The Olympics are a boon to politically inclined artists and satirists. The games have long since devolved into a crass international marketing scheme, which offers a ready-made iconography ripe for parody and repurposing. Add to that instantly recognizable trove of visual icons the thuggish and clownlike figure of Russian president Vladimir Putin—a walking self-parody of blunt autocratic power—and you have a rich environment for viral critique.
Among the images that are circulating widely as the Sochi Olympics begin are a series initiated by artist Vasily Slonov: “Welcome! Sochi 2014.”
These poster-like images use a standard format, with the word “Welcome!” blazoned on top and “Sochi 2014” in white, stencil-like typeface on black banners. But what is in between is anything but welcoming. Slonov mashes up elements from the Olympics visual brand—mascots, sports equipment and the five, interlocking Olympics rings are recurring tropes—with iconography drawn from Russian culture, including television programs and folk figures that may not be particularly familiar in the West.
Sadomasochism is a recurring visual element, with gags, whips and leather face masks adding a dark twist to seemingly innocuous figures. Round bodied Matryoshka dolls have vampire fangs and bat wings, or streak across the sky like missiles or combat planes. Stalin, Lenin and Putin are familiar figures, made to seem menacing, or ridiculous, or both.
I spoke with Mark Yoffe, curator of the International Counterculture Archive at George Washington University about the posters. Yoffe emphasizes the presence of a peculiarly Russian sense of self-loathing, or inadequacy, in many of the Slonov’s images.
“They are very witty images which hearken back to the tradition of the Soviet poster, and make fun of that tradition,” he says. But “what is very important is the emphasis on self-degradation, self-humiliation, this is something the Russians are big on.”
The critique of the Olympics, he says, has become a full-scale critique of Russian society. “They see the Sochi Olympics as this incredible phenomenon of mafia banditry, cronyism, ecological destruction, misuse of government funds. From the point of view of pure social and economic criticism, this Olympics opened itself to an enormous amount of satire, all sorts of jokes and caricatures, cartoons and photographic collages.”
But it is also a self-reflexive critique: “It is as if they are saying, ‘Come on, you can’t trust us to have the Olympics. We are stupid, crude, with this Nazi-Stalinist Putin regime.’”
Among the figures which will likely be new to most people outside of Russia, says Yoffe, is Cheburashka.
“Cheburashka was kind of a melancholy, meek, sweet, semi-bear, semi-rodent, an anthropomorphized figure, and children still love it,” he says, of the cartoon character created by Eduard Uspensky in the 1960s. “It is a cult classic, which I always hated myself because it is intolerably sentimental.”
It may have been sentimental, but part of its appeal had to do with how strangely it fitted into Soviet society.
“The cartoon was a very typically Soviet production of material that kind of was allowed to pass because they didn’t know what to do with, they didn’t see anything specific that they could attack in it,” he says. “It didn’t carry any kind of Soviet message, but it didn’t contradict Soviet messages, so it was allowed to pass.”
But now Cheburashka, depicted as a menacing figure behind a mask, or sitting in an outhouse, is back, and looking anything but cuddly, cute and sentimental.
Another Russian cartoon character put to new uses is the Hare from the series “Nu, pogodi” (“Hey, Just You Wait”).
“It is kind of a Russian version of Road Runner cartoons, a very clever hare that always manages to outwit the evil wolf that is hunting him. In this case, the hare looks insane, a monstrosity, a drug addict, or street bum, symbolizing the audience that will show up, the Soviet Everyman, degenerate, zonked out on mushrooms.”
And zonked on out a very particular mushroom.
It “is a psychedelic mushroom,” which has its own iconography, says Yoffe. “It was the mushroom of choice of the Vikings [known as the Berserker Mushroom] and that they ate before battle, to become beserkers.”
Even images of Putin depict him not just as a political menace, but very much a home-grown, Russian menace.
“They portray Putin as the exemplification of crudeness,” says Yoffe. “He is one of us. It is not that we are the crude masses and there is an elite on top of us, but he is just as crude and banal and trite as everyone else. That was the perception in his first two terms, but now in his third term there is a sense that he is a criminal, a very salt-of-the-earth, banal exemplification of Russian street-level criminality, with a criminal mode of speech, criminal mannerisms, a criminal look. It exemplifies the general crudeness of society.”
As the world gives its own critique of the Sochi Olympics, and by extension a critique of Russian society under Putin, these images, Yoffe reminds us, show us a glimpse of a powerful internal social critique that isn’t always acknowledged outside of Russia and Russian-speaking online communities.