August 15, 2018



Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is sky high. Analysts debate whether the numbers are inflated or real. But it wouldn’t be surprising.

The Levada Center, which describes itself as an independent research organization, started tracking Putin’s popularity 15 years ago. In February 2015, the group pinpointed Putin’s approval rating at 86 percent.

That’s the highest it’s been in years”Ê-”Êand rose after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the Kremlin’s support for separatist groups in eastern Ukraine. It’s a political reality that ensures Putin’s grip on power.

For some Russians, it’s a business opportunity.

During a recent trip to Moscow”Ê-”ÊI had just come from covering the war in Ukraine”Ê-”ÊI noticed many businesses using Putin’s image to make a few extra rubles. Whether it’s t-shirts, cellphone covers, coffee mugs or posters, Putin is everywhere.

If you want Putin on something, someone will sell it to you. You can get Putin clad in camouflage or Putin dressed in a tuxedo. There’s shirtless Putin who’s gone fishing ”_ and fighter-pilot Putin.

Moscow wasn’t like this before the invasion of Crimea. Now there’s a veritable wave of Putin mania. The Russian leader is even popular despite a crashing economy, a weak ruble and diplomatic fallout from Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

At top, above and below”Ê-”ÊPutin kitsch in Moscow. All photos by Zack Baddorf

In one Moscow shop, t-shirts depicted Putin”Ê-”Êa former KGB case officer”Ê-”Êas James Bond. Putin joined the Russian spy service in 1975 and served in East Germany. He recruited foreigners to spy for the Soviet Union, and was in Dresden when the Berlin Wall came down.

”He used his fluent German and a pistol to keep a crowd of East Germans from storming the KGB bureau and looting secret files, which he then destroyed,” George Packer of the New Yorker wrote.

Vending machines in Moscow’s Vnukuvo International Airport had even more t-shirts of Putin for sale, including ones with him vacationing in Crimea, wearing a uniform and riding a horse.

A fake movie poster with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov parodied the Bond film From Russia With Love”Ê-”Êwith the burning U.S. capitol building in the background.

In another shop, a shirt with Putin wearing a camouflage jacket stated, ”Putin: The Most Polite Person of All.”

This is a reference to the state-owned media’s phraseology for Russian soldiers”Ê-”Ê”polite people” -who invaded Crimea in February 2014.

Another shirt depicted a buff-looking Putin with his shirt off and going fishing. ”No one is a tsar while fishing,” stated the shirt.

”They will not overtake us,” stated another shirt featuring Putin riding a horse.

Emblazoned on another shirt, Putin delivered a roundhouse kick to Barack Obama with the words ”on U.S. sanctions” printed next to him.

”Those who abuse us will not live longer than three days,” stated a button with Putin flashing a gun. Many of these images are copies or adaptations of popular photographs.

”Everything goes as planned,” added another button with Putin wearing folksy jeans in front of the Soviet Union. It’s hard tell what’s ironic or deadly serious.

If t-shirts are a bit much, you could always go for a Putin coffee mug or cellphone cover. ”We’ll break through!” stated one cellphone cover with the Russian leader smirking.

Note these kitschy products co-exist alongside items featuring MiG fighter jets and images of Joseph Stalin and Nicholas II. Russia’s souvenir industry is a pan-ideological buffet of macho nationalism and political strongmen.

In little shops near Moscow metro stops, more kitschy buttons declared, ”Everything PUTIN!”

This saying means ”everything is OK.” Another button stated, ”The Russian bear will not give away his secret.”

”Those who come to us with sanctions will be hurt by their sanctions, too,” a button featuring Putin with a shield and sword stated. In another, Obama held a t-shirt of Putin that reads ”The Real President.”

Then there’s the fridge magnets. On one magnet, Putin clinched his fist with the words ”Crimea is ours!”

Another magnet blurred together Gollum from The Lord of the Rings with Ukraine’s pro-European ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. ”Crimea”Ê-”ÊMy precious!” the magnet states, with an image of Crimea and a Russian flag in between Gollum-Tymoshenko and Putin.

This was Moscow after all, so authorities had banned a protest scheduled for April 19. As I walked down the street, protesters stood silently on several corners. One protester held a sign stating, ”Free the political prisoners.”

Police arrested him for distributing newspapers.


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