In July 2016, more than fifteen years into his time holding office, Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings clocked in at 82%, a figure made all the more remarkable by the fact that Russia was wading into an economic downturn. Some Western commentators hailed these numbers as proof that Putin’s larger-than-life, strongman presidency aligns with “what Russians want,” as Putin “satisfied a yearning for a strong leader who could make the Russian family proud." However, understanding Putin’s popularity as manifestation of a homogenous “national desire” is problematic if we wish to probe the conditions of possibility underlying his continued political currency. While Putin certainly has a cult, it would be wrong to see it as a mere facsimile of its communist predecessors. The Putin craze is as much the product of free-market capitalism as the Kremlin, and the many Russians who serve as its producers and consumers have molded its content through a myriad of texts and mediums.
To the extent that there is a “personality cult” in contemporary Russia, the personality at the center of it is defined in highly gendered terms, shaping the tenor of both domestic and foreign policy. Putin’s macho aura is centered around the celebration of Putin as a “tough guy” who stands up to the Western “liberal-fascist” enemies allegedly attempting to bring Russia to its knees at home and abroad.
By the time Putin arrived in the Russian presidency in 2000, Russia was regarded at home and abroad as weak, suffering from economic breakdown, and no longer a superpower. Once Putin was in power, his macho image was mobilized as a public relations tool, broadcasting both his legitimacy and Russia's strength. As Putin settled into his first term, the machismo campaign ramped up and pervaded Russian popular culture. By 2002, Putin's “man’s man” celebrity brand was made tangible in the Russian pop song, “A Man Like Putin.” Performed by a female duo who endorsed Putin as a politician, the song rose to the top of Russia's pop charts and became a “propaganda song” frequently performed at state-sponsored pro-Putin rallies (Bloom). The chorus of the catchy ditty calls for “a man like Putin, who's full of strength […] a man like Putin, who doesn't drink […] a man like Putin, who won't make me sad” (Bloom). The song's lyrics explicitly promote Putin’s physicality and no-nonsense asceticism as an ideal of masculinity to be emulated by “ordinary” men, and position him as Russia’s paternalistic savior.
By the mid-2000s, the Kremlin was regularly releasing images that pitched Putin to the public in strongly gendered terms that relied on Russian notions of hegemonic masculinity: Putin “rescuing” a crew of journalists from a Siberian tiger, Putin carefree on a shirtless fishing trip, Putin whizzing around behind the wheel of a Formula One race car, or hurling judo opponents to the ground. It is widely accepted in academic circles that this star-image, with its emphasis on physical masculinity, is carefully curated by Kremlin image-makers based on frequent public polling data to portray him “as the ultimate Russian action man, capable of dealing with every eventuality” (Hill and Gaddy 5).
In addition to his orchestrated displays of muscles and bravura, Putin’s “manly” image is further bolstered by portrayals of attractive young women's support for him. In early October 2012, the United Russia party's youth wing, Young Guard, produced a video for Putin’s sixtieth birthday featuring exaggeratedly feminized young women mimicking a variety of Putin's infamous manly exploits: flying a fighter jet, playing ice-hockey, and scuba diving for “ancient” pottery. The final scene, playing over the melody “Blueberry Hill”—which Putin had sung at a celebrity fundraiser two years earlier—depicts all of the women standing together on a city street, waiting in great anticipation for Putin to arrive. Even a seemingly innocuous birthday video, by portraying Putin as a tough, desirable, heterosexual man, serves to emphasize that Putin is the correct man for the job of leading Russia out of its post-Soviet slump and toward renewed glory. Putin's own machismo is thus inextricably linked to the popular desire for Russia itself to be perceived as strong and tough on the global stage, and not to be subordinated by the West.