Putting on Putin

Criticism gets creative at Russian Esquire

Vladimir V. Putin is a fashion victim, addicted to luxurious clothes. Or at least he is according to the Russian version of Esquire magazine, which “posed” him as a model in December, the snow-peaked Kremlin towers in the background, in a pretentious fashion shoot that was actually a trick of the magazine’s art department. Putting on Putin has become a tradition at the Russian Esquire. Back in April 2005, when it first came out, the magazine created a stir when it published a “poem” by Putin, titled “I Was a Gardener Myself,” which the editors had Frankensteined out of various presidential statements from the previous five years. They illustrated it with a portrait that merged Putin and Pushkin, the Romantic Russian poet and novelist of the nineteenth century.

Successive issues would, Russian tongue firmly in cheek, reveal more reasons for the nation’s admiration of Putin: his passion for judo, his use of the vernacular, his resemblance to the fictional character Otto von Stirlitz, an imaginary Soviet secret agent who infiltrated Nazi intelligence. Russian Esquire in July 2005 used Putin’s imaginary responses to accusations of his involvement in the controversial imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Yukos oil baron, for a brief English-language course published in the magazine. Sample quote: “I have nothing to do with it.”

Esquire in Russia (it is editorially independent of the American version) has acquired a reputation as an anti-Putin island, willing to criticize the political establishment and embrace the liberal elite. Interviews from Hollywood actors and directors, syndicated from the U.S. Esquire, run alongside quality Russian fare, both floating in a lake of advertisements for luxury goods. The magazine mixes scathing satire and political ideas with the sweet seduction of an ad for a leather blazer or a trendy perfume. There are essays written by Russian liberals and thoughtful articles by many journalists.

The magazine has always had a reputation for imagination. (Full disclosure: I worked there, most recently as a special projects editor in 2006-2007.) Its American cousin took note of this in its October 2007 issue, singing the praises, especially, of its designers, for daring to “dress animals in fine clothing…and lace up Italian shoes with cooked spaghetti.” Those designers also put Putin’s image on old Soviet stamps, medals, and five-pointed stars, and portrayed the president as struggling with a monumental hangover. In a Russian analogue of U.S. Esquire’s Dubious Achievements section, East Village illustrator Frank Stockton used Putin to illustrate some of the things that Russia leads the world in. So here was Putin as a bouncer-like skinhead (half of the world’s skinheads live in Russia) and as a hung corpse (Russia has the world’s highest rate of young-adult suicide). Bold provocations—and yet no reaction from Putin’s administration followed.

Editorial barbs aimed at Putin’s regime don’t seem to be bad for business. In the last three years, the magazine’s circulation has grown from 80,000 to 125,000, and advertising revenues have also climbed, bringing profits to SanomaWSOY, the Helsinki-based media company that owns it. (Sanoma pays Hearst a fee for publishing under Esquire’s name.) The fact that Western media conglomerates control the magazine certainly grants a measure of freedom to Esquire editors.

Still, the Russian Esquire treads on dangerous ground. Last autumn a St. Petersburg student magazine, Obvodny Times, was closed and all copies burnt—a consequence, some say, of publishing a single ambiguous poem about Putin scourging vampire militiamen. But Esquire remains in the kiosks. Perhaps this is because of its still relatively insignificant circulation in a nation as big as Russia. Or maybe, just maybe, the president and his counselors simply admire Esquire’s imaginative approach.

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Alexander Galperin is a freelance writer based in New York City.