Man of the People? Jolted by a Mutiny, Putin Works the Crowds.

He worked a throng of screaming fans in Dagestan. He hoisted a young girl onto his hip in Kronstadt. He posed shoulder-to-shoulder with seven young siblings, shaking their father’s hand after a naval parade.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is newly out and about, pressing the flesh of the Russian people, in a bid to demonstrate that his years of pandemic-induced isolation are over and that his public support remains strong despite the war in Ukraine and a failed mutiny against his government.

His behavior is a noticeable change for the Russian president, who cultivated extreme seclusion during the pandemic, forcing visiting leaders to sit at the opposite end of giant oblong tables and requiring people to quarantine for up to two weeks to see him.

The isolation persisted until well after politicians elsewhere had dispensed with such precautions amid receding fears about Covid-19. And once Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s distance stood in stark contrast to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who made regular visits to frontline positions, crowded ceremonies and cramped hospital rooms.

Though many precautions remain in place, and Mr. Putin hardly rivals President Biden on an Iowa rope line, the Russian leader is noticeably interacting with crowds in orchestrated appearances — portraying himself as in touch and in charge after the rebellion by the Wagner private militia suggested that he was neither.

“What about the quarantine?” a journalist called out to Mr. Putin last month as the Russian leader worked a crowd in Kronstadt.

“The people are more important than quarantine,” Mr. Putin shot back.

Mr. Putin has long loathed populist retail politics, deriding the sort of baby kissing required of American politicians campaigning for office as frivolous and vulgar.

His attempts at impromptu interaction with the Russian populace over the years have often come off as wooden or peculiar, such as when he lifted the shirt of a young boy and kissed his belly in a 2006 appearance at the Kremlin. (Mr. Putin later said he had wanted to cuddle him like a kitten, a discordant image for a former K.G.B. lieutenant colonel.)

The Russian leader has preferred more controlled events, often inspecting production facilities and meeting with worker collectives, holding court over subordinate officials, presiding over military ceremonies or cutting the image of a rugged outdoorsman in carefully orchestrated publicity stunts, sometimes with animals.

Much of that active image fell away with the pandemic, when Mr. Putin began to come across as more of a withdrawn autocrat — beaming in from behind a desk over a flat screen, at one point to launch an ill-planned war.

But an aborted June 24 mutiny by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the mercenary tycoon, seems to have changed the calculation for the Russian leader.

Days after Mr. Prigozhin’s uprising, Mr. Putin traveled to Derbent, a city in Russia’s southern Dagestan region, and appeared before a crowd screaming with delight — a boisterous encounter the likes of which Russia had not seen from its leader in years.

His spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, later said that Mr. Putin had gone against the “strong recommendations from experts” and made a “firm decision” to interact with the crowd, because “he couldn’t refuse these people and not greet them.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said the decision to work the crowd was almost certainly Mr. Putin’s personal choice — designed in part to send the message to Russia’s elite that he maintains the adoration of the nation’s public.

“Prigozhin’s rebellion — that was the strongest blow to the legitimacy of the leadership,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “And where does legitimacy come from? From the people. Therefore, the desire to throw oneself into the people and feel you are supported, it’s the kind of need that arises against the backdrop of a rebellion.”

Mr. Putin’s appearances with crowds have continued in the days since.

On July 23, he took the Belarusian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to Kronstadt, a city on an island outside St. Petersburg known for its early-20th-century history of mutinies. The two leaders mingled with a crowd outside a cathedral, where Mr. Putin stood between a bride and groom. He lifted a smiling girl with pink sunglasses on her head.

Days later, the Russian president hosted top African leaders in St. Petersburg, his home city.

If the summit, with its limited roster of African heads of state, failed to solve Russia’s geopolitical isolation, it did address the enduring images of Mr. Putin’s physical isolation. In a marathon of photo ops, meetings and excursions, the Russian leader had perhaps more sustained personal contact than at any time since before the pandemic, certainly with international officials.

The Russian leader glad-handed African leaders of all levels as well as their spouses, hosted a gala dinner and entertained some officials who stayed on for Russia’s traditional Navy Day parade of warships on the Neva River. He returned to Kronstadt flanked by Russian defense officials and African leaders on a crowded boat.

On the sidelines of the naval parade, he greeted the Gorelov family from Magadan, in Russia’s far east. The parents a day earlier had received the Order of Parental Glory for raising 10 children, part of a long-running Russian state effort to combat demographic decline by promoting “multi-child families.”

Mr. Putin slipped in between the seven children the Gorelovs had brought for a photograph.

In recent days, Mr. Putin has alternated between appearances that address the war and interactions with crowds that seem designed to communicate normalcy and demonstrate that he broadly retains the population’s loyalty, even as the war causes continued hardship that has fueled discontent for many Russians.

On Wednesday, he appeared before widows whose husbands had died in the war, brushing his hand over the head of a fallen soldier’s young daughter and patting the shoulder of the boy next to her.

By the standards of most world politicians, Mr. Putin’s encounters with crowds are still limited. Mr. Zelensky, by comparison, follows a schedule packed with public interactions. A busy American presidential candidate might interact with more public crowds in a week than Mr. Putin has in the past year.

But by the Russian leader’s recent standards, the change is noticeable.

Sam Greene, director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, said that Mr. Putin might be ramping up his public activity before the presidential election next March. It will be the Russian leader’s fifth, though he has yet to announce his candidacy officially.

With a system that has neutralized competitors over the years, Mr. Putin will undoubtedly win, but the Kremlin will still monitor turnout and victory margins — as will the Russian elite Mr. Putin must keep on side.

“You’ve got all of these oligarchs and people throughout the system who are rich and powerful and unaccountable — and that is all made possible by the fact that you’ve got somebody up on the stage who is keeping the show going,” Mr. Greene said. “He needs to communicate to the elite that not only is he good at doing that — but it’s not even close.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *