Putin's Secret Weapon: Hot Chicks in Parliament

From "prosecutie" Natalia Poklonskaya to former "Playboy" model Maria Kozhevnikova, Russia's government has seen a recent influx of beautiful women in powerful positions. But some political analysts say this trend isn't about advancing gender equality...

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Oct 31 2016, 3:45pm

Since she took office as the director of the department of information and press in Russia's foreign ministry, 40-year-old Maria Zakharova has developed a reputation in the country's media: both for her blunt, often sarcastic attacks on the West, and for her beauty. Or, as one blog post put it, "attention has been focused on how boldly this fragile lady rushes into the bunker of information wars and against all kinds of possible attacks on Russia." As the German tabloid Der Stern wrote last year, Zakharova is "sexy, smart and beastly—Putin's PR Wonder Weapon."

The Stern article went on to feature several of Zakharova's "sexy selfies" (though her account is private, she has more than 40,000 followers on Instagram): In tamer snaps, she showcases a sartorial tendency towards red lipstick, high heels, and leopard print; in others, she poses in Nike bike shorts and a matching sports bra.

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It's perfectly acceptable for a powerful woman to embrace and show off her femininity. To many, however, Zakharova's sexy persona is less a feminist statement and more a naked attempt at distracting from the newly belligerent Kremlin propaganda she personifies. "She is impudent and uses hate language," Andrei Kolesnikov, the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. "You find her beautiful? You didn't see her in person. Her appearance is incompatible with her words."

Zakharova is not the only woman in Russian politics who has been turned into a patriotic sex symbol in recent years. Since Putin's re-election in 2012, the struggle for power in Moscow has taken place behind closed doors. And, according to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, as demand drops for actual professional politicians, it rises for "show women, who increasingly play the role of decoration."

In addition to Zakharova, Stanovaya is referring specifically to Maria Kozhevnikova—the actress and one-time Playboy model who secured a seat in parliament in 2011, when she was 27—and to Natalia Poklonskaya, who was appointed the chief prosecutor of Crimea in 2014.

Maria Kozhevnikova, center. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"A woman in power is someone who is not a threat to Putin, and thus can easily be promoted, because the Russian population is still very conservative and not yet ready to take a woman seriously," Stanovaya told me. If that woman has the ability to command attention with her beauty, the logic goes, she'll make an ideal defender of the Putin regime. See, for example, Kozhevnikova's response when she was asked about protests over disputed parliamentary elections in 2011: "I've seen Putin close up several times and I want to say that this man has very strong vibes," she said. "I've watched how people have changed when they got close to Putin, not because they are afraid, but because they feel a calm and strong confidence. Because of this, the West is afraid of him, and that is understandable." She then went on to suggest that the protests had been funded by other countries, which was also Putin's position at the time.

A woman in power is someone who is not a threat to Putin.

This year, Russian voters also met 21-year-old Maria Katasonova, a far-right parliamentary candidate for the Rodina, or Motherland, party who has made various campaign appearances declaring her love for Donald Trump and hatred of "Crooked Hillary." In one protest outside the American embassy in Moscow, Katasonova wore a red lace dress and carried a sign that featured a photo of Hillary Clinton over the word WAR next to a photo of Donald Trump over the word PEACE. US response to Katasonova's appearance was limited, and no Muscovites showed up to support the protest, but when pictures of Katasonova were uploaded later in the day, her fans on social media cheered.

Political analyst Yuri Krupnov told me that Katasonova first became popular during the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, when she was working as an aide to Evgeny Fedorov, the leader of the ham-fisted National Liberation Movement. "Stylish pictures of Maria as a traditional patriotic Russian woman were all over the internet and the news."

The photos Krupnov mentions show Katasonova clutching a rifle in a field flooded with red light, her long blonde hair tied back in a braid. A widely circulated YouTube video shows her clad in luxurious white fur as she wishes viewers a merry Christmas before threatening global nuclear destruction if Russia loses the standoff in Ukraine.

Maria Katasonova. Screengrab via YouTube

Katasonova claims the photos and video were taken during her trip to support the separatists in Donetsk, but Krupnov thinks many of these photos and videos were staged—though he points out that practices like these are ingrained in Russian politics.

"Maria is a very symbolic girl in my mind," he says. "You can't say that there is genuine election competition in Russia, so all this pathos is very ambiguous. The competition is like a show business—it is very hard to tell what is fake and what is real."

Indeed, a week before legislative election day this September, Putin stopped by Moscow's Red Square to take pictures with a gaggle of young women in wedding dresses. The shots were oddly appropriate for what has been called the "most boring" election of the year: Turnout was low, according to Bloomberg, because "Putin has created a political climate and a system that make it unnecessary to rig the election. The news media are tightly controlled. The few relatively independent outlets are regularly shown that they have to toe the line." When nobody really cares about politics, pretty pictures speak louder than words. Or, as the state-run media know, pretty pictures dress up the small print.

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"She annexes your heart" is how the pro-Kremlin outlet RT introduced "prosecutie" Natalia Poklonskaya after she was appointed to the powerful position of prosecutor general of Crimea in 2014. Drawing attention to Poklonskaya's blonde hair, "big blue eyes and infant-like looks"—which had, according to the article's author, "stun[ned] the world"—the feature spent little time on Poklonskaya's 12 years of experience and instead focused on how she had become a "Japanese anime art sensation."

While Poklonskaya said she hoped her looks would "deceive [her] enemies" and complained that the attention undermines her work, photos of the 34-year-old Ukrainian prosecutor—who was accused of leading a coup by the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior and placed on the country's wanted list after her appointment—nevertheless quickly flooded the internet. In one shot, "Crimea's leading lady" smells a bouquet of flowers in red high heels; in another, she reclines, looking flirtatiously at the camera, on a red velvet sofa. It's a stark contrast to the later accusations that Poklonskaya's court committed severe human rights violations against residents of Crimea.

This disconnect isn't a bad thing for Putin, though. Both Maria Kozhevnikova and Natalia Poklonskaya won Duma seats in this year's elections as members of Putin's United Russia party, and while the young Maria Katasonova didn't make it into the Duma, her party, the ultra-nationalist Rodina, was not expected to win any seats. "Rodina is a spoiler—it undermines positions of the KPRF [the Communist Party] and A Just Russia [a social democratic party]," Kolesnikov says. In other words, candidates running on the Rodina ticket are "playing, in this sense, on the side of United Russia."

"Putin's regime is based on monopolistic dominance with strong patriarchal features," Stanovaya says. "The entry of a beautiful and sexy woman into politics will further emphasize Putin as alpha male, strengthening him as father of the nation."

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