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

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Politics in Motion

Howell explains the connections between sports and the USSR. Due to communism ideology, though Russia was not a country focus on physical education historically, rather merely on basic survivals while combating with the stringent weather pattern during the Tsars’ reigns, it has changed in order to nurture more physically advantaged citizens fulfilling goals based on Communism ideology. Hence, sports appear to be national activities under the USSR, and also deemed as a competition that has to be won against the West.[1] “A pre-requisite for nation-building has become the concept of physical fitness, as it is believed that healthy, physically fit people are better defenders of the Soviet Motherland and more effective workers towards socialist goals”.[2]Howell concludes the USSR as, “the first major country in modern times to realize the full extent of the political significance of sport”.[3]

This invented tradition is inherited until nowadays, that Russia maintains strong in a number of sport events and international competitions. Political leaders also choose to deliver some athletic essences in their images.

Yeltsin was a professional volleyball player in his youth, and there is an international volleyball competition named after him – the Yeltsin Cup. He recalled his school days as “I was immediately captivated by volleyball, and I could play for days on end. I liked that the ball listened to me, that I could jump up and take even the most hopeless ball”.[4] Though he missed two fingers on his left hand, it did not hinder him from engaging in sports. Aside from being a professional in volleyball, his another passion was tennis. He was even called as the number one tennis fan in Russia. According to his personal tennis coach and minister for sport Shamil Tarpischev, he had a fundamental contribution for promoting tennis in Russia, “tennis became on a par with other sports like ice hockey and soccer. From what I call a girly, bourgeois sport it became truly popular”.[5] Accordingly, before Yeltsin’s reign, tennis players from the former Soviet Union had appeared in a total of three grand slam finals – two Wimbledon and one French Open. Today, Russia has won 10 grand slam titles – six for the women, four for the men”.[6] In 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Russian female tennis team monopolized the podium with gold, silver and bronze metals.

Putin’s image is highly associated with athletic advantages. In an interview of his sixty years old birthday, he reveals his morning routine as a brief workout on the weight machines, following by a 1000 – meter swim in the pool.[8] He started practicing judo since he was 11 years old, and holds the title of Master of Sports in judo. He is also multiple champion of St Petersburg in Sambo and Master of Sports in Sambo. Moreover, he holds a black belt in karate.[9] According to his own account, martial arts “teach such knowledge, abilities and skills that every politician needs”, and “judo trains both your body and your mind. It develops strength, reaction, endurance, teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, to strive for the best results and constantly work on improving oneself”.[10] Aside from martial arts, Alpine skiing is yet another interest of Putin’s. President of the Federation of Alpine Skiing and Snowboarding Svetlana Gladysheva said in an interview with Izvestiya newspaper, “He skis on the level of a confident professional – technically very well, fast, but does have an error, which I, when we ski together, try to correct”.[11] Putin also takes a part in hockey, though he only started skating in 2011, and now plays in exhibition matches between veterans of the national USSR team.[12]

Dmitry Medvedev enjoyed weightlifting and canoeing in his youth and used to do a lot of yoga: five or six times a week. After becoming the president of Russia, he spent 2.5 hours daily on physical training. During his tenure, he strived to promote badminton. There was even a video of him, and his then prime minister – Vladimir Putin playing badminton together on his video blog. In 2012 London Olympics, Nina Vislova and Valeria Sorokina brought Russia its first Olympic medal in badminton.[16]

The three leaders all share engagements in different sports, and their tastes for sports affect developments of the respective events to a certain degree, as well as reflect some special traits. Volleyball is a traditionally strong event for the Russians in international competitions, and also it requires teamwork in order to win a game. Tennis was promoted under Yeltsin’s tenure, from a bourgeoisie sport into something nationally popular. The shift of Yeltsin’s physical activity preference echoes the change of times from the USSR to an independent Russian Federation. Martial arts are not only enhancements of physical strengths, but combination of physical competitiveness and mental calculations. Moreover, it requires phenomenal control both physically and psychologically. Putin’s choice of martial arts reveals a delicately calculated image – it is not just a sport, but also a training of minds. The image that he is very adept in control his own body and mind delivers that he is absolutely adequate for leading the state. Medvedev’s choice of yoga and ordinary cardio and weighing trainings unveil as a common folk. The fact that Putin is the real man in power, even during Medvedev’s tenure as the president, affects the images of the both. Putin is usually engaging in something exclusive, undoubtedly masculine, and highly physically and mentally demanding. While Medvedev has been shaped as a politician with a human face. All his preferences are at the same time as nice as Putin’s, nonetheless, lack the sense of dictatorial leadership.

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From Speaker to Tweeter

Yeltsin was rooted from typical Soviet bureaucracy, and hence the interaction of him and the people were not exactly in the sphere of proximity. There is usually a distance between him and the people, though he was the first elected president of the independent Russian federation. His images are usually found at a distance with people, which reveals that he did not have the necessity of trying to shape a proximity aura with the people. The message is that he is here to lead and manage the people.

Putin often uses television, and the image conveyed through lens are usually a mixture of an ironman and a caretaker. He brushes up his shooting techniques, and helps saving endangered tigers. He drives a tank by himself, and he does horse – back riding topless. He holds annual press conferences, in which nationals are able to call him asking questions, along with international dilemmas. He has afternoon tea with a little girl suffered from cancer. Aside from his mightier – than – James Bond image, it is cultivated that he is at the same time with the people, a combination of ostentatiousness and proximity. The images are often him alone without his massive entourage, in the wild or with dangerous and endangered animals. Aside from demonstrating the versatility of Russian territory, his image is crafted not just as a leader, but more of a conqueror. He is not just physically strong, but he is also capable of manage the vastness of Russia. On the other hand, he also tries to present a softer facet. The mixture of the both strives to generate popularity to its maximum.

Medvedev is usually quipped as the first techno – savvy president of Russian history, the first one who owns accounts of a video blog, Facebook, Instagram and tweets by himself. Yagodin analyses Medvedev and his video blog, and concludes that “Medvedev played a role of moderniser, soothing the growing liberal criticisms, and the blog as a symbolic tool helped him with that”.[23] Furthermore, he points that, “The controversy over Medvedev’s bloggership results from a simple fact: there is no such thing as the personal blog of the president. There is only a Live Journal blog community where a team from Medvedev’s administration posts video clips and moderates discussions”.[24] Medvedev’s choice of interaction with the people demonstrates not only that technology has advances, but also that Russia is catching up with the trends in all aspects of lives.

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Conclusion

The three leaders present themselves in versatile ways, which reflects their ideology for the state. Yeltsin represents an old – school character. His habitual drinking, choice of sports, and the way he interacts with people demonstrate that, though he was the first elected president of the independent Russian Federation and conducted a number of westernizing policies, his mentality and image still remains as a conventional distant leader.

Putin’s ultimate goal is to construct a strong Russia, and this ideology embodies thoroughly in his personal image. His choice of alcohol and how he acquires it appears as much more refreshing than vodka. His passion for martial arts reveals the importance of both mental and physical control. The image of him doing more versatile activities than James Bond illustrates that he is strong enough to manage Russia.

If to put Putin as the leader of the state, then Medvedev is a model citizen for a strong Russia. He is well – educated, healthy life – style, willing to learn cutting – edge technology. The mildness of Medvedev’s image is shaped, in order to complement and compensate Putin’s mighty power.

The images reveal as epitomes of the country in every stage. Though Russia seemingly remains as an enigma between the east and the west, deciphering it through its leaderships provides a preliminary background knowledge. The versatility of leaders’ images illustrates Russia’s diversity from every stage of history and nowadays. The vastness of Russia guarantees never – ending enigmas and the necessity to unravel.

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

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

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———. “43 Photos That Show Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Mess Around.” Accessed January 27, 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/43-pictures-vladimir-putin-tough-2013-9?op=1&IR=T.

———. “43 Photos That Show Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Mess Around.” Accessed January 27, 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/43-pictures-vladimir-putin-tough-2013-9?op=1&IR=T.

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[1] Reet Howell, “The USSR: Sport and Politics Intertwined,” Comparative Education 11, no. 2 (1975), doi:10.1080/0305006750110204

[2] Ibid., 138

[3] Ibid., 137

[4] Alexei Denisov, “Follow my leader: Why the sporting tastes of the country’s rulers matter | Russia Beyond The Headlines,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://rbth.co.uk/sport/2014/07/11/follow_my_leader_why_the_sporting_tastes_of_the_countrys_rulers_matter_38139.html

[5] Matthew Knight, “Boris Yeltsin: Russia’s No.1 tennis fan,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2010/SPORT/tennis/11/24/boris.yeltsin.tennis.passion/

[6] Ibid.

[7] “May 25 1991: Boris Yeltsin playing tennis with Soviet cosmonaut Igor Volk Dima Tanin/Getty Images,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2007/apr/23/1

[8] Gregory L. White, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President: Putin’s 60th,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443615804578042763255540572

[9] “Vladimir Putin – Personal website,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://eng.putin.kremlin.ru/interests

[10] Ibid.

[11] Denisov

[12] Ibid.

[13] Walter Hickey and Geoffrey Ingersoll, “43 Photos That Show Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Mess Around,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/43-pictures-vladimir-putin-tough-2013-9?op=1&IR=T

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Denisov

[17] Tom Meltzer, “Putin and Medvedev battle it out … on the badminton court,” accessed January 29, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2011/oct/25/putin-medvedev-video-blog-badminton

[18] “Boris Yeltsin 1931-2007,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2007/apr/23/1

[19] Walter Hickey and Geoffrey Ingersoll, “43 Photos That Show Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Mess Around,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/43-pictures-vladimir-putin-tough-2013-9?op=1&IR=T

[20] Walter Hickey and Geoffrey Ingersoll

[21] Walter Hickey and Geoffrey Ingersoll, “43 Photos That Show Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Mess Around,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/43-pictures-vladimir-putin-tough-2013-9?op=1&IR=T

[22] Ibid.

[23] Dmitry Yagodin, “Blog Medvedev: Aiming for Public Consent,” Europe-Asia Studies 64, no. 8 (2012): 1415, doi:10.1080/09668136.2012.712269

[24] Ibid., 1422

[25] “Russian PM publishes his first Instagram selfie,” accessed January 27, 2015, http://gbtimes.com/world/russian-pm-publishes-his-first-instagram-selfie

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