But Putin is unusual in the strong emphasis his public image gives to sporting achievement. There’s his judo black belt, complete with an instructional DVD, “Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.” There’s his love of fishing and hunting, pursuits in which he is not afraid to show his abs. And now we see his hockey skills. Let’s take a look at the political implications of these, er, achievements.
1. There is a long history of political leaders using (and exaggerating) images of their own physical prowess to signal health and vigor.
Credible signals of health and vigor seem to be especially necessary when political power is highly personalized, as it was in China in the 1960s or today in Russia. In such circumstances, the failing health of long-term rulers has often been a trigger for internecine struggles among the elite. From this perspective, the image of a vigorous Putin, able to play hockey at a high level, probably functions in part as a believable signal of his staying power.
The 1937 pictures of Mussolini, which show him without skis on his feet, also demonstrate the limits of this propaganda strategy in more open societies. Without some degree of control over the media, the staged event might have led to ridicule, since Mussolini appears to have been unable to ski.
2. At the same time, the more political power is concentrated in one person, the more his sporting or artistic achievements tend to be tainted by flattery or fear.
The Roman emperor Nero wanted to be a great lyre player and singer, and liked to compete in singing contests. He took his training seriously and insisted on being just another competitor. However, given his personal power and status in Roman society, of course Nero would win all the competitions he entered. Indeed the Roman senate, in a fit of exasperation with Nero’s flouting of senatorial mores (which looked down on the theatre as an unbecoming activity), offered him the prize for singing in the Quinquennial Games in A.D. 65, before the games were even held, to dissuade him from participating in them.
3. Even propaganda about unbelievable achievements can credibly signal a ruler’s power and thus discourage opposition.
The absurd claims sometimes made on behalf of powerful rulers by state-controlled press agencies, such as the claim made in the 1980s that Hafez al-Assad was Syria’s “premier pharmacist,” are not really believed literally by anyone, as Lisa Wedeen documents in her work on the cult of Assad. But insofar as they cannot be publicly contradicted without consequences or must be repeated by others, they do serve as credible evidence that the ruler has the power to compel others to act as if they believed in them.
Thoroughly unbelievable claims about sporting achievements are nevertheless quite rare, even where we find full-blown personality cults. In my own research I have found few claims of this sort. Reports that Kim Jong-Il once scored five holes in one on the golf course are likely a myth; the North Korean press did sometimes make similarly baffling claims about him. For instance, Rodong Sinmun apparently reported in 2006 that Kim had mastered the art of teleporting to avoid detection by American satellites.
Propaganda about Putin’s sporting achievements can certainly signal his dominance of the political system; not everyone can get his birthday party broadcast live throughout Russia! But within the Russian public sphere few can be compelled to act as if they believe them if they do not.
4. Claims of physical or artistic achievement are usually parts of campaigns to shore up popular support by constructing leader images that resonate with the population.
5. Not all stories of unusual physical or artistic achievement attributed to leaders are orchestrated from above or even reflect a conscious propaganda strategy.
Such stories sometimes emerge organically, “from below,” in a process I have called “flattery inflation,” either through genuine identification with the leader by some part of the population, or because there is something to be gained by producing flattery or displaying symbols of identification.
However, these forms of Putiniana, as Julie Cassiday and Emily D. Johnson argue, cannot be understood straightforwardly as signals of support for Putin. Russians, like people elsewhere, produce and relate stories about Putin for a wide variety of motivations, including satire. Though the Russian public sphere today is more tightly controlled than the public sphere elsewhere, there is still space for dissatisfied people to mock “Superputin.”
Xavier Marquez is a senior lecturer in the political science and international relations program at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He blogs at Abandoned Footnotes.