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Putin’s Quest for an Ideal Public Image

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Greg Simons

Greg Simons is senior researcher at the Uppsala Centre of Russian Studies, Uppsala University. He give lectures on the courses offered by the Dept on topics such as Russian mass media, terrorism and crisis management

By Greg Simons

Professionals have carefully nurtured Vladimir Putin’s public image in the PR business. There have been very few lapses, which contradict the carefully manufactur­ed image. In 1996, prior to Putin’s rapid rise to promi­nence, he was an unemployed city official from St. Petersburg. Through contacts he was able to initiate a series of events which would lead him to several high-ranking government service jobs in the Kremlin’s bureaucratic apparatus. His patron was the Kremlin’s Chief of Staff, Pavel Borodin.1

Putin rose rapidly through the ranks of the civil service, culminating in his appointment as the director of the FSB in 1998 (the FSB-Federal Security Service is the successor of the KGB). After Yeltsin had selected Putin to be his eventual successor, a flurry of activity was aimed at building a suitable image for the heir apparent. His earlier career in the KGB and low public profile gave the PR people a ‘blank canvas’ on which to create the desired image. In the following, I will discuss how this was realised.

Putin: The Creation of a Popular Figure

Although Putin had been chosen by Yeltsin to succeed him, a distance between the two politicians needed to be established. Yeltsin had negative connotations associated with his public persona, which presented a problem. He needed to offer a candidate which appea­red to be the opposite of what he appeared to be, if he was to be successful in having his candidate accepted by the public on voting day.

Putin set out to establish himself as a young, vital and energetic man of action by opening a campaign against the breakaway republic Chechnya. But this was only one of the personal traits, which were sought to be created. The following are some of the means used by Putin to establish his credentials in the eyes of the voting public.

  • Putin travelled widely around Russia-tried to distance himself from a Moscow centric approach. The all-inclusive approach brings the meaning that everyone matters, from the biggest city to the smallest village.
  • He rode in Moscow’s suburban trains and chatted with commuters-this act establishes the premise that Putin is able to relate to the ‘ordinary’ man in the street.
  • He was the dinner guest of an ordinary Kazan family-once again demonstrating his close proximity to the problems of ordinary Russians that he is able to under­stand and empathise with the populace and is not above them.
  • He met with women at a textile factory in Ivanovo-in this move Putin appears to demonstrate that he values the female constituency as well by attempting to court women voters (something which Yeltsin never did).
  • He spent a night on a nuclear submarine and flew in a military jet over Chechnya-these actions were to demonstrate Putin’s ability to be an effective Comman­der-in-Chief, by virtue of the fact that he has spent time with ‘his’ men on ‘dangerous’ military duties.2

Putin’s creation of self-image is fraught with possible dangers, but the power of his creation of self lies in what this self represents. “Selfhood […] is a chronically unstable productivity brought situationally-not invariably-to some form of imaginary order, to some purpose, as realised in the course of culturally pattern­ed interactions.”3 That is to say, that Putin’s ‘new’ image needs to be constantly reinforced and must evolve in a society if the message is to remain effective. An image can not be created and then left to its own devices, because the message design will ultimately fail. In a time of great upheaval, during the last of Yeltsin’s period of bespredel, Putin came to be represented as stability, law and order. This is what the public appear­ed to demand.

The Making of a President

The PR strategy has been aimed at showing Putin as an honest and apolitical political figure. This strategy was stepped up during the election campaign. Putin’s image ‘minders’ wanted to show that he was not an ordinary politician, but an honest person who cares deep­ly about Russia. During the presi­dential race, Putin never actually issued a prog­ram­me. Instead he pub­lish­­ed an open letter to voters which outlined Russia’s prob­­­lems. The open letter offer­­ed no con­crete solutions, only a pro­­­mise to tackle the prob­lems and to restore Russia’s former greatness.4

News often showed favou­rable cover­age of Putin, sur­roun­ded by supporters. A po­si­­­­tive spin was also put on his refu­sal to participate in tele­vised debates. Putin was pro­mo­­ted as Russia’s new face, while depicting his op­po­­nents as relics of the Yel­tsin era. This was in spite of the fact that Putin was Yel­tsin’s hand­picked success­or. A ma­jo­rity of news cove­rage was devoted to follow­ing Pu­tin. The positive spin could be maintained in site of the sa­turation coverage, because Putin only gave in­ter­views to sympa­thetic re­por­­ters.5

Putin faced relatively few risks of adverse publi­city in his carefully managed PR cam­­­paign. He was never ‘ex­posed’ to ‘hostile’ reporters, never put in an unpre­dict­able environment (such as a tele­vised political debate) and generally was able to choose the time and place of his interviews. This situation was able to secure Putin with a guaranteed outcome, prior to any interview. Putin was able to maintain a moral ascend­an­cy over the interviewer, which promoted the appear­ance of a strong leader.

By refusing to be drawn into a conventional cam­paign Putin was possibly able to distance himself in the public psyche from the largely discredited politicians. Additionally, by stating the obvious with regard to Russia’s problems, he displayed an empathy and great­er understanding of the average public feeling by putting into words what few if any politicians would dare say. If he had promised various measures and they failed, Putin would have been held to account person­ally, by the public. This way ensured that there was nothing of substance he could be held to account for, he merely mouthed public sentiment and aspirations. Putin won the March 2000 presidential elections in the first round. The next presidential elections are due sometime around 2004.

Maintaining the Image

During Putin’s two years in office, numerous opinion polls have been conducted concerning President and his leadership. A portion of these polls relates to Putin’s popularity rating as Russia’s leader. The majority of the polls give Putin high ratings, as much as ­70-80% approval ra­tings. A possible effect of these polls would be to re­in­force an image in the public’s mind that Putin is a very po­pu­lar leader, with­out regard to how the polls de­du­ced their sta­tistics. The news­paper Novye Izvestia raised the above issues well on No­vem­­­ber 28, 2001 in the article Putin’s Ra­t­ing Needs Verifica­tion.6

On the whole Putin’s pub­lic image has not faced a seri­ous challenge to the cre­a­ted perception. The sole ex­cep­tion to this occurred when the Kursk incident was ini­tially mishandled, when Pu­tin did not immedi­a­tely break from his holi­day. The Pre­siden­­tial Press Service, who nor­­mally look after the Pre­sident’s PR needs, were ab­sent on this occasion. The Kursk sank on August 12, 2000, this was in the middle of a series of poli­tical repositioning and conso­lidation as a result of a change in power (Putin suc­ceeding Yeltsin). There was a lot of jost­ling occur­ring in political circles, ambitious politi­cians seek­ing the new President’s favour and patronage and the opposition re­posi­tioning themselves.

On August 8, 2000 a metro under­pass at Pushkin Square was bomb­ed. Putin was also in the midst of bringing ‘rogue’ oligarchs to heel, Vladimir Gusinsky of Media-Most and Boris Berezovsky of Logovaz. This was being done to ensure governmental control of televi­sion broadcasting (channels with nation wide cover­age). These distractions permitted a brief break­down in the otherwise a well managed public image of the President. The break was brief and therefore no perma­nent damage to Putin’s public image seems to have occurred at the time.

A more broad-based effort is now underway to create and cultivate a desired image. Some measure of control has been secured over the mass media through a mixture of legislation and intimidation (such as the raids on Media-Most in May 2000). One of the means used to reinforce an idealised image of Putin is through a proliferation of biographies. Among the first of these was First Person, by Vladimir Putin. This book port­rays a very ‘correct’ picture of an ‘ordinary man’ who is devoted to his family and Russia.7

Former military journalist Oleg Blotsky (working in the propaganda section) has undertaken a trilogy with the blessing of Vladimir Putin (Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the presidential aide, acted as the go-between).8 Blot­sky’s volumes to date include, Vladimir Putin: A Life History (volume 1) and Vladimir Putin: A Rise to Power (volume 2). This series of biographies appears to be aimed at manufacturing a very serene, modest and sincere portrait of the Putins.

An anti-thesis to the official oriented versions appeared in Moscow on December 25, 2001. The book featuring the Putin family, Piquant Friendship was written by Irene Pietsch. She was an acquaintance of Lyudmila Putina, beginning when Vladimir Putin was stationed in Germany. Several Russian newspapers refused to publish any excerpts from the book. This is most likely due to some unflattering criticism levelled at the President. Most of the criticism seems to refer to chauvinistic and boorish behaviour displayed towards Lyudmila Putina.9

Putin’s Public Profile: A Summary

Putin’s initial lack of public profile may have been a contributing factor to Yeltsin nominating him as his successor. None of the negative connotations, which plagued many of the more experienced politicians, were associated with Putin. As an unknown factor the PR specialists were better able to create a political figure that would appeal to the public.

The government had control of the media and therefore possessed the means to create and transmit their desired ideal image. Yeltsin ensured that the full resources of the government supported Putin. His impending retirement from political office would leave him in a vulnerable position if a ‘non-friendly’ politi­cian would win the presidential election.

In stark contrast to Yeltsin’s public image of ill health, lethargy, inaction and chaos, Putin was given the chance (with large-scale state media presence on hand) to be portrayed as energetic, youthful, brave and a dedicated family man. The numerous favourable qualities associated with Putin through his widely covered actions showed a man who was determined, patriotic and willing to restore Russia’s and the Russians’ place in the world.

Through a mixture of legal manoeuvring and inti­mi­­da­tion, high profile opposition media were pacified. This reduced the availability and access to alternative information (to the government’s view) in Russian society. The use of opinion polls has supplemented the Kremlin’s PR strategy by creating the appearance of topics of public debate and consensus reached on the issues discussed.

Lastly, the illusions of the PR generated idealised public image of Putin are being reinforced through the use of literature. Rapid successions of politically correct biographies on the Putin family have appeared. These books have been produced under strict supervision and offer a mostly positive and glowing view of Russia’s First Family. The appearance of book literature may be an attempt to add greater credence to Putin’s ascribed personal qualities by using a more respected and traditional means of conveying the message.


Footnotes

1 Putin, V., First Person, London, Hutchinson, 2000, p. 125.

2 Brown, A., Editor, Contemporary Russian Politics: A Reader, New York, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 172.

3 Battaglia, B., Editor, Rhetorics of Self-Making, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1995, p. 2.

4 Brown, A., op. cit., p. 172.

5 Brown, A., op. cit., p. 332.

6 Nadzharkov, Alexander, “Putin’s Rating Needs Verifi­cation”, Novye Izvestia, November 28, 2001. Johnson’s Russia List #5569, November 28, 2001.

7 See Putin, V., First Person, London, Hutchinson, 2000.

8 “Book About Life of Putin to be Released Soon”, Interfax, January 16, 2002. Johnson’s Russia List #6027, January 17, 2002. Sergei Yastrzhembsky was President Yeltsin’s Press Secretary and has managed to maintain his position of influence and power in the Putin administra­tion.

9 BBC Monitoring, “Book on Putin’s Family Life goes on Sale in Moscow”, December 25, 2001. Johnson’s Russia List #5616, December 25, 2001.

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