7 October, Vladimir Putin's birthday, is not yet a national holiday, although the media goes into pre-Christmas rhapsodies over the stream of congratulations to their superhero, sent from civil servants, celebrities, sportsmen, and enterprising citizens. It is difficult to work out which of them is trying to advance his career, and which sincerely wishes the leader good health and a long life. Young people are no less fond of Putin than his 62-year-old contemporaries because he has managed to convince them also that he and Russia is one and the same.
On the presidential birthday this year, loyal political analysts from the Strategic Communications Centre, presented a report called '15 years of Putin: the beginning of a new era.'
There is a whole generation for whom Putin has been in power all their conscious lives.
'Our research has shown us that there is a whole generation for whom Putin has been in power all their conscious lives. Their views of the government may not be identical, neither exclusively positive nor negative, but it is a distinct social group,' said the director of the Centre, Dmitry Abzalov.
These people have achieved their success on Putin's terms. If you agree to live in Russia, then you live under Putin. The Presidential Administration has used this generation to put the Putin PR machine in place.
This concept works for both the external and the domestic market. If Google is to be believed, there are 'Putin' bars in Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Serbia, Spain, and probably in other countries too. They are not part of a chain, but unconnected food outlets à la Russe. Their owners understand that Putin is in the same semantic chain as balalaikas, Kalashnikovs, the accordion, bears, and Russian dolls.
'L'état c'est moi', (‘I am the state’), Louis XIV's political statement, is very relevant in domestic Russian politics. Approximately once a year the President spends many hours on live TV communing with his subjects. In a country with a population of 140m and a very complicated system of municipal, local, and federal government, it is Putin that is the go-to person for the pressing issues of the day – families, say, with many children, who are desperate to move into more spacious accommodation.
But TV contact with his subjects is no more than the tip of the iceberg. Any pressing question has to be taken to Putin: not long ago even I approached him, despite my convinced anarchist views. I am part of an enterprising group defending a forest not far from where I live, which the local authorities want to cut down so as to make money selling the valuable real estate under it.
We collected residents' signatures protesting against this move, and sent them to the President. Our ecologists are not particularly fond of Putin, but they know that this works. Some tens of thousands are affected by this problem and we collected many thousands of signatures. I was the person charged with officially approaching the Presidential Administration. We have as yet not received a reply, but the local authorities are scared. They have used the local paper, which is under their control, to place several large articles assuring us that they are not intending to carve up the forest.
The bestseller list
‘Books about Stalin sell less and less, but Putin is consistently in the bestseller list,' says Yevgeny, the editor of a commercially successful publishing house with a ‘chequered’ reputation. Chequered mainly because they are not selective enough; they publish books by extremists, liberals, left-wingers, and monarchists – any political literature, as long as it will sell.
Путин в образе Геракла борется с гидрой санкций (выставка «12 подвигов», Москва 2014). Фейсбук
'Very few purely laudatory books about Putin are published,' Yevgeny continues. 'There are critical and investigative books of all kinds. The one that sold the best was Viktor Ilyukhin's Putin: the Truth It's Better Not to Know.' Ilyukhin, one of the leaders of the Communist Party, died in strange circumstances (author's note), so perhaps it was Ilyukhin that was selling the books, rather than Putin.
'Very few purely laudatory books about Putin are published’
If we are talking of books about Putin, then the most successful is probably Putin, Vodka and the Cossacks: Western Ideas of Russia by Dmitry Stratievsky and Clemente Gonzalez; or, unexpectedly, Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky's book about him. Bukovsky does not like Putin, but the book is selling very well, which debunks the myth that our liberals exist in a marginalised ghetto.
Not about Putin, the all-time bestseller was Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov's book Unsaintly Saints and Other Stories, which, however, obviously sold well because the author is reputed to be Putin's father confessor.
Editors often change the title of a book quite consciously to include the word 'Putin', or they market a series on the subject. Eduard Limonov fell out with a publisher, and the case went to court, because his book was published in the series How Putin Should Rebuild Russia.
What are book buyers
looking for? 'Confirmation of what they think,' says Yevgeny. 'A patriot and
believer in a strong state will think that Putin is great; a member of the
opposition, something very different.'
Putin-worship takes many forms. The most vociferous member of the Putin generation is Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, who lives to the greatest extent possible outside the Russian legal system. Chechnya's judiciary is a mixture of Chechen national traditions, Islamic rules, and Russian laws.
It was Kadyrov who, on Putin's birthday this year, brought 100,000 people out on to the streets of his capital, Grozny, with portraits of Putin; they were dressed in white, blue, red, and green t-shirts – a combination of the Russian and Chechen flags. Kadyrov loves the Russian president because the repressive system in Chechnya is held in place solely by his personal relationship with Putin.
But Putin also has saintly appeal: 'On 7 October 1952, a human being with an immortal soul and a mortal body saw the light of day for the first time. He was created in the image and likeness of God; his body was ideally suited for solving all the big problems, which the Almighty was to put before him. His name was Vova…' This was the beginning of a lecture given last month by Dmitry 'Enteo' Tsorionov, who declared that God was inside Vladimir Putin.
'On 7 October 1952, a human being with an immortal soul and a mortal body saw the light of day for the first time.’
Tsorionov is a 'radical, Orthodox activist' famed for his attacks on Pussy Riot. Unlike Kadyrov, he is a Moscow freak rather than the leader of a Russian region with a population of over a million. But many people are convinced that he has protection in the government: recently, for instance, he got away with being involved in the cancellation of Marilyn Manson's performance in Moscow.
And Putin is heroic. At the recent art exhibition The Twelve Labours, also devoted to Putin's birthday, the President is represented as Hercules. 'Perhaps there is an element of humour here, it is after all creative art rather than an opinion,' says exhibition organiser Mikhail Antonov. Perhaps; Moscow is not yet Grozny. Putin may be worshipped here, though hardly seriously for the moment.
With the annexation of Crimea, support for the president became ever more hysterical. Pictures spread like wildfire through social networks, and it is impossible to distinguish as to which of them was posted online by paid supporters, and which by sincere believers.
The third category of people involved in preparing pro-Putin material – apart from the paid supporters and the sincere believers – are the ones who would like to be making some money. A typical example of these is AMG, the little-known Moscow rap group of black musicians, with the song ‘Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin.’ If they had not written a song about Putin, they would never have been shown on a big TV channel.
The degree of frenzy that accompanies this hero worship, makes it difficult to work out how consciously the elements of openly extremist aesthetics have been included in what is being expressed. Take the words of a song by the Boriskin family group of accordion players, which bears some relation to a song that used to be sung by the Hitlerjugend.
'People shout hurray, dance and sing
The guns salute and the stars are bling,
Our President has taken the wise decision
To annex Sevastopol and Crimea.
'Putin, do what you have to! You are our president
You must outshine the heroes of the cinema.
Russia has right on her side.
Putin, Putin, Putin is our president,
The best in the world!'
The cult of personality
One political scientist who has spent many years working on pro-Kremlin projects, considers that the deliberate positioning of Putin to appeal to the young only started in 2008, although the first pro-Putin youth organisation 'Going forward together' appeared in 2000. At the time, it was accused of being fascist because of its t-shirts printed with images of Putin on them; now t-shirts with pictures of the leader are sold on a huge scale in shops, and Russians sincerely shell out their own money to buy them.
Футболки с Путиным продаются в ГУМе. (c) РИА-Новости/Максми Блинов
Now t-shirts with pictures of the leader are sold on a huge scale in shops, and Russians sincerely pay their own money to buy them.
That said, the public view of pro-Kremlin youth organisations has not improved – mainly because they still have the reputation of being made up of fools and careerists. One of their last campaigns, for instance, involved the creation of a series of gigantic Northern Ireland-style propaganda murals.
Celebrities have often been used for propaganda purposes, for example, popular TV presenters like Tina Kandelaki and Dmitry Guberniev; and musicians – from the Orthodox rocker Konstantin Kinchev to the rapper Timati, whose performances usually involve expensive cars and naked girls. Russia's biggest bikers' club, The Night Wolves, also supports Putin.
As youth heroes, sporting stars are gradually ousting musicians from their position on the pedestal. This is not surprising, for the state allocates considerable sums of money for sport, thus ensuring people's loyalty at all levels. Many of the competitions for children and young people are supported by United Russia's 'Young Guard;' and many sporting celebrities are Putin supporters, from the figure skater Evgeni Plushenko, adored by girls, to the mixed martial arts fighter Fedor Emelianenko, admired by the boys.
Throughout Putin's 15 years there have been two main images, which have been targeted at Russia's youth. The first is that of 'the man who can put things to rights,' which is what got him elected in 2000; somehow or other that image still exists, although the big question is whether or not the lawlessness and disorder under Yeltsin in the naughty nineties was worse than it is now.
The second Putin image is the man who takes on the Americans. This was eloquently described by Maksim Mishchenko, a former Duma deputy, leader of the 'Young Russia' movement, who has for several years been responsible for the shift in the political discussions at the Seliger pro-Kremlin summer youth camp.
'For some, Putin is King David fighting Goliath, for others Peresvet [a Russian monk] fighting Chelubei [a Mongolian warrior] at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380; and for yet others, Neo fighting with Agent Smith in The Matrix' explains Mishchenko. ‘Do you remember the scene where Smith endlessly self-replicates, and there is not much hope for anyone? Putin is a fighter. The more he fights, the harder the battle becomes, but he is always a worthy opponent.'