Russia’s controversial, authoritarian president Vladimir Putin is using state funds and security forces to prevent the display of a painting that shows him wearing a women’s night gown and his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev wearing a bra and panties. The exhibit’s organizers have been taken into custody and the artwork officially declared “extremist”. The artist has fled to France, where he is now seeking political asylum.
The first question for Mr. Putin is: Why? What, Mr. President, are you so determined to conceal? The second question is: By what right? Do you, Vladimir Putin, really believe the Federation will unravel and collapse into the ground, because you have been painted wearing women’s clothing? That seems like a less than rigorous standard for assessing genuine threats to Russia’s security.
But that last point is not surprising. In many ways, Vladimir Putin’s career seems to be built around a complex deception: the use of shocking and terrible force to give the appearance of rigor and seriousness, but in furtherance of policies that are neither rigorous nor serious, if the mission is service to the Russian Federation. Whether by the jailing of rivals, the persecution of Pussy Riot or by the brazen execution of journalists, Mr. Putin continually shows himself to be more focused on brutal treatment of others than on governing.
For Russians, the problem is not the question of whether or not Vladimir Putin wears women’s underwear or whether Dmitry Medvedev is secretly a woman; for Russians, the problem is that security forces are routinely deployed to counter even the existence of such an image in an art gallery no one would have ever heard of if not for Mr. Putin’s compulsive recourse to brutal and inappropriate uses of state resources.
It is a serious problem for Russians, because it creates ever more opportunity for dangerous black markets, extrajudicial killings, abuses of all kinds throughout society, and racist and unnecessary conflicts that actually do threaten the stability of the Federation. The persecution of a painter is just the latest in an incredible and at times absurdist litany of abuses that follow the most ill-conceived, primitive and counterproductive logic.
Vladimir Putin’s governing style creates tremendous risk and waste for the people of the Russian Federation. It edifies markets for illicit dealings and fortifies mechanisms of cruel abuse against the transformative gaze of an open democracy. Whether by commitment to domestic wars verging on genocide or to exploiting gas supplies to extort payment by threatening lives in Europe, Putin’s way of doing business drags Russia down, impeding democracy and reducing international credibility.
While Syria burns, or rather, while some entity within Syria big enough, wealthy enough and advanced enough to do so carries out large-scale chemical weapons attacks against civilians, Putin is jailing art exhibit organizers and confiscating paintings of himself in drag. It is an astonishing show of gracelessness and unseriousness, and a wholesale failure to meet the challenge posed by such artwork.
In a free society, where a government is chosen, legitimate and resilient in the face of ridicule, such artwork is just a way of talking about civics, talking about culture, talking about history—past and future. A head of state need not deal with it, or might laugh at it, or might find it undignified and not worthy of his great nation’s cultural forces, but above all, he need fear it, and he has better things to do than to declare a painting an enemy of the Federation or incarcerate art dealers.
This publication would never have commented on this painting, even if it had become a viral phenomenon, had it not succeeded in revealing the fundamental weakness of the Putin regime: the self-obsession of Vladimir Putin himself. And perhaps that is why Pres. Putin cannot conceal his fear of this critique…
It is not widely believed that Vladimir Putin spends his time in ladies’ nightgowns, frolicking with the Prime Minister; it is, however, widely believed that Mr. Putin thinks himself a little too pretty for history. No one else, so goes his personal narrative, can govern Russia and its federated partner republics; no one else can “make sense of” the mess he has created in the Caucasus, because, even as he blames others, it is, after all, his mess. He owns it.
And that is the core problem that can be seen so clearly from a distance: Putin desperately wants to own his policies, own his warfighting, own his regime of persecution… and, he wants not to: he wants not to be blamed, not to be criticized, not to be seen as wanting. In the end, somehow, Putin gives the impression of thinking more about Putin than about anything else, and that accident of vanity irks him from within… why can’t he appear more serious, more worldly, more confident of his legitimacy?
And of course, who could? With the litany of tragic errors, widespread suffering, domestic conflict, gathering agricultural collapse, and a seemingly inescapable reliance on what then president Dmitry Medvedev, his prime minister, called a “primitive” mineral resource-based economy, it is easy to find reasons why Putin’s authoritarian regime is simply not worth the trouble.
The painting of Putin in a woman’s negligee may not end his time in power; in fact, it is safe to say it will not. But Mr. Putin’s obsessive, extreme and dictatorial reaction to the painting will make it stand up to history. It is more than a little relevant to understanding Russia at this time that Putin has jailed a punk rock band for degrading the Church by mentioning his name in prayer and has now reacted to a painting as if it were a crime against humanity, while ignoring the mass murder of innocents in Syria.
Pathology is not a governing strategy; it is just a personal failing, and one that should not exist in the government of any society that chooses a legitimate elected government or enjoys real freedom of information.