There are photo shoots, there are presidential photo shoots – and then there are Vladimir Putin’s presidential photo shoots. Rarely has the leader of a world power still embraced the staged publicity with such creative, yet clichéd, zeal, and not only fueled the global desire for a caricature of himself, but actually created it as well.
Cue, for example, his latest propaganda campaign, which was released by the Kremlin while bilateral relations with the United States became frozen, and with the description of the Russian opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny of Mr. Putin as a “Vladimir, the poisoner of underpants” still echoes through the air.
In a series of photos of mr. Putin on a weekend after the Siberian taiga, the 68-year-old president is shown in his usual favorite outdoor setting, showing his commitment to nature, masculine toughness and appreciation for the country. In the vastness of the largely empty landscape he is great. At least that was probably the idea.
He was, to be specific, caught – as if by chance! – looks serious and steel behind the wheel of a camo-covered off-road vehicle so huge that it looks like nothing can stop it; knee-deep in a snow-drifting position while wearing a soft yet cozy sheepskin jacket, matching trousers and ivory turtleneck and penetratingly looking to the future; calm on a turbulent bridge over a frozen river followed by his defense minister, Sergei Shoygu, behind; and then enjoy a brilliant outdoor picnic of sausages and crudités with mr. Shoygu (wearing a matching outfit) at a table covered with a white cloth, fur blankets thrown over the benches and metal cups raised in harmony.
Cold? Which cold?
Most political leaders favor approved photos of themselves working hard and hard in the office. President Obama, for example, regularly posed behind his desk and rolled up his sleeves. President Emmanuel Macron of France famously released a “make-up” video about his official portrait, introducing himself to carefully arrange various symbolic accessories on his desk.
But Mr. Putin has always taken a different approach. One that emphasizes the physical too much as namby-pamby paper push, and speaks to old stereotypes of virility, power and machismo. Not to mention good health. The kind with which you can stay in the office for a long time.
It has become for itself a kind of absurdist art form.
For example, he was depicted in 2010 in a similar sheepskin outfit – albeit without the matching fur hat and gloves – riding through the Siberian snow on horseback and on a trip to the Russian North Pole, embrace a polar bear. He was riding a motorcycle in black leather (a photo that was so popular, a British company, Undefeated London, called a jacket in his honor), played ice hockey (scored many goals) and worked out with the Russian judo team.
This action-man framework culminated in 2017, when Mr. Putin was mostly bare-chested while engaged in hunting, spearfishing and otherwise masculine activities in the Siberian outdoors. Then he is caught nurturing in the sun without shirts, with black shaded eyes hidden.
“How could you not vote for such a torso?” a Moscow newspaper asked at the time. It probably just seemed like a rhetorical question.
By 2019, Mr. Putin turned his imagery on shots that referred to his bond with the earth rather than his domination of it, while sitting quietly in a field and clinging to a bouquet of wildflowers he presumably picked himself or on a crack tor. Nevertheless, he remained dressed in shades of olive green and silhouettes that looked like fatigue. The implicit messages were still sticky. It was just more about hard love.
The new Siberian photos are strongly in line with this tradition. If it’s not exactly subtle – the imagery is indeed so obvious, it’s inspired a fair amount of mockery and memes on social media – it’s also true that subtlety has never really been part of mr. Putin does not. the … well, picture.