What We Talk about When We Talk about Putin: a review5 min read

 In Culture, Review, Russia

Vladimir Putin, the man, is shrouded in secret, despite the fact that Vladimir Putin, the president, maintains an extraordinarily public profile. What we know about Putin’s biography could barely fill a pamphlet; so scarce is meaningful information about the Russian President that when his old East German identification card was discovered in a Dresden archive, in 2018, Putinologists the world over had a field day.

Two recent books have turned their backs on the profitless task of biographing Vladimir Putin in favour of a more accessible, and perhaps more interesting topic: Putin’s image. What do we see when we look at Putin? 

In We Need to Talk about Putin: why the West gets him wrong, and how to get him right (Ebury), Mark Galeotti describes how Vladimir Putin maintains order in the Russian government and among the ruling class. Galeotti had no access to Putin himself, so he built his book on interviews with “a former official of the Presidential Administration” and “a Czech journalist”, among other unnamed sources. The strength of Galeotti’s writing is not in his research, but in his insight; Galeotti, like a Forbes columnist, has built a kind of executive profile of Putin in which he identifies the Russian president’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader. 

At the centre of Putin’s leadership style, according to Galeotti, is his ability to inspire subordinates to act without instruction. Galeotti uses the Russian word ponyatiye, or ‘understanding’, to describe the effect Putin has on Russia’s lower law-makers: “local officials, terrified that a bad result for the boss from their district would reflect badly on them, or who thought they had received a signal from Moscow, went ahead and rigged things as usual” without so much as a word from the Kremlin. According to Galeotti, Putin “rarely gives direct instructions but defines broad objectives and hints as to what he might like to happen.” 

The lower-downs pick up on Putin’s hints because they’re scared of what he’ll do if they don’t. Putin has cultivated his image as a “maverick,” to quote Galeotti, “…the tough-guy president, the man who’s happy to throw out gangster slang and warn countries challenging him that they may become military targets”. In fact, Galeotti believes that Putin is more risk-averse than he lets on, but the strength and clarity of his image as a dangerous man provoke others to take risks for him.

In Putin Kitsch in America (McGill-Queen’s University Press), Alison Rowley examines Putin’s image on the other side of the world. Over the course of eight months, she ordered hundreds of Putin garments, tchotchkes, and self-published books from fans and satirists. Rowley isn’t interested in the discourse taking place in the pages of academic journals and daily newspapers; her research focuses on that most democratic of spaces, the internet, where anyone can design a t-shirt or write a story. 

The materials that Rowley interacts with are often ambiguous. Unlike in Russia, where Putin’s image is so powerful it runs a country, the American conversation is tangled with narratives that are difficult to decode. One of the many fascinating photographs in Rowley’s books depicts a greeting card with the message “I’M PUTIN THE MOVES ON YOU.” Neither Rowley in her initial study nor I at first glance could decipher the motivation of the message – creepy? charming? Rowley acknowledges the hard-to-detect “ironic undertone” in so many of the texts she examines, often making interpretation an act of self-reflection rather than discovery.

Indeed, when I lived in Russia, I sent my sister a Putin coffee cup, which she evidently found funny enough to share in a photo on Facebook. One of her friends, a Ukrainian national living in Canada, posted a harshly critical comment. What to me and my sister was an ironic dig came across to her friend as bad politics.

The offensive coffee cup

Interestingly, the Putin narrative snaps into focus when American presidents get involved. Rowley notes that “Soviet and now Russian leaders have been a – some might even say the – yardstick against which American political leaders are measured.” One image in Rowely’s collection depicts a tiny Obama bent across Putin’s knee, pouting as the older man prepares to spank him. When Obama, a relative political novice, launched his campaign for presidency in 2008, he was compared unfavourably by his critics to the more experienced Putin. Hillary Clinton became a recurring character in fictions about Putin, usually as his sexual partner, and often in a demeaning or submissive capacity; evidently, she wasn’t qualified enough for those in the American populace who expected the president to wear a suit and have an Adam’s apple. 

Donald Trump, whom many consider to be Putin’s sycophant, has received similar treatment. In erotic Trump/Putin fictions, which do, indeed, exist, and are, indeed, hilarious, Trump takes the submissive sexual role, and his anatomy is described in unflattering terms (Putin’s is often hyperbolically praised).

Rowley finds many similarities between political cartoons and kitsch. In the above illustration, Putin is drawn bare-chested and physically fit, a depiction which recurs both in Russia, where it is usually adopted sincerely, and in America, where Putin’s machismo is often the butt of a joke.

Who is Vladimir Putin? We see of him only what he shows us, give or take the occasional out-of-context glimpse. Nonetheless, to many, Putin’s image is powerful. To Russian politicians, it is the silent threat of punishment for bad behaviour. For American presidents, it is a bar too high, a chest too taut. And for the rest of us, Putin is what we make of him.

Mark Galeotti’s We Need to Talk about Putin: why the West gets him wrong, and how to get him right was published by Ebury Press in 2019. It is available on Amazon.

Alison Rowley’s Putin Kitsch in America was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2019. It is available at Amazon.

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