Ever since the USSR collapsed, tourist stalls in Moscow and St. Petersburg have heaved with Soviet knickknacks: Red Army caps and badges, prints of Stalin’s propaganda posters. Today, while much of this is still available, they also tempt visitors to Russia with an increasingly elaborate array of Putinkitsch. On T-shirts, mugs and key rings, Vladimir Putin strikes his signature sunglasses-wearing pose, the image of Russia’s latest strongman ruler.
In reality, however, actual evidence of such a cult is mixed. Some 19 percent of Russians believe Putin to be the subject of a personality cult and a further 31 percent believe that, though no such cult yet exists, the conditions for one do. But only a minority of Russians—16 to 18 percent—actually own an image of Putin or say they want one. Of course, in a country of 140 million, that still makes for a lot of Putin portraits. But perhaps more significantly, fully three-quarters of Russians nonetheless declare that they wouldn’t buy Putin’s picture. What’s more, they’re not afraid to tell a pollster.
Of course, Russians ought to know a personality cult when they see one. And Putin is undoubtedly popular. But when it comes to their present ruler, the mood seems more one of playful irony, a “people’s patriotism” rather than an awed and unthinking fealty: in the resurgence of national pride sparked by the annexation of Crimea and Western sanctions, printing Putin’s face on cheap cotton T-shirts is both a good way of poking a stick in the West’s collective eye and of making few rubles off goggle-eyed Western tourists.
But the ambivalence of the “cult of Putin” doesn’t mean that there isn’t a sincere cult of another Russian leader—a ruler whose images are the object of genuine veneration. Significantly, however, its subject bears almost no relation to the strongman that Westerners have come to expect Russians to worship.
Brutally executed by a Bolshevik firing squad with his family and remaining servants in July 1918, Nicholas, his wife (Empress Alexandra), four daughters (Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia) and only son (Tsarevich Alexei) were named saints and “passion-bearers” by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000.That leader is Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II (1894–1917), a figure who in any strongman telling of Russian history could at best hope to play the role of antihero. A popular Putin T-shirt bears the caption, “The politest of people.” That’s ironic. By all accounts, however, Nicholas actually was.
Controversial fifteen years ago, this cult of Russia’s “Holy Imperial Martyrs” (as it’s officially known) is now well-established and increasingly visible to the observant visitor. A church dedicated to Nicholas is under construction in Moscow. Others are to be built around the country. Ekaterinburg in the Urals, the site of their execution, is now a major pilgrimage destination, attracting thousands of Russians every year.
Devotional images—icons—of the family are prominently displayed in some of Russia’s most tourist-visited churches, including Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral. Every day in these and other churches across the former Soviet Union, soberly attired men and women cross themselves before these figures known the world over from hundreds of photographs, bow reverently and kiss the corner of their gold-leafed icons. (Needless to say, I have never seen anyone make any sort of obeisance before a picture of Putin—the thought itself is absurd.)
Today’s iconographic convention usually presents the last Romanovs as unnaturally elongated figures with haloed faces and medieval robes. Ironically, this is the kind of garb which, apart from the coronation ceremony in 1896, the real-life Nicholas and Alexandra would only have worn to the “Old Moscow” fancy-dress balls popular early last century: an example is on display in the Kremlin.
In his own lifetime, the tsar was to his detractors Nicholas “the Bloody,” a reference to the hundreds of protesters slain when guards opened fire on a peaceful march on the Winter Palace in January 1905. Today, however, the image of the hapless but sainted tsar is everything the stereotypical Russian leader isn’t meant to be: Nicholas’s doe-like eyes project a benign docility that is light-years from Putin’s steely glare, his silken mantle in perfect counterpoint to Putin’s trademark bomber jacket.