Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been ready for his close-up all his political life, with not always flattering results. But his career as a cover boy slid again this month, with two satirical covers popping up on heavyweight magazines the Economist and the New Yorker.
“What better way to depict the Russian president’s predilection for self-promotional stunts, of which the winter Olympics in Sochi is merely the most prominent example?” chortled the Economist in an editor’s note.
The cover in question is slugged The triumph of Vladimir Putin, featuring a spandex-clad Vlad on an Olympic rink, arms raised for applause, while a female figure tagged “Russia” sits sprawled on cracked ice.
The New Yorker, twisting the satirical scalpel, shows a flirtatious Putin strutting his stuff in an ice-dancing costume and eye makeup, to an approving audience of Putin clones. That’s titled Jury of his Peers.
Of course this sort of thing isn’t new to Putin, whose skin is thinner than the ice on which the $50 billion Sochi effort is balanced.
Economist covers (among others) have pilloried him in the past, including one titled Russia Resurgent – with a Lenin-like Putin towering above a military parade while jets form up behind him, like a wartime Soviet propaganda poster. Then there’s the Rough Guide to Hell, with Putin engulfed in a bloody inferno along with ally Bashar Assad and bad hair icon Kim Jong-un against a Dante-like backdrop of ruin.
To toss his muscular machismo in his foes’ faces, Putin has fired back with a PR campaign that outdoes Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi for sheer flamboyance: tranquillizing tigers in the wilds, riding bare-chested through the tundra, throwing opponents on the judo mat and strapping into a hang-glider to “guide” Siberian cranes on their migratory path. (I could go on, but I’m out of breath.)
In the last election campaign, Putin’s spin doctors turned his KGB past into spy appeal, recruiting scantily clad “Bond girls” to buff his image. A song was composed for women who want a man “just like Putin.” He was even declared the “sexiest man in Russia.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
At home, of course, Putin gallops all over the opposition, jails dissidents, whistleblowers and environmentalists and presides over a regime that believes that with enough force, you really can fool all the people all of the time. Outside that Kremlin bubble, though, sometimes the people just can't resist making a fool of you.
Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union from 1992 to 2002 as a correspondent and bureau chief.