Putin’s Postmodern Cult


I wrote Putin_Elkin_portra_2249570athe following review of Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, Helena Goscilo, ed., for Reviews and Critical Commentary:

In September, strippers from the Moscow strip club ‘Golden Girls’ posed for a calendar, “Make Love Not War”, celebrating Putin’s diplomatic victory in Syria. “I don’t know what Syria is, but still, I don’t want them to bomb it,” declared Miss October. The calendar is the latest in a litany of images and artifacts singing hosannas to Putin. The archive of the Putin cult is immense and features anything from matryoshkas to video games. Next to oil and gas, Putin is one of Russia’s most marketable commodities. Perhaps a testament to the Putin cult’s power is that even academics have turned their analytical gaze toward Putininia. That Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, a new collection of essays analyzing the Putin spectacle, affirms the power of the Putin cult through its deconstruction is not without a measure of irony.

Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon contains eight essays treating Putin’s cult of personality, his language, his public performance, and image, and the role these play in crafting Putin as a powerful symbol of the post-soviet Russian nation. What unites all these essays is Putin as spectacle where, wrote Guy Debord, “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation. . . .The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification.” Putin as spectacle vividly captures Debord’s thesis.

At the same time, Putin as a unifying symbol points to the much older notion of the king’s two bodies. The first body – Putin’s personal life – is rarely visible. The public has only gotten brief glimpses of Putin as a human being with all of the attending personal quirks and emotions. Two examples are when he shed tears after learning he was elected for a third presidential term or when he and his wife Lyudmila publically announced their divorce. Sometimes Putin’s anger comes through, like when he berates underlings or, most recently, when a hot microphone catches him calling a professor a ‘nutball’. But even these moments are for public consumption. As Michael Gorham argues, Putin’s direct tone, slang, and folksy witticisms are part of his tough everyman persona. Even Putin’s softer side is carefully managed through his public relationship with animals and children. Tatiana Mihailkova’s excellent essay shows animals substitute for Putin’s family, who are so rarely shown in public that rumors abounded that he had his wife cloistered in a convent. Putin’s tender moments with his dog, Koni, as well as horses, dolphins, cranes, tigers, and other wildlife are common tropes of his public image. Some of these encounters are even sealed with a kiss. Putin has a penchant for kissing fish and tigers. Perhaps Putin’s most famous kiss, though, was the one he planted on a 7-year-old boy in 2006. All of these endearing moments, Mikhailova argues, positions Putin as the “soft and tender Father of the Nation,” as opposed to him being solely the father of the Putins.

Putin’s second body, symbolizing authority and the nation, is very public – sometimes too public, as his bare-chested pictorials suggest. Putin’s public escapades show him as a hands-on micro-manager who is doing what’s good for the nation: chastising and directing underlings, putting out fires, inspecting construction projects, holding a marathon call-in show where he personally answers citizens’ appeals, and vowing to eliminate terrorists in the outhouse. In such a vast and ungovernable nation as Russia, the spectacle of Putin’s personal omnipotent power gives the impression that he’s a competent leader tirelessly working in the people’s interest. In these spectacles, Putin represents a cross between the powerful leader Russia needs and an action hero.

It would be wrong, however, to reduce Putin to one thing. As several of the authors suggest, the resonance of Putin’s figure lies not just in its symbolic currency, or even market value, but in its chameleon-like nature. He’s ever-morphing. As the founder of the Levada polling agency, Yuri Levada, put it, Putin is “a mirror in which everyone . . . sees what he wants to see and what he hopes for.” Putin represents a nostalgia for the strong Russia of the past, a present-day happy Russia, and a future great Russia. All of these temporal stages are enacted through the variety of Putin texts available for consumption. Even his detractors are invested in Putin’s public body, as the act of rejection and ridicule of the leader cult are nevertheless rooted in its widespread resonance.

Russia’s ominous history of cult of personality easily comes to mind when searching for the lineages of Putin’s cult. While Putin certainly has a cult, it would be wrong to see it as a mere facsimile of its communist predecessors. Stalin’s cult, as Jan Plamper shows in his The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, was meticulously controlled, often by Stalin himself. As Julie Cassiday and Emily Johnson stress in their essay, the central control over Putin’s image is only one part of the story. Putin’s cult is as much as product of the free market as it is the Kremlin, and many Russians who serve as its producers and consumers have shaped its content. Putin sells and does so through a myriad of texts and mediums. Some of them are straight adulations. Others are mixed with irony and ridicule. Whatever the intent of Putinina, its value is subordinated to the supply and demand of the market. This, ironically, makes Putin’s cult more democratic, as Putin can be fashioned and re-fashioned to fit a citizen’s identity. One Putin portrait can radiate power and confidence, while the same poster colored with rainbow hues can stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. In this sense, the Putin cult is very much post-modern. The Kremlin’s master narrative is too easily deconstructed and rendered simply as one text among millions.

In Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarch, Richard Wortman wrote: “Symbolic display served as an essential mechanism of tsarist rule. Carefully staged ceremonies and celebrations . . . demonstrated the monarch’s powers of control and direction, providing a simulacrum of a political order responding to his will.” Putin’s cult plays a similar function. However, as Putin as Celebrity demonstrates, though Putin’s cult draws on older Russian traditions, it is inevitably shaped by the post-modern conditions of its existence. Perhaps, then, Putin’s scenario of power cannot be reduced to him as a strongman, tender father, masculine archetype, competent technocrat, or even a stand-in for the Russian nation. Putin’s real scenario is in its mutability. It’s in the ability of the consumer to personalize the Putin cult to satisfy his or her identity. In this sense Putin truly represents, in Debord’s words, the point “where all attention, all consciousness, converges.”