. Nonetheless, Russian activists and writers paused on June 28 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when queer New Yorkers fought back against repressive police raids and brought about a major turning point in the U.S. LGBTQ movement. That memorialization primarily took place quietly on social media, with local movements like Moscow’s “Stimul” and feminist activists posting about the riots on Facebook. Meanwhile, the New York-based organization RUSA LGBT held a discussion entitled “Stonewall Po-Russki” with two major Russian activists, and Wonderzine, a lifestyle outlet for young women that also features frequent political coverage, published a lengthy profile of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans activists and sex workers who played historic roles in the Stonewall era.

The New York-based group RUSA LGBT holds a discussion with Igor Kochetkov and Kir Fedorov the day before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Moscow’s climate strikers

For 16 weeks, Arshak Makichyan has stood in central Moscow, rain or shine, to draw attention to the climate crisis. He is part of a global school strike movement that has rapidly gained speed this summer as cities from Sidney to New York declared climate emergencies. Makichyan and his allies around Russia have joined in the climate movement’s momentum by scaling up their activities and vowing to petition local governments for protest permits every week until officials allow them to demonstrate together without risking arrest. By the end of June, the Russian climate strikers had earned their highest-profile press coverage yet: a profile in Al Jazeera.

While Russia’s Environmental Ministry has warned that disastrous environmental events are already taking lives in Russia at an escalating rate, the Russian government at large has shown no signs of seeking to reverse its contributions to those events. Russia currently occupies fourth place in global rankings of carbon dioxide emissions.

In other environmental news, a Zero Waste Shop that sells everyday products without plastic packaging has opened in Moscow. While the concept is not necessarily Anglophone, the shop’s English-language title hints at inspiration from U.S. counterparts like Zero Waste Store and Package Free Shop.

Hilah Kohen

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