Vladimir Putin is notoriously alpha.

Putin goes out of his way to be photographed while engaged in various masculine endeavors: bare-chested horseback riding, judo competitions, recovering ancient underwater urns, racing Formula One cars, riding motorcycles, flying jets, hunting dangerous animals, saving dangerous animals, and more.  He makes James Bond look like a nancy boy.  (See here, here, and here.)

And to many Westerners, he seems ridiculously over the top.  But that’s partly because we’ve been trained to look down on displays of masculinity, and partly because we don’t understand the Russian context of Putin’s displays of masculinity.

As a result, Westerners completely misunderstand Vladimir Putin.

Here’s why.

As with any performance, you have to know your audience.  Putin’s homage to masculinity isn’t targeted at Westerners or Russian oligarchs.  These special-ops photo-ops aren’t displays of Putin’s actual political power.  Most of Putin’s power is invisible, and he wields it behind the scenes.  He doesn’t show the public how he rigs elections, he just rigs them — and people learn the results.  He doesn’t show the public how he threatens oligarchs with jail, he just threatens them privately — and if one steps out of line, he jails him publicly.  He exercises most of his real power behind the scenes, but gives enough public examples to maintain his reputation.  And his reputation is enough to keep everyone else in line.

Putin’s displays of masculinity are targeted to ordinary Russians.

They are intended to boost his popularity.  And they work (or they did for a long time).  Why?

First, in dangerous societies, women are more attracted to masculine men (study via HUS).

Ladies, if violent crime shot through the roof this year, trust me — big rugged men with lantern jaws would start to look surprisingly sexy, soft, and marriageable (even more than they already do).  Russia is a dangerous society, with dropping life expectancies, high levels of drunkenness and violence, and weak rule of law.  Therefore, the baseline sexual desire for masculine men is higher.

Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin is a big hit among Russian women — and attractive ones too.  For example, Putin’s Army (SFW) is an amorphous group of attractive Russian women who claim they will do anything for their beloved Prime Minister, including wash cars in bikinis.

Second, Putin’s displays of masculinity are disciplined.

I can’t emphasize this point enough.  Mastery of judo requires years of practice.  Flying a fighter jet requires responsibility and training.  Proper hunting and fishing requires more intelligence and patience than most sheltered urbanites think.  All of these endeavors require control.  He’s not doing dare-devil stunts, brawling on the street, or playing the most foolishly risky game of all: Russian Roulette.  He’s taking calculated risks.

Vladimir Putin is providing an example to Russian men on how to harness their testosterone, which currently is being wasted on gambling, alcohol, suicide, and violence.  Undisciplined testosterone is an incredibly destructive force.  Disciplined testosterone is an incredibly productive force.  

Russia has a lot of natural resources — think of Russian men like an untapped energy source, like the gulf stream, the sun, or ocean currents.  Men, like women, are a natural resource, and Russia is wasting it’s men.  Putin knows this.  He knows that testosterone is an incredibly powerful force when channeled in the appropriate direction with discipline and control and incentives.  Putin is trying to show men how to control it.

Vladimir Putin is Russia’s strong father figure.

And when you view it in that light, you start to see that many of Vladimir Putin’s displays aren’t about masculinity unleashed — which is how most Westerners view them — but about disciplined masculinity, about testosterone well-channeled toward productive ends.

Don’t forget this important, but often-overlooked fact: Vladimir Putin is sober.  He doesn’t drink alcohol.  The leader of Russia, one of the heaviest drinking countries on earth, is a teetotaler.  Now isn’t that a quaint, moralistic notion.  And Putin’s sobriety stands in stark contrast to the public drunkenness of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Furthermore, in the midst of Putin’s hyper-masculine photography, we somehow miss the fact that he nurtures wild animals (#25), protects national treasures (#7), and plays the piano (#23).  He wraps these activities in masculinity, which we associate with silly recklessness, but the activities themselves are about nurturing, civilized behavior.  (Even if he’s a thug behind the scenes to maintain a semblance of order.)

There are two ways to harness the powerful force that is testosterone: external control (the rule of law, culture, access to sex) or individual control (self-discipline, personal values).   Russia has no external controls on behavior: the rule of law hardly exists, and culture and religion were destroyed by communism.  And sex, like in the United States, is probably pretty easy to get.  That leaves self-discipline.  And what does alcohol do?  That’s right, alcohol loosens inhibitions.  Alcohol destroys self-discipline.

Here is a recipe for disaster.

Testosterone (risk) + Alcohol (no self-discipline) + No Rule of Law, Culture, Religion, or Limits to sexual access (no social discipline) = Wasted National Resource

Putin knows that if Russia can’t channel men in socially- or individually-productive directions, Russia is doomed.  Needless to say, countries are also doomed when their women stop wanting to have babies.  (Goodbye, Europe!)

So the next time you see Vladimir Putin doing something manly with his shirt off, move past the macho.  Look for the control, the mastery, the discipline that he will inevitably be displaying.  And realize that Vladimir Putin is being a positive role model — yes, a positive role model — for Russian men who otherwise lack external controls or incentives to channel testosterone in productive directions.  It sounds crazy to say so, but like a good father, he is trying to inculcate in his Russian sons a culture of self-discipline.

Whether it will work — or whether it will be subverted by more powerful forces — is another question entirely.


(Tip to men: If you ever meet a young and attractive Russian woman, up the alpha to comical levels.  You’ll be amazed by the results.)

30 Responses to “Alpha: Why Westerners misunderstand Vladimir Putin”

  1. Chris says:

    I think the distinction between cultural controls and self-discipline is problematic.  Self-discipline immediately raises the question, for what, or in what way or what arenas?  Putin’s self-discipline clearly has ends–nationalistic ends.  But what argument does he present to Russian men for why they should share these ends?  Society creates the constructs that channel self-discipline.  That self-discipline is "productive" is not a culture-free endorsement.  You might be interested in The Restraint Project from the University of New South Wales: web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/restraintproj.html

    They are not working out of a culture-free paradigm, either, though.  I’m not dissing culture or trying to undermine the value of self-discipline, but understanding the cultural aspects can lead to self-understanding, as well as a more nuanced view of social demands.

    • John says:

      Traditional cultural controls tend to favor the propagation of the culture. Individual discipline is a bit more agnostic — a disciplined individual can achieve whatever they’d like to achieve.

      • Binki says:

        But in Russia, being an achieving individual often brings you nothing. Putin may try hard to be a role model, but as he has created a society where the products of your labour may be confiscated, or if you act too smart, you may be imprisoned and killed, the russian men do not attempt to try. A father who gladly sacrifices his own children can never be a role model. A brutal political system can never nurture creativity and personal development.

        • John says:

          you’re exactly right

          • Liocha says:

            I am a Russian reader of your blog in London and I am happy that someone writes about this. Put aside the politics of Putin, with regards to masculintiy, I believe that he can be viewed as a role model of the modern man at a time where more and more men are lost with regards to their sexual identity. You probably already have this link, but this is a pretty impressive set of pictures:




        • BJ says:

           Was going to comment along these lines. Theres that tricky double standard: you want your guys good enough to better the country, but not so good that they oust you. 

          Is there any russian opinions out there? Do you think Putin is flamboyant?

  2. Andrew says:

     I have a feeling the "misunderstanding" westerners have also has something to do with things like journalists who speak out against Putin mysteriously getting bullets to the head. The combination of control, mastery, and discipline is also the halmark of the fascist. Coincidence? Maybe. Role model? Not for me, thanks. And… what could be more beta than having a role model?

    • John says:

      I said he was a thug. nothing to look up to there. this is about his masculine photographic exploits — was that not clear? // on the topic of self-discipline, I think personal self-discipline is quite healthy. // you talk about beta like it’s a bad thing — it’s not. regardless, there’s nothing beta about having a role model. the male condition is to strive for greatness, and there are many examples and symbols of excellence or greatness that an alpha male could see as role models

    • Patrick Armstrong says:

      Don’t believe everyt5hing you read in the Western media.
      Check out the career of Yulia Latynina — a reporter who loathes him and is always on about him. She does quite well.

  3. JD Moyer says:

    Interesting post John. Here’s a different take on "alpha" — it’s not always about being the biggest and the baddest (at least among primates).


  4. Mr. Sunshine says:

    Loved the analysis, John, but it should be noted that many of his photos are phony set-ups.  For example, the one where he allegedly dove and pulled up an amphora–an ancient artifact–from the sea: in that case, someone put the artifact in 3 feet of water, Vlad got it, and boom! macho man photo!

  5. Mr. Sunshine says:

    Loved the analysis, John, but it should be noted that many of his photos are phony set-ups.  For example, the one where he allegedly dove and pulled up an amphora–an ancient artifact–from the sea: in that case, someone put the artifact in 3 feet of water, Vlad got it, and boom! macho man photo!

  6. Nicolas P. says:

    I wonder what is the impact of the difference between instincts (inherited capacities, develop through evolution, to solve a problem in a given environment) and learned and rationally refined behaviours, in your analysis. Being an alpha is instinctual. Wanting to solve a problem in a given society, through images of behaviour, is not instinctual, it’s a rational solution to a set of problems, using instincts. 

  7. Jason says:

    Proper hunting and fishing requires more intelligence and patience than most sheltered urbanites think."

    Now, John, don’t go upsetting those sheltered urbanites and their belief that fishing and hunting are the barbaric pursuits of redneck America.  

    Putin is criticized for a heavy, thuggish hand for good reason: he employs it will great skill.  What people don’t often realize is their rooted belief that such people are unnecessary and dangerous.

    I’d argue that Russia’s transition from a cmmunist and highly centralized government to a functioning democracy, which never was going to happen in even a single generation, needs a bridge like Putin.  Vladimir still acts as a central focus, but he’s letting the institutions of democracy grow slowly. It’s ugly, yes, but necessary.  Nation building is never pretty – a fact we should know all too well.

    BTW, John, I really enjoy where your content is heading recently.  Good stuff – thoughtful, thought provoking, and shit stirring.

    • John says:

      We don’t appreciate how thoroughly communism wiped out the culture, institutions, and civil society in Russia. And how critical those things are for a well-functioning democracy or republic. History will be the judge. /// Glad you’re enjoying the new direction.

      • R-11 says:

        Not so, “democacy” is THE problem of Russia, its “instiututions” are corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and oligarchs.
        It is basically what “governement” Obama is building in the United States.

        20 years of it = 20 years of low birthrate and post-industrialism, except the Russian federation cannot simply borrow and print trillions of roubles.
        Russian culture have suffered more from the rot it brought, there are also millions of illegal islamic immigrants and million of legal ones.

        At least feminism and homosexual militancy have not taken root just yet but that is not thanks to “democracy”, oh no, on the contrary.
        The insane skanks of SEMEN and pussy riots are the supporters of “democracy”.

  8. Mark says:

     What was most interesting was the passive submission of the male TV announcer to his partners assertion that this was somehow denigrating to those women. It is unlikely that they were coerced into doing this.

    Rather, unlike their plainer and more militant feminist sisters in Western Europe, they know that there is nothing more powerful than a smart woman who is unafraid of her beauty; similar to a smart man with muscles.

    Russian women are generally very educated and there is more to them than they are given credit for; especially by their European counterparts.

  9. Big Marty says:

    Haha you’ll like this Johnboy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16592633

  10. Patrick Armstrong says:

    An excellent theory John. I have often wondered why Putin goes off on a private trip to a lake in Tyva (which is very far from anywhere) but also takes a photographer. I have put your theory on our discussion group here http://russiadebate.com/threads/putin-derangement-syndrome.155/page-2.
    (PS Good for you on noticing the teetotaler. So are many of those around him. BTW, if you are interested, Russians call his sort of guy “German” ie efficient, gets to the office early in the morning, gets through the work, takes as long as it takes. No booziness, no hanging around with the guys BS-ing, no “Russianness”. Kinda dull from their POV but in a strange way they admire it. BTW he is also a pretty devout Christian. None of this hits the Western MSM, but as you know, that’s all pretty much PC BS.)

    BTW, now that you are starting to look behind the curtain, don’t believe all the propaganda you’re told about him. You KNOW that a politician in the West who acted like a man would be popular. I assure you he is in Russia too.

    In short, he doesn’t have to fix elections — they like him there too.
    Check these polling figures out (and, let me ask you to clear your mind of propaganda).


    OK, OK, I understand that this is too much for you after years of propaganda.
    So just think about this:
    How popular would a real man be, if he ran in the USA?
    Why would Russians be any different?

  11. danvolodar says:

    Your claims that religion or much less Russian culture were destroyed by communism are completely out there. Do you really think that the current prevalence of Orthodox Christians in Russia is a completely new phenomenon, and none of them were Christians during the Soviet times? Despite the Church officially being allowed, if frowned upon? As for the culture, the current hardliner culture of strictly defined gender roles (and other such conservative values) is largely, if not completely, inherited from the Union, while the new pro-Western Russia has been doing everything to destroy it.

  12. References to Putin’s repression are unfair to Russia. In the US overly broad laws are selectively applied to non leftists, for example Kirk Shelmerdine, Chick a-File, and Dinesh D’Souza, which has the effect of silencing opposition to the left. As the recent furor over homosexuality reveals, there is far more freedom of speech under Putin than under Obama

  13. The big difference between Putin’s repression and Obama’s repression is that Putin’s repression is like that of Lee Kuan Yew, nation building, while Obama’s repression is like that of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and his union goons, nation destroying.

    • Candide III says:

      Don’t be ridiculous. Putin’s repression is nation building? Maybe, but it’s not a nice nation. Not like Singapore at all. Indeed I believe it is quite close to Coleman Young, with ‘security’ goons in place of union goons. I wrote a bit about it two weeks ago (click on my name). And if you want to see how Putin handles freedom of speech, take a look at this video of a tiny picket in Moscow in support of Ukrainian Maidan, taken 3 days ago: youtu.be/vsiVGWKH7g0

  14. wtf says:

    Erroneous claims of him rigging elections, he has maintained a 60%+ favor rating by his country since he gained power.

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