Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, clad in a kimono, rushes to rescue a bus threatened by an Al-Qaeda bomb.
He narrowly manages to save the passengers with the help of his loyal, bear-costumed sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev.
That’s the plot of a new comic strip that has taken the Internet by storm.
“Superputin, A Man Like Any Other,” has been viewed almost 3 million times since being posted last week on a specially created website, www.superputin.ru.
The success of the comic strip, the first to cast either Putin or Medvedev, has much to do with its timing. Russia holds a presidential election next March and speculation is rife about who from the Putin-Medvedev ruling tandem will run for the country’s top job.
But the cartoon’s humorous touches have also earned it many fans among politics-weary Russians.
“It’s amusing. I would say it’s even postmodernist,” says political analyst Nikolai Petrov. “It contains a multitude of quotations and hints, starting with the view of Moscow highlighting the British embassy.”
Judo And Gadgets
The action is set in the Russian capital “one year before the end of the world.” The plot, based on the U.S. action film “Speed,” pokes gentle fun at Putin’s judo skills and Medvedev’s predilection for technological gadgets.
Putin is joined on the ill-fated bus by “nano-human” Medvedev, who unzips his bear suit before sending a crawling iPad to deactivate the bomb.
“My Precious, I know you won’t let me down,” the president tenderly tells his device.
The bus then enters Moscow’s traffic-congested “twilight” zone, where it is attacked by a crowd of bloodthirsty zombies donning buckets on their heads — a reference to the “Blue Bucket Brigade,” a group of Muscovites who use blue buckets to protest the flashing lights placed by many government officials on their cars to bypass traffic.
After fighting off zombies screaming, “Free Khodorkovsky!” and, “Let us elect governors!” the heroes face a giant troll in the final act.
While Internet users have identified the troll as either Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu or anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, the cartoon’s creators have fueled the mystery by saying the creature was inspired by Russian ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who made waves in February when she broke publicly with the ruling United Russia party.
The strip’s writer, Sergei Kalenik, says it was created in two weeks and none of those involved in the project was paid.
The aim? Liven up what he describes as Russia’s “depressing political scene.”
“We thought that the elections are coming up and that things are pretty boring on the Internet — no one is doing anything fun about the elections,” he tells RFE/RL. “So we decided to take matters into our own hands and make a comic stip.”
Emboldened by his success, Kalenik, a 25-year-old PR freelancer, says he is now actively looking for sponsors to produce a dozen sequels.
But the comic strip has also attracted a fair amount of criticism.
Some Internet users see it as a public-relations stunt pitting a valiant Putin against zombie-like opposition forces.
“It’s a disgrace, a slap in the face of the people,” one viewer commented on LiveJournal.
“The majority of ‘blue buckets’ are educated, thinking people,” another wrote. “The idea behind this comic strip, however, inspires respect; it’s an astute, effective PR move.”
“Either Kalenik tells the truth and this is an attempt to get a job, make money, and continue the comic strips, either it directly or indirectly carries out specific political directives ahead of the elections,” says Petrov. “The part depicting civil society is particularly suspicious.”
Kalenik denies taking orders from the Kremlin or any other political force.
He says several media outlets actually refused to publish the cartoon because it describes Medvedev as “a gnome raised by bears.”
Kalenik, however, hopes the Kremlin appreciates his work.
“I don’t actually know whether Medvedev and Putin liked it, but I very much hope they did,” he says. “I wrote to Medvedev on Twitter but got no answer. The official media are all tight-lipped, they are obviously waiting for instructions.”
Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst seen as having Kremlin connections, believes the state-controlled media have no reason to pay attention to the comic strip.
He dismisses it as yet another attempt to cash in on Putin’s high popularity ratings.
“The Putin brand is a good method to promote any product, from vodka to online comic strips,” he says. “Many use it to achieve wealth and fame. I think the Putin brand has been used so many times for commercial use that this comic strip is really no sensation.”
Still, “Superputin” is the latest in a string of slick, Putin-themed gimmicks that have emerged on the Internet with next year’s elections on the horizon.
One of them, a spoof of the U.S. apocalypse film “2012” posted on YouTube, has attracted almost 2 million viewers.
Posted on March 30, the video tells the story of a Russian presidential battle gone awry as the rivalry between Putin and Medvedev culminates in the world’s destruction. The clip ends with a message urging Russians to cast their ballot for the Communist Party.
Putin also appeared in a video game launched last month on Vkontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, casting him as a gun-wielding protagonist sporting a khaki uniform and giving players assignments.
The game’s authors say it may soon appear on Facebook and as an iPod application.