The Cult of Putin
Last December my co-workers and I crowded around my office computer and watched a YouTube video of the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin singing Blueberry Hill at a children’s charity in St. Petersburg.
After playing the beginning notes of the song on a piano, Putin rose, sauntered over to the microphone, put his left hand in the pocket of his suit pants, and sang to an audience of apparently intoxicated U.S. celebrities.
The sight was reminiscent of a scene from a David Lynch movie; soft, slow singing in a particularly absurd environment—Sharon Stone violently snapping her fingers, Goldie Hawn swaying and mouthing the words, Gerard Depardieu clapping along, and Putin singing, while many little lights shimmered behind him in a seemingly infinite grid.
I felt like pinching myself to make sure that the scene was real. That Putin, the man who (even from his post as Prime Minister) maintains an authoritarian grip over a country that continues to slip lower in the corruption perceptions index and has fallen deep into a culture of impunity under his watch, was eliciting this reaction from U.S. celebrities felt to me very twisted. And the fact that he was up there singing at all, that his performance was actually oddly charming, puzzled me. It was very different from anything I had ever seen.
Then again, Putin’s entire tenure in the Russian political scene, and the culture surrounding it, has been very different from anything any of us have ever seen.
He has managed to spin his image in such a way that the general Russian public has not treated him like a fear-inspiring authoritarian leader (although a number of his enemies have been killed and imprisoned under his watch) but like a popular celebrity and sex symbol.
For years we’ve been seeing photographs of Putin hunting with his shirt off, fishing, and riding horses. We’ve watched him hug and tag a polar bear in the arctic, ski, shoot pool with President Dmitry Medvedev, practice Judo, and appear at hip hop battles. Putin is known as a man full of hobbies and activities that make him a man’s man, a people’s man, one whom the Russian public (and the world) can bond with and relate to.
When I ask my American friends what they think of or know about Prime Minister Putin, they recall his ambitions to join the Russian Olympic Judo team, his friendly chats with Bill Clinton, and the fact that Time magazine named him “Person of the Year,” in 2007. They also say that his face looks like “somebody you’d never want to fuck with.” And for this reason, some of my girlfriends find him very sexy. They’re not alone, because many Russian women find him sexy too.
In the early 2000s, when Putin was just starting out as president, a group called Singing Together released the single “One like Putin,” a catchy pop video featuring two beautiful women (one blonde, one brunette) in sparkling silver outfits dancing in front of a waving Russian flag and singing about how they chased their drunk brawling boyfriend out of the house and were now ready for a man like Putin, who is “full of strength,” “doesn’t drink,” and “won’t run away.” As they sang and danced, images of Putin walking through the Kremlin, meeting with world leaders and signing important documents flashed across the screen. No one knew for sure if this was a government-sponsored publicity stunt or a real band (they never released another hit again), but it didn’t matter, because the public loved it.
Putin’s celebrity status has followed him from his presidential post into the role of prime minister (I have yet to see a sexy music video about Medvedev), and even though Russians as a whole have become more skeptical and outspoken about the corruption going on in their country, with figures like Alexey Navalny coming to the stage, Putin continues to maintain the cult following of a celebrity.
Just last year, a group of students from the School of Journalism at Moscow State University, the best journalism program in Russia, presented Putin an erotic calendar for his birthday (also the four-year anniversary of the murder of the Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya). On the cover there was a pair of breasts in a lacy bra and this statement: “We love you Vladimir Vladimirovich! Happy Birthday Mr. Putin.” On the pages of the calendar, beautiful journalism students posed in lingerie next to statements like: “How about a third time?” (urging him to run for a third term) and “You put out the forest fires, but I’m still burning.” (Another group of journalism students from their program quickly retaliated with an anti-Putin online calendar depicting them with their mouths taped next to slogans like: “Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?” and “When will you release Khodorkovsky?”)
This summer, a group called ArmiaPutina appeared on the social network Vkontakte (a Russian social networking site that is nearly identical to Facebook) and started a popular video campaign called “I’ll Rip it for Putin.” In an effort to help return Putin to the Kremlin in 2012, the campaign urged girls all over the country to rip off their clothing in support of Putin.
No one is sure who actually stands behind this campaign, but it was kicked off by a video of a sexy, well-dressed Russian girl walking through Moscow in four inch stiletto heels. “My name is Dyana, and I’m a student,” the girl tells the camera. “I’m head over heels about a person who has transformed our country; the respected politician, the classy man, Vladimir Putin.” Here, Dyana, who is still talking, takes out her iPhone and starts dialing. “Millions love him and trust him,” she says, “but there is a handful of people who sling him with dirt. Maybe it’s because they are afraid, or maybe it’s because of their own personal weakness, because they know that they will never stand in his place.”
Dyana sounds just like a young komsomolka from the Soviet era, except instead of a drab Soviet school uniform, she is wearing designer clothes (the camera zooms in on a gold cross that hangs right above her cleavage) and carrying a shopping bag, and instead of promoting memories of Lenin, she promotes Putin.
Two more girls appear on the camera—the friends Dyana is walking to meet. They are also beautiful and well dressed, sunbathing and drinking cocktails in lounge chairs by the Moscow River.
Dyana approaches them as she describes a group of “young, smart, beautiful girls” that “have united into the Army of Putin,” a group that will “rip” for him. She sits down on a loungechair, takes out a MacbookPro and loads the ArmiaPutina page on Vkontakte. Finally, Dyana gets to the point of her video, explaining that they are holding a contest—girls should upload videos of themselves “ripping it” (or someone) for Putin, and the creator of the most original video will win an iPad 2. (Think of how much further the KGB could have gotten in a capitalist society!)
Dyana takes out a white tank top, writes Porvu za Putina (I’ll rip it for Putin) on it in lipstick, puts it on, and rips the shirt to show her cleavage. “What are you ready to do for your president?” she asks.
Oddly enough, the “I’ll Rip it for Putin” campaign started before anyone knew whether Putin would actually be running for the presidential seat in 2012. But, a little less than a month after he showed up to an election rally decked out in leather and riding a motorcycle in August, Putin has announced that he will indeed be running to return to the Kremlin.
In preparation (I guess) for his upcoming campaign Putin has hired a new personal photographer, the young erotic dancer and model, Yana Lapikova.
In the midst of all the absurdity, U.S. celebrities continue to show up to galas for children’s charities like the one where Putin sang Blueberry Hill (it is now clear that no one knows where the money from these charities is actually going). One has to wonder, would these same celebrities be doing this in the U.S. if President Obama and his inner circle were parading around, treating the country like a playground, building lavish palaces at the expense of their taxpayers, and putting in orders for golden beds?