On Monday, 8 April 2013, Putin's tour of a trade fair in Hannover with German Chancellor Angela Merkel took an unexpected turn when three members of the controversial Ukrainian feminist and self-described “sextremist” organization FEMEN [en] staged a half-naked protest [photo gallery] aimed at the Russian president. Their bodies painted with anti-Putin slogans in English and Russian, the protestors rushed the President and Chancellor screaming “F**k the dictator!” before security dragged them away.
FEMEN's unconventional and confrontational style of protest has been the topic of controversy in both the West and Russia. However, from the very beginning, many were more intrigued by Putin's reaction to the protests than anything else.
Many on the RuNet were particularly struck by one widely distributed photo, in which the Russian President appears to smile and give two thumbs up, while Merkel looks on in shock. Neiswestnij [ru] claimed Putin's “duckface” reminded him of “Yeltsin in his last days in the Kremlin”. Within hours humurously photoshopped versions appeared online:
When asked about the events at a press conference [ru] later that day, Putin stunned some by expressing his overwhelmingly positive reaction to the protest.
Что касается акции – она мне понравилась. В принципе мы знали о том, что такая акция готивится. Скажите спасибо украинским девушкам. Они вам помогли раскрутить ярмарку… Секьюрити работают очень жестко. Такие здоровые лбы навалились на девчонок. Это.. мне кажется, что неправильно. Можно было бы и помягче с ними обращаться.
As for the protest, I liked it. We basically knew such a protest was being prepared. Say thank you to the Ukrainian girls. They helped you promote the trade fair… The security guards were a bit rough—such big lugs launching themselves at these girls. This is… it seems to me, wasn't right. They could have dealt with them more gently.
While Putin clearly enjoyed the display of “sextremism”, reaction to FEMEN's latest protest was primarily negative, leading to an unusual consensus between the RuNet's liberal and conservative factions.
Feminist blogger radulova [ru] was quick to denigrate FEMEN's supposed commitment to women's rights:
эти девушки, конечно, такие же феминистки, как и Pussy Riot. Ни те, ни другие не имеют никакого отношения к борьбе за равноправие полов. Просто слово, которое считается у наших теток и дядек почти матерным, им как бунтарям понравилось.
These girls, of course, are feminists in the same way Pussy Riot are. Neither one, nor the other has any relation to the battle for gender equality. [Feminism] is just a word that our aunts and uncles consider almost profanity, and these rebels like it for that reason.
Pro-kremlin blogger lera-vad [ru] was also not amused:
Забавно, конечно, но скоро эти абсолютно больные на голову тетки уже на детских утренниках голосискаться будут. Им бы в стриптизерш переквалифицироваться, на праздниках олигархов выпрыгивать из торта.
It's all very funny, of course, but soon these sick-in-the-head chicks will be flashing their breasts in children's matinees. They would be better of retraining as strippers and jumping out of cakes at oligarch's parties.
While many were entertained by Putin's reaction, some found his subsequent comments distasteful in light of how the Kremlin handled the Pussy Riot affair last year. Twitter user sangdrag [ru] was quick to point out what he saw as the President's hypocrisy:
Продажные СМИ наперебой хвалят путина, дескать добрый, пожалел пославших его на х+й Фемен. Что же он, крыса лживая, Pusse Riot не пожалеет?!
The mercenary media are all vying to praise Putin, saying how kind he is to pity Femen after they told him to go f**k himself. So why doesn't this lying rat pity Pussy Riot?!
While FEMEN issued a statement [en] denying Putin had any advance warning of the protest, the President's nonchalant reaction to the whole affair lends a certain credence to his claim to the contrary. Twitter user sovprezident [ru] posited the theory that the Kremlin could have hired the protesters, and warned Putin in advance. Members of FEMEN have been called agents provocateurs before, notably after cutting down a Christian cross with a chainsaw [en] at the height of the Pussy Riot scandal. Regardless of how much the Kremlin knew in advance, it is hard to deny that Putin emerged from what could have been an embarrassing affair looking far better composed than his detractors—whether that's the result of innate PR instincts or something more sinister is anyone's guess.