The Berlusconi-zation of Vladimir Putin

There’s a strange thing that happens to some autocratic leaders after spending a decade or so in power … Things start getting pervy.

The brutal Nigerian military dictator Sani Abachi had to leave office in a body bag when his heart finally expired under a mountain of Indian prostitutes.  The Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for three decades while engaging in rampant cases of sexual abuse (the subject was the focus of a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, who discovered that Trujillo “used sex as an instrument of power to humiliate and degrade his collaborators.”)  Nobody really knows for sure what Muammar Gaddafi has been up to all these years, but his insistence on all-female bodyguard shock troops and voluptuous Ukrainian nurses is enough to raise eyebrows.  Then, of course, we have the walking advertisement for Viagra, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose unparalleled exploits in these areas have been the subject of extensive discussion, and sometimes, public outrage.

The bromance between Berlusconi and Russian premier Vladimir Putin is no secret, but it wasn’t known if they necessarily shared all the same “values” (apart from, of course, their criminal activities together as revealed by Wikileaks).  So when a suggestive online video appeared this week in Russia featuring a new cadre very young women calling themselves “Putin’s Army,” promising to get together to strip off their clothes for their favorite premier, the comparisons with Italy’s pervert-in-chief were a logical next step.

Journalist Julia Ioffe has a good piece on “Putin’s Army” published in The New Yorker:

The video, which has been viewed more than a million times, went viral after Kirill Schitov, a twenty-six-year-old Moscow city councilman affiliated with the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia Party, posted it on Live Journal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. Schitov wrote that he stumbled upon the video on YouTube, and he told me he doesn’t know who is behind the video, or behind Putin’s Army. But as he wrote on his blog, he likes the ideas it expresses: a strong Russia and the telling coincidence that “cute, successful girls” are largely absent from the ranks of the opposition.

Diana’s video comes after a calendar given to Putin on his birthday last fall by journalism students from Moscow State University who stripped down to lacy, elaborate underpants and uttered phrases like “Vladimir Vladimirovich”—Putin—“how about a third go?” (Putin, who was barred from a third presidential term in 2008, is now considering coming back for another stint as president, this time for twelve years.) At the time, Vladimir Tabak, the calendar’s creator, told me it was a spontaneous show of emotion by the students of Russia’s most prestigious journalism school. The calendar spawned a Putin party at a Moscow nightclub, complete with topless dancers, on International Women’s Day. And, as with the “Tear It Up” campaign video, the calendar first appeared on the blog of a loyal functionary; this time it was that of Alexander Yarosh, of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi.

Expressions of sex in the public domain have been a hallmark of the Putin era. Western visitors are often shocked—many of the men pleasantly so—by how Russian women parade their highest heels and deepest decolletage, even on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. Putin has long been rumored to have left his wife for a young gymnast, and last month he hired a personal photographer whose body has attracted more attention than her rather mediocre body of work.

Putin is a master of bread and circuses, as is his close friend Silvio Berlusconi, known for appointing showgirls to cabinet positions and for turning Italian television into a soft-core smorgasbord. (The Thank God There’s Silvio campaign, which Ariel Levy described in a piece in May, looks like elementary-school stuff compared to Putin’s Army.) In Russia, these top-heavy campaigns are less obviously top-down, and are made to look like they come from a grassroots base. Today, for instance, a copycat group called “I Really Do Like Putin” is holding a bikini carwash in Putin’s honor, just, you know, to support him.