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Putin wins at hockey! Mao swims the Yangtze! And other amazing feats of authoritarian prowess

- October 14, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently celebrated his 63rd birthday by scoring seven goals in a hockey game broadcast live throughout Russia. His team, which included several NHL stars, won the game 15-10.

Putin is hardly unique among modern political leaders in showing off his physical fitness, or even in playing a sport with professionals. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez were keen baseball players. Evo Morales is mad about soccer, and was even signed up to play part-time for a local Bolivian club in 2014. And, of course, American presidents occasionally show off their skills on the basketball court.

[Turkey’s Erdogan joins the club of world leaders who win at sports]

But Putin is unusual in the strong emphasis his public image gives to sporting achievement. There’s his judo black belt, complete with an instructional DVD, “Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.” There’s his love of fishing and hunting, pursuits in which he is not afraid to show his abs. And now we see his hockey skills. Let’s take a look at the political implications of these, er, achievements.

1. There is a long history of political leaders using (and exaggerating) images of their own physical prowess to signal health and vigor.

Perhaps most famously, in 1966 a 72-year-old Mao Zedong swam in the Yangtze River to dispel rumours that he was ill or incapacitated by his enemies. The Chinese press of the time amplified this into an achievement of world-historical proportions. And Benito Mussolini was probably the first leader photographed without his shirt, at the ski slopes of Terminillo, near Rome. He did this specifically to reaffirm his virility by showing off his body to a wide public, at a time when he was increasingly worried about aging.

Credible signals of health and vigor seem to be especially necessary when political power is highly personalized, as it was in China in the 1960s or today in Russia. In such circumstances, the failing health of long-term rulers has often been a trigger for internecine struggles among the elite. From this perspective, the image of a vigorous Putin, able to play hockey at a high level, probably functions in part as a believable signal of his staying power.

[Putin and Obama’s war of words at the United Nations]

The 1937 pictures of Mussolini, which show him without skis on his feet, also demonstrate the limits of this propaganda strategy in more open societies. Without some degree of control over the media, the staged event might have led to ridicule, since Mussolini appears to have been unable to ski.

2. At the same time, the more political power is concentrated in one person, the more his sporting or artistic achievements tend to be tainted by flattery or fear.

The Roman emperor Nero wanted to be a great lyre player and singer, and liked to compete in singing contests. He took his training seriously and insisted on being just another competitor. However, given his personal power and status in Roman society, of course Nero would win all the competitions he entered. Indeed the Roman senate, in a fit of exasperation with Nero’s flouting of senatorial mores (which looked down on the theatre as an unbecoming activity), offered him the prize for singing in the Quinquennial Games in A.D. 65, before the games were even held, to dissuade him from participating in them.

It is unclear whether Nero truly believed that he was a great singer; one should not underestimate the human capacity for self-deception. But the senate certainly wasn’t deceived, even if it could do little to prevent Nero from devoting himself to singing.

Great power can taint all achievements even in ostensibly democratic contexts. For example, among 20th and 21st century leaders, perhaps only Finnish leader Urho Kekkonen (Prime Minister and then President of Finland from 1950 to 1982) made his sporting pursuits as central to his public persona as Putin. Kekkonen was a serious athlete. But he was apparently so competitive and so powerful for a time within the Finnish political system that to avoid spoiling his mood his entourage always made sure he always led in cross country skiing or coordinated to ensure that he always had the biggest catch of the day on fishing trips.

3. Even propaganda about unbelievable achievements can credibly signal a ruler’s power and thus discourage opposition.

The absurd claims sometimes made on behalf of powerful rulers by state-controlled press agencies, such as the claim made in the 1980s that Hafez al-Assad was Syria’s “premier pharmacist,” are not really believed literally by anyone, as Lisa Wedeen documents in her work on the cult of Assad. But insofar as they cannot be publicly contradicted without consequences or must be repeated by others, they do serve as credible evidence that the ruler has the power to compel others to act as if they believed in them.

As Haifeng Huang and Milan Svolik have argued, unbelievable propaganda should not be understood as a failed form of persuasion, but as an instrument of power.

Thoroughly unbelievable claims about sporting achievements are nevertheless quite rare, even where we find full-blown personality cults. In my own research I have found few claims of this sort. Reports that Kim Jong-Il once scored five holes in one on the golf course are likely a myth; the North Korean press did sometimes make similarly baffling claims about him. For instance, Rodong Sinmun apparently reported in 2006 that Kim had mastered the art of teleporting to avoid detection by American satellites.

[North Korea is getting weaker and more vulnerable. That should scare you.]

Propaganda about Putin’s sporting achievements can certainly signal his dominance of the political system; not everyone can get his birthday party broadcast live throughout Russia! But within the Russian public sphere few can be compelled to act as if they believe them if they do not.

4. Claims of physical or artistic achievement are usually parts of campaigns to shore up popular support by constructing leader images that resonate with the population.

Scholars of Russian culture like Helena Goscilo have argued that Putin’s “performance of masculinity” resonates deeply with some sections of the Russian public. There is abundant survey evidence that the Russian public views Putin in positive ways. Even Nero’s enthusiasm for artistic performances may have been part of an attempt to secure popularity with the plebs, diminishing the importance of the senate and the army for his position.

[Here’s why Putin wants to topple Ukraine’s government. (His own image depends on it.)]

Yet the effect of such public performances on the support of leaders in the long run is at best marginal. Over the longer term, the popularity of leaders in both authoritarian and democratic contexts seems to be driven by much more prosaic factors, such as how well the economy is doing, than by their ability to produce effective propaganda. To be sure, in the short run, popularity is power, and it can be amplified by skillful public relations work. But we should not exaggerate how much the “legitimacy” it produces matters to regime stability.

5. Not all stories of unusual physical or artistic achievement attributed to leaders are orchestrated from above or even reflect a conscious propaganda strategy.

Such stories sometimes emerge organically, “from below,” in a process I have called “flattery inflation,” either through genuine identification with the leader by some part of the population, or because there is something to be gained by producing flattery or displaying symbols of identification.

In the case of Putin, there is even a small subgenre of fanfiction novels that cast him as an action hero, leading a spetsnaz squad in Chechnya or otherwise saving the world.

However, these forms of Putiniana, as Julie Cassiday and Emily D. Johnson argue, cannot be understood straightforwardly as signals of support for Putin. Russians, like people elsewhere, produce and relate stories about Putin for a wide variety of motivations, including satire. Though the Russian public sphere today is more tightly controlled than the public sphere elsewhere, there is still space for dissatisfied people to mock “Superputin.”

Xavier Marquez is a senior lecturer in the political science and international relations program at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He blogs at Abandoned Footnotes.