Putin’s destruction of the common vocabulary with the West hurts the Russian-American relations
Productive relationships between individuals in a family or office, or between organizations such as political parties (like the Republican and Democratic parties in the USA) and countries (the USA and Iran), require a common vocabulary and demand a common mode of thinking. Contrary to the established view that traditional culture is the dominant factor in determining the human mode of thinking, a powerful agent (such as the leader of a state or a political party) will be able to change his own mode of thinking and, in a relatively short period of time, introduce the same change into the minds of the ruling elite and the masses, especially in an authoritarian society. Of course, different cultures will help or hinder this process. Putin is an example of a leader who, over the course of 10 years, has significantly changed his own mindset, as well as that of the Russian people, about how their country should deal with both domestic affairs and foreign relations. This has essentially deteriorated prospects of collaboration between Russia and the West.
When it became clear in 2000 that Putin’s major goal was to keep power indefinitely, very few analysts could have predicted that he would raise a hand against the historical course Russia took in the beginning of the 18th century—rapprochement with the West— even though Putin was not the first Russian ruler to try to do so. The clear violation of democratic procedures during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were alarming, of course, but it was still possible to hope that under Putin, Russia would stay in the same civilization as Europe, America, Japan and other countries.
Even the growing animosity toward the West, which took a significant jump in 2006, did not worry Russian liberals or Western public opinion that much. All of them saw the outburst of anti-Western propaganda as merely a result of Putin’s growing concern about his future, since he believed—and not without reason—that pro-Western movements inside Russia and in neighboring republics, like Georgia or Ukraine, directly challenged his chances of perpetuating his presidency indefinitely. Nor do I know of anyone, inside or outside of Russia, who saw this propaganda as an omen of Russia’s intention to retreat from the world of Western civilization. The earlier Communist leaders, including Stalin, who viewed Marxist ideology as a product of Western culture, never turned their country away from Western civilization, even as they turned ideologically away from a capitalist society. It definitely did not happen after Stalin’s death. It is remarkable that in one of his first public statements as the premier minister, Georgy Malenkov called for Western countries to join Soviet efforts to save “civilization” from the threat of “world slaughter.” As we now know from the memoirs of many outstanding apparatchiks like Anatoly Chernyaev, the majority of the Moscow ruling elite had Western orientations in all aspects of their lives, whether they were open about it or kept it hidden. Most analysts, Russian or Western, did not realize that Putin was not simply raising the intensity of anti-Western propaganda in 2006; he was making a critical move by starting the process of disassociating Russia from the West, not only politically but—and this is much more lugubrious—mentally.
In fact, it now seems that Putin declared that he was abandoning the mindset that had been dominant in the world since the Enlightenment; one that was based on rationality and respect for facts proven by science. Jettisoning the common frame for communicating with his Western partners (as he likes to refer to Western leaders), he affirmed in Munich in 2006 that Russian political practices are no less democratic than those in the USA; that nobody in the West had the right to teach “us” democracy; and that Western leaders should “teach themselves” about it.
The Munich speech started the process in which Putin and his operators began to oppose the Western understanding of leading political concepts, replacing them with their own “newspeak.” The concept of “sovereign democracy,” created by Putin’s then-ideologue Vladislav Surkov, was one of the most outstanding products of this undertaking. It stated that everything Moscow considered “democratic” should simply be accepted by the world because Russia is “a sovereign state.” The “newspeak” language that Putin and his team began to create in 2006 was based on a cocktail ideology, which tries to combine nationalist, imperial, socialist, and authoritarian elements, with a focus on anti-Americanism as a major factor in cohesion. Since 2014, the hatred of Ukraine—to the great surprise of Russians and the world—began to serve the same role as anti-Americanism: Often, half of all Moscow news programs in 2014 were devoted to dressing-down Russia’s Slav neighbor, whom they had always treated as their “closest brother.”
In 2006 and subsequent years, Putin threw away Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary deed of 1987-88, when the new Soviet leader called on his compatriots to honor “universal” values and reject the “class approach” that had given the Soviet ideologues the right to interpret reality differently than their Western counterparts. Gorbachev’s “new thinking”—hundreds of books and articles were published in the USSR with similar titles—implied a recognition of the Western understanding of such key concepts as democracy, elections, national sovereignty, and human rights. It was immediately understood by Thatcher and Reagan, who declared that they could deal with this new Soviet leader. Following Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the whole Russian ruling class, not to mention the intelligentsia, accepted this common (with the West) mode of thinking. From Gorbachev on, Moscow was able to discuss conflicts with Western countries in common terms. This is important—since 1989, “relativism” in the interpretation of world events had almost disappeared: Moscow’s descriptions of the developments in Chechnya or what happened at Tiananmen Square were in the same terms as the rest of the international community. Russian and Western diplomats did not waste hours and hours, only to come (if they were able to achieve it) to an identical interpretation of the same event.
Putin started to offer his ruling class and the masses a change in their modes of thinking and of communicating with foreigners in 2006, but he made a radical leap ahead 8 years later, after Munich, during the conflict with Ukraine. The shift to this new way of thinking from the previous, mostly Western, universally adopted paradigms led to a radical change in the Russian conceptual vocabulary.
The Kremlin’s description of the invasion of Crimea in 2014 was the first fully developed example of this. Contrary to the evident facts, Putin and his media denied the presence of the Russian troops there, and insisted that the persecution of ethnic Russians existed, without ever bringing even one fact to light. Putin, Sergei Lavrov, and Dmitry Kisilev, Putin’s main media servant, lied directly to the faces of foreign politicians, diplomats, journalists, and their own people.
It was an unprecedented episode in Russian history. During the notorious show trials in the mid-1930s, nobody outside the Soviet system was able to offer arguments disproving the accusations that Andrey Vyshinsky lodged against defendants, such as data refuting his declarations about subversive activities or spying conducted by Grigory Zinoviev or Nikolai Bukharin. But this is not the case with the invasion of Crimea. The whole world could see what was going on in the peninsula. Dozens of foreign journalists detected the Russian military there. And none of the Russians living in Crimea complained about problems using the Russian language there!
Putin himself has made statements totally devoid of any empirical evidence, such as “the Russian people found themselves in jeopardy in Ukraine”; “Ukraine intended to eliminate (murder) the media people”; and “Ukraine is now plunged into a bloody chasm and into an internecine fraternal conflict.” In his speech before Russian diplomats earlier in 2014, Putin openly encouraged them to continue to work with the same “energy and dignity” as in the past, evidently offering the work of their own Minister Lavrov or of Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy to the UN Security Council, as an example. The president promised to support their efforts by increasing their salaries forty percent.
The chasm between the Western and Russian interpretations of reality, which manifested so vividly during the Crimean invasions, was shown again, perhaps with even more dramatic consequences, in the aftermath of the shooting down of Malaysian airline MH17 in Donbass on July 17, 2014. Both sides—the separatists being directed by Moscow, who were suspected by the world of being the airline’s destroyers, and who controlled what remained of the plane and its passengers, and the representatives of Malaysia, Netherlands, Australia and other countries—talked from the point-of-view of their different interpretations of events.
The Ukrainian conflict opened the gates for “newspeak” to come to the fore, introducing concepts such as “the Russian world,” “Novorossia,” or “opolchenie” (a new name for the military units comprised of separatists in Donbass). Moscow and their servants in Ukraine started to use institutions such as the “referendum” in clear defiance of well-established practices, fully ignoring any fact that was witness to the rude violations of democratic procedures. Moscow created “people’s republics” in Donbass, claiming, without showing any empirical data, that they were supported by the majority of the population.
A special stream of ideas about Russia’s place in the world has radically changed the vocabulary endorsed by the Kremlin. The concepts of Russia’s humiliation by the West since the emergence of the country, of Russia as a permanent victim, and as having regularly been deceived by the West (for instance, as Putin recently insisted, during the First World War), are unavoidable fixtures in any long political speech or article. According to Putin, Russia was also, of course, a victim in the conflict with Ukraine because the USA and Europe hoodwinked the country during negotiations about Yanukovych’s fate in February 2014.
The important part of the full recalibration of the ideological apparatus was the negation of ideas that the Russian intelligentsia had held as cherished values for centuries. Putin’s ideologues started to denigrate and derogate such values as “democracy,” “elections,” “freedoms,” “Western civilization” of course, and, finally, “the Russian intelligentsia,” which they have since declared the most vicious and treacherous stratum of Russian society.
Pointing to the USA as the main target of their hatred, and as the culprit of all events that, according to Putin, could possibly damage Russia has reached Homeric proportions. More than ever before, Putin’s regime has ascribed intentions to destroy the Russian Federation in one way or another, as well as fomenting the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, to the USA. Of course, America is also responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev was a CIA agent. In making America into Russia’s eternal enemy, the regime has also made it self-evident that any organization in Russia that cooperates with the USA is a tool of the Americans; and those who criticize the regime have been castigated in the media as working for the USA. Putin has expended great efforts to demonize the West, converging with the Muslim fundamentalists in describing it as decadent, depraved, and full of innumerable vices. Putin uses the defense of gay rights as a particularly forceful argument for this thesis. Nikita Mikhalkov, a famous movie director, a talented actor, the official leader of the Russian movie industry, and Putin’s personal friend, is the author of a special program on the leading TV channel. He uses each week to “debunk” one liberal value after another, ascribing unspeakable vices to the West, such as in September 2014, when he spoke of it as encouraging cannibalism.
At the same time, the political vocabulary used in everyday communications by Putin and his retinue is full of religious references. Enriching the official Russian language with religious symbolism in the contemporary context is evidently directed against science and scholarly institutions, and has helped to open the television schedules to the most obscurant programs.
Rehabilitating archaic Russian ideals, which would have seemed practically impossible before 2000, is also of great importance to the new conceptual apparatus of Putin’s regime. “Monarchism” is now a respected political concept, while some of the cruelest tsars in Russian history, like Ivan the Terrible and Alexander the Third, have been transformed into respected statesmen.
In the governmental newspaper Rossiyskaia Gazeta (September 29, 2014), Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, caused a sensation when he called on his compatriots to revise their attitudes toward serfdom, which he declared to have been a “cohesive” (he was using Putin’s term here) institution for Russia before it was abolished (in the middle of the 19th century), sustaining the unity between the two main classes of society—landlords and peasants.
In creating the new mentality, Putin’s regime has consistently and steadfastly isolated Russia from the world, weakened its technological and scientific progress, and encouraged obscurantism in all aspects of society. The hostility of Putin’s regime toward the Russian Academy of Science is quite strong, as is his disregard for scholars as experts. The regime has not discouraged the continuing flight of the country’s best minds; they consider them a nuisance. When the outstanding economist Sergei Guriev, director of the prestigious New Economic School in Moscow, and a regular critic of Putin’s economic policy, escaped Russia in 2013, it did not arouse a reaction from the Kremlin. It is as if they received the news with relief, as they did the disappearance of other critical minds from Russia.
It is important to note that this new mental construction has not only been internalized by the minds of many ordinary Russians but also by some members of the ruling elite. This makes their communication with foreigners, particularly the world’s leaders, much more difficult than it was when the Kremlin was occupied by the Communists, who had much more respect for science than the country’s current masters. None of the Soviet foreign ministers after Stalin were inclined to lie with the ease of Sergei Lavrov, and, of course, none of the leaders, including Stalin, were willing to deny evident facts as easily as Putin continues to do in his contact with foreign leaders. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt, who frequently communicated with the master of the Kremlin during World War II, complained of such an issue.
Dragging the Russian leadership and the majority of Russians into this new mode of thinking and communicating is a serious development for the world. It is particularly ominous because it is combined with Putin’s personal qualities, especially his well-known narcissism, and the cult of his personality, which he has nurtured, and which is surpassed only by that of Stalin. It means that the United States and other Western countries will have to spend the next decade or more dealing with a leader whose various obsessions—being anti-Western is only one more—mean that he lives, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel very reasonably postulated in a conversation with Obama on March 3, 2014, in “another world.”
This diagnosis converges with the perception of many Russians, after observing their leader make several bizarre decisions although these decisions may appear quite reasonable if they are viewed as a way of his retaining power; the Crimean invasion certainly managed to generate the now famous “85 percent” support. Several insiders are confident that, even from Putin’s personal perspective, his actions (like the ban on food imported from Europe) appear “inadequate,” a special word in Moscow for deeds that appear to contradict sound reasoning. Yet, the resistance to the new mode of thinking in Russia is rather feeble. Even if the famous 85 percent support for Putin is inflated, and even if they have not all mastered Putin’s “newspeak,” the majority of the population is on Putin’s side. The political significance of 85 will not diminish, even if this number can be partially ascribed to conformism and fear of power, and even if it is, as psychologist Liudmila Petranovskaia contends, very precarious. The significance of 85 is supported by a very important fact: never in recent Russian history has the number of the intellectuals who were critical of the Kremlin been as low as it is now. Even smartest of them, those with a great past record of critiquing the government, have started talking with the same “newspeak” as those whose mindsets are shaped by TV.
The West has always had to live in a world that contains societies with their own conceptual apparatus’, and has sought ways of communicating with them. Sadly, there are no high hopes that Russia will quit using the “newspeak” into which Putin has dragged the country anytime soon.