Staunton, April 9 – Two folklorists at the Academy of Economics and State Service say Russians in the absence of clear rules on how they should treat photographs of Vladimir Putin are reaching back into the tsarist and Soviet past for ideas on how taboos against the desecration of the image of the supreme leader.
Many of the steps they are taking, Aleksandr Arkhipov and Mariya Volkova say, reflect longstanding Russian approaches to handling icons, while others are the product of their memories of Soviet times when the communist regime imposed both specific rules and meted out punishments for those who violated them (urokiistorii.ru/node/53081).
Over the last three years, the folklorists say, there has been a drumbeat of stories about how Russians are treating portraits of Putin and reacting to how others do, an indication, they suggest, that during this period, Russians have fundamentally changed their understanding of the presidential portrait into “something completely different” than earlier.
In some cases, they report, young people upset by pictures of Putin staring at them have crossed out his eyes, an action that some of their teachers view as sacrilege, given that destroying the eyes of figures on icons is traditionally one of the ways of destroying their power and that harming the pictures of leaders was proscribed in Soviet times.
The Soviet experience is more immediate, albeit different, because during Soviet times, the regime issued rules governing the treatment of pictures of officials and punished those who violated those rules. Between 1953 and 1963, Arkhipov and Volkova report, more Soviet citizens were punished for desecrating photographers than for telling anti-Soviet anecdotes.
But there is another major difference between Soviet times and now, they point out. In Soviet times, the regime insisted on respect for the photographs of leaders; but it did not speak about “desecration” of the portraits as such. Instead, it sought to ensure that senior leaders were not linked either with enemies of the people or with vulgarities.
That experience, which still excites much comment, sometimes backfired: In the 1960s, for example, the poet Andrey Voznesensky, employing the logic of the early Soviet period, called for taking the portrait of Lenin off of Soviet currency given Khrushchev’s commitment to building communism within two decades.
A major consequence of this Soviet experience, Arkhipov and Volkova continue, is that many Russians interpret any discussion of the desecration of Putin’s portrait or any decision by the media not to link him pictorially with anyone who may be guilty of corruption solely in terms of Soviet models.
But at the same time, many Russians are prepared to go even further than their Soviet predecessors in treating Putin’s image as sacred: In August 2015, for example, a picture of a flock of birds over New York that appeared to form Putin’s visage was interpreted by many as an indication of an inevitable Russian victory over the American “enemy.”
Arkhipov and Volkova suggest that “the system of taboos and rules regarding the portrait of the president” is being formed less by central command than by local officials who may go beyond what Moscow wants because they fear falling afoul of what they do not in fact know, a clear case of self-censorship rather than censorship.
That distinguishes the current situation from the Soviet past, the two folklorists say, and it suggests that Russians are “now in the process of establishing another system where the citizens of the country are arranging their personal relations with symbolic presentations of the authorities and trying to play by new rules” whose exact outlines are far from clear.