How Putin’s world makes sense

Parašiau kai ką ir angliškai – tai bene pirmasis bandymas blogeriauti angliškai. Parašyta 2014 m. balandžio 28 d.


Recently, on April 17, Vladimir Putin had his traditional live broadcast Q&A session, which lasted four hours. This bi-annual event by Putin receives a lot of attention inside Russia and abroad. Some highlights of the last one are, for example, available here.

These sessions, though staged, tell us a lot about what the “public” Putin thinks or is prepared to say aloud. We might be outraged by most of the ideas, but actually they make sense not only in Putin’s head, not only in Russia, but for the outside observers as well.

A lot of topics were touched upon during these four hours: inevitably Ukraine, Crimea, relations with Europe and the US, also the Olympic games, the flood in the Far East, a variety of other domestic issues with some awkward (first lady) or bizarre (special guest Snowden) moments.

For me, the most memorable moment happened to be the last minutes of the session after the final “philosophical” question was read: what is it to be Russian? Putin indeed went deep.

We found out that “the Russian person or, on a broader scale, a person of the Russian world, primarily thinks about his or her highest moral designation, some highest moral truths”. That person “does not concentrate on his or her own precious personality” and “does not open himself outward”, is prepared to die “for one’s friends, one’s people or for the homeland”. “Feelings of fellowship and family values”, heroism and sacrifice were also mentioned.

“Of course, we are less pragmatic, less calculating than representatives of other peoples, and we have bigger hearts. Maybe this is a reflection of the grandeur of our country and its boundless expanses. Our people have a more generous spirit.” (Read in English, or watch in Russian.)

These ideas are neither original nor new. Anybody who has read 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky would recognize these ideas immediately. Openness of the Russian soul is the popular stereotype about Russians among both its friends and its skeptics.

The president does not have to be original, but his words are far from random. His image of Russians resonated inside Russia and abroad. It is the message everybody expects to hear; even the most vocal critics of primordialism would expect that from the current Russian president. Putin and his advisers understand that very well and play it to their advantage both domestically and abroad.

People of Russia are sincere, open, and prepared to die for their country, the message says. Its rulers understand and care about this sensibility by trying to restore Russia’s past glory, making Russians feel proud of their country, whatever or how many problems it has. In this way, Putin becomes the paternalistic and trustful leader who cares about the people. This logic then can be easily extended further to “our people” outside Russia’s borders, and their protection. And suddenly this discourse starts making more sense. His people need protection and he is going to provide it everywhere.

This paternalistic rhetoric combined with yet another prevalent narrative – that Russia is surrounded by enemies, especially from the West – creates the space for the assertive leader. The leader who stands up against this bullying, who resists the dominant forces (i.e., the US), who does it resolutely. If you accept such an image of your nation, it becomes not so difficult to accept that particular idea of the leader.

Due to different reasons, such paternalistic rhetoric works for Westerners as well. Westerners love to talk about the irrationality, passion, traditionalism of Russians, about their expansive territory and their uniqueness. These descriptions supposedly explain the actions of a country that is difficult to understand. They put Russia into a special place by treating it as uncivilized, undeveloped, as a country perpetually looking for itself, or as naturally “imperialistic”. Thus, when Putin talks about the nation, we are not surprised. It resonates with what we already know about Russia.

The second message Putin repeats constantly and which he also sent out during his live session is that Western nations were reluctant to understand Russia’s point of view. The West still has difficulties sending resolute messages to Russia or finding workable solutions to the Ukrainian crisis. Russia and its main leader seem immune to many threats: they either ignore the possible economic consequences, or make derisive comments about the sanctions. The West does not understand that Putin uses these stereotypes so that what Russia currently is doing would be accepted as normal. He might be a bad guy but we have an explanation why.

The problem is not that the West is too appeasing. The problem is that Putin is playing a different game. Currently, the biggest opponent for Putin is not the U.S., nor Ukraine, nor the liberals in the West. His main opponent is history. Already in his third term, Putin is getting older; he is already part of Russia’s early 21st century history. He is the stabilizer, the person who brought order to suffering Russia after the turbulent 1990s, who tamed the powerful oligarchs, who strengthened Russia’s regional power, its influence in the neighboring space.

It is a good image to leave behind, but it is hardly memorable or impressive. Recent events (adding the Sochi Olympics to the mix) demonstrate that Putin wants to go down in history as something bigger – as a great strategic leader of Russia, and one who understood its people and what Russians need – the feeling that they are a great, sincere nation that just wants to be appreciated. And they have a leader who has accomplished that.

It is crucial to realize that Russia is not only Putin, his thinking and desires. Putin acts in an environment that makes his actions possible. Thus, another question is how it becomes possible to have such an environment where part of ruling elite just became silent and a large part of the population accepts Russia’s current foreign policy decisions with joy. But that is a question for the next comment.

First appeared in Baltic Scholars for Ukraine – Stanford Libraries tinklaraštyje

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