It’s August, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been to Tuva — the place where he is usually photographed shirtless. The slow news cycle certainly accounts for some of the attention that the latest Kremlin-released photo session has received from global media. But something else accounts for most of it: Putin’s incredible success as a troll.
Not just the paparazzi-loving tabloids published whole photo galleries from the selection: The New York Times, the Washington Post and Time did, too. Few heads of state could boast of similar success with their government news products. The achievement is especially impressive given that Putin was already photographed shirtless in the South Siberian region on the Mongolian border in 2007 and 2009 (on another fishing trip to the region, in 2013, it was probably too cold for the shirt to come off, but Putin still got the social networks excited by kissing a large pike he’d caught).
All of Putin’s famous shirtless pictures — on horseback, pole-fishing, swimming the butterfly stroke — come from vacations in Tuva, the birthplace of his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The region’s natural beauty and remoteness — no one can see him who’s not supposed to — appear to bring out a kind of macho, outdoorsy romanticism in the pale-skinned St. Petersburg native, who’s lived in big cities his whole life. But why does the Kremlin keep publishing the photos, and why do the global media lap them up so?
The obvious answer to the first question is that Putin is selling his impressive physique — particularly for a man of 65 with a sedentary job — to the domestic audience. As safe as he may feel about the 2018 election, which will be a mockery of democracy like many before it, he seems interested in convincing voters that he remains the virile man who took over the government some 17 years ago. Indeed, there’s no sign of physical deterioration in the latest photos compared with the 2007 one, at least according to MK, the Moscow tabloid. On Sunday, it compared Putin sarcastically to Indiana Jones, concluding wryly, “How can one not vote for such a torso?”
But then, both Putin and his press service know that Russians, even the majority who aren’t opposed to Putin, will take the images with a grain of salt. They usually cause outbreaks of hilarity on the social networks; many of the jokes and memes are unflattering (my favorite one from the latest batch has Putin preparing to dive into an enormous muddy puddle on the edge of some Russian city, with school kids wading nearby, up to their ankles in water). Even official publications often join the fun. After Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said Putin had chased this year’s Tuva pike for two hours before spearing it, the Russian government’s newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, teased the news on Twitter with a collage of sprinter Usain Bolt with a pike’s head.
Even Russia’s fishing enthusiasts, of which there are many, didn’t hesitate to call Putin an amateur for a number of reasons: chasing a fish is not the best tactic; a pike is best taken with a pole, not a spear; that Putin’s catch was smallish; and that his underwater swimming technique left much to be desired.
Putin isn’t impressing too many Russians with these exploits, not with his hockey goal-scoring prowess nor with his carefully staged judo displays. Russians are used to leaders presenting themselves as superhuman in various ways; I was raised on stories about how Vladimir Lenin’s brain had a different physical structure that made his extraordinary level of genius possible. A near-universal sarcastic attitude toward this kind of deification has survived the Soviet era and persists today. Putin doesn’t run Russia on the basis of a personality cult, but rather by force and cunning. The Kremlin doesn’t publish the pictures in an attempt to create such a cult: It’s done so before and it knows the tepid domestic effect.
It appears increasingly likely that the Kremlin comes out with the macho imagery mainly for Western audiences’ sake. They appear to be fascinated by shirtless Putin, and Western media use the images for years to illustrate stories about the Russian president; even the most sycophantic pro-Kremlin media have stopped recycling the 2007 and 2009 pictures.
There’s a song about Putin on Randy Newman’s latest album, with lyrics that go:
And when he takes his shirt off,
He drives the ladies crazy.
When he takes his shirt off,
Makes me wanna be a lady.
That’s irony, of course, but a very different kind from those memes in Russia. Westerners don’t think of Putin preparing to dive into a car-sized pothole filled with water. They appear to be mesmerized by what they see as a display of machismo and bad taste, but also bad-boy physical power. The images reinforce Putin’s image as the man Western media love to hate. At any rate, that’s what it looks like to people who run the Kremlin propaganda machine.
“I read the NYT report about Putin’s vacation,” Margarita Simonyan, head of the propaganda channel RT, tweeted. “It’s love, of course. A frustrated, angry kind. Because it’s unrequited.”
I doubt that too many Americans are interested in comparing muscular Putin with nearly-obese Donald Trump, who eats junk food and likes to ride in a golf cart even on the green. After all, Americans who like Putin mainly voted for Trump. But Russia’s communication with the Western world is not about creating an attractive image. It’s about mockery and trolling. A shirtless Putin in dark glasses, floating in the middle of a remote Siberian lake, is not a guy who cares much about U.S. Congress’ latest sanctions. While U.S. intelligence services worry about Russian spear-phishing as a way of getting into American networks, Putin spear-fishes for pike.
Western media don’t have to play along. But it’s August — and perhaps there’s a little of that unrequited love. Come on, colleagues, you can do better than that — how about a spread of Angela Merkel’s holiday pictures? Putin doesn’t need any more propping up.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.