Whose Hero? Hercules and his avatars in political discourse
Herakles/Hercules, iconic heroic strongman of the Greco-Roman world, is a global symbol with a long and complex cultural history. An October 2014 exhibition in Moscow celebrated president Putin’s birthday in a series of paintings which transformed Hercules’ labours into victorious battles conducted by the Russian leader in flashpoints at home and further afield.
Son of a god and endowed with superhuman fighting skills, Hercules is the larger-than-life muscleman with excessive appetites who has, for centuries, functioned as a figure of inspiration for highly disparate causes and ideologies. Putin would seem to have the honour of being the, to date, most recent in a long line of Hercules wannabees.
The Western press greeted this less-than-subtle attempt to portray Putin as a political hero of our times with a mixture of disbelief and derision (mostly the latter). However, the demonization of Putin (communicated in concerns about his delusions of grandeur, neo-imperialist aspirations and a new phase of Russian expansionism) highlights the likely subtext amongst commentators in the West of ‘how dare he do what colonialism has done for centuries?’ with his appropriation of Herculean adversaries to justify military adventures abroad.
Putin and the anonymous artists doubtless directed to take up the Herculean theme could point to traditions of Soviet-era posters and paintings in which the Stakhanovite miner sported superhuman stamina and strong-mindedness in the service of socialist labour, an image of progress and productivity. However, the more pertinent point or paradox about this twenty-first-century Russian Hercules is the ancient superhero’s troubled and two-edged relationship with the ruling classes and the downtrodden workers who have both embraced him as the canonical ancient slayer of monsters (real and metaphorical). For centuries Hercules’ bold and beautiful body has been fore-grounded by the aesthetics of aristocracy, the insignia of kingship, imperialist triumphalism and yet also stood for the spirit of revolution and the power of the labouring classes in their fight against capitalist exploitation. In visual propaganda arts Hercules can be found defeating the unsporting indigenous peoples who rose up against brutal colonialism or championing the unions against the bosses and their strikes for better pay and conditions; these invariably pictured as the many-headed hydra. However, Hercules’ snaky adversaries have also symbolised the voracious greed and long reach of the corporate capitalists.
This chapter will address the continuing conflict and conundrum Hercules represents for those wishing to display his figure in the ideology of liberation and internationalism and why the Moscow exhibition reflects his uncomfortable dialectic.