Even Vladimir Putin’s most passionate defenders do not deny that he now has a personality cult, but even his most committed critics acknowledge that such a cult is not an explanation but rather something that must be explained, all the more so because the Putin cult did not emerge full-blown all at once but rather has emerged and evolved over the last 15 years.
Although few people spoke about a Putin cult of personality in the first years of his rule, the BBC already in 2001 pointed to the appearance of Putin portraits in many public spaces in Russia and Italy’s “Corriere Della Sera” had an article speculating about its emergence. More suggestively, British political scientist Richard Sackwa suggests that a personality cult was part and parcel of Russian leadership, noting that popular songs in Russia began at that time to speak about Putin the way they had earlier spoken about Stalin.
Now, almost everyone speaks about a Putin cult of personality. Recently, Oleg Panfilov, a professor in Tbilisi, discussed how and why that happened and pointed to the essential shift from ironic or even critical comments about Putin to completely respectful ones. He dates that shift, one essential to the formation of a real cult, to a letter from a group of Leningrad professors who were upset by the presentation of Putin on the “Clowns” television program and Putin’s own promulgation of his Information Security Doctrine in September 2000, a document which laid the groundwork for censorship and expanded government propaganda.
Soon after that, Panfilov writes, the task of forming the image of the leader was assumed by his propagandists. The population could no longer be trusted to come up with the right one, and there followed a new imagery with Putin as a judoist, a jet pilot, a bare-chested fighter, and a devoted churchman. “Young people started wearing t-shirts with pictures of Putin,” he continues, and the notion of “a strong country with a strong president began to spread.”
But despite all this, which emerged at the very beginning of Putin’s reign, it would be incorrect to assert that most Russians viewed him as the leader that they conceive him to be today. A minority did so from the very beginning, but the majority had to be involved in this cult. And that took both time and the unceasing efforts of the Kremlin’s image makers.
That, in fact, constitutes the paradox of Putin’s first term. On the one hand, many Russians, including members of the intelligentsia, really did feel a certain sympathy to the young, businesslike and decisive successor of Yeltsin especially since Putin could be counted on not to embarrass them by any drunken antics like trying to conduct an orchestra or forgetting to leave his plane when he was supposed to. And they thus viewed the new president not as an ideal leader but as a normal one, something that for many of them seemed to be little short of a miracle. But on the other hand, there were the beginnings of a Soviet-style cult of the leader’s personality, even though at that time Putin himself did not risk speaking about a return to Soviet times or doing away with the freedoms of Yeltsin’s.
Indeed, it many cases, it is difficult if not impossible to draw a clear line between a healthy popularity of the Russian president and a real cult of personality. As long as the Kremlin tolerated jokes and parodies about Putin that distinction did not seem to matter as any overly enthusiastic treatments of his leadership for his sobriety and discipline would be balanced by jokes about his Chekist past and style and about his resemblance to other dictators like Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Few Russians and even fewer foreign observers noted that over time, the jokes were becoming less welcome and the cult of personality was becoming more rigid, something that not only signaled an end to the freedoms of the 1990s but pointed to more repression ahead. That process, however, did not take place all at once and even in 2010, it was still possible to parody Putin and Dmitry Medvedev by speaking of a “multitude” of personalities when in fact it was becoming ever more obvious that there was only one who could be supported: All the others but not that one could be the subject of laughter.
This situation might have gone on for some time had it not been for the rise of anti-government protests at the end of 2011. They suggested that at least some Russians no longer loved Putin and that many of them as before continued to laugh at him. That was unacceptable to the Kremlin image makers and their response to their discovery was a concerted effort to form a genuine cult of personality and to impose it on the population.
In order to understand what they have done, one needs to keep in mind that the most significant group of values for Russians at that time were “defensive” ones, that is, a commitment to stability, peace and happiness of the population, a relatively high standard of living and a desire to avoid anything that might challenge that. The reasons for that are obvious: no one wanted to go back to the difficult economic times of the end of the USSR and the beginnings of the Russian Federation, and all feared that what they had now might disappear overnight.
Putin’s image makers cleverly exploited these fears. As a result, at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, they promoted the idea that peace and stability depended on the personality of Vladimir Putin and that his defeat or ouster in and of itself would lead to chaos. And linked to that notion were the ideas that Russians must put up with corruption, illegality and the violation of their own rights lest things get worse and that Russians must view any critics of the existing regime as enemies who are threatening to destroy peace and stability. That in turn led to the formal division of society and the radicalization of both liberals and patriots.
It is important to note that at that time, Putin’s political system was not idealized. Instead, it was promoted as “a lesser evil” as compared to possible social cataclysms. And to that extent, one should not speak even then of a full-blown cult of personality in the usual sense of the term. But it was at that moment that such a cult began to be formed and ever more quickly as the regime sought to defend itself against any challenges. As a result, the focus on defensive values declined and the propagandists began to form a great power vision of Russia and its leader, a shift that was occasioned by the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine and that involved talk about the Russian world, of Russia as an empire, and of Russia’s neighbors as temporarily lost but permanently part of that state.
There was an obvious basis for such a development: the way in which the Soviet authorities treated the borderlands, the mistakes of Russian leaders in the 1990s, and the sense among many Russians that the promises democrats and reformers had made had not and even could not be fulfilled, all of which made many Russians perfectly ready to accept the arguments of the Kremlin that what was needed was a specifically Russian way forward with a leader cult and all the rest.
Those feelings were played to and exploited by a group of aggressive “new ideologists” like Starikov and Dugin and the creation of youth organizations which celebrated the Soviet period, accused the US of destroying the USSR, and welcomed opposing Russian culture to Western civilization. Conspiracy theories multiplied and more or less quickly were assimilated into the new definition of Russian patriotism, a definition which presupposed the existence of a strong leader like Putin. Such feelings in turn were intensified by the rehabilitation of the Soviet past, the appearance of the cult of the Chekist in society and the whitewashing of the crimes of Joseph Stalin.
This shift from defensive to offensive values involved not only the creation of a genuine cult of personality around the leader but the formation of an entirely new set of foreign and domestic policies, although it is not difficult to see that from the logical point of view, these two groups of values are mutually exclusive since the defensive values want peace at any price and the great power ones seek war with a hostile world until the empire can be restored.
There are several reasons why Russians are able to accept this fundamental contradiction. First and most important, few think about these things but simply accept what they see and hear on television where no one pushes the two sets of ideas to the point that their mutually exclusive character becomes obvious. Related to that, the unprecedented level of propaganda has created for Russians a completely different, alternative reality in which the first group of values supposedly harmoniously combines with the second, even though that is obviously not the case. And finally, Kremlin propagandists have cleverly insisted that these two things can be held together only if people rally round Putin as the national leader, the only person who can achieve both things at once. That is the true basis of his personality cult now – and also why it is so dangerous.
The rehabilitation of the Soviet past and the thorough formation by means of culture and the mass media of an image of external and internal enemies have been intensifying with each passing month and has created for most Russians an image of their country as a besieged fortress which only one person can defend and save – Vladimir Putin. And that in turn has allowed the regime to combine the notions that “without him things will be worse” and that with him Russia will be able to “rise from its knees” and restore itself as a great power and empire.
The most tragic aspect of this is that under its influence have fallen many of those who protested against Putin in 2011-2012. In the past, they viewed Putin with humor and could distinguish black from white; but now, there is no place for humor and many of them have simply turned off their psychological defense mechanisms by viewing Putin as their salvation. But even more important, the Putin cult is useful to and being exploited by Putin’s entourage who see it as the only way to protect their illegal activities and who recognize that if things go wrong, Putin rather than they will be blamed.
As a result, Putin now enjoys unprecedented expressions of support; but it is important to remember that the 80 plus percent approval he normally gets now is not all of a piece. Instead, there are at least six different categories of people who lay stress on different parts of the cult and who may go their own separate ways if the Kremlin leader departs from their understanding too quickly or too radically in the future.
These include the active imperialists who want an aggressive foreign policy and will not be satisfied by anything less, the active conformists who go along with the regime for pragmatic reasons, the passive conformists who see no reason for not going along and hope to avoid negative consequences for themselves, the mass of people who believe what they hear on television but don’t think too much about any particular issue, zombified people who accept everything they are told and blindly follow it, and the active victims of propaganda who incorporate propaganda into their own self-concepts.
At present, these six groups are held together by the current definition of the Putin cult of personality, but they are likely to go their own separate ways as the cult evolves – and consequently keeping track of how the leadership is promoting the cult at any particular time is a good indication of where the Kremlin is heading – and perhaps even more of what it and its chief occupant fear most.
By Ksenia Kirillova