Last week, a group of Russian aviation students unleashed a firestorm when a decidedly homoerotic video of them dancing to the 2002 electro hit “Satisfaction” found its way onto YouTube. What has happened since has been unexpectedly revealing — so to speak — of the real Russia, the one that exists beyond the conservative anti-Western facade put up by the Kremlin.
The original Benny Benassi video to accompany “Satisfaction” shows models slick with sweat, using power tools while licking their lips — a campy dig at the objectification of the female body for marketing purposes. The Russian students aren’t the first to be inspired to make their own version: In 2013, for instance, British military personnel made a parody in which they, too, wore almost nothing and danced erotically while cleaning their living quarters.
The Russian clip resembles the British version: It follows a gyrating, nearly naked cadet up the stairs of a dormitory building where the camera floats through various spaces typical of post-Soviet communal interiors. He encounters other young men dancing suggestively while engaged in household chores. In one scene, a cadet comes out of a bathroom stall and playfully tilts his peaked cap. In another, a young man thrusts away while ironing his uniform. A banana makes a pivotal appearance. At the end, the dozen or so performers converge to shake their butts together, with youthful abandon.
The reaction was immediate.
The Ulyanovsk Institute of Civil Aviation, where these students study, trains civilian pilots, not military ones. But as the clip went viral, officials began accusing the young men of desecrating their uniforms and offending veterans, as if they’d neglected their duties to the motherland by staging an ironic erotic performance. State television also immediately suggested the participants were gay — another taboo in modern Russia.
“There has been nothing like it in the 90-year-old history of Russian civil aviation,” fumed the country’s aviation watchdog, Rosaviatsia, warning that all those implicated in the “immoral” video would be expelled. “How can you ridicule what is holy!” the institute’s principal said plaintively, even comparing the performance to the band Pussy Riot, whose members were jailed after singing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral.
One might have reasonably expected, at this point, a sad end for these students: public apologies, expulsions, smears on state TV, even prosecutions for distributing gay propaganda. Instead something unexpected happened: Young people across the country started making similar videos in support.
Within a few days, students at a nearby agricultural college uploaded a video made in a similar dorm, in which they wore balaclavas and lathered one another with shaving cream. Future construction workers followed suit, dancing in their showers in hard hats; another clip, filmed in a stable, featured a young man cheekily biting a carrot and another dancing on top of a horse. By then, the meme was unstoppable: Other clips in the “Satisfaction challenge” have now featured pensioners in a communal flat, swimmers dancing underwater, future doctors, actors. A petition demanding that the cadets be allowed to continue their education gathered nearly 70,000 signatures.
The tide began to turn. National television, which walks a fine line between supporting the official ideology and trying to stay relevant, wavered. “They are 17 to 18 years old. Do we as a country really think they should be expelled?” exclaimed the Channel One personality Artem Sheynin, donning a similar peaked cap on his show. The channel’s top talk-show host, Ivan Urgant, eventually danced, albeit rather torpidly, to “Satisfaction” on his evening program. By the time transportation prosecutors, who were dispatched to the academy, concluded that they had found no reason to expel the students, the victory was complete.
Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, have for decades been analyzed in a simplistically binary fashion. Soviet society was viewed as largely comprising Homo Sovieticus — individuals devoid of free will who blindly followed the party line — and a few heroic dissidents; Russian society, similarly, is divided into the 86 percent of “patriots” who support Vladimir Putin’s policies and embrace “traditional values,” and the “liberal” opposition, which supports Western values, doesn’t like the growing role of the church and occasionally protests. This binary leaves little room for unexpected phenomena such as a funny homoerotic dance clip that is not only created in a provincial state institution but also goes on to inspire over a dozen more clips, made by people across the country, in solidarity.
For Western observers whose only means of understanding Russia is through media coverage, the private lives of Russians are relatively inaccessible. And so it’s easy to assume a majority are on board with conservative policies, agree that Russia is surrounded by enemies and fear their children’s succumbing to dangerous gay propaganda. But scratch the surface and most people don’t share the kind of neo-Soviet puritanism pushed by the current traditionalist union of Russia’s church and state. This is especially true with the generation whose entire lives correspond with the Putin era, like these students, who grew up on the internet and find it easier to relate to the YouTube videos created by and for a globalized world rather than Soviet dogmas of right and wrong. How will the Kremlin relate to these youths when they head to the polls for the first time in March?
“There is an official order, a sort of shop-sign Russia, which does not correspond to the real Russia, which is a lot more alive,” Mark Shein, who runs the popular satirical news project Lentach that pokes fun of official Russian ideology with viral memes, told me.
The fundamental reason for the semi-naked flash mob, he says, is that the existing system doesn’t have anything to offer the new generation. “There is an elite made up of old geezers and a new generation of Europeans that don’t understand where they are, since they live one life on the internet, but in reality are in a state with an aging leader who has been in power for 17 years.”
In that situation, there is not much left to do but strip your uniform and shake your behind.
Maria Antonova is a Moscow-based reporter for Agence France-Presse.