Vladimir Putin has grown into a Russian hero – so where does he go from here?
Dr Jenny Mathers, Department of International Politics
22 January 2020
Writing in The Conversation, Dr Jenny Mathers from the Department of International Politics looks at Vladimir Putin’s role in Russian politics over the past 20 years through the lens of heroism, to see whether this helps us to understand why many Russians might be reassured if he continues to be in charge behind the scenes:
Vladimir Putin has proposed a number of changes to Russia’s constitution that would pave the way for him to retain his grip on political power even after he is due to step down as president in 2024. These amendments would diminish the presidency while strengthening other institutions, such as the State Council, creating alternative roles that Putin could occupy for an indefinite period.
The surprising part of this story is not that Putin might seek to extend his hold on political power, but that the proposal allowing him to do so has so far met with so little opposition. In fact, within days of making his announcement, Putin met with Russian veterans of the second world war who criticised the imposition of term limits on the presidency and urged him to stay on in the Kremlin regardless.
But by looking at Putin’s role in Russian politics over the past 20 years through the lens of heroism, which is a focus of my research, it’s easier to understand why many Russians might be reassured if he continues to be in charge behind the scenes.
Research into politics and heroism reveals an important role for heroes and stories about heroes in constructing and sustaining political communities. Societies need heroes – larger than life figures who embody traits that the society admires and wants to be associated with. National heroes are rallying points that can help hold a country together, especially in times of uncertainty and crisis. Heroes remind a society where they have come from, where they are going and why that journey is important.
When Putin first became Russian president, he didn’t look like promising hero material. An archetypal grey man, operating in the shadows, Putin had been a mid-ranking officer in the KGB, the Soviet security service. He then worked for the mayor of St Petersburg before former president Boris Yeltsin appointed him to several posts of national importance in quick succesion: first to head the security services, then as prime minister and finally as acting president before he won his first presidential election in March 2000.
The Kremlin public relations machine quickly seized on Putin’s hobby of judo, his interest in outdoor pursuits and his avoidance of alcohol to craft an action man image for the new president. The emphasis on Putin the athlete and outdoors man quickly developed a distinctly macho dimension, with the president increasingly displaying exaggerated masculine traits and frequently appearing in photographs without his shirt.
The early years of Putin’s presidency saw the emergence of a leadership cult, complete with demonstrations of reverence for places he had visited and objects he had touched. But as time went on, the practice of investing Putin’s ordinary actions with greater significance was replaced by the staging of increasingly spectacular stunts.
It was no longer enough for Putin only to do what other leaders did, such as visit the site of an archaeological excavation and view the discoveries. Instead, Putin put on a wet suit, went into the sea and emerged with the artefacts himself. Rather than just make a speech praising the efforts of scientists to preserve wildlife in Russia, Putin led endangered cranes in their migration by flying a hang glider.
Fulfilling a role
National heroic figures fill a society’s need for guidance and reassurance in times of transition. The coming to power of a heroic leader can signal major political change. We saw this vividly with Nelson Mandela at the end of apartheid in South Africa and Vaclav Havel at the fall of Communist Party rule in Czechoslovakia. Both men were respected for suffering persecution under their country’s old regimes and taking on the task of building new forms of governance.
Putin’s heroic leadership, by contrast, is based on his ability to make bold demands and take decisive action for the benefit of his country. The emphasis on his physical vigour, especially at the beginning of his presidency, created a dramatic contrast to his ailing predecessor Yeltsin, regarded by many Russians as presiding over their country’s decline.
As Moscow asserts itself more confidently on the world stage, Putin’s commanding presence symbolises Russia’s return to great power status. Would Russia be taken as seriously if it were led by someone else? As one senior Russian official put it a few years ago: “No Putin – no Russia”.
With the end of Putin’s time as president approaching, the ground is being prepared for a shift in the heroic narrative, alongside changes in the institutional arrangements of Russian politics. Recent opinion polls indicate a decline in Putin’s popularity, which is attributed to dissatisfaction with the government’s economic policies and standards of living. Many observers believe that Putin will choose a new role that allows him to distance himself from domestic politics – and the criticism that comes with trying to solve the problems that affect people’s everyday lives – and focus more on foreign policy.