Russian recession hasn't hurt the Putin brand — yet

The Russian economy may be faltering, but the fallout has yet to land on President Vladimir Putin, whose support has barely taken a hit — neither in the polls nor on the streets of Moscow, where his image graces everything from mugs to perfume bottles.

Economy is in trouble, but president's support in polls — and souvenir shops — has barely taken a hit

There's a new smell going around Moscow. An essence close to the Kremlin, sold at the city's most upscale shopping mall near Red Square. A fragrance for men called Leaders Number One inspired by none other than Vladimir Putin, the country's president. 

What does he smell like?

The scent grabs you with such a force you can't tear yourself away.- Inga Pershina, director of development for Putin-inspired perfume

"I can only talk about the scent in the bottle," says Inga Pershina, the perfume's director of development. "In the beginning, some will find it pretty sweet ... well-meaning.

"When it's fully revealed, there are many different smells associated with it, like toughness, even harshness. The scent grabs you with such a force you can't tear yourself away. We believe this is the scent of a leader."

Leaders Number One sold out before Christmas in Russia. Another 10,000-bottle shipment is on its way, and Pershina says a Canadian seller is negotiating for 5,000 bottles.

Evidence of the Putin brand is everywhere in Moscow. Images of the Russian president appear on everything from mugs to posters to T-shirts and, most recently, perfume bottles. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The Putin brand is a marketer's fantasy. His image gazes out from everything from coffee mugs to calendars to matryoshka dolls and bottle openers. For his birthday, seven Russian cities had artists paint murals thanking Putin for such things as power, security, independence, the Olympics.

A new collection of Putin's speeches has just gone on sale: words of wisdom culled from 190 speeches, with over 40 accompanying photos. Its title is apt for a leader not known for his modesty: Words That Change the World.

Approval ratings down slightly

The man himself is hidden behind the Kremlin's high walls, but a visitor to Moscow can hardly escape him. Near Red Square, a Putin double who bears a shockingly accurate resemblance to the leader, poses for pictures for rubles, despite their plunging value.

Brand Putin sells itself.

Putin's image dwarfs those of other Russian leaders, including Dmitry Medvedev, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, in this display of matryoshka dolls. Many Russians believe Putin has returned the country to its former glory and regained the great-power status it lost after the end of the Cold War. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Russian commentators frequently rebuff criticism of their president, citing his high approval ratings, which are often above 80 per cent. But the underpinnings of Putin's apparent appeal are complex, and polling shows his approval is beginning to sag, ever so slightly.

Four times over the course of his 15 years in power, his ratings have spiked. On three of those occasions, Russia was embroiled in conflicts.

In 2003, it was terrorist threats in Chechnya. In 2007-08, the war in Georgia, and in 2014-15, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Jane Lezina, a senior research fellow at the Levada Centre, which conducts polls and other social research, says she doesn't see how Putin's high approval ratings can last for long in the face of deepening economic recession. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

"People have got an impression, or an illusion, that Russia has returned to its great-power status, that Russia's greatness, lost with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., has suddenly revived," said Jane Lezina, senior research fellow at Moscow's Levada Centre, which conducts polling and other social research.

Levada has measured the president's approval rating since he came to power in March 2000. The annexation of Crimea gave him the highest spike, pushing his support to a record 89 per cent last summer. But since then, the trend has been downward and these days stands around 82 per cent.

'Brainwashed by propaganda'

Lezina says Russians have been more preoccupied over the last six months with the devalued ruble, rising prices and missed wages. In recent focus groups, when asked what they remember most about events of the previous week, Russians cite issues close to their pocketbooks rather than Russia's "overseas adventures."

Local governments have taken the heat, muted as it is, for the depressed economy.

Putin paraphernalia usually features menacing images of the president, often clad in dark glasses and fatigues. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Even Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev has seen his approval drop to levels not seen since the opposition protests of 2012. But Putin has so far stayed above the fray.

They're brainwashed by propaganda, and they feel they are opposed by the whole world.- Jane Lezina,, research fellow, Levada Centre

"They're brainwashed by propaganda, and they feel they are opposed by the whole world, surrounded by enemies," Lezina said. "It is likely their consolidation around the leader will survive for some time, at least.

"At the same time, I don't see how these extra-high approval ratings can last for a long time in face of deep economic recession."

The Kremlin practises a sophisticated information war, and it encourages young recruits.

In a gentrified Moscow neighbourhood inside a funky former gas plant are the headquarters of Set, or Network in English, a collective of creative, nationalistic Russian youth who admire and are inspired by Putin.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 gave Putin a bump in the polls. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

"When they come here [for the] first time, we talk about Putin, and we talk about Russia, and when the people don't support Putin, we talk, 'Bye-bye. You can go next door to some other organization,'" said Makar Vikhliyantsev, 30, who started the group with some friends in November 2014.

Young artists, designers and filmmakers use the space to produce patriotic or Putin-centric artworks.

The Network artists collective is devoted solely to creating Putin-inspired art. 'Yes, it is propaganda. I'm not afraid of this word,' says Makar Vikhliyantsev, one of the founders of the group. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Clothing designer Valentina Hon, 22, lifts up a cute white skirt with suspenders attached.

"Here's a skirt with buttons where you can see the image of our President Putin," she says, giggling. "Here's Stalin."

Russians play by own rules

Some of the art carries anti-U.S. or pro-China imagery. On one wall, a glowering Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, stands next to a figure of Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, portrayed as a wind-up doll.

"Yes, it is propaganda. I'm not afraid of this word,"  says Vikhliyantsev, pausing to find the most accurate words in English.

"All of the countries has its own propaganda. We call Russia good, Putin very good. It's normal."

Makar Vikhliyantsev, far left, one of the founders of Network, a collective of artists, filmmakers and designers whose work is inspired by Putin. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

He shrugs off suggestions that others see Putin in a much different light.

"This is problems of people only in the West," he laughs.

If we want to save our national identity, we have to come up with our own rules.- Makar Vikhliyantsev, co-founder of Network artists collective

An orange ticker tape flickers above the creative work space at Network. It's the group's manifesto. When explaining it, Vikhliyantsev speaks in Russian. It's complicated.

"In our manifesto, we acknowledge that the world lives by a certain set of rules," he says.

"In the Soviet Union, we had our own rules, but they did not stand the test of time. Today, if we want to protect our country, if we want to save our national identity, we have to come up with our own rules and behave according to them. Because when you play by someone else's rules, you always lose."

Back at the sparkling shopping mall, the perfume lady tours around offering sample sprays of Leaders Number One. A man stops, offers his wrist, takes a smell.

"Nice," he says, then taps the silhouette of Putin on the bottle with reverence. "God bless him," he says, before heading off to shop.


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.