Cult of Putin?

The reflection on Khrushchev’s speech continues. This time, Julian Evans gives a fascinating take on the “Cult of Putin.” It’s worth reading. He argues that the Cult of Putin is not just some ancient Russian tradition of worshiping leaders. If anything it might have more to do with the type of leader Putin is compared to more recent Russian leaders.

This is rather strange to Westerners but we shouldn’t be quick to see it as evidence of some Asiatic religious awe of Putin among Russians. For my colleagues in the office, the calendar is there half-ironically. They are slightly mocking the cult, while also enjoying the fact that their young president actually does all the activities he is pictured doing.

This is the point about the cult of Putin – it is quite pragmatic, not some fever of patriotic intoxication. Newsweek interviews one government bureaucrat, who says that bureaucrats put pictures of Putin up to illustrate their respect for loyalty and discipline to their immediate superiors: “If you don’t have a picture of Putin up, it means you don’t respect the power vertical, so you don’t respect your immediate boss.”

Among both bureaucrats and civilians, the cult of Putin is not so much a wild deification of the man, as a down-to-earth respect for his ability to perform his job well, and thus represent Russia as a civilized, business-like place – everything it wasn’t in the 1990s, in other words.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the cult of Putin is that he is not Yeltsin. This is what the pop song ‘A Man Like Putin’ cleverly emphasized in 2001. It went: “’If only I could find a man like Putin, full of strength. A man like Putin, who does not drink. A man like Putin, who does not insult. A man like Putin, who does not run away.” In short, a man unlike Yeltsin.

Putin is not a drunkard, he doesn’t make a spectacle of himself, and Russia, on foreign visits, he’s not permanently in hospital, he’s capable of being smart and witty on television, of schmoozing or occasionally standing up to the leaders of the world. He’s absolutely not some charismatic, Romantic prophet figure, as say Ataturk, Hitler, Stalin, Mandela or Gandhi were. These people were certainly objects of quasi-religious cults. Putin, by contrast, is simply calm and competent.

Perhaps to Russians, Putin represents something similar to what many Americans see in Bill Clinton. Clinton is not really remembered for anything he actually did in office, well except getting blowjobs, but that he was smart, funny, young, good looking, and charismatic. All of this is helped by the fact that Clinton’s tenure in office is also seen as a calmer, more prosperous time. I’m sure in the imaginations of many Americans, this is only helped by the current state America is in. So, putting Putin in a similar context, that he’s not Yeltsin, there is no surprised that he’s respected.

But Evans argues that there is more to the Cult of Putin. The cult is in part created by Putin’s administration.

Russia, and the outside world, believed that everyone loved Putin partly because we were told so repeatedly that everybody loved Putin. Boris Kagarlitsky wrote about this back in 2001: “Vladimir Putin was followed by declamations of popular love from his first day in office. Without having done anything, without making even slightly creative promises, the president was declared a national hero. It was explained to each of us that everybody loves the president. The majority believed.”

He continues: “A graduate student in sociology complained to me recently about a completely confounding experience. She organized a focus group for some research and polled 60 people. Only one of them supported Putin. But each of the remaining 59 was convinced that he or she was the only oppositionist in the group. The biggest success of the Kremlin’s propaganda is not that people have come to love the president, but that they have bought into the myth of his all-encompassing popularity.”

The manipulation of the myth is obvious above all on state TV news, where Putin is presented very positively. I have lived in Russia coming up for three years, and I’ve never seen a Russian TV news story criticize the president. That’s remarkable.

Not only this, Putin also adeptly plays on the long Russian tradition of na?ve monarchism. The leader is always for the people. It is the vampiric bureaucracy that feasts on the people. Therefore a good leader damns the bureaucracy to protect the “people.”

And that’s another important part of the cult of Putin, one that is inherent in the position of Russian leader, and goes back many centuries in the country’s history. The leader is revered by the bureaucracy because he is the top of the power vertical, he is their champion. But he is also revered by the wider population because he is their champion against the bureaucracy. He is the one who will defend the people from the terrors of the boyars / bureaucrats / oligarchs. He is the big guy on the side of the little people, and anything bad that happens is the fault of those around him, not him. This is something about which Sergei Roy has written well.

To me this belief that the Tsar is always right, and mistakes are due to his corrupt advisors, is an illusion. A leader must ultimately be held responsible for the ministers he picks. The buck has to stop somewhere, and it should stop with him. But it’s a fact of the Russian mentality, it goes extremely deep into the darker layers of the Russian mind, and Putin has learnt well how to work with it.