The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
MOSCOW — It’s not every day you see President Vladimir Putin with Joseph Stalin, taking a break and counting wads of cash in a Moscow café. So a walk through GUM, a popular department store in Moscow, on a weekday afternoon may well force a double take.
A few months into his new job as a Putin impersonator, Siberian native Valentin Sergeyev continues to turn heads. His Putin — complete with receding hairline, dapper black suit and trademark sunglasses — is the newest addition to a host of lookalikes posing with tourists on Red Square.
“People come to me to bare their problems and concerns. Just look at how they react,” he says, breaking off to pose with two Chinese tourists. “I am Putin for them. They thank me for returning Crimea and making Russia great again.”
In GUM, an elegant kiosk attracts a curious crowd. Black boxes of cologne decorated with the president’s profile stand neatly arranged in shiny glass cases. And below them are the words “Inspired by Vladimir Putin.”
Leaders Number One is the name for a limited release of 2,000 cologne bottles, produced in France and dedicated to the Russian president. A saleswoman, Ekaterina, says some 70 boxes have moved each day since the Dec. 23 release, at 6,500 rubles (about $83) each. A new shipment is on its way.
Putin, the former KGB officer who has effectively run Russia for the past 16 years, is everywhere these days. His sullen gaze follows you around Moscow, from T-shirts sold in patriotic clothing stores to iPhone cases displayed in kiosks that fill underground passages in the capital. His portrait hangs on walls in government buildings across the vast country, with some communities erecting monuments in his honor. “Words That Change the World” is a 400-page book of Putin quotes sent to members of the Federal Assembly as a new year’s gift from the Kremlin.
And GUM is not alone in cashing in and giving the presidential obsession a place to flourish.
At his small workshop in Moscow’s Kitai Gorod district, artist Andrei Budayev has been winding down since putting finishing touches on his latest batch of political calendars. He produced seven for 2016 — far more than for any prior year. Each depicts Putin as the hero in popular movies and Western leaders as a squabbling bunch who fall victim to his schemes.
Budayev reflects the popular view. While he insists his work has often been critical of Russia’s leaders — over 20 years, he has satirized most of its politicians — he says Putin’s latest actions, especially in Crimea, have earned the authoritarian president widespread respect.
He sees his artistic duty as supporting Russia in tough times. “There’s a war on, an economic and information war. At such a time, what choice can an artist have? I’m a patriot, and I’ve chosen my side.”
Events in Ukraine have boosted demand, but Budayev is unable to take full advantage. At 1,000 rubles each, his calendars are a luxury in economically trying times. To boot, they’re available only on his website. Despite their patriotic slant, he says, storekeepers are afraid to stock them.
Their fears are likely unfounded. Budayev and others may work without the state’s imprimatur, but their art embodies the self-confident image that the president and his handlers wish to project. Putin, plucked from obscurity to replace ailing President Boris Yeltsin in 1999, has gone out of his way to establish an imperious persona in a country with a history of authoritarian leadership. In carefully staged photo ops, Putin has been pictured riding horseback bare-chested in Siberia, testing weaponry developed by Russia’s vast military-industrial complex and overseeing tiger-tracking expeditions in the country’s far east. Official speeches have aided that macho image, with defiant pronouncements against a U.S.-led world order fueling support at home.
Putin has been known to oppose moves to tarnish his image. In 2002, Gazprom Media–owned NTV was forced to terminate its popular puppet show “Kukly” (“Dolls”) after one episode reimagined the president as Klein Zaches, an unsightly creature from a 19th century tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann. According to one of the show’s writers, Victor Shenderovich, the reportedly 5-foot-7 Putin took offense that attention was drawn to his short stature. “Kukly” was the last TV show to needle him in this way, and NTV fell under Kremlin control shortly thereafter.
To some critics, the Putin personality cult is similar — albeit in a much more limited way — to the one surrounding Stalin, the Georgian-born Soviet leader whose mustachioed visage was ubiquitous in the USSR. Frenzied devotion to him reached its peak in the 1930s, when Soviet press heralded him as the “omniscient father of nations” and children’s choirs marked his birthday on Red Square.
Putin has been largely silent on his growing presence in the Russian mind. In 2011 in an appearance before Western press when he was prime minister, he denied the existence of a personality cult in Russia and dismissed any comparisons with Stalin as inappropriate, AFP reported at the time.
Vasily Gatov, a Russian media critic, emphasizes a clear distinction between the two eras. He says, “Stalin was a symbol of both the proletariat’s hegemony and the USSR itself. He was as close to divinity as a living person can be. Putin’s aides, facing economic upheaval and polarization in society, are trying to replace political discourse with ideology. Today’s cult covers the regime’s weaknesses.”
For some, explicit endorsement of the new orthodoxy functions as a kind of insurance policy. According to Lev Kantor, the owner of a Moscow construction company with 95 employees on its books, a framed portrait of the president is a standard feature in company directors’ offices. Even if the person opposes Putin’s policies.
“It’s a sort of safety measure, in case the tax inspector or police come. And they can, at any moment,” he says. “Having Putin on your wall won’t get you off the hook, but it creates a certain atmosphere. It may just spare you that one extra uncomfortable question.”
Regardless, Putin continues to dominate the country’s public consciousness like no other, and the work of artists like Budayev is in sync with the zeitgeist.
As is Russia’s music industry. “My best friend is Vladimir Putin” is the refrain of a sycophantic hip-hop tune released by Timati, Russia’s most famous rapper, to coincide with Putin’s 63rd birthday, on Oct. 7. “The whole country is behind him. You know he’s a superhero,” raps Timati, who is half Tatar and half Jewish. “He’s the main man, so everything will go to plan.”
Timati, who has been photographed with Putin at official events, has given his blessing to another track extolling the president’s manly virtues. Since its release in mid-2014, “Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin” has catapulted AMG — Moscow-based Victor Matinyarare of Zimbabwe and Benson Aginga of Kenya — into the spotlight of Russia’s fledgling hip-hop scene. The two have lived in Russia since arriving as students in 2000; both attribute the positive change they’ve witnessed since then to the man at the helm.
In AMG’s video for the song, Putin is shown ascending the steps to the Kremlin’s Grand Palaceas Russian tanks course through the deserted streets of eastern Ukraine. A version with Russian subtitles has millions of YouTube views, suggesting AMG’s impact is largely confined to a domestic audience. It’s clear why: Aside from songs about Putin, the duo’s new album, “Niggaz in Moscow,” contains songs about supporting Russia’s falling currency and life in the vibrant capital.
AMG, Timati, Budayev, Sergeyev and others are riding a wave of patriotic fervor sweeping Russia at a time of growing international isolation and enduring differences with the West over Syria and Ukraine. News reports on Russian TV paint a picture of a volatile world that revolves around Moscow, with heads of state clamoring for Putin’s backing. In Russia he has gained a reputation as the front man willing to stand up to the West when others don’t dare.
All this fuels Putin’s larger-than-life presence on Russia’s streets. Amid economic uncertainty and stalemated wars, the question is how long his overwhelming popularity will last.
“Russia was in a bad state when we came, and we’ve seen the growth since Putin became president,” says Matinyarare. “Western press coverage is unjust, and we want to put the record straight. ‘Going hard’ means being intolerant to haters and just doing you to the maximum.”