How much would you pay for a T-shirt emblazoned with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pointy face and the logo “Make Love, Not War?” Or one portraying the former KGB officer as a superhero surrounded by doves?
“Peacemaker,” a pop-up store in New York City dedicated to the Kremlin—and strategically located in an area of Manhattan highly trafficked by Russians—is selling roughly 100 of these collectors items a day for $25 each.
The man behind the Putin Peacemaker operation is 26-year-old Julius Kacinskis, who was born in Lithuania and currently lives in New Jersey, having moved to the U.S. in 2001. Kacinskis opened the store on October 7th, Putin’s birthday, inviting Russian state media to cover the launch—a move that raised eyebrows across town and prompted speculation about the Kremlin’s role in the pro-Putin paraphernalia.
Some customers are indeed buying it as such, particularly the Russian tourists and expats stumbling into the shop after sucking down Borscht and infused vodka at the popular Mari Vanna restaurant a few doors down.
But Kacinskis insists his tee shirts aren’t propaganda. “I’m asking customers to make up their own minds as to why they’re buying them,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that he’s not a Putin obsessive, as his shirts suggest. (Putin is conspicuously absent from Kacinskis’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, though the Peacemaker designer is apparently a big fan of electronic dance supergroup Swedish House Mafia.) “I wouldn’t say I’m pro-this or pro-that. I’m really not into politics at all.”
But he wanted to challenge the West’s perception of Putin. “There are so many sides of the story, so many truths that people believe, and I don’t think anyone knows the facts yet. I have many friends in Ukraine and Crimea who love him and are happy [about the annexation].”
Kacinskis also said Putin deserves more credit for his efforts in preventing other countries from going to war in Syria. “I have a lot of friends who served in Iraq and they say that the chances of going back to war [in Syria] were pretty high if Putin didn’t do something.”
Kacinskis points out that, with the exception of one protest at the pop-up, Peacemaker “hasn’t had much negative reception.” And the protesters only stopped in “on their way to protest an exhibit organized by this German photographer in Chelsea which supposedly portrays Ukraine in a very bland way.” (The exhibition purports to tell “the full truth about the countries involved in civil conflicts,” with a focus on Syria and Ukraine.)
Kacinskis, who says he makes a living investing in small start-ups, including a limousine company and an exterior restoration company, dismissed rumors that the store is being funded by the Kremlin.
He claims he will have spent an estimated $20,000 on the Peacemaker label by the time the pop-up shop closes on October 19, which includes money for renting the pop-up space in the Gramercy boutique “Chaos” and production of some 4,000 shirts. Friends and family also pitched in.
It seems Kacinskis’ motives for launching the Peacemaker label were to design something provocative—promoting peace with Putin’s face—that would inevitably attract media attention. “He’s a controversial figure, but he’s also a really powerful person who could use that power to help the world out.”
What are Kacinskis’ thoughts on Russia’s relationship with the US? “Ten years ago the Russian-American relationship was a stand-offish thing, but that’s kind of changed. I have many Russian friends who live here and half the time I don’t even know they’re Russian.”
And what about his native Lithuania’s longstanding tensions with the Kremlin?
“A lot of older Lithuanian people wish the Soviet Union was back because they were able to have free healthcare and they had pensions that never changed. People who grew up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s were raised on not liking Russia, but Lithuanians don’t really have that hatred that was preached to them when they were kids anymore.”
Kacinskis is looking to license the shirts and plans to sell them online after the pop-up closes. He’s also been invited to Moscow next month to participate in a fashion show organized by pro-Russia designers.
“These two weeks are really about getting our name out there. And I may throw someone else’s face [on the tees], but Putin is my main idea right now,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if the reviews are negative or positive. It’s all positive for me from a business perspective.”