Performing Putin

On March 18, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared at a victory concert celebrating the annexation of Crimea. Standing under a heart in the national colors of white, blue, and red, he proclaimed, “Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the people’s hearts and minds.” Why would this usually macho leader, who has assiduously cultivated an image of raw masculinity, choose instead a heart-centered rhetoric and visual imagery to mark the Crimean annexation?

In his 21 years in office, Putin has appeared in many guises. Yet when he first came into the public limelight in 1999, he had absolutely no charisma, no public persona. My current book project, tentatively called “Performing Putin: The Spectacle of Politics in Russia, 1999-2020,” explores the many faces of Putin, asking how different images have functioned at different times, how they have been constructed, and what they may be hiding. Using the Crimea case as one such story in this talk, I will show how Putin’s appearances were scripted in 2014 and afterwards to contribute to an imperial image that appeared to date back to Grand Prince Vladimir (r. 980-1015) and Empress Catherine the Great (r. 1762-1796), promoting notions of the unity of ruler and people while avoiding questions of international legitimacy.

Keywords: political image-making; masculinity; imperial rule; Russian politics; autocracy

Elizabeth A. Wood is Academic Visitor at Balliol College for the Michaelmas Term 2021 while on sabbatical from MIT where she is Professor of Russian History and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her books include The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (1997); Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia (2005); and Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine (coauthored, 2016). Most recently she has also published a number of articles on Russian President Vladimir Putin, political masculinity, WWII, and the performance of power, including: “Performing Memory and its Limits: Vladimir Putin and World War II in Russia” in David L. Hoffmann, ed, The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia (Routledge, 2021); “Right-Wing Populism as Gendered Performance: Janus-faced Masculinity in the Leadership of Vladimir Putin and Recep T. Erdogan” (coauthored with Betül Ekşi), Theory & Society 48 (2019); and “Hypermasculinity as a Scenario of Power: Vladimir Putin’s Iconic Rule, 1999-2008,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 18 (2016).