Marx famously observed that when history repeats itself it comes first as tragedy and then as farce. Likewise, Adam Ulam, one of the founding giants of Russian studies in the US, wrote, “Russian history is tragic and glorious, but also preposterous.” Vladimir Putin’s cult of personality long since transcended the farcical to become utterly preposterous. If the costs of his rule — the return of the Gulag, ever greater repression at home, and war at home and abroad — were not so tragic, this cult would not represent a subject deserving serious attention. But the extent, purpose, and continuity of this bloody farce oblige us to analyze its political purposes and significance. In its latest manifestation, St. Petersburg Cossacks commissioned a bust of Putin as Roman Caesar. For some unexplained reason they forgot the laurel wreaths but we will not hold that against them. After all, they wanted to do the right thing and celebrate Putin as a leader beyond all time and history. Indeed, such cults of personality are a hallmark of autocratic dictatorships as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Mussolini, and a host of lesser monsters, psychopaths, and criminals show us.
Neither is Putin alone today. North Korea’s cults of personality have long since surpassed anything Russia could imagine. Xi Jinping in China clearly has generated a cult after Putin’s example and may see in his “manual supervision” of Russia and personality cult an example worthy of emulation. But the importance of Putin’s cult goes beyond serving as a hallmark of this type of regime or as an example to be copied by other would be tyrants.
First, arguably Putin is more powerful than any ruler since Stalin. Indeed, Putin is arguably the Stalin of today. Furthermore, as befits an alumnus of the KGB, he has incorporated many aspects of Stalin’s political persona and tactics into his regime and his political persona. Obviously one element of this imitation game is the aspiration to establish his political standing as being beyond even the idea of challenge and impress all spectators that he enjoys a status beyond that of mere mortals. Thus in both cases, his and Stalin’s, the personality cult is a cynical political tactic to establish his position beyond any thought of challenge.
But there are more aspects or dimensions to this charade. The personality cult not only enshrines the leader beyond thought of challenge, it represents a deliberate effort, again traditional to autocracies and tyrannies both ancient and modern, to infantilize the public and civic mentality and preserve it in a state of quasi-sacerdotal reverence for the leader who is not just a secular figure but one partaking of divinity. Of course, this appropriates the Tsarist tradition going back to Kievan Rus’ and therefore has deep roots in Russia. But Russia is no longer a medieval state or society. Despite all the state-sponsored blather about Orthodoxy few Russians actually attend Church and the prevalence of violence and corruption attests to the degradation of public morality sponsored by Putin and his cronies. Nonetheless the personality cult is an essential element in preserving the pontifical and sacred aura of the ruler and of depriving the society at large of the ability or desire to think seriously about social or political issues. Thus it contributed mightily to Russia’s moral and cultural degradation, a syndrome that has never fully recovered from the Soviet equivalent of the “revolution of nihilism” that began with Lenin and that applied to it as much as it did to Nazi Germany.
Finally this cult of personality tells us a great deal about Putin’s regime and Putin the man. First of all, it tells us that he knows, as do the organizers of this cult, that the government they supervise is thoroughly illegitimate. Not only must the public be rendered unable to think rationally it must be diverted from a genuine consideration of social realities by means of this deliberate infantilization and regression to quasi-magical forms of comprehension of political phenomena. In other words they are employing what Dostoyevsky’s grand inquisitor called miracle, mystery, and authority. Thus this cult attests to the illegitimacy of the regime and the authorities’ understanding of that fact and need to conceal it. Second, as in Stalin’s case it tells us of the inner insecurity and boundless ego of the ruler. Putin’s well-known efforts to stage phony scenarios of his being “a real man”, most recently as a 62 year old hockey player or Roman Caesar, bespeak a man terrified of growing old one who must simulate ever grater proofs of his masculinity and virility through reported regular Botox injections and staged farces involving deep-sea fishing, hunting tigers, etc. Political scientists would correctly relate this cult to an attempt to use gender as a prop for the regime. But ultimately because he knows it is a façade nothing could really satisfy Putin’s longings for immortality.
Now that Putin has become a Caesar perhaps like Caligula he will become a God or make a horse a member of the Duma. After all, a government that relies on miracle, mystery, and authority, has no real need for rationally organized free institutions. But ultimately the farce will have to end and Putin’s longing for immortality will end as immortal longings generally do. Since neither brass nor stone but sad mortality o’ersteps the world Putin and his cult will disappear leaving not a rack behind beyond the ongoing long-term degradation of Russia’s socio-political life. At that point we could with Shelley, look on the busts and statues of Putin and upon his sneer of cold command and remember Ozymanidas’ lament, “look on my works ye mortals and despair.”