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As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.
Vladimir Putin. (Photo: plavevski/Shutterstock)

Vladimir Putin. (Photo: plavevski/Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, sword and shield in hand, baring his muscular torso fights a three-headed hydra. Putin, in ancient Roman attire, defeats a beast. Putin, in a short toga, rides a huge bull.

Last month, Putin’s 62nd birthday was not only commemorated by thousands of Russians wearing white, blue, and red and parading through the streets of Russia’s cities, but also by the “12 Labors of Putin,” a Moscow art exposition featuring Russia’s presidential Hercules. One might wonder if this over-the-top exhibition is a joke or decide it is an outlandish display that illustrates German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comment this past spring that Putin “lives in another world.”

Merkel’s remark resonates with many people outside of Russia who believe the Russian leader is mentally off-kilter, with a large fraction of the Russian populace sharing (or made to share) his delusions. But instead of seeing Putin as “out there,” we can view his public imagery in relation to Russian cultural history to better understand him and his foreign policy plans. In particular, looking at paintings, operas, and marches illuminate our understanding of Russian political theater, including how Putin’s current obsession with Crimea fits within a long history.

One might wonder if this over-the-top exhibition is a joke or decide it is an outlandish display that illustrates German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comment this past spring that Putin "lives in another world."

In the exhibition painting “The Taming of the Cretan Bull,” the mighty beast Putin straddles is a stand-in for Crimea. Unlike the Greek myth where Hercules had to wrestle the bull, Putin’s task does not seem to require any taming; the bull’s horns are adorned/tamed with a ribbon of the Russian national colors. The Cretan bull may also allude to its counterpart, the capitalistic Wall Street bull. Facing sanctions (the four-headed dragon Putin defeats in another work of art), in the painting the Russian leader rides the very symbol of American economic might.

Some Russians might also find this Cretan Bull reminiscent of a famous early 20th-century painting, Valentin Serov’s “Kidnapping of Europe.” There, Zeus, disguised as a bull, carries a maiden, Europe, to the Cretan/Crimean shore. Putin is hardly a frightened maiden, but the reference to Europe is timely. Putin’s punishment and rebuke of Ukraine, which turned its back to Russia in favor of the West, amounts to the kidnapping of the Crimean peninsula. Thus the bear-chested Putin riding the bull is both Hercules and the Zeus-bull, two mighty Olympic heroes in one.

Crimea, a rather small peninsula washed by the two seas and opened to a year-round navigation path from Azov to Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas, has been an attraction to rulers from antiquity. Russia won Crimea from the Ottomans in 1783; the chain of rulers who had previously acquired this 10,000-square-mile terrain—approximately the size of Maryland—included Mithridates IV of Pontus, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Justinian, Constantine VIII, and Russians princes Oleg and Vladimir. Rather an attractive company for the current president to join. But why Hercules and Grecian mythology?

Russian Tsars have traced their history to Greece. Russia, connected with Greece by Eastern Orthodoxy, also claims a shared antiquity. Whatever the assumed Russo-Greek connection, it legitimizes Russian territorial claims in Crimea (Grecian) and beyond.

Pairing with Hercules links Putin not only with Grecian semi-gods but with “the Tsar of Tsars”: Peter the Great, the “Russian Hercules.” A medal cast for one of Peter’s victories portrayed him in Greek laurels on one side and Hercules bearing the globe on the other. Triumphal arches Moscow erected in 1696 to celebrate Peter’s victory over Azov, the path to the Black Sea, featured “statues of Hercules and Mars.” Peter, painted by Serov, towers over his bending entourage, walking along the sea with a mighty Russian fleet, his stride powerful and long, his head high in the clouds, almost reaching the border of the canvas. Putin lacks Peter’s 6’8” height, but he compensates with his muscled chest and brawny arms in the image multiplied by 12 in the Hercules series in the exhibition.

Peter expanded his river-run empire to the Baltic Sea but ran out of time in the Black. It was another “Great” of 18th-century Tsardom/stardom who gained possession of Crimea in 1783, receiving it from her giant, one-eyed morganatic husband Potemkin, the Prince of Crimea (Taurida). Identified with Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, Catherine the Great flaunted her sexual prowess, political appetite, and literary ambitions. In a play she produced as a monumental historical opera, The Early Reign of Oleg (1786), large choruses of natives and defeated/welcoming foreigners sing glory to the Russian prince Oleg referring to him as “her.”

This was not a confusion of gender! Mounting this opera as her own public relations piece, the empress/entrepreneur aligned herself with her ancient historical predecessor Oleg, an early Russian prince who re-established power in Kiev, Russia’s first capital, in the 900s and led his army to Crimea, planning to conquer Byzantium. His fleet and military maneuvering frightened Byzantines; their king invited Oleg to the city and to see the play by Euripides that features Hercules. The choruses identified Hercules with Oleg, already identified with Catherine.

More than 75,000 Muscovites marched on November 4 for National Unity Day, a holiday created by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1649 and celebrated until 1917; it was re-instituted by Putin in 2004. The massive demonstration of Russian nationalism has replaced the Day of Revolution (November 7) celebrated in Soviet times. After greeting the Orthodox Archbishop, Russia’s Islamic Mufti, the chief Rabbi, the head of Russian Buddhists, and a delegation of Catholics, Putin proceeded to the opening of an 81-room exposition, “My History. Ruricks.” Ruricks, Russia’s first dynasty, ruled for seven centuries.

By looking to ancient Rome, Greece, and the reign of the Tsars, Putin continually works to wipe out the memory of the Soviet system that produced him. The elected president of Russia uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his lineage directly from Tsars’ families and to justify his foreign policy in Crimea. Modeling on the strongest of them, he becomes a legend: Hercules and Zeus, historical Peter, and Oleg—and perhaps even Catherine.