The Secret American Subculture of Putin-Worshippers

.photo.right{display:none;}The Russian president has his fans here — who see him as the very epitome of macho manliness.

Vladimir Putin drinks beer in the Zhiguli beer bar in Moscow, May 1, 2012.
AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin
Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
Sept. 19, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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Two years ago, Gayne C. Young, a Texas-based writer and blog­ger for Out­door Life, scored the in­ter­view of a life­time. As a beat writer, Young had en­joyed the out­door ex­ploits of Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, who has been doc­u­mented shoot­ing a gray whale with a cross­bow, tran­quil­iz­ing a ti­ger at­tack­ing a news crew, hunt­ing shirt­less, fish­ing shirt­less, and rid­ing horse­back shirt­less. On a per­son­al level, Young liked the rugged brand of mas­culin­ity that seemed a throw­back to Teddy Roosevelt. “Al­though you have Clin­ton shoot­ing ducks, you nev­er see it. Al­though Rick Perry says he en­joys hunt­ing, you don’t see it. They say they do, but they don’t. Obama says he shoots skeet, but they only re­leased one pic­ture,” Young says. “Here’s a guy out there fish­ing, with no qualms. He’s like, ‘You don’t like it? Tough.’ Then he’d es­cal­ate and do more.”

His posts on Putin brought in great traffic, so his ed­it­or kept en­cour­aging him to es­cal­ate. Soon, Young was de­clar­ing his “man crush” on the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent. (“I hate to use that word, es­pe­cially on a hunt­ing web­site,” he ad­mits.) He called the Rus­si­an con­su­late, flir­ted with the right sec­ret­ary, and went through “hoop after hoop after hoop” un­til, one Fri­day, a press at­taché called and told him the pres­id­ent wanted his ques­tions in the next 20 minutes.

Young scrambled and sent something over. Six weeks later, Putin replied with an al­most un­be­liev­able 8,000-word missive — cov­er­ing everything from ti­ger con­ser­va­tion to his fa­vor­ite works of Hem­ing­way to the in­nate frailty of hu­man life. He lec­tured on the sim­il­ar­it­ies between Rus­si­ans and Amer­ic­ans, and de­murred from an­swer­ing Young’s friend­li­est ques­tions. (“Are you the coolest man in polit­ics?”) “People really liked him, at least on our com­ments sec­tion on Out­door Life,” Young says. “Giv­en the demo­graph­ics of the read­er­ship, most are die-hard Re­pub­lic­ans,” and when they saw Putin hunt­ing, he says, “they were like, ‘Obama wouldn’t do that.’ “

Putin­phil­ia is not, of course, the pre­dom­in­ant po­s­i­tion of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment. But in cer­tain corners of the In­ter­net, ad­or­a­tion for the lead­er of Amer­ica’s No. 1 frenemy is un­ex­cep­tion­al. They are not his coun­try­men, Rus­si­an ex­pats, or any of the oth­er re­gion­al al­lies you might ex­pect to find al­lied with the Rus­si­an lead­er. Some, like Young and his read­ers, are earn­est out­doorsy types who like Putin’s Rough Rider sens­ib­il­ity. Oth­ers more cheekily ad­mire Putin’s cult of mas­culin­ity and claim re­l­at­ive in­dif­fer­ence to the polit­ic­al stances — the anti-Amer­ic­an­ism, the sup­port for lead­ers like Bashar al-As­sad, the op­pres­sion of minor­it­ies, gays, journ­al­ists, dis­sid­ents, in­de­pend­ent-minded ol­ig­archs — that drive most Amer­ic­ans mad. A few even ar­rive at their Putin ad­mir­a­tion through a strange brew of an­ti­pathy to everything they think Pres­id­ent Obama stands for, a re­flex­ive dis­trust of what the gov­ern­ment and me­dia tells them, and polit­ic­al be­liefs that go un­rep­res­en­ted by either of the main Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al parties.

They ut­terly per­plex many ob­serv­ers of the Rus­si­an-Amer­ic­an re­la­tion­ship. “No clue as to what drives it, oth­er than some form of ill­ness,” says Rus­si­an-born nov­el­ist Gary Shteyn­gart, au­thor of Ab­surdistan.

There are many faux Putin fans in Amer­ica — those who mock the hero wor­ship iron­ic­ally or half-iron­ic­ally. But plenty of his fans are ser­i­ous. Three months ago, Amer­ic­ans for Putin, a Face­book group, sprang up “for Amer­ic­ans who ad­mire many of the policies and the lead­er­ship style of Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Vladi­mirovich Putin” and think he “sounds bet­ter than the Re­pub­li­crat es­tab­lish­ment.” The group has an eight-point policy plat­form call­ing for “a uni­fied [Amer­ic­an] na­tion­al cul­ture,” a “firm stance against Is­raeli im­per­i­al­ism,” and an op­pos­i­tion to the polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness it says dom­in­ates Wash­ing­ton. Though that group is re­l­at­ively small (167 likes as of Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, tick­ing up every few hours), the Obama’s-so-bad-Putin-al­most-looks-good sen­ti­ment can be found on plenty of con­ser­vat­ive mes­sage boards. Earli­er this year, when Putin sup­posedly caught — and kissed — a 46-pound pike fish, posters on Free Re­pub­lic, a ma­jor grass­roots mes­sage board for the Right, were over­whelm­ingly pro-Putin:

“I won­der what photoup [sic] of his va­ca­tion will the Usurp­er show us? Maybe clip­ping his fin­ger­nails I sup­pose or maybe hanging some cur­tains. Yep manly. I can’t be­lieve I’m sid­ing with Putin,” one wrote. “I have Pres­id­ent envy,” an­oth­er said. “Bet­ter than our met­ro­sexu­al pres­id­ent,” said a third. One riffed that a Putin-Sarah Pal­in tick­et would lead to a more mor­al United States.

The cult of Putin in Amer­ica prob­ably has its strongest hold on the read­ers of os­tens­ibly apolit­ic­al hu­mor sites that tar­get young men, such as Cracked and theCh­ive. Cracked‘s post on why Putin is “The World’s Cra­zi­est Ba­dass” drew more than 1 mil­lion views. TheCh­ive‘s slide show nam­ing Putin “The Real Life Most In­ter­est­ing Man in the World” in­spired sev­er­al hun­dred com­ments — only a few from Putin-haters dis­tressed to see that he had such a fol­low­ing.

Putin is hardly the first — or the worst — an­ti­hero to en­joy the de­vo­tion of a small seg­ment of Amer­ic­ans. Nor is he the first to be­ne­fit from a deep, re­flex­ive dis­trust of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions like the gov­ern­ment or me­dia. The most re­cent and dis­con­cert­ing ex­ample is the hero wor­ship of Bo­ston Mara­thon sus­pect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has a cult fol­low­ing on­line. Many doubt law en­force­ment’s as­ser­tion of his guilt; oth­ers cre­ate Tumblr pages wor­ship­ping him like the latest teen­age pop star.

As for Young, re­cent years have tested the man-crush. He still thinks the guy he in­ter­viewed would make a great fish­ing part­ner, but he dis­likes the “saber rat­tling” he sees between Putin and Obama. “A lot of people in the out­doors world will say to me, ‘Hey look what your boy Putin is do­ing now. I al­ways re­spond: ‘It’s Vlad, and I’m not sure that’s the real one,’ ” Young says.  “It’s really hard for me right now, with what all is go­ing on, to say which Putin he really is. I would like to say he’s the one who answered my ques­tions.”

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