Putin’s Soap Operas

I noticed a new trend in Russian soap operas: the small town folk theme. Townspeople are now the main characters, and a small town, a cross between a city and a village, is their backdrop. These new productions rely on multiple layers of cinematic familiarity. First, they have the same features as pre-war Soviet, Stalinist films: shiny and aestheticized old-style machines (ambulances, household products, tools, all local, not imported), women and men with pure and noble souls, often expressed through reserved sexuality or simply the absence of sex, just kisses and repressed hugs, and of course, bad characters are selfish and wear mini-skirts.

 

Second, the only food eaten by these Russian souls is Russian. TV ads interrupt this goodness with their offerings of Italian pasta and Asian noodles. Just as the ads fade on our Japanese- and Chinese-made screens, the audience can switch back to pre-imported life. The characters do not shop in supermarkets, they are rarely seen shopping at all (another familiar trope of evil consumerism). When food appears, it’s usually presented as a blessing from “the grandma’s garden.” The table with familiar all-Russian offerings is the only table around.

 

And of course, the aesthetic familiarity of Russian extended communal life. Everyone is helping each other, lending money, time, expressing care and non-stop concern. A woman-cleaner notices something bad is going on behind a building, and immediately calls the police. She knows the policeman by name and they save lives. A lead character works tirelessly and faints from fatigue because she is so devoted to her community. A man only thinks about larger good and not sure how to reconcile this communal ethic with his all-to-selfish love for the simply dressed, always ordered-hair, heroine. Non-Russians are nowhere to be seen. Come to think of it, no references are made to the outside world either. No one is watching current news on TV, or playing computer games. They do use cell phones though.

 

These small towns look like phantom territories from Shaymalan’s films. TV crime dramas, often set in large cities and popularized in the 1990s, are considered now as too rough for Putin’s Russia. The government-controlled channels want to present a softer, better image of the country. On the other hand, if one shows a Russian village with only kind doctors, sober tractor drivers, unpolished but quaint surroundings and working machinery, Russian audiences would laugh out loud. This is a smartly constructed non-land of Russianness that has never been and will never be.

 

For an American counterpart, I would suggest Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. “Townspeople” in this series also act as a backdrop for topics that frequently take on nation building themes. Their main audiences (let me make a wild guess here) are white / Russian women of reproductive or peri-menopausal age, drawn to the emotional side of nation building on television: a love story. If children and extended family are involved, it’s for the better as there are even more opportunities for tearful moments. They are well done, I must say. I found myself crying.

Putin’s Body in Provincetown

That Russian men are pathetic is not news. In the country with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world, Russian men manage to keep their life expectancy in the low 60s. Grooming has never been their forte. They reuse underwear and outwear. Their hair was cut by a woman who happened to be in the kitchen that morning. No one has ever told them to care for other people’s time, and they don’t. Their eau de toilette is touched by whiffs of the public toilet, the cheap bar, and the railway station. They are generally available for sex. “It’s his first time, please, please, sleep with him,” Slava was begging me for his younger brother at a winter retreat in 1990. “He will really love you.”

In this sad picture Putin’s body stands out. Healthy, youthful, muscular, he is stunning by Russian on a-low-side standards. He is sitting on a horse, topless, in a Brokeback mountain setting, half-looking at me like Justin Bieber at a tantalizing angle from underneath his sexy cowboy hat, first for a Russian president. His horse is tall. This man is real. He wants my attention. He is no longer the father of this nation. He wants to be her lover. Could Putin’s body raise my expectations?

This month I saw a serious piece of writing titled “Can there be a 1937 now?” Translation: is Putin a typical Russian cannibal-ruler who will eat his country’s flesh for lunch? Fair enough, he has started nibbling on pussies and homosexuals, so it is a legitimate concern. Oh yes, – just do not kill us and our loved ones; a prison, please, or (if I may?) a fine, a slap on the wrist, let’s say, 100 dollars. A president whose nation’s highest expectation is not to repeat the mass murder of twenty million or so of his fellow citizens, can relax, go to a gym and take a horse ride. Yes, it is better today than the worst moments of the 1990s. Yes, it is better than the 1937. Thank you very much, Mr. President.

As much as I delight, though, in dissing Russian men, the curse of low expectations works on me too. Grooming has never been my forte either. We are all pathetic in Russia. A prosecutor who announced that “Feminism is sin” at the Pussy Riot trial was a woman. The scandalous anti-gay law was conceived, written and lobbied for by my Russian sisters from the Parliamentary Committee on Women, Children, and the Family.

To get serious about his six-pack abs, Putin needs to bring his horse to Provincetown, USA, for the carnival week, and ride in the gay pride parade as he likes it, topless, on Thursday afternoon. Let’s raise some expectations here for all of us. I want my next Potemkin village (Sochi?) to pass as a Provincetown.

 

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This text is a part of a larger piece I was working on in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in August of this year. I happened to be there during the carnival week. Putin’s body was on my mind the whole week. Here is the image I was particularly inspired by: http://drlillianglassbodylanguageblog.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/putin.png