Musk mania hits Moscow

Elon Musk is rare figure who holds near-universal appeal in Russia, a country not easily impressed, especially by outsiders. But why? Isabelle Khurshudyan and Mary Ilyushina find out

Saturday 04 December 2021 00:01
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<p>Kirill Karavaev in his T-shirt shop in Moscow with one bearing the message: “How About This Elon Musk?”</p>

Kirill Karavaev in his T-shirt shop in Moscow with one bearing the message: “How About This Elon Musk?”

One of the most trendy “memes” in Russia is an ode to Elon Musk – the Tesla chief executive, SpaceX founder, aspiring Mars coloniser and arguably Russians’ favourite international figure.

“How do you like that, Elon Musk?” say captions in online satire about Russia’s technological savvy. Examples include potholes covered up by grass or an old car driven in reverse on a motorway.

Musk, also a lover of memes, responded to one, in Russian, saying: “Haha how cool.”

As if Russians needed another reason to adore him.

Musk is rare figure who holds near-universal appeal in a country not easily impressed, especially by outsiders. But why?

Some say it’s his adventures in space exploration, a topic enveloped in Soviet-era nostalgia for Russians.

But others suggest that the Musk fandom is a commentary on Russian society, where big opportunities and entrepreneurial risk-taking are uncommon. Or maybe it’s a reaction against wealthy and state-protected oligarchs – often accused of corruption and lacking Musk’s eccentric and eclectic online persona.

While the mega-rich Musk has his critics in the US and elsewhere – in large part because of tax issues and his hard-charging style – his fan club in Russia extends all the way to the Kremlin

And many Russians consider Musk’s story – immigrating to the US from South Africa and finding success – an inspiration.

“He became a bright antithesis to Russian capitalism, a guide on how you can get rich in the right way and how you can spend the money you earned in the right way,” says Alexey Firsov, who founded Platforma, a sociological research and consulting firm and who wrote a report on Musk’s mass popularity in Russia.

“The Russian environment could not produce this cult-like figure and it is an easy import because Musk is not associated with some Wall Street billionaire, he is not a native American and he engages with Russia. So he is not perceived as a stranger and this image is important to a stratum of people who are in need of one.”

While the mega-rich Musk has his critics in the US and elsewhere – in large part because of tax issues and his hard-charging style – his fan club in Russia extends all the way to the Kremlin.

In February, Musk tagged the Kremlin on Twitter to ask for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on the Clubhouse social media app. Though a face-to-face between Putin and Musk isn’t currently being prepared – and it certainly wouldn’t happen via Clubhouse – Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Washington Post that Moscow is genuinely interested.

Peskov says: “Putin shows great interest in the topic of technology, innovation and visionary ideas and we are convinced that in this area, there are many extremely interesting topics for him to talk about with Musk. The president very much appreciates the opportunity to communicate with such visionaries.”

A few months after Musk asked Putin to chat online, the Kremlin made its own request to Musk. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, invited Musk to address a student forum via video link.

Pavel Antonov’s novelty “Martian Deed”. A black dot is his claim

Musk agreed, shocking budding rocket scientists who got to ask Musk questions during a 45-minute session in May.

“Now my friends introduce me to people as a person who talked to Elon Musk,” said 19-year-old Danil Gavrilov, a second-year student and member of RocketLAV, a group that builds models of rockets.

“He’s been an inspiration to me since I was a child,” Gavrilov said of Musk. “To me, he’s a person who sets impossible goals and then achieves them – and not only in rocket-building.”

During his appearance, Musk praised Russian scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Sergei Korolev, the architect of the Soviet space programme. He also said, “we’re close to establishing a Tesla presence in Russia and I think that would be great”.

“There’s a lot of talent and energy and Russia,” Musk told the attendees. “Hopefully that energy continues into the future, and I would just like to strongly encourage people to strive to make the future better than the past and to be optimistic about the future.”

In 2001, Musk visited Moscow on a hunt for repurposed intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs. He was just starting his space endeavours and wanted to send something – anything – to Mars.

The Russians didn’t offer Musk as good a deal as he’d hoped. That experience, which his partners described as insulting, caused Musk to build his own rockets. He founded SpaceX the next year.

Since then, Musk has been a perpetual thorn for Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.

SpaceX owner and Tesla chief Elon Musk – widely admired in Russia

Musk and Dmitry Rogozin, the director of Roscosmos, have engaged in several public spats. After Rogozin was sanctioned by the US in 2014 for his role in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, he suggested that US astronauts – who at the time depended on Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station – should get there by jumping on trampolines.

After SpaceX broke Russia’s nine-year monopoly on ferrying crew to the space station in May, sending two US astronauts into orbit, Musk quipped: “The trampoline is working.”

The feud only boosted Musk’s popularity among Russians. Firsov, the sociologist, said Musk “contrasts with the stereotypes Russians have regarding space programmes that are mostly bureaucratic, lacking leaps of imagination unlike Musk with his Mars plans”.

Even Rogozin appears to be an admirer – albeit a begrudging one.

On Russian state television in August, Rogozin said he would extend three special invitations for the launch of Russia’s Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft: one to Musk “whom we respect in Russia” and to fellow space adventurers Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Rogozin has also offered to have Musk over for tea.

“I hope that someday our billionaire oligarchs will start spending their money not on the usual yachts and vanity fairs but on the development of space technologies and expanding knowledge about space,” Rogozin said on Twitter in July.

Musk responded with two clapping emoji.

Pavel Antonov’s life goal can be traced back to the 2016 film Passengers, a sci-fi romance that takes place on a luxury spaceship. One character is Arthur, an android bartender played by Michael Sheen. Arthur provides smiling relief amid the chaos.

“I immediately thought Musk will definitely need such a person who would distract from all problems,” Antonov says. “For at least one hour, you can sit at the bar, forget about everything and talk about neutral topics. From then on, I decided that I want to be the first bartender on Mars.”

Bartender Pavel Antonov in a trampolining Elon Musk T-shirt pouring his Mars cocktail

To get Musk’s attention, Antonov, 29, a bartender at Moscow’s The Bix, started a social media campaign in April. He tried tweeting at Musk, both in Russian and English. In one of his Instagram posts, an astronaut in a spacesuit has a cocktail shaker Photoshopped into his hand.

It didn’t get a response from Musk but Antonov did get some validation. In August, SpaceX posted a position for a “Spaceport Mixologist”.

Since then, Antonov has acquired a “Martian Deed” with his name on it – a novelty gift from a friend.

Antonov also has perfected a signature cocktail for Mars. It’s bright blue, representing space, Antonov said, with a red cherry dropped in like the Red Planet.

“Probably the decisive thing that inspired me to follow Musk is when he said that you shouldn’t be afraid of failure,” Antonov says. “I think, here in Russia, if you make one mistake, it follows you. His view seems to be that if you make a mistake, you get experience and learn from it and won’t make it again. I think it’s unique for people in Russia.”

Musk merchandise can easily be found online. One is a sweatshirt with Musk as a Russian Orthodox icon. Another, founded by designer Kirill Karavaev, seizes on Musk’s viral moments with well-timed designs. A T-shirt with a cartoon-like Musk bouncing on a trampoline was released earlier this year – a reference to Musk’s trampoline jab at Rogozin

One of Karavaev’s best-selling shirts was a sketch of Musk’s face and the words, “How do you like that, Elon Musk?” – the popular Russian meme.

“I wore it myself,” said Karavaev, who drives a Tesla. “You can feel that people here really like Musk and want to wear something with his image.” (About 200 Teslas are estimated to be on Russia’s streets, despite no official sales or charging stations.)

“I think Russians love him because he turns rules and institutions upside down to make something new,” Karavaev says. “Maybe in Russia, we just like those kinds of people.”

© The Washington Post

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