He’s a Real Man? Vladimir Putin as Meme

Nadia Hoppe


When thinking of the current Russian President, most minds conjure the image of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, thanks to countless official photographs that attempt to illustrate the leader’s exaggerated masculinity. A hypermasculine display, Putin’s photographs—both those that work to promote him and work to oppose him—work to establish the leader’s political legitimacy and illegitimacy through gendered, heteronormative means using the body as an imaginative tool. 




Besides being recognized for his political fame, Putin is also known for the persona he projects, particularly through photographs. As seen by comical reproductions of official photographs, the image of Putin that comes to mind for many is a shirtless Putin, sometimes riding a horse. Though many recognize a shirtless Putin because of comedic representations of the leader, that particular image is warranted, as can be seen by the photographs posted on his personal website.

The homepage of Putin’s personal website defaults to a photo album. The website visitor can browse through photographs of content from as early as 2010, to find not only photographs of Putin fulfilling his role as national representative of Russia, but also images of Putin engaging in traditionally masculine activities as part of his contribution to the country. In October 2010, a series of photos recounts Putin’s visit to a nature preserve. He is pictured trudging through the brush, gun in tow, riding a horse through the river, and handling a large fish with his bare hands. In November 2010, Putin drives a race car. In February 2011, Putin skis on slopes of the Caucasus. And the list goes on. Furthermore, evidence of his love for Russia is overwhelming. Scattered among descriptions of his interests are statements such as: “Putin prefers Russian ski slopes” and “Putin prefers Russian cars.”



This legible masculinity, which is present in so many aspects of Putin’s image and continues to be emphasized, suggests the use of  hypermasculinity as a political strategy of the Putin administration. In her book chapter “Putin’s performance of masculinity: the action hero and macho sex-object,” Helena Goscilo[1] argues that Putin displays a “carefully calibrated public image” which “slots quite neatly into traditional, fantasy-fueled paradigms of ideal masculinity” (182). As she writes, by illustrating a simultaneous “warrior” (through militaristic imagery) and “philosopher” (through excellent command of rhetoric and speech strategy) status, Putin propagates himself as a a type of “ruler” that she argues only exists on the silver screen (183). Most importantly, Goscilo writes, “Putin’s masculinity is grounded in the body and what the body can withstand—a material guarantor that, as Putin learned, reassures the public” (184). Because Putin’s masculinity is grounded in the body, the medium of photographs is an apparent choice for displaying his machismo. Furthermore, Valerie Sperling writes in her 2015 book Sex, Politics, and Putin[2], gender norms and sexualization are internationality used as a means of political legitimacy and the “assertion of masculinity” is often used as a “vehicle for power.” (4) Through photographs, the body as a physical representation can be foregrounded, therefore also foregrounding Putin’s heroic masculinity, and thus, his ability to rule effectively.

The Putin administration uses images to construct an identity. However, images can also be used to challenge and confront that identity. These comedic and satirical reproductions often attack or exaggerate Putin’s performed masculinity, further entrenching his public persona with an image of him as a machismo, heroic figure. These images can speak to particular social issues and act as a form of political protest. For example, a classic photograph of Putin looking straight into the camera was altered to illustrate Putin with long eyelashes and heavy make-up with a rainbow flag in the background—a clear statement against Putin’s recent nontraditional sexual relations propaganda legislation. Sometimes displaying the words “stop homophobia” across Putin’s forehead, this image is heavily used in protests against Putin’s federal laws banning “homosexual propaganda.”



In the same way that images of Putin are used in serious political protest, internet-circulated images and “memes” are used to call to attention the humorous nature of Putin’s exaggerated masculinity and strange tendency to showcase it through a plethora of photographs, which are almost as extensive as the officially-produced photographs of Putin.


A popular photograph of a baby weasel riding on a flying woodpecker is altered to picture Putin riding on top of a baby weasel, which is on a flying woodpecker.


The viral music video “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus, is altered to feature Putin’s head on Miley Cyrus’ mostly naked body swinging on a wrecking ball. 


A photograph of Putin hunting shirtless, gun in tow, is altered to picture Putin holding a net, catching butterflies. 


Furthermore, contemporary art calls into question the validity of Putin’s hypermasculinity. In August 2013, police seized a controversial painting by Konstantin Altunin from a St. Petersburg gallery. The painting illustrates Putin wearing negligee and brushing the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev:



In another painting by Vera Donskaia-Khilko titled Wrestling (2011), Putin is again pictured, yet in an exaggerated display of phallocentrism. The painting originally appeared in Moscow’s first sex museum, whose curator and founder, Alexander Donskoi, is a vocal critic of the Putin regime.[3] Alongside Soviet condoms and paintings of orgies is Donskaia-Khilko’s oil painting, which features Putin and American President, Barack Obama, standing face to face in preparation for a battle between their enormous phalluses. Obama stands tall with a string of money in his hand, a single yellow penis, and two liberty bells in the place of testicles. Directly across from Obama is Putin with his two penises (one green and one red), donned in bear and fox fur. Both presidents are surrounded by other absurd phallic images, such as small dragons with similarly exaggerated penises and phallic-shaped mushrooms. The text on the wall explains, “Putin has two members, as a symbol of hyperpotency, a symbol of the gray cardinal,” making it abundantly clear who is the most powerful figure. Similarly to Altunin’s painting, the work was considered an apparent attack on Putin’s constructed hypermasculine identity and a reproduction of Donskaia-Khilko’s painting was also seized by police from a museum in St. Petersburg, just a week after Altunin’s painting was seized.[4]



In their book chapter “A Personality Cult for the Postmodern Age: Reading Vladimir Putin’s Public Persona,” Julie A. Cassidy and Emily D. Johnson explain that this overwhelming propagation of Putin imagery which gives rise to his canonization has caused journalists to compare Putin’s popularity to Soviet-era “cults of personality.”[5]  However, these instances as “Soviet-style strategies” for maintaining social control and cultivation of an image of Putin as a strong, successful leader, “break down down as soon as we move beyond the state controlled media” (39). As they explain, while the party-controlled personality cults of the Soviet era were “both monolithic and static,” Putin-mania is “inherently polysemantic, highly mobile and easily individualized” and also defined by the “two most important cultural practices of the post-Soviet era— nostalgia and consumption” (40). They write, “It offers Russians, many of whom felt deprived of both cultural and individual identity during the chaotic 1990s, the opportunity to articulate new modes of subjectivity” (40).

It is important to note that much of the anti-Putin artwork and internet memes examined here delegitimize the leader by employing traditional ideas of masculinity. Their oppositional efficacy stems from the recognition and use of gender norms; as official photographs of Putin exaggerate traditional masculinity in order to produce a narrative about the leader’s political identity, anti-Putin images appropriate these masculine traditions in order to create an opposing narrative. Above all else, the body is used as a malleable object in the effort to legitimize or delegitimize Putin, naming itself as a main marker of political image and voice.

[1] Goscilo, Helena. “Putin’s performance of masculinity: the action hero and macho sex-object.” Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon. ed. Helena Goscilo. New York: Routeledge, 2013. Print.

[2] Sperling, Valerie. Sex, Politics, Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.

[3] Elder, Miriam. “Moscow Museum Celebrates Sex.” The Guardian. 12 July 2011. Web. 11 May 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/12/moscow-sex-museum-sparks-controversy

[4] Brooks, Katherine. “Russian Police Nab Painting Of Nude Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.” The Huffington Post. 5 September 2013. Web. 11 May 2015.

[5] Cassidy, Julie A. and Emily D. Johnson. “A Personality Cult for the Postmodern Age: Reading Vladimir Putin’s Public Persona.” Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon. ed. Helena Goscilo. New York: Routeledge, 2013. Print.

Nadia Hoppe is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include Soviet and Post-Soviet literature, art, and film as well as gender and critical theory.




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