Politicians in T-Shirts

17 November 2022

Politicians in T-Shirts

Sergey Lavrov and others.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Has Sergey Lavrov just broken one of Russia’s most egregious laws in Bali? Will he be arrested when he returns to Moscow from the G20 summit?

Mr Lavrov’s presence at the summit for the G20 countries’ leaders isn’t a mystery, even though he’s not Russia’s leader but its foreign minister – he’s standing in for President Putin who decided not to go, fearing perhaps that the other leaders will either give him a relentless ear-bashing or send him to Coventry.

Many other things about his appearance in Bali, however, are deeply mysterious. Indonesian government and medical officials reported that he’d spent two days in hospital following his arrival and rumours suggested that he’d been treated for a heart condition. But Russia’s foreign ministry dismissed such gossip as “the height of fakery” and published a video of an apparently relaxed and healthy Lavrov in shorts and a t-shirt sitting at a table, apparently at his hotel, with a file of official-looking papers in front of him and leafy tropical greenery behind him. According to Tass, Lavrov commented “I’m at the hotel. I’m reading materials for tomorrow’s summit”.

Then geolocation analysis appeared on social media to show that the film had been taken not at the hotel but in the hospital grounds. And commentators were puzzled by an item they spotted on the table beside those papers. It looked like an Apple iPhone, one of the new models. And on Lavrov’s wrist was what looked like an Apple Watch. Puzzling because neither item is available in embargoed Russia. And he’s the last person you’d expect to see promoting hi-tech American products (in the still shots from the video he looks for all the world like a social media influencer). And surely he of all people realises that US intelligence could easily bug such gadgets.

But most baffling of all was Mr Lavrov’s choice of t-shirt. It displays the name BASQUIAT in big capital letters, topped by a big logo in the shape of a crown. It appears to be a promotional t-shirt for the US artist of Puerto Rican origin Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose to stratospheric world fame and fortune in the 1980’s before dying of a heroin overdose in New York at the tragically early age of 27, and whose graffiti-based, street-style work still sells to collectors and institutions for astronomical sums today. He was also gay or bisexual.

President Putin and his government, of which Lavrov is perhaps the most powerful member, continually attack the perceived ‘decadence’ of the West, accusing it of being a Satanic hell of drug-addiction and unholy sexual practices, and condemning homosexuality and the toleration of the LGBT community as evil. Someone like Basquiat must, in Russian eyes, exemplify the ‘decadence’ against which Russia claims to be fighting a crusade. So it’s extremely odd to see Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov advertising this particular artist to the whole world. Moreover, Russia’s notoriously homophobic laws forbid the promotion of LGBT causes – could Mr Lavrov’s t-shirt promoting a famous icon of the gay or bisexual community get him into trouble with his own legal system and law-enforcement agencies?

What on earth was he trying to say? Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps it’s a complete irrelevance. It’s tempting to dismiss this as yet another example of Moscow 4, but Mr Lavrov is too intelligent for that to wash. As well as being one of the world’s sharpest and toughest politicians, he’s a sophisticated man of the world with a love for poetry. So his choice of t-shirt remains baffling.

The t-shirt has always been dangerous sartorial territory for politicians. A decade or two ago there was a spoof tv chat show which encouraged its guests – young politicians – to make fools of themselves. The politicians didn’t know that it was a spoof and that they were being set up, of course, but tv’s rush to corner the ‘yoof’ market permitted that kind of thing back in the day. One shameful (or shameless, rather) guest – who will remain nameless although he was briefly the leader of his party in spite of this display of stupidity and gullibility – was lured into drawing an outline map of his constituency with a big felt-tipped pen on a white t-shirt worn by a glamorous and giggling model clad in little else, and then persuaded to demonstrate his disco moves with said model while pretending to smoke a joint. His foolishness was thrown into punishing relief by the next guest – Sebastian Coe – who admirably refused point blank to decorate the t-shirt of shame with his constituency or to take any other part in the humiliating revels.

And in the USA recently, a candidate who stood for president in the last elections came to grief over a t-shirt. Kanye West (aka ‘Ye’)– the mega-famous and successful musician, the friend and high-profile supporter of Donald Trump and the ex-husband of Kim Kardashian – became a pariah this week and lost commercial sponsors and corporate partners after he posted anti-Semitic remarks on social media. It was a fall from grace which began at this year’s Paris fashion week when he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “White Lives Matter”, a controversial and provocative slogan since it has been adopted by white supremacist groups to undercut the Black Lives Matter message. It’s hard to imagine Ye standing in the next presidential election.

Yet there is an exception to every rule and the exception here is of course the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He alone has triumphantly carried off the politician in a t-shirt look, but there are a few cautionary points to bear in mind in this case: he’s entitled to wear that green military t-shirt because he’s the leader of a nation in arms, of a country at war where he and his people are constantly under fire; he has the build for it (neither skinny nor obese); and he has evolved into a giant of world politics, a global statesman of titanic stature, while wearing it. Others should be wary of trying to follow his example – something vividly proved by two other cases in the news this week.

The first case is a politician who was wise enough not to follow Zelenskyy’s example. President Xi of China was photographed in combat battle fatigues while touring a command centre in Beijing, as the head of his country’s armed forces. He could well have been wearing a green military t-shirt under his camouflaged jacket, but we’ll never know because he didn’t take that jacket off, at least not in front of the world’s press. He was clearly too clever and too dignified to try to pull a Zelenskyy. So he remains an imposing figure, ready for action from the chunky tread on the soles of his marching boots to the starred collar of that camouflaged jacket.

The second is a politician who was unwise enough to fill the media with images of himself in various t-shirts, proving once and for all – if proof was ever needed – that he’s no Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Yes, (apologies but it’s unavoidable here), mention must finally be made of Matt Hancock, far from his West Suffolk constituency. Images of the t-shirted MP and ex-minister eating the private parts of camels and cows and pigs, and pelted with slime and feathers and custard, and crawling through troughs full of offal, were enough to make even those pictures of Sergei Lavrov in his hotel/hospital look banal and uncomplicated.

Cover page image: Desigmodo / wikimedia commons / Creative Commons

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