Throughout his career, Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated the image of a “strong man,” in both the political and physical sense. He has projected a powerful masculine image for himself while reasserting Russian influence on the world stage.
Numerous photos published by the Kremlin show a shirtless Putin doing stereotypically manly outdoorsy things. Images of him hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and submerging himself in icy waters for the Orthodox observance of the Epiphany are accompanied by the Russian state media’s glowing reports of how physically fit the president is. Sure, Putin knows international audiences poke fun at these stunts, but he says he sees “no need to hide.”
Yet, with Putin’s unprovoked invasion into peaceful neighboring Ukraine, the humor of Putin’s self-made macho image is fading. Writing for WORLD, Andrew Walker points out, “Putin’s masculinity is one of cavalier ruthlessness and vainglory—one using raw strength to self-aggrandize, bully, destroy, denigrate, and suppress.”
Standing in stark contrast to the Russian president’s shirtless wilderness photoshoots is comedy actor turned politician, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Before the Russian invasion, Zelensky was a relatively unknown figure on the world stage. But now, he has risen to the task of being a wartime leader with determination, good humor, and fearlessness. Standing in the dark streets of Kyiv as the invasion was underway, Zelensky recorded a video on his smartphone reassuring his people and warning his adversaries that “We are here.”
The risks to his own life are great, but thus far, Zelensky has refused to leave. In an address from his office, he said, “I stay in Kyiv. On Bankova Street. I’m not hiding. And I’m not afraid of anyone. As much as it takes to win this Patriotic War of ours.” This is a strength and courage that Putin’s vacation pics can’t replicate.
Zelensky’s unwavering and passionate communications to his fellow Ukrainians and the outside world have earned him countless comparisons to Winston Churchill. His leadership has rallied Ukrainians to fight back against the Russian onslaught and stirred the hearts of world leaders to act. Neither Zelensky’s politics nor his lifestyle are a perfect model of masculinity. Yet, as he leads his country’s struggle to fight back against one of the most powerful militaries on earth, people around the world are drawn to his powerful example of what masculinity can look like when channeled in the right direction. He has shown he is willing to sacrifice his life for the good of his people and country after being offered an easy way out.
Instead of modeling sacrificial leadership, Putin chose to put the lives of his troops on the line—for some, perhaps even unknowingly—to assault a neighboring sovereign country without a legitimate cause. At home, Putin’s state media obscures the truth about the war he started in Ukraine, and authorities are severely cracking down on the Russians who are brave enough to protest it.
Meanwhile, Russian forces are ruthlessly targeting residential areas for missile attacks. Over the weekend, Russian forces fired mortar shells toward a bridge civilians were using to flee. Four people died, including an eight-year-old child. That’s what Putin is doing to his own soldiers and the innocent people of Ukraine. This is not masculine strength—it’s cruelty.
While Putin’s military indiscriminately harms women and children, Ukraine is making provisions for their safety. Ukraine instituted a policy that allows women and children to flee across the border but expects men to stay and fight. Extra concern for women and children will be all the more important as some fear increased vulnerability for women in the wake of Russia’s invasion and reports of abuses by Russian soldiers.
Of course, many Ukrainian women have been courageously volunteering to fight. Grandmas, members of parliament, teachers, and many others have taken up arms to defend Ukraine. Even so, the Ukrainian government isn’t placing the bulk of the burden to fight onto women, and that is appropriate. A culture expecting men to protect and defend women and children is an impactful display of healthy masculinity.
Zelensky, like the Ukrainian people, has inspired the world with unexpected bravery and resolve in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. In doing so, he provides a clear alternative to Putin’s faux, destructive masculinity. Real men don’t bomb women and children. They protect them.