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Russia Bans a Not-So-Manly Image of Putin (Published 2017)


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Images of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia wearing heavy makeup have been banned after the government deemed them “extremist.”

Images of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia wearing heavy makeup have been banned after the government deemed them “extremist.”Credit…Denis Doyle/Getty Images

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has gone to great lengths to cultivate an image of authority and masculinity.

Photos showing him bare-chested and riding a horse have become an online meme. Other widely publicized pictures show him in scuba diving gear, carrying a rifle with a scope or taking down an opponent in martial arts.

So when a Russian named Alexander V. Tsvetkov posted photos and comments last year depicting Mr. Putin quite differently on VKontakte, the country’s largest social network, the authorities took notice.

The Central District Court of Tver ruled that a number of the images — including one depicting the Russian leader wearing lipstick, eye shadow and fake eyelashes — were “extremist.” Last month, the Justice Ministry took it a step further and updated its federal list of extremist materials. Offenders face a fine of up to 3,000 rubles ($53) or 15 days of administrative detention.

Among the banned materials? Image No. 4072, which Russian officials described as a poster resembling Mr. Putin “with makeup on his face — his eyelashes and lips are painted, which, as envisioned by the author/authors of the poster, should hint to an alleged nonstandard sexual orientation of the Russian president.”

The poster of Mr. Putin in drag — reminiscent to some of Andy Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe — has been referred to widely on social media and by news outlets as a “gay clown,” with many noting this description is itself a stereotype.

Its clownishness and sexuality aside, the image seems squarely aimed at Mr. Putin’s carefully cultivated reputation of hypermasculinity. Indeed, Randall D. Law, a professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., said on Thursday that it was clearly intended as a protest of the Russian leader’s crackdown on gays and lesbians.

In 2013, Mr. Putin signed laws banning gay couples from adopting Russian-born children, and allowing the police to arrest tourists and foreigners suspected of being gay or pro-gay and detain them for up to 14 days. He also signed a bill classifying “homosexual” propaganda as pornography, which could subject those who argued for tolerance or educating children about homosexuality to arrest and fines.

“There are a lot of ways you could visually attack him, but something that goes after his masculinity, anything that challenges his image as a hetero-normative male, in particular, will offend,” Mr. Law said. “This is a particularly sensitive point for Putin himself and for anybody in charge of policing his image.”

Kiosks sell posters of Mr. Putin projecting an aura of “machismo” for Russians to show off in their homes, he said.

“This is a guy who can drink a quart of vodka — even though he is a teetotaler — and wrestle a bear to the ground,” Mr. Law said.

The banning of the image fits two trends in Russia: the widespread quashing of freedom of expression by the government and the homophobia that is prevalent there, Gregory Vitarbo, a professor of history and Russia expert at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said in an email.

Mr. Putin is “notoriously vain,” he wrote, “so it is the perfect convergence: for Putin to be mocked in an image, and done so in a way that overtly invokes homosexuality, would indeed draw the particular ire of the regime.”