The Putin Narrative: The Rebirth of the Russian State
Putin is part of the generation of Russians which lived through the modern version of the “time of troubles” within Russia.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the entire interconnected system of political power and the imperial economy went with it.
When one visited Russia in the early 1990s, it was a bit like visiting a frontier country, with its own version of the Wild West, but it was not always clear who were the Cowboys, the Sheriff, the Bad Guys or the Indians.
The demise of the Soviet Union was hastened by the August Coup in 1991 whereby hard line Communists who opposed Gorbachev’s reform program, which included the new union treaty which delegated much of the central government’s power to the republics. The USSR was voted out of existence by the Supreme Soviet on December 26, 1991.
With the formation of the Russian Republic, Yeltsin the politician who defended Gorbachev in the August Coup, was elected the first President of the new Russian Republic in June 1991. He would oversee the dynamics of chaos, and change in the Russia of the 1990s.
During the final period of Yeltsin’s presidency, he was often ill and suffered from alcoholism. In a surprise move in 1999, he promoted a young relatively unknown Russian who was not a politician, Vladimir Putin, to become Prime Minister, a position from which he would become President.
In an article by Angus Roxurgh published in August 12, 2019, the author looked back at Putin coming to power.
When Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin prime minister on 9 August 1999, few Russians knew much about him. In early television appearances he came across as mousy, shy and awkward, a man unaccustomed to the limelight from which his previous career in the KGB had shielded him.
But within weeks he revealed a character trait that would become the defining feature of his rule – ruthlessness. His first memorable phrase was his threat to wipe out terrorists “even if they’re in the shithouse”, and within weeks he had launched a terrifying war against separatists in Chechnya that would leave tens of thousands of civilians dead.
Twenty years on, as Russia and the west teeter towards confrontation, it is hard to remember that Putin started out as an avowedly pro-western leader. George W Bush and Tony Blair rushed to glad-hand him, and Putin himself stood in the Bundestag proclaiming at length and in fluent German that Russia’s destiny was in Europe.
What Putin would create is the rebirth of the centralized Russian state or perhaps better put, the latest version of a powerful state in Russia.
A significant part of his state building effort was shaped by forging a narrative about Russia and its place in the world, which resonated with many Russians who suffered through the decade of the 1990s, and its chaos and wanted a more stable environment.
And Putin’s state would deliver both enhanced stability and an improved way of life than the one experienced during the Wild West period of the 1990s.
A recent book by Shaun Walker, a British journalist and Russian scholar, provides a comprehensive look at the narrative building process pursued by Putin. His first visit to Russia was in 2000 so his time in Russia and his time analyzing Russia coincides with the Putin years. In that sense, he is less focused on the Soviet experience and the turbulence of the 1990s, which has shaped the perceptions of older generation “Sovietologists.”
Walker argued that Putin’s mission has been to fill the void left by the 1991 collapse and forge a new sense of nation and purpose in Russia. He underscored that Putin would selective leverage aspects of the Russian and Soviet past to shape a new nation for simply building Soviet Union 2.0 was not going to work.
To facilitate this renaissance, Putin faced the enormous task of creating a sense of nation and national pride among Russians.
At his inauguration, on 7 May 2000, Putin explicitly laid out the mission ahead of him as he saw it: ‘I consider it my sacred duty to unite the people of Russia and to gather citizens around clearly defined tasks and aims, and to remember, every minute of every day, that we are one nation and we are one people. We have one common destiny.’
But what was this common destiny, and what was this new ‘first-tier’ Russia meant to look like?
Should it be a neo-Soviet superpower, and strive to resurrect as much as possible of the Soviet past?
Or was the Soviet period, in fact, a horrible error and thus the new Russia should be a continuation of the tsarist empire, with its triple ideology of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality?
Was Russia a bastion of ‘traditional values’ in opposition to a decadent West?
A ‘Eurasian’ power that could bridge the gap between East and West?
Or simply a ‘normal’ European nation, albeit one of dramatically bigger size than the others and with a more traumatic past, that could in time integrate with the democracies of the continent’s western half?1
The Putin narrative has evolved over time, and he has leverage global events to shape what he sees as Russia’s new destiny.
Over his time in power, the West has gone from being selectively attractive to becoming a force to interact with and to be reshaped as he is reshaping Russia itself.
He is not so much anti-Western as seeking ways to shape the West to become a more commodious partner in Russia’s return to the world stage.
Because he is judo master, not a chess master, he has played off of opportunities to work towards these objectives, rather than following some sort of master plan.
Putin’s clearly identified sense that the Russian state should speak for Russians is one of the most challenging parts of the Putin narrative. He argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Russians were living in the Soviet Union one day and woke up the next living in another country.
Given the legacy of Hitler with regard to a similar statement, which asserted that the Third Reich should speak for all Germans, it is not surprising that the new European states such as the Baltic states or Poland, would find such a statement very disturbing.
And when followed up by the actions in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, this perspective seems more than a bullet point in a briefing.
Clearly, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the prospects for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union and even perhaps NATO was a flash point for Putin where the new narrative of the Russian nation was to be joined by the action of seizing the Crimea and “returning” it to Russia, or in this case, the new Russian republic.
Put in another way, the narrative about Russia and its legitimate rights to shape its own ethnic destiny and its role as a Euro-Asian power was backed by actions. And the seizure of Crimea, was very popular in Russia to say the least.
The Putin narrative underscores that revolution and state collapse is inherently bad and the linking of the protection of Russians “abroad” with the role of the state is a core ideological challenge to modern Europe.
The Soviet state had always faced a tricky conundrum: its ideology glorified revolution and revolutionaries, but its actions had to stifle any actual protest impulse in its citizens. Putin’s narrative faced no such paradox. It fetishised stabil’nost’, which meant revolution and state collapse was inherently bad, whether in 1917, 1991, on Maidan in Kiev, or in some future hypothetical Russia.
In building out his narrative, he has focused more on the American challenge than upon the European one, although in many ways the European one is more profoundly challenging to his sense of Russian order.
It was absurd to compare, as Putin did, Kosovo, which became an independent nation after a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing, and Crimea, which was gobbled up by its bigger neighbour on the basis of theoretical and greatly exaggerated threats. Equally, whether or not the US invasion of Iraq was illegal had no bearing on whether or not the Russian annexation of Crimea was illegal. And yet Putin had a point.
The behaviour of the United States and its allies in the aftermath of 9/11 made it much easier for Russia to dismiss the moral high ground of American politicians.
In the post–Cold War world, the US had been free to act more or less as it pleased, with few checks or balances. An illegal war in Iraq with awful human costs and terrible longer-term consequences did not result in international sanctions against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, or their respective countries.
Why, then, should the largely bloodless annexation of Crimea have those same countries crying like hyenas?
Putin had complained about American exceptionalism in Munich back in 2007, and many times since. Now, he had done something about it.
As well as the general howl of protest against American unipolarity, the Crimea gambit also addressed the specific strategic concern of preventing Ukraine from tilting decisively towards the West and potentially kicking Russia’s Black Sea Fleet out of Crimea.3
There is little question that Putin’s narrative and his actions to put into play key building blocks for that narrative had restored state dominance, and placed the Russian state back onto the world stage.
And not simply as regional power as the Obama Administration would dreamingly characterize Putin’s Russia.
But it is neither a great power as Trump and his Pentagon would have it either.
Putin had largely succeeded in his mission to create a sense of nation and rally Russia around a patriotic idea.
But instead of transcending the trauma of the Soviet collapse, his government exploited it, using fear of political unrest to quash opposition, equating ‘patriotism’ with support for Putin, and using a simplified narrative of the Second World War to imply Russia must unite once again against a foreign threat.
Even if protests against the current obscene levels of corruption become a serious threat for Putin, or one day even lead to a change of government, the patriotic rhetoric of his years in charge is likely to endure.
These ideas have formed the basis for the upbringing of a whole new generation of Russians, and they will continue to influence the collective Russian psyche long after Putin finally departs from the Kremlin. Russia’s glorious past has become a national obsession, but a prosperous future still seems a long way off.4
But what Putin’s narrative clearly is a key part of the rise of 21st century authoritarianism, a narrative which interacts with other authoritarian narratives as much in discordant as convent tones and messages.
It is difficult to be the global Christian orthodox power building the global tent for Russians and supporting the Iranian narrative or the Chinese one for that matter.
But they can work towards the broader goal common to all — making the world safer for authoritarians.
Putin made it clear from the outset of his coming to power, that he would focus on creating a new Russian state for the new conditions which would be effective and strong to restore the respect to which Russia was due in his view from the global community.
As Putin underscored in his December 30, 1999, turn of the millennium speech:
It will not happen soon, if it ever happens at all, that Russia will become the second edition of, say, the US or Britain in which liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutes and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change.
Modern Russian society does not identify a strong and effective state with a totalitarian state. We have come to value the benefits of democracy, a law-based state, and personal and political freedom. At the same time, people are alarmed by the obvious weakening of state power. The public looks forward to the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state to a degree which is necessary, proceeding from the traditions and present state of the country…..
We are at a stage where even the most correct economic and social policy starts misfiring while being realised due to the weakness of the state power, of the managerial bodies. A key to Russia’s recovery and growth is in the state-policy sphere today.
Russia needs a strong state power and must have it. I am not calling for totalitarianism. History proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government are transient. Only democratic systems are intransient. Whatever the shortcomings, mankind has not devised anything superior. A strong state power in Russia is a democratic, law-based, workable federative state.Putin on RUSSIA & MILLENNIUM
- Walker, Shaun. The Long Hangover (pp. 16-17). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Walker, Shaun. The Long Hangover (p. 246). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Walker, Shaun. The Long Hangover (p. 151). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Walker, Shaun. The Long Hangover (pp. 253-254) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.