Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP - Getty Images
Anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny speaks during a rally against the December 4 parliament elections in Moscow, on Dec. 24, 2011. Tens of thousands of people filled an avenue in Moscow to protest against the alleged rigging of parliamentary polls in a new challenge to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's authority.
LONDON – Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and those who work for him, seem determined to turn a relatively unknown, 30-something protester into a larger-than-life political rival.
It all began on a cold, December 4 afternoon, when Alexei Navalny stood up among a small crowd in Moscow and blasted Putin's United Russia party as one of “crooks and thieves” who had just stolen the parliamentary elections. The Kremlin put him in jail for two weeks. The tactic was obvious: keeping Navalny locked up would hinder his ability to organize a massive anti-Putin demonstration on December 24.
Instead, the move backfired and ended up boosting Navalny's profile – and street cred – at a time when the splintered opposition was hungry for a new leader.
By Dec. 24 he was out of prison and had become the face of the opposition. His rant in the bitter cold that day inspired more than 100,000 people in the street to “take back the election – by force if necessary” from those who had stolen it.
But catapulting Navalny into instant celebrity wasn't good enough for the over-anxious Kremlinites. Now they've made him the face of their own absurdity as well.
Open up last Saturday's edition of Arguments & Facts, a popular national daily, and you'll find a photo of a beaming Navalny standing next to Putin's arch enemy, the oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky, himself sporting a Cheshire cat smile.
A screen grab from the Guardian shows the original photo of Alexei Navalny with Prokhorov on the top left, the doctored one with Berezovsky and some other fakes that have been circulated online.
The caption reads: “Navalny has never hidden that Boris Berezovsky gives him money for the struggle with Putin.”
Well, it took Navalny and his corral of fellow bloggers a few nano-seconds to work out that the photo had been doctored.
In the actual photo, Navalny is standing next to another, Putin-friendly oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets and a candidate for Russia's presidency.
But standing next to Prokhorov is seen as benign because he's neither considered an agitator nor a serious threat to the Kremlin.
Instead of just pointing out the fakery, Navalny’s supporters took things to the next level – by beaming photos across the blogosphere of him standing next to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a space alien, Putin and other action men.
Rich history of air-brushing
The air-brushing of photos for propaganda reasons is an old Soviet art. Joseph Stalin routinely had friends and allies erased from photos taken with him when they became his enemies (often after he’d had them killed, as in the famous case of Nikolai Yezhov, the leader of the NKVD, precursor of the KGB, in the 1920s.)
My personal faking favorite is the iconic shot of several Soviet soldiers holding up the hammer-sickle-flag above the German Reichstag building, marking the effective end of the war in Europe in 1945. If you look closely you'll see that the soldier supporting the flag-bearer is wearing a watch on his left arm. In the original, however, he has watches on both arms – suggesting that he might have looted them. The Russian magazine Ogonok removed the second watch just before publication.
Of course, the practice is not restricted to Russia. Ever since photographs became a means by which world leaders defined themselves to their public, photos of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Tse-tung, and going back in time, Grant, Sherman and, yes, even Abraham Lincoln, were doctored in order to enhance their image. .
But seldom has a manipulated photo backfired with the same concussive effect that Navalny's has.
Staff / Reuters
Activists of the pro-Kremlin youth group "Nashi" gather to protest against the activity of Russian blogger, political and social activist Alexei Navalny with a fake placard of him in central Moscow Dec. 26, 2011.
One can even imagine the taciturn Putin, an ex-KGB agent, letting out an unforced guffaw as he scans Navalny's blog and finds the latest “photo-toad” (an English translation of the Russian slang for a doctored photo) of Navalny standing next to Bender, the robot from the comic strip Futurama.
Putin's camp had no doubt hoped to turn Navalny into an enemy of Russia's people. Instead, the Kremlin itself has become a lightning rod for Russians' scorn and mockery, and Navalny has seen himself launched into the stratosphere of a Marvel Comics hero, without even having to lift a megaphone.
In the lead-up to the March presidential election, Putin – still considered a shoo-in to win it all – may yet turn out to be his own worst propagandist.
Jim Maceda is an NBC news correspondent based in London who has covered Russia and the Soviet Union since the 1980s.