Putin the star: how Russia’s president cashes in on celebrity culture5 min read

As a consumer of British Media, it is all too easy to form a negative opinion of long-standing Russian President, Vladimir Putin. As outsiders looking in, we see annexation, the immense difficulties of belonging to the LGBT+ communities and election meddling. Most recently the Salisbury poisonings in England provided the latest instalment in the turbulent series. And that’s only to name a few transgressions. It might surprise you then, that Vladimir Putin as President has one of the highest domestic popularity rates in the world. Furthermore, Putin enjoys consistently higher, often double, the approval percentages than that of the Prime Minister and the government at large according to an independent polling agency, the Yuri Levada Center. While many commentators have already thrown their hat into the ring in trying to explain this leadership with longevity, this article will focus on the 2017-2018 election campaign. Upon studying Putin’s public appearances both in the media and in person, Putin’s public persona seemed worthy of investigation given that this is the version of Putin the public see, this in order to unravel the system at play between Putin’s public or celebrity persona and his political clout. 

Russia has a diverse and highly nuanced celebrity culture. The desire for glamour (whether that is in the form of owning a new BMW or Louis Vuitton handbag) can be viewed as coming from the desire to do well under capitalism. This is unique in Russia because of the country’s own potholed expedition into its capitalist transformation after generations of communism. 

President Vladimir Putin at the GAZ group automobile factory in Nizhny Novgorod, where he announced that he was going to run for president in the 2016 elections. Image source: Rbc.ru

Contemporary media sociologist Olivier Driessens suggested that the desire for glamour and celebrity status could be understood to be a type of capital that can be exchanged for other types of capital. If this could be applied to the Putin case, then it could shine a light on the relationship between Putin’s political power and his celebrity status. While this might sound complicated, Putin’s announcement of his candidacy on December 6th 2017 at a rally celebrating the GAZ group automobile factory in Nizhny Novgorod, exemplifies this in action quite simply. 

Putin’s appearance at the rally, which was a rally for the anniversary of the factory, allowed an exchange of cultural and symbolic capital for some celebrity capital which was gained as part of a public relations performance on a Eurovision-esque stage in front of a large crowd.  In this transaction, the factory or company GAZ might have gained economic capital as Putin’s support for the business’ celebrations could encourage Russians to purchase more GAZ products. In other words, Putin has a keen interest in Russian automobiles and is known for owning a camouflage Lada Niva, which gives him cultural capital. He is recognised as an acceptable leader by having high approval ratings, which gives him symbolic capital.  These two capitals have been exchanged for an increase in celebrity capital even if the reserve of other capitals have not diminished in the process. Potentially, this runs far deeper and could be studied in even more detail but here at least the surface has been scratched. So, how does this translate into political power or legitimacy? 

By appearing at the GAZ celebration, Putin associated himself with a successful Russian business. His announcement of the 2017 candidacy was teased out by one of the workers and was done so as if it was simply an afterthought. This allowed Putin to gain political capital or put another way, political power. The celebrity capital was gained by virtue of having other types of capital in that they allowed him to have access to such a platform. After the event, Putin had more political capital at his disposal than before it because the crowd cheered him on and spun the event positively. Now, an association can be made between his support for Russian business and humbleness and his name on a ballot paper. 

Putin enjoys consistently higher, often double, the approval percentages than that of the Prime Minister and the government. Image source: Putin.kremlin.ru

Analysing what Putin doesn’t do is also vital in understanding the research. As an example, he does not take part in debates with other candidates. These are televised in most countries in the west and give citizens an insight into their choices on an up and coming ballot paper. Capital in any environment is limited and there is a fight to retain the highest amount. Having the highest amount of capital translates to having the biggest share of power in an environment. Here, this environment is the Russian political sphere. Other candidates cannot take political or celebrity capital from Putin as no such debate takes place, the capital is retained. This mechanism makes it difficult for other candidates to be successful by exploiting their own celebrity status. Ksenia Sobchak exemplifies this well. While she has a huge social media following and could potentially motivate people to vote for her, she was unable to take part in public debate with Putin and take some of his capital for herself. It was not until very late on in the campaign that Putin urged people to vote for one candidate or another and relies on other more subtle methods, as per the transaction of capital, to gain votes. 

While Putin winning the election came as a surprise to no one, unpacking the relationship between celebrity status and political power in order to under to understand how they behave when someone tries to increase their share of power, offers an interesting explanation to one aspect of Putin’s grip of power, the upcoming six years that he will be in office will hopefully be full of celebrity appearances to analyse. 

Jack Gibson holds a degree in Music and Central and East European Studies from University of Glasgow. His dissertation research investigated how Vladimir Putin exploits his celebrity status for political gain. Jack’s main interests include political culture of the youth in post-Soviet states and contemporary Russian culture.