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VIDEO: Behold Russia’s Latest August Curse

August has always been the cruelest month in Moscow, but this year it’s become caricature.

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There's a whole entry in Wikipedia about Russia's August curse. August, the theory goes, is when contemporary Russian history lurches forward; most of us foreign correspondents tried to take our vacations earlier in the summer, in order to be in Moscow in August to see what would happen. In years past, August has brought dramatic, world-historical events: the 1991 putsch, the 1998 default, the beginning of the second Chechen war, the 2008 war in Georgia, and the 2010 wildfires.

August is when the Kursk submarine suffered a catastrophic explosion, slowly suffocating 118 personnel at the bottom of the Barents Sea; President Vladimir Putin didn’t bat an eye telling Larry King that “it sank.” August is when two Chechen female suicide bombers bribed their way onto Russian commercial jets and brought them down from the sky almost simultaneously. August is when, in 1991, Russia sidestepped a bloody civil war and strode hopefully into the post-communist future. August is when those dreams broke down seven years later, when the economy collapsed, helping solidify the desire for a strong hand. August is when Putin launched a war in the Muslim south one year later, turning that desire into a tangible reality.

This year, August brings us something less epic but equally telling. It brings us the denouement of the trial of a Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, who was picked up by the Russians in Crimea last year and charged with “terrorism” for allegedly, implausibly plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin. He is facing 23 years in prison, on top of what he has already experienced: torture and threats of rape and murder. In his closing statement this week, he said he is willing to “suffer or die” for his beliefs.

There’s a whole entry in Wikipedia about Russia’s August curse. August, the theory goes, is when contemporary Russian history lurches forward; most of us foreign correspondents tried to take our vacations earlier in the summer, in order to be in Moscow in August to see what would happen. In years past, August has brought dramatic, world-historical events: the 1991 putsch, the 1998 default, the beginning of the second Chechen war, the 2008 war in Georgia, and the 2010 wildfires.

August is when the Kursk submarine suffered a catastrophic explosion, slowly suffocating 118 personnel at the bottom of the Barents Sea; President Vladimir Putin didn’t bat an eye telling Larry King that “it sank.” August is when two Chechen female suicide bombers bribed their way onto Russian commercial jets and brought them down from the sky almost simultaneously. August is when, in 1991, Russia sidestepped a bloody civil war and strode hopefully into the post-communist future. August is when those dreams broke down seven years later, when the economy collapsed, helping solidify the desire for a strong hand. August is when Putin launched a war in the Muslim south one year later, turning that desire into a tangible reality.

This year, August brings us something less epic but equally telling. It brings us the denouement of the trial of a Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, who was picked up by the Russians in Crimea last year and charged with “terrorism” for allegedly, implausibly plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin. He is facing 23 years in prison, on top of what he has already experienced: torture and threats of rape and murder. In his closing statement this week, he said he is willing to “suffer or die” for his beliefs.

This August also brings us Stas Baretsky, a cartoonish musician-cum-funeral home administrator leading a band of Cossacks through a St. Petersburg supermarket and prowling the aisles for contraband Western goods. He is a massive, fleshy cube of a man, swaddled in a maroon blazer, festooned with gold chains, and ripping up cans of foreign-brand beer with his teeth. (Baretsky is a former member of the punk-ska band Leningrad and says he was tapped by local Cossacks to be their culture minister.)

This is what Russia has become: a macabre cartoon in which simulacra of its past, warped and distorted by time and nostalgia, maraud through modernity, angling at grandeur and international significance, but looking, ultimately, like a caricature.

Screengrab via YouTube

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.

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