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Exhibitionists Against Autocrats

Commentary, 19 April 2013
Europe
Last week, Russia's Vladimir Putin was confronted with topless Ukraine protestors in Hannover. Autocrats have often been made to look uncomfortable, even foolish, by exhibitionist protest. Nudity was one way of showing contempt for authority in East Germany. There may be echoes of that for Putin's increasingly autocratic Russia.

Last week, Russia's Vladimir Putin was confronted with topless Ukraine protestors in Hannover. Autocrats have often been made to look uncomfortable, even foolish, by exhibitionist protest. Nudity was one way of showing contempt for authority in East Germany. There may be echoes of that for Putin's increasingly autocratic Russia.

By Sir Paul Lever, Vice-President, RUSI

Femen topless protestors

President Putin of Russia visited Hannover last week. He was the guest of honour at the opening of the Hannover Fair, the world's biggest exhibition of high tech products. As he toured the stands, accompanied by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he was accosted by a trio of topless women demonstrators, members it later transpired of an Ukrainian femininst goup, whose embonpoints were painted with the words 'Fuck Dictator'.

Putin treated the incident with aplomb. 'There was nothing terrible about it,' he was quoted as saying 'but it is better to be dressed when one talks about political matters'.

Public nudity has a long and respectable tradition in Germany. The Freie Koerper Kultur (FKK) - Free Body Culture - movement came into being in the late Nineteenth century and by the 1930s had achieved a significant popular following. It promoted healthy living, exercise and the enjoyment of nature as well as, in a rather ill-defined way, freedom. Its practice of naked bathing was frowned on by the National Socialists but never formally banned. But following the Second World War, FKK achieved a notable renaissance in the German Democratic Republic.

It began in the early 1950s when a group of artists and intellectuals established a naturist colony at Ahrenshoop on the Baltic Coast. This was initially tolerated by the authorities but when the practice grew in popularity and began to become widespread they tried to put a stop to it. Naked bathers were asked to produce their identity cards, forcibly clothed and on occasions tied to trees. But this only seemed to increase FKK's attraction. Big naturist rallies took place all along the Baltic to which the authorities reacted with legislation forbidding any form of public nakedness. This in turn provoked massive popular protest which caused the GDR government a few years later to revoke the ban.

FKK in the GDR was not overly political. But for many East Germans it was a subtle way of showing contempt for authority. It posed a particular dilemma for the communist regime because it was a mass popular movement which did not owe its origins, or its loyalty, to the state. Having at first tried to put an end to it, the regime was eventually forced to accept it: probably the only instance in the GDR's history when the government was forced to listen to its people and a huge contrast to the savagery with which direct dissent, such as the Workers Revolt in 1953, was suppressed.

Movements like FKK are particularly difficult for totalitarian regimes to deal with. Individual dissidents can be imprisoned or executed. Mass political protests demanding democracy can be suppressed, as in Burma in 2007 or in Iran in 2009. Only if they achieve a significant critical mass, as in Eastern Europe in 1989-90 and more recently in the context of the Arab Spring, can they hope to succeed.

But how should dictators react to people who congregate, or communicate, for purposes which have nothing, on the face of it, to do with demands for regime change? The Chinese government seems paranoid about any form of collective activity by its population which is not organised by the party. Perhaps they are right to be. Perhaps if people get into the habit of publicly enjoying their shared interests they may be tempted to organise collectively for other purposes as well.

So maybe it is not direct political action which will always strike the spark of revolt against totalitarian regimes. More subtle approaches may prove initially more effective. If we are looking for the revolutionary cadres of tomorrow perhaps it is the birdwatchers, the cyclists or the stamp-collectors who will lead the way.

Whether nudity will play a role is another matter. The Ukrainians in Hannover were wise to choose Germany for their demonstration: in Moscow they would no doubt have faced a fate similar to that of their Pussy Riot sisters. But President Putin himself was not in earlier times averse to displaying a naked torso. In his first term as President, magazines and newspapers frequently published pictures of him shirtless astride a horse or with fishing rod in hand. His sixpack abs and rippling pecs were no doubt designed to remind the electorate that at last they had a leader in prime physical condition. Perhaps it was his experience as a KGB officer in the GDR in the late 1980s which reminded him of the presentational impact which an exposed body can have.

As his girth has widened and his hair receded such images have disappeared. For a man in his sixties, Putin still looks pretty good. But if too many naked young ladies are photographed next to him maybe he too will start looking his age.

Sir Paul Lever KCMG is Vice-President of RUSI and served as the Institute's Chairman between 2004-2009. He retired from the British Diplomatic Service in 2003 as Ambassador to Germany.

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