A recently aired documentary film about Vladimir Putin – “The President” – raises concerns that a new “cult of personality” is already starting to emerge within the Kremlin.
President Vladimir Putin attending the Second Media Forum of regional and local media. Photo: RIA Novosti
Even three years after the start of his third presidential term on May 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin never ceases to amaze those around him. In the eyes of some people, his image has begun to acquire the features of a demigod who has come down to earth to help mankind and make the world a more just place to live. Look no further than the new documentary film “The President,” which recently aired on Russian television.
This film is completely unrestrained, endlessly (a full two and a half hours without any commercial breaks!) glorifying the achievements of Russia’s national leader during his fifteen years in power. The four years during which Dmitry Medvedev was the president seems to have gone unnoticed by the filmmakers.
On screen, Putin succeeds in everything he undertakes, solving all problems, from the smallest details in a house (in one scene, he checks whether the radiator is properly heating a new building constructed for victims of a natural disaster), to international crises, in which the intervention of the Russian President is required to correct the errors of his inept and arrogant foreign counterparts (a role often filled by the President of the United States).
In the film, there is no criticism, and not even a hint of doubt that the course being pursued by the President was not only the right one, but also the only true path. The desire of the producers, it appears, was to present a gift to their dear leader in honor of the 15th anniversary of his “ascension to the throne.”
However, Putin’s personal involvement in the actual creation of this living television monument points to a deeper sense of what is really happening. In recent months, Putin has been very enthusiastic about participating in the genre of the “memoirs interview.” Recently discussed were his frank revelations to producers of another laudatory documentary film – “Crimea: Path to the Motherland.”
It is noticeable that he feels the most comfortable in this genre, answering questions with great interest and a twinkle in his eyes – as opposed to the once popular (but now looking rather uninspired) “Direct Line with the President,” which this year came off as quite boring and impersonal.
It seems that the “father of the nation” should, above all else, love to talk to his people about the actual current problems, while Putin, for some reason, prefers to talk with the producer of the movie “The President,” the hyper-loyal television presenter Vladimir Solovyov, about his memories of affairs of bygone days.
A footage from the documentary, "The President". Russian TV journalist Vladimir Solovyov interviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin seems to display the most positive emotions when he speaks about events in the tumultuous year 2014, which demonstrates one very important political fact – it seems that the Russian president really has no regrets about the decisions that he had made about Crimea or on other sensitive issues. He does not consider that sanctions and the quarrel with the West are a form of payback for certain misguided actions taken by the Russian leadership.
In the film “The President,” Putin again voiced the idea, which he has repeatedly expressed, and apparently, is gradually acquiring the status of an unquestionable truth (the very status, which classic Marxist-Leninists had during the days of the Soviet Union): “The sanctions are not a response to Crimea, but the traditional attempts by the West to contain Russia.”
Putin has convinced himself, and seeks to persuade the audience, that Russia has always experienced and will always be under pressure from the West. As a result, to set limits on Russia for the sake of earning the goodwill of the United States and Europe is pointless and counter-productive. It makes more sense to do what feels right and profitable, without worrying about the reaction of London or Washington.
The consistent implementation of this idea into practice destroys any hope of normalization of relations with the West. This normalization cannot happen in principle, says Putin, because it is contrary to the laws of history. At best, Russia and the West can count on forming temporary alliances to fight an external enemy, as was the case during the Second World War or after September 11, 2001.
Then again, it is very telling that the producers of the film “The President” have no plans to surprise the audience with some fresh ideas from Putin.
During 2014, Putin appeared on TV as an ideologue of the new Russian foreign policy. In his speeches, he talked much about the crisis of the West, the inevitable cooling of relations with the U.S., a Europe tired of the dictates of the U.S., the need for further rapprochement between Russia and China, the value of conservative ideas, and above all, the political leadership of Russia as the only world power that dares to challenge American hegemony.
Many of the ideas that were expressed during 2014 were fresh and attractive. Thanks to them, the Russian President won the sympathy of Russian and international audiences.
However, in 2015, judging from the clearly noticeable desire to reflect back on “memoirs” during his appearances on television, Putin has either lost his ideological ardor or something has happened that has made him take time off from coming up with new political rationales. During more than 10 hours of answering questions in various formats during March and April 2015, the Russian President did not offer any new interpretations of contemporary international relations, or even adjust any positions expressed by him during 2014.
Of course, 2015 has not yet seen an event equal in scale to the events of the “Crimean Spring,” which has slowed down the process of formulating new ideas in Russian foreign policy. One should only rejoice from the reduced tensions, but the glorification that filled the “intellectual vacuum” amidst the 15th anniversary of Putin’s presidency (not so round a date, by the way) is very ominous.
Apparently, the predictions that were made by some historians and political scientists in the spring of 2014, in the wake of Crimean events, have been confirmed. Back then there was much talk that – having embarked on the path of strengthening Russia’s political position by means of territorial gains, and betting on the revival of the country’s imperial power from days of the past, the Russian president “burnt his bridges” and will now be forced to see it through to the end. Never in history has this path led anyone to anything good.
We see today that President Putin is laying his bets on the freezing of the Ukrainian conflict, and, perhaps quite sincerely, is hoping that no more major military operations will occur in Ukraine.
However if Putin’s approval ratings (now swollen to unimaginable heights) cannot be supported by the continuation of successful military operations, it will be necessary to maintain it in some other way, because Putin now simply will not be able to retain his power having an approval rating of 40-50 percent. That might be quite a decent level by Western standards, but he needs his 86 percent, and it does not matter at what cost.
The method to achieve this goal seems to have been chosen by Putin’s spin-doctors – the formation of a cult of personality for the national leader, an inclination that clearly exists in Russian political culture. Some chiefs of Russian media may even think that modern information technologies have paved the way for the formation of the “cult of personality 2.0,” which is easy to initiate and, if necessary, to nullify. In the interim, they hope, it could be enough to maintain the people’s enthusiasm at the right level.
However, most likely, these hopes are not well founded. The economic downturn and the ongoing external sanctions pressure suggest that any attempts to solve the age-old political problem (preventing imperial authoritarianism from turning into totalitarianism) via new media technologies are unlikely to be successful. This is especially true if the offering is not something new, but simply the return of the old cult of personality. This is a country, remember, that recently was proud of the fact that it was able to overcome the previous versions of this collective insanity.
If the “cult of personality 2.0” turns out to be a farce, we can soon expect a return to the old, tried and even dangerous ways of keeping a leader’s approval rating at 86 (and preferably 99) percent, which could overshadow the excessive zeal of broadcasters in their attempts to express universal love for the president.
If Putin will be able to prevent a new escalation of international tensions and maintain power despite the inevitable reduction of popular support to a reasonable level of 40-50 percent, he will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents. He would have been able to do something that no one was able to do before.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.