All around me in the departure lounge as I wait for my plane to London are fat, wealthy Muscovites, English-Russian dictionaries in their hands, their children running around in Gucci and other designer brands. A moment of combined irritation and sadness passes through me, and then I see the kid.
He is sitting between his parents, a plump little nipper, on his head a baseball cap. The garment is devoted to Batman, the Caped Crusader, and features the Batsign, the signal the cops use to summon the hero of Gotham City from his Batcave at times of peril and desperation.
But the cap is – unlike the rest of his outfit - a cheap fake, undoubtedly Chinese, and states, proudly, a travesty - ‘Buttman.’
Did the people who made it think that was how it was spelt? Or is it a crude bootleggers joke?
I stifle a laugh. And then a dart of despondency nearly takes my head off.
The kid will go to London, walk around the sights, perhaps pay a visit to Big Ben, and, everywhere, people will laugh at him and his baseball cap. The nipper, through no fault of his own, will be an object of ridicule.
I think about going up to the kid and his parents and warning them, but I’m not sure how to start. There doesn’t seem like a polite way to point out what they have done. How would you start that conversation? So in the end I just sit there and watch him. We are flying British Airways, and I notice a stewardess nudge at her colleague as we file on to the plane, gesturing in the kid’s direction.
The kid is, as fate would have it, sitting in the seat in front of me. The ‘Buttman’ logo is on the front and the back of the cap, and he leaves it on for the duration of the flight. When we arrive he files slowly down to customs with his parents and disappears. I never see him again, but he haunts me for months. His impending humiliation is, it suddenly seems to me, a very Russian fate. The Russians plugged into the media-saturated, English-speaking world far too late, and the vast majority are doomed, through no fault of their own, to forever remain enthusiastic ‘D’ students, grasping neither the subject, nor, indeed, what exactly is required of them.
I’m still thinking about Batman when I take a taxi back into Moscow from Domodedovo airport just over a week later. Driving through Moscow at night, the city’s towers and turrets suddenly remind me of nothing so much as Gotham City. I keep expecting to see Batman leaping through the gloom, the Caped Crusader, still suffering after all these years.
Somehow though, I could never picture Robin in Moscow. The city is far too tough for Batman’s trusty sidekick, and he would never be able to cut it here. He would be spat out by the city’s criminals, left to rot on some housing estate for stray dogs to pick at, his costume slightly ridiculous set against the urban wasteland that is ghetto Moscow. No - Moscow is most certainly for Batman alone.
Although, of course, I realise that Batman doesn’t exist, even if he did, he wouldn’t have any real competition were he to decide to relocate to Russia. Comic heroes have simply never been big here. When I first moved to Moscow and confessed a love for the British comic 2000AD, folk looked at me as if I was retarded. Or psychopathic. Or both. The art form was condemned as one of the evils of capitalism for most of the Soviet era, and comics have never been able to build a real following. Granted, there were a few Soviet comics for children (Murzilka, for example, which continues to this day), but they stubbornly distinguished themselves from the Western form of the genre by printing the characters’ words in boxes beneath the pictures rather than in “decadent” speech balloons. As for comics for adults, well, they were simply unheard of.
“They are words and pictures,” I would explain, when pressed as to my passion. “You know, like films. They just don’t move.”
But to no avail. I had some success in proving to a very small number of people that some comics could be intelligent, satirical and most definitely not for children, but it was hard going, I tell you.
Russia just doesn’t have any superheroes. Not the fictional kind, at least. That’s kind of understandable. When your entire history from the tsars to Lenin onwards has consisted of elevating your leaders to ubermensch status, superheroes in silly costumes don’t really stand a chance. Stalin versus Wolverine? Putin versus Spiderman? No contest.
(Just in case you were wondering, this column isn’t in any way meant to be a comment on the celebrated WikiLeaks disclosure that U.S. embassy officials in Moscow dubbed President Medvedev “Robin” to Prime Minister Putin’s “Batman”. Even if it did seem pretty spot on.)
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).