Wars are nothing but cartoons when they happen elsewhere. The surprise Internet fame of Natalia Poklonskaya, 33, from Simferopol, Crimea, is the best proof of that sad truth.
On March 11, Sergei Aksyonov, the less-than-legitimate prime minister of the Crimea, still part of Ukraine but already occupied by an unmarked Russian force, appointed Poklonskaya prosecutor general of the autonomous region. The previous prosecutor had remained loyal to the government in Kiev, refusing to follow Aksyonov's orders, so the pro-Russian leader urgently searched for a replacement. Poklonskaya was an able prosecutor who had made a name for herself after acting for the state in the trial of a notorious local gang known as Bashmaki, or the Boots. She was, however, far from the first in line. Four candidates, all men, refused before Aksyonov tapped her.
"I accepted because all I saw in Kiev, all the new government was doing was crazy to me," Poklonskaya told the Russian government newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "I could not tolerate this lawlessness and I wanted to show people that there is protection, there is the law and everyone is equal before it."
Aksyonov, looking to engineer a secession from Ukraine, run by a moderate nationalist government after the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, lapped that up. Two days later, Poklonskaya gave her first press conference as prosecutor general of the Crimea. Then Japanese men discovered her.
A video clip from the press conference, in which a pale Poklonskaya, with her dark blond hair seemingly uncombed, wears a brand-new uniform with shiny insignia and bats her big blue eyes at questioning reporters, then says something bland about the rule of law, has racked up more than 300,000 YouTube views. Translation wasn't needed. The Japanese poster titled it "New Attorney General of Crimea is beautiful" in English. "Too beautiful," the Japanese title goes.
I don't speak Japanese but I have to believe the popular Tokyo-based blog RocketNews24 when it says some of the first comments read "Please cross-examine me harshly" and "Please step on me."
Poklonskaya, the divorced mother of a small daughter, was a bit of an Internet exhibitionist even before she got a following in Japan. Pictures from her social network accounts made the rounds in Russia and Ukraine after her appointment. Photos like these are nothing unusual for female Ukrainian officials, even somewhat tame: In post-Soviet countries, government bodies do not have social-network policies, and bureaucrats' Web behavior is often no different from ordinary people's, hence all the cocquettish costumes, half-nudes and evidence of rough partying.
The surprise appointment and the uniform, however, took the Crimea prosecutor to a whole new level. Her Japanese fans saw her as a natural for mangas, and cartoon images of Poklonskaya -- blond hair in disarray, blue eyes shining, epaulettes glistening -- multiplied. There were some pornographic ones, too, in the time-tested manga tradition, but I won't link to them here. Poklonskaya now has a fan club on Reddit and another one on Russia's most popular social network, Vkontakte. Yes, Russian fans followed Japanese ones: Russian's love international recognition of any kind, and, to President Vladimir Putin's loyal subjects, the Crimea is part of Russia now and Poklonskaya is a Russian just like them.
For all I know, the whole manga thing could be Kremlin propaganda. At any rate, pro-Putin and government-owned media picked up on the Japanese cult story with unusual speed. "Some Japanese worry about Poklonskaya, believing that her job, especially in today's situation, must be very tense and dangerous," Russian government news agency Itar-Tass reported. "The Crimea prosecutor, however, has 12 years' law enforcement experience, including the investigation of organized crime cases."
Even in peacetime, life in the Crimea is nothing like kawaii cosplay. The autonomous region has the highest crime rate in Ukraine and will keep that dubious distinction in Russia. Aksyonov himself has been accused of organized crime ties, sued his accusers, initially won and then lost on appeal. The hasty annexation of the peninsula by Russia will only make things worse: There is lots of Ukrainian property, both public and private, on the peninsula, which will inevitably face redistribution, peaceful and otherwise.
Ukraine is highly unlikely ever to recognize the Russian land grab. Acting President Oleksandr Turchinov proposed that parliament approve a declaration saying that "the Ukrainian people will never, under any circumstances, cease its struggle to liberate the Crimea from occupants, however hard and prolonged it may be." For the Crimea, that may mean trouble with water, gas and electricity, all of which come to the peninsula from Ukraine.
There is, too, the continued international pressure on Russia. While it is unlikely to lead to Iran-style sanctions, it will still be unpleasant. In fact, Japan, where Poklonskaya is seen as so desirable, has announced that it doesn't recognize the Crimea's annexation and suspended talks with Russia on an investment agreement and visa relaxation.
Like many Crimea natives, however, Poklonskaya believes Russia is in the right. "I am doing my best," Poklonskaya told Rossiyskaya gazeta, "to make sure my daughter is proud of me and proud of living in such a great power as the Russian Federation."
She may find out soon enough that this, too, is cartoon reality.
To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at email@example.com.