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Shirtless Putin and the Future of Russia

Should we read anything into the latest macho poses of the president?

by Peter Rutland 4 September 2017

In August Vladimir Putin once again went viral with the release of a series of photos of him relaxing, shirtless, in the lakes and mountains of the republic of Tuva, on Russia’s border with Mongolia.

Putin on holiday. Image via en.kremlin.ru.

 

This has become a regular feature of Putin’s presidency, bolstering his macho image at home and abroad.  Analysts scrambled to decode the political message hidden in the photo opportunity. Is it Putin’s way of responding to the new wave of sanctions passed into law by the U.S. congress? Is he “trolling” Trump, whose physical exertions do not go beyond the golf course?  Is it part of the preparation for his sure-to-be-victorious 2018 presidential election campaign?  

 

Academics such as Valerie Sperling, Andrew Foxall, Helena Goscilo, and Julie Cassiday and Emily Johnson have, in the past, explored the origins and significance of Putin’s personality cult.

 

From his earliest days on the public stage in 1999, Putin was a master of the pithy comment that grabbed headlines. But it was only after he became president that the Kremlin’s PR team went to work to manufacture a personality cult around his persona. Putin’s inauguration in May 2000 was lavishly choreographed: who can forget his long, long walk through the corridors of the Kremlin before ascending the stage.

 

But it was not until 2007 that Putin went shirtless. That summer, the Kremlin released photos of him swimming, fishing, riding, and hunting, while on vacation in Tuva in southern Siberia. Many of them showed the president’s well-sculpted upper torso. (A couple of weeks later he was joined out in Siberia by Prince Albert of Monaco, which is ironic, since hanging out with royalty hardly suits Putin’s populist image.)

 

Why was there this sudden interest in boosting Putin’s public image back in August 2007? Well, in May 2008 Putin’s second term as president was coming to an end. The Kremlin faced a dilemma: would Putin step down, or change the constitution and run for a third term? As we now know, he chose to leave the presidency, while moving sideways to the post of prime minister. Either way, it would have made sense to cultivate Putin’s personality cult – either to justify him standing as president for a third term, or to brand Putin’s personal authority separate from the post of president.

 

In 2008 the Kremlin marked the end of Putin’s two-term presidency by releasing a book Vladimir Putin – The Best Photographs, which included two DVDs with 24,000 photos and 74 hours of video. Among recent political figures, perhaps only Princess Diana exceeds Vladimir Putin in the number of images in circulation.

 

It is highly unusual for world leaders to arrange for official photographs of themselves semi-naked, to present themselves as the incarnation of the body politic. As far as I can tell, there are only two other leaders who have ever done this. Mussolini was the master of the form, with dozens of photos of Il Duce in body-building poses. In 1966 the 73-year-old Mao famously swam down the Yangtze River to demonstrate his good health and assert his personal authority at the height of the Cultural Revolution. (There are numerous other leaders, of course, who have been caught by paparazzi on the beach in various stages of undress.)

 

Beyond the personal political calculations of Putin, the photos have stimulated debate about the broader crisis of masculinity in Russian society. In the 1990s many Russian men found themselves disoriented by the emergence of a new consumer society, bombarded by new images that undermined traditional (Soviet) values, and unable to play the role of “breadwinner” in their families. Putin’s machismo also reinforced the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the West as losing its vim, by allowing and encouraging homosexual behavior (“Gayropa”). (The fact that Putin’s shirtless photos also had a homoerotic component was passed over.)

 

On the international stage, Putin’s posturing dovetailed with Russia’s new willingness to use force to defend its interests – exemplified by the 2008 war with Georgia. Valerie Sperling notes that alongside boosting Putin’s macho image, Russian propaganda sought to portray Barack Obama as wimpy and effeminate.

 

The latest batch of photos comes at a time when there is increasing speculation about Russia’s political future. The Russian elite is nervous, beset by Western sanctions and hobbled by the plateau in global oil prices. Decreased resources have meant intensified faction fighting within the elite. Putin is 64 years old, and assuming he runs again in 2018 he will be 71 in 2024, when his term expires. The elite sees the need to plan ahead – which means planning for a future without Putin. Maybe the shirtless photos are a reminder that Putin is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Peter Rutland 
is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University.
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