Sovereign Democratic Realism

2003849206Via Scott Yorke’s excellent Imperator Fish, pics of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Siberian vacation photo-op.

The wider photoset (you’ll have to google around for all the photos, since each website only contains part of the set) is a strong statement of Russia’s new national identity as a fit, keen, ruggedly independent nation which is the master of its own destiny, answerable to nobody. Vladimir Putin idealises Russia as it wants to see itself.

The wider campaign propagandises Putin’s adopted doctrine of Sovereign Democracy, essentially ‘we call our system democracy, so democracy it is’. It fetishises Putin’s personal capability and authority; his command over nature, his idolisation by ordinary Russians (even those thousands of miles from Moscow), his statesmanship. Closely resembling what I/S calls Heinlein’s psychopathic frontier barbarism, Putin rides horses, treks in the mountains, fishes in a wild river, pilots a fast boat, builds a fire, helps rescue a beached whale, comforts an Ingushetian politician injured in a suicide bombing, works in a metallurgists’ plant, gives orders as to a train crash, visits a political youth camp, meets Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow, and shares tea with the locals. All with the cameras in attendance (and in some cases, with the sound guy in-shot – no attempt at pretending it’s not a propaganda exercise).

There has been much speculation as to the import of this photoset, ranging from the suggestion that, by appearing bare-chested in the outdoors on a holiday with the Prince of Monaco, Putin is sending a signal of tolerance about homosexual rights, referencing Brokeback Mountain. The semi-official spin, naturally, is that it’s simply a demonstration that Putin knows how to relax – a signal that he will retire peaceably at the end of his second term as Prime Minister.

I am not so convinced. This lays the groundwork for a perpetuation of Putin’s role as Russia’s eminent statesman of the 21st Century, and in a much more subtle and compelling way than either Hugo Chávez or Manuel Zelaya’s clumsy attempts at circumventing constitutional term-limits. The key to sovereign democracy is its illusory consent – the appeal to Russian independence, strength, unity and capability which Jonathan Brent and others have argued (audio) present the danger of sliding back to a new form of Stalinism, even with the support of those who would suffer under such a system. This is a strong warning to Dmitry Medvedev, who has criticised ‘sovereign democracy’ as a form of authoritarian doublespeak, and to the Russian people that if a ‘real’ leader is needed, one exists. Former KGB officer Putin, here, is presenting himself as another Man of Steel.


13 thoughts on “Sovereign Democratic Realism

  1. You managed to get Putin, Heinlein, Brokeback Mountain and political symbolism into a single post – how do you do that?! :)

  2. Gosh, that was a headful. And here I was thinking that it was just more Putnin vanity shots. Oh–you forgot to mention his shooting a tiger (which clearly represents an ascendent China moving to eclipse Russia in its own woods, thereby precipitating the lethal response of Father bear (Putnin) in defense of his brood. Or may be not).

  3. Putin, here, is presenting himself as another Man of Steel.

    lol – he’ll have to work on his pectoral definition a wee bit more then :-)

    Still – i wouldn’t want that guy standing behind me with a garrote

  4. Anita, and Scott made a James Bond reference. I was trying to figure a way of horning Harry Potter in there, too, but it didn’t fit. Oh – and I forgot to include: Meeting Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow. Edited in now :)

    Pablo, you’re onto something there. Putin’s next outing: eagle-hunting in the southern Caucasus.


  5. Roger, according to the linked article, there’s now the Putin Workout, so all fiftysomething Russians can emulate their superhuman leader in form, as well as ambition!


  6. I note only two things

    1. it’s an example of hope to Russian society given that half of the men are dead by Putins age. In that sense an example of maintaining one’s health.

    This presumably is supposed to be a metaphor of a nascent Russian recovery.

    2. it is also posing Putin in a Presidential way and thus suggestive that a continuing role for him in leadership of Russia is somehow vital to their future.

    The reinforcing point is declaring their “soveriegn democracy” to built around Putins own leadership (worthy to rule and to reign as a meritocrat). Possibly it’s about being post Tsar and post Party, where leadership is still valued but premised on what Russians find to be of merit, rather than western sensibility form or substance.

  7. SPC, the point about the health of Russian men ia a really good one – and a stark change from Yeltsin, indeed. Notwithstanding Nicolas Sarkozy’s post-lunch drunkenness, Putin’s reputation as sober and clean-living is important to this idealised conception of what it is to be a Russian man.

    And, of course, the fact that when he does drink he can handle it. (I’ve drunk with Russians, and I don’t recommend it).


  8. It looks like the cult of personality to me. Putin is moving away from mortal men and becoming more superhuman, more distant, yet paradoxically also closer, more human.

    I wonder if he has delivered any miracles yet?

  9. Expert fisherman, horse whisperer, champion swimmer, speedboat racer… Putin is the all round action hero.

    I said in my blog that maybe he was auditioning for the next Bond, but I think he’d be more appropriate as the bad guy.

    “And now you must die, Mr Bond,” [imagine a thick Russian accent]

  10. Marty, yes – the cult of Putin is one of the things which indicates a return to the old ways, for me (and for Brent). It’s cosmetically similar (though the actions differ) to the deification of Kims Il-sung and Jong-il,l with the difference that it’s not obviously made-up stuff like making a dozen holes-in-one on a golf course. And then there’s the reimposition of state censorship of history texts and such things as well.

    Scary. But I think if NZ had a politician with half Putin’s chutzpah (and I was speaking to a colleague in Australia, who says it’s the same there) we’d probably respond similarly.


  11. Does he look good in in a flight suit? Or clear brush in the heat of a Texas summer? :-/

    This is a strong warning to Dmitry Medvedev, who has criticised ’sovereign democracy’ as a form of authoritarian doublespeak, and to the Russian people that if a ‘real’ leader is needed, one exists.

    It’s a doozy of a phrase all right. Has that ‘national socialism’ vibe of each word sort of robbing the other of its meaning so that you are not really sure what it means.

    I wonder if the Russian for sovereign has the same history with regard to the monarchy.

    Saw a surprisingly interesting doco on the box a while back, “Pulling John”, about professional arm wrestling of all things. One of the challengers for the crown is a Russian. There’s a great sequence of him holidaying with the extended family back in his home village. At the time I was struck by how it all seemed a bit 90’s survivalist Montana, but with a ‘National Greatness’ motif rather than the ‘Sovereign Citizen’ one the US militia prefer. Those Putin in the wild shots give a better context. Those guys will lap this stuff up.

    There’s a bit of the flavour in the preview.

  12. PB, it’s the same words rendered in Cyrillic, with more or less the same etymology as in English.

    Has that ‘national socialism’ vibe of each word sort of robbing the other of its meaning so that you are not really sure what it means.

    Yes! This was the thing I couldn’t quite put my finger on about these terms. Thanks.


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