Vladimir Putin’s public image has taken many forms since New Year’s Eve in 1999, when he first assumed the presidency. In the West, Putin is known best for his cult of ultra-machismo, which the Kremlin has propagated tirelessly with photos of the President engaged in manly physical activities, like shirtless horseback riding, martial arts, airplane piloting, and so on. Superhero antics aside, the political appeal of masculine strength is very real for Russians, millions of whom still remember the destitution and humiliation suffered in the 1990s.
Ask the struggling autoworkers of one of Russia’s monotowns, or the human rights activists in Moscow, and you’ll find that poverty and embarrassment haven't disappeared. But many Russians – indeed, the vast majority, according to pollsters – are riding the euphoria of international triumphs in Crimea, Syria, China, and elsewhere. Patriotism is booming in Russia, and Putin’s strenuous life is available to anyone.
Now you can even own the Putin t-shirt. Collect all fifteen!
Last week, designers Anna Trifonova and Ivan Yershov opened a kiosk in a shopping mall outside Red Square, selling the Putin t-shirts as a part of the AnyaVanya clothing line. With each shirt priced at roughly $35, Trifonova and Yershov sold their entire stock – 5 thousand shirts – on the first day of business. People lined up to buy the Putin swag.
Trifonova said that the shirts were inspired by Russia’s “latest victories” on the international stage, including the Winter Olympics, the absorption of Crimea, and Russia’s victory in the World Hockey Championship.
Russia’s pro-government media welcomed the apparent success of the Putin t-shirts, covering the story as sure proof of the President’s enduring popularity. The Guardian’s Shaun Walker has noted, however, that outlets like the notoriously pro-Putin Lifenews seem more invested in promoting the fashion craze than understanding public opinion. Publications like NTV, Russia-1, and Lifenews reported on the demand for the Putin shirts without irony, though many Russians, online at least, find the spectacle to be quite absurd.
Writing on LiveJournal, blogger Andrey Malgin highlighted some of the pro-Kremlin excesses of Russian media reports by reproducing a few choice excerpts.
Путин в очках, на коне, в форме или на пляже. Кому какой больше нравится. Здесь же чехлы для телефонов. Сюжет тот же.
– Все понравилось, и Путин нравится больше всех.
За модными обновками выстроились и иностранцы — немцы, итальянцы, французы.
То, что сделано на родине, пришлось по душе и московским модницам. Louis Vuitton и Prada сменили на Путина и “made in Russia”.
Putin in glasses, on a horse, looking fit, or standing on a beach. Whatever you like best. Here are some cell phone cases. The story is all the same.
“I liked everything, and I like Putin most of all.” Even foreigners are lining up for the new clothes. Germans, Italians, the French. A homemade product has captured the hearts of Moscow’s posh dressers. Louis Vuitton and Prada have been swapped out for Putin and “made in Russia.”
Malgin’s readers, most of whom are committed opponents of the Kremlin, were not so happy about Putin’s face launching a clothing craze. Many comments were quite scathing.
I want to hope that at least one of these shirts was bought for a public burning.
This is nothing new. Russia continues to go around in circles. Later, they’ll denounce [Putin’s] cult. Next they’ll repent. And then they’ll create a new one.
The hysteria is picking up steam.
If Malgin's readers are correct that Russia is doomed to repeat its infatuation with strong leaders, one wonders what form the next president's swag might take. Perhaps Putin's successor can sell his voice to tomorrow's turn-by-turn guidance systems, steering future Russians down streets paved with gold….