on hiding brushstrokes: putin and public image

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been soaking up every minute of his recent place at the forefront of the American press. Russia was instrumental in the international chemical weapons deal with  Syria that avoided President Obama’s plan to go to war, and Putin knows it. He loves it, almost as much as he loves homophobia and taking off his shirt.

Although difficult to believe, an even sexier portrait of Putin has made its appearance in the world by way of Russian artist Konstantin Altunin; sexier, that is, because the painting imagines Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as women in lingerie.

A visitor takes a picture of the artwork entitled "Travesty" by Altunin at an exhibition at the Muzei Vlasti in St. Petersburg

The painting debuted in a Russian museum exhibition in August along with a few other satirical renderings of Russian leaders, and it was shut down by authorities soon after it opened. Classic Putin, asserting total control over his public image.

Putin not only censors satire and criticism but attempts to dictate a narrative of his own public image by fabricating pretty outrageous events to confirm his identity as Mr. Manly Man. Besides obsessively losing his shirt during photo ops, his publicity stunts center on mastering unforgiving Mother Nature and her wildest creatures. He’s hugged and put a tracking meter on a tranquilized polar bear (he didn’t do the tranquilizing); symbolically re-released a caged leopard into the wild; shot darts at a gray whale to collect its skin samples for scientific research; reportedly saved a film crew from an escaped tiger by tranquilizing it (this feat was conveniently not captured on camera, despite the fact that his damsels in distress were a film crew); and (my personal favorite) led a flock of endangered Siberian cranes on their winter migration by boarding a motorized hang glider while dressed in a puffy white jumpsuit.


We can’t forget, of course, the great archeological incident sure to inspire even Indiana Jones in late 2011 when Putin went on a diving expedition in the Black Sea only to discover fragments of ancient Greek ceramic mugs. When critics stated the obvious statistical improbability of a few pieces of Greek artifacts laying in plain sight on the ocean floor for over 2,000 years, a spokesperson admitted that the discovery was a hoax. The fragments had been planted there.

Putin might be attempting to mold his Public Image into a superman powerhouse, but he’s clearly doing a terrible job. Public Image is a form of narrative. In fact, I understand public image through theory of the relationship between reader and writer in terms of stories. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s start with Roland Barthes, French literary theorist and critic and inspiration for the name of this blog*.  Barthes claimed that the author is dead. In fact, he named one of his most seminal essays “The Death of the Author,” published in 1968. Barthes thought that to assign one interpretation to a text based on the author’s intentional message is t0 limit its possibilities in meaning. Instead, readers impose a certain context upon the text, and thus the significance of the text changes with every reader. There is no longer a writer, but  a scriptor, who produces the content of the text, but not its meaning. The reader has the ultimate say in determining meaning.

Public image also has an author–for instance, I am the author of my own public image–but I cannot control the how people read my behavior and choices. Therefore, I can attempt to create a narrative for myself, but it is not entirely in my command. Moreover, I am a different person for different people, based on my various relationships with those people.

However, I attempt to create myself as well. My choice to wear a chambray button-up shirt underneath a black leather jacket is thought-out, every political tweet I send out is intentional, and what I choose to blog about has meaning both because I believe in its importance, but also to create a brand for myself as a writer. In the first season of Mad Men, Betty Draper tells her friend, “My mother always said, ‘You’re painting a masterpiece, make sure to hide the brush strokes.’”** I am working to paint a picture of the Kasia that I project to the world  with brushstrokes so tight that they can’t be deciphered. Ultimately, though, the world gets to interpret what I project.

Putin certainly thinks of himself as a masterpiece (though perhaps a masterpiece without lingerie), which is problematic considering that he is truly awful at hiding those brush strokes. His attempts at total control over peoples’ perception of him are painfully obvious and embarrassing, as he cannot control another party’s interpretation of him. He seems to be in total denial of the power of his observers (his readers, so to speak). Vladimir Putin is the selfie incarnate in human form, painstakingly edited to perfection and then tagged #nofilter.

And here’s the rub: Putin’s obsession with controlling his image has political consequences. His fear of association with anything effeminate or homosexual might not be the ultimate reason for the repression of gay rights in Russia, but the two are undoubtedly connected. In fact, the so-called “anti-gay propaganda law” in Russia is the reason that painter Altunin’s exhibition was shut down. It also compelled Altunin to flee St. Petersburg for France in order to seek asylum and avoid arrest.

“My wife is in tears and my 2-year-old child keeps asking where daddy is,” Altunin said. “What kind of PR can we talk about here? Of course, deputies simply have nothing better to do than close exhibits and confiscate pictures. This needs no further comment, really. Such a situation is possible only in Russia.”

Putin’s attempt to stifle any critical dialogue is not just some ideological or theoretical problem. It has very real material repercussions not only for Altunin’s family, but for the queer community who are stigmatized and denied rights, and for women–the fact that Putin was so disgusted at being rendered in a female body implies that women are somehow disgusting or of lesser value than men, which is a tacit but pervasive understanding of gender that carries a load of cultural weight.

In the end, positing public image as a form of narrative can be helpful in understanding the interplay between self and others, but it is also dangerous to suspend identity in the form of narrative or language. Narrative and politics are intertwined. Art and politics are intertwined. This investigation into Putin’s public image is not a push to promote a certain ideology, but to explore the nuances in the relationship between theory and materiality–nuances that Siberian crane leader and nightgown model Vladimir Putin just cannot seem to acknowledge.

*The Pleasure of the Grotesque is based on Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text.

**Betty Draper’s quote is used in a totally different historical context than my blog post does (she is ashamed of her anxiety and domestic problems, and attempts to hide them from the world). But, as a viewer of Mad Men, I’m appropriating the quote for my own reasons and interpreting it within the context of my post. See? Barthes in action!


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