Russians are dancing the winter away, often in their underwear. There’s a reason for that

Russia’s video dance craze began innocently enough. At least, most people found it innocent.

This month, a group of male students from the Ulyanovsk Institute of Civil Aviation made a YouTube clip of themselves dancing in their underwear and cadet hats to an early 2000s club hit, “Satisfaction.” In the video, the young cadets strutted through the hallways and rooms of their dorm as they gyrated their hips to the beat and performed ordinary tasks such as ironing or mopping the floor.

Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency wasn’t laughing. The agency responded to the cadets’ video by saying the “strictest disciplinary measures” would be taken against “all involved in this immoral episode.”

“Frivolous dances in underwear in the institute’s uniform cap on the territory of the aviation university are unacceptable,” the statement said. “Civil aviation is a highly responsible branch in which discipline and order are the guarantee of quality and safety.”


Punishment could include dismissal from the institute, the agency’s statement said.

The agency’s harsh response set in motion what has now become known as the “Satisfaction Challenge” (it even has a hashtag), a flash mob of videos supporting the cadets. Within hours of the Russian authorities’ threats, dozens of videos appeared on YouTube and social media in support of the cadets.

Students from a neighboring agricultural college, a nursing school and a technical construction school posted videos of them dancing to their own version of the cadets’ “Satisfaction” clip. Fellow cadets in Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations posted their hip-shaking version online. Then came a team of horseback riders, a group of Russian biathletes and, not to be outdone, an apartment full of pensioners in St. Petersburg.

Ukraine’s Swimming Federation got in on it also, posting its version of the video on Facebook to show solidarity with the cadets, despite a military conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatist groups.

The cadets’ video appears to have been inspired by a 2013 video of British Army officers dancing to the same song, a popular 2002 hit by Italian deejay Benny Benassi. The Ulyanovsk cadets may have also been aware of a viral video trend from 2012, when U.S. soldiers and others fighting in Afghanistan lip-synched versions of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

So far, the social media attention on the video hasn’t made it any easier on the cadets. In an interview on a talk show aired on the state-run Russia 1 television channel, the rector of the Ulyanovsk Institute of Civil Aviation said the young men were still facing disciplinary measures.

“I think the most serious conclusions will follow,” Sergei Krasnov said. He compared the cadets to Pussy Riot, a female punk rock band whose members were imprisoned after performing an anti-Kremlin song in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012.

“These people will not find a place in civil aviation. Forgiving this is probably impossible,” Krasnov said.

There has been some support for the young cadets in the ranks of the Russian political elite.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an outspoken nationalist politician known for his boisterous and often offensive outbursts, came to the cadets’ defense. In an interview with the Kremlin-owned television network RT, Zhirinovsky said the cadets’ dance should be encouraged

“They are just dancing! They aren’t drunk or getting in fights. They are 17 or 18 years old, they are young. It’s our old generation that can’t do that,” Zhirinovsky, 71, said. “In universities you can break to do a small disco in the lobby.”

Zhirinovsky, though a devout supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is challenging the Kremlin leader’s March 18 reelection bid in what is generally seen as a Kremlin-approved candidacy aimed to show voters a more diverse campaign. Preelection polls show Putin winning reelection easily, with Zhirinovsky getting less than 6% in his sixth presidential campaign.

Russian President Vladimir Putin bathes in icy water near St. Nilus Stolobensky Monastery on Lake Seliger in Svetlitsa village, Russia, on Jan. 19, 2018.
(Alexei Druzhinin / Associated Press )

So, far, there’s been no word from the Kremlin on Putin’s opinion of the cadet dance. On Friday, he bared his chest for the national cameras — as he is wont to do — when he plunged into icy waters outside the city of Tver for the Russian Orthodox Church’s Epiphany celebration. Images of Putin’s stripped-down plunge was broadcast across all state media, which are dominated by reports of the Russian president’s daily moves.

(Not to be outdone, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, also recently stripped to his waist for an outdoor ice plunge.)

In Russia, it seems, baring your chest on television may be presidential (and ambassadorial), but it’s not suitable for future civil aviation officers.


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Twitter: @sabraayres

Ayres is a special correspondent.