Unraveling the Matryoshka: Political Representations of Leaders in the Russian Federation (1/2)

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“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, as Sir Winston Churchill’s famous remark on the state possessing the biggest territory on earth. One of the iconic handicrafts of Russia – Matryoshka seems more approachable and favorable by foreigners and nationals far and wide with its spherical shape, flamboyant colorings and delicate refinement, yet at the same time resembles the layered imagery as Sir Churchill described. Russian leaders appear as a plausible starting point for unwrapping this mystical country, to the very least, as a shed of lights on obtaining further acknowledgment.

Political representation evokes from democratic system. In a democratic state, the ruling power is authorized by the people through elections, and the elected are representations for the people. Hence, the image shaping process reflects the relationships between the people and the elites. Even in states considered as less democratic, images of politicians are still vital for nationals and foreigners.

Though Russia is not exactly a model of democracy from many perspectives, along with freedom of speech and internet. However, as the progress of technology and more frequent interactions with other states in the world, image – shaping of leaders has become an element. By analyzing the three facets: drinking habits, sports, and interactions with the people, as indicators of how post – Soviet leaders represent (or not) the people in politics. By examining the differences, I will argue that the images of the three presidents in Russian Federation are products of their times and embodiments of their political will.

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Vodka, Beer or Tea?

For a country that once upon hearing its name, is instantly associated with alcohol as a reflex action, image of drinking habits or at least the way how they are presented in the public appears as an issue, because it is closely related to people’s daily lives. Connor conducts a research on alcohol usage and soviet society, in spite of the efforts from the government to reduce the amount of alcohol consumption, the phenomenon was not effectively under control.[1] Connor puts it, “One of the most striking elements in Russian drinking behavior is the multiplicity of occasions with which drinking is associated”.[2] “The belief that alcohol is an indispensable element in the celebration of family events and holidays is seen as a major cause of alcoholism”.[3]

Herrold compares her experience conducting interviews in rural Russia, and different statements from her interviewees under circumstances with or without alcohol consumptions appear to be at variance. The statements almost situate at two ends of a spectrum, while it is difficult to judge which is closer to the truth.[4] In a report from Bloomberg, it reveals that “the average Russian, including women and youths, drank 77 liters (20.3 gallons) of beer, 9 liters of spirit and 7 liters of wine in 2011, Euromonitor data shows. One in five Russian men die from harmful use of alcohol, the Geneva-based WHO says”.[5] Hence, to drink or not to drink weighs more than a sip or two.

Generally speaking, the Russian people are aware of the negative effect of over – consumption of alcohol. However, the definition of over – consumption differs from western standard. “Beyond the fact that most men drink, it is clear that drunkenness is viewed by many without any particular feelings of censure or disgust”.[6] Drinking one (or many) shot(s) of vodka at once upon a “wish you good health”, and sipping a glass of red over a three – hour dinner have very different effects on human body. Also, it is commonly consider strange or impolite declining offers from the hosts. For foreigners, Russia is a synonym of alcohol among many other stereotypes; for nationals, the higher consumption, whether related to extreme weather patterns or not, is a matter of fact.

The late Yeltsin was famous for his habitual drinking regardless of occasions. In 1992, Kyrgyzstan, Yeltsin used a spoon as an instrument on Kyrgyz president Akayev’s hairless head. In 1997, Stockholm, he said that the face of Bjorn Borg, a Swedish tennis star, reminded him of Swedish meatballs, and almost falling off the stage. He then announced that Germany and Japan had nuclear weapons, that he was now in Finland, and that Russia was to cut its nuclear reserves by one – third. In 1994, Berlin, Yeltsin grabbed a baton, conducted a bass band, and danced wildly with nervous German dancers, sent kisses at the audience, and gave another unintelligible speech. In 1995, Washington D.C., he was found hailing a cab in underwear, claiming that he just wanted to fetch some pizza.[7] His former head of security referred him as “a suicidal alcoholic who was unfit to govern”.[8]

Putin enjoys beer, which he took liking during his station in Germany. Comparing to the water of life – vodka, beer is merely considered as a type of official alcohol drinks. BBC has a report about a pop song in Russia sung by a female group called “Someone like Putin”, which expresses that they want to marry someone like Putin who is so strong and does not drink. The new agency concludes as, “It has all prompted suspicions that the song is official PR”.[10]

In an interview, Medvedev revealed that he does not drink alcohol, but may have a glass of red or white wine on special occasions. Though he usually drinks juices and green tea.[12] Both Putin and Medvedev strive to present sober characters, and along with wage wars on abuse of alcohol and tobacco in Russia.

Political image has a sense of time. It reflects how politicians situate themselves in their eras. Yeltsin established his fame and power as the first elected president of Russia after the fall of iron curtain. Though a number of his policies demonstrated a tendency of a revolutionary westernizer, regardless of their results as successes or failures, his personal image in drinking resembles an old – style Russian politician, or even in much of a negative way. Putin has been trying to establish a strong Russia, which is his political ideology. He strives to establish a new image from previous soviet leaders – that he is revolutionarily powerful and he is capable of leading Russia becoming a better and stronger state. Hence, though he does enjoy beer, but it is not an addiction, which demonstrates self – control. Moreover, beer is not exactly a strong alcohol per se, comparing to vodka or perhaps home – made samogon. Drinking beer as a preference took up in Germany possesses a refreshing sense of cosmopolitan, In order to present an image of sense and wisdom, Putin carves his choice of alcohol delicately in order to be deemed as a wise and trustworthy leader. Medvedev is almost free from alcohol, and has a very healthy choice, when it comes to drink preferences. This reflects that his image as a health – oriented person. Russians traditionally drink more black tea, very strong ones, almost as the tea – version of espresso with lots of sugar, rather than green tea. While both Putin and Medvedev associate themselves with unconventional drinks reveals images as leaders of a new generation.

The different alcohol consumption in Russia renders variant standard for politicians. In general, though alcohol consumption has a more tolerate tendency than other places, it is aware that over – consumption should be prohibited. Hence, to drink or not to drink is not essentially considered as bad or good, but it depends on which image you want to present to the people. The brand new revolutionary sober Russian or the old – style vodka caviar and black bread.

[1] Walter D. Connor, “Alcohol and Soviet Society,” Slavic Review 30, no. 3 (1971), doi:10.2307/2493544

[2] Ibid., 573

[3] Ibid., 580

[4] Melinda Herrold, “Which Truth? Cultural Politics and Vodka in Rural Russia,” Geographical Review 91, 1/2 (2001), doi:10.2307/3250830

[5] “Putin Wages War on Vodka as Lifestyle Death Toll Mounts,” accessed January 26, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-30/putin-wages-war-on-vodka-as-lifestyle-death-toll-nears-million.html

[6] Connor 580

[7] Evan V. Symon, “4 International Incidents Caused By Drunk Boris Yeltsin,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://www.cracked.com/quick-fixes/4-international-incidents-caused-by-drunk-boris-yeltsin/

[8] “BBC NEWS | Europe | Boris Yeltsin: Master of surprise,” accessed January 26, 2015, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/europe/341959.stm

[9] Ibid.

[10] “BBC NEWS | Europe | Putin is Russia’s new pop idol,” accessed January 30, 2015, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2212885.stm

[11] “Putin and his pals: Russian president reaffirms man’s man image with beer-drinking session watching football,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2089528/Vladamir-Putin-reaffirms-macho-image-football-beer-session.html

[12] Pravda, “Everything you want you know about Russia’s President Elect Dmitry Medvedev,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://english.pravda.ru/russia/kremlin/29-04-2008/105028-dmitry_medvedev-0/

[13] “Kremlin encourages Russia to drink more wine – Telegraph,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/8747419/Kremlin-encourages-Russia-to-drink-more-wine.html

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