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Russia: From Pop Songs To Vegetables, Is A Putin Personality Cult Emerging?

  • Jeremy Bransten

Midway through his first term in office, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to enjoy sky-high public-approval ratings. Few doubt Putin's genuine popularity among the Russian people, but lately, admiration has begun to transform into adulation, raising questions about whether a new personality cult is being born.

Prague, 9 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It was the Russian newspaper "Pravda" that broke the story to its readers last year, announcing, "There is a new category of patients for the doctors in the city of Yaroslavl."

The diagnosis? According to the paper, it was "women who are madly in love with President Vladimir Putin" -- so much so, in fact, that at least one of them had to be locked up in the city's psychiatric ward. Poor Lyudmila was a sorry sight: "Her swollen face looked like a mask with no shape, only her eyes were alive," "Pravda" lamented. And those eyes wanted to see no one else but Putin.

That was the same demand voiced by an all-girl band called Singing Together. Their song, "Someone Like Putin," has received blanket airplay on many of the country's leading radio stations.

"My boyfriend got himself into trouble again.

"Had a fight, downed a lot of crap.

"He made me so angry, I dumped him.

"And now I want someone like Putin."

So how did Singing Together suddenly make it to the top of the charts when the previously unknown band has yet to release a CD or video, or play a single concert? No one seems to know. Russian Radio, one of the stations in Moscow that has featured the song, told inquisitive journalists that an unidentified man had dropped off a tape of the song with their security guard. The staff liked it and simply decided to play it.

Author Aleksandr Olbik is not so shy about promoting his new book, which portrays Putin as a James Bond-type action hero. Mixing reality with fiction, Olbik's thriller has the Russian president fighting off Chechen separatist commander Shamil Basaev in hand-to-hand combat.

For those with an affinity for the president but with milder tastes, botanist Nikolai Yegorov, in the city of Chelyabinsk, is working on a strain of frost-resistant tomatoes. Yegorov wants to have his creation, tentatively called Vova Putin tomatoes, patented. (Vova is the diminutive form of Vladimir.) So far, local officials have proved hesitant.

In the meantime, you can suck a Putin lollipop or have some Putin ice cream to drive away the summer heat.

It all leads some to wonder: What next? Will Putin's portrait soon appear on giant billboards and will the country's cities be renamed in his honor?

Putin himself appeared to put those fears to rest when he recently told journalists there should be limits to the trend of naming things after him. Accordingly, local authorities in Siberia ordered the owners of Bar Putin to change their establishment's name. But then again, the sober Putin has never been big on Russia's favorite pastime, which, of course, is what makes him so popular with the girls of Singing Together.

"Someone like Putin, who won't hurt me.

"Someone like Putin, who won't run away.

"Someone like Putin, full of strength,

"Someone like Putin, who won't drink..."

On a more serious note, RFE/RL contacted Peter Duncan, senior lecturer in contemporary Russian politics and society at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, to ask him what he makes of Putin's new iconic status. Duncan said outward appearances would seem to indicate a budding personality cult, but he warns against reading too much into the phenomenon.

The Kremlin, Duncan argued, is far from the all-powerful administration it once was. "I agree that it looks like a classic personality cult of the sort that Stalin or the later [Leonid] Brezhnev had. But really, Russia has changed an awful lot since that time. And the state does not any longer have the capacity to organize that sort of personality cult, in the way that it could in the past. Russia is not a totalitarian society anymore. And the state, if anything, is weak. It's a weak state rather than a strong state, as we see quite often in Chechnya," Duncan said.

Although he does not believe in the existence of a centralized campaign devoted to idolizing Putin, Duncan said some in the presidential administration or at the regional level may be seeking political gain by promoting the president's clean and strong image. "I don't think Putin sat down with his advisers and said, 'Right, let's create a personality cult.' On the other hand, some individuals clearly see this as a way of increasing their authority and influence over Putin, but it could well backfire," Duncan said.

The appearance last year of a movement called Moving Together, consisting of clean-cut students marching through Moscow and professing their love for Putin, raised suspicions that the Kremlin might be trying to boost Putin's image artificially through a type of rent-a-crowd scheme.

But as Duncan pointed out, if Moving Together is indeed Kremlin-run, its actors seem to have gotten out of hand. "What we do have is the [Moving] Together movement, which is a youth movement -- people who go around wearing Putin T-shirts and saying how much they love Putin. On the one hand, this clearly does have the support of some people in the Kremlin. But then, on the other hand, some of what they've done has been very much against the wishes of the administration. I'm thinking specifically of the burnings of Vladimir Sorokin's books, where the youth activists of [Moving] Together -- these supporters of Putin -- were denounced by people within the Kremlin administration. I think it was [spokesman] Sergei Yastrzhembsky who said that this was a bad thing for culture, for books to be burned," Duncan said.

John Lloyd, former Moscow correspondent for Britain's "Financial Times" and author most recently of "Rebirth of a Nation: An Anatomy of Russia," sees things a bit differently. He told RFE/RL that Kremlin criticism of Moving Together could be a simple tactical maneuver, part of a "good cop, bad cop" routine Putin has deftly used at other times. "One thing that's very skillful about Putin is that he will encourage certain movements, like against the oligarchs -- against the media oligarchs in particular -- but actually stay away from being seen to have his hand on the repression. In the case of the media oligarchs, he's often been behind the movement against them. But when questioned, he would say that he supports a free press and was rather against any suppression, even of media which disagree with him. So he's got the skill to both make something happen and at the same time disassociate himself from it," Lloyd said.

Otto Latsis, deputy editor of the Moscow-based "Novye izvestia" newspaper, is a frequent critic of the Putin administration. But he also does not believe in a centrally run personality cult. He noted that many people, from local politicians to businessman, simply see an advantage in piggybacking on Putin's popularity. "There isn't a personality cult. [Putin] can be criticized. He doesn't react much to criticism, but we do have that option. The fact that there are some toadies who want to praise him -- that's their initiative," Latsis said.

Latsis also sees nothing unusual in the fact that Putin's approval rating continues to soar well above 70 percent in opinion polls, in inverse proportion to his government's perpetually sinking popularity. "People -- simple, average voters -- are not obliged to think politically and logically. They operate by a different logic. They like a given person's face. They like someone's personality. They don't like their own lives, but they don't make the logical connection," Latsis said.

Peter Duncan in London explained this "scissor effect" in terms of Soviet history. Although many things have changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, perceptions of how government functions have largely remained intact, favoring the country's leader. "There is this division of labor -- there was in Soviet times and there is today -- between, on the one hand, the general secretary of the party -- now the president -- and, on the other hand, the government. The government is responsible for the economy, and the general secretary of the party -- or, now, the president -- is responsible for overall stability and the position of the country in the world and security. In that context, there's not much of a contradiction, because people blame the government for the poor economic policies and the governmental structures. [Mikhail] Kasyanov, after all, goes back to the Yeltsin era, when he was a first deputy prime minister under Yeltsin and now prime minister today. Whereas Putin, on the other hand, is seen as somebody who is young and decisive," Duncan said.

Young and decisive are two adjectives that are constantly repeated when people speak about Putin, almost as frequently as the words "former KGB agent." How can someone whose past is so tied to that feared organization acquire such mass popularity? Has the KGB been rehabilitated under the Putin administration?

Duncan said, "The word 'rehabilitation' suggests that at some point it was discredited, and indeed it was discredited for a while in the August 1991 coup, of which [Vladimir] Kryuchkov of the then-KGB was the brains. That collapsed, so it showed the KGB wasn't very efficient after all, and it was then dismantled by the end of 1991. But people brought up in the Soviet Union remember the spy thrillers such as 'Stieglitz' and it's always been seen as an organization that's promoted security. People in Soviet times weren't so much aware of the persecution of dissidents," Duncan said.

The fact that Putin combines what many see in Russia as a patriotic background with reformist credentials -- all clothed in an appearance so ordinary, so similar to Russia's man in the street -- lends him unique appeal.

Duncan said Putin is "an enormous contrast to Yeltsin, so that's a big advantage. Secondly, though, he is in many ways ordinary. He's like them; he looks like them. He's got a patriotic past, as we were just saying, serving within the KGB, but also serving under [Anatolii] Sobchak as the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg -- clearly having reform credentials. He can fly aircraft, and even though he got beaten at judo recently by a Japanese student, he's seen as being physically fit. And above all, he doesn't have a whiff of corruption about him, in the way that so many Russian politicians unfortunately in the past have had."

Putin, the politician, has been shaped by contradictory influences. He is also attempting to curry favor with contradictory constituencies both at home and abroad. More interesting than whether Russian is seeing the birth of a personality cult, according to author John Lloyd, is whether Putin will stop trying to be all things to all people and finally settle on what he wants his legacy to be. But this, he said, may take some time. "To expect coherence from the Russian leader now, I think, would be expecting too much. The interesting thing is, how in the end does he come down? Who does he actually make alliances with? What does he actually do? Does he really suppress the free press? Does he actually cause a Stalinist cult of personality? Does he want to suppress authors? My view is that he will play with these things rather than actually do them," Lloyd said.

Putin may be biding his time. Thanks to artists at the Chelyabinsk watch factory in the Urals, makers of the handcrafted "presidential chronometer" featuring Putin's handpainted enamel portrait, time is sure not to pass unnoticed.