Analysis

'Looks like Soviet propaganda': Putin turns to new TV show as popularity rating falls

A new series on Russian state television devoted to President Vladimir Putin extolled his charisma, stamina and athleticism and left puzzled Russians wondering how seriously to take it.

Russian leader's ‘beautiful form,’ charms with people and animals featured in program

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent trip to Siberia was featured Sunday during the first episode of a new series devoted to the leader on state television. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

By its very nature, Russian state television's prime directive is to ensure support for President Vladimir Putin remains high and voices of criticism are kept on the margins.    

Yet even for the Kremlin, a new TV series called Moscow. Kremlin. Putin devoted to Russia's president may be pushing the boundaries of glorification.

The first episode, which aired Sunday night, featured virtually non-stop sycophantic commentary by Putin's closest allies in government and the media, extolling his charisma, stamina and athleticism — even his abilities to put dangerous wild animals at ease.

On social media and online forums, puzzled Russians are trying to decide how seriously to take it.

"It looks like, you know, a program from Brezhnev's age or even Stalin's age," said Dmitry Kolezev, a deputy editor with the online publication Znak in Yekaterinburg.

"It really looks like Soviet propaganda. You can't take it seriously."

Gushing commentary

The program, touted to be the first of several and which aired without advance publicity, featured interviews with Putin's longtime press secretary Dmitry Peskov, journalist Pavel Zarubin who frequently travels with Putin and well-known pro-Putin TV host Vladimir Solovyov.

The first scene features Putin's recent trip to Siberia, including stops in the cities of Kemerovo, Novosibirsk and Omsk, before he headed back to Moscow and on to Sochi. 

"How can one keep such a schedule and get through such a marathon," said Zarubin. It requires such "difficult concentration."

The program's host, Solovyov, teased viewers by promising by the end of the show he'd reveal Putin's "secrets" to his remarkable endurance and how he is always able to keep "such beautiful form," a reference to Putin's much-discussed fitness and athleticism.

Pictures released by the Kremlin in the summer of 2017 showed Putin enjoying the outdoors during a holiday in Siberia. (President of Russia website press service)

Another scene featured the president meeting children in Sochi.

"Putin just loves children," said Solovyov. "He has a very sincere and humane relation with children.

"You can't make that up."

Not to be one-upped, Putin's press secretary Peskov chimed in, "He doesn't [just] love children, he loves people. He's a real humane human."

Animal charms

Toward the end of the hour, the hosts also discussed how Putin's charms don't stop with people — animals apparently are caught in the trance as well.

Referring to a much-publicized recent mountain walk through Tyva, Siberia, last month, Peskov said that even the normally jittery mountain goats in the region seemed to be put at ease by the president.

"Mountain goats ... would normally run away, but when they saw [the president], they stayed close by and continued grazing."

Putin went underwater in some of his 2017 holiday pursuits in Siberia. (President of Russia website press service)

Surely such trips in the wildness are dangerous for the president, queried the host Solvoyov.

Not at all, replied his press secretary before suggesting even potentially hostile animals don't faze Putin.

"Is a bear an idiot ? If he sees Putin, he will behave decently," Peskov said to laughter all around.

Personality cult

Kolezev said the program is reminiscent of the cult of personality that the Communist Party used to try to create around leaders such as Joseph Stalin, but that now seems out of place in modern Russia.

"For 2018, it's too much propaganda in this TV show and we can't take it seriously," he said.

Many who missed the program on TV but watched it online agreed.

"What was the point of the program? To show how the Russian Federation has become like North Korea," one viewer wrote on YouTube.

One explanation for both the program and the timing of its release may be Putin's deteriorating popularity ratings.

A man holds a banner in his mouth that reads: 'An all-Russian protest against pension reform' during a Communist Party rally protesting retirement age hikes in Moscow on Sept. 2, 2018. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Since his return to Russia's presidency in 2012, Putin's popularity had rarely dipped below 75 per cent, yet now it hovers closer to 50 per cent, thanks largely to a decision to raise Russia's age of retirement from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. Putin has since lowered it to 60 for women.

While still high by Western standards, there are signs the Kremlin is worried by Putin's low poll numbers.

Plunging ratings

Putin went on national TV last week to soften some of the reforms, yet tens of thousands of people still came out to protest over the weekend.

Quickly throwing together a TV show that attempts to showcase some of qualities Russians admire in their president may be part of the Kremlin's strategy to turn things around, says Kolezev.

But he doubts it will work.

"I think he believes that TV channels can do everything. They can support him and save his ratings in every situation. But 2018 is another time. It's the age of internet."

Notably absent from the program was any mention of Putin's personal life.

A former KGB spy, Putin has always maintained a cloak of secrecy around his personal relationships and private life. It has never been confirmed by the Kremlin that Putin, who's divorced, has remarried and has a young family. Putin has two daughters from his first marriage but little is known about them.

As a result, Russians interested to learn how Putin spends any unscripted free time would be left disappointed.

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