Russia’s elections: the rise and fall of “dramaturgiya”

The Kremlin is used to scripting election campaigns to the minute. But the 2018 election shows how they’re losing control.

Andrew Wilson
9 March 2018

Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.Russian elections used to be all about dramaturgiya, meaning an artificial and carefully-scripted drama. Elections may not have had the normal interest, like an uncertain outcome, but they buzzed with all the drama of artificial conflict. In fact, one of the tricks of local “political technology” was to deliver emotive narratives to marginalise subjects that the Kremlin didn’t want to see discussed.

The 2018 presidential election, however, isn’t just boring. It’s devoid of any politics at all. If it is about anything, it’s about the politics of nothingness. It may therefore apparently not be worth paying too much attention, but dramaturgiya has been a functional part of the Russian political system for over 20 years, and it’s not clear how things will work without it.

Switching the tracks

Dramaturgiya has changed its function several times. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was part of a weak state’s box of magic tricks. Russia’s leaders were presented as either a lesser evil against exaggerated threats (Yeltsin against the “red-brown” coalition in 1993 or against the Communists in 1996), or as a crusader against soft targets or threats that the state didn’t have the capacity or desire to properly confront (the oligarchs in 2003, the Chechens in 1999 were arguably both). Dramaturgiya’s main function was thus distraction, changing the dominant narrative away from the authorities’ corruption or incompetence.

Under “mature Putinism”, dramaturgiya became the key means of maintaining Putin’s mega-rating, at 70% or more

Under “mature Putinism”, dramaturgiya became the key means of maintaining Putin’s mega-rating, at 70% or more. This wasn’t about popularity in a bipartisan system like the USA, where the leader hovers either side of 50%. It was about creating and maintaining what the political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky and others used to call the “Putin majority”. Seventy percent or 80% was the level of loyalty that was expected in the system; a degree of opposition in discredited 1990s circles or amongst the intelligentsia mattered little, so long as the “majority” was intact.

The majority marginalised other voices, but most importantly it aligned political elites via a loyalty test to the script of the dramaturgiya. Political debate was replaced by a virtual chorus. The majority functioned as a post-modern equivalent of Václav Havel’s greengrocer in his well-known 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”. Back in the era of Leonid Brezhnev and Gustav Husák, it didn’t matter whether Havel’s conformist really believed in the slogan he was supposed to put in his window (“Workers of the world unite”) – what mattered was his display of loyalty to the official party line. The modern-day Kremlin script functions in the same way. It’s pointless to ask whether the Russian elite actually believes all the tropes, myths, propaganda and downright lies. The point is their loyalty to the overall narrative, and maintaining the closed circle of its reproduction.

A further change under late Putinism is that the dramaturgiya acquired a harder edge. Russian political technologists had always read too much Carl Schmitt for their own good. They now revelled in his “Theory of the Partisan”, creating a “state of exception” to justify constant, even escalating conflict between “Fortress Russia” and its enemies. And far from dramaturgiya somehow fading away, the authorities needed constantly to create new episodes to renew fading impact effects. Or, most worryingly of all, ever higher doses to maintain the effect.

One final change is that the record got stuck. In the 1990s, political technologists never really played the same trick twice. Since 2012, the refrain has constantly been foreign enemies, orchestrated by the USA, and channelled by the domestic fifth column. And in so far as the script didn’t change too much, its intensity changed instead.

The empty election

This all meant that dramaturgiya was increasingly permanent. It wasn’t just deployed to win elections. The majority became the means by which the mythical “power vertical” actually worked – not by the orders given, but by the need for the administrative machine to join in the virtual chorus. But there were dangers of too much drama. If Gleb Pavlovsky was one of the original architects of the system, one reason why he fell out of favour in 2011 was that he began to warn of the dangers of over-mobilisation, and of creating too many enemies. When I interviewed him in 2007, he said, “we have to prepare tranquilisation, not mobilisation”. And by 2011, Pavlovskii was in the Dmitry Medvedev camp. He thought he had saved Russia, job done.

“2017 is the year when the Kremlin’s domination over the ‘scenario’ ends, although it’s far from being the end of the Kremlin’s hegemony over politics”

But the Medvedev project was beset by internal tensions. Medvedev was designed to be a virtual liberal, but protesters wanted him to act like a real one. He was supposed to de-mobilise protest potential, but the spark for the Bolotnaya protests was the desire for a first term of rhetoric to be succeeded by a second term of action.

What the protesters got instead was reaction. Putin overdosed on dramaturgiya with his conservative values project in 2012, and we have been living with the consequences ever since. The Kremlin was grappling with the need for internal-external enemies after Putin’s re-election, even before the crisis in Ukraine. Who now remembers the row about American foster parents? Then confrontation with Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, sanctions and constant rows with the west took things to a whole new level. Ukraine segued into Syria. And America was always the Great Satan.

But now we have nothing. In Pavlovsky’s words:

“2017 is the year when the Kremlin’s domination over the ‘scenario’ ends, although it’s far from being the end of the Kremlin’s hegemony over politics. All year Putin’s scenarios have been late, catching up with issues emerging inside the public domain. But in the minds of TV viewers, even Kremlin critics, the inertia of his former power reigns… The views of observers, their language and vocabulary, are aimed at ‘Putin’s campaign’. But there is no campaign.”

Unlike 2012, there is no overriding theme. There is no manifesto. There are no Putin articles in the press. The mythology of “Fortress Russia” is still there in part, but ritualised, with the option of taking it to a higher level excluded for now. The Kremlin toyed with the idea of a victory campaign, declaring an end to Syria operations many times over, and even toying with peace proposals for Ukraine. Putin would run on accumulated dramaturgiya, banking his fake victories abroad. But this proved hard to deliver – or more exactly, to stage convincingly.

Over-mobilisation has recently become more of a concern. The 2016 Duma campaign was almost deliberately boring

There are mini-dramas. Ksenia Sobchak seems to be running both to create a new pseudo-opposition and to discredit a certain type of caricatured liberalism. Pavel Grudinin seems to have passed his screen test to join the ranks of Kremlin outriders, a fake populist to ride the global wave of populism rather than letting it crash against the Kremlin unchecked. But there is nothing to make sense of the whole. (Though Grudinin, at least, does hint at one possible future direction.)

The changing nature of the Kremlin’s dramaturgiya is illustrated by the shift from Vladislav Surkov to Vyacheslav Volodin to Sergey Kiriyenko as information overlord. According to one Ukrainian expert on information war I interviewed recently: “Surkov was a creator, Volodin a brutish builder, but Kiriyenko is only a manager. He’s not developing the system, just controlling it. This shows that Putin thinks propaganda works well, it doesn’t need further development. But it’s probably a short-term appointment, just for the elections.”

A pause or a re-calculation?

But because the election is a great big blank, we don’t know whether this is because of short-term or long-term factors. Whether this is just a pause or a strategic re-calculation.

Over-mobilisation has recently become more of a concern. The 2016 Duma campaign was almost deliberately boring. The obvious price to be paid was the fall in official turnout to 47.8%, although independent estimates calculated it as low as 36.5%. In part, this revived a point made by Ivan Krastev in 2011; one of the paradoxical strengths of Putin’s regime before 2012 was its lack of ideology, without which there was little for protesters to mobilise against. The Kremlin is clearly afraid of the opposite scenario to 2012 (protesters after rather than before the election) because the election will not actually decide anything. So turnout, or more exactly real turnout, will undoubtedly be low this time (65.2% was claimed in 2012). Hence all the methods used to make it look higher, with a virtual civil society campaign fronted by ersatz NGOs like “Volunteers of victory” collecting signatures for Putin.

The Kremlin is unlikely to risk further disengagement; it will not want to leave the old Putin majority strategically adrift

Russia’s “conservative turn” after 2012 seemed for the longer term. But there were reasons to pause for breath in 2018. There were too many tigers to ride. There was the danger of what Mark Galeotti called “fantasy fatigue”. There was the real world, and the real-world consequences of too much virtual conflict, blowing back to Russia from Ukraine, Syria and the USA. And there was the accumulation of real world demands. Putin’s annual address in March 2018 didn’t solve the problem of defining what the election was actually about; but it made some nods in the direction of development rather than drama, without of course addressing the reasons why so many practical issues had been neglected. And Putin’s nuclear machismo pointed in the opposite direction.

In part, the Kremlin was relying on the momentum of existing dramaturgiya, on the script remaining the same. Everyone should know it by now. But the system looks old. Putin is tired. According to Pavlovsky again, everyone can see “the wear and tear of the outdated scenario-planning machine in the Russian Federation”. The whole show is empty. “Putin has become a pilgrim in his own country. Puzzled, he wanders around in the fogs of politicisation, visiting cities and ministries, like a pensioner, moving from dacha to dacha. The “theatre of depoliticization has exhausted itself”.

Life without drama

I won’t attempt to predict what will happen to Russia over the next six years. But logically, we can say what will happen without dramaturgiya, at least at election time.

First, the population is less mobilised. It is more of a spectator for whatever Putin decides to do next. Inevitable low turnout for the election, whatever the official statistics may claim, will be a damp start to the new term. The Kremlin is unlikely to risk further disengagement; it will not want to leave the old Putin majority strategically adrift.

Elites may also gain a certain destructive freedom. In ideal type democracies, competitive elections confer a mandate. The losers acquiesce in the winners’ right to rule. But if Russia no longer has a propaganda chorus to align elites, then they may go off-script. Clan politics will be more prominent; though individual clans will likely claim their own mini-dramarturgiyas, posing as “nationalists” or “reformers”. Ramzan Kadyrov is already trying out his narrative, as leader of a more radical version of Russian Islam. There may be a new Time of Troubles, but with competition between false narratives rather than false Dmitrys. And if a hypothetical succession struggle hots up, it will not be for the keys to the Kremlin, but the keys to NTV.

Russia may also be buffeted from abroad, or by the simple force of events. The whole world now faces narrative volatility, and Russia has played its far from small part in encouraging that trend. It would be deeply paradoxical, and unlikely, if Russia now took a back seat. As the election has been so devoid of debate and meaning, there is nothing to stop Putin ramping up the rhetoric again if he wants.

An alternative explanation for the current, possibly temporary, lack of drama might be the 2018 World Cup. The most prosaic answer of all might be that Putin just wants a free hand in a very uncertain next term. But he is unlikely to get it, having failed to define the script in advance.


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