Some representative comments on recent Instagram pictures include: “hey baby let’s not fight,” “Plz wait until the next euphoria ep,” “youre not yourself i know you’re better than this,” “my zaddy plz don’t start a war,” “Please don’t bomb us my cat is still alive” and “Baby.. don’t do this.. we can’t keep fighting like this, it’s not healthy for our relationship!” To date, it doesn’t seem as if Putin has acknowledged any of these messages, let alone taken them to heart.
What the hell is going on here? Great question. For starters, we should note that Putin doesn’t actually use Instagram — which would have been plenty weird in itself. As the online Russian newspaper Lenta.ru reported in the tweet above, these screenshots come from a “fake” page that purports to be an official Kremlin channel and has nearly 400,000 followers. To the TikTok generation, that appears to be a good enough target for collective action. Whenever the page updates, it triggers a flood of anti-war, ironically pro-Putin sentiment from English-speakers. Here’s how they reacted to an update on his negotiations with NATO:
The gag appears to be a finely layered one. Calling Putin a “daddy” brings submissive horny culture to the logical extreme of fawning over an authoritarian leader, though it also sends up the decades of state propaganda that have painted him as the very portrait of masculinity — an often shirtless, steely-gazed alpha who is perpetually shooting, fishing, scuba diving, horseback riding, playing hockey and taking down opponents on the judo mat. You could say the Gen Z brigade is mocking this style of self-presentation, intimately familiar as they are with how a digital presence is crafted and manipulated. Whatever their effect in the motherland, to young Americans, Putin’s fine-tuned imagery scans like stuff from a very ambitious Tinder profile.
Underneath the affected thirst, we can detect some actual unease at the prospect of a geopolitical crisis. In the first days of 2020, as you may have forgotten, social media was overrun with memes envisioning the start of World War III due to rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The anxiety of that looming conflict was quickly subsumed by panic over the novel coronavirus — but you can still look back at the nihilist humor that characterized younger Americans’ response to the prospect of a military draft or attacks on domestic soil. This latest fad blends the momentum of death with the sexual drive, what Freud termed Thanatos and Eros, respectively. The internet keeps giving us new ways to express the entanglement of these two forces, whether by tweeting that you want a hot celebrity to run you over with a truck or informing a strongman with designs on a neighboring country that you don’t have a gag reflex.
If all these come-ons are unlikely to change the course of world events, that too is part of the joke: We’re helpless in the face of history, so we may as well be shameless sluts! Do it for posterity, baby. At least you’re sort of disrupting the narrative that Putin has arranged as a pretext for sending troops across the border. Who knows? Maybe the ridiculous flattery will melt his icy heart, scuttling his plans. Wouldn’t be much crazier than what’s happened so far.