“If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” This age-old adage is something that Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have taken very much to heart. Ever since Putin pole-vaulted his way into office in 2000, he has showcased an image of a “macho man” determined to show the world that Russia is a force to be reckoned with.
Bare-chested images of him riding on horseback, jumping into a freezing lake, riding a Harley into a bike show, Putin the “action hero” seems to have won Russians over. Despite blips, the Russian President has never faced a serious threat from any Opposition candidate since he came to office and his recent victory margin of 76.7 per cent in March shows this trend is likely to continue for some time.
Some would argue that the “Putin strongman” image is just that, a series of carefully constructed images designed to send a message to the West. But the narrative is more complicated than that. Putin’s personal history plays a strong role in making him the person he is.
The survival of his parents in the over 900-day-long siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany instilled in the Russian President a very strong sense of survival and the notion of “Mother Russia”, at a very early age. This perhaps explains why the Russian Orthodox Church has risen during his premiership and why he is at pains to stress Russia’s glorious past. This was particularly important as the decade before Putin, crippled by staggering debts under Yeltsin, was seen by many Russians as a “decade of humiliation”.
To invoke Russia’s glorious past, Putin has turned to the Tzarist regime and towards particular Tsars to build up a national and personal narrative. Recently, he unveiled the statue of Tsar Alexander III and the parallels were not hard to miss. Alexander III, who ruled Russia from 1881 to 1894, was known as the “Peacemaker” as Russia fought no major wars during his reign. He was also conservative and a strong imposing figure at over six feet tall. Putin wants to showcase himself as a modern day Tsar with these attributes. He also wants Russians to remember their country in this imposing light.
Russian history and symbols have not only been useful to Putin personally but have been used by him to push forward ideas that he wants to propagate. Putin has often invoked Pyotr Stolypin—prime minister under Tsar Nicholas II who championed economic and social reforms to push forward his economic agenda. It was on Stolypin’s 100th anniversary in 2011 that Putin announced his bid to run for presidency again and push forward his controversial economic package. And it was again in 2017 that he made the announcement that he would run again. The occasion was the 85th anniversary of the Gorky automobile plant. Gorky was a powerhouse during the Soviet Union regime.
The western world sees Putin as an enigma and someone to be fiercely opposed. Allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. elections and sanctioning the assassination attempt of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal have built him up as an autocratic hated figure. On the other side, while Putin does want to project a strong Russia he does not seem to view the West through the same prism.
The economic turbulence suffered by Russia during the Yeltsin years is something that Putin wants to avoid at all costs. He has made it a point to pay off the foreign debts incurred by the former Soviet Union. Even today, Putin views his relationship with the world through an economic prism.
He has increasingly advocated a free trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok and there are increasing moves towards establishing free trade zones in countries which Putin holds important, such as India, Israel, Egypt and Iran. Through this, Putin wants to safeguard the Russian economy and show the West, especially the U.S., that he can stand up to their sanctions.
Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin who struck a close personal rapport with Western leaders, Putin’s aloof behaviour provokes harsh memories of the Cold War with the West. What has further prompted this behaviour is that Putin comes from outside the system. Though he rose from being a KGB operative to the deputy mayor of St Petersburg, he was largely a behind-the-scenes operator and was not seen as a prominent face till he took power. It is this operate-alone image that Putin plays up as his strength. This explains the lone “strongman” image. However, such an image while proving useful domestically, and earning the admiration of other “strongmen” like President Donald Trump, can quickly backfire when things go wrong. And as history in Russia has shown, things can go wrong very quickly for its leaders.
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