Geopolitics

Vladimir Putin, Chuck Norris And The Real-World Power Of Internet Memes

Deep in thought...
Deep in thought...
Jan Vollmer

BERLIN — Anyone caught writing about Chuck Norris should tread very carefully because, according to one meme, the Texas Ranger has threatened to switch off the Internet if he finds any more stupid jokes about him posted online.

This threat is not to be taken lightly: according to another post, the only reason why there is no longer life on Mars is that the Texas Ranger had once paid a visit.

The Chuck Norris jokes all follow the same pattern — that he is invincible and all-powerful. As one goes, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he already had three missed calls from Chuck Norris. It’s claimed that the action star can even make a McDonald’s Happy Meal cry.

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power has grown more swiftly and extravagantly on the Internet than on the political stage. In 2013, Forbes magazine named him the most powerful man in the world, but the Internet has long been aware of the Russian president’s supernatural powers.

In one meme, Putin overcomes a brown bear that insulted him and rides it through shallow water. Another shows him in a church, wearing a dark suit and holding a candle. “Whose funeral is it?” someone asks him. Putin’s answer: “I haven't decided yet.” One picture notes that even Putin’s own shadow doesn’t dare turn its back on him.

Memes on the political stage

The word “meme” (applied these days to humorous images and accompanying text posted on the Internet) was first coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe ideas and thoughts that spread quickly. It derives from the Greek “mimema” — an imitation — and “gene.”

Not all Putin memes are easy to interpret at first glance. Some draw on the extensive meme culture that has sprung up in recent years. One shows Putin’s head on a portrait of a Russian tsar, with the slogan “Haters gonna die.” The phrase “Haters gonna hate” is one of the most popular memes and comes from American hip hop, but the Putin version suggests a sinister edge to the Russian president’s treatment of his critics.

The Putin memes are part of a trend that satirizes the carefully cultivated public images of politicians. One series of pictures shows Hillary Clinton answering texts from Barack Obama. “Hey Hil, whatchu doin"?” the president asks from his sofa. Clinton, sitting in a situation room and wearing dark glasses, coolly replies, “Running the world.”

Dangerous cult of personality

Over the last few years, Putin has been carefully honing his image through ultra-macho photo opportunities, showing him kneeling beside a tiger that has been shot, flying south with young cranes or hunting in the Russian bush. Most people in the West simply laugh at Putin’s antics, but many don’t realize that the propaganda is highly effective in Russia.

Political leaders have always sought to control their public images. Most politicians across the world have small armies dedicated to the task. What’s worrying with Putin is that his attempts are bordering on the cult of personality so prevalent in fascist states of 20th century Europe. And despite their ironic exaggerations, the memes only strengthen this impression.

Irony has a tendency to work its way into the mainstream. A harmless example is the fact that many 21st century trends have their roots in ironic reinterpretations of 1970s and 1980s fashion. The mustaches, gold Casio watches and geek glasses started off as in-jokes among hipsters but quickly became so ubiquitous that they were normalized. The style remains without any trace of the original irony.

The same could be true of the Chuck Norris/Putin comparison. Although jokes about the action star’s omnipotence are tongue-in-cheek, Putin truly does wield massive power. The eternal Texas Ranger is only threatening to switch off the Internet, but Putin has already shut off a large part of the Russian press.

A few days ago, the chief editor of the formerly critical website lenta.ru was fired, and a personnel reshuffle was initiated. Putin ensures that he has the media under his thumb, and the pro-government media’s reports on the situation in Ukraine are more propaganda than journalism. A few weeks ago, Russian television aired images purporting to show a crowd of Ukrainian refugees on the Russian-Ukrainian border. The pictures were actually taken from Ukraine’s border with Poland.

In reality, Putin is already one step ahead of action star Chuck Norris. On a visit to Korea at the end of 2013, World Taekwondo Federation leader Choue Chung-won awarded the Russian president a black belt, the ninth and highest rank in the sport, that conferred grand master status on Putin. The Russian president was only in Korea to lobby for a new railway line, and while it is well known that he practices judo, there has never been talk of him training in taekwondo.

Accomplished martial artist Chuck Norris has still only reached the eighth rank in taekwondo. Perhaps the only thing that could now rob Putin of his mythical aura would be a straight fight with the Texas Ranger.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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