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Analysis & Opinion
30.07.08 Mooching Off Fame
By Yelena Biberman

Nicholas II toppled Joseph Stalin from the most popular historical figure post in mid-July in the infamous Name of Russia contest. The surge in Nicholas’ popularity coincided with the 90th anniversary of the execution of the last Russian tsar and his family.

All eyes were on Nicholas over the several exceptionally humid days of his popularity peak. This did not make his job any easier, though. “I don’t like my job very much,” confessed the lookalike namesake in the Moscow Red Square. “People sometimes come up just to yell at me and tell me off. These are usually old women. Then there are those who do not recognize me at all, pointing and asking: Who is that solider? These are usually children, but some of them are as old as 14 or 15.”

It costs 100 rubles (just under $5) to have a picture taken with Nicholas. Sometimes his comrade Vladimir Lenin double joins the frame at no extra charge. “Lenin is more popular than I am,” admitted Nicholas. “And he is much better treated. Old women come up to him just to express their admiration. Visitors from the provinces try to strike up friendly conversations with him all the time because they recognize him immediately.”

No wonder Lenin has steadily secured a spot in the Name of Russia top troika. He is currently leading the list.

Fifteen years into the gig, the Lenin double appears no longer able to hide his being tired and worn out. When not posing for photographs or feeding pigeons, he rests his arm and head on a steel post. One subject that gets him animated, though, is his main competitor – the Vladimir Putin lookalike Valeriy. “He charges 1,000 rubles,” smirked the impersonator of the great chief of the October Revolution. “He says that it is because his ‘original’ is still alive and in office,” explained Nicholas. “And he gets enough clients.”

Unlike his more senior colleagues, Valeriy adorns the Red Square only when the weather is good and only for a few afternoon hours a day. But, despite his high price, he is rather modest. “Putin had already said it all for me. What can I really add?” he explained through a wax-like smile. And it’s hard to argue with this logic.

Marveling at the lookalikes long enough, as many tourists do, one can’t help but wonder about the men behind the masks: their lives, what inspired them to work as living wax figures, and whether it’s all worth their while.

“Nikita Khrushchev” is a Moscow clown with his own personal website. “Mikhail Gorbachev” used to work as “Lavrentiy Beria,” but when the previous Gorbachev impersonator died, “Beria” took his place. Though, the new Gorbachev is now finding it difficult to keep up his likeness, as he has lost significant weight and is battling diabetes. But, as long as there is public demand for them, the doubles will keep on adorning Red Square. And this demand appears to be only growing, as Russians seem enamored with the idea of a double.

The double of a double

There is something disappointing about Dmitry Medvedev’s complete lack of resemblance to his “original.” Consequently, public opinion experts find themselves debating whether, given this fact, Medvedev still makes for a convincing Putin “double.”

Last month, the Foundation for Effective Politics, led by the Kremlin-connected political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, held a roundtable that addressed how Medvedev is presented to the public on national television. Pavlovsky complained that Medvedev looks ridiculous because he is being shown in the same style as was Putin when he was president. But, since Medvedev is not as rhetorically skilled as Putin, it makes the young president look bad.

Another roundtable participant, member of the Public Chamber Vitaly Tretyakov, pointed to Medvedev’s height as the reason for why his image fails to measure up to Putin’s. “I look with horror at what they are doing with Medvedev on television! With some collective farmers, some weavers, some schoolgirls… He is shorter than all of them, and he doesn’t know what to do with them – he sometimes kisses them, he sometimes doesn’t kiss them,” explains Tretyakov. “He doesn’t know what to do and so is forced every time to turn to the subject of football.”

Alexander Oslon, head of the Public Opinion Foundation, pointed to the fact that no matter what Medvedev does, he still looks good doing it, because when the public looks at Medvedev, it sees Putin. According to Oslon, television is not “killing Medvedev” because “the only factor that influences Medvedev [and his image] is that Putin picked him. And public opinion about Putin has already been cemented, and nothing can change that.”

Given all this, it is not surprising that there is no Medvedev double on Red Square yet. The market has yet to ripen for the double of a double.
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