Why are there so many topless pictures of Vladimir Putin?
Vladimir Putin is a beautiful man. I know this because his press office incessantly publishes pictures of his muscled, naked torso as he hunts, fishes and acts in a manly way. From this same source I know that Vlad’s other hobbies include examining Kalashnikovs, piloting single-man marine submersibles, and nurturing cute li’l goats.
It has been obvious for some time that Putin’s public persona is heavily managed, perhaps more so than most politicians. A New York Review of Books article from 2000, in the run up to Putin’s first electoral victory, for example, assesses a whole ream of PR in terms of creating a solid, credible candidate for a solid, credible Russia:
When we see Putin skiing down a mountain on TV, mixing with the crowd (his bodyguards also pretend to be red-cheeked skiers), or watch him drop by a little restaurant, supposedly to eat blinis, you understand that Putin himself is absent, that you are watching a kind of national fun-house mirror in which the projected fears, hopes, tastes, and customs of the electorate are reflected. He’s skiing—so he’s young and healthy, no comparison with the old, sick Yeltsin. He’s mixing with the crowd—so he’s democratic. He’s eating blinis—so he observes national traditions, especially around Easter—a nod in the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Specialists in PR wouldn’t allow him to eat, say, sushi and sashimi in public before the elections—that isn’t Russian food. What if this faux pas suddenly cost him a couple of million votes…?
With politicians like David Cameron or Barack Obama, the division between the man and the PR stunt seems obvious, almost embarrassing. You recall these awkward interviews where Cameron enthuses about his love of The Smiths; you see Obama’s more successful youtube self-parodies. Yet with Putin, while we see the falsity, we struggle to engage with his ‘true’ character beyond the photo-ops. He remains indecipherable, a kind of postmodern exercise in idealised authoritarianism: all surface, falsehood layered on falsehood, a mirrored labyrinth with no thread to the reality outside. The only truth is Putin’s three terms in power.
This is why the focus on Putin’s actual, beautiful body seems so disjointed. Not just because it’s unusual for a sixty-year-old politician’s USP to be their abs, but because his body seems weirdly real for a political presence who is so absent and disembodied. Even as the Russian state becomes more and more a bureaucratic system for supporting Putin and his brand of crony-capitalism, Putin himself becomes more and more an avatar for the Russian state. In his PR at least, his body has itself become a projection of various conceptions of Russianness.
There is substantial precedent for this. One need only turn to the ‘socialist realism’ of the early Stalin years to find monumental artworks that embody the Soviet state. See, for example, Vera Mukhina’s ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ statue, displayed at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937: two rude, muscular Soviets lift a hammer and sickle aloft, their idealised bodies standing in for the newly healthy USSR. The symbolism is not particularly difficult to decipher. Or take this sculpture from Vilnius, more healthy socialists being happy and virile. Or this cinema in Krasnodar, the modernism of the building playing off the almost timeless socialist-realist statue, another impossibly powerful body filling in for the communist state.
For all its faults, there is a cohesiveness to this period of Soviet sculpture, an obvious symbolic logic facilitating a clear propaganda message. Its ideological underpinnings follow Walter Benjamin’s famous statement that “The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life.[…] Communism replies by politicizing art.” Soviet socialist realism is politicised art, art that, as Benjamin discusses, literally embodies the proletariat. It represents the workers and the nation at the same time: the workers and the nation are one and the same.
When it comes to Putin, the symbolism is a lot more obscure. We must acknowledge that Putin’s body, however beautiful, is not art: we are in the realm of aesthetisied politics, not politicised aesthetics. This is not to call Putin a fascist. He is an autocrat, for sure, but he hasn’t borrowed the full, state-mobilised aesthetics of Hitler or Mussolini: there are not the same parades and pogroms, ritualistic book-burnings or fetishistic uniforms; there is not the encouragement for the people to engage publicly in this aestheticised politics; no Putin Youth, no mass rallies. The aestheticisation is of Putin’s body, not of the body-politic as a whole.
Putin has several aims in his rhetoric: he wants to distance himself from the horrors and failures of the USSR while mining domestic nostalgia for its strength and security; he wants to give the impression of democracy and Western-style freedom while giving the Russian people neither; he wants to tap a popular reserve of Russian exceptionalism. Most of all, he wants to create an impression of strength and of unity. This is the achievement of his body PR: the substitution of a people (who remain diverse however much they are united in creating a communist utopia) with an individual, and the refraction of a nation’s self-perception through the lenses of Putin’s photographers’ cameras.
Putin’s body therefore represents a symbiosis between a strong state and a strong man. The relationship was made clear following his most recent electoral victory in March 2012, where Putin gave “A special thank you to those who gathered today in Moscow, who supported us in every corner of our limitless motherland, to all those who said ‘yes’ to our great Russia.” As the Economist pithily pointed out, “By ‘Russia’, Mr Putin meant himself.”
But there is still some distance in this Russia-Putin metonymy: Putin and Russia are not one and the same. Earlier this year, there was, perhaps, a glimpse at the private Putin when he announced that he was separated from his wife. A spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, explained that “his [Putin’s] life, perhaps unfortunately, is in no way tied to any family relationships, only to those responsibilities that he has as the head of state.” Or, to put it another way, Putin is literally married to the state, and is sacrificing the last shreds of his humanity to shoulder the burden of presidency. He is becoming less of a man and more of an avatar.
So the Putin — Russia relationship goes something like this: Putin (in public, in pictures) is like the avatar in the James Cameron film Avatar, an eight-foot-tall wish-fulfillment fantasy that necessarily allows disabled Russia (the soldier in the film who actually controls the avatar but becomes more enamoured with this avatar-y alien life than he is with his crippled human one) to regain her essential dynamism and mobility, and to thrive in the hostile alien environment that is international politics/that moon called Pandora in the film. So Putin is buff and blue, and allows Russia to do all sorts of exciting things, but is ultimately controlled by Russia, serving her interests; Russia, however, is probably now too reliant on her avatar to give him up.
This, at least, is the message of Putin’s body pictures.