The sexualisation of figures of disagreement in politics is today, however regrettably, a central feature of media discourse. In reducing Putin and, by means of his place as privileged metonym for Russia, the entirety of Russia to a montage of glib orientalising symbols, there is no real need to present a coherent critical argument to Russia’s foreign policy claims.
Pictured is a caricature of Vladimir Putin on the front cover of the New Statesman, a magazine which, according to their pop-up advert, presents ‘Enlightened Thinking in Dark Times’. The President of the Russian Federation is depicted topless, with a hammer and sickle tattoo on his left shoulder and blood dripping from his rose-gripping hand. What is this image supposed to tell us about Putin, about Russia, and about ourselves? Let’s begin with the tattoo.
All three aspects of the tattoo – the star, the hammer and sickle, and the sheaves of wheat – are frequently employed by communists and anti-communists alike. The star, once a symbol of anti-fascist resistance, came to prominence in the Soviet Union as the symbol of the party leading the working class. The hammer and sickle, meanwhile, represents the industrial and agricultural workers respectively, emphasising the unity of their struggles. The sheaves of wheat which encircle the tattoo are commonly found in socialist heraldry and maintain a distinct presence on a number of national emblems today.
But what are these symbols doing on the arm of the President of the Russian Federation? The Soviet Union fell over 25 years ago, Putin presides over a neoliberal economy, as well as a constitution which explicitly precludes a state ideology. To answer this question, we need to look at the image in its specific art historical context.
The image of Putin here points us of toward two images from the Russian art history books. First, it references the Russian avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko and his 1913 Cubo-Futurist sculpture ‘Woman with a Fan’ [Femme à l’Éventail], and second, of Vladimir Tatlin – later noted for his Monument to the Third International – and his 1911 self-portrait Sailor. The caricature’s face appears to be a form of montage; different parts from different pictures, flatly rendered with only strong black lines creating any form of depth, similar to the work of Tatlin’s early Cubo-Futurist interests, which was grounded in his studies of icons. The angular pose of the model with object in hand then points us towards a slightly differing mode of artistic practice: sculpture. Putin first appears, then, as a figure of extreme masculinity. He is depicted (or sculpted) naked (or topless), as a poised and powerful man. He grips the rose with a strong fist, drawing blood from his own hand. He appears in a similar vein to the propagandising photoshoots that both Russian and Western media are so keen to show us.
But look again. This is not Vladimir Putin as a strong and fearless leader. Rather, this is a nude in the fashion of a European oil painting. This is a feminized image of Putin, gripping the rose and muscle-bound, certainly, but noticeably nude, as opposed to naked. His pink physique contrasts markedly with the pale blue.
This is an inversion of the propagandistic photo – depicting Putin not as a topless, powerful figure, but displaying him as the meek, sexualised object of the image. To paraphrase John Berger, this is not Putin naked (or topless) as he appears in propagandistic images, this is Putin naked as you are supposed to see him through the Western media gaze. Berger makes the distinction between being naked – a natural state in which you are completely without disguise – and being nude – a disguised state which cannot be discarded because your subjectivity is diminished. Putin here is depicted as both sides of this coin. We may ask the caricaturist, is Putin representative of the ‘insatiable desire’ quoted in the by-line? Is he naked – that is, in his natural garb, with an ‘insatiable desire’ akin to Rasputin before him? Or, conversely, is he nude – disguised, lacking in subjectivity, objectified?
The answer to this question is, of course, the latter. The baby pink body on the baby blue background first represents the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ Putin, showing him as simultaneously strong and fearless, as well as meek and sexualised. The lacklustre pastel palette, however, shows us that even when depicted as a strong, fearless leader with ‘insatiable desire’ in the Western media, this is conducted through a layer of ironic detachment.
The real power of the New Statesman cover, then, is that in so crudely connecting Putin to both the Russian avant-garde and to the symbols of communism, the image created is one of the total chaos of representation. Putin is depicted as a continuation of the Russian object of the Western media gaze in all of its previous forms: the wild Bolshevik revolutionary (tattoo), the authoritarian (the grip on the rose), the sexually feminised body (the nude), and the vague reference to avant-garde art (the likenesses of Tatlin and Archipenko’s pieces). All of these objectifications are rolled together into one chaotic image. Just as chaotic, as one is pointed to presume by the magazine’s by-lines, as Russia’s foreign policy demands.