Vladimir Putin likes to be publicly characterized by a certain macho demeanor. The behavior goes back to wrestling and Russian prison culture.
Moscow – Ever since the ongoing battle for the small Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, has attracted attention for his exalted macho posturing and vulgar language. His knowledge of the "Fenya," as the prison jargon is called, is not surprising: nine years since Prigozhin has been in Soviet prisons. A fact that should not only be useful to him in the recruitment of prisoners, but could also have brought him into the favor of Vladimir Putin.
After all, it was Putin who, at the beginning of his rule some 23 years ago, began to spice up his speeches with Fenja idioms and powerful expressions. His appearance was well received by the Russian people – in some cases to this day. "For men, he became a role model because someone like Putin is desired in the most openly sexual way," Nana Grinstein, a Russian author who now lives in exile, told Al Jazeera.
The image of the male doer, revered by women and envied by men, was only to be further built over the years through targeted actions. For example, photos of Putin went around the world, showing the head of state bare-chested hunting, fishing and horseback riding. But where does Putin's enthusiasm for the rough come from?
Vladimir Putin during a training session in Sochi in 2019. The Russian president is considered a big judo fan and was awarded the title of sixth dan of "Kodokan Judo" in Tokyo in 2000. © Mikhail Metzel/Imago
The fascination of prison: Putin likes to listen to Russian chansons
Companions from Putin's hometown of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, believe that at least the fascination with prison life can be traced back to sambo – a form of wrestling. The enthusiastic wrestler and judo fighter got to know several criminals through his coach at the time, Leonid Vvatsev, Putin's former ring partner Nikolai Vashchillin told the radio station Liberty/Svoboda.
In the 1980s, Putin became a fan of the typical Russian music genre "Russki Shanson", which glorifies prison and the criminal lifestyle. This also connected the president with the Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin, as he himself once explained. Today, Roldugin is considered not only a renowned musician, but also "Putin's wallet" – with his help, more than 50 million US dollars are said to have been forwarded to the inner circle of the Kremlin.
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A psychologist from Ukraine gave several reasons why Putin prefers fenya and the lifestyle associated with it. Russian prison directors are "above the law, beyond the law," says Svetlana Chunikhina, vice president of the Association of Political Psychologists, a group in Kiev. "For Putin, this is an ideal status. He has created a state that does not abide by international law, and he himself is not controlled by national laws," she told Al Jazeera.
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At the political level, at least the way politicians speak has changed. One Kremlin critic said that Putin and his henchmen embraced "down-to-earth populism" because they wanted to sound like average Russians. "These people simply speak the language that the public speaks," Sergei Bishopikin, who fled to Israel from the western city of Ryazan, told Al Jazeera.
According to Chunikhina, Putin "despises weakness" and likes the prison cult of power. Furthermore, Putin hates the modern, Western understanding of personal freedom. "The prison discourse, which Putin has made the everyday political language of modern Russia, is an ideal way to turn a nation into a prison." (nak)