It's been a busy summer in Russia, electorally speaking. The malaise and tea-leaf reading of the spring have started to dissipate as the December parliamentary elections and the March presidential elections draw near. Powerful constituencies have emerged, and they've been lobbying hard for their interests and their candidates. Best of all? They are really, really hot.
First came Putin's Army. It was led by Diana, a self-proclaimed college student in vertiginous heels and cleavage to match, a girl who claimed to have "lost my mind for a person who has changed the life of our country. He's a good politician and a fabulous man." That man, shockingly, was Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, and decider of the question of the year: Will he change his status from "basically in charge" back to "officially in charge"? While Putin spends his time deciding whether he or current President Dmitry Medvedev will become president (for six years) in 2012, Putin's Army has not shied from making its feelings very clear. Last month, Diana and the girls of Putin's Army announced a contest to "Tear it up for Putin!" -- "it" being, say, your shirt -- a contest in which you can win an iPad, even if you can't win Putin's election for him. Putin's Army even had an official draft day in the center of Moscow, where two dozen young ladies, wearing teensy undershirts printed with Putin's face in pop-art pink, gathered to parade on a makeshift catwalk and draft other soldiers to their cause.
Medvedev's supporters, however, were not to be left behind. They formed an army, too -- an army of three -- called it Medvedev's Girls, and came out to another square in central Moscow with a different gimmick. In support of Medvedev's anti-beer initiative, they asked the strollers-by: "Choose beer or us!" What this meant in practice was that people could dump their beers into waiting buckets, and, for each beer dumped, Medvedev's Girls would dump an article of clothing.
Then there's "I Really Do Like Putin," which staged a bikini car wash in Moscow to support the premier. If that didn't convince undecided Russian voters, the group's next event definitely didn't. On Monday, it held a Tandem Ride with Medvedev's Girls. They paired off on tandem bikes and cycled around Moscow. (This, mind you, was not in order to express support for the two-man tandem presidency of Putin and Medvedev, but because Putin promised Nashi, the Kremlin-made youth group, that he would lose a pound and learn how to ride a tandem bike with Medvedev.)
And then there's my personal favorite, a music video by the group Girls for Putin. The video ends with a bang -- the smashing of a watermelon with a baseball bat -- but it's more a pastiche of black panties, Jack Daniels, and tears of heartbreak, fitting for a raging rock ballad called "I Want to be Your Koni."
"I want to be your Koni / on the table and on the balcony," the girls sing. Koni, in case you're wondering, is Putin's beloved black Labrador.
It's funny, this stuff, and yet it betrays something deeper even than the predominance of sex in Russian public life or in Russian youth politics. That part is obvious: Sex sells. More important is what this says about the current incarnation of the Russian political system.
When the Kremlin created Nashi, the first of its youth groups, in 2005, Russia -- rightly or wrongly -- felt under attack. The so-called Color Revolutions had swept through one former Soviet republic after another, bringing -- in Russia's perception -- American influence right into its backyard. George W. Bush had started a war with Iraq, Russia's long-time, lucrative ally, and lectured Moscow on democracy and human rights.