A group of Siberian anarchists added pictures of Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and other politicians to an STD advisory in Barnaul, Russia, and now they could spend seven years in prison for the prank.
The incident happened back in February, but prosecutors in charge of the investigation have only recently decided to seek criminal "hooliganism" charges against the pranksters.
The public service announcement billboard originally read "Do you need such companions?" and under the slogan were images of STDs like gonorrhea, candida, and ureaplasma, depicted as monsters.
But the pranksters who, according to Russian authorities are "members of the radical Antifa organization," added a row of disease-photos personified by politicos. According to the Moscow Times, the altered poster showed Russia's top political players in a distasteful light, including:
"A ghastly white President Medvedev, a light green Prime Minister Putin and similarly ill-looking likenesses of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Altai Governor Alexander Karlin."
This is not the first time that images of Putin and Medvedev have been doctored for humorous -- even satirical -- effect. Over the past year, images have been posted around Moscow that play with the larger-than-life personas of Putin and Medvedev.
In July, a poster of current Russian President Medvedev morphed into Captain America (or "Captain Russia" as the caption read) appeared on Moscow streets. Instead of Captain America's iconic shield, Medvedev was holding an apple computer.
There have also been posters on Moscow's streets showing Putin as James Bond, and a dapper duo of Putin and Medvedev on their way to play tennis.
In those cases, Russian authorities demanded the posters be removed, and they were. No criminal charges have yet been filed, but Putin is well-known for taking legal action against anyone who uses his image without permission.
In an ominous preview of the recent decision to criminally prosecute the STD posters, Putin's spokesperson at the time said of the James Bond mockup that "we don’t know who is behind this, but this action borders on hooliganism."
Watch this video for an overview of the Captain America Images and the Kremlin's response to them, Courtesy of Reuters:
The draconian reaction of Russian authorities to humorous depictions of political leadership appear deeply rooted in current Russian political trends, which have been moving away from freedom of the press.
Putin and Medvedev's images are constantly promoted by the Kremlin, in ways that can entertain outside observers, but may also resonate with the Russian voting public. Putin's United Russia Party is preparing for a big win this December when early elections are scheduled to be held.
As the Kremlin appears determined to link Putin's image with the new rise of the Russian Bear, its citizens have been put on notice not to take their right to freedom of expression too seriously.