Russia's rebound: How Putin became a worldwide brand
By ANTON TROIANOVSKI | The Washington Post | Published: July 13, 2018
MOSCOW — In Vladimir Putin's push to build Russia's global influence, one of his most potent weapons is his own image.
Two decades of efforts by Kremlin specialists have chiseled an international icon of inscrutability and might out of a former municipal bureaucrat who wore ill-fitting suits. Russia's allure no longer revolves around Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy; today, the attraction centers on a squinting, clenched-jawed and occasionally shirtless president.
When Putin ascended to leadership on New Year's Eve in 1999, he was succeeding an aging Boris Yeltsin in running a country that had yet to find a sense of direction after the Soviet collapse.
"We intensified Putin's mystery on purpose," said political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky, a key architect of Putin's public persona until he feuded with and cut ties to the Kremlin in 2011.
In a weak state, Pavlovsky said, "you need to create an image of power."
The Russian president's stone-faced visage on TV screens and in Instagram memes channels the world's grievances — against the United States and political establishments in general. He deploys a finely tuned likeness signaling decisiveness and strength that has taken on a life of its own in social media and pop culture. He is keenly aware of the power of images and has excelled in the tough-guy photo ops his team has been staging since the first months of his presidency.
In the United States, in Europe and across the developing world, Putin's brand recognition has given Russia the sheen of a force to be reckoned with anew — and approval ratings that in many countries are growing.
The Putin ethos gives Russia political drawing power that overcomes language barriers, national borders and criticism in the mainstream news media in the West. It bolsters the country among populist politicians and their supporters — from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, in Europe's far right and in the White House in Washington — and provides Moscow a point of entry into the politics of other nations.
Putin was the world's first modern "strongman," his longtime spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview, specifying that he saw that word in a positive light.
In Halle, Germany, a right-wing activist and printing entrepreneur named Sven Liebich has sold thousands of Putin T-shirts, the most popular one featuring a smirking, sunglasses-wearing Russian president, his head Photoshopped onto a muscular, tattooed torso, giving the viewer the finger.
"It's about the hope for change," Liebich said, explaining the draw of his top seller. "Perhaps, really, the yearning for a savior or a liberator."
On Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, lined with bookshops and sidewalk vendors, Nouri al-Sultan, 73, said he has been selling out of books on Putin for two years.
The demand, he said, stems from a fascination with a Russian leader who is seen as strong and decisive and whose policies challenge the status quo of "injustice by America in Iraq and Syria."
"He has charisma, and his characteristics are beautiful," Sultan said.
In Western countries, Putin is a threat to many but a thrilling rallying point for a growing anti-establishment minority. In developing countries, the narrative of a resurgent Russia after the chaos of the 1990s is compelling to broad swaths of society.
In 22 of the 36 countries polled in 2017 by the Pew Research Center, Putin was seen more favorably than President Donald Trump. In a Gallup World Poll, global approval of Russia's leadership, while still low at 27 percent, has inched up every year since 2014 — and now trails the U.S. approval rating by just three percentage points.
Peskov said he believed that "people around the world are tired of leaders that are all similar to each other.
"There's a demand in the world for special, sovereign leaders, for decisive ones who do not fit into general frameworks and so on. Putin's Russia was the starting point."
Then came Xi Jinping in China, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. "There's getting to be more of them all over the world," Peskov said. "Trump in America, too."
Trump will meet Putin for their first official one-on-one summit Monday in Helsinki. The U.S. president's open admiration of Putin as strong and decisive represents one of the greatest success stories of the Kremlin's image-making, said Richard Stengel, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama administration.
Public-diplomacy officials in Moscow are probably "feeling pretty good" about what they have achieved, Stengel said.
The success of the Putin brand has captivated anti-establishment and anti-American politicians all over the world, as well as many people who don't follow politics. The image-making has grown in sophistication, but it has long left room for local perceptions and imagination to fill in some of the blanks.
In Indonesia, for instance, conservative forces - Islamists, the old top brass and nationalist hawks — are trying to topple the country's relatively liberal president, Joko Widodo, in next year's election. In March, one prominent member of that conservative faction, congressional deputy speaker Fadli Zon, posted on Twitter about just what kind of president Indonesia needs instead.
"If Indonesia wants to rise to victory, we need a leader like Vladimir Putin: brave, visionary, intelligent, authoritative," Zon said. He made it clear he was talking about Prabowo Subianto, the former general and son-in-law of dictator Suharto whom many establishment figures see as their preferred presidential candidate.
In the Middle East, Putin stands for an alternative to American hegemony, transcending sectarian divisions. Wajih Abbas, a newly minted Iraqi lawmaker for a fiercely anti-American Shiite militia, popularized Putin starting in 2015 by praising him for Russia's Syria intervention and calling him "Abu Ali" — father of Ali, Shiite Islam's most revered figure.
In Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, a 40-year-old woman named Nguyen Thi Lan said she knew nothing about Russia's internal political dynamics - but she already knew all she needed to know about its president, based on what she saw on TV.
"You just look at him, at the way he walks and carries himself, and you can tell he's a true leader," Nguyen said as her two sons played soccer. "I get the sense that he talks straight, unlike our politicians in Vietnam. And I admire his athletic abilities, you know, the martial arts, his riding horses."
As he entered the national stage, the script called for a Putin who was young, strong and a bit enigmatic — playing up his tenure at the KGB in the 1980s rather than his years in the corruption-and-crime-tinged city government of St. Petersburg in much of the 1990s. Six days before the March 2000 presidential election, Putin flew to Chechnya in the co-pilot's seat of a fighter jet.
"He was a quick learner," Pavlovsky recalled. "He was like a talented actor who reads the script but does much more than is written in it."
In the ensuing months, Putin would also be pictured arm wrestling, riding a horse and practicing judo. According to Pavlovsky, the pictures soon ceased to be just about strengthening the new president's brand at home. They began to turn him into an action hero fit for a globalized world — giving him an image that could overcome barriers of language and culture just as American movies do.
"The main thesis was that Putin corresponds ideally to the Hollywood image of a savior-hero," Pavlovsky said. "The world watches Hollywood — so it will watch Putin."
As Russia's ties with the West deteriorated, the action-figure image took on added meaning. Washington became the target of Putin's toughness. In the wake of the Iraq War and the global financial crisis, the Kremlin saw Putin becoming a symbol channeling global grievances against American influence.
In February 2007, Putin laid out the intellectual case for a "multipolar" world in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. His pop-culture fame helped that message resonate beyond the foreign-policy establishment. That summer, the Kremlin first published an image of Putin shirtless — strolling along the gravel banks of a Siberian river in army boots and camouflage pants, a cross around his neck.
"Putin's projected persona is somebody who is committed to a strong Russia as a player on the global stage, who, essentially, talks a language of multipolarity," said Siddharth Varadarajan, who is the former editor of Indian newspaper the Hindu and now runs the news outlet the Wire. That resonates in India, he said, "because we feel the world doesn't take us seriously."
Actual physical strength is core to the Putin brand. A Russian state TV biopic this year included shots set to dramatic string music of Putin at weight machines, with former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder describing his friend's "enormous fitness program." He adds with admiration, "I can't keep up."
Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, an influential group of Russian foreign-policy experts, noted that Putin "does look great for his age."
"For people with aesthetic taste, this is rather repulsive," Lukyanov said of the official photographs of a shirtless Putin. "But I have to say it's effective."
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman who has worked with Putin since 2000, denies that his staff engages in any artificial image-making. He rejected Pavlovsky's contention that Putin's action-hero image was targeted at an international audience. Putin is truly a lover of sports and nature, Peskov said, and by publishing images of the president vacationing shirtless, the Kremlin is simply responding to the overwhelming interest in how he spends his time.
The Kremlin discerns a bit of envy, as well, on the part of the American president. "I think that if he could walk around bare-chested," Peskov said of Trump, "he would walk around bare-chested."
Putin's backers say his image is so powerful that it can reach the general public directly, even in countries in which the news media is often critical of him. Case in point, according to a December report by the Center for Politics Analysis, a pro-Kremlin think tank — the shirtless Putin regularly portrayed on "Saturday Night Live" by cast member Beck Bennett.
"The image of a macho Putin is used actively on American humor shows when Russia comes up," the report says. "However the Russian president doesn't at all look stupid in them, unlike Trump, who usually comes across as a bumbling fool."
Liebich, the German T-shirt maker, first started printing Putin shirts during the Ukraine crisis in 2014, which some Germans saw as a U.S.-fomented conflict aimed at sparking a wider war between Russia and Europe. But after Ukraine receded from the headlines, the demand for Putin T-shirts continued, Liebich said. Critics of Chancellor Angela Merkel's acceptance of refugees saw Putin as someone who would have acted differently, because he "speaks in the interest of his people."
"The press tells us that Putin is evil, and people are starting to realize that we are being lied to," Liebich said. "They hear that Putin is evil, so he must be good."
Liebich was wearing one of his Putin shirts on a recent afternoon when a taxi pulled up in front of his workshop to pick up a passenger. The driver, 47-year-old Uwe Hennicke, jumped out of his car.
"How much is one of those T-shirts?" he shouted over to Liebich. "That thing is truly great."
Hennicke is an unabashed fan.
"He likes to do these dangerous sports - I mean, he does basically everything," he said. "The Americans are the real threat. When I look at Trump, I see someone who could become provocative and dangerous."
In May, 30 percent of Germans described Russia as a trustworthy partner, compared with 25 percent who said the same of the United States, according to a poll by Infratest Dimap.
The trend is similar in many other parts of Europe and the wider world, where polls have registered a turn away from the United States and toward Russia.
In Slovakia and Hungary, Putin is more popular than Trump, Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron. Italy's new deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has posed in a Putin T-shirt in Red Square. Martin Nejedly, one of the top advisers to Czech Republic President Milos Zeman, was photographed in 2015 with a cellphone case bearing an image of the Russian leader staring out from behind sunglasses.
"Putin's been a hit," said Michal Holas, a 56-year-old worker at a novelty store selling custom-made shirts at a central shopping district in Prague. "Even more than Einstein or Marilyn Monroe."
The Washington Post's Tamer El-Ghobashy in Baghdad, Vincent Bevins in Hanoi and Jakarta, and Griff Witte in Prague contributed to this report.
T-shirt seller and right-wing activist Sven Liebich holds a screen-printing frame of Putin in Halle, Germany, in June 2018.
CHARLOTTE SCHMITZ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST