Russia’s #PutinShirtlessChallenge Has the Country’s ‘Alpha Men’ Stripping Down Culture

Russia’s #PutinShirtlessChallenge Has the Country’s ‘Alpha Men’ Stripping Down

Written by Daniel Villarreal on November 12, 2019
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Russian President Vladimir Putin recently had a shirtless photo of him taken while fishing on vacation in Siberia, the latest of several shirtless images that have helped cement his image as a muscular outdoorsman.

In response, Pavel Durov, founder of the social networking site VKontakte and the encrypted messaging app Telegram, posted a shirtless Instagram photo of himself with the hashtag #PutinShirtlessChallenge. The fad has since gone viral, with thousands of Russian men stripping down and posing shirtless for the camera.

But while we love seeing pictures of shirtless men, it got us wondering whether we should be salivating over guys imitating an anti-LGBT world leader.


Before we ponder that, let’s enjoy some of the Putin Shirtless Challenge!

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Is the Putin Shirtless Challenge subversive or pro-Putin?

On the one hand, Putin’s widely published shirtless photos (and thousands of men imitating him) add to the perception of him as strong and charismatic leader, a tactic similarly used by Chechnya’s brutal dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.

On the other hand, Putin has a muscular dad-bod that some gay guys undoubtedly find attractive and the idea of men homo-eroticizng him in a bunch of shirtless pictures seems somehow subversive, as does a bunch of gay men sexualizing and ogling an anti-gay dictator — Putin probably wouldn’t approve.

Whether its subversive or not really depends on whether the men posting the pictures are gay, bi or trans identified and whether they’re trying to subvert Putin’s anti-gay agenda, whether knowingly or unknowingly, says Christopher Mitchell, an adjunct professor of gender and sexuality studies at Hunter College.

“Subversion is always a tactic of people who are out of power or weak, because if you had real power, you wouldn’t have to subvert the order, you would just address it more directly,” Mitchell says.


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The Putin Shirtless Challenge could actually be both pro- and anti-Putin

Mitchell says that during the 1950s and ’60s, gay media subverted Nazi imagery by fetishizing it in muscle magazines and in the works of queer artists like experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger and erotic illustrator Tom of Finland. Nazis were rabidly anti-gay, but all of a sudden we saw images of men in Nazi garb seducing other men.

But in turning an object of domination into an object of desire, “It kind of cuts both ways,” says Mitchell. “Like anything that’s subversive, it can also re-inscribe the things that it’s trying to criticize.” That is, taking homoerotic selfies and posting them can mock toxic masculinity and the ridiculousness of an anti-gay leader promoting himself through shirtless photos, but it can also glorify his undemocratic aesthetic, adding to his allure.


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Are any GBT guys participating in the Putin Shirtless Challenge?

Since being openly gay, bisexual or transgender in Russia can get you targeted for violence or thrown in jail, any such men participating in the #PutinShirtlessChallenge are likely closeted, meaning that we can’t really know if what they’re doing is subversive or not.

Mitchell notes, however, that most of the men participating in the #PutinShirtlessChallenge seem to be Putin supporters, and their pics may be little more than a form of male narcissism.

“It may be a way for straight people to deal with the underlying homoeroticism that leader worship entails,” Mitchell says. “It’s inherent to any all-male or male-dominated power structure. You’ve got all this masculine energy and sexuality — it’s clearly homoerotic — but you need to police it. So it all gets sublimated as competition.”

Mitchell concludes by saying, “If I were going to be psychoanalytic about it, I’d say these Putin supporters are all dealing with some kind of homoerotic desire in a way that’s socially (and in Russia, legally) acceptable.”

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