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. (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.
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.
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.
Alcohol (no self-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.)