Russian version

Extremism and xenophobia in electoral campaigns in 1999 and 2000

Ekaterina Mikhailovskaya


For quite some time now, the question “who is Putin?”, not per se, of course, but in the capacity of future Russian President and current Russian leader, has been engrossing many minds. (Anatoly Papp’s site “Putin: pro and con” can help one become familiar with diverse perceptions of Putin’s figure) At least some part of the answer to that mind-boggling question is comprised in the texts that Putin has uttered or signed as public politician.

Public politician Vladimir V. Putin (just like the first President of Russia, Boris N. Eltsyn, for example, or any other politician of such rank) is not really a human being but a complex technical device, a machine of the “national leader” kind. V. Putin, as an individual, definitely plays a significant role, but not the decisive one, in the collective project for building that machine and maintaining it in working condition. Therefore, it is important not to confuse the two hypostasis of Putin – i.e. a private person, authentic information about whom is known only to a very limited circle of people, and a national leader constructed through the efforts of a large team, which is not necessarily well-controlled and hardly monolith. Our target is not Putin the individual but, bluntly speaking, the product designed for public consumption – Putin the national leader.
It should be taken into consideration that if any spontaneity is present in the comportment of a national leader, that spontaneity is preprogrammed. Particularly, it has to do with speech, which is much easier to control than, for instance, gesticulation. Details about the structure of the technological process of organization of leaders’ speech can be found, for example, in the book of A. Ilyin, V. Kadatsky and L. Pikhoya Aftersound of a Word. From the Experience of Speech-Writers of the First Russian President (Moscow, 1999). In light of the fact that all public texts of a leader are always worked out very carefully, one has to proceed from the assumption that those texts cannot be of either accidental or involuntary character, and any detail therein has its own significance.
Politics represent one of the most archaic (in the sense of irrational) spheres of human activities. (For circumstantial elaboration, please see Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s emotional essay “Ritual and Myth in the Contemporary Politics” at RuPR.Ru). The contemporary politics are now going through the stage of struggle against the archaic: divine power, given to the high priest from above is being substituted with a rational democratic procedure; national leader gradually sheds the personality of a charismatic headman and turns into an accountant; even political advertisement is no longer limited to fairy tales about the all-powerful hero and rivers flowing with milk and honey but actually appeals to the electors’ mind from time to time. In Russia that struggle is also taking place and Putin, as national leader, indeed represents a typical transitional figure. On one hand, he perfectly satisfies the population’s irrational demand for a mythological hero-rescuer (just as Eltsyn, Zhirinovsky, three “warriors-bears” Karelin-Shoigu-Gurov, and the “old sage” Primakov before him, as opposed to, for example, the bourgeois Gaidar). As Peter Aven cleverly put it down in his “wishes for the road” article in the issue of “Commersant” of February 29, 2000, “Vladimir Putin is the new Russian miracle, concentration of many over-inflated expectations and unrealized hopes of many years.” [1] On the other hand, it can be certainly said that, while not giving up the “convenient” mythology, Putin is attempting to bring some quite rational and contemporary viewpoints (at least, words) into Russian politics. Hence, one should not feel any astonishment over the fact that Putin’s statements lack integrity and comprise some presumably incongruous concepts.

In the power structure built “under Eltsyn and for Eltsyn”, Prime-Minister, even when declared official heir, was only given the role of a technologist (not of a “politician”). Hence, the set of topics that Putin could freely touch upon in his statements was functionally limited to the “current issues”. Putin’s economic statements of that period were totally unexpressive, “washed out” and lacking “new words (compare with Kirienko, for example, who attempted to dish himself up as the new generation’s national leader, intellectual of a leader). That observation also applies to Putin’s statement in the State Duma of August 16, 1999, prior to his confirmation in office of Prime-Minister. The only exception, but a very significant one, is Chechnya (together with its Dagestan prehistory).
From the very start, Putin was positioned as “war-Premier”. One should observe that in his first “abstract” statement – made for students on September 1 – the “lesson of war”, lesson of military reform” ranked second to none. Putin’s task, which he managed to fulfill quite successfully, was to enter Russian politics on a white stallion of a victorious warrior. If one analyzes the texts of Putin-the Prime-Minister, evident tendencies for dismissal and suppression of “incorrect” reality shall be revealed. Putin of the summer and fall of 1999 treated the war in Chechnya just like Eltsyn of the summer and fall of 1998 treated the default and devaluation (deny it for as long as possible and when it finally becomes impossible – pretend that “nothing happened”). While the country was getting deeper and deeper into the North Caucasus war, Putin successfully “worked” with the illusionary reality: e.g. promised to normalize the situation around Chechnya by political means, admitted that the Chechen people had “the right to defend their historical interests (August 20), assured the mass-media that “Russian Army has nothing to do with the attacks on Chechen civil targets” (September 18), voiced his readiness to negotiate with the “legitimate power” of Chechnya (September 27, i.e. after the explosions in Moscow and his anti-terrorist statement in the Duma), spoke about the necessity of establishing a quarantine zone on the perimeter of the “Chechen border” (September 14). Aspirations to talk about peace when the war is already in progress can be viewed as banal hypocrisy (compare with the “undeclared wars” fought by the Soviet Union; direct analogy with the Afghan epic can be found, for example, in Putin’s statement of October 9 -- “If the Chechens ask us to help them free the town of Grozny of the bandits, we shall do so”). On the other hand, that peace-talk can also be explained by sheer reluctance to accept the reality as it is. In any case, one explanation does not rule out the other. A truly incredible number of efforts was made so as to portray the Chechens (“bandits”, “international terrorists”) as aggressors, avoid using the word “war", substitute the expression “temporarily displaced persons” for “refugees” (the new expression did not catch, by the way), not to declare emergency situation (“we’ll resolve the problem without any of that emergency staff”) – and all that was said and done in the environment where the majority of the citizens (even the data for the late February, 2000, shows 80%) actually supported the war, perceiving it in accordance with the heroic epic standards as the great battle of good (our people) with the mondial evil. In the Prime-Minister’s speeches of that period, though, some seemingly incongruous notions get to coexist. One tendency is the already mentioned “distancing” from the problem in combination with strange passivity and fatalism. Let’s quote a few examples. Putin is asked (on September 30), “Is it true that Russian troops have entered Chechnya and occupied a number of mountain heights?” He answers, “If the heights are indeed occupied, then so be it. What can we do about it now, anyway?” Similarly, at Putin’s meeting with the writers on December 3, Felix Svetov could not understand why the emergency situation was not introduced in Chechnya. The answer to his questions was, “Probably, emergency situation should have been declared. Why didn’t I raise that issue? I just don’t want to have “emergency situation” anywhere in Russia.” Next example testifies of obvious struggle with the reality of things. In Helsinki (on October 22) Putin gives explanations about the explosions at the market in Grozny. He does it in the following way: first-of-all, there were no bombings what-so-ever of any civil targets of Grozny, and second-of-all, “the market in Grozny is no market in the conventional sense of the word – it is the market of armory, storage of weapons and one of the head-quarters of bandits’ formations”.
In combination with the tactics of “distancing” described above, a number of Putin’s remarks about Chechnya are hard-driving and aggressive and aim at creating an image of a “hero-doer” -- conqueror of terrorism and protector of people against the bandits. The most famous remark is, surely, the following, “We shall persecute the terrorists everywhere. If we happen to find them in the toilet, we’ll just finish them off right there in the john” (Astana, September 24). It is quite a successful imitation of an emotional explosion achieved through the usage of lower lexis (compare with other remarks like “these gangs already make the Chechen people puke” or “the bandits became way too bronzy.” For detailed analysis of the “john” motif, see Irina Volkova’s “Putin’s Word” (“Expert” of February 14, 2000), while we shall only recall the scene of “finishing off in the john” in the cult movie of the nineties, Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (where Bruce Willis – Butch – takes the life of John Travolta – Vincent Vega – precisely this way). The motif of violence as a tool of restoring order is practically ever-present in Putin’s “heroic” speeches. For instance, at the government meeting of September 16, he uttered, “If no rebuff is given, aggression follows.” And further, “Quickly, decisively, clenching our teeth, we shall strangle the viper, hide and hair.”
In both cases, we are dealing with transparent manifestations of the archaic. To be more precise, these are not really two cases but just one and the same – we are simply facing two hypostasis of a chief, the passive one and the active one, high priest (magus) and hero (warrior). Hence, when Putin refuses to confront the reality and replaces it with illusory constructions, he appeals to the ancient magic idea of magic, according to which manipulations with words constitute the essence of manipulations with objects, and appears in his high priest persona. The logistics of a magus are as follows: if refugees are called differently, then they stop being refugees, etc. When Putin speaks on behalf of the epic hero-warlord conqueror of the mondial evil, he is in his active hypostasis of a chief-grand general. Thus, the contradiction (that we see from the rational, “modern” point of view) proves to be semblant within the framework of mythologized mentality.
Putin’s occasional reflection pertaining to the place of the North-Caucasus events in the world expanse is all geopolitical fantasies (Chechnya as “forepost of international terrorism” etc.), paradoxically reminiscent of Zhirinoivsky’s similar elucidations (for example, let us recall Putin’s interview for the telecast “Mirror” of September 20, where he talks in particular about the intent “of reactionary Muslim circles… to use Chechnya as a kind of a virtual sword for cutting up Russian piece of butter”.) At the same time, despite everything said above, Putin’s interpretation of the Chechen events cannot be considered purely irrational and mythologized. Let us point out two very important aspects. First-of-all, Putin insists that “the bandits” violated “the law” and requires conceptualization of the situation within a certain legal framework (compare with his refusal to declare emergency situation thus really putting the events in the legal frame). Second-of-all, in his statements he makes a clear distinction between “simple Chechens”, “the Chechen people” and “the bandits”. Neither one nor the other can pertain to purely archaic consciousness with its xenophobia and absolute lack of legal notions. They are both elements of contemporary political discourse (compare with the moral rationale of the NATO’s operation in the Balkans). The contemporaneity of some of Putin’s viewpoints is especially evident next to the pure archaic quality of the broadly known remarks about the Chechens made by Russian generals, direct executors of the operation in Chechnya.
Besides Chechnya, during his “Prime-Minister period”, Putin did not show his quality as a stand-up actor in any other way. In December 1999, the government’s server featured his program article “Russia at the Barrier of the Centuries”. Generally speaking, the article represents a collection of common places and demonstrates the author’s knowledge of all kinds of political terminology and shows some lexical consolidation. Therein, we can find “post-industrial society”, “uneasy problems of our Fatherland”, “people’s health”, “arterial road that the whole humanity is now following”, “strong state”, “the Russian idea”, “social solidarity”, “Russia as a power-state”, “market reforms in rural area”, active industrial politics”, “liquidation of the quasi-monetary forms of settlement”, “moral forces of the nation” and so on and so forth. No priorities are indicated, and no hierarchy can be distinguished. The main impression is as follows: the author is taking an examination testing his knowledge of different languages, from the language of Soviet bureaucracy to the enlightened-statesman’s and liberal reformer’s dialects.

After Eltsyn’s ahead-of-schedule resignation, Putin has been able to comment freely on all kinds of issues, including ideological and strategic ones. He also had an opportunity to present his program to the society – the opportunity which he was very reluctant to use, by the way. His program-related comportment reproduced the Chechen pattern of “turning his back on the reality” (akin to “I don’t want to have emergency situation on my hands” kind of thing). His statement of February 8, in Zelenograd, is quite illustrative: he informed the students of the Moscow Institute on Electronic Technologies that he felt apprehensive about coming forth with his program because people would “jump it, sink their teeth in it and devour it”. Nevertheless, in a little more than two weeks, on February 25, the program was published. On the other hand, a very exotic genre was chosen for bringing the program to the public attention – it came out as an “open letter” to Russian electors, which implied lack of specific details, high emotionality and enunciative manner of expression. In the Open Letter, Putin’s priorities were formulated: struggle against poverty (compare with the "struggle on poverty" of Lyndon B. Johnson), creation of equal opportunities for all economic subjects (“protection of the market against unlawful encroachment, both bureaucratic and criminal”), “revival of the citizens’ personal dignity in the name of revival the country’s high national dignity”, and foreign politics motivated by the national interests. The primary slogan is “dignified life” (for the meaning of that Russian liberalism’s formula within the history of political ideas, please see Nikolai Plotnikov’s brilliant article “To the History of ‘Dignified Life’. Putin Became Contextualized”.
While in the statements of Putin-the-Acting-President the “Chechen theme” takes much less room than in the statements of Putin-the-Premier, its means of development generally remained the same. Construction of an imaginary reality and further work with that reality manifested themselves with especial clarity in Putin’s statements on the so called “Babitsky’s case”. For example, Putin’s, to say the least, rather irresponsible remark in Krasnodar at the agrarian meeting, when he said that he would not talk about Babitsky due to the fact that Babitsky was not “an agrarian producer”, implies a model of reality in whose frame Babitsky is not a man “given away” by the state to a group of unknown armed persons, but a man who chose his fate of his own free will. In accordance with his image of hero-warrior, Putin continues demonstrating verbal aggression from time to time, and it is quite significant that Putin’s each and every “release of adrenalin” is widely advertised. The most famous of those statements is, probably, “Anyone who offends us, won’t even last three days” (in the interview for the ORT channel). At the same time, some important changes occur in Putin’s speech-related comportment during that time-period. Concurrently with the already created figure of chief (the archaic image), another image of Putin starts being constructed – i.e. Putin the national leader of the XXI century.

In his New Year’s address to Russian citizens – Putin’s first public statement in the capacity of Acting President – Putin used a whole set of Eltsyn’s typical cliches (in the spirit of “Russia is following the road of democracy and reforms”), thus affirming the continuity of “reformatory” (the key word) course [3]. From that moment on, he starts introducing new, contemporary (in the sense of rational as opposed to mythologized) viewpoints into his rhetoric, sometimes actually using certain “empty” concepts that have already been formed in Russian political ideolectics. For example, Putin, just like the absolute majority of Russian politicians, uses the word-compounds “reinforcement of the state”, “strong state”, “revival of the state power policy”, “strong statesman” etc. in positive connotation only. During the election campaign, he began explaining what he meant by them. For instance, in his interview for the telecast “Odnako”/“Nevertheless” (ORT channel), he explained that the state “is an apparatus for securing individuals’ and citizens’ rights and freedoms”. That standpoint is quite modern (“relevant”, using the customary expression) for Russian political mainstream. In the texts of Putin-the-candidate-for-Presidency, there appears an entire set of such “new words” that have, as they say in Russia, liberal (i.e. not archaic but rational) outlooks behind them. These are the notions of supremacy of the Law: the famous “dictatorship of the Law”. The explanation given by Putin in the Open Letter show that not the Soviet concept of Law but something quite modern is meant here, “Democracy is dictatorship of Law, and not of those officials that must safeguard that Law appendant to their positions”. In the ORT interview, he said, “If the state guarantees equal rules for everybody, this shall be the real state of freedom for the whole society”. Putin’s perception of the role of the state can be even called liberal (in the restrictive sense of “non-conductory”). For example, in his interview of January 23 for the program “Mirror”, he uttered, “When we speak about reinforcing the role of the state in the field of economics, we must never say that the state should interfere with economics directly, give orders, restore the administrative commanding system, rule”. In that excerpt and in a great number of similar ones, there is a clear aspiration for rationalizing the reality, rendering it close to European, replacing the myths (“state as a father”) with logical constructions (“state as a machine”, “state as a direct outcome of public agreement”. Putin even makes some attempts to demythologize the national leader figure (in other words, himself). For him, a leader is a “new director” who demands “balance sheet”. As concerns other drastic motions, let us recall his famous remark made during the interview for David Frost (BBC, “Breakfast with Frost”, March 5) about the possibilities of Russia joining the NATO (“Why not? Why not? I don’t rule out that possibility.”), designed for creating great public resonance both in the country and world-wide. It seems that the resonance in the milieu of the electors feeding on myths (including archaic fears of the NATO) proved to be so dramatic that the situation had to be played back immediately. Already on March 7, speaking for the audience of women from the city of Ivanovo (center of textile industry), Putin gave a Soviet interpretation to his comment about the NATO, explaining it as “military canning“ and actually alluding to “Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin”. And even earlier than that, on March 6, Mikhail Leontyev, TV analyst known as the mouth-piece of “authoritarian liberals” (supporters of authoritarian modernization of Chili type) had given relatively the same explanation to Putin’s remark in regards of the NATO.
Hence, Putin’s efforts to get rid of certain mythological viewpoints and replace them with the rational ones are indeed evident. It cannot be stated, however that the demythologization is carried out sequaciously (on the other hand, it would be difficult to find a major political leader about whom we could say without a shadow of a doubt that he broke all ties with the archaic).

In Putin’s texts of that period, both oral and written, two specific types of the “new-old” words can be distinguished. The first one is “Sovietisms”. For example, all the talk about “simple men”, “destitute men”, “the people”, “moral rectitude”, etc. The second type is cliché expressions from the vocabulary of the so called “enlightened patriots” (Alexander Podberezkin and his “Spiritual Heritage” represent a classical model of the kind). For example, “Russia is a great power state”, “the force of Russian power”, “we’ve had enough of feeding other countries”, “external expansion in the good sense of the word” (Open Letter) and so on and so forth. Sometimes Putin tries to re-digest both types of the “new-old” words. Let’s consider the “moral rectitude” for example. Sermons about the ethical code and morals (in the Soviet interpretation – conformity and rejection of personal freedom) represented one of the most striking specifics of the Soviet State. Putin attempts to rehabilitate “ethical code and morals” by means of linking them not with the duty of an individual to the state (Soviet ideological cliché), but one’s duty to the dignity of a private person and to the family. Another interesting turn of events is that, according to Putin’s rhetoric, it is immoral to be poor. That thesis is, by the way, explicitly Protestant. Both in Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, poverty (only dignified poverty, of course) is pleasing to God. For Putin, though, conquering poverty means “returning Russia not only economic but also moral dignity”. Hence, in Putin’s perception, the moral represents an economic category, in full accordance with the standpoints dominant during the period of modernism and post-modernism. Let us point out that Putin’s texts also comprise some pure “Sovietisms” – that language layer is connected to the professional “KGB jargon” (all those “they put up a plant on us”, etc.). In the program document (Open Letter), however, there is no such thing at all. It is quite curious that Putin’s speech becomes most impregnated with “Sovietisms” whenever his interlocutor is a “European”, “representative of the West”. Let’s recall, for instance, Putin’s harsh reaction when David Frost of the BBC came forth with a really innocent question, asking him if he wanted to be like James Bond. Putin rigidly replied, “You know, we have our own heroes that have nothing to do with playhouse, and therefore, I have never ever wanted to be James Bond.” And further, “In the Soviet Union, they primarily advocated not for external effects but for the feelings of patriotism, love for homeland, for Fatherland” [4].

* * *
In my opinion, Putin’s re-digestion of Soviet and “patriotic” clichés does not lead to substitution of the rational perception for the archaic one but actually results in dangerous duality. The citizens that are striving to satisfy their pathos of offended national (imperial) dignity shall catch the words “power state” and acknowledge Putin as their chief and leader. The citizens that feel nostalgia for the Soviet regime shall hear the familiar KGB slang and line up in rigid ranks. Neither audience shall be alarmed by the words about protection of the market from unlawful intrusion of state functionaries – both shall treat them as general “information noise”. At the same time, many of those that welcome the appearance of rational elements in the Russian political discourse are left with the impression that, at best, such evident borrowings from the Soviet “imperial-patriotic” vocabulary testify to Putin’s indiscriminateness (consolidation at any cost) and, at worst – to unabashed Machiavellianism (all words represent nothing but a way of gaining personal power).
[1] For details on expectations (and fears) in relation to Putin, please see, for example, the work of Kirill Rogov "Candidates Putins at the Final Straight or What is More Important than Presidential Election" at Polit.Ru
[2] The texts of all the program statements of Putin as candidate for Presidency can be found on his official candidate's server.
[3] In particular, Putin's interpretation of the freedom of speech and role of Russian President as "guarantor" testifies to the "language continuity". V. Putin's corresponding remarks seem to be directly "imported" from B. Eltsyn's speeches.
[4] On Putin's official server it is always spelled "homeland" (lower case) but Fatherland (first capital letter).
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