Article / I write about how an authoritarian leader became a national celebrity.
Last December my co-workers and I crowded around my office computer and watched a YouTube video of the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin singing Blueberry Hill at a children’s charity in St. Petersburg.
After playing the beginning notes of the song on a piano, Putin rose, sauntered over to the microphone, put his left hand in the pocket of his suit pants, and sang to an audience of apparently intoxicated U.S. celebrities.
The sight was reminiscent of a scene from a David Lynch movie; soft, slow singing in a particularly absurd environment—Sharon Stone violently snapping her fingers, Goldie Hawn swaying and mouthing the words, Gerard Depardieu clapping along, and Putin singing, while many little lights shimmered behind him in a seemingly infinite grid.
I felt like pinching myself to make sure that the scene was real. That Putin, the man who (even from his post as Prime Minister) maintains an authoritarian grip over a country that continues to slip lower in the corruption perceptions index and has fallen deep into a culture of impunity under his watch, was eliciting this reaction from U.S. celebrities felt to me very twisted. And the fact that he was up there singing at all, that his performance was actually oddly charming, puzzled me. It was very different from anything I had ever seen.
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