Imaging the Putin Personality Cult · 25 December 2009

On Friday 18 December, according to the Moscow Times, Vladimir Putin entered the hall of St. Petersburg’s School of Sport Mastery dressed in a white judogi and black belt, to applause from the assembled squad. After bowing, he went onto the mats, throwing squad members half his age and even tackling the chief trainer, Olympic gold medalist Ezio Gamba. Then, over tea and cakes, Putin made the suggestion. If you need direct help, you can include me in the team, he told the trainer, an Italian who won gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Officials praised Putin’s technique in the Japanese martial art and dismissed any hint that he may have been allowed to win. He has the psychology of a winner, the psychology of the victorious, said Georgy Kukoverov, the school’s chief.

Reading this evoked thoughts of 1939, when foreign correspondents were invited to watch Benito Mussolini engage in various sporting activities, including horse-riding, fencing and tennis. An American onlooker commented:

The dictator, garbed in a beige polo shirt and shorts which revealed the scar of the wound he had received in the thigh during World War I, was playing doubles. He was serving underarm like a novice, and he violated every tennis rule and tradition by walking at least two steps beyond the base line to serve. Even so, the two athletes who were playing against him Rome’s leading professional tennis player, and a member of Italy’s national soccer team had difficulty in returning soap bubble his serves. Whenever the ball was returned, it floated slowly up so that a lame man with a broken arm could have hit it. Il Duce lobbed, smashed, and smiled, pleased with his triumph.

Mussolini, of course, won the game!

Putin is, no doubt, better at judo than Mussolini at tennis, but the central idea of promoting the leader as a winner in physical contests is the same. And visual image is the best way to do this. After all, seeing is believing!

Kemal Ataturk believed in looking the part, telling an early colleague that it was a fool’s belief that people like their leaders only with ideals. They want them dressed in the pomp of power and invested with the insignia of their office. His military uniforms, including that of Field Marshal, were used as an important prop early in his career.

The writer, Emil Ludwig was with a group of journalists in a hotel foyer in 1931 when they saw an example of Hitler’s image management:

Clad in a brand new overcoat, he was ambling lazily down the wide staircase, playing with the metal rod attached to the hotel keys to make guests remember to hand them over to the porter before leaving. He was whirling the key round the rod, to his own great amusement. Suddenly, about 20 paces off, he became aware of our group. That very second he dropped his hand to his side, stiffened his arms and legs, put on an expression of gloom, and, for our benefit, was transformed into Napoleon. Moved to the depths of his own schemes, he strode slowly past us.

In 1956, against the advice of colleagues, Mao Zedong swam in the Yangtze River, and his later conversation with Zhu Zhongli made it clear that he understood the importance of looking the part not only for the audience, but for the boost it gives leader himself!

Mao: People should not like to show off. I swam for too long! I felt utterly exhausted, but I wanted to show off, so I kept going. If it hadn’t been for Ye Zilong (one of Mao’s lieutenants) making me get back on the ship, I would have died.

Zhu: I don’t believe that. You swim very well.

Mao: You don’t believe and the audience on the banks of the river didn’t believe either. I understood the illusion therefore the more I swam, the more I was encouraged.

Yet there are subtleties and dangers in such image games!

The image needs to suit the audience and some audiences are not as easily impressed by the image of raw physical power, determination and vigor. Nuance is sometimes required to make the raw power aspect seem less threatening and thus more attractive! Such nuancing seemed to work well with the mind and emotions of Albert Speer.

Speer was surprised at the appearance of Hitler when he saw him for the first time in January 1931 as he addressed students of Berlin University and the Institute of Technology: On posters and in caricatures I had seen him in military tunic, with shoulder straps, swastika armband, and hair flapping. But here he was wearing a well-fitted blue suit and looking markedly respectable. Everything about him bore out the note of reasonable modesty.

With this particular audience, Hitler knew that a military uniform would evoke more negative than positive reactions. He thus acted to reduce any sense of threat to the audience themselves.

The next time Speer saw Hitler, the audience and the clothes were different. Now he presented the image of a purposeful winner. I saw Hitler reproving one of his companions because the cars had not yet arrived. He paced back and forth angrily, slashing at the tops of his high boots with a dog whip and giving the general impression of a cross, uncontrolled man who treats his associates contemptuously. This Hitler was very different from the man of calm and civilised manner who had so impressed me at the student meeting. I was seeing an example of Hitler’s remarkable duplicity indeed, multiplicity would be a better word. With enormous histrionic intuition he could shape his behavior to changing situations in public.

So, image making is a complex and sometimes dangerous process.

Mao put himself in danger, but there is also the issue of blowback. The Yugoslavian politician, Milovan Djilas, who had close dealings with Stalin and his lieutenants from 1944, observed:

The deification of Stalin, or the cult of the personality, as it is now called, was at least as much the work of Stalin’s circle and the bureaucracy, who required such a leader, as it was his own doing. Of course, the relationship changed. Turned into a deity, Stalin became so powerful that in time he ceased to pay attention to the changing needs and desires of those who had exalted him.

It is also possible to try to push the image too far. Mao was lucky that he did not overstep the mark swimming and make himself look silly which is absolutely one of the last things a leader should ever do. According to Hitler’s photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, he was careful what pictures he took because Hitler had a horror of appearing ridiculous. One journalist perhaps with the tennis match in mind noted that Mussolini sometimes looked like a circus performer in off hours.

This is why Putin could not risk being seen to lose to a serious opponent at judo. He has condemned the personality cult that surrounded Stalin, but he now is also part of a similar game. He, and his supporters, aim to send the message that he has the psychology of a winner, the psychology of the victorious.

So, were Putin’s judo fights fixed a la Mussolini-style? Probably! But it is also possible that his opponents were psyched-out by the thought of fighting the Russian leader.

And, this thought brings us to a conclusion about the future leadership of Russia.

My guess is that Dimitry Medvedev believes that he is the best person to be president after the 2012 presidential elections. But power is as much about the psychological need for power and, not surprisingly, Putin’s need has grown with time in power as it is about intellectual analysis. Medvedev’s visual image is very lackluster, and unless he can do something about it in early 2010 and boost his self-confidence (a la Mao) he will be psyched-out both privately and publicly by Putin.