This is my review of Putin Mystique Inside Russia’s Power Cult by Anna Arutunyan.
A Moscow-based Russian-born journalist who was raised and educated in the States, Anna Arutunyan seems unusually well-placed to interpret Putin’s mystique in a way that Western readers can readily grasp. Although this book contains some fascinating information if you are prepared to make the effort to glean it, I was disappointed to find that the disjointed journalese makes for an often confusing and laborious read.
We are familiar with photographs of a macho Putin displaying his muscular torso as he rides on horseback through the wilderness, or wades in a river to catch salmon, of him diving in the Black Sea to retrieve ancient Greek urns in what proved to be a staged stunt, or co-piloting a plane to dump gallons of water to extinguish a forest fire. This personality cult which began in around 2001 is partly a top down process of which Anna Arutanin provides further examples: Kremlin ideologist Surkov’s organised demonstrations of support by the activist youth group “Nashi” whose members were rewarded with payment or career opportunities; the elaborate charade in which Putin showed his concern for alumina factory workers demanding their pay by berating on film the oligarch Deripaska who had halted production at their workplace. This included forcing him to sign a probably fake contract and even throwing a pen at him, for which humiliation Deripaska was compensated by some massive monetary bail-outs. The author also identifies more spontaneous actions with commerce in mind, such as the “pin-up” calendar showing the twelve moods of Putin or the erotic calendar of obligingly posed girls presented to him for his birthday. Having been groomed by the oligarch Berezovsky to take over as a President who would provide some stability and order after the chaos of Yeltsin’s regime, Putin adapted readily to mirror the kind leader many Russians wanted to look up to.
The Russians have a history of developing a cult round their leaders as a means of keeping control in a vast, often harsh land of scattered and ethnically diverse people. “Russia may never have had the close-knit communities that foster democracy and legal institutions”. So, we see the persistence of a “patrimonial” rather than a legal-rational state. The Tsars were often venerated like gods, with their subjects literally prostrating themselves in their presence; the Stalinist cult was developed by his inner Bolshevik circle before “spilling out” in a nationwide adulation which in a form of "doublethink" was not incompatible with viewing him as a "bloody tyrant".
This book was published too late to cover the shocking murder of the charismatic Boris Nemtsov, but the failure to analyse the recent annexation of the Crimea and the issues raised by the poisoning of Litvinenko, along with the murder of a number of investigative journalists critical of the regime, are glaring omissions. Perhaps there are boundaries the author prefers not to cross: although her portrayal of Putin is negative, precise accusations of a serious nature are avoided and charges often veiled. It is suggested, for instance, that widespread financial corruption and human rights’ violations are often beyond Putin’s control, despite the “myth of his omnipotence”, because they are conducted by people on whom he depends to keep order – as in the case of the Chechnyan strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. In reporting recent middle-class protests against Putin’s “corrupt, authoritarian and self-serving regime”, the author suggests that Putin’s opponent, rising star Navalny has himself shown signs of developing a personality cult, including an aggressive stance and the favouring of questions from supporters, as if this somehow weakens criticisms of “the Putin mystique”.
One of Putin’s reactions to the recent backlash has been to align himself more closely with the Church, a respected institution since its recent revival. This may explain the harsh crackdown on “Pussy Riot”, the girl band who performed their blasphemous anti-Putin ditty in a Moscow Cathedral.