Trashy Tributes

The Best Way to Follow the Russia-Ukraine War Is Through Beloved Instagram Cat Accounts (On Both Sides)

Stepan, we love you!!! (screenshot by author of @loveyoustepan)

“Outside my window, the world has gone to war.” That line, from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ song “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” struck me last week as I repeatedly listened to their 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, I’ve been trapped in that album and its contrasts: the over-the-top religiosity with erotic sacrilege, the gushing saccharine romanticism with bile-flecked heartbreak, and the peaceful settings, from Brompton Oratory to rehabs, with a world of perpetual suffering that “fucks everybody else over.” I know what you’re thinking: what a big surprise, Emily is obsessing over Nick Cave again. Yes, I spend a lot of time going over and over Nick’s expansive discography. But, when you’re a fanatic, sometimes certain aspects of songs jump out as thoroughly relevant to our current catastrophic geopolitical timeline, like, for instance, that short sentence embedded in “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”

This song has given me pause before. In the solo concert film Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace, recorded and released during the height of pandemic quarantine in 2020, “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” transformed into a testimony to the generative possibility within waiting and solitude, especially with the lines: “Out of sorrow, entire worlds have been built. Out of longing, great wonders have been willed.” Now, as the pandemic restrictions have been lifted and we’re thrown into yet another different kind of international crisis, another part of the song, actually in the same verse, resonates. Looking out the window, the world really has gone to war.

Who hasn’t been glued to our copious screens, from the relative safety of our own homes, for the past few weeks watching the indescribably horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine? I mean, for those of us Americans, separated from European conflict by an ocean, what are we supposed to do, other than hope our government’s sanctions and Russian oil import ban were the right moves? Go to Veselka and eat as much borscht as we can stand? Break into oligarch-owned Central Park adjacent properties, for which The New York Post provided a helpful map, and steal all their auction house-purchased art? Commandeer a super-yacht? Remember that not all vodka is Russian vodka, and do our research before we pour that down the drain? Sit stunned and filled with apocalyptic dread, while feeling useless and rendered speechless? Yes.

I should note that not all of you have been rendered speechless by the bloodshed in Ukraine (though maybe you should consider it). Yes, I’ve seen all the takes. Social media is full of newly enlightened international politics experts who just a few weeks ago had been virologists. Perhaps the most irritating impulse is the American urge to compare the Russian-Ukraine war to any number of past American war maneuvers. Whether rightly or wrongly, this is exactly why the rest of the world can’t stand America. We make everything about us! Sure, the Iraq War was a mistake and we invaded. under false pretenses, much like the Russians are doing now with their clearly false aims to “denazify” Ukraine. However, that doesn’t do anything to lessen the fact that Putin’s war crime-riddled invasion is a criminal act. It’s wrong when they do it; it’s wrong when we do it. Happy?

Unless your mind has been poisoned by the take economy, you can’t bear witness to the war in Ukraine without being impressed and inspired by the heroism of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. I mean, can you imagine anyone in Washington remaining in the country under siege and thwarting numerous assassination attempts? Me neither. It certainly doesn’t help that our President and much of Congress are nearing 100-years-old! And many have commented in awe: Can you believe Zelenskyy was a comedian, playing the piano with his penis, before he was a commander in chief? Yes. Elect more comedians! If you think Zelenskyy is alone, then watch a recent episode of The Tim Dillon Show, which featured an interview with a young (and cute) Ukrainian comedian Vladyslav Kapytsia, who has remained in Kyiv to fight with his friends for his country. As he told Tim Dillon, “In Kyiv now, unless you’re an armed samurai, you’re fucking no one.” Indeed.

It’s certainly not just the comics. Every day we see more and more images of the courage of average Ukrainian people, making Molotov cocktails, blocking Russian tanks, and protesting in Russian-occupied cities. Likewise, there is also a significant amount of Russian people that are against the war and have exhibited incredible bravery protesting against the invasion, risking arrest (or worse).

Now, unlike others, I won’t pretend to be a foreign policy expert. I don’t have a strong opinion on the expansion of NATO or whether we should just say fuck it and risk World War III over a no-fly zone. I mean, I didn’t even know Kyiv was spelled with a Y before the invasion. Don’t blame me! I’m a dumb American. And the only floated conspiracy theory I feel I can comment on is that Putin has been driven to Dr. Strangelove-esque madness by Long COVID psychosis! Nuclear brain fog! I’ll admit I have considered lobbing a bomb or two myself and perhaps even have given how many followers I lost declaring myself a Joe Rogan listener. However, Pooty’s manic energy seems more like that of a late-stage megalomaniac, which means we’re in trouble. Whenever I’ve spotted his aging bloated face recently, I think of that last video footage of Jim Jones. Don’t drink whatever he hands you!

While I may not be a foreign policy expert, I am an expert in lowbrow trash culture, both online and off, which is why most of my insight on the Russia-Ukraine war has been filtered through a selection of my favorite cat accounts on Instagram on both sides of the war. I should note that I didn’t start following these accounts because of the war. My discovery of many of these accounts was a kneejerk reaction to the need to find something else, anything else, to look at besides bad progressive camp social media activism, shameful self-promotion (you know the kind, the ones to reference all our national and international ills before posting a bunch of personal achievements), and, of course, tired narcissism from aging millennials who don’t realize Instagram influencer culture is waning (even the TikTokers seem old now). Instead, I turned towards Eastern European cat accounts.

And no Instagram cat has captured my heart as much as the Kharkiv-based Stepan, posting under the account @loveyoustepan. With the blunt statement “I give everyone a good mood” in his Instagram bio, Stepan, a round 13-year-old tabby, is best known for casually relaxing, or staring off into the middle distance, with a generously poured cocktail and some light bites, dazzled by the bright colored disco lights that dance around him. Sometimes, Stepan boozes to smooth jazz and other times, to Chris Isaak’s Wild at Heart classic “Wicked Game.” As his mama Anna tells TJ Media, “Stepan loves to sit in that chair and often falls asleep there. When I shoot it, it comes out funny—all I need is to keep changing the glasses.” A uniquely expressive kitty, Stepan is also equally amusing when not tippling, whether sniffing the fresh air in the sunshine, playing with flowers, or examining an enormous teddy bear during Valentine’s Day.

We’re not the only ones that love Stepan who has become something of a meme and media sensation. The newly freed Britney Spears took time off from spinning in a circle and snapping eerie dead-eyed nude pics on the beach to repost @loveyoustepan’s picture and relate to the tabby, writing in one of her most lucid captions: “If I go quiet from time to time, you can catch me with this cat somewhere 😜😹🤪 !!!” Stepan is also an entrepreneur, gaining several brand deals as seen in a November photograph in which Stepan poses with a $2800 Valentino purse from “The Party Collection.” Fancy! But, where Stepan really shines is on television. Numerous TV journalists have appeared on the Instagram account “interviewing” Stepan (seriously), placing a microphone in front of his mostly silent and entirely unfazed fuzzy face. In fact, as late as February 16, Stepan was appearing on Ukraine’s TCH as one of the biggest Ukrainian influencers in 2021, which led me to wrongly believe maybe the Russian invasion wasn’t as imminent or as dire as it seemed.

Obviously, that was just the calm before the storm. On February 24, @loveyoustepan went dark with a message that said, “Ukraine wants peace…Stop all of this.” After this, I’ve been worried sick as Stepan lives in Kharkiv, which has endured numerous bombings by the Russians of both government and residential buildings with multiple civilian casualties. As of now, thankfully, Stepan and his owner seem safe, according to a few infrequent posts, which alternate between capturing the aftermath of Russian bombardments, such as demolished, burning buildings and rockets slammed into the ground, and pictures of Stepan looking annoyed with his ears back. Not a fan.

With his solo boozy deadpan thousand-yard stare, Stepan is the closest thing Filthy Dreams has ever come to a mascot. As we previously stated while professing our love, Stepan embodies the ethos of our humble blog better than Marion or I ever have, which makes this whole bloodshed and senseless war thing PERSONAL. If something happens to Stepan, Putin is going to hear from us! If you see me suddenly in Ukraine armed to the teeth, you’ll know why. (IMPORTANT UPDATE: Stepan is okay, after fleeing to France! Praise be!)

Though he may be the most beloved, Stepan is certainly not the only adored cat in Ukraine. This is proved by the number of kitties I’ve seen in the bomb shelters in Kyiv and reports of Ukrainian families fleeing the country with their kitty cats in tow (unlike Americans who seem to abandon pets at any slight inconvenience. A nation of sociopaths). Even Vladyslav, the formerly mentioned Ukrainian comedian, has posted several Instagram stories featuring the cats he’s sheltering with, including a mysterious clawed black paw batting from under a bed:

Despite the plethora of Ukrainian kitty refugees, most of the cat accounts that I follow are Russia-based. And most of these aren’t even your everyday house cats! About a month ago, I went down a social media rabbit hole chasing accounts of families who have let big cats and wild cats into their homes like a pre-mauling Siegfried & Roy. It adds a certain unhinged aura to the scrolling experience when you know these posters may eventually be pet food! And boy, are there a lot of these accounts. Do most Russians live with wild animals? According to my research, yes, and a diverse group of them too, ranging from cheetahs and tigers to smaller servals. This includes Messi, the puma that seems just like an overgrown domestic cat as she bathes quietly on the sofa, gazes out the window, plays hide and seek, bats a water bottle around their puma-proof home, and purrs out responses to her owners. Marsel, a lynx with a slightly intimidating edge, is another highlight, mostly because Marsel inhabits maybe the kitschiest house in Russia. Just take a gander:

*gasp* Who can help but be awed by this décor, which reminds me of the tchotchke-filled pink home of The Blanchards in The Act!  The only exception is that instead of Munchausen by proxy and murder, this house is filled with a lynx (in addition to a serval and a caracal) that sits amongst these strangely menacing dolls!

Of these wild cat accounts, though, the absolute standout—and the kitty that has been the most vocal (or at least as vocal as you can be in Russia) about the Russia-Ukraine war—is Gosha, otherwise known as Big Floppa (a spin on Notorious B.I.G.’s Big Poppa). With his plume of fur on his ears, Gosha’s star power is largely due to his, uh, remarkable size. As his Wikipedia entry notes, “Gosha enjoys eating shrimp and is very active around his apartment.” Is he? Gosha is the chubbiest caracal I’ve ever laid eyes on. He’s the Nikocado Avocado of caracals. And like Nik, Gosha never met a camera he didn’t like, posing photogenically in the bathtub, on a bed, or hoisting himself up on his caracal cat tree.

For those of you who spend too much time online, you may recognize Gosha from copious memes, specifically those with Gosha sitting alongside his Persian domestic puddy, Justin. Popular in both Russian and English-speaking memes, Gosha is unfortunately sometimes included in postings that his human parents Andrey and Elena don’t approve of. This became apparent in a video post presenting a “Floppa Friday” rap by Gosha in response to the caracal’s image being used to “illustrate current political events,” presumably the, at the time, forthcoming Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Gosha, sporting a hefty gold chain, sniffs and gnaws on a microphone, hisses, and lays next to an automatic rifle and bullets, the video asserts that “Big Floppa is for peace and against war.” Floppa is armed for peace! Part of the reason for Floppa’s anti-war stance may be that, like a lot of people living in Russia, Gosha has a connection to Ukraine—in fact, he was born right in Kyiv!

This video wasn’t the last time that Gosha made his opinions on the Russia-Ukraine war known. More recently, Big Floppa’s owners released a set of T-shirts and hoodies featuring a slouching Gosha wearing an army green baseball cap emblazoned with a peace sign superimposed on an image of the globe. Above Gosha, the T-shirt reads, “World Peace,” and below, “No war.” In case you were wondering about the intent, a corresponding Instagram post explains, “We all know that T-shirts and funny cats don’t stop wars. No matter how cute or funny they are. But these things are a statement. A statement we don’t want war.” A bit generic, sure. While some may want a more forceful condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this statement is about as strong as you can get in Russia at a time when the government is imprisoning thousands of anti-war protesters. This peaceful Floppa merch drop is further proof that many Russian people are not for Putin’s warmongering. What are you waiting for? I already bought mine!

My particular obsession with exotic animals in Russia doesn’t mean there aren’t any Russian domestic cat accounts worth following. They just happen to be sphynxes—yes, those unfortunate hairless kitties that resemble plucked chickens. While I recently stumbled upon the very fashionable Ludvig, the clear chilly standout star is Portos, a Donskoy cat whose bundled-up winter ensembles, including very fitted cat-eared caps, and miserable expression is relatable to anyone in the Northern hemisphere! And dare I say, whether prowling around on a leash in the ice and snow, huffing out his 8th birthday candle stuck into a slice of salmon with a sigh, or rocking indifferently on a playground horse, Portos may be the most quintessentially Russian of the Russian cat accounts.

Now, I’ll admit I share my adoration for Portos with a little trepidation as I realize that Portos’ proclivity for motoring around his stark apartment complex in a Soviet tank cat carrier is in a bit of poor taste in today’s global climate! As is posting this here! But, look, Portos was lording over his minions in that tank prior to the Russian-Ukraine war, including in pet shops. Plus, it’s not as if it’s a surprise that Portos may make some “problematic” decisions given his original claim to fame was his resemblance to Hitler! Some articles even boasted that the similarities went beyond the smudgy nose/mustache, claiming Portos “even has his [Hitler’s] personality.” Um…yikes!

Beyond these shock value headlines, though, Portos’ politics remains a bit nebulous, which is fine since this is literally a cat account. However, one could certainly consider his propensity to sit behind flower-stuffed weapons as a subtle message for peace. In truth, however, I don’t really care since many genius filmmakers have made some curious political choices (*cough* Lars Von Trier) and Portos is a cinematic auteur if I’ve ever seen one, as evidenced by one stunning video, which I watch several times daily (I’m not exaggerating). The scene opens with Portos sitting in a bubble bath with his pointed ears covered by a blue shower cap. After becoming mesmerized by a passing bubble, the camera focuses on a bottle of pet shampoo that also features Portos wearing that same blue shower cap! The camera, then, returns to Portos who blinks in…Confusion? Recognition? Horror? It’s a couple second descent into subjecthood-switching surrealism worthy of David Lynch’s Inland Empire! Submit it to film festivals Portos!

With this bath video especially, I know I’ve set myself up, but wait a second before you throw around accusations of being unserious about global unrest, war crimes, human rights abuses, and the potential of World War III. Let’s be honest, most of us who grew up online (or partially online, for us elder millennials) have been inundated with Internet-famous cats for decades. From the website Can I Haz Cheezburger? to the late Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub, it seems as if the Internet was built entirely as a platform for these adorable puddies. Even The New York Times has called kitty pics: “that essential building block of the Internet.”

Yet, in 2022, it doesn’t feel exactly right to simply relegate this pussycat phenomenon to the Internet alone. We know it’s a fool’s errand to separate “IRL” from digital culture as we spent the last two years connecting over Zoom. Internet-famous cats have been closing this divide between on-and-offline for much longer as some of the most viral cat-lebrities, particularly in the previous decade, nabbed large sum brand deals and merchandising contracts, using cuteness’s inherent relationship to capitalism, as Sianne Ngai points out in Our Aesthetic Categories, as a means for their owners to find (perhaps fleeting) financial success. Today, even animated cats are making money as Nyan Cat, that rainbow-farting, flying Poptart cat meme, fetched $600,000 when recently sold as—what else?—an NFT.

It only makes sense, then, given the feline fixation of everyone with Internet access, that eventually cat social media accounts would become our—ok, my—access point to comprehending a war. Who needs war correspondents when you can have kitties? (Ok, we still need war correspondents). On one hand, this could be looked at as a painful personal admission of my tendency to frivolity during a crisis and a wholly embarrassing example of how our global digital culture has boiled everything down to its most idiotic essence that even war is viewed through the lens of meme-worthy naked cats in silly outfits, fat caracals, and pussycats with a questionable relationship to alcohol. But on the other hand, these Instagram cat accounts can give us a view into the lives of people and cats affected on both sides of the war, by the senseless violence against a sovereign nation, Putin’s increasing authoritarianism and crackdown against dissent, and the intensive international sanctions. A view that hasn’t been filtered through any government propaganda, either theirs or ours.

And I find that entirely humanizing (feline-izing?) and worthwhile. In The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Abigail Tucker theorizes that we’re so attracted to cat photographs on the Internet because of the structural makeup of kitty faces. She writes, “These facial features, a terrifying distillation of feline lethality, happen to also be what humans consider cute. They remind us of our own faces, and especially of our babies, since humans, too, have big eyes planted in the center of our heads, which we use in large part to read the facial expressions of others. Through this uncanny but accidental interspecies resemblance, cat faces prime us to communicate, whether by post, tweet or pin.” Perhaps this resemblance primes us to communicate across borders as well.

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