The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Putin phenomenon

September 6, 2007

I find it difficult sometimes to adequately explain to Americans Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Russia. We get media stories about Putin’s tightening hold on media and political freedoms, and Americans automatically assume that the Russian people must resent this creeping dictatorship.

Yet Putin is highly popular, with poll numbers achieved only by American presidents in the aftermath of a major crisis. His positives consistently rank in the high 70s–his disapproves are lower than Bush’s approval rating.

Some of Putin’s popularity is easy to explain: Russia is a richer and less chaotic place that it was during the Yeltsin years. High energy prices mean that the government is flush with cash, and salaries and pensions are paid. Putin has also inaugurated a more “muscular” foreign policy, attempting to reassert Russian interests not only in the near-abroad (the former Soviet empire), but in Europe and beyond. This graphic from the BBC’s Russia profile gives a nutshell picture of this side of things.

But it’s not just the economy, stupid. There is much, much more to it. Although Americans have an image of Yeltsin as the man who brought down Communism, in Russia he was widely perceived as a buffoonish drunk, with some justification.

And this is the key to the other part of Putin’s popularity. Not only is Putin a teetotaling technocrat–he’s a manly man. A sex symbol. He’s got his own personality cult–the sort that is not usually devoted to politicians in America. He’s even got a catchy pop song devoted to him: Takogo Kak Putin (Someone Like Putin), in which a female vocalist sings about how her boyfriend was a lousy drunk so she threw him out, and now what she really needs is a strong man like Putin. It’s all rather mind-boggling. Presumably the ex-boyfriend is Yeltsin and the singer herself is a stand-in for Russia in a time of need.

(This is just a clip–an mp3 of the full song is here.)

There are downsides, though, to looming large in the national psyche: back in 2003, when the film “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” was released, there was a big flap about an alleged resemblance between Putin and Dobby, the computer-generated house elf. I’m afraid that I find it hard to believe that the character designers had Putin in mind when they were working up Dobby, despite the unfortunate coincidence their respective appearances. So, with that in mind, do watch this delightful clip.

(To fully appreciate the Dobby video, make sure you watch the other clip first.)

Dobby video via Siberian Light

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