Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Rezori: Putin, strongmen and the politics of brawn

We in the west may think of Vladimir Putin's strongman reputation in a negative light, but it plays very differently in Russia, writes Azzo Rezori.

According to western news media, the indictment is in.

Story after recent story has been referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin as "strongman" Putin. But in our part of the world the word strongman is not a compliment, especially when applied to political leaders.

Vladimir Putin has made a point of being photographed bare-chested. (Dmitry Astakhov/Presidential Press Service/Associated Press)
It’s a portrait, and not a very flattering one. It paints the picture of a thug. Putin the strongman is just another way of saying Putin the bully.

What we overlook is that we fall into the trap of our own experience and forget that in other parts of the world the term strongman just might have far richer and more complex history and meaning.

In our experience, strongmen are nothing but trouble. They have a long and infamous history of starting out as leaders of legitimate causes and ending up as self-appointed chancellors of tyranny.

True political power, we now teach our children, is not physical, it’s spiritual. If there’s any muscIe to be involved, it’s the muscle of the compassionate heart and mind, not the muscle of the strong arm holding the subverted law or any other instrument of coercion.

But who are we to insist that others share the same perspective?

On my father’s book shelves was a collection of folk tales from different parts of the world, all the way from Iceland to China. Somewhere in between lay the richness of the Russian imagination.  And deeply embedded within that imagination was the figure of the strongman.

From the myths

I remember being almost annoyed by the number of tales of Russian strongmen and their tediously brawny adventures. Personally, I preferred heroes who started out weak, as I would have, but prevailed anyway with a little help from magic.

Ilya Muromets is depicted in the centre of Victor Vasnetsov's 1898 painting Bogatyrs. (Wikimedia Commons)
I’ve tried, and I’ve had no success in tracking down any of those tales on the internet. But I did run into all kinds of references to the strongmen of Russian mythology known as the bogatyrs.

The bogatyrs are the Russian equivalent to the Knights of the Round Table. The most famous of them is Ilyia of Murom or Ilya Muromets, celebrated for his physical and spiritual prowess and his dedication to the protection of his homeland and people. The bogatyrs are cult figures even in modern Russia.

Is it possible that Putin grew up wishing to become one of them?

I also came across a website called It shows the picture of a muscle-bound male in T-shirt and follows up with five short paragraphs explaining what Russian men are all about.

Every Russian man, asserts the first paragraph, internalizes such principles as not letting others hurt him or his family, being able to challenge an attacker physically, protecting the weak, and always resisting the urge to cry.

Puff, puff!

The third paragraph opens with the assurance that Russian men are also romantics at heart.

Puff, puff! again.

Don't be quick to laugh

We may laugh all this off as bosh. Putin obviously doesn’t. Everything he’s been doing of late suggests that not only does he buy into this culture, he promotes it and counts on it.

Seen from our end of the spy glass, his politics may be awful and completely illegitimate, but it would be dangerous to underestimate the legitimacy of the mythology driving them.

His approval ratings had been slipping ever since 2006 when the social and economic reforms he’d initiated six years earlier had started to stall. Not until the conflicts with Georgia and now with the Ukraine, in which he claimed to protect Russian fellowmen and women, did the ratings take off again.

Western headlines characterizing him as a mere thug may work over here, but they don’t necessarily work over there. If anything, they confirm what Putin has been maintaining all along, that here in the West we just don’t get the Russian soul, and we don’t even try to get it. All we’re interested in is imposing our own perspectives on them.

This is not to defend Putin, because even in the folk tales of his beloved Russia strongmen need to accept the errors of their brawny ways before they can get to the happy ending. This is to question how we dismiss him and his kind by reducing the genuine cultural differences they epitomize to stereotypes we promptly reject.

For Putin, being the strongman is not just a personal vanity, it’s a cultural and hence collective vanity as well. And as such it’s the key to his political survival — at least for now.

Seen from our end of the spy glass, his politics may be awful and completely illegitimate, but it would be dangerous to underestimate the legitimacy of the mythology driving them.


Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.