Vladimir Putin doesn’t mind being depicted bare-chested atop a stately steed or even riding a Photoshopped bear. But paint his lips a ruby red, add a touch of eyeshadow and a little blush to bring out those high cheekbones and its Moscow-to-a-brick your next stop will be the gulag.
That’s what the Russian strongman’s subjects, especially gay ones appalled by the state-ordered crackdown on homosexuality, are learning now that depictions of the one-time KGB chief in anything less than a flattering and machismo light have been banned by official edict.
Trouble is, most of Russia’s media hasn’t dared to print examples of what is and isn’t an acceptable picture of Putin because, well, such images aren’t allowed to be published.
The English-language Moscow Times did have a go, however, reproducing a poster that is a hybrid of a circus clown and a cross-dressed cutie-Putin-pie.
The only guideline aspiring satirists have to go by is a recent addition to an ever-growing official list of banned topics and subjects, Item 4071, which was made law in order to combat an attitude described only vaguely by officials as “extremism”.
You might think that would apply to fundamentalists and terrorist cells, such as the as-yet-unidentified bombers who killed 14 people this week in a pair of St Petersburg subway blasts, which it does. But Russians now know that making with the Maybelline on their President is an offence only slightly less serious than blowing up a trainload of commuters.
It is a grave crime, says Item 4071, to imply “the supposed nonstandard sexual orientation of the president of the Russian Federation”.
Those found guilty face stiff prison terms, although one of the first satirists, a gifted airbrush artist who goes by the name A. V. Tsvetkov, was found innocent when charged with releasing a slew of doctored images on a Facebook-style Russian social media site.
Mr Tsvetkov had no reason to celebrate, however. The judge who sentenced him in absentia – he was not allowed to leave the remand centre to appear in court – concluded that anyone who joked about Mr Putin must be crazy and acquitted him on grounds of mental infirmity.
Having established he was mad, the judge then ordered Mr Tsvetkov to a term of indefinite detention in a lunatic asylum.