You have probably seen the odd, and often shirtless, photo ops staged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. While most world leaders content themselves with appearing at sober state functions or occasional political rallies, Putin's official photocalls suggest a rich, Walter Mitty-esque fantasy life. He subdues tigers, rides horses, and communes with dolphins! He fires rifles and flies tiny aircraft! Kids and dogs love him! Also sometimes he performs dentistry!
But there's more to those photos than meets the eye. They're not just a amusing stunts meant to indulge his ego; they serve an important political end as well, one that says a lot about how Putin's Russia really works.
The images highlight his public image as simultaneously lovable and strong: the ones of him with children and animals make him seem lovable, while those of him shooting guns, riding horses, and winning judo matches make him seem powerful. Many of the images are also intended to highlight the greatness of Russia itself — its natural resources, rich wildlife, and impressive history.
Likewise, the shirtless photos and bathing suit shots aren't just a way for Putin to show off his presidential dad bod, they're also a way for him to highlight his health and strength. It's a reminder to the Russian public — and to the Russian elite, whose support Putin relies on — that Putin is healthy, he is in control, and he is going to stay that way.
All of that matters a great deal in Russia. Russian political power is centralized with Putin, and if he were to suddenly die or become ill, it's not at all clear what would happen next. As a result, even the slightest hint of illness or weakness can cause agitation and fear. Last March, for instance, Putin withdrew from public life for a few days without explanation, and there was immediate, widespread speculation that something terrible might have happened to him, such as a serious illness or even a coup.
Photos of Putin looking shirtless, healthy, and powerful are a way to reassure the public that there's no need to worry. If Putin is fine, then Russia is fine. But consider the implication of that assertion: if Putin is not fine, then neither is Russia. The scary part is that's probably correct. Power is so centralized with Putin that he has made himself essential to holding up a vast, complicated, and fractious political system — and keeping together a country where fears of instability or even violence run deep.
The photos also remind Russia's all-important elites that Putin is still their best bet for maintaining the country's stability and power, because no other political figure in Russia enjoys the same combination of political power and popular support. They're a crucial audience for Putin as well, as he needs their support.
So next time you see a photo of Putin doing something ridiculous, most probably in Russia's great outdoors, remember that there's more going on there than just a wacky stunt.