I went to the opening of The Expendables recently, in the mood for a little bit of escapism, and was bowled over by the crowd’s whooping, hollering love for Sly, Lundgren, Arnie, Bruce et al. There seemed to be more love than you could have ever expected for a formula, and a set of stars, who for the most part reached their peak in 1985, at the height of Reagan’s presidency.
Looking at reports on the latest Vladimir Putin photoshoot, however, I realise that perhaps I should not have been so taken aback; this sort of macho posturing has never really gone away. Possibly these sorts of fashions travel the world in a kind of Mexican wave – in Russia right now, the macho image is the sure way to win the love of the electorate, while it looks ludicrous here. For now, at least.
Certainly it is easy to satirise Putin in the UK or America at the moment – when he poses like a hero from Call of Duty 4 or, in a bid to show a softer side, nuzzles up to his horse, he is playing to local tastes that look utterly ludicrous to a more cynical western European and American audience.
It’s rather like a political version of the Eurovision song contest, to my eye. The Scandinavian obsession with odd metal bands or sublime pop with no middle ground plays oddly to a jaundiced UK audience, and the cheese that comes from Eastern Europe is almost always sneered at in the UK media, only to go on and get big votes in the countries that have not yet developed our hard veneer of cultural superiority.
So it is with politics.There is every chance that Putin’s PR men might have tried to get him to tone down the action man poses in an attempt to avoid ridicule, but they would be missing the point that Putin understands; in the rough and tumble of politics you have to act locally long before you start thinking globally.
Equally, Silvio Berlusconi’s continued survival as Italian prime minister could be down to the strong likelihood that his image, that of a womanising chancer, plays far more effectively to a mass audience in Italy than it does to the rest of the world.
I doubt that anything is going to stop Putin from posing with rifles and daggers now. If he suddenly starts worrying about the negative publicity, he is going to be seen as a soldier who is afraid of the smell of blood.
Russian leaders like grizzled hard men. In the 1950s Nikita Khrushchev – on his first tour of the US – was asked by President Eisenhower if there was one American he wished to meet – Khrushchev didn’t hesitate. “John Wayne,” he answered.
And what of the Mexican wave effect? Well, by the time the next American presidential election comes around, there should be a sequel to The Expendables in cinemas and a presidential candidate to fit that gung-ho image, assuming Sarah Palin stands.
This article was originally published in the Guardian on Wednesday. Click here to see the original.