Some mornings I get the distinct feeling that my customized Google page has mixed up “news from Russia” with “news of the weird.” And I know that, as someone working on contemporary media and popular culture, I’m vulnerable to the accusation of paying attention to the bizarre rather than the typical. So as I drink my coffee and scroll through the morning’s headlines, I make a special effort to read articles about oil and economics to the bitter end. Really, I’m trying. But then the universe sends me this: Yes, as we all know by now, last week Russian President Vladimir Putin took time out from his busy schedule to lead a flock of cranes on its first flight. Last year, Putin undertook a scuba diving expedition in which he “discovered” two long-lost Greek amphorae. His media stunts often involved wild animals, but now a new pattern is taking shape: Putin as a live-action video game hero. Having mastered the wind and the waves, he need only conquer fire and stone before leveling up to Grand Wizard or Archmage. Russia’s neighbors have frequently accused Putin of harboring hegemonic ambitions, but who would have suspected that his next step would be annexing Middle Earth?
Putin seems to be doing the work of both his supporters and his opponents at the same time. On the one hand, we have the appeal to both transcendence and nostalgia (who could resist making the obvious reference to Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 classic film, The Cranes Are Flying?). Certainly, he’s aiming for a combination of the “good shepherd” metaphor with the Soviet-era “ever higher” ethos that goes back at least as far at the cult of the aviator under Stalin. But his attempt to stretch the metaphor in order to undermine his critics fell flat, like…a sick crane? “Of course, there are some birds who do not like to fly in a flock, and prefer to nest individually. But what can we do? Even if they are not in our flock, they are still members of our breeding population and should be treated with care.” At this point mocking Putin is like shooting cranes in a barrel. He’s handed the opposition a wonderful phrase to describe his attitude towards his constituents (is there room for a glowing reference to “our breeding population” in the national anthem?). More important, the images of Putin in crane drag have incited a flurry of photoshopping, all the more appropriate since the original pictures of Putin look almost as absurd as anything Photoshop could generate. Barely three months old, Putin’s third term is showing all the hallmarks of the kind of elaborate decadence that insularity produces. Careening from adventure to adventure, the president is turning into a hyperactive analog to Brezhnev, whose declining years were marked by endless reels of the general secretary receiving yet another medal. If nothing else, the comparison highlights how different the media are now: at least Putin’s antics make for good TV.