Monday, November 7, 2011

The Mighty Putin

by Michael Kaplan

Dolls depicting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, created by Vladimir Rychkal, are exhibited during an international puppet exhibition in Moscow. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP. 

The United States is not the only nation holding its presidential election in 2012. Russia too will choose a new chief executive next year. But while the American electorate will engage in a momentous clash of personalities, ideologies, and public policy alternatives whose outcome is by no means certain, our comrades in the Motherland already know who their next president will be: former president and current prime minister Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Since the days of the tsars Russians have sought out leaders who project an image of strength and wield power with an iron hand. So there was little doubt that Putin would take back the presidency from his sock puppet successor Dmitry Medvedev. Putin has often been photographed and filmed engaged in all sorts of exterme sporting and macho physical pursuits, from riding shirtless on horseback, shooting whales with a harpoon, riding motorcyles, and diving for treasure in the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria beneath the Black Sea. (For a montage of Putin action pictures, click here.) In the above picture and the video below from Fareed Zakaria GPS, the Kremlin’s spin doctors play up the image of Putin as a superhero—the doll resembles Patrick Stewart in medieval warrior mode—while Medvedev comes off as, well . . . a wimp.

Putin, the man of vigor and action, presents a sharp contrast to his decrepit and too often inebriated predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, as well as to earlier Soviet-era leaders like Leonid Brezhnev. Putin’s handlers have also sought to bolster his image as a man of irresistible sex appeal. In the next video a group of faux Amazon babes who call themselves “Putin’s Army” pledge to “Tear it up for Putin.” The video, which originated on YouTube, went viral after it was posted on Live Journal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform, by a Moscow city councilman affiliated with Putin’s United Russia party.

As the video starts Diana, a sexy, stylish, and sophisticated Moscow “college student” (yeah, right), walks down a thoroughfare in six-inch spiked heels, talking on her iPhone, her very visible cleavage cradling a Russian Orthodox cross. Diana joins together for her viewers the sacred imagery of traditional Holy Mother Russia with the eroticized consumerism of modern post-Communist crony capitalist Russia. Julia Ioffe, a Moscow-based Russian-American journalist who blogs at The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, and Forbes, writes that Putin has mastered the art of mobilizing the sex saturated pop culture of contemporary Russia as a prop for his authoritarian regime. “Expressions of sex in the public domain have been a hallmark of the Putin era. Western visitors are often shocked—many of the men pleasantly so—by how Russian women parade their highest heels and deepest decolletage, even on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.” As she teeters in her high heels, Diana proclaims her devotion to the great leader:
I am crazy about a man who has changed the life of our country. He’s a worthy politician and a great man. He is Vladimir Putin.

He is adored by millions of people. They believe in him. However there is a small bunch of people who smear him. Perhaps they are afraid of him. They’re weak and can’t be in his position.
Young, smart and beautiful girls have formed an Army of Putin. An army that will rip up anyone for him. 
Diana then announces a contest for those young ladies who wish to join Putin’s Army: “You shoot a video where you rip up something or someone for Putin.” The lucky winner who shoots the most original video will receive an iPad2 (Steve Jobs’s legacy is alive and well in the Motherland). Ripping off her own shirt Diana proclaims “What are YOU ready to do for your president?” And she does not mean Medvedev.

There’s more than a hint of menace in Diana’s declaration. Julia Ioffe points out that the Russian verb “porvat” which means “to tear” is often used when violent retaliation is intended; as in “If you hurt Putin, I’ll tear you to shreds,” or “I’ll tear you a new one.” Images of the wild maenads of Greek mythology, devotees of the god Dionysus immortalized in Euripides’s play The Bacchae, come to mind. Just as Dionysus’s maenads tore wild animals and the occasional human to shreds and devoured their flesh, one can see Diana and her army of bikini-clad maenads doing the same to those foolish enough to stand in the way of Putin’s return to the presidency. (Dmitry Medvedev, are you listening?)

In another video the bikini-clad Amazons show their patriotism and their devotion to the prime minister by washing Russian-made cars. The British anchors of Prime Time Russia are visibly discomfited by the spectacle: the female anchor could barely restrain her disgust, though her male colleague seemed to enjoy the sight. Such is the state of politics in Putin’s Russia, nothing more than bread and circuses drained of any substance. The absurdity of Putin’s Army shows just how far Russia has retreated from its democratic moment in the 1990s. This was perhaps inevitable. The social and economic upheavals of the 1990s undermined public confidence in democracy and reaffirmed the Russian people’s bedrock belief in the need for a strong leader at the top; a leader strong enough to keep the forces of chaos at bay. And Vladimir Putin, former KGB operative and scuba diving Indiana Jones, has convinced the Russian electorate that he is the man for that job.

On August 10, 2011, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin carries two pieces of archaeological trophies he discovered during diving near an archeological excavation of an ancient Greek port on the Taman Peninsula. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin)

For Russians liberty has always been problematic. Their few attempts to embrace it have not worked out too well, and as a result most Russians tend to equate liberty with license and anarchy. Such is the tragic burden of Russia’s history. In the end the people have always turned to the strong hand of the authoritarian state to provide for them. Putin has taken full advantage of this. Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, and professor of international affairs at New York’s New School, writes that Russians continue to see themselves not as independent self-governing citizens but as subjects subordinate to the state. “For many Russians, if not most, the authority figure embodies the powers that control everything that matters in life; they support him, regardless of the policies that he implements, because there is no possibility of doing otherwise.” And Russia in the 2010s faces a truly terrifying prospect: rampant alcoholism, declining life expectancies, social breakdown, and demographic catastrophe as she engages in what Nicholas Eberstadt calls “an ethnic self-cleansing.” (See Eberstadt’s reports on Russia’s demographic crisis here and here. See Seth Mandel’s article on Putin’s rise to power in the December 2011 issue of Commentary.)

In such circumstances of social and demographic breakdown, Putin can even be seen as a heroic leader struggling to keep his nation together in the only way he knows how. For all his authoritarian impulses, Putin is no Stalin. Mass terror is not on his agenda. Putin’s genius, according to Colonel Ralph Peters, is to understand the limits of the authoritarian state and keep it out of private life. Allow people autonomy to live their lives in the private sphere and they’re less likely to cause trouble in the political sphere. “He saw that an authoritarian state that stops at the front door is not only tolerable but also more efficient.” With no apparent alternatives on the horizon, Vladimir Putin will continue to enjoy at least the acquiescence of Russia’s long-suffering people to his rule as their de facto tsar. Putin’s Russia, based on Russian nationalism, Russian Orthodox faith, eroticized consumerism, crony capitalism, and the personality cult of the great leader, is a return not to the Soviet Union, but to Tsarist Russia. Using bluff and bluster to re-assert Russia’s role on the world stage, despite its diminished circumstances, Putin has leveraged his image as an action hero to reinvent himself as a tsar for the twenty-first century. Whether he can guide Russia out of its malaise and transform her, much like his hero Peter the Great, into a modern nation up to the challenges of the twenty-first century remains to be seen.

Postscript December 31, 2011. The mass demonstrations by young educated middle-class protesters in Moscow against Putin’s autocratic regime this past month, could be the harbinger of genuine democratic change in Russia. A new generation, free of the ghosts of the Soviet past, seems willing to challenge the Great Leader and take up the fight for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is too soon to tell of course whether they will succeed and lead Russia to a new and better future, or whether they will tragically fail like Russia’s ill-fated reformers of the past. See these articles by Julia Ioffe (here, here, and here), Leon Aron, and Bill Keller for an optimistic view.

Update January 9, 2017: Five years after writing this post, Putin’s grip on power is stronger than ever. While crushing opposition at home, Putin now challenges the American-led liberal-democratic world order with his military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and his probable cyberwarfare against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Gratuitously insulted on more than one occasion by the weak and incompetent Barack Obama, Putin, in Victor Davis Hanson’s words, “is guided by his desire to recapture the glories of the Soviet Union, not just its Stalinist authoritarianism or geographical expanse. He also seeks to restore the respect that long ago greeted Russian diplomats, generals, and leaders when sent abroad as proud emissaries of a world-class power.” Much of Putin’s popular support rests on the desire of the Russian people to likewise regain the respect they once had as citizens of a superpower. One example: Liza, a stylish 24-year-old Siberian-born corporate lawyer, told Julia Ioffe how she had been humiliated when she studied in London. People there often made fun of Russian women, “mocking them as mail-order brides.” Liza recalled that “it was offensive to the point of tears, to sit there and hear outsiders making fun of us.

Young Russians like Liza, of the post-Soviet generation born after 1991, the “Putin generation” as Julia Ioffe calls them, have given up on democratic political change. They have either enthusiastically embraced Putin’s populist nationalist, crony capitalist, and neo-tsarist autocracy, or resigned themselves to accepting it as the least bad of any possible alternatives. “Their desire for staid normalcy,” Ioffe writes in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic intact families, reliable, if unsatisfying, jobs — is their response to what they lacked in the Nineties and found in the Putin era.” The Putin generation is likewise nostalgic for the supposed order and stability of the Soviet Union while largely ignorant of its cruelty and repression.

“On the long list of fields in which Russians have traditionally excelled,writes Kirk Bennett,  “conspicuous by its absence is the area of good governance.” Putin’s regime follows the historical Russian pattern of corrupt, autocratic governance. And it provides further evidence that deeply rooted political cultures are very difficult to transform. Owen Matthews writes that Putin’s Russia in many ways resembles the kind of country that the White Guard would have built had they, not the Reds, won the Russian Civil War. . . . Putin has restored Holy Russia: a society where ruler and church are united, where dissent is treason and where secret police watch for the slightest flicker of discontent.” While this may be something of an improvement on the communist Soviet Union, the Russian people, who have contributed much to the development of science and culture, deserve better.

So for the moment at least, Putin has restored Russia to quasi-superpower status. He won the civil war in Syria for his ally Bashar al-Assad, reducing the city of Aleppo to rubble in the process. Putin has also shown that he is quite capable of exploiting partisan polarization in the United States to knock his major geopolitical rival down a peg. The Russian people have so far proved willing to support Putin’s aggressive and expansionist foreign policy, even at the cost of increasing economic hardship and political repression at home. The Russian people, like their Great Leader, have made it clear that for the time being they value their nation’s military sway and geopolitical standing over and above their economic prosperity, cultural creativity, or political liberty.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan


  1. Another great article Michael. The Russian people are in fact exactly as you say, a product of their culture and history. As such, one can see why they have a problem with moving away from the Tsarist mentality per say just as one can see the hatred in the Islamic s, something that is age old. Amazing though isn't it. Is there any other people in the world that no matter what love their country more than the Russians?

  2. Joe,

    I've always looked on Russia as a monument to the endurance of the human spirit in the worst of historical circumstances. The very extremes of life in Russia enabled her great novelists and artists--Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, etc--to climb the heights and plumb the depths of the human condition. And Russians do have a boundless love of their country, though I would say that we Americans--most of us at least--love our country just as much. Russians, like all people, are indeed shaped by their history. I think if more people, and our leaders, had a better knowledge of history we wouldn't get into so many screw ups.


  3. Could one even imagine what "could be" if history was in fact taught as it was when you and I were in school and in turn we actually learned from the history and did not make the same mistakes over and over? Love of country is a fascinating thing and history is so much a part of that love.

  4. BTW: I've started reading your 2 earlier works in my spare time. Absolutely fascinating!

    In reading your different posts, even at 60 years old, I sense you are a professor who's love for his subject is such that it rubs off on the student. I had an electronics teacher who somehow when he lectured one became wrapped up in what he was saying.

    I just wanted to let you know again how much I enjoy and in turn learn from your posts. Almost makes me wish I had gone to college all those years ago. LOL! Seriously, I have a gut feeling I would really enjoy it.


  5. Joe,

    Thanks for the vote of confidence. One of the great things about the Internet is that it can be used as tool for teaching and writing about history. So now I can post my earlier work where anyone can access and read it if they so choose, instead of letting it gather dust in the library stacks.

    I turn 50 this month and with my mother's passing I've been trying to come to terms with what's really important and meaningful in life. And being true to my passion for history is near the top of the list. You're right, I have tried to share this passion with my students, to make them understand how special America is and how much the blood and sacrifice of earlier generations (a fit topic for Veteran's Day) made it possible for them to enjoy the liberty. It doesn't always work. While some students do engage with history, others have neither the interest nor the ability to do college level work. They're just taking up space and wasting their parents' money. I have found that older students who've returned to college in midlife are much more serious about learning than your average 18 year old, and they bring a wealth of life experience to their studies. Something to think about.

    I've been reading Pat Buchanan's book, "Suicide of a Superpower." He raises a lot ideas and is quite pessimistic about the future of the country. I'll probably write a post about it. He argues that we can solve most of the problems of American education by pushing the lowest achieving students out of the system after 8th grade. I can see his point, though I don't know what options such young people would then have to lead a productive life.