As I boarded a plane back home to Russia last month, a middle-aged man sitting a few rows behind me instantly reminded me of where I was going.
The man wore a T-shirt printed with a photo of a topless Vladimir Putin, sporting khaki cargo trousers and Matrix-style shades, riding a bear. The sky above the Russian president was glowing with the country's national colors, and the design itself looked like a souvenir from a nature reserve crossed with a piece of Metallica merch. As any Russian would know, this was just one of thousands and thousands of Putin-themed products that can be bought all over the country.
Putin merch belongs to the world of politics just as much as it belongs to contemporary pop culture — an era that's shaped by the instant fame of social media stars, reality TV, cheap populism, tabloids, memes and affordable screen printing. Putin T-shirts are very popular as gifts for foreign business partners, and are often worn by Russians while on a holiday in hot countries like Turkey or Spain. It's a way of cashing in on the country's new wave of nationalism.
The market for Putin-related products in Russia is incredibly diverse, and it’s not just limited to T-shirts. A quick Google search reveals fridge magnets and key rings, home essentials like Putin rugs and crockery, Putin nail stickers, chocolate bars called “Tender Putin” and a fairly disturbing range of Putin-adorned G-strings. There is a lot to choose from in the luxury segment too. A company called Putinversteher (which also describes itself as “the international order of normal people”) specializes in only one product —a silver ring with a miniature head of Putin.
Luxury gift company Caviar has a whole special range of iPhone cases made with titanium and gold, adorned with the president’s profile and double-headed eagles. Their price averages at just below three thousands euros. Rejoice the American alt-right, because a Trump edition is also available.
Putin merch spiked in popularity in 2014, the year of the Crimean annexation, and the start of the war in Donbass, led by pro-Russian forces. “Polite people,” the phrase Putin used to describe the Russian armed forces which annexed Ukraine, pops up on quite a few T-shirts.
In a broader historical context, Russians’ obsession with the image of their leader is nothing new — it’s rooted in methods used by the Soviet Union. Back in those days, every town in the USSR had a statue of Vladimir Lenin as its centerpiece, and every office, school and hospital, and at times even every home, housed some sort of depiction of Lenin and Stalin. Even the much talked-about post-Soviet generation grew up surrounded by relics of Lenin statues — they popped up a few times in the early Gosha Rubchinskiy lookbooks. After the turmoil of the ’90s, it was only natural that Russia would fill the ideological void with a new kind of surrogate political father.
Recently, the Russian president made headlines with his photo shoot from a fishing holiday in southern Siberia, his camo-clad lads in tow. The president was seen cavorting around in his favorite khaki trousers, shades and a bare (albeit slightly plump) chest. In my mind, such news articles occupy the same niche as reports of reality TV stars' adventures in Ibiza — the only difference is that the protagonist of this trash is also the president of the country where I was born.
These days it’s commonplace to express one’s political views through clothing — hence, the recent rise of pro-EU apparel — and for Putin supporters, the values he represents are key. The abundance of Putin T-shirts and sweatshirts exists by the laws of contemporary streetwear. Just like the vigorous chase of the latest Supreme drop and queues for new Yeezys, it’s driven by desires, hopes and beliefs. It’s all about the power and masculinity: the figure of the judo fighter, the military man, the hunter, the bear rider, the strongman who's in complete control.
Every portrait of Putin is a reassurance for fragile white masculinity, an attempt to ignore any ambiguity and change, and a return to the good old days. It's ultimately the same impulse which recently drove alt-right crowds in Charlottesville. At the same time, the isolationist Russian mentality has been shaped by the Western gaze since the Cold War. The key to the Russian psyche is this outside perspective which Russians are constantly aware of — they're portrayed as communists, bastards and vodka-drinking mafia villains.
Putin enjoys more international coverage than any other questionable world leader (though perhaps Trump has managed to outdo him recently) because he falls into the ultimate stereotype of a Russian Hollywood villain. This stereotype is negative, and yet it’s powerful, it's kick-ass, and that’s why so many Russians are looking for refuge and reassurance in buying Putin phone cases and underpants.
Curiously, one of the original examples of Putin merch, and its only appearance in high fashion, was completely ironic. In 2011, Russian designer Denis Simachev, who was back then known for exporting Russian kitch to the rest of the world, released a T-shirt with a portrait of Putin (grotesquely young-looking compared to today) framed with roses. Back then it, looked like an innocent joke, but since then Putin merch has trickled down to cheap souvenir stalls and dodgy online shops, because nationalism sells.
There are people who happily buy into that — and people who happily sell it. But for some, myself included, the face on such T-shirts triggers nothing but sickness, a symbol of endless human rights violations, LGBT-harassment, meaningless war and the depressing descent of Russia into the depths of social and economic crisis.
Seeing the face of the Russian president plastered all over novelty merchandise would be funny, if it wasn't so sad.