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Dutch sculpture becomes Russian meme star

Meet "Zhdun," the seal-headed meme taking Russia by storm. Nicholas Connolly reports on how a statue in the Netherlands has become the country's new "national symbol."

The sculpture 'Homunculus Loxodontus' in Leiden

It all began in a doctor's waiting room in Holland. A paean to the tired patients waiting their turn at Leiden's university hospital, that was artist Margriet van Breevoort's aim. She christened her work "Homonculus Loxodontus" or elephant man, the elephant in question being an elephant seal. Russia was very definitely not on her mind.

But since Russian internet users came across images of the statue early this year, van Breevoort's work has taken on a new life on social media as Zhdun ("the waiter"). The name has everything to do with many young Russians' sense of frustration and boredom and nothing to do with restaurants. It's hard to pin down what exactly makes Zhdun so popular. Perhaps it's the contrast between the skinny arms and ample belly, or is it the soulful expression that always makes him look a little out of place?

Dmitry Travin, a professor at St Petersburg's European University took to the pages of Russian daily "Vedomosti" to declare the Zhdun Russia's new national symbol. "The Russian Zhdun is sad and lazy, but likeable," no surprise given "the stagnation that had robbed the country of any basis for political, social or economic change," Travin surmised. Ever optimistic, Zhdun has "withdrawn into himself and is waiting."

An elephant-seal as a barometer for Russia's zeitgeist? 

Zhdun does get involved in a lot of politics. Here he is handing down a sentence to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

He also finds time to come to the Kremlin and chair government meetings in President Vladimir Putin's place.

Some have even suggested he take the place of a contentious new statue of Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus that was put up next to the Kremlin last year.

But he also has a private life and, like other young Russian males, he has the draft to contend with.

But sometimes he just needs to take a break from the daily grind and crash a piece of classic Russian art. In this case it's Valentin Serov's 1887 "Girl with Peaches."

But Zhdun's popularity does not end at Russia's borders. Ukrainian users have morphed their own president into a "visa-free" Zhdun, or Pochekun in Ukrainian, in a dig at the president's failure to deliver on a promise of visa-free travel to the EU.

And now it looks like Zhdun's Eastern European career is set to take him beyond the online world. The mayor of Dnepropetrovsk has confirmed he is in talks with Margriet van Breevoort's to bring a two-meter statue of Zhdun to the streets of the Ukrainian city.

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