Of the Unfriendly Kind

In a era slightly characterized by the raise of “friendly fascism” (great concept borrowed from a classic) some have the nerve to go spotting the unfriendly. In a piece from the New York Review of Books, Sergei Kovalev points out some nasty evolution of the word “democracy” in Russia:

“Furthermore, even now, while “democrats” are seen as unpopular, Putin consistently describes his model of governing as “democracy,” though he qualifies it with ambiguous labels conceived by his brain trust. Putinist democracy is either “managed” (the author of this oxymoron appears to be the political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky) or “sovereign” (a term favored by the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov). The labels are intended to underscore our originality, our Russian identity. In fact, of course, they undermine the very idea of democracy; but how often do people think carefully about the true meaning of political adjectives? The word “democracy” has been hammered into our heads since Soviet times, when the adjective usually applied to it was “socialist.” By now, of course, even the most dim-witted have realized that the word “democracy” as used by Putin means something quite different than it does when it is spoken by such traitors to the Motherland as Sergei Kovalev.” (from Sergei Kovalev, “Why Putin Wins”, New York Review of Books, November 22 2007)

As in other, less crude cases of political semiotics (see The Politics of Naming), the transformation of words is crucial here. Especially of “democracy” because, as Kovalev points out, there is a widespread argument that goes like: “Well, yes, the Russian president is an unpleasant person. We can see the authoritarian, nearly totalitarian direction of his policies. But what can you do? He has won two elections with impressive results”. Against this and other sorts of explanatory hypotheses about the popularity of Putinism (such as “yes, but the economy goes well” or “people like stability”), Kovalev has the unpleasant idea of checking out the good old performative features of propaganda:

“By 2004 the concepts of “absolute power” and the “special forces” had, in effect, merged with the monarchy’s two-headed eagle, as had the Soviet anthem (enriched with the words “Motherland” and “God”). Putin’s team quickly accomplished their most important task—the capture of television—and once it had been completed, the country was subjected to pervasive, incessant propaganda that was far more skillful, effective, and all-encompassing than anything the Soviets ever conceived. The mass media have relentlessly hammered home images of Putin as a charismatic ruler leading a national renaissance, while portraying Putinism as the guarantor of stability and order. They have drummed the values of the imperial state into the social mind. They have consistently caricatured and trivialized any alternative concepts of Russia’s development, particularly those based on values of freedom and genuine, rather than “managed,” democracy. In short, they have transformed all the diverse hypotheses about Putin’s popularity from partial explanations into a single, dominant, and overwhelming reality.” (from Sergei Kovalev, “Why Putin Wins”, New York Review of Books, November 22 2007)

Readers wanting to get scared by the echoes of Putinism can have a look at this interesting video, corresponding to the article “Youth Groups Created by Kremlin Serve Putin’s Cause” (New York Times, July 8 2007).


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