Putin, Pottery and Media Pundits
During my analysis of UK media perspectives on the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, I have noticed several patterns: articles about Medvedev’s presidency invariably include a paragraph or two naming Putin as the ‘real power’ in Russia; almost every article which mentions Putin makes reference to his time in the KGB; when Russia is deemed to have done something particularly threatening to the international system the article will usually be illustrated with a close-up image of Putin’s face, his eyes looking menacingly into the distance. Due to the overwhelming availability of articles in the UK press which examine the figure of Putin, it is pertinent to ask what conclusions we can draw from such portrayals, and what their potential impact is on UK-Russia relations. For me, the most intriguing trend that has emerged is the inevitable rush of articles which follows the release of promotional photos and videos of Putin engaging in some kind of publicity stunt. If we examine coverage of Putin’s activities in the UK newspaper The Guardian, we can see that after particular events, such as the video of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev playing badminton, or the release of photographs showing Putin swimming in a river in Siberia, at least two or three articles appear on the subject in the paper within the space of a few days.
These articles cover the same story, sometimes from different perspectives – perhaps one will report on the events that took place during the stunt; another will comment on Putin’s physique or the clothes he is wearing; there may be a piece which ironically compares Putin’s conduct and appearance to that of British politicians, lamenting the fact that UK politics lacks its own ‘action man’. One of the most revealing articles I have read about British perspectives on Putin’s ‘macho’ exploits, however, is Is the silly season here at last? published in The Guardian on 16 August 2011. In it, the author laments the fact that thanks to the eventful summer of 2011, the annual ‘silly season’ of journalism was instead occupied by ‘real’ stories – earthquakes, riots and famine. These events overshadowed the ‘traditional’ stories of the season – puff pieces about animals, far-fetched scientific findings and other tales of trivial events which are amusing but not important in the grand scheme of things. The author makes the valid point that the ‘silly season’ is often when articles about Vladimir Putin’s ‘macho exploits’ appear in British newspapers, illustrated by pictures of him undertaking heroic and sometimes unbelievable feats in many different settings. 2011, then, was the year in which ‘excellent snaps of Putin looting undersea pottery were tragically overshadowed by pictures of pixelated youths in the local magistrates court’ following the London riots, which, it is implied, constituted ‘real news’. The idea that ‘lavish images of how the Russian leader is spending his holidays’ are the pinnacle of the silly season speaks volumes of both how the UK media constructs and then categorises different types of news stories, as well as how information from other countries is prioritised within the UK media mind-set. Stories concerning Putin’s many heroic deeds (and the subsequent revelations that they were set-ups) are, quite rightly, ridiculous. However, confining such stories to the trivality of the ‘silly season’ is a dangerous mistake to make. Like all media events, these macho displays have been carefully planned and orchestrated in order to attract the attention of both the domestic and international audience, and to relay an important message on the nature of power and masculinity in Russia. We ignore such messages – and hints on the nature of Putin’s political power and the direction he wishes to take – at our peril. Discounting the role played by masculinity in the construction of political identities deprives us of a deeper understanding not only of Putin but of the process of world politics. We must examine why we decide such photo opportunities are only worth relegating to ‘silly season’, and what this reveals about British views on Russia and Russian politics. We are correct to find the images of Putin ridiculous because they are; they present a caricature of masculinity, an exaggeration of the idea of a strong, manly leader. Yet all too often the mistake is made to believe that this collection of images – this showcasing – is the total sum of Russian politics. In order to improve bilateral relations between Russia and the United Kingdom, these images must not be disregarded as merely posturing for an impressionable, childlike domestic audience, but taken into account when policy decisions are made. In politics, every gesture is deliberate, each public appearance a performance which communicates important messages to a worldwide audience. Putin’s bizarre publicity stunts are no exception to this rule; if we take the time to properly analyse their content and form, rather than immediately relegating them to the ‘absurd’ category of news, we will gain real knowledge which can aid us in diplomatic relations.