On Sunday, the Kremlin released a strange, awkward video of Russian President Vladimir Putin working out with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. The camera follows the two men silently lifting weights in a sun-dappled pavilion at the Bocharov Ruchei government residence in Sochi, going from exercise to exercise on the kind of self-balancing weight machines that your CrossFit-obsessed friends are always making fun of.
The decision to release footage of the most powerful man in Russia frowning through a set of calf raises in unflattering sweatpants might seem, to a casual observer, odd. But this is all part of the long-running and quite carefully scripted Putin Adventure public affairs strategy. It follows years of other photo ops and staged videos that are basically official Putin fan fiction. He subdues tigers, rides horses, and communes with dolphins! He pilots tiny submarines and flies tiny aircraft! Kids and dogs love him! Also sometimes he performs dentistry!
This is meant to promote a cult of personality, yes, but also to serve another, perhaps even more important political purpose — one that might not be obvious from outside of Russia, and that says a lot about how Putin's Russia really works, and about what may be Putin's greatest political fear.
The fear behind the photo ops
These often amusing Putin stunts are clearly designed to burnish the president's image as a powerful, healthy, impressive figure. But while that might seem like a way for an autocratic leader to bolster his own ego, the truth is actually darker. These photos aren't about confidence — they're about fear.
Russian political power is centralized around Putin, and if he were to suddenly die or become ill, it's not at all clear what would happen next, who would run the country, or whether the sprawling political system — which has fallen into chaos before — would hold together at all. As a result, even the slightest hint of illness or weakness can cause agitation and panic in the Russian public. 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 shirtless, looking 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.
That truth isn't lost on the country's political and economic elite, whose support Putin relies on to stay in power; he needs the elite to stay in power, and the elite need him to keep things running. As long as Putin stays popular and healthy, he can protect elite interests. But if his health or popularity slips, and the elites no longer trust that he can guarantee stability, then they could withdraw their support, which could be disastrous or even fatal for his regime.
That means that staged photos and videos like this weekend's gym session are something of a barometer of Putin's insecurity. Over the past year, Putin's popularity ratings have been sky-high and the staged Putin Adventure photos have been a bit less frequent — possibly because his invasion of Crimea essentially served as a real-life contribution to the genre.
Is Putin feeling politically insecure?
But in recent weeks, Putin's popularity has begun to slip. The Moscow Times reports that last week, Russian business daily Vedomosti published the results of an August poll by the state-run Public Opinion Foundation, which found that 72 percent of Russians would vote for Putin in an election held today, down from 76 percent in May. A few days earlier, a different poll by Moscow's Levada Center found that Putin's approval rating had fallen to 83 percent, down from its all-time high of 89 percent in May.
Those approval ratings are still extremely high, even taking into account the vagaries of conducting polling in a country with no real political opposition and limited press freedom. But the decline, which may be due in part to rising food prices in Russia, appears to have worried the Kremlin. So now the staged photos are back: The weightlifting footage is the second addition to the genre in less than a month. On August 19, the Kremlin released video of Putin taking a tiny submarine to the floor of the Black Sea.
But while it's entertaining to speculate about what might be next — if his ratings drop further, might Putin decide to swim with dolphins again? Or do more shirtless hunting on horseback? — the deeper truth here is deadly serious. If Putin's hold on power starts to slip, the results will be unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. The same insecurity that leads to goofy weightlifting videos also leads to crackdowns on internal dissent, repression of political opposition, and even military aggression. A scared and insecure Putin is dangerous, and not just for Russia. Watching Putin and Medvedev bro out at the gym is funny — but it could be a sign of much worse to come.