Vladimir Putin just keeps racking up the accolades. As everyone will remember, Time magazine caused a stir when it named VVP Person of the Year 2007. Now Vanity Fair has named him Numero Uno on its The New Establishment 2008 list. VF‘s blurb on Vlad the Invader,
SPHERE OF INFLUENCE: After eight years as Russia’s president, Putin’s still at the height of his power. He saw his approval ratings top 80 percent, thanks to an economy revived through energy profits, which has made it easier for him to get away with his antipathy to free speech and other civil liberties—he controls the media and imprisons or exiles his enemies. And cashing in on Russia’s natural resources has enabled Putin to pay off the nation’s foreign debt, rebuild its military, restore its pride, and re-assert its place in world affairs. Faced with presidential-term limits, Putin, 56, sustained his formidable power by becoming prime minister and leader of the overwhelmingly dominant United Russia party. He also all but installed his longtime protégé and former campaign manager, Dmitri A. Medvedev, as Russia’s new president through a reportedly rigged March election. But by all accounts Putin was the commander in chief in its recent foray into Georgia.
ENEMIES: Georgia and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is the leader of the opposition coalition Other Russia and has had the nerve to challenge Putin’s iron rule.
RUMOR HAS IT: Putin has secretly stashed away more than $40 billion (from Russia’s oil-and-gas riches) in secret bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
EVIDENCE OF POSSIBLE LACK OF MODESTY: Putin’s exhibitionistic tendency to go shirtless (and show off his buff, hairless physique to photographers) while fishing with Monaco’s Prince Albert II or hunting in the Siberian mountains.
SHOULD BE EMBARRASSED ABOUT: Putin has done little to rein in the country’s ruling kleptocracy. In a recent call to analysts, Rupert Murdoch said, “The more I read about investments in Russia, the less I like the feel of it. The more successful we’d be, the more vulnerable we’d be to have it stolen from us.”
And when you consider all the above, his pecs, and his hunting skills, what a mensch!
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By Sean — 11 years ago
Stalin never posed with his shirt off, but Putin’s topless poses while fishing in Siberia certainly smacks of a “socialist realism” for post-Soviet Russia. The Putin cult is no secret. Nashi’s reverence for Putin approaches the Komsomol’s love of Lenin. The new recommended history textbook, which will be introduced to Russian high schools next year, places Putin as the alpha and omega of the 21st century Russian state. If Putin’s political prowess, intellect, quick wit, and athleticism hasn’t built him up as the New Postmodern Russian Man, his pecks certainly will.
The Russian media is abuzz with opinions of Putin’s photos. Though criticism of the pictures exists, it appears that most Russians, especially women, have greeted them with approval. As the Associated Press reports, when Yevgeniya Albats said that the photos were “unbecoming of a Russian leader,” she received a barrage of emails from women expressing their love for their presidential Adonis. It’s too bad they also didn’t focus on her silly claim that “the photos were mean to enhance Putin’s personal appeal to voters–a strong signal that he doesn’t plan to relinquish power.” With a approval rating hovering at a consistent 70%, one doubts that topless photos are necessary even if Putin desired to stay on. Sergei Markov of Moscow’s Institute for Political Research summed it up simply: “He’s cool. That’s been the image throughout the presidency, cool.”
But most of today’s English reporting on Putin pics is buzz about the buzz. More specifically Komsomolskaya pravda’s article “Be Like Putin!” The article provides seven exercises for the aspiring Putinite to become just like Vlad. And they say that fizkul’turа is dead.
And the Russian media is having fun with it. In a headline, Argumenty i Fakty declared “Putin’s Torso has subdued Europe“. Numerous Russian news sites are translating articles from the Western press that look to find the hidden geopolitical meaning of Putin’s chest. London Times’ Michael Grove admitted that Putin’s chest was Russia’s secret weapon, making a direct connection between Russia’s asserting of its military muscle and Putin showing his. Grove writes:
As Putin’s careful release of the pictures of his own taut form demonstrate, the deployment of male nudity is, above all, a power play. On one level Vlad is showing us all that he’s a remarkably fit man for his age (54) and that, unlike in the decadent West, Russia’s leaders remain the physical embodiment of their nation’s vigour – classical champions in the manner of those Roman emperors who would renew their mandate to rule on the battlefield or even in the gladiatorial ring. His bare-chested peacockery is, in that respect, in line with the broader cult of Putin as his nation’s silverback – the leader of the band.
The body of the President is a testament to the body of of the country. If Putin is strong, the Russian state is strong. In the quick click of a camera, Putin’s two bodies, his corporal and symbolic, merge into one.
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.”
By Sean — 13 years ago
On Friday, I went to my local photo shop to get some passport sized photos for a library card. While I was waiting I noticed a letter sized portrait of Vladimir Putin on the wall. This was no regular portrait that you see in most government buildings with Vlad looking all presidential and, incidentally, ever so metrosexual. This one was of Putin the commando. It was him, shoulders up, so you could see he was wearing a winter commando jacket and fur hat. I couldn’t help thinking of not just the cheesiness of the portrait, nor just how easy the ubiquitous pictures of Lenin of the Soviet times too easily returned in different content, but I also wondered what will happen to Russia once their beloved Vanya is gone.
Such is also the question increasingly on every Russian politicos’ mind: What will happen in 2008? You see, in 2008, there will be a Presidential election, in which Putin cannot run because of term limits. The newspaper articles seem non-stop. They overflow with predictions of chaos. From the necessity of a handpicked successor to avert chaos to complete doomsday scenarios about colored revolutions and the Russian State imploding. There doesn’t seem to be any room for any middle ground. Authoritarian anti-chaos or democratic chaos. Take your pick.
These views, of course, break down by political affiliation. Many liberal democratic politicos envision, or rather hope, for some kind of Russian version of a “colored revolution” similar to their cousins in the Ukraine and southern neighbors in Georgia. Many liberals are already mobilizing their grassroots forces a la Ukraine to prepare for the 2008 challenge. Yabloko is trying to make a political comeback. Students and other youths are starting to form their own anti-Putin groups. Taking a page from the Ukrainian youth group Pora (It’s Time) and the Georgian group Kmara (Enough), Russian youth groups like Yabloko Youth led by Ilya Yashin, Mikhail Obozov’s Idushchiye bez Putina (Walking Without Putin), student associations Ia Dumaiu (I Think) and Da (Yes) are starting early in anticipation of a 2008 showdown in the streets. The groups first began networking on the internet. Since the pensioner protests at the beginning of the year, they had increased in membership and furthered their activities. Speaking to the LA Times in January, Mikhail Obozov summed up liberal youths desire in this way:
“We are not for bloody revolutions or cataclysms. We are looking for normal democratic development. But if they continue their suppression of all possibilities, I’m afraid some bloody variation of events is possible. In Ukraine, everything went down peacefully. It won’t be like that in Russia.”
Translated: we’re not for chaos, but we won’t shy away from it either.
Many “pro-democracy” (whatever that means in the Russian context) advocates are hoping former Prime Minister Mikhail Krasianov makes a run for President. In something that is pretty unprecedented in Russian politics, Krasianov openly criticized Putin for his move away from democracy. Many observers note that Krasianov might be one of the few Russian politicians who could muster not only a coalition of liberal or anti-Putin parties, the backing of Russians Oligarchs, and possibly exploit the factions that have developed in Putin’s clan of former KGB/FSB and other security elites, the Siloviki.
Such political hopes for many Russian liberals might never get beyond hope, though their early mobilizations might fare them well. All this, especially the youth activity, only fuels the already widespread beliefs that the CIA orchestrated the “revolution” in the Ukraine with a combination of marketing and Soros money. Putin supporters and nationalists thus vow that Russia will not tolerate any “colored revolutions,” and some concrete steps are being taken to make that so. Pro-Putin youth have since ditched the moderate youth group, Idushchie vmeste (Marching Together), for the much more openly nationalist Nashi (Ours). Though the group has not been officially endorsed by the Putin Administration, its leader, Vasily Yakemenko also headed Marching Together. Nashi, says Yakemenko, has a long list enemies: oligarchs, bureaucrats, and what he called “fascist” enemies, which, as he told the Christian Science Monitor, includes “counter-revolution of former officials trying to seize power” (3/16/2005).
Despite the difficultly in imaging life with Putin, legislaters squashed the anticipated official move to allow Putin to run again. Last week, Lower Duma member Alexander Moskalets from United Russia introduced legislation that would alter Chapter V, Article 32.4 of the Russian Constitution so Putin could run again. The bill only gained 32 of the 226 votes it needed to pass. Such a defeat shows that United Russia, which dominates the Duma and is Putin’s party doesn’t even favor such a move.
It seems that the Putin/United Russia camp is paving a different road to victory in 2008. Despite the emergence of a more militant youth group like Nashi, United Russia might attempt to transform itself into a centrist party that places “Just imagine if they came to power” at the center of their platform. The “they” in this slogan is the Communist Party and Rodina (Homeland) the respective far left and right parties. In an interview given to the German weekly Der Spiegel this week, Putin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, described a strategy where, unlike their main opponents, United Russia is preparing for the future without looking to the past for solutions. This means that United Russia will focus on providing viable candidates not just for President, but for lower political positions as well. It is also looking to present an inclusiveness that could siphon off support of liberal democratic parties like Yabloko.
Yet the doomsday scenario continues to weigh heavily in the political discourse around 2008. After all, Untied Russia’s “Just imagine” slogan is a play against imagined right and left wing political chaos. Surkov’s response to Der Spiegel’s question about a potential revolt rising was “Sure, there will certainly be some attempts to stage a coup – but they will not succeed.” (Vedomosti, 6/30/2005). The assurance that there will be “certainly be some attempts” is an equivocal yes something will happen.
But will it? Such is hard to say. With the specter of revolution in Russia is only being fueled by the simultaneous hope and the fear of a repeat of the Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan informing the entire discourse surrounding of 2008, it will certainly be anti-climatic if there isn’t. It certainly seems that in the Russian and Western press, 2008 is being built up to Y2K proportions. There is no middle ground. Any suggestion of normalcy is cast off as naive.
However, one does have to wonder why normalcy for Russia is so out of the question. Sure, daily life lacks predictability. There is always some stumbling block. Take a small, but I think telling example. One day, I went to buy a bass pass and was refused purchase because I didn’t have exact change. The women in the ticket booth did not have 30 rubles to give me change. I walked away without a pass. Such is a standard occurrence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got eye fucked by grocery store checkers for not having kopecks for exact change. At the same time, there is a saying here in Russia: “Nel’zia, no vozmozhno” (It is forbidden, but possible.) There are barriers everywhere, but all barriers are movable. If you know how to play the game, especially if it involves bribes of money, chocolate, flowers, tea, etc, all things are possible. Daily life is a constant negotiation that involves a set of personal relations that stand in for the lack of legal ethic. (Here I mean not the rule of Law, whose existence here is also quesntionable, but an professional/service ethic that governs daily transactions.) If this game occurs on a micropoltical level can you imagine it in the macropolitical heavens of Russian politics?
The sheer lack of predictability creates a political culture that assumes chaos as the norm. Everyone predicted said chaos in the transition from Yeltsin to Putin, and when that chaos didn’t happen it was then argued that it was because Yeltsin handpicked a successor. Chaos inevitable and chaos averted in the same breath. Now, it is the same line. There will be some kind of chaos unless Putin runs again or hand picks a successor. His opponents are predicting a chaos of their own because they seem to believe that since Russian “democracy” is a sham, the only way to come to power is through chaos.
They are right about one thing: Russian democracy is a sham. But the only people who seem to care about this are Russian liberals who want power and the Western, mostly American, observers who see the Yukos affair as a sign of, that’s right, chaos. My sense is that most Russians don’t care about Putin’s assault on freedom of speech and political rights. They certainly don’t care about Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos. As far as they’re concerned, he is a crook.
What many Russians are looking for is a predictability to the micropolitical chaos that rules their life. They don’t care, or need, anymore. They care about stability. A predictable chaos, if you would. For them, Putin’s rule has established at least a semblance of it. It has put the breaks on the truly chaotic times of the 1990s. This new stability is not necessarily happening economically, though it perceived as better than ten years ago. The stability is mostly happening culturally. Reconciliation with the Soviet past has finally begun that doesn’t damn it, but praises its achievements. Nothing said this more than the recent 60th Anniversary of Victory Day celebrations. The glory of defeating the Nazis was relived through red flags with images of Stalin and Lenin. Putin has slyly absorbed the Soviet Union into his narrative. It lives in content, but not in form. This doesn’t mean that Putin is a Communist. Not by a long shot. What it does mean is that he is exploiting a nostalgia for the stability that the Soviet Union provided without actually providing it.
This is why I think when 2008 arrives, United Russia will come out on top because people don’t want to “imagine if they came to power.” And in my local photo shop, the Putin as commander picture will come down, and the picture of some, probably, handpicked Putin successor will take his place. Commando suit and all.