Marius the Giraffe, Russia's Model Dissident

February 27, 2014 Topic: HistoryMediaSociety Region: DenmarkRussia

Marius the Giraffe, Russia's Model Dissident

While Ukraine burned, Russians were closely watching the fate of a Copenhagen camelopard.

The world is not a peaceful place, and many of the problems are directly related to Russia. Still, besides the predictable topics of the Sochi Olympics and turmoil in nearby Ukraine, Russian politicians and what seems to be thousands of ordinary Russians have become focused on the fate of two young giraffes, both named “Marius,” in Danish zoos. One was killed by zoo officials to prevent inbreeding; the other seems now to have avoided such a fate, at least for now. While the killing of the first Marius led to protests by defenders of animals in the West, apparently it was only in Russia where the defense of giraffes reached such a high level and such high-pitched public indignation. Indeed, the conservative Zavtra, one of the leading Russian newspapers, published pictures on its front page of the young giraffe with what looks like an innocent teenage boy with the caption “They Killed Marius!’

Sergei Donskoi, Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology of the Russian Federation expressed indignation, as did Vitaly Milonov, a member of the St. Petersburg government. Finally, Ramzan Kadyrov, Viceroy of Chechnya, proposed bringing the second Marius to Chechnya where he promised him a comfortable place in the zoo and good medical treatment.

Why such an interest in the fate of a giraffe?

The interest in the two Marius’ fate in present-day Russia, which is engaged in a conflict not just with the United States but also with Europe on a variety of subjects ranging from Ukraine to treatment of gay and lesbian individuals, has an underlying reason. Both Russia and the West are engaged in a choice of noble dissidents mistreated by the other. In Russia, this tradition has a long history. When the West accused the early Bolshevik regime of terror, for example, they pointed to France’s treatment of defeated Communards in 1871. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists accused in the killing of a security guard and paymaster in a shoe factory in the U.S. in 1920, became the symbol of capitalist brutality and hypocrisy; and a pencil factory in Russia was named after them. (I personally remember using the products of this factory during my school years.) Later, in the 1960s, the victim became Angela Davis, then a member of the Communist Party in the U.S; the fact that she later became a professor in a prestigious American university was conveniently ignored.

During the immediate post-Soviet era when both Russians and Westerners had their own illusions about their relationship, there was no need to search for noble defectors/dissidents. Still, with the recent cooling of Russia’s relationship with Washington and Brussels, the need for noble defectors resumed. But Russia had a problem finding a good one to make a moral stand. It is true that Gérard Depardieu, the famous French actor known to Russians for his title role in Danton, Andrzej Wajda’s drama about the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, was given a Russian passport by Vladimir Putin himself. Still, Depardieu fled not from the tyrannical rule of a neo-Robespierrian government, but plainly because he did not want to pay high taxes. Edward Snowden was another possibility for the Kremlin’s acclaim. But accepting Snowden as a freedom fighter would imply that any Russian intelligence operative who would run to the West would be honored as a hero. The Kremlin hardly is pleased with such an idea. As a matter of fact, it was clearly pleased with the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who worked for Russian intelligence––dead after a mysterious illness in London. And so, Marius was a godsend; an innocent animal. And by killing it, the West, including Europe, shows its hypocrisy; for the humane approach to animals has been proclaimed as one of the major Western virtues.

But should the Westerners or anybody else resist Russian hopes to save the second young giraffe? Of course not. Choosing animals as defectors and dissidents could open a most exciting and promising new era in world politics. Non-human defectors have clear advantages for both the country from which the animals depart to the country of their final destination. Marius, for example, would not divulge any military or political secrets. He will not blast his previous place of residency as an abode of cruelty and persecution and the zookeepers as brutes who also violated animal rights in front of TV cameras. The giraffe would not demand from his new master a lavish pension, a mansion, or other benefits. He was content with a little space to walk, a few bundles of hay and shelter. Any budget, even after the most serious sequestration, could afford these. The giraffe would not embarrass his new zookeepers with homesickness, depression and loneliness. He wouldn’t even need a mate to be happy, as one Russian commentator noted. Harmless and peaceful, Marius could not have been a symbol of tension, as is the case with human dissidents and defectors, but rather a messenger of peace, especially if the Russians would deport, with the same honor, their unwanted animals—for example, bear cubs. This would open an entirely new page in global diplomacy. In addition to saving Marius, it might have made us not just more humane to animals—and Russian commentators noted not just to each other but all over the world the horrible cruelty that that was inflicted on this creature. Indeed, young Marius might remind us that we share with animals the same planet and the same fate—mortality.

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history at Indiana University, South Bend.

Image: Flickr/Andrew Rusk. CC BY 2.0.