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By Sean — 5 years ago
In September, strippers from the Moscow strip club ‘Golden Girls’ posed for a calendar, “Make Love Not War”, celebrating Putin’s diplomatic victory in Syria. “I don’t know what Syria is, but still, I don’t want them to bomb it,” declared Miss October. The calendar is the latest in a litany of images and artifacts singing hosannas to Putin. The archive of the Putin cult is immense and features anything from matryoshkas to video games. Next to oil and gas, Putin is one of Russia’s most marketable commodities. Perhaps a testament to the Putin cult’s power is that even academics have turned their analytical gaze toward Putininia. That Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, a new collection of essays analyzing the Putin spectacle, affirms the power of the Putin cult through its deconstruction is not without a measure of irony.
Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon contains eight essays treating Putin’s cult of personality, his language, his public performance, and image, and the role these play in crafting Putin as a powerful symbol of the post-soviet Russian nation. What unites all these essays is Putin as spectacle where, wrote Guy Debord, “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation. . . .The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification.” Putin as spectacle vividly captures Debord’s thesis.
At the same time, Putin as a unifying symbol points to the much older notion of the king’s two bodies. The first body – Putin’s personal life – is rarely visible. The public has only gotten brief glimpses of Putin as a human being with all of the attending personal quirks and emotions. Two examples are when he shed tears after learning he was elected for a third presidential term or when he and his wife Lyudmila publically announced their divorce. Sometimes Putin’s anger comes through, like when he berates underlings or, most recently, when a hot microphone catches him calling a professor a ‘nutball’. But even these moments are for public consumption. As Michael Gorham argues, Putin’s direct tone, slang, and folksy witticisms are part of his tough everyman persona. Even Putin’s softer side is carefully managed through his public relationship with animals and children. Tatiana Mihailkova’s excellent essay shows animals substitute for Putin’s family, who are so rarely shown in public that rumors abounded that he had his wife cloistered in a convent. Putin’s tender moments with his dog, Koni, as well as horses, dolphins, cranes, tigers, and other wildlife are common tropes of his public image. Some of these encounters are even sealed with a kiss. Putin has a penchant for kissing fish and tigers. Perhaps Putin’s most famous kiss, though, was the one he planted on a 7-year-old boy in 2006. All of these endearing moments, Mikhailova argues, positions Putin as the “soft and tender Father of the Nation,” as opposed to him being solely the father of the Putins.
Putin’s second body, symbolizing authority and the nation, is very public – sometimes too public, as his bare-chested pictorials suggest. Putin’s public escapades show him as a hands-on micro-manager who is doing what’s good for the nation: chastising and directing underlings, putting out fires, inspecting construction projects, holding a marathon call-in show where he personally answers citizens’ appeals, and vowing to eliminate terrorists in the outhouse. In such a vast and ungovernable nation as Russia, the spectacle of Putin’s personal omnipotent power gives the impression that he’s a competent leader tirelessly working in the people’s interest. In these spectacles, Putin represents a cross between the powerful leader Russia needs and an action hero.
It would be wrong, however, to reduce Putin to one thing. As several of the authors suggest, the resonance of Putin’s figure lies not just in its symbolic currency, or even market value, but in its chameleon-like nature. He’s ever-morphing. As the founder of the Levada polling agency, Yuri Levada, put it, Putin is “a mirror in which everyone . . . sees what he wants to see and what he hopes for.” Putin represents a nostalgia for the strong Russia of the past, a present-day happy Russia, and a future great Russia. All of these temporal stages are enacted through the variety of Putin texts available for consumption. Even his detractors are invested in Putin’s public body, as the act of rejection and ridicule of the leader cult are nevertheless rooted in its widespread resonance.
Russia’s ominous history of cult of personality easily comes to mind when searching for the lineages of Putin’s cult. While Putin certainly has a cult, it would be wrong to see it as a mere facsimile of its communist predecessors. Stalin’s cult, as Jan Plamper shows in his The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, was meticulously controlled, often by Stalin himself. As Julie Cassiday and Emily Johnson stress in their essay, the central control over Putin’s image is only one part of the story. Putin’s cult is as much as product of the free market as it is the Kremlin, and many Russians who serve as its producers and consumers have shaped its content. Putin sells and does so through a myriad of texts and mediums. Some of them are straight adulations. Others are mixed with irony and ridicule. Whatever the intent of Putinina, its value is subordinated to the supply and demand of the market. This, ironically, makes Putin’s cult more democratic, as Putin can be fashioned and re-fashioned to fit a citizen’s identity. One Putin portrait can radiate power and confidence, while the same poster colored with rainbow hues can stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. In this sense, the Putin cult is very much post-modern. The Kremlin’s master narrative is too easily deconstructed and rendered simply as one text among millions.
In Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarch, Richard Wortman wrote: “Symbolic display served as an essential mechanism of tsarist rule. Carefully staged ceremonies and celebrations . . . demonstrated the monarch’s powers of control and direction, providing a simulacrum of a political order responding to his will.” Putin’s cult plays a similar function. However, as Putin as Celebrity demonstrates, though Putin’s cult draws on older Russian traditions, it is inevitably shaped by the post-modern conditions of its existence. Perhaps, then, Putin’s scenario of power cannot be reduced to him as a strongman, tender father, masculine archetype, competent technocrat, or even a stand-in for the Russian nation. Putin’s real scenario is in its mutability. It’s in the ability of the consumer to personalize the Putin cult to satisfy his or her identity. In this sense Putin truly represents, in Debord’s words, the point “where all attention, all consciousness, converges.”Post Views: 769
By Sean — 9 years ago
Every once and I while I get emails from editors of magazines and newspapers alerting me to their articles on Russia. The intent of their communique is clear: Can you plug this? They rarely say this outright. Usually the request is masked with statements like “this might interest you” or “your readers might like . . .” Sometimes I give the story a mention if it is worthy. Most of the time I don’t. Why should I advertise the big corporate media for free? I gotta eat too.
I got one of those emails today from Slate saying that I’d “be interested” in Julia Ioffe’s “Nano-Potemkin Village” (There’s your plug, Slate.) To wet my palate further, the Slate rep added that the article’s thesis was on “the wildly ambitious Russian tech initiative, Rosnanotech, and why it’s absolutely doomed to fail.” I suddenly got the feeling that I’ve read this article before . . .
Nevertheless, I decided to check it out.
I know nothing about nanotechnology. Nor do I really care much about it beyond its appearance in X-Men comics and sci-fi movies. And I’m certainly in no position to objectively evaluate whether Russia’s attempt to modernize via nanotech is “ambitious” or is “doomed to fail.” Nor do I really give a shit. My problem is with the whole tone of the article. You see when it comes down to it, Russia is doomed to fail even before it starts. The implicit suggestion is that Russia shouldn’t try at all, or at least not try in its own Russian way. It’s a total set up for one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios. Because if nanotech becomes the big thing in ten or twenty years and Russia isn’t lock step, it will be called backward and hopeless, followed by the usual condemnations of its failure to reform. If Russia tries to develop nanotech, like it’s doing, the effort will be castigated, as Ioffe does, as “little more than an elaborate a PR stunt designed to make the Kremlin appear to be forward-thinking and reform-oriented while shunting wads of cash to its friends.”
Sadly, you don’t just have to go to Russia to find (state-)capitalists using the public coffer as an limitless ATM. In America, this practice gets softer labels like “tax breaks” or “bailouts” and shrouded in “committee hearings” where the politician and industrialist/financier put on their own kind of “production.” The truth of the matter is, as the recent financial crisis has proven once again, that the state and capital are Siamese twins joined at the heart and the ass. The heart because of their symbiotic relationship, and the ass because their shit tends to fall in the same direction: on the heads of the public. But I digress . . .
When it comes down to it, the only thing the Kremlin is really good at doing is building “Potemkin villages.” It’s too bad it doesn’t figure out how to market those. They could name the state corporation Rospotemselo, or something like that. To explain why Russia is doomed from the get go, Ioffe turns to the wisdom of the great Russian semioticians Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky.
Historians Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky once noted that Russia does not do gradual change well. Rather, its leaders have long approached reform as a one-two break with the past, an approach that often has the reverse effect: In cleaning the slate, Russia too often simply locks in what’s already there.
You see it’s not the Russians fault that they are better at flash than substance. They are just slaves to the dialectic of their own cultural-political master. It’s reform pistols only fire “futuristic magic bullet[s]” I’m surprised that the venerable names of other Russian clean slate reformers like Peter the Great, and well of course, comrade Stalin, didn’t make the text.
Ioffe lists other reasons why Russia’s nanotech plan won’t work even though its barely off the ground: state intervention, bureaucracy, inefficiency, graft, deficits, brain drain, and, alas too many dreamers. Maybe the latter will at least get a good izba in the “nano-Potemkin village” for their efforts.
But I didn’t have to read this article to know this plan won’t work. I read it almost everyday about every other Russian plan. The marriage of failure and Russia is a match made in discourse. Because when it comes down to it, there is really only one thesis fit to print: Russia is fucked.Post Views: 759
By Sean — 5 years ago
In his seminal essay on hegemony, State and Civil Society, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci summed up the post-WWI revolutionary convulsions with the following:
“In Russia the state was everything and civil society was primordial and gelatinous: in the West there was a proper relation between the state and civil society, and when the state trembled the sturdy section of civil society was at once revealed. The state was only an outer ditch, behind which was a powerful system of fortress and earthworks.”
I was reminded of this passage as I tried to mentally sum up Putin’s first year of his third presidential term. The Russian state is once again suffering from tremors, the climax of which—Putin’s formal return to the presidency and the Bolotnaya “riots,”—will be a year ago next week. And though it’s a stretch to apply Gramsci’s analysis of the Russia of 1917 to the Russia of 2012-13, how Putin has dealt with this newly diagnosed epilepsy suggests the calculation of hegemony has moved demonstratively toward force. At the moment, the Russian state may not be “everything” or its civil society “primordial and gelatinous,” but they are both increasingly farther away from what Gramsci calls a “proper relation.” This turn to force—and to be clear, by force I mean Putin’s reliance on coercive measures rather than soft, inclusive power—is making the ground under Russia’s body politic fragment.Post Views: 648