The Making of Brand Putin

All this exposure, even if it means ridicule, is part of Putin’s master plan to maintain Russia as a superpower—and himself as its superhero.

Aleexy Druzhinin/AFP/Getty

Long before there was Obama Girl, there was Putin Girl. Or, rather, Putin Girls.

It’s 2002. Two women—part of a Russian pop duo “Singing Together” —come on screen, dancing to a catchy electro-pop beat. “My boyfriend is in trouble again, got in a fight got drunk on something nasty,” they sing in Russian. No, they say, instead of their intoxicated deadbeat boyfriend, they want someone…someone like Putin.

One like Putin, full of strength

One like Putin, who wont be a drunk

One like Putin, who wouldnt hurt me

One like Putin, who wont run away!

In what winds up being a bizarre cross between a pop anthem and a Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man In The World” commercial, the video for “Takogo Kak Putin” (translated as “A Man Like Putin”) features footage of Putin taking out an opponent in judo and standing with the Queen of England, interspersed with a Putin look-alike calling up then-President Bush and presumably engaging in very important diplomatic conversations.

Russian songwriter Alexander Yellin, the man behind “Takogo Kak Putin,” told Public Radio International in 2012 that he may have written "A Man Like Putin" as light satire, but it wasn't taken that way. Vladimir Putin made it his anthem and even played it at rallies.

To an American audience, a song about why the nation’s leader would make an ideal husband would be viral Internet joke at most, hardly an official piece of campaign propaganda. After all, Obama himself was reportedly unenthused about his own “Obama Girl” in 2007, and though he’s never shied away from showcasing celebrity glitz and glamour on the trail (see: Katy Perry’s sequined “Forward” dress), he’s not exactly leaking shirtless photos of himself to the press.

Yet Putin’s time as Russia’s leader has been full of all manner of attempts to position Putin as the ultimate man, whether it’s shirtless horseback expeditions or the (highly suspect) reports of larger-than-life behavior like rescuing people from tigers. While in the U.S. we may occasionally get Rick Perry shooting a coyote while going on a jog or the stars of Predator becoming Governors in two different states, efforts to build a tough-guy action-hero brand in American politics are typically much, much more subtle than Putin’s.

Now, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics have put Vladimir Putin at the center of the global stage. He has come under great fire from the West for his assault on the free press and dissent, his support for a who’s-who list of oppressive world leaders, and his backing of anti-gay laws. Many have noted that these Olympics are “Putin’s Olympics,” with Putin himself significantly, personally more associated with the Games than host nation leaders of the past. But what, exactly, is the point of all of this bizarre effort to build Brand PutinTM? What exactly does Putin want his nation—and the world—to think of him?

While “branding” may have started as a thoroughly Western concept built around consumerism and advertising, post-Soviet Russia has adopted it whole, even introducing the term into the language (in Russian it’s “брендинг,” pronounced brending). Julia Ioffe reported that after Pussy Riot’s release from prison, the first question they were asked by television host Ksenia Sobchak was “How much is your brand worth?”

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In Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, Dr. Helena Goscilo, Professor and Chair of the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University, writes of “Takogo Kak Putin”: “Consonant with Putin’s widespread reputation of ideal masculinity, by contrasting him with the presumed ‘average male,’ the lyrics reveal contemporary Russia’s ongoing crisis in gender identity, especially men’s disorientation and instability as vestiges of the blighted 1990s.” The song debuted in 2002, a year in which Putin was wildly popular and peaked at 82 percent job approval. Even today, though his approval has sagged to the low 60s, with alcoholism still widespread and fears that drops in oil prices will destroy a fragile Russian economy, it make sense that Putin would continue to try to position himself as an icon of stability, virtue, and protection in the midst of insecurity and chaos.

David Satter, Russia scholar and former Financial Times Moscow correspondent, also sees Putin aiming to portray himself as Russia’s Man of Steel, but notes that the image is a far cry from the man himself. “It’s all intended to convey the impression of Putin as a kind of Superman, and insofar as he is very far from that, it is all very artificially staged,” he said yesterday from London, where he has relocated following his recent expulsion from Russia. Surely, in the West, political leaders engage in staged photo-ops intended to convey a particular image. Yet for Putin, it goes further, for reasons rooted in the nation’s cultural history. “Russia has a tradition of personalizing everything,” says Satter. “It is natural to think of Russia as ‘Putin’s country’…there is that tendency already in the national psychology.”

How the world will think of Russia at the end of the Sochi games will be deeply linked to how the world thinks of Putin, in large part by his own design. This is Putin’s chance to show he is in command of a major world power and to bolster his brand as an icon of strength and stability.

But behind the Potemkin Village of Putin’s personal image, there is a nation of nearly 150 million people with a rich history and immense potential, badly in need of a leader who will give them the liberty to achieve it.