Friday, June 30, 2006
The Village Voice reports on one Russian who can see clearly now:
Someone just dropped a load of plates in the Soho café where Regina Spektor is sipping green tea, and she couldn't be more pleased. "That sounded great, right?" she marvels, breaking into one of her frequent grins—earnest, enigmatic, and seemingly limitless. It makes you wish a motorcycle would careen through the café's plate-glass window.
Spektor, the 26-year-old singer-pianist who just unfurled her pop-wise but resolutely idiosyncratic new album Begin to Hope, loves the anarchic possibilities of sound. Her music is full of feints and pauses; when singing, she'll hiccup and stutter just to skew the melody and rhythm. She trusts her muse, and her muse repays her with some of the best songs coming out of New York. But instead of dropping dishes, Hope's mixture of lush piano and voice, big drums, and electronic flourishes keeps the plates spinning.
"There's this huge discrepancy between the things that I make and the things that I love," says Spektor, who immigrated with her family from the USSR to the Bronx when she was nine. Thus, she sees most things with the sensitivity and remove of an outsider. Working on Hope, her fourth album (and second for a major, after 2004's breakthrough Soviet Kitsch), she sought to broaden her sound with the help of producer David Kahn, retooling songs she'd written as far back as college. "I'm starting to hear more and more songs," she explains, "where I want the beat or the bass to be the heart of the song." The Strokes, pals who famously gave Spektor her first big break by bringing her on tour as an opener, were among her inspirations. "The thing that blew my mind first hearing the Strokes was that they were the closest I had heard rock come to classical," she says. "Their music is extraordinarily orderly and composed. It's almost like Mozart." When "Better," Hope's first single, needed some oomph, Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi stepped in and lent the song its precise, driving kick.
Perhaps that oomph will help Spektor avoid being typecast: "I'm not an intense girl with a piano," she says firmly, and while that's a little like Metallica objecting to being called a metal band, her point is clear—she's not like all the other intense girls with pianos. Take Nellie McKay: As one of the few in the batch who share Spektor's sense of humor and flair for writing about topics other than herself, Nellie's the slightly jaded, totally polished throwback icon, while Regina is a warm, thoroughly modern sensualist with her own peculiar approach. "It's much easier for me to write a new song than to figure out a cover," she says, acknowledging that people never believe it. She had difficulty adjusting to the instruction at the conservatory she attended, but still connected with the musicians all around her. " 'That's weird strange Regina, her head's always in the clouds,' " she says, describing how she was perceived growing up. "I knew this world existed. I'd just been in diaspora."
And yet she's not as precious as all this makes her sound. "Just thinking about it almost makes me cry," she admits of her increasingly devout fan base. But moments later, she offers a resounding "Fuck that!" to those who'd have her play their favorite songs exactly as they're recorded: "It's death. It's the worst thing I can think of. Purism, it's boring to me." Nor does she have patience for those who confuse her with the characters in her songs. "I'd go to people's shows, and they'd say, 'This is about the end of a relationship,' " she recalls, obviously horrified. "And I'd be like, 'Ugh, that's so gross! You came out and said something absolutely crazy.'
Spektor's also patriotic as only an immigrant can be, even sparring occasionally with U.S.-bashing Europeans. Recently a British merch manager drew her ire by responding to Regina's request for large T-shirts with a dry reference to large American men. "It brings out the 'don't fuck with me,' " she recalls, "considering that you have a huge neo-Nazi population here, and your banks are full of my grandparents' teeth, and you only gave women the vote in, like, 1989."
Coming from Russia to the U.S.—welcomed by a middle-class extended family and a close-knit Jewish community—instilled Spektor with more than an appreciation of America. It also helps explain the sense of wonder so vividly conveyed in her songs. "We came to my cousin's house in Rockland County, and they had a dog and a swimming pool with a slide in it," she recalls, grinning again. "The whole suburban American dream. It was so awesome." She and her cousin Marsha reveled in the little luxuries. "We used to eat seven yogurts a day. Sometimes we wouldn't mix the fruit in—I'd eat the top, and then the bottom. We'd get a million different kinds of cereal. Suddenly we'd only eat cereal with orange juice, because it was exciting." Of course, not everything was yogurt, puppies, and swimming pools. "When we moved to the Bronx, we lived in kind of a sketchy building," she remembers. "Bell Atlantic was on strike when we came to New York, so my parents would have to leave me at night, go to the pay phone and call Russia, pumping in quarters. There were so many nights when I fell asleep terrified."
That mixture of anxiety and wonder permeates Begin to Hope, which never settles on a mood, method, or outlook. On the minimalist, punky "That Time," Spektor strums guitar like she's at her first lesson, speak-singing about good and suddenly very bad times with a friend on the Lower East Side. "Aprés Moi" (the title alludes to Louis XV's promise of a "deluge" after his death) is a floridly operatic tale of flooding and perseverance, sung partly in Russian. Producer Kahn's influence is most obvious in "Edit," which pairs choppy electronics and oblique, incantatory lyrics with a spare, wandering piano line. Spektor's accent, light in conversation, twists her singing voice just so; airy and dynamic, her vocals flit from frisky to mournful.
For all its adventurousness, the album centers around a single, unnameable ache, but don't mistake that for pity or resignation. "Some people are like, 'Dare I say, this album sounds more mature,' " Spektor says, a little wearily, but with a laugh. "And yet some of these are my oldest songs." At a recent small show at the Angel Orensanz Foundation—a former synagogue downtown—she actually seemed a bit like a nervous kid at a recital, restarting a couple of songs while wearing a lovely, formal dress you imagine she'd change out of immediately afterward. But when she played—unaccompanied by studio frills, and with lightning illuminating the windows—the whole room seemed to cave in around her. Her parents, as always, were in the front row.
Get this: RIA Novosti reports that convicted criminal and Neo-Soviet Stooge Victor Yanukovich (pictured) now says that "we are again going through hard times, when the powers that be are trying to steal our victory in parliamentary elections, when unprecedented attempts are being made to usurp power and to cut half of Ukraine from the process of administering the state." RIA Novosti states:
The Party of Regions has been blocking Ukraine's parliament since Wednesday to protest a plan by the three parties forming a coalition government to approve nominees for prime minister and parliament speaker in a single vote. It is also demanding top positions in some of the assembly's committees. The Yulia Tymoshenko bloc, the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party, and the Socialists, which were major players in Ukraine's 2004 "orange revolution," reached a coalition agreement last week after months of negotiations following an election in March. The Party of Regions finished first in the polls with 186 seats, but the "orange" parties' coalition deal has given them a majority, with 242 seats. "We will be blocking parliament's work until the 'orange' [parties] agree to live and act in compliance with the law and the constitution," the Party of Regions said in its statement. The party aims to force the dissolution of parliament, in which case fresh elections will have to be called.So let's see now: Yanukovich considers his less-than-33% share of the parliamentary vote a "victory"? And he thinks that the more than 67% majority coaltion which has formed against him and his crazed shil organization for the Kremlin is frustating democracy while he, who wants to govern with less than 33% and is blocking the normal function of the parliament, is furthering democracy?
In other words, there is no such thing as "democracy" in Ukraine unless Yanukovich, a convicted criminal and KGB spy, is given absolute power akin to that of Mr. Lukashenko in Belarus. And any Ukrainian who opposes this idea is a dangerous Western spy, no doubt to be put up against a wall and shot.
Good grief. No wonder the Ukrainians can't stand the Russians.
Speaking of Belarus, RIA also reports that union with Russia (and the potential crowning of Emperor Putin) is now in the immediate offing according to Pavel Bordin:
MOSCOW, June 29 (RIA Novosti) - A referendum on a constitutional act of a Russia-Belarus Union State may be held as early as this fall, a Russian official overseeing the project said Thursday.
The constitutional act will be a transitional constitution for the Union State, which the two countries have been mulling since they signed an agreement on April 2, 1997. The project should establish common economic, customs and political regulations, but negotiations have stalled recently over a number of issues, including a Russian proposal to raise gas prices for Belarus.
Pavel Borodin, the state secretary of the Russian-Belarus union, said that he hoped the Union's Supreme Council would meet in July or August to set the dates for the referendum and for parliamentary elections.
"In practice, we can hold the referendum this fall and elections to the future parliament either this fall or next spring," Borodin said.
The Union State has a common budget totaling about $2.6 billion. Belarus, whose population of 10 million equals only 7% of Russia's, contributes one third and Russia the remainder to the joint budget.
The two countries have also adopted measures including a common visa space and a joint customs committee.
Borodin said earlier this month that the common currency - the Russian ruble - would be put into circulation before the end of 2006.
But negotiations on the ruble have been advancing slowly, and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said earlier this month that the common currency issue had to be spelled out in the referendum.
The Russia-Belarus Council of Ministers convened Wednesday in Moscow to discuss further progress in integration. Borodin said the customs union had been on the agenda.
"We have built a customs center and set up customs checkpoints but we still have about 1,500 differences in customs rates," he said, adding that ministers had agreed to prepare a financial program for customs points and continue working to harmonize customs legislations.
Borodin also said that the Council of Ministers had considered the gas issue and a proposal by Russian state-controlled energy giant Gazprom to increase gas prices for Belarus. He said the parties had managed to ease tensions on some of the relating issues.
Gazprom, which is reportedly seeking control over Belarus's pipeline system leading to Europe - its main customer, has said it would nearly quadruple gas prices for Belarus in 2007 unless it agreed to set up a joint gas venture. Belarusian authorities, however, have said the price hikes contradict the Union State agreement, which they said stipulated that gas prices for Belarus should equal Russia's domestic prices.
The two countries agreed Wednesday that a special working group would draft proposals on gas prices and submit them soon.
Borodin also said Thursday that the Union State had 30 production programs involving more than 5 million people. He said the programs covered such areas as diesel and agricultural machine-building, and high-tech and computer technologies, but added that the projects had encountered financing problems.
"Unfortunately, we have changed the form of crediting these programs," he said, adding that instead of direct government subsidies for agriculture and machine-building, these programs received indirect funding in subsidies for interest rates.
Wimbledon is only in its fifth day and already two major Russian "superstars" have crashed ingloriously out of the tournament. Grand Slam Champion Marat Safin was bested in his second round match, winning the first two sets and then completely falling apart, losing the next three in a row. Grand Slam Champion (and the only Russian woman ever to play for two grand slam titles) Svetlana Kuznetsova experienced a similar disaster in her third-round match, winning the first set of against World #27 Na Li of China and then being totally crushed in the next two.
La Russophobe has previously reported on the use of a Neo-Soviet Komsomol to protest American refusal to extradite Chechens to Russia. Here is more shocking detail on the depths to which Neo-Soviet Russia is prepared to sink, via Redeem the Vote:
How U.S. Citizens Mysteriously March For Kremlin Causes
Russian Émigrés Pay Them To Flail Chechen Rebels As TV Moscow Films It All
By ALAN CULLISON and JAMES BANDLER
June 24, 2006
NEW YORK -- Hoisting signs and American flags, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in a park here for a noisy protest. An organizer explained the sponsors' eclectic mission: "We are fighting against terrorism, hunger and inequality," he said.
Demonstrators had a simpler goal: getting paid. "Where's the moneyman?" shouted one of them, Pat Bradley.
Mr. Bradley said he and his wife, Kellie, recovering heroin addicts, had run into a rally organizer that morning outside their methadone clinic and were promised $15 each if they would ride a bus to a park in the Queens borough of New York City and chant slogans for 15 minutes. Mr. Bradley says he alternated shouts of "Stop the terrorism!" with a more mercantile cry: "Show me the money!"
The rally last December was one of nearly a dozen paid-for protests organized by Russian émigrés in the U.S. in the past two years. They spent $150,000 to $200,000 in some months, accounting records indicate, to rally thousands of demonstrators near spots such as United Nations headquarters and the World Trade Center site. State-controlled Russian television, whose content is closely guided by Kremlin handlers, covered some of the events, often as the only news organ present, showing video of them on the evening news back home.
Organizers said the effort was funded by private individuals they declined to name. Some former insiders of the campaign told a different story: that both its instructions and its funding came from Moscow. Specifically, they said it came from the Russian founder of a youth group that staunchly supports the Kremlin and has gotten lavish support from the Kremlin in return. This account was supported by emails and other documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
A member of the Russian youth group disputed the account, and it remains impossible to say who was behind the campaign. It coincided with efforts by Russian officials to mold opinion both at home and abroad on issues such as Chechnya, where a breakaway movement has been put down violently by the Putin government. The Kremlin argues that Chechen separatists, responsible for a bloody siege at an elementary school in southern Russia in 2004, are no different from al Qaeda terrorists. Some of the rallies demanded that Washington extradite alleged Chechen terrorists living in America.
The U.S. organizers were led by a Russian-born man in the Boston area, formerly a taxi driver, who recruited fellow émigrés. There are indications the organizers paid a New Yorker to present a local face for the movement. But the script for the campaign began to unravel after one of the Russian émigrés contacted U.S. authorities, as well as the Journal.
That man is Yuri Levintoff, a 31-year-old Massachusetts resident. He said he grew concerned about the ethics and legality of paying people to protest. "As I learned more and more, I realized this was not only something I didn't want to be involved with but something that should be made public," said Mr. Levintoff, who provided access to what he said were financial records, emails and other documents detailing the demonstration campaign's activities.
Mr. Levintoff said he was recruited in 2004 by the Boston-area taxi driver, Boris Barshevsky. Approached outside his home there, Mr. Barshevsky at first denied involvement but then said that he was, in fact, the top organizer of the demonstrations. He said he financed them himself and received no funding from Russia. Told of emails and documents suggesting otherwise, Mr. Barshevsky asserted these had been forged by Mr. Levintoff. He provided no substantiation. Mr. Levintoff denied forging anything.
Russian state television, called First Channel, has portrayed the U.S. demonstrators as part of an international movement in support of extraditing militant Chechens to Russia. A person familiar with the state television channel's operations said that influential people within Russia had ordered it to cover the U.S. demonstration movement, even though "at First Channel, everyone knows it is a fake." This person said officials of the channel were told the first U.S. rally was organized by a Russian youth group called Walking Together.
Walking Together's founder is Vasily Yakemenko, an ardent foe of Chechen militants. Visitors to the office of a second youth group he manages, Nashi ("Our Guys" in Russian), must step on a doormat with a picture of a Chechen rebel. Mr. Yakemenko has told a Russian newspaper he visits the Kremlin every two weeks and the presidential office more often. Last month, President Vladimir Putin played host to him and 34 "commissars" of one of his youth groups at the president's Black Sea retreat. State-controlled TV covered the event heavily.
Mr. Yakemenko didn't respond to questions or requests for an interview. The Kremlin declined to comment. Sergei Belokonev, a leader of one of Mr. Yakemenko's groups, which has bused thousands of people to Moscow for flag-waving rallies, called the idea of Russian-financed demonstrations in the U.S. "complete nonsense."
Flurry of Emails
Mr. Levintoff, the Russian émigré who quit the campaign of U.S. demonstrations, asserts that Mr. Yakemenko kicked it off in the summer of 2004 with a flurry of emails to Mr. Barshevsky, the Boston-area taxi driver. Mr. Levintoff says Mr. Barshevsky shared these emails with him and other recruits. The first email, dated July 2004, said its writer had been "active in organizing demonstrations and protest meetings and the like. Now it's been proposed that I do the same in your part of the world."
Paid protestors rally at Ground Zero in June 2005
Another email said there was plenty of cash and the budget could be big -- $25,000, $200,000 or $20 million -- as long as the campaign showed results.
Paul Nissan, a Los Angeles activist and co-founder of an antiterrorism group, said Mr. Barshevsky phoned him in 2004 offering "unlimited" funding for demonstrations that would spotlight Chechen terrorism. Mr. Nissan said he organized one rally on Sept. 11, 2004, in Los Angeles, but later fell out with the Russian émigrés. "They were interested in a rent-a-mob kind of thing, and we kind of explained that we don't do that sort of thing here," Mr. Nissan said.
Organizers created scripts to keep everyone on-message. If asked whether protesters are being paid, said one sheet, state that "you have been disinformed." Explain that protesters are "plain and simple folks" who are united by "desires to dispose the world of terror" -- and who have no phone number or office.
According to Mr. Levintoff, organizers tried to conceal Russian involvement by using as a front man Curtis Bryant, a New York resident who calls himself a "guerrilla marketer." Mr. Levintoff showed an email to rally organizers requesting that someone explain to Mr. Bryant "once more [that] he is leader of the movement and its founder.... Explain that we simply joined him."
Mr. Bryant said he organized demonstrations on his own, motivated because he nearly lost a friend on Sept. 11, 2001. Nobody was paid to protest, Mr. Bryant stated in an interview at the December rally in Queens. However, after the rally an organizer was seen paying demonstrators, and numerous protesters told the Journal that the only reason they attended was to be paid.
At that December demonstration, organizers tried out a new theme: the flawed U.S. government response to hurricane Katrina. On a blustery day, school buses stopped in front of Rufus King Park in Queens and dropped off demonstrators. Mr. Barshevsky and other Russian émigrés huddled nearby, smoking and talking on cellphones.
A camera crew videotaped the rally and several short speeches by organizers, who said they were from a group called Unite the World Against Terrorism. Their message: The U.S. failed New Orleans and it will abandon us, too. After some desultory cheers, the crowd was dismissed and sent back to the buses.
On one bus, filled with men from a homeless shelter on Wards Island in the East River, some grew impatient. "Get my money, mother-f-!" shouted one man as an organizer passed. As tensions rose, an organizer stepped aboard and peeled off $20 bills from a thick wad.
Fuming Over Pay
The payment left some on the bus fuming, saying they thought the promised $20 an hour would cover travel time, too. George Pantera, who said he sometimes stays in homeless shelters, complained of a wasted morning. He easily could have made the same $20 "in the 'hood," he said. He called the rally "a scam."
Pat and Kellie Bradley, the self-described recovering heroin addicts, weren't complaining. They said they had been down to their last $8 before the rally. The cash would help pay a debt for cigarettes.
All the same, Mr. Bradley found the rally puzzling. "Strikes me as funny that this guy buys his protests," Mr. Bradley said. "I mean, what good is that?"
Early on, the campaign got a boost when Mr. Barshevsky, the Boston-area taxi driver, befriended two Russian-émigré merchants in New York who sell jewelry online. The two merchants had started a nonprofit organization after Sept. 11, 2001, which they called the International Fund for Protection of Victims of Crimes and Terrorist Activity. Mr. Barshevsky became this fund's finance chief, and the merchants' two-room office in the diamond district of midtown Manhattan became a center of the campaign, Mr. Levintoff said.
Nicholas Fiore, an accountant who has done work for the fund, said that "tens of thousands" of dollars flowed into its bank accounts in 2004 and 2005, money that he said he was told came from Mr. Barshevsky. One of the merchants, Denis Stepansky, said he helped Mr. Barshevsky organize rallies. He declined to discuss their financial dealings.
An exchange of emails shown to the Journal by Mr. Levintoff stated that as much as $400,000 was needed to kick off the campaign. One note, which Mr. Levintoff said had been sent to Moscow, asked that a first installment of $80,000 be wired to the International Fund.
Mr. Levintoff said organizers took pains to hide the involvement of backers in Moscow. He said he was forwarded one email that originated with Sergei Belokonev, a top official in Mr. Yakemenko's Nashi youth group in Russia. The email asked that someone outside Russia register some Web sites that could help promote the U.S. demonstrations. "The hand of Moscow, if it comes to light, will only weaken our position," said this email. Mr. Belokonev didn't respond to questions about the email.
The first rally organized with the help of the jewelry merchants' International Fund was on Sept. 11, 2004, near the World Trade Center site in New York, with several hundred demonstrators. At later rallies, hundreds of residents of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, most of them African-American, marched alongside Russian-born pensioners bused in from Brighton Beach, an ethnic-Russian enclave in Brooklyn.
Some rallies included elderly Russian émigrés from Brooklyn Jewish centers. Costs discussed in one email about the campaign referred to $40,000 to hire 200 activists for three hours, as well as $30,000 for "Jews and other extras."
Mr. Levintoff said that one 2005 rally in Harlem drew police attention when the crowd of demonstrators gathered for a "photo op" and were spotted giving gang hand signals.
A reporter for a Russian-language newspaper said he was tipped last spring that someone was "putting T-shirts on pensioners and paying them to go protest" near the World Trade Center site. The reporter, Vladimir Chernomorsky, said he went to the site and saw hundreds of people carrying pictures of Chechen extremists and posing for a photo. He said the only news organization there besides himself was Russian state television.
He wrote a piece for his newspaper, the New Russian Word, questioning who had paid the demonstrators and saying that payment varied from person to person. Russian pensioners from Brooklyn got $35, he wrote, but African-Americans and Hispanics only $20. Mr. Chernomorsky later wrote in his newspaper that when he attended a rally near the U.N. last June, one of the organizers smashed his tape recorder.
Soon, the organizers had a bigger problem: Mr. Levintoff.
He said he grew concerned that the paid-protest campaign might violate U.S. tax or money-laundering laws. His worries grew, he said, after Russian state TV interviewed him at a rally near the World Trade Center site in June 2005 and identified him as a protest leader. Mr. Levintoff said that last August he told Mr. Barshevsky, the former Boston-area taxi driver, that he was bowing out.
Mr. Stepansky, the jewelry merchant, alleged that Mr. Levintoff stole from the International Fund, forged financial documents and sent "fabrications" to the media and law enforcement. He declined repeated requests to substantiate his allegations, which Mr. Levintoff denied.
Mr. Levintoff said he sent a final note to the International Fund and its lawyers. "I am no longer willing to be associated or involved in any way, with a so-called International Fund for Protection of Victims of Crimes and Terrorist Activity, or a fake 'social movement' called Unite the World Against Terror," Mr. Levintoff wrote. He then contacted U.S. law-enforcement officials. Authorities have taken no action
A craven soldier is sitting in foxhole hiding, while his comrades charge the enemy. Suddenly, his fierce commander spies him, and points his revolver: "Get out of that trench now and charge the enemy or I'll shoot you a hundred times, and only the 100th shot will kill you," he roars with indescriblable venom. More terrified of the commander than the enemy, the soldier obeys.
Is the solider a brave man because he charges the enemy? Nobody would say so.
Yet, people often attribute bravery to Russians who fought against Germans. Russians, in the most craven, cowardly manner imaginable, sold out their allies to the Germans in hopes of carving up the spoils of Germany's victory, only to find themselves the victims of German aggression. Then, they fought against German invaders because their own crazed government ordered them to do so, at gunpoint, a government Russians found far more terrifying than any foreign enemy.
There is not one single instance in all of Russian history of Russians standing up to their own government in order to interrupt one of its legion of atrocities. The Bolshevik Revolution was nothing more than a naked power grab, one which involved only a thin sliver of the actual population (the vast majority of Russians were never members of the Communist Party), and the same is true of the "revolution" that brought Boris Yeltsin to power. Russians said they hated Yeltsin, but when he told them to elect Vladimir Putin, they did so unhesitatingly, like sheep. Baa-baa-baaaaaad sheep.
Russians didn't lift a finger to protect Pushkin or Dostoevsky or Solzhenitisn when they were persecuted by the regime, even though Russians lionized each of them as great Russian heroes. Nobody like Mary Wolstonecraft or Martin Luther King or Mohandas Ghandi has ever emerged in Russia, although Russia is the one place where such a person is needed most. There is no significant anti-nuclear movement in Russia, no significant anti-racism movement, no significant movement of any kind challenging the stasis of the regime. The only time Russians gather to make significant protests is when foreigners dare to oppose the policies of their regime.
Now, one could certainly argue that it is nothing but common sense for Russians (or anybody else) to avoid confrontation with the crazed, dictatorial, homicidal Kremlin. There is much to be said for self-preservation.
But why must Russians propagate such an absurd mythology of bravery and heroism for their country, which is uniquely distinguished by the total lack of those virtues, if so they are? Russians seem to display an almost pathological need to think of themselves as courageous, combined with an equally-if-not-more pathological inability to actually display courage.
The Moscow Times reports that Vladimir Putinophile walked up to a young boy he had never met before, lifted his shirt and kissed him on the stomach. In broad public, in full view of cameras. La Russophobe doesn't know about you, dear reader, but she's got a nasty case of the heebie-jeebies. The Russian public, apparently, couldn't care less -- La Russophobe dares to wonder whether they would raise a finger against Putin even if he had taken a bite out of the poor little kid.
Kissing babies may be an old trick to impress voters, but President Vladimir Putin's decision to lift the shirt of a young boy and kiss his stomach in front of television cameras raised a few eyebrows and prompted many jokes Thursday.
Putin was shown on Channel One state television Wednesday walking through a Kremlin courtyard filled with tourists after a meeting with military academy graduates. Seeing a fair-haired boy of about 5, he kneeled down and asked his name. The startled boy replied, "Nikita." Putin lifted the boy's shirt and kissed his stomach. He then stood up, patted Nikita on the head and walked away.
Few Russian-language news organizations reported the incident. RIA-Novosti said only that Putin had stopped to talk to Russian, U.S. and French tourists. But Russian blogs and Internet message boards were awash in speculation as to what had prompted Putin's kiss. The top keyword search in the Russian blogosphere Thursday was "Putin kissed a boy," according to Yandex.
One blogger suggested Putin had had too much to drink at the meeting with the military graduates, while another joked that he had anointed his successor with the kiss. Some said Putin had two daughters and perhaps wished for a son. Ekho Moskvy host Alexander Plyushev wrote in his blog that if State Duma Deputy Alexander Chuyev, an anti-pornography crusader, had seen the footage, he would have accused state television of spreading child pornography.
The Kremlin press service declined to comment on why Putin had kissed the boy.
Satirist Maxim Konenenko spun a yarn on Vladimir.Vladimirovich.ru in which Putin, after kissing the boy, makes his way back to his office, stopping to unbutton the shirts and kiss the stomachs of every man he meets, including his deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov. Konenenko ends with Putin rushing into his office and ordering his secretary to bring in "Medvedev, Ivanov, Sechin, Sobyanin, Mironov, Fradkov, Gref, Kudrin, Shoigu, Zurabov, Lavrov ... in short, everyone."
Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst, said most Russians would think nothing of the kiss but state television might have run the footage for a reason. "They could have just buried it, but that might have sparked rumors," he said. "They probably figured it was better just to show the president as he is, knowing most people would take it in stride."
Cyrill Vatomsky and Vilhelm Konnander review the recent farce involving the termination of Vladimir Ustinov, which was supposedly a move to curb corruption in Russia, only to find that Comrade Ustinov instantly returned to power in a different position: