This year has brought a wealth of analysis from odd corners on Vladimir Putin and Russia's place in the world. Putin is "one of the great living world leaders," Under Siege star Steven Seagal said this spring. "Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler," England's Prince Charles said in May.
But there may be no take more outlandish than what World Wrestling Entertainment is providing viewers on Monday Night RAW.
Putin has been a rhetorical fixture in the WWE since May, when he made his photo debut as the "idol" of the Russian duo Lana and Rusev. Lana, who is played by an American, is the manager of Rusev, a hulking wrestler billed as "a hero of the Russian Federation" (played, of course, by a Bulgarian man).
Last week on RAW, Lana seemingly made reference to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (which WWE denies), calling out to the American crowd, "You blame Russia for current events?" adding that "you Americans should be scolded for your warmongering in Afghanistan and Iraq. You Americans should be insulted and afraid."
On last night's Monday Night RAW, the WWE's not-so-cold war peaked with a discussion of flags between the Russian contingent of Lana and Rusev and the American wrestler Jack Swagger and his manager, Zeb Colter.
WWE Takes on Putin
"Your American flag is a statement," Lana began in something resembling a Russian accent, over chants of "U-S-A" at the Houston stadium. The flag "used to be a supremacy over all the nations. It used to fly over battlefields, on the masts of ships. It even landed on the surface of the moon itself. And where is your so-called old glory now? It is a faded banner for a ruined nation ruled by cowards that get fat off of your apathy."
She continued with praise of "the fearless leader Vladimir Putin" (whose face was promptly projected on screen and booed) and condemnation of the "puppet President Obama" who "wags his finger like a schoolteacher."
But maybe the best part of the back-and-forth came from Zeb Colter, who came back with a soliloquy on the meaning of the American flag. The flag, he said,
represents a family sitting around the table at Thanksgiving with their brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, giving thanks that they survived another year. We the people. It represents thousands of Americans standing around a TV set watching a football game. We the people. It represents a father and his son fishing, a mother and daughter learning to cook together. It represents pickup trucks, pretty girls, and beer.
It's easy to laugh off this exchange for being what it is—a simply scripted TV show, laced with sexism, aimed at adolescent boys and young men. But the thing is, WWE is incredibly popular, across multiple demographics. Last week's RAW had nearly 4.5 million viewers. That's for a three-hour show. Monday Night RAW currently tops Nielson's Twitter TV ratings, a measure of how much attention any show gets on the social-media platform.
Using Russia and Putin as foils for the United States makes sense for the WWE. A CNN poll last week found that just 19 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Russia. And for some viewers, the framing of Putin as manly leader versus Obama as ineffective nag is just validation. There still is a cult of personality surrounding Putin in the U.S., where some on the American Right have openly admired the Russian president's over-the-top macho-ness, especially when compared to Obama.
"Russian President Vladimir Putin has given us good material to work with," a WWE spokesman told The Daily Beast in May. And as The Daily Beast notes, that material is paying off not just in the U.S. but in Russia, too. Two WWE shows actually air on Russian television, where Putin's approval rating is at 83 percent and Lana and Rusev aren't the bad guys.
In Washington this year, the conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and what the Obama administration should do about it, has been all encompassing. But for millions of Americans, the U.S.-Russia row is most visible as a pivotal plot point on one of their favorite TV shows.