Especially with all the back-and-forth allegations of Russian interference in the US elections and as the dust and smoke still rise from Aleppo, Vladimir Putin continues his irresistible rise to global supervillain status. While my mind wandered on a recent flight, I found myself considering all the ways different game genres could paint Vladimir the Villain.
A cheap and cheerful videogame-type setting would presumably cast Putin as an end-level boss figure, a bare-chested and amped-up judo-fighting brick, Kalashnikov in one hand, rhythmic gymnast in the other, maybe even riding a bear while we’re at it. Nothing subtle, but then who would want it to be?
Within the Bondian/espionage milieu, there are, I think three obvious ways to go. He could be the aloof grandmaster along the lines of Alexei Kronsteen, the strategist in From Russia With Love (and one of my favourite cerebral baddies). Even though there is actually no evidence Putin plays chess, who cares? He would be a brooding figure behind the scenes, always with three contingency plans up his sleeve, although maybe in the final analysis his plots would not be able to resist all-American moxie, British stiff-upper-lip or whatever other counter-cliché the players can deploy.
Alternatively, he can be both mind and hand, the iron-fisted warlord who is engineering the nefarious scheme the heroes must foil but also a formidable personal antagonist for the suitably cataclysmic closing scene, like Colonel Tan-Sun Moon/Gustav Graves (in Die Another Day). After all, Moscow doesn’t lack for settings fit for such a fight—indeed, now it is reviving Soviet-era railway-mounted ICBM launchers, that also ticks a perennial Bond theme, of train as location as well as locomotion.
Finally, we could emphasise the kleptocracy angle and present Putin as the megalomaniac uber-capitalist out to make himself the richest man in the world. Goldfinger’s plan to irradiate the reserves in Fort Knox are nothing to what the president of Russia can do, or perhaps this is less of a dramatic plan and more a complex, octopoidal extension of financial empires across the globe. This could be a Gumshoe-meets-forensic accounting exercise of following the money all the way to the Kremlin…
Let’s step even further from reality. Maybe that’s not botox keeping Vlad unnaturally smooth and shiny, but he’s actually a Vampire. Just as well, in that notorious case where he scooped up a small boy on Red Square and kissed his tummy, he managed to restrain his initial, blood-sucking impulse. It also helps explain his propensity for wearing dark glasses…
Of course, it could be that he’s not just a vampire, but the vampire, at least in Russian mythic terms: Koshchei Besmertny, Koshchei the Undying. As an evil immortal, Putin/Koshchei has appeared throughout history – hence this meme of ‘past Putins’ – but has at last attained the position of power he needs for…what? Perhaps the reason for his annexation of Crimea was to send covert teams to plunder the deep cave-tombs of the Scythians for his long-stolen heart, which is hidden inside a needle, inside an egg, inside a duck, inside a hare, locked in an iron chest? Robbie Williams’ recent lyrics (in ‘Party like a Russian’) that one “put a bank inside a car inside a plane inside a boat” sounds like a nice comment on modern Russian business, but is in fact a call to arms to fellow occult investigators to get on it, before Koshchei’s people find what they are looking for…
But perhaps this is too dark? Putin could instead be the Mythic Archetype of the Rus’, a modern-day equivalent of the bogatyrs, ancient heroes like Ilya Muromets, a modern fantasy or, better yet, superhero-genre character able to leap tall Kremlins at a single bound, and smash through the Urals with his Great Patriotic Judo Kick. For a more spiritual take, make him the avatar of St Vladimir, who brought Christianity to the Rus’ and had the pagan idols toppled in Kyiv. Enough of his supporters, after all, present him as the holy defender of the Rus’, their values (whatever that really means) and the Russian Orthodox faith. (Including a depressing number of ‘useful idiots’ in the West, for that matter.)
Of course perhaps we are making exactly the same mistake as many Kremlinologists, making it all about Putin. For all the myth-making around him, he could actually be the Pawn of a Dark Conspiracy. Those annual trips to the Orthodox monastery at Mount Athos may instead be to conclave with his masters, whether corrupt cultists, or a US military-industrial complex desperate for a geopolitical enemy to justify their procurement budgets. Or remember when he dropped out of sight for a couple of weeks in 2015? That was actually when he was abducted by the aliens and replaced with a robot version, or one of their own wearing a mimic smartsuit. Or infested with chthonic mind-parasites as part of a master plan to immanentise the eschaton and bring Great Cthulhu from the depths? Perhaps it is even the case that poor, mocked, despised Dmitri Medvedev is actually the sinister mastermind in the shadows, for whom Putin is just a convenient front man?
All told, that nice Mr Putin gives us so many options!