Putin has entered the Culture Wars – the conflict between traditional and progressive values
Some six months before the Russian Presidential election of 2012 with Vladimir Putin still “undecided” as to whether he would run, “Putin’s Bikini Army” took to the streets of Moscow. Under “Putin for President” banners, the young female “patriots” staged a free car wash in a publicity stunt that was widely reported (with a full range of salacious photographs) by the international media. Putin won the 2012 Presidential election by a landslide.
Six months before the Russian Presidential election of 2018 with Vladimir Putin still “undecided” as to whether he will run, “Putin’s Pec (Pectoral) Army” have been taking to the pages of Instagram. Under the hashtag #PutinShirtlessChallenge, young male “patriots” have been stripping down to the waist in a publicity stunt that has been widely reported by the international media. If Putin does run in the March 2018 Presidential election, the polls suggest he will win by an even greater landslide than in 2012.
In a country where the anti-gay sentiment and legislation have been accurately described as “barbaric”, the state sponsored media have been positively homoerotic in their coverage of the recent Putin holiday pictures which inspired the Putin Shirtless challenge.
Referring to the pictures released by the Kremlin of Putin’s August holiday in Siberia which showed him in a variety of macho man poses, the Russia Beyond The Headlines news site wrote “We’ve all seen those photos of Vladimir Putin, testosterone coursing through his veins, muscles taut, his bare chest a symbol of unyielding power. Whether he is fishing, swimming, or effortlessly riding a horse, Putin looks pretty good topless. The man is a picture of health, virility, and well, …. maybe beauty is too strong a word”.
As the popular Russian folk song goes: “Before Putin, there were no orgasms”. The horse-riding, spear-fishing, lake-swimming, mountain-climbing, hockey-playing, judo-throwing, arm-wrestling Action Man Vlad – who strips off quicker than a Love Island reality TV contestant – used his holiday snaps to display he was Alpha enough to control Russia (and beyond) for another six years.
The priapic portfolio of photographs also contrasted nicely with those released by the White House the same week which showed a holidaying Donald Trump having to use a golf caddy to transport his considerable weight around an eminently walkable golf course.
Contrary to received wisdom the 64 year old Putin’s soft focus holiday snaps weren’t for a domestic audience. Russians have become desensitised over the years to Putin getting his naked torso out and in a country where sarcasm is the official religion, the President was gently mocked – albeit in a suitably deferential manner – for his “Sexy Selfies”.
The photos were directed at the West. And as the Bloomberg news agency noted: “whole photo galleries were used by the New York Times, the Washington Post and Time magazine – few heads of state could boast of similar success with their government news products”.
Home isn’t a problem for Putin; everywhere else is.
As a contemporary Czar-like figure, he has successfully concentrated executive, legislative and judicial powers into his own hands. By reasserting Russia on the world stage and projecting a “Strong Man” image (the warrior hero figure which is revered in Russian folklore), he enjoys domestic approval ratings of around 80 per cent.
But by a curious symmetry, 80 per cent of people in the West express negative/hostile feelings about him. A “ruthless dictator” who presides over “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy in a virtual mafia state” and who is “a real threat to stability and peace in the world” say high-ranking Western politicians.
Which is why those sections of the Russian media who are obsequious in their coverage of Putin have been carefully repositioning him, Kulturkampf style. “Putin’s Torso Drives The West Crazy” reads the headline on the Pravda.ru online news site. The West’s obsession with Putin’s shirtless Action Man photographs – the reasoning goes – is because it serves as a nostalgic reminder of a pre-Liberal tyranny age when Men were Men – swimming in icy lakes to spear fish and and jumping (bare-chested) up on horses to go hunting.
Putin’s “dominant masculinity and sex appeal” say Pravda resonate because “modern-day Western elites” have ushered in “a deeply decadent concept in which the natural structure of the family and the roles of the sexes have been reversed. Putin shares traditional values in which there is no place for far-fetched gender problems”.
Time was when the Cold War term “decadent” was used by the Soviets to refer to Coca-Cola, Levi’s 501’s and the music of Duran Duran rotting imperialist, crypto-fascist brains. But it’s been used in no less a loaded manner here.
Putin threw fuel on this fire in the recent Oliver Stone series of interviews with him which was shown on the U.S. TV network, Showtime. Asked by Stone if he ever had bad days, Putin replied “I’m not a woman so I don’t have bad days”. When prompted that this was insulting to women, Putin said “I’m not trying to insult anyone. That’s just the nature of things”.
When asked by Stone, given that he has passed oppressive anti-gay legislation, if he would be comfortable taking a shower beside a gay man, Putin answered “I’d prefer not to take a shower with him. Why provoke him? But, you know, I am a Judo master”.
Putin knows the Western audience he is after with these type of statements. Those millions of voters in Europe and the U.S. who as Marine Le Pen puts it aren’t just voting for nation-first politics and economic isolationism but are voting against what she terms “destructive ultra-liberalism”.
Putin has entered the Culture Wars – the conflict between traditional/conservative values and progressive/liberal values.
The Soviet dream of altering the course of political events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion became reality under Putin’s Presidency with the Russian hacking of the 2016 election. An event intelligence experts say was “just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war”.
Political scientists now talk about conflicts “that are experienced primarily over and through broadcast media, social media and the information infrastructure”. With scalps already taken in this theatre of war, Russia is once again a Superpower.