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Six more years of Putin Animator Egor Zhgun retells Russia's latest presidency in cartoons

Source: Meduza
Еще 6 лет Путина | 6 More Years of Putin
egor zhgun

On March 2, 2012, two days before Russia’s presidential election, animator Egor Zhgun published a two-minute cartoon retelling 12 years of Russia under Vladimir Putin, depicting Putin as Mr. Burns and other Russian public figures as different characters from The Simpsons. The video went on to attract more than 6.3 million views. On March 19, a day after Putin claimed his fourth presidential term, Zhgun released another cartoon depicting the last six years in Russia. The video is full of so many political and cultural references that Meduza decided to break it down, so you can watch it and understand everything.

At the outset of Zhgun’s video, we find Vladimir Putin sitting at his desk, beside two phones. To his left, there’s a money-tree growing from an oil barrel — symbolizing the Russian economy’s reliance on the hydrocarbons industry. There’s also a paperclip (animated in the style of Microsoft’s Office Assistant) with a little cross above its head — a play on the Russian phrase “spiritual bonds,” where the word for “bond” (skrepa) literally means “attachment clip.” Conservatives in Russian politics frequently refer to Russia’s values as something that sets the country apart from the liberal, multicultural decadence of the West. To Putin’s right is a printer in the shape of Russia’s parliament, churning out laws. Throughout the whole video, it never stops. The State Duma and Federation Council are often called a “rabid printer,” meaning that Russia's Parliament isn't just a rubber-stamp legislature, but a particularly angry one.

On the wall behind the president is a nude portrait of Marge Simpson — presumably a reference to Mariya Kozhevnikova, who served in the State Duma from 2011 to 2016. In 2011, there were rumors that she and Putin might be dating. Kozhevnikova was the cover model for Russian Playboy’s September 2009 issue.

Correction: Zhgun clarified that the Marge Simpson poster is actually meant as a reference to the posters Andy Dufresne uses in “The Shawshank Redemption” to hide his escape tunnel.

On the television screen, you’ll see the pro-Kremlin pundits Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselyov in their best known poses (Solovyov’s hands clasped, Kiselyov whispering to the camera about “coincidences”). Next to the TV screen is a version of the presidential coat of arms, distorted to look like the cartoon backside of a cat that Putin famously (and incoherently) drew in September 2013.

Next, a Pac-Man reference races across the bottom of the screen: it’s two “Pac-Men” — one dressed as a police officer and the other as a Russian Orthodox priest — pursuing the three women of Pussy Riot, depicted as ghosts. The trial against Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina started in July 2012. In August that year, they were sentenced to two years in prison. Two months later, Samutsevich went free on an individual appeal, while Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina remained behind bars until released by a general amnesty bill in December 2013.

Before the Pussy Riot Pac-Man chase ends, a picture appears over Putin’s left shoulder, showing him flying a light aircraft surrounded by birds. In September 2012, the president donned overalls and goggles to lead endangered cranes on a migration route over northern Siberia — one of Putin’s more memorable nature-focused publicity stunts. (Sadly for the birds, their population has continued to dwindle to a near-extinction level.) Then, shown as The Simpsons’ slovenly Barney Gumble, Gérard Depardieu walks into the video with the word “Saransk” tattooed on his left arm — a reference to the cultural center named in his honor in the Mordovian capital, where Depardieu registered as a citizen of Russia to evade French income taxes. After Gérard Gumble leaves, the television screen suddenly reads “Where is Snowden?” with the famous whistleblower depicted as Martin Handford’s notoriously hard-to-find character “Waldo” (or “Wally,” if you’re not a Yankee or a Canuck). Edward Snowden took a commercial flight from Hong Kong to Moscow on June 23, 2013, and he’s lived mostly secluded in Russia ever since.

Next, Zhgun throws in a “Rick and Morty” reference, depicting the 2013 Moscow mayor race between Alexey Navalny and Sergey Sobyanin as a contest between the titular characters in Cartoon Network’s hit comedy. Zhgun’s Morty uses Navalny’s campaign slogan: “Change Russia! Start with Moscow!” Navalny won more than 27 percent of the vote in September 2013, nearly forcing a runoff election against acting Mayor Sobyanin, who took in just 51.37 percent. As Navalny’s popularity grows, Putin’s photo of Morty grows, indicating his growing concerns about this rising adversary. The comparison refers to episode seven of the show’s third season, when “Evil Morty” engineers an underdog election win, unseating the “Shadow Council of Ricks” who lead the “Citadel of Ricks” — a secret civilization where Ricks and Mortys have formed a society built by their counterparts from an infinite amount of realities. In the episode, after Morty takes office, he has all his political rivals summarily executed.

Then the “Maidan Annual Fire Tire” comes on the news, marking the start of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution. The first protests in this movement erupted in November 2013. Before the demonstrations unseated the government, however, Russia opened the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 7, 2014. Zhgun introduces this event by having Vitaly Mutko, then the minister of sport, smash through the wall behind Putin with an axe. A series of viles and scientific beakers containing yellow liquid then appear on Putin’s desk — referring to Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, which resulted in several Russian athletes losing their medals and Team Russia being barred from the 2018 Winter Olympics. Before leaving, Mutko patches up the hole he created with a poster that reads “I don’t do doping, I’m za sport” — an awkward slogan that Russian athletes wore on t-shirts in South Korea.

As all the urine balances on Putin’s desk, the television screen shows a series of asterisks in the pattern of the Olympic rings, denoting the International Olympic Committee’s coming allegations that Russian athletes didn’t earn their medals. The asterisks (all except one, recalling an error in the opening ceremony) soon turn to burning tires, however, indicating that the protests in Kiev have escalated to full-blown revolution. Illustrated in the style of the Russian meme “Vonni and Potachok” (which is itself inspired by the Spurdo Spärde meme), where Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet are depicted as ghoulish doppelgangers, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic mascots huddle around a tire burning on Putin’s desk. When they disappear, the television screen shows “Zoich,” the rejected Olympic mascot designed by Zhgun, based on “Hypnotoad” from the TV show “Futurama.”

The Maidan Revolution ended on February 21, 2014, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from office and fled to Russia. In Zhgun’s video, he’s represented as “Fat Tony” from The Simpsons. He walks into Putin’s office, kneels, and leaves in his pajamas — a reference to the lazy, lavish lifestyle Yanukovych reportedly enjoys in exile. As “Fat Viktor” leaves, three new items pop up in Zhgun’s video. First, the Russian flag over Putin’s left shoulder is now flanked by the rebel flags of the so-called “People’s Republics” in Luhansk and Donetsk. Zhgun mocks the pro-Russian separatists’ flags by changing the eagles in their coats of arms into angry big birds. On the TV screen, we see Yanukovych again, now depicted as the strict and hysterical housekeeper “Miss Bock” from Boris Stepantsev’s beloved Soviet cartoon adaptation of the Swedish children’s books “Karlsson-on-the-Roof.” On the TV, Yanukovych speaks into a shower head as though it were a telephone (something Miss Bock does when at her wit’s end), saying “Hello, is this the television? I’m the president of Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, a line of white trucks rolls across Putin’s desk, transforming into little green robot warriors — referring to Russia’s “humanitarian aid” to eastern Ukraine. (Critics say Moscow has sent far more than blankets and food supplies to the pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk.)

By this point, the portrait on the wall behind the president has transformed into a picture showing Putin as an Egyptian pharaoh, above the inscription “TheyreNotThere” (and later “TheyreNotThere II”) — a nod to Putin’s repeated assurances that Russian soldiers aren’t present in Ukraine or parts of Syria. This is when the map outline of the Crimean peninsula appears in Putin’s hands, signaling Russia’s annexation of the territory. As the video progresses, this chunk of land glows brighter and brighter, likening Crimea to the “One Ring” that transforms Smeagol into Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings.”

On the TV screen, we see several of Zhgun’s older cartoons. There’s his adaptation of a widely ridiculed satellite photo forged to show a fighter jet firing a missile at a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine. In Zhgun’s version, the fighter jet is replaced by a Ukrainian Cossack riding a devil (a reference to Gogol's “Christmas Eve”), armed with a slingshot. And there’s a cartoon about how the crash of oil prices tanked the value of the ruble (recalling the final scenes of the film “Titanic”). We also see a televised announcement from “Towelie” (the perpetually stoned talking towel on the show “South Park”), whom Zhgun uses as a stand-in for the oil company Rosneft, probably referring to Rosneft’s urgent request in late 2014 for several billion dollars in federal money to meet its debt obligations.

As this happens, the money-tree growing from the oil barrel begins to wilt (into the shape of the ruble symbol) and turns gray. Putin’s wall also gets two new posters: one is the chauvinist-patriotic meme showing the Soviet Union raping Nazi Germany (captioned “We could do it again”), and the other poster shows the Mercedes Benz logo (reading, “This we couldn’t do again”).

On Putin’s right, two new figures suddenly appear: Ekho Moskvy chief editor Alexey Venediktov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, depicted as Krusty the Clown and Waylon Smithers from The Simpsons. They’re both sharing a bottle of whiskey — likely a reference to Venediktov’s near brush with losing his job in late 2014, when he clashed with the radio station’s majority shareholder, Gazprom Media. Just a week after his ouster seemed all but certain, Venediktov attended a birthday party for Nezavisimaya Gazeta chief editor Konstantin Remchukov, where Venediktov drank and posed for selfies with several pro-Kremlin elites, including Peskov. Venediktov has defended Peskov and shared booze with regime figures on other occasions, as well, including in late 2011 when he helped move a historic protest against voter fraud from outside the Kremlin to a slightly more remote location.

Next, a poster with Ramzan Kadyrov depicted as the bully Nelson Muntz appears, captioned in pidgin Russian “Apologiz!” citing the Chechen ruler’s frequent demand that his critics apologize to him publicly for questioning his rule. Suddenly Putin transforms into Dobby from Harry Potter, snaps his fingers, and disappears, as the house-elf was wont to do. Just before Putin disappears, Boris Nemtsov is assassinated. Zhgun marks the killing in the style of Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” with three bumper stickers reading: “Killed outside the walls of the Kremlin / And the man behind it all is still free? / How come, Mr. Putin?” Before long, a “Missing: small reward” sign appears on Putin’s chair. Here, Zhgun is referring to Putin’s mysterious 10-day disappearance from public view in March 2015, just weeks after Nemtsov’s murder.

When Putin returns, he’s still holding Crimea (looking a bit worse for the wear), and the television screen is playing a spoof commercial for Apple’s Siri voice assistant, where the service recommends a trip to “Novosyria” — a play on the term “Novorossiya” (New Russia), which was the rallying cry of many Russians who fought on behalf of separatism in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s desk also inherits a golden “Plato” statue, referring to the “Platon” highway toll system introduced in November 2015. Owned by a subsidiary of Rostech and the Rotenberg brothers, the collection system sparked major protests by truck drivers across the country — especially in Dagestan.

With Russia’s military intervention in Syria launching in September 2015, Putin’s office now has a picture of a smoking ship called “Kuzya” — the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which reached Syria’s shores in November 2015, after making world headlines for belching smoke into the air as it sailed through the English Channel. At the same time, a little bulldozer is tearing through tomatoes on Putin’s desk — referring to Russia’s ongoing “counter-sanctions” against Western food imports, imposed as part of the collapse in Moscow’s foreign relations with the West that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Next, Zhgun takes on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, showing Bernie Sanders (depicted as Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth) losing narrowly to Hillary Clinton (depicted as Futurama’s Machiavellian “Mom”) in the Democratic primary. When “round two” begins and Clinton is beating Donald Trump handily, the hacker “Anonymous” mask hijacks the TV screen (and covers Putin’s face), after which Trump pulls ahead in the race.

While the Americans are losing the Clinton presidency, Russian cellist and businessman Sergey Roldugin — Putin’s supposed “secret caretaker,” according to the Panama Papers” — appears beside Putin, and then leaves behind his cello case, which contains a mannequin. This is a reference to “The Adventures of Captain Vrungel,” a Soviet cartoon from 1980. In the film, a museum watchman is blackmailed by a mafia boss into stealing the statue of Venus. The guard then smuggles it from the museum inside a double bass case. With Roldugin gone, a little Pokemon creature with a Russian Orthodox dome shell appears on Putin’s chair, captioned, “I choose you!” — referring to Ruslan Sokolovsky, the YouTuber convicted in early 2017 of offending religious sensitivities for playing Pokemon Go inside a church. He was sentenced to three and a half years of probation, after being held in jail for months.

At the same time, the Morty-Navalny portrait on the wall is now stained green and Morty is wearing an eye-patch showing Navalny’s campaign logo. In late April 2017, a pro-Kremlin activist sprayed green antiseptic into Navalny’s face, inflicting a chemical burn on his right eye. The eye-patch-wearing Morty is also pulled directly from the show “Rick and Morty”! In episode 10 of season one, the show reveals that “Evil Morty” was using a phony eye-patch to control an especially evil version of Rick. Putin also gets a visit from State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya, depicted as “Old Lady Shapoklyak” from Soviet “Cheburashka” cartoons. Always accompanied by her rat Lariska (shown here as “Itchy” from The Simpsons), Shapoklyak in Zhgun’s video is carrying a plastic bag. In Russian, a plastic bag is a paket, which also means “package.” Irina Yarovaya co-sponsored the draconian “anti-terrorism” laws Russia passed in 2016. In Russian, they’re commonly known as the “Yarovaya package of laws.”

After Russia “hacks” the U.S. election, Marge Simpson returns to Putin’s office, this time reincarnated as the “Nyan Cat” meme — a cartoon cat with a Pop-Tart body, flying through space, and leaving behind it a rainbow trail. This time, Marge isn’t Maria Kozhevnikova but Margarita Simonyan, the Putin-loving chief editor of the state-run media networks RT and Rossiya Segodnya. Also, the cat’s body in Zhgun’s cartoon is no longer a Pop Tart but RT’s green logo, and the rainbow trail is now an American flag — referring to Simonyan’s jubilance after Donald Trump’s election, when she famously tweeted that she wanted to drive around Moscow waving a U.S. flag from her car.

Putin’s last visitor is a “Zhdun” sculpture (which inspired an Internet meme in early 2017), remade in the likeness of billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who’s depicted in a pose he made when attacking Alexey Navalny in a series of YouTube videos in May 2017. Usmanov sued Navalny for defamation for accusing him of bribing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with real estate “donations.” Outside the window, Zhgun plants another reference to Navalny: an army of angry rubber ducks. In September 2016, Navalny published a bombshell investigative report claiming that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev frequents a luxurious summer mansion that includes a special building for the ducks that live in a pond on the property. Among Navalny’s supporters, rubber ducks have since become a symbol for corruption in the Russian government.

At this point, Putin’s office starts filling with monitors broadcasting what looks like the hammer march from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” These are actually hammers in the shape of double-headed eagles (Russia’s coat of arms), which Zhgun first illustrated in February 2014.

Kevin Rothrock

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