‘Hunting, shooting and fishing with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s man of action’, read the title of one Telegraph article from 2013. The article goes on to show various photos of the Russian leader; in one, he poses with a recently caught pike about half his size; in another, from 2010, he rides a horse through snowy Siberia; and in another, from 2007, he wades bare-chested through long grass while carrying a hunting rifle.
Similarly, a video posted on YouTube through the Sun’s account is titled ‘Vladimir Putin shows off ‘macho’ holiday hunting bears and fishing amid COVID fears in inner circle’. Putin can be seen traversing the Russian wilderness with a long staff and hunting gear, fishing in a fast-moving river, and camping overnight. Throughout, he appears proficient and at ease in his environment.
Images of him practicing judo, playing ice hockey, and arm-wrestling all point back to his past involvement in the KGB. They epitomise the international image that he has spent the past two decades trying to build up; one of a confident, macho leader, and, as suggested by the Washington Post, the first among a series of strongmen-style leaders across the globe.
Derisive street art and caricature of the Russian president has surged following his invasion of Ukraine. They both demonstrate and drive the destruction of this carefully cultivated image.
Ukrainian cartoonists are at the helm of this derision. One cartoonist, Oleksandr Barabanshchyskov, describes these cartoons as exemplifying the fact that ‘We have freedom in Ukraine’ – among his images is a shame-faced Putin awaiting the guillotine before a clamouring crowd. Another, Yuriy Zhuravel, depicts Putin as a pig roasting over a fire in the shape of a Ukrainian coat of arms, as attempting to throw a nuclear missile with his hands while two skeletons holding Russian flags offer their support, and with his face squashed into a preservation jar while a fly crawls alongside it.
The message of these cartoons is clear – Putin’s efforts in Ukraine are a failure and his diminishing authority is becoming laughable.
Street artists reveal similar changes in popular opinion. The imagery of doves is frequently invoked to represent Putin as a warmonger. For example, in Lyon, street artist Big Ben’s ‘L’Ogre’ depicts Putin strangling two bleeding doves, while in Stavanger, a city in Norway, a street mural depicts a dove carrying an olive branch releasing its poo over Putin’s head as it flies past.
Putin often appears bloody. For instance, on a boulevard along the River Tiber, Harry Greb depicts the image of Putin that appeared on the front of the Time magazine, but with a bloody stain across his forehead in the shape of Ukraine. Even in traditionally pro-Russia Serbia, someone has defaced a street mural of Putin’s face over a Russian flag background with sunglasses and blood.
In some cases, Putin’s own rhetoric is being used against him. For example, street artist Andrea Villa created a mock Gillete advertisement in Turin, Italy, of Putin with a razor below his nose to form a Hitler moustache. The comparison with the Nazi leader is widespread, despite Putin’s own unfounded claim to be ridding Ukraine of Nazis.
Certainly, Putin was not internationally adored before his invasion of Ukraine. However, the explosion in popular images both deriding and scathing the leader represents a key change from his pre-war macho appearance. By casting his failures and atrocities firmly before the public eye, artists have made them impossible to ignore.
No longer the self-assured figure he once appeared to be, a collapse of his authority in his own country may be on the way. Dominic Waghorn reports the falling number of men of fighting age visible on Moscow’s streets as hundreds of thousands flee the country or hide indoors to avoid the draft. Citizens are increasingly being stopped by police to have their phones searched for seditious content. Families live in fear of having a male loved one sent to fight and die in a war that appears to be going nowhere.
In the age of the internet, it is difficult to believe that these mocking and scathing images of President Putin do not reach Russian eyes. As Putin’s failures and the Russian death toll continues to mount, his public image will only continue to crumble.
Featured Image: rajatonvimma at flickr