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The Modern Cult of Personality

It is spring 2003, and hundreds of students gather in Trafalgar Square to catch a glimpse of a political superstar: Prime Minister Tony Blair. He stands in front of the National Gallery, addressing the crowd. The familiar gestures are there to be seen. You hear that earnest and emphatic style of delivery, replete with dramatic pauses. The eyebrows dance; the smile gleams. He speaks on behalf of the British public, and he is clearly in his element.

Feeling the hand of history on his shoulder, Blair advocates pre-emptive military action, preaching the spread of freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. An assertive foreign policy, delivered through a coalition of the willing, can re-shape the world in the wake of 9/11; for the kaleidoscope has been shaken (here he re-visits the phraseology of an earlier, much-admired speech) and the pieces have yet to settle. Pre-emptive action; regime-change; 45 minutes; WMD; BritainÂ’s moral imperative; the Special Relationship: these ideas are consumed by students standing in awed-silence, feeding off every word. New Labour, New Britain. And a new world-order, too.

The reader may be puzzled by this account of a pro-Blair, pro-war youth rally, and with good reason: I made it up. Blair perhaps dreamt of support like this, but the rally makes no sense in a British political context. In reality, people rallied against Blair, not for him. In February 2003 over 750,000 people of all ages marched through London, protesting against BlairÂ’s decision to support the American invasion of Iraq.

Blair once stated that he did not “seek unpopularity as a badge of honour”; unpopularity was simply the “price of leadership and the cost of conviction”. It is true that, in the run-up to the 1997 general election, Blair’s photograph was prominent in the Labour Party’s campaign literature: his face filled the front cover of the party manifesto. Adoring crowds did greet him upon his arrival in Downing Street. But Blair’s value as an electoral asset was severely compromised during his second term in office.

There is a reason for this, quite aside from the Iraq war: British people soon tire of personality cults. In cultural terms, the political cult of personality is an alien concept. British television celebrities enjoy more respect than politicians. Writing in The Times recently, Alice Miles proposed that public interest in politics could be re-invigorated through appointments to the House of Lords by popular petition; she anticipated that Ant and Dec and Davina McCall would benefit from this hypothetical system. Professional politicians could never hope to gain enough signatures; the British attitude to politics, mired in apathy and cynicism, would prevent this. It is this cynicism that makes it difficult for us to comprehend foreign examples of the political cult of personality.

There is a country where large-scale political idol-worship exists within the framework of an ostensibly free society. That country is Russia. And the man who commands the zeitgeist? Former President and new Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Like Blair, Putin has overseen an economic resurgence at home. Putin has also embraced an imperialist defence policy, brutally crushing dissent in Chechnya. Blair often refuted the claim that his attempt at spreading liberal values through military action was essentially imperialist. Putin tends not to be so equivocal when discussing his desire to promote Russian influence abroad. His nostalgia for a Russian empire is explicit: he once remarked that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century.

Yet in most respects, the two men have nothing in common. Unlike Blair, Putin is still adored by his people. Now that his constitutional limit of two presidential terms has expired, Putin retains his popularity and his grip on power. As Prime Minister he will serve under his chosen successor, new President Dmitry Medvedev; but as Chairman of the United Russia Party, the largest party in the Russian parliament (the Duma), Putin continues to hold all executive power. Medvedev has no popular support-base to call his own; Russians voted for him purely because of PutinÂ’s endorsement. Medvedev would be rendered politically impotent and unable to govern effectively through the Duma were Putin to retract this endorsement. Putin is too popular and therefore too powerful to be crossed by the new head of state.

According to a recent opinion poll conducted by Moscow non-governmental organisation the Levada Centre, PutinÂ’s approval rating in Russia stands at 86%. This is the highest genuine approval rating for any statesman in the world. 66% of Russians believe it is a good thing that nearly all power lies in the hands of Vladimir Putin.
PutinÂ’s popularity amongst the young is especially striking for a man who has dominated Russian politics since 1999. This support is widespread and perhaps best demonstrated through a strange phenomenon: the Nashi youth movement.

We are in Moscow. It is the evening of 2 March 2008, and a concert attended by thousands of young people begins in Red Square.

On stage, a Russian rock star wearing a black beret sings, playing acoustic guitar. Massive video screens bathe the audience in light. Two musicians on electric guitar enter the fray as the lead singer launches into an aggressive, triumphant chorus. This is a patriotic rock anthem, and the guitars give voice to a rhapsody of escalating notes. In Red Square, hundreds of Russian flags wave in time; banners emblazoned with slogans rise from the crowd.

St. BasilÂ’s Cathedral is illuminated by orange flood lights. There are no stars out tonight; a heavy blanket of cloud looms large over the city.

The snow turns gradually to rain.

The song has reached its climax and a woman on loud speaker takes her cue, announcing the arrival of President Putin and his chosen successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. According to overwhelmingly-favourable exit polls in today’s election, Medvedev is now President-elect. Stage lights flare and the crowd screams; two men in black stride up to the microphones. Vladimir Putin, the most popular man in Russia, has joined his protégé on stage for a victory speech.

Medvedev begins: “This is a special day for our country. We are choosing a course for a pretty long period of time… We shall maintain the course that President Putin has proposed… We will continue to move ahead together.” It is a deferential, cautious and uninspiring speech.

The crowd begins to chant: “Putin! Putin! Putin! Putin! Putin!”

Medvedev shifts uncomfortably on his feet, glancing at his mentor. PutinÂ’s face breaks into a broad smile as he presses his lips to the microphone.

This is a man who knows how to work an audience. Putin, his voice characteristically high-pitched, shouts: “You’re freezing!”

The crowd, buffeted by snow, rain and sleet, bellows back: “No!”

Putin asks: “Can you give me one minute?”

His audience roars back: “Yes!”

Putin begins his speech, intermittently jabbing his finger at the crowd: “Our candidate Dmitry Medvedev is victorious… The presidential and parliamentary elections were held in accordance with the constitution of our country, according to the dates set forth in the law… But such a victory is also a great responsibility.”

The crowd chants: “Putin! Putin! Putin! Putin! Putin!” Thousands of fists punch the air in salute. Putin does not attempt to conceal his joy.

He continues: “This victory will ensure that we maintain the course that we have chosen together and the course that we have been implementing together; this course will continue… Everybody who loves Russia will join our efforts as we work for the citizens of our great Motherland!”

Who are the thousands of young Putin-supporters who brave the inclement weather, screaming with excitement at every word he utters? They are not wearing the distinctive bright-red and white uniforms of the Nashi youth movement; nevertheless, they almost certainly are Nashi activists, bussed into Moscow from every corner of the Russian Federation. Nationalistic and fervently loyal to the outgoing President, these Nashi members represent the hard-core of PutinÂ’s support base, but they also reflect the tremendous popularity enjoyed by Putin across Russia.

Nashi was founded in 2005 by politician Vasily Yakemenko. It was created in response to the immense street protests that brought pro-western leaders to power in countries that have historically existed within the Russian sphere of influence. GeorgiaÂ’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and UkraineÂ’s Orange Revolution in 2004 both involved a large number of students. Putin especially felt that Viktor YushchenkoÂ’s victory in the Ukraine was enabled through the protests of youth group PORA. Nashi, therefore, was created in order to counter opposition youth groups seeking revolution in Russia.

NashiÂ’s purpose was to create a cult of personality for Putin, thereby reducing the likelihood of a popular uprising against authoritarian rule. The organisation grew rapidly, and by late 2007 it claimed a membership of 120,000 Russians aged 14-25.

Nashi insists that it is funded by independent businessmen who wish to gain the KremlinÂ’s favour. In reality, Nashi is mainly funded by grants from the state-owned energy giant Gazprom (formerly chaired by Dmitry Medvedev). The movement also receives money from Norilsk Nickel, a mining and smelting company principally owned by billionaire Putin-loyalist Vladimir Potanin. Nashi is entirely dependent on the patronage of Putin and his cronies, and it exists to do his bidding.

Nashi members are indoctrinated with nationalist ideology. They call themselves the ‘Putin Generation’ and are motivated by slogans such as “Russia Forward!” The name of the organisation is designed to inspire nationalist, anti-western (and therefore pro-Putin) sentiment: ‘Nashi’ can be roughly translated as ‘Ours’ or ‘Our People’. This title conveys both a sense of Russian identity and Russian sovereignty, and it implicitly suggests an antagonistic attitude towards foreign influence in Russia.

Nashi members receive rewards for their political work: members often gain internships in government departments and state-owned energy companies. In this respect Nashi operates in much the same way as its communist-era forerunner, the Soviet youth movement Komsomol.

Yet, now that the threat of a revolution in Russia has passed, Nashi seems increasingly redundant. PutinÂ’s cult of personality has penetrated the popular consciousness, and he no longer needs his youthful shock-troops. Before the presidential election in March there was talk in the Kremlin of Nashi being dissolved. It is expected that regional Nashi organisations will be assigned new tasks: they will be subsumed into the voluntary groups founded by Nashi, and Nashi members will focus on community service. Putin is at the height of his popularity, and he no longer requires the security provided by NashiÂ’s existence.

But why is Putin so popular?

Strongman

Putin presents himself as a strongman who has set out to re-instil pride in the heart of Russia. The former head of the FSB (successor to the KGB) and an ex-KGB agent, Putin revealed his ruthlessness before his first presidential term when, as Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin, he launched the Second Chechen War in August 1999, brutally suppressing the Chechen rebel movement. In the world of Kremlin internal politics he was equally ruthless following his rise to the presidency. Putin turned against the deeply unpopular business oligarchs who had thrived under Boris Yeltsin. Boris Berezovsky, the man who had played kingmaker on PutinÂ’s behalf, fled fraud and corruption charges in Russia, settling in the UK (he now lives near Royal Holloway). Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the now bankrupt Yukos Oil Company, was tried and imprisoned for fraud and tax-evasion. There is a great deal of corruption in PutinÂ’s Russia, yet he has cultivated the image of a man who is unable to tolerate crime.

PutinÂ’s aggressive foreign policy posturing explains a great deal of his popularity: it recaptures the spirit of Cold War-era Russian pride, which evaporated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. His approach to relations with former Soviet satellite states reflects the Russian desire to overcome the post-imperial melancholy that set-in under Boris YeltsinÂ’s administration. Putin is especially adept at using RussiaÂ’s strength as an energy superpower to punish dissident countries. Most notably he cut off UkraineÂ’s gas supplies shortly after the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Putin even threatened to place nuclear warheads near Kaliningrad if NATO carried out its intention of installing a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic; these warheads would be pointed at Europe. PutinÂ’s rhetoric became conciliatory only on 6 April this year when he signed an agreement with George Bush declaring the willingness of both sides to compromise on missile defence.

Meanwhile, Putin threatened that he would materially-aid the independence movements in Georgian regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia; this was in retaliation for international recognition of KosovoÂ’s independence from Serbia. The failure of NATO to earmark Ukraine and Georgia for membership in April was a consequence of PutinÂ’s forceful diplomacy, which halted NATO encroachment on territory that Russia traditionally considers its own.

Britain, too, has felt the impact of PutinÂ’s abrasive foreign policy. France and Germany were reluctant to condemn Russia for its failure to extradite Andrei Lugovoi (chief suspect in the poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 of former FSB agent and British subject Alexander Litvinenko). The European fear of upsetting a key energy supplier is significant. Mother Russia flexes her muscles because she is strong, and that is all the reason she needs. The person who benefits most from this policy is Vladimir Putin.

Putin is the physical embodiment of national strength. He has been filmed bare-chested and muscle-bound, wielding a fishing-rod. He is a judo black belt who fought with judo masters on a state visit to Japan. Putin fits the image of a great protector: a physical strongman. Much of Russia has consequently fallen in love with him.

A personality cult operates in Russia, backed up by overwhelming popular support. This is not an exercise in neo-Stalinism; these people need not fear the gulag if they fail to support Putin. Those who do support Putin support him voluntarily. And, while Nashi may seem particularly strange, in truth it is simply the youth manifestation of a spirit of popular consensus, holding aloft the figure of one man.

But is PutinÂ’s extraordinary popularity, his ability to excite intense emotions in his followers, a uniquely Russian phenomenon?

It is St. ValentineÂ’s Day 2008, and Putin is holding his last Kremlin press conference as President. Faced by over 1,000 journalists, Putin answers questions for nearly five hours. At times he is good-humoured, occasionally he is indignant and sometimes he is menacing. The camera zooms in towards his face as a young woman hands him a heart-shaped ValentineÂ’s Day card, and we see a mixture of amusement and bemusement in his expression. Certainly he looks rather stern, but he accepts the card graciously and hands it to an assistant.

We pull out of the Kremlin, high into the sky, and the globe spins. An ocean flashes past and we zoom in once again, but this time the landmass in the frame is America. WeÂ’ve arrived in Dallas, Texas. The date is 20 February 2008. We are just in time, because a momentous event is taking place at the very heart of the city.

Standing at the centre of a stadium packed with thousands of people, a tall, thin, handsome man with a deep voice delivers his speech. Reaching the end of a sentence, he interrupts himself: “Going to blow my nose here, for a second.” But as he fills a handkerchief he notices something strange. A wave of excitement is passing through the crowd. People are cheering, holding up their banners, and they begin to chant his name. The man pockets his handkerchief, surveys the crowd and then, finally, breaks into a smile. His speech has suddenly become irrelevant; Barack Obama can get applause for performing simple bodily functions.

For the time being at least, PutinÂ’s popularity in Russia has its echo in another phenomenon on the other side of the globe: the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Obama seems to draw a great deal of his support from young people, and the coming few months will determine whether or not this can be sustained. His campaign sometimes resembles a cult of personality, but the Senator from Illinois still has a long way to go before his following matches that of Russian spy-master turned politician, Vladimir Putin.

Nevertheless, Obama is exciting more interest in youth circles than is ordinarily the case for US politicians. In a recent interview with The Times, actor and director George Clooney identified the nature of Obama’s appeal. Speaking to Ginny Dougary, Clooney said: “Barack Obama is that person who comes around very rarely,” adding that “he’s just spellbinding.” Elaborating, Clooney observed that young Americans are “voting right now like you cannot believe. So maybe this is that moment where, for the first time in our history, kids are going to understand that they have to take the reins of our country and that may be why Barack Obama is around right now.”

No stranger himself to popular adoration, George Clooney knows what he is talking about, but it is debatable whether a high turnout of young people could secure Obama the White House in November’s election. It is also true that Obama’s embryonic personality cult, if it can be so-called, has been kept in check by the negative revelations hindering his campaign. Enthusiasm for Obama’s presidential bid has been dampened by the following: the incendiary comments of his former pastor the Reverend Jeremiah Wright; the friendship with slum-landlord Tony Rezko (now on trial for corruption); the unfortunate connection with William Ayers (a former member of terrorist organisation the Weather Underground); the recent comments about small-town Americans clinging to “guns or religion” because they feel “bitter” about their poverty; and the incident in which Obama called a female reporter “sweetie”. Obama’s popularity looked like an unstoppable phenomenon in February. Now that he has suffered greater scrutiny from the press, his image in the popular imagination is tarnished on several fronts. Intense scrutiny from the press is something Vladimir Putin has never had to fear, and his cult of personality has consequently grown unabated. If Barack Obama can, over the next few months, continue to build a personality cult, it will truly demonstrate the strength of his appeal.

Recently I received a message on Facebook from the Obama campaign inviting me to become an ‘Obama Organising Fellow’ (the campaign is obviously unaware that I live in the UK). The Obama Organising Fellowship is a “program that’s going to train a new generation of leaders – not only to help us win this election, but to help strengthen our democracy in communities across the country”. Clearly the campaign needs dedicated political activists to promote Obama’s message in the months leading up to November, but the Organising Fellowship still sounds very similar to an official Obama youth movement. Accusations that Obama is encouraging a personality cult appear to be gaining legitimacy.

Young, politically disaffected adults in Britain cannot understand the psychological conditions underpinning the modern cult of personality. We watch, we smile and then we shake our heads in wonderment and disbelief. Could those conditions ever be replicated here? Would it be desirable?

Whatever the case, I rather doubt that we shall see any British politicians being applauded for filling a handkerchief in the near future.

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