By Konrad Putzier
One of the most famous pre-war Soviet propaganda posters shows Joseph Stalin sitting at the desk of his Kremlin office. The dictator is writing on a notepad. It appears to be late at night, and behind the window a red star is gleaming atop a Kremlin tower. The caption reads: “Stalin cares about each one of us.”
The poster captures the essence of the Stalin personality cult, then in its infancy: the dictator as a caring father figure. Beyond the obvious, the poster implies another message. Stalin was (or at least wanted to be) in an almost god-like position of control over the life of every single Soviet citizen. The Stalin on the poster may have been answering a child’s letter—or he may have been signing a death sentence. Either way, the fortune of the empire and its inhabitants rested on one man alone.
I was reminded of the poster during Vladimir Putin’ mysterious 11-day absence, which ended on Monday when the Russian president finally re-appeared in public. What was strange about his absence wasn’t so much the fact that he was gone—heads of state often take a break from the public eye—but that the Russian government went to such lengths to conceal it. As rumors of an illness spread, Kremlin officials avoided questions over Putin’s health. Instead they tried to pass off some of Putin’s past appearances as having taking place last week, which backfired and only fanned the rumors. It wasn’t the first time the Kremlin stayed mum over the President’s absence. Putin had been rumored to suffer from back problems for a while.
We still don’t know what (if anything) was wrong with Putin. This begs the question: why wouldn’t the Kremlin simply announce Putin is taking a week off, and lay out the (presumably medical) reasons?
A possible answer lies with the personality cult surrounding the Russian president. A central theme of Kremlin propaganda has been to portray Putin as a strong and indispensable leader. All that footage of him riding a horse bare-chested, hunting tigers and flying fighter jets is designed to hammer home the image of the fearless leader who will budge to no one when it comes to defending the interests of the Russian people. The de facto invasion of Ukraine in defiance of Western sanctions only bolstered that image.
At the same time, the Kremlin has gone to lengths to portray Putin as indispensable. Much like Stalin liked to imply that the Soviet Union was held together by himself alone, Putin has repeatedly argued that Russia needs a centralized government with himself as a strong leader.
This very particular personality cult has worked well for Putin because it plays on the widespread popular belief among Russians that a country of its size can only flourish under a highly centralized government. In the mid-2000s—before the Putin cult really took off—nearly every Russian I talked to explained to me that true democracy would never work in Russia because the country would fail without a strong leader. This thinking is perhaps the greatest ideological holdover of a more autocratic past, having survived the collapse of both Tsarism and Stalinism
But while the leader cult may be advantageous to Putin, it is also difficult to maintain. The president needs to constantly prove that he is strong and indispensable—this may have been one of the many reasons why he chose to go to war in Ukraine.
Acknowledging an illness-related absence would have the opposite effect. The illness would undermine the carefully fostered image of strength. And if Putin took extended time off and Russia were to fare just fine during his absence, it would undermine his claim that the country would be doomed without him. This logic of his own making could explain why the Kremlin acted so strangely over his absence.
The mystery over Putin’s absence isn’t just another oddity on the increasingly strange spectacle of Russian politics. It is a worrying reminder of how far the Putin cult has progressed.
Konorad Putzier is a New York-based journalist. He blogs at www.thelongerview.org.
[Photo courtesy of Google Images]