NPR

Tough-Talking Putin Crafted Image His Way

Few people had heard of Vladimir Putin when Russia's then-President Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in 1999. But the stern-faced former KGB officer triggered a love affair with the Russian population — by starting a popular second war in Chechnya later that year.

Soon after hostilities began, the man who later became president surprised the country with the first of what became known as "Putinisms." He issued a threat to Chechen rebels using slang terms usually heard only in Russia's notoriously tough prisons.

"If they're in the airport," Putin said, "we'll kill them there ... and excuse me, but if we find them in the toilet, we'll exterminate them in their outhouses."

The Kremlin has worked hard to build Putin's public image as Russia's virile "national leader" whose authority extends beyond his presidency.

In 2002, a pop band called Singing Together released a song titled "I Want Someone Like Putin" with the following lyrics:

Someone like Putin, full of strength

Someone like Putin, who doesn't drink

Someone like Putin, who doesn't hurt me

Someone like Putin, who won't run away

Putin's United Russia Party played the song during political campaign events last year.

When Putin steps down as Russia's president next week, he will leave with approval ratings most leaders can only dream about. More than 80 percent of Russians say he has done a good job in office. His famous tough talk and outbursts might appear crude to foreigners — and even to many Russians — but they're essential to his carefully controlled public image, projected by a highly talented performer.

A Way With Words

Since he was first elected president, in 2000, Putin has systematically rolled back media freedom in Russia. Yet he's also forged a love-hate relationship with journalists.

When Putin appears in front of more than 1,000 reporters during his annual news conferences, he owns the room, keeping reporters fascinated for hours by alternating between threats, jokes and flirtation.

One journalist said in 2006 that she was speaking for all blond women when she asked why Putin looked so fit and attractive. His answer was that he doesn't drink and plays plenty of sports. He then asked her to convey his greetings to all blond women.

Putin has often lost his temper in public. During a 2002 news conference in Brussels, Belgium, the president responded to a question that angered him by inviting a reporter to come to Moscow to be circumcised.

"We have specialists in this question, as well," Putin said. "I'll recommend that he carry out the operation in such a way that nothing will grow back."

Crafting His Image

Even some of Putin's biggest critics say he knows how to work an audience. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, says Putin learned how to craft his image in a special educational program at a school for KGB officers.

"He studied at KGB school ... how to attract people, how to be comfortable. ... And I believe that he studied well," Nemtsov says.

Natalia Muravieva, rector of Moscow's Academy of Communications and Information, says Putin is a highly dynamic politician whose speeches are intricately crafted.

"Putin uses a lot of repetition that builds to a crescendo," Muravieva says. "And his widely reported aphorisms are like gems. They're few and far between, and everyone remembers them."

Russians won't necessarily be deprived of such gems just because Putin's term as president is expiring. He's used his tremendous popularity to retain much of his power.

His self-appointed successor, Dimitri Medvedev, who was recently elected president and takes office May 7, has said Putin will be prime minister and head of the country's biggest political party.

Both platforms will give Putin plenty of opportunity to create new Putinisms.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, his jockey remembers an extraordinary athlete named Barbaro. But first, Vladimir Putin steps down as Russian president next week with an approval rating of more than 80 percent among Russians, if not some other world leaders. Mr. Putin has put himself across as a tough leader who understands ordinary Russians and talks like them. As NPR's Moscow Correspondent Gregory Feifer reports, experts say it's an image that's been carefully constructed.

GREGORY FEIFER: Few people had even heard of Vladimir Putin when then-President Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in 1999. But the stern-faced former KGB officer soon triggered a love affair with the Russian population by starting a popular second war in Chechnya. That's when Putin surprised the country with the first of what became known as Putinisms, issuing a threat in slang usually heard only in Russia's notoriously tough prisons.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: Putin vowed to kill Chechnyan rebels wherever they were hiding. If they're in the airport, he said, we'll kill them there and excuse me, but if we find them in the toilet, we'll exterminate them in their outhouses. Putin has also dismissed news reports as mere gossip picked out of someone's nose and smeared onto little bits of paper. Such outbursts may appear crude to foreigners and even to many Russians, but they're essential to what's a carefully controlled public image, projected by a highly talented performer.

Pres. PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: When Putin appears in front of more than 1,000 journalists during his regular annual news conferences, the president owns the room, keeping reporters fascinated for hours by alternating between threats, jokes, and flirtation.

Unidentified Woman: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: One journalist in 2006 said she was speaking for all blond women when asking why Putin looked so fit and attractive. His answer was that he doesn't drink and does plenty of sports.

Pres. PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: Then Putin asked the journalist to convey his greetings to all blond women. Putin has often lost his temper in public. During a 2002 news conference in Brussels, the president responded to a question that angered him by inviting a reporter to come to Moscow to be circumcised.

Pres. PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: We have specialists in this question as well, Putin said. I'll recommend that he carry out the operation in such a way that nothing will grow back. Even some of Putin's biggest critics admit he knows how to work an audience. Boris Nemtsov was first deputy prime minister when Putin was head of the federal security service.

Mr. BORIS NEMTSOV (First Deputy Prime Minister, Russia): He studied at KGB school in such kind of principle, how to direct people, how to be comfortable. This is special educational program in KGB. And I believe that he studied well.

FEIFER: Natalia Muravieva, a rector of Moscow's Academy of Communications and Information, says Putin is a highly dynamic politician whose speeches are intricately crafted.

Ms. NATALIA MURAVIEVA (Moscow's Academy of Communications and Information): (Through translator) Putin uses a lot of repetition that builds to a crescendo and his widely reported aphorisms are like gems. They're few and far between and everyone remembers them.

FEIFER: Russians won't necessarily be deprived as such gems just because Putin is stepping down as president. He's used his tremendous popularity to retain much of his power. He'll be prime minister and head of the biggest political party. Platforms that will give him plenty of opportunity to create new Putinisms. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

SIMON: And you can find a few more Putinisms and by a tune called, "I Want Someone Like Putin," at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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