Monday, August 31, 2015


Putin Pumps Iron, Internet Delivers Punch Lines

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev drink tea during breakfast at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on August 30.

Anna Shamanska

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spent their Sunday on a thoroughly photographed man-date -- pumping iron, barbecuing, and drinking tea.

Putin and Medvedev met at the president's Sochi residence on August 30, and after a quick warm-up got to the workout machines.

The president and prime minister sported tracksuits, T-shirts, and sneakers -- with Medvedev donning a pair of trendy Nike shoes and Putin the more patriotic Russian-made Forward sneakers. 

After the workout the Russian leaders barbecued and shared a cup of steamy tea -- all of which was covered by the state-run network RT. 

The bizarre public get-together was interpreted by some media organizations as an attempt to boost Putin's approval rating. According to Levada Center, an independent Russian polling agency, Putin's approval rating fell from an all-time high of 89 percent in June to 83 percent in August.

Whatever the official goal might have been, the photo shoot sparked a wave of Internet memes.

Some Twitter users experimented with captioning an image of Putin working out his upper body. This one suggests it's a still from an imaginary sequel to 50 Shades Of Grey, the well-known erotic drama. 

With minor retouching, Putin becomes a character from Mortal Kombat -- a violent videogame series that originated in the 1990s. 

A few more strokes in Photoshop and the Russian president becomes the Vitruvian Putin -- based on the Vitruvian Man, a classic drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. 

Others were openly critical of Putin and Medvedev. While the president and prime minister were hanging out in the resort city of Sochi, Siberia was being scorched by dozens of wildfires. One encroached on the shores of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world.

"Instead of flying to Siberia to manage firefighting, they are barbequing. Tell them that all of Buryatia is a barbeque," reads one tweet. 

A caption to the photo of the Russian leaders smiling amicably at each other reads: "Don't worry, Baikal won't burn down! It's a lake after all!" 

At the same time Ukrainian Twitter users pointed to the ongoing battles in Donbas between the Ukrainian military and Russian proxies. Here the pair is Photoshopped into an image of the destroyed Donetsk airport: 

Another Twitter user evoked a story shown on Russian state television about a small boy supposedly crucified by the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine -- a fake that was heavily mocked online as a propaganda stunt.

This photo of Putin, too, is called "Crucified boy." 

The ongoing theme of Russian sanctions and goods destruction is also not going anywhere. In this Facebook post, for instance, Putin and Medvedev are seen drinking their tea atop a pile of destroyed Western cheese. 

Others imagined what their equipment would look like if the officials decided to substitute their American and German workout machines with something made in Russia: 

And just so you know, not everybody's tea-drinking sessions in Russia feature proper cups and a teapot. For instance, this post offers a reminder that residents of the Russian city of Stavropol were once served traditional pancakes on shovel-blades to mark Maslenitsa, Russia's version of Mardi Gras. 

In the end, the manly weekend workout session was summarized with this caricature, in which Putin is seen holding Medvedev over the ledge of a cliff. 


Russian Church Chief Seeks Spotlight With Putinesque Call-In Show

Patriarch Kirill

Steve Gutterman

Live from Moscow, it's Patriarch Kirill.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to charm his country and rattle the West with an annual call-in show broadcast live on television.

Now the head of the Russian Orthodox Church wants some time in the spotlight.

Patriarch Kirill will conduct a live, televised question-and-answer session on September 3, state news agency TASS reported.

The August 28 report said Kirill would do the show during a church congress on social ministry that will also be attended by government officials.

Unlike Putin's call-in show, which is carried by the main state channels, Kirill's is apparently to be broadcast live only on Soyuz, a church-affiliated channel.

But the program may fuel criticism from secular-minded Russians who say that Kirill often acts like a politician and lament the close ties between church and state, which have tightened under Putin and Kirill even though the constitution says Russia is a secular country.

Polls have shown that some three-quarters of Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox, but that only a small fraction attends church regularly. 

Kirill, who has headed the church since 2009, gave his informal but clear support to Putin's campaign for a third Kremlin term in 2012, and Putin has held out the church as a bulwark of morality. 

The services Kirill leads on Orthodox Christmas and Easter are shown on state TV, as are holiday addresses he delivers.  


Vox Prop? Cue The 'Happy Belarusians'

A photo by Uladz Hrydzin shows a reporter and cameraman for Belarus state STV appearing to cue an answer from an interviewee in Minsk.

Farangis Najibullah

"Brilliant shot," prominent Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet says of the photo he shared with his tens of thousands of Facebook followers, which appears to show a TV reporter cuing an interviewee with an off-camera sheet of prepared answers. 

"Journalists from the Belarusian state television channel STV polling Minsk residents about something. Answers prepared in advance so the 'happy Belarusian' doesn't accidentally blurt out something negative," Sheremet says, noting that Uladz Hrydzin had photographed the "clever propagandists."

Hrydzin, a freelance photographer, wrote simply when he posted his pic: "I think they're pros." 

This year in its survey of press freedom around the world, Freedom House rated Belarus a 93 (on a 0-100 scale, 100 being least free), well down in the "not free" category. It has consistently ranked Belarus's media environment lowest among the EU's so-called Eastern Partnership countries and noted this year, "Belarus has consistently ranked among the worst performers in Freedom of the Press, and its low score has stagnated in recent years, reflecting the entrenched nature of the authoritarian regime."

"The only thing missing here is a pistol pointed to the interviewee's head, just in case," Facebook user Idris Asayev comments in Sheremet's feed.

But others questioned Hrydzin and Sheremet's cynical interpretation, suggesting the reporter could have been simply showing the interviewee a brainteaser, prompting him with a multiple-choice question, or holding notes the interviewee scribbled himself to stay on topic.

The image has been liked by almost 4,000 people and shared by nearly 800 more. So this glimpse behind the scenes of Belarusian state TV is spreading the message, although it might not be the intended one.


Video Dirty Jokes: Internet Awash With Memes Mocking Russia's Detergent Ban

Facing Bans On Detergents, Russians Say Soda Will Doi
X
August 26, 2015
In the latest ban to hit foreign products in Russia, authorities have ordered stores to remove popular detergents and soaps from their shelves, citing "irregularities" found by consumer watchdogs. Some Moscow residents say they don't want to replace their foreign products with domestic ones, but others are happy to do so -- and are ready to use old-fashioned substitutes if necessary. (RFE/RL's Russian Service)
WATCH: Vox Pop -- Facing Bans On Detergents, Russians Say Soda Will Do
Anna Shamanska

It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. 

Just when the torrent of Internet posts skewering Russia's destruction of illegal food imports was running dry, Moscow served up an irresistible new target for the Twitterati: a campaign to cleanse supermarket shelves of prominent Western brands of detergent and dishwashing liquid.

On August 25, Russia's consumer protection agency ordered the removal of several foreign brands of cleaning products, citing health concerns for what is widely seen as retaliation for Western sanctions over Moscow's interference in Ukraine.

Social media users quickly turned on the taps and trained a stream of sarcasm on the offending ban.

Several used shopping excursions as a touching-off point, documenting searches for cleansers that have been ubiquitous since Russia embraced capitalism but are all of a sudden disappearing from stores.

"Must be a good cleaning agent if it's swept off the shelves," one Twitter user wrote above a photo of a half-empty supermarket shelf in Moscow.

Some people apparently snapped selfies showing them holding soon-to-be-banned cleaning supplies -- a nod to Soviet-era shortages that led to hoarding and frenzied quests for scarce products.

Well-known blogger Rustem Adagamov posted one such photo on his Twitter feed with the hashtag "more hell."

Those who didn't manage to stock up with foreign detergents will have to go back to more arduous ways of doing the dishes and the laundry, if Twitter posts are any judge.

One user called a washboard, a bucket and a huge bar of hard soap "a laundry set for a patriot of the Russian World."

In fact, Russian channel Dozhd TV conducted a quick experiment. Two hosts dirtied two identical pieces of cloth with jam and washed them in separate buckets -- one with an unnamed foreign detergent, the other with Russian-made hard soap. Both pieces of cloth came out perfectly clean. "Import substitution," the latest buzzword in Russia, "has won," declared Dozhd host Lika Kremer. 

A darker take appeared to connect the new rules with Russia's high suicide rate

"Nothing can be more patriotic than a national rope, national soap, and a national stool," the Twitter post said.

In the wake of widespread Russian media coverage of food-smuggling stories, the Twittersphere also came up with headlines adjusting that trend to the crackdown on cleaning products.

"The police found two grams of Persil on a citizen of Ivanovo. In court, the perpetrator tried unsuccessfully to prove it was just cocaine," a post on an account that satirizes pro-Kremlin outlet LifeNews said.

There were other memes referring to the similarities between washing powder and cocaine, including one showing Al Pacino's Scarface character sitting in a stupor behind piles of a white substance -- and a box of Persil PhotoShopped into the foreground.

Some of the jokes might be lost on anyone who does not read Russian, but others would also resonate in the West.

One Twitter post showed Mister Proper -- the Russian version of Mr. Clean, the bald, earring-wearing mascot of the eponymous brand from U.S-based Procter & Gamble -- being wrestled to the floor by helmeted Russian riot police.

Another Twitter user imagined the following scenario in Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, lampooning both the food ban and Russian authorities' purported propensity for seeking bribes: "At customs in Sheremetyevo a Persil detector dog lets a passenger know with its eyes that a problem can be solved with a kilogram of jamon [ham]."

Some social media users suggested that Russians, after all, might not be terribly affected by the ban of foreign cleaning agents. 

"Those who are used to eating from shovels do not need any detergents," a Facebook user wrote, pulling out a photo taken earlier this year in the southern city of Stavropol, where people were served traditional pancakes on shovel-blades during a celebration of Maslenitsa -- Russia's Mardi Gras.

And one post on Twitter looked at the bright side with a modern-day take on an old Russian saying. 

"It's a good omen if you see a woman with an empty bucket," the tweet read. "It means buckets and women haven't been banned yet."


Facing 20 Years In Russian Jail, This Ukrainian Bursts Into Song

A court in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don has just sentenced an acclaimed Ukrainian film director, Oleh Sentsov, who was accused of masterminding terrorist attacks in Crimea.

Sentsov says the charges are politically motivated and that "a trial by occupiers cannot be fair by definition."

Standing in a cage, the judge delivered the verdicts: 20 years for Sentsov and 10 years for his co-defendant, Ukrainian activist Oleksandr Kolchenko.

Just after the judge asks -- "Do you understand the court's sentence and the terms of appeal?" -- the two men start singing. 

 


Video Shopping Spray: Loutish Russian's Beer-Biting Patriotism

Stas Baretsky is foaming at the mouth about banned Western goods in Russia.

Anna Shamanska

As the food-destruction craze over banned Western goods continues in Russia, the St. Petersburg Orthodox Union of Cossacks and a very large former band member have joined in.

The group went to a local store of the French supermarket chain Auchan -- which was recently targeted by Russian authorities for "systematic" inspections -- in search of prohibited imported goods. The resulting spectacle, accompanied by a gaggle of reporters and captured on video, looks like performance art.

The star of the video is Stas Baretsky, a former member of rock band Leningrad who is notorious for his oversized red sportcoat and outrageous combativeness on live television.

In it, he claims he is a newly appointed minister of culture for the Cossacks Union. Strolling through the shop, he asks an employee why a foreign brand of beer is "on the most visible display." Baretsky then bites into the can and tears it in two, spraying beer all over the place:

"This is not PR," he says, "It's -- well, it is PR."

He later repeats the can stunt at the request of journalists.

"Alcohol is bad. Look at me," he laughs as he stares into the camera.

Baretsky, sporting his trademark sportcoat, searches the aisles for goods banned under Russia's sanctions, which are aimed at punishing the West for its punitive measures over Moscow's forcible annexation of Crimea and other actions in Ukraine. Any labeling in a foreign language arouses Baretsky's suspicion.

"Goldfish. Is that a Russian firm? Doesn't seem like it," he says, studying canned fish.

"All this is Spanish," Baretsky says at another point, pointing at a shelf of cooking oils. "What did they do for us? Lifted the visa regime? No, they'll be taking our fingerprints as if we were the last you-know-who."

At the end of the video, resting on the supermarket bench, Baretsky shows the remains of at least three cans he has destroyed.

He pays for everything. In fact, the Cossacks buy all the foreign goods they can find before asking management for documents.

"We are in a state of Cold War with the European Union," says Cossack ataman Andrei Poliakov. "Why does Europe cause us troubles, and we have to feed it by buying its goods?"

Auchen management later assures the Cossack visitors that all the goods sold at the supermarket are legal and of proper quality.

Russia's agricultural oversight agency, Rosselkhoznadzor, has recently publicized authorities' destruction of tons of contraband food. It claimed that, as of August 21, the country had destroyed 555 tons of banned goods. 

The policy, criticized both in Russia and abroad, has spawned a growing genre of food-destruction videos in the country.


Homegrown Chechen Soap Opera Hits The Screen In Grozny

The first-ever Chechen soap opera, a low-budget series tailored to family viewing titled Call Of The Heart, has premiered in Grozny.

Ahmad Sultanov

A rich bachelor and a poor villager vying for the affections of the same woman sounds like the stuff of a classic soap opera.

But Call Of The Heart is no ordinary television series. It's the first-ever Chechen-language soap opera to be produced in Russia's North Caucasus republic.

It premiered on August 18 in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where audiences were treated to an abridged version. It is expected to be serialized and aired on local television.

The series is a milestone for viewing in Chechnya, where the arts and entertainment business is recovering after years of war. Several feature films have been produced in Chechnya, but Call Of The Heart is the first locally-made series.

The premier was met with little fanfare, though, perhaps dented by a 24-hour delay after lighting issues. Locals did pour into the cinema to see the screening. But big names from the Russian entertainment business who were expected to show up did not make the event. 

The soap opera had received little funding. Most of the actors were amateurs, with many chosen off the street, and they reportedly were not paid for their time.

Before the series was screened, director Beslan Terekbaev tamped down expectations. "This is certainly not Pirates Of The Caribbean," he told the audience. "But we have done everything to make you happy. In the future, we will be even better."

The TV series is a departure from the violence and sex that dominate the foreign series that have been immensely popular in Russia over the years. 

Call Of The Heart is said to be tailor-made for Chechen families. There is little violence, and there are no love scenes. Women are veiled and dressed conservatively. The producers are reportedly keen on exporting the series to the culturally and religiously conservative Middle East.

Moscow-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has made strict public adherence to Islam a feature of his presidency.

Still, the series' plot line follows a tumultuous love triangle involving two men competing for the love of the same woman. There is also a mysterious subplot involving a Chechen teacher who worked in the United States.

Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by Ahmad Sultanov

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org