Vladimir Putin: The Art of Creating a Public Image
On one side, is a picture of a well-built, bare-chested man wearing sunglasses peering at the sun while holding a fishing rod with a sense of comfort and ease that is seldom seen in men of his age. A jet blue lake forms the backdrop of the picture. His fatigues and imposing posture portray the picture of a man who is resilient, confident, and firmly in control of his own life.
On the other side, is a video of a man singing a song for charity in front of numerous Hollywood A-listers in a huge theatre. Immaculately dressed in a black suit, there is a warm glow to the man’s face; his closed eyes indicating that he feels the music and is singing with all his heart for the cause of charity. Both the photo and video have one thing in common: Vladimir Putin. These two forms of media show us the two different projected images of Putin. Images that Putin and the Russian state have used instrumentally through the years to solve conflicts and issues at home and escape harsh scrutiny abroad.
The Iron Fist
When Putin first came to power as prime minister on New Year’s Eve in 1999, Russia was still a country without aim and direction, crumbling under the disastrous aftermath of the Soviet collapse. There was a depression in the economy, the death rate was on a steady ascent while the birth rate fell. There was an extreme rise in poverty levels and Russia had become a land of lawlessness and organized crime. This was the backdrop when Putin assumed power.
Gleb Pavlovsky, the former architect of Putin’s public persona, says that in a weak state “you need to create an image of power.” He also explained that the intensification of Putin’s mystery was an intentional move, so as to increase his allure.
From flying jets to practising martial arts, Putin seeks to establish an image of a ‘strongman’ who can lead his nation through any sort of adversity and hardship. This picture-perfect depiction of all that society usually acknowledges as ‘masculine’ seems to have worked with his approval ratings in his own country touching an impressive 81% in 2007. His past in the intelligence services also just seems to add to his ‘strongman’ image. The true measure of skill and political tact displayed by the Kremlin leader, however, isn’t so much in the creation of the ‘tough guy’ image as in the maintenance of it in a country like Russia.
The Benevolent Authoritarian
In a nation, which was witness to historic events such as the Russian Revolution, the first successful communist government formation, and the terrors of authoritarian rule by despots such as Stalin, portraying oneself as an authoritarian ruler and the centre of all power, is a very dangerous path to follow. Putin knows this, and he has been walking that fine line between tyrannical despot and people’s leader for years. He wants the people to know that he is their messiah and that he will deliver them from injustice but also that all the powers that he exercises and utilises are for the people’s benefit.
This explains the Russian government’s dislike for being termed ‘fascist’ and its staging of elections, as Putin wants to be identified as a ruler who represents and implements the mandate of the people, not as one whose mandate is imposed on the people.
This is reflected in the way he carries himself as well. Though portrayed as a powerful man, Putin rarely puts on a show of how such power benefits him. Always dressed in a demure suit and seldom seen in any colourful attire or engaging in any sort of hobbies which could be associated with the ‘wealthy,’ very little is shown of his personal life and very rarely is he seen exhibiting any sort of emotions. Much unlike American President Barack Obama and even Donald Trump for that matter, Putin brings no individualistic or personal flavour to the office of the Kremlin. Instead, his cold, detached exterior serves as a reminder to the public of the importance of the office he occupies and how his position as Russia’s leader governs the actions of his life rather than it being the other way around. In this way, the image of a dutiful and legitimate leader is created.
This image has only been bolstered by his active participation in charity events, his direct involvement in matters of public interest and his chastising of officials who are found not to be functioning properly. These events include him engaging in sharp and witty comments that show the power he wields and the concern he has for the people of Russia, as in the case of him rebuking Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska by telling him to return the pen he had borrowed to sign a document that would indicate the end of the strife between the workers and the industrialists in the town of Pikalyovo. These publicity stunts have led to the creation of a strange phenomenon in Russia; one that identifies the government as the oppressors of the people and Putin as the one agent who is working to solve the issues. The Russians even have a saying to that effect: “The czar is good, it’s the nobility that is bad.”
Putin’s self-victimization as a noble man in a corrupt world, isn’t just being utilised to justify domestic policy either, it also plays a huge role in the way in which Russia handles most global affairs. Putin for one knows that the elections the Russian state stages could only keep aloof certain Russians back home and that sooner or later, Western media would expose it for the farce that it is. Instead of letting the European media’s scrutiny detract his political career, Putin uses it to his advantage, constantly stating it to be a conspiracy by European and American agencies to throw him out of power, thereby appealing to the nationalist sentiments of thousands of Russians, who in defiance hold Putin in high regard. Analysing the 2018 Russian elections, experts agreed that though the elections themselves were a farce, the outcome of Putin becoming president was real enough.
Putin’s popularity helps Russia’s manoeuvre foreign politics with great ease. In fact, even the Crimean annexation has been to a great extent helped by the popularity of Putin. The benevolent image he has made of himself, helped Russia form an elaborate ploy to garner Crimean support by using Putin’s popularity among the Russian-speakers of the region. In Syria, Putin’s support of Assad failed to be identified by most as support of a ruthless dictator but was rather seen by the masses as a righteous fight against terrorism.
Furthermore, his image of right-wing politics seems to have left a mark in not only the ways in which the world views Russia but also the ways in which the world views itself. Under a surge of right-wing nationalism across the world come leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Sebastian Kurz in Austria, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Orban in Hungary and Trump in America; all of whom could learn a thing or two from the Kremlin leader who was there long before them and still stands strong as they start their stints with the mantle of power in their hands.