“Iconic” images of significant political or military events are something of a trap. They are almost necessarily one-sided, and it is nearly impossible to capture true complexity in one snapshot. Nonetheless, they are often revealing. So when Russian journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted this photo yesterday with the heading “Russia’s Tiananmen image,” it did tell us something important about Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, even if it wasn’t a “Tiananmen image”:
The photo ran with Ioffe’s dispatch on the protests surrounding Putin’s official return to the presidency, and it was retweeted dozens of times (possibly hundreds by now). Reading the accompanying story, however, is essential to understanding why the photo matters. Ioffe’s article begins: “On Monday, just before noon, Vladimir Putin will get into a black limousine with black windows, and, flanked by a flock of cops on motorcycles — his cavalry — sweep into the city from the west, through empty, ghostly streets…. There will be no cheering crowds, no waving flags along his route. Instead, the images the world will see of Putin’s inauguration will be the walk down the opulent hall, the man with his hand on the Russian constitution, and the violent protests of the previous afternoon.”
Ellen Barry’s report on the actual ceremony confirmed Ioffe’s prediction: “In a ceremony anchored less in words than the physical attributes of power, Mr. Putin’s motorcade glided soundlessly through a city that seemed emptied of people.” Putin has finally lost control over his own image and that of his rule. That is the story of the photo.
This story began, of course, more than a decade ago. In 1999 and 2000, as Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin, he released a campaign manifesto of sorts, and also agreed to a book-length series of interviews with a few handpicked Russian journalists. His biographer, Richard Sakwa, notes that Putin saw himself in the tradition of–as ridiculous as the comparison truly is, for all the obvious reasons–certain Western politicians:
Putin was one of the new breed of politicians of that time, such as Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain, for whom news management often acted as the substitute for policy, and where policy development remains shrouded in a dense fog of spin and show. Popularity for these “post-modern” politicians is nurtured and tended like a delicate plant, with focus groups, private polling and the manipulation of information.
Putin’s behavior toward journalists in Russia was far more than the “manipulation of information.” But this does describe how he is treated so often in the West. Ioffe’s article is harsh and unsparing about Putin, but the website publishing her article, ForeignPolicy.com, offers a link just to the right of her story. Follow that link to a slide show published there two days prior to Ioffe’s article. The slide show is called “Putin Forever: He’s the president of Russia. He’s a race-car driver. He’s a blackbelt in judo. He’s Vladimir Putin.”
He’s just so… cool. The first image in the slide show is of Putin with one hand on his tinted sunglasses, CSI-style. But don’t worry, it also includes a photo of him aiming a crossbow from the front of a speedboat, and another in which he is shirtless on horseback. (If you only saw this slide show, you could be forgiven for thinking Putin refuses to wear shirts as a matter of policy.)
Want to see him driving a racecar? Holding the head of a live tiger? Emerging from the water on the Taman Peninsula in a wetsuit triumphantly holding ancient artifacts? Bending a frying pan with his bare hands? Then head on over to the Atlantic, which beat Foreign Policy by eight months with its own slide show of Russia’s indispensible man, titled “Vladimir Putin, Action Man.”
It is this pseudoreality Russian journalists like Ioffe want to shatter. They want you to see, in Ioffe’s words:
the images that, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, have become instantly iconic: the black police batons slicing over the barricades and through the smoke to hack at protesters; the police special forces officer dragging a young woman by her neck; the police officer huffing after battle, his face streaming with blood. We’ll see the videos of the rocks flying and the bottles flying and the smoke bombs flying and the batons raining down on people’s kidneys. We’ll see the photos of toppled port-a-potties serving as makeshift barricades, of kicking young men, bellies and rumps exposed, being dragged by the police into waiting armored incarceration vans.
That’s not so cool. Sunday saw upwards of 70,000 protesters march through the streets, attempting even (unsuccessfully) to march on the Kremlin. Many of them chanted “Russia without Putin.” That day may come soon enough. But for now, there is anger and opposition and apathy, Putin’s speedboat caroming ahead, but with nothing in its wake. It’s not Russia without Putin yet, but it’s looking more and more like Putin without Russia.