Staunton, July 20 – Only a few years ago, even Putin’s most committed opponents would not have referred to him as a grandfather either in the sense of an old man not capable of taking care of himself or as a font of wisdom to whom everyone should have access and would benefit from his experience, Kseniya Turkova says.
But now that has changed, the Moscow journalist and philologist says, and not just because Putin is getting older but because Putin’s behavior especially during the pandemic has allowed his opponents to redefine the Kremlin leader’s role; and now Kremlin imagemakers are seeking to redefine the newly applied term as well (holod.media/2023/07/20/putin-dead/).
During his first years in power, Turkova continues, “the Russian president positioned himself as a real superman, a macho and sex symbol,” something that allowed him to gain support given the contrast he presented with his predecessor Boris Yeltsin who was clearing aging and in poor condition.
A shift in public views of Putin occurred as early as 2017 when New Times commentator Andrey Kolesnikov published an article entitled “Putin as the Grandfather of the Nation” (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/119154) contrasting him with younger politicians like Aleksey Navalny and prompting Putin to take part in meetings with young people to try to recover.
But according to political analyst Mariya Snegovaya and researcher Elena Shmelyeva, this attempt didn’t work. Instead, it had the unintended consequence of making Putin look even older and more out of touch with the young (colta.ru/articles/society/17752-molodezh-i-politika-tak-est-na-chto-nadeyatsya and golosameriki.com/a/rech-putina-i-trumpa/4251749.html).
The image of Putin as a grandfather out of touch with the world was solidified during the pandemic when he stayed in his bunker and was christened “a bunker grandfather by Aleksey Navalny, a choice of words that attracted attention and made this term the third most popular in Russia in 2021 (emory.edu/INTELNET/dar410.html).
Russian has two words for grandfather, one that smacks of being old and out of touch and the other of the military and crime. Turkova says the Kremlin isn’t happy with either being applied to Putin and so is promoting a third, one in which the president isn’t isolated but rather “accessible to all.”
That is the goal, she concludes, but “it won’t be easy” to achieve “precisely because the current moniker is so closely attached to him. As Kolesniov noted a year ago, “you can take your grandfather out of the bunker, but [no matter how hard you try] you can never take the bunker out of your grandfather.”