Culture / Politics

The Twelve Days of Putin-mas

Marianna Hunt analyses the symbolism of the cult of Putin in Russia.

On the 7th of October, pale Siberian dawn filtered through the window onto the slumbering, slightly-balding head of Mr Putin. The dreams encased under this thinning crown teemed with visions of the delights in store for this head [of state] on his 62nd birthday.

Birthday celebrations were not restricted to one single day, heaven forbid! For many a day now, the people of Russia have been revelling in the festivities – making merry, kicking up their proverbial heels, and gaily raising a glass to the Kremlin’s favourite lodger.

With gifts of former years including a tiger cub and his own replica tsarist crown, one should ask how this year measured up for Mr. Putin…

“On the first day of Putin-mas, my people gave to me…”

A toast.

What better way to toast the birthday boy than with his own novelty vodka? The brand was named Путинка [Pootinka] as an affectionate, diminutive form of the President’s name. Naturally, what doesn’t render a political leader more lovable and cuddly than the acerbic taste of ethanol? 40% alcohol, 60% essence of benevolent, caring President. A win-win combination, since its creation Путинка has remained in the top-5 of the best selling Russian vodka brands.

“On the second day of Putin-mas, my people gave to me…”

My very own comic: Super Putin – Man Like Any Other.

The creation of the comic in fact pre-dates the beginning of this year’s birthday festivities but the image of the President as a martial-arts-superhero-style figure was certainly never distant from the celebrations, or indeed distant from any point of his political career.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich – saves the world and manages to have time to re-organise the Kremlin’s desk stationary”. Who wouldn’t buy it?

Such uber-masculine depictions of the President seem to conform to all Western preconceptions of the Putin propaganda. And, along with the comic’s cliché-laden inclusion of a bearskin clad vice-President, Dmitry Medvedev, as a sidekick, perhaps the editors should consider a more fitting title of: Super Putin – A vision of Russia like any other.

“On the third day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A photography exhibition in Moscow.

The exhibition, entitled “The 12 Labours of Vladimir Putin”, features a Herculean vision of the Russian principal. In one display, a contemporary Greek hero is depicted as valiantly taming an ox, the latter representing the Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Putin earlier this year. Images of this Russian demigod, grappling with insidious serpents and odious monsters – mythological embodiments of western nations – are an ominous reflection of the state of current international relations.

Crimea-themed illustrations were succeeded by the capture of the three-headed dog Cerberus, symbolising Russia’s struggle with the United States. Such a culmination of the exhibition certainly provided food for thought. Admittedly, food that was hard to swallow. It would appear that traditional prejudice against the West was adroitly exploited in the exhibition to champion a determined and resolute vision of Mr. Putin.

The implications of such images do not bode well for the curtailment of traditional stereotypes that for years have kept the fridge door of these frosty Western-Russia negotiations firmly wedged shut.

“On the fourth day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A bit of sing-along.

 

Following the success of the 2002 the techno-pop ballad “Такого как Путин”, meaning “A man like Putin”, it  should not come as a surprise that music has played a large role in the celebration of Mr Putin’s 62 years. Written by dedicated female fans of the President, the lyrics extolled his numerous positive qualities and the song swiftly topped the Russian charts.

Such popularity even propelled it on to becoming a Putin theme song, still played during his rallies now.

As if the former wasn’t enough, this October saw another birthday message, sung by a children’s choir, wishing Mr. Putin the happiest of days and hoping that the “strength of his kind heart prevails”.

Ah, the power of Euro-pop and young, cherubic faces. Perhaps all David Cameron needs for an 80% approval rating is a catchy tune and choice sprinkling of charming choristers…

“On the fifth day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A birthday banner. And a bit of an ego-boost.

The appearance of a giant banner, draped off of a Moscow bridge opposite the Kremlin, depicting President Obama wearing a Putin shirt that says, “Happy birthday global daddy” has been attributed to “Impolite People”, a pro-Kremlin art group.

The use of Obama as the butt of pro-Putin jokes is not an uncommon phenomenon in the personality cult of our own Mr. Putin.

A certain one that appeared on Facebook goes as follows:

“Obama called Putin, Putin turned on his automatic-answering machine. The auto-reply answers:

“Hello, you’re calling the president of Russia, Putin. Unfortunately, I’m not able to answer the phone now.

If you want to surrender, press: 1.

If you want to threaten me with new sanctions, press: 2.

If you want to discuss the situation in the Ukraine, press: 3.

All buttons except 1 activate our intercontinental rockets Topol-M, good luck!””.

Though amusing on the surface, the reality of such jokes confronts us with the possibility that attempts to thaw  international relations and bring about progress have been in vain.

“On the sixth day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A flag. Of sorts.

Thousands in Grozny, Chechnya, gathered to show their dedication to Mr. Putin by forming an almost 2,000-foot-long Russian flag with their bodies. Others carried a 600m-long Russian flag through the streets in celebration of their leader.

Correction: two flags. Certainly 62 is proving a windfall year for presents.

On a more serious note, images of flags and street parades gave Western journalists an unrivalled opportunity to draw parallels between the mania of the Putin personality cult and that of other, more sinister, regimes in Russia’s political past.

“On the seventh day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A religion.

Believing Putin to be the reincarnation of both Grand Prince Vladimir of Rus, founder of the Russian Orthodox church, and St. Paul the Apostle, convent leader, Svetlana Frolova, created a religion based around the birthday boy in question.  After being jailed for fraud in 1996, she found inspiration, not in Christ, but in her President, and turned to religion.

Although the sect pre-exists this year’s celebrations, it seems unlikely that zealous Svetlana will have overlooked the birthday festivities. We can only imagine the party hats at her particular celebration…

“On the eighth day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A cosy sweatshirt.

Red Square’s luxurious shopping-centre, GUM, saw people waiting in up to 2-hour long queues in quest for T-shirts bearing our old friend Vladimir’s face on them.

Discontent with simple t-shirts, a host of other memorabilia was on offer; including sweatshirts showing the President at his manliest of moments, priced at around $75 each.

The appearance of this merchandise does little to belie foreign criticism of the pedestal-style culture surrounding Kremlin sweet-heart and Russia’s main man: Vladimir Putin.

“On the ninth day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A pat on the back.

In eulogy of the Russian premier, analysis centre, Gosindeks, created an info graphic of Putin’s achievements during 15 years of presidency. With more than 550 listings, the total length of the infographic was in excess of 40 feet.

“On the tenth day of Putin-mas my people gave to me…”

A public day of rest.

The suggestion has been proposed of transforming October 7th into a public holiday in honour of Putin’s successes in the annexation of Crimea. The day would also applaud the efforts of the “вежливые люди”, or “polite people”, i.e. the soldiers who facilitated the recent Russian takeover of this Ukrainian region.

Igor Zotov, the Duma deputy behind this brainchild, claims to have been inspired by a visit to Crimea and his experience conversing with grateful inhabitants of the locale. In the words of Mr Zotov himself: “Putin is the most polite person there could be, he personifies the image of politeness, not just in Russia but everywhere”.

Critics have argued that such a holiday would glorify those responsible for the Ukrainian defeat and enhance the idolizing nature of the relationship of the Russian nation towards their leader. The connotations of such a celebration certainly do not augur well for those hoping for improved, harmonious interaction between these two nations.

“On the eleventh day of Putin-mas, my people gave to me…”

My own day off.

Kremlin sources inform us that, this year, for the first time in 15 years, the dutiful President finally took a day off for his birthday.

The fact that this time was used to engage in an abundance of testosterone-charged, outdoor activities was also not overlooked. In fact, it became almost a challenge to avoid seeing macho, half-naked photos of Red Square’s hard-as-nails-hard-man deep in the Russian woodlands.

“On the twelfth day of Putin-mas, my people gave to me…”

Some privacy.

Putin spent the holiday secreted in the remote sanctuary of the Siberian forests, approximately 300-400km from the nearest populated area.

And, by all accounts, this leafy cloak of mystery is the best present that young (or one year less so) Vladimir Vladimirovich could have wished for while blowing out the candles of his торт this year.

The Russian premier’s fondness for privacy is notorious. Navigating the stormy seas of taboo subjects and averting the perilously crashing waves of gossip on Russia’s first family certainly is a hazardous course.

Grigory Nekhoroshev, editor of the Moskovsky Korrespondent, reported in 2008 that Putin intended to marry  the Russian gymnast, Alina Kabayeva. Nekhoroshev was forced to resign within hours and the Moskovsky Korrespondent never appeared again. The fate of Nekhoroshev and the Moskovsky Korrespondent illustrates vividly enough the dangers of steering too close to these private shores.

When the subject of his relationship with Kabayeva resurfaced at a press conference in Sardinia, Putin’s reply, like a strong gust of sea-breeze, swiftly transformed an inquisitive journalist into a quivering shipwreck. Putin sent the inquirer packing with the phrase: “I’ve always disliked people who go around with their erotic fantasies, sticking their snot-ridden noses into another person’s life.” Silvio Berlusconi, also present, proceeded to jokingly pretend to shoot the journalist in question. The gesture, like a jagged out-crop of rocks, now stained with, thankfully metaphorical, journalistic blood, serves as a warning to any others daring enough to brave these waters.

So, when polls suggest that more than 1/3 of adult Russians consider Mr. Putin a moral authority and figure of respect, we must question: how solidly-founded Western criticism of the potency of the Kremlin-propaganda machine and accusations of a determined crafting of a personality cult truly are?

Following Putin’s success in the Crimea this year and his defiant reaction to Western sanctions, the President’s consistently high ratings have launched right off the slabs of Red Square and skyrocketed.

Before we break into choruses of “Twas the night before Putin-mas, when all through the dacha…”, and take the presidential propaganda at face-value, it must be asked whether the Russian people truly are bewitched by the hazy fog created by censorship and the “glorious myth” of their leader, or whether Russian involvement in this idol culture is simply indulgent satire.

In reality, many of the anecdotes, folklore stories, and memorabilia, radiating from Putin-HQ seem to be saturated with irony. For instance: novelty Putin toilet paper hardly seems to coincide with the worshipful personality cult of a respected and adored leader.

One recent joke featured Alina Kabaeva, aforementioned flame currently rumoured to be smouldering away in the President’s heart, expressing concerns about requesting a pram [the word in Russian sounding very similar to “Alaska”] from Putin after her earlier request for cream was swiftly followed by the annexation of Crimea [you guessed it, pronounced “Kreeem” in Russian].

Newspaper images of Iron Man 2 star, Mickey Rourke, also donning a Putin T-shirt, add to the uncertainty over whether merchandise sales truly do indicate Putin-followers, brain-washed by a heroic myth, or whether the memorabilia is but a gimmick – a self-deprecating joke about the ludicrous nature of propaganda.

The garments in themselves seem to indicate the latter option. Sweat-shirts plastered with the President’s face and bearing the slogan “King of Russia” must be being taken with a pinch of salt. While ones sporting the phrase “Holiday in the Crimea”, and a George Michael circa Club Tropicana-esque vision of Putin, require something more akin to a bucketful of salt.

Who knows, perhaps this could be an amusing government repartee to criticism over propaganda and myth-making? After all, it must be difficult for journalists to mount, with an appropriate level of sobriety, an attack against the giant printed face of a balding 62-year old, clad in a Hawaiian shirt.

 Marianna Hunt

 

 

 

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