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Vladimir Putin, "Soviet man" who missed class

Christoph Neidhart
23 October 2006

A year ago the Kremlin issued a list of expressions Russia's TV stations are banned from using when reporting from Chechnya, among them mujahideen, emir and imam. Instead, television is required to speak of mercenaries and bandits.

The edict could be read as a signal that Russia is slowly returning to an old Soviet totalitarian habit, when public language was policed from the political centre, even as many bureaucrats routinely employed obscene words and phrases in private.

But there is even more immediate evidence that the Kremlin is going forward to the past: the language used by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin himself.

The crassest recent example was during his meeting with the visiting Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, on 18 October. Putin is reported to have joked about the charges of sexual assault faced by Moshe Katsav, the Israeli president: "Raped ten women! We all envy him!"

The contrast in his response to the assassination of the prominent journalist Anna Politkovskaya on 7 October 2006 (Putin's 54th birthday) is stark. For three days the president had no word - certainly no word of condolence. When pressed on the matter at his summit with Angela Merkel in Germany three days later, he dismissed the slain reporter, his most vocal critic in Russia, as "extremely insignificant."

Then, at the European Union-Russia summit in Finland on 20 October, he threatened Georgia with war for acting like the independent country it is. This was only the latest in a series of notably aggressive verbal thrusts against the former Soviet republic.

These examples are all from a single month. They suggest that the pace of Putin's usage of Soviet-style "newspeak" and KGB-vulgarism - even fifteen years after the end of the Soviet system - is increasing.

With no microphone around, Putin is alleged to speak mat, the foul language that allows Russians to express almost anything by using particular slang words for the sex-organs. But even with the media in attendance, Putin does not mince his words.

This is the figure who in 1999 promised to seek and wipe out the Chechen rebels even in the "shit-house". In response to a question about landmines in the rebellious territory, he rebuked a French reporter in 2002: "If you want to become an Islamic radical and have a circumcision, I invite you to Moscow... (and) recommend that you have the operation done in such a way that nothing else will grow there."

Putin's answer to an Italian journalist who asked about the jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky displayed the same mindset: "One must always obey the law, not only when they have you at a certain part" (these were his quoted words, though in reality he is believed to have named the "part").

Christoph Neidhart is a Swiss writer and journalist based in Tokyo. He was previously a research fellow at Harvard's Davis Center of Russian Studies and (1990-97) Moscow bureau chief of Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. His books include Russia's Carnival: The Smells, Sights and Sounds of Transition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Ostsee, das Meer in unserer Mitte (Marebuchverlag, 2003)

Among openDemocracy's articles on Russian politics and society:

Mary Dejevsky, "The west gets Putin wrong" (2 March 2005)

Artemi Troitsky, "Alice-in-Wonderland Russia"
(14 March 2005)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (22 June 2006)

George Schõpflin, "Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)

Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)

Tanya Lokshina, "Putin, Chechnya…and Politkovskaya"
(12 October 2006)

A revolution missed

What is going on here? One way to understand Putin's speech-pattern is to note what has happened more widely to public language and social life in Russia in the post-Soviet period.

Most urban Russians live a life quite unlike the one they lived in the Soviet past. Russia is not the Soviet Union any longer: it has become a different country, with a different (verbal and non-verbal) language. Important elements of the Soviet vocabulary have become obsolete; comrade and model-worker, to name but two obvious examples. New words have entered Russian, for example bisnismen. The phone-in-programmes on Russian radio stations contain blunt talk, slang and chit-chat unimaginable in the Soviet public space.

While Soviet speech was tightly regulated, in today's Russia an abundant plurality of voices - even a cacophony - can be heard. This is even truer for non-verbal communication. The messages conveyed through art, architecture, fashion, design, consumption, everyday habits, dress-codes and comportment convey a multitude of preferences, opinions, and convictions that could hardly be more diverse.

As recently as the late 1980s, Moscow was dull and grey, a city with no billboards, no colours, no fashion to speak of, no buskers, no vibrant public space, no openly expressed opinions, and no places to go to in the evening. This was a capital city of 10 million people that closed down after dark and on Sundays. Today, Moscow is a loud if tasteless metropolis, a world city, with its younger generations as individually minded, hedonist and wild as anywhere.

The appearance and mentality of urban Russian society have been transformed. The language of Russia's president suggests that he is in this respect far detached from his own people.

The reason? He missed class. Putin may be the first Russian-Soviet leader since Lenin to master a foreign tongue, but he has never bothered to learn the language of post-Soviet Russia, or to read its signals. Despite being the president of Russia, he addresses its citizens in the language of the Soviet Union, a country that no longer exists.

Putin's generation, in their 30s when the Soviet Union collapsed, is the oldest to succeed in making the transition to these new realities. People of an older generation have tended (with notable exceptions) to remain stuck in their Soviet views and habits, unable to move on.

But if Putin was able to move on, the change was not a full inner one. The reason is rooted in his Soviet-era career. In his first decade as a KGB agent, Putin's job was to help prevent change. In 1985, only months before Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in power and started to advocate glasnost (opening) and perestroika (reconstruction), Putin was assigned to the Soviet Union's hardline ally East Germany. True, it was not "exile"; but psychologically, Putin's isolation in Dresden may have been experienced as emigration. Like a true emigrant, he kept his home alive, sweet and unchanged, in his heart: the Soviet rodina (motherland), the place of his youth, his parents - and his tongue.

While his generation personally experienced the erosion of Soviet power, Putin spent the Gorbachev years in an East German time-bubble, isolated both from a Russian society in transition and (as a KGB bureaucrat) from his crumbling host country as well.

Putin's peers based at home witnessed the disintegration of their society, experienced the slow obsolescence of their tested social skills, especially the competence and connections required to navigate Soviet society. Most applauded the fall of communism while understanding that they had to undergo a learning process to adapt to the new realities.

Putin missed the moments of awakening, the years full of hope as the Soviet empire crumbled, when millions took to the streets and democracy was a dream. It was only after the fall of Soviet power that he returned from Germany to his native St Petersburg. There, he landed a bureaucrat's job with the city's democratic mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Working for Sobchak was to become beneficial for his resumé, as he acquired some democratic credentials. However, Putin did not take up his boss's ideas; he displayed no desire to help create a Russia reborn as a democratic state.

To this day, Putin seems to be nostalgic for the pre-Gorbachev USSR - like the people of a decade older than him, who have been unable to make the transition. He has even reinstated some of its insignia, such as the Soviet anthem and the red banner for the military. And his team consists mostly of so-called siloviki, former Soviet military and security-apparatus officers who also speak the language of the past.

In this sense Putin is a Soviet fossil, a well-preserved remnant of an outdated era, an old Soviet brain in the fit body of a 50-something. His language too is reminiscent of the Soviet period - when communication had more to do with preserving a façade of power than revealing the truth, facts or even intentions.

Vladimir Putin here resembles the narrator of Alexander Zinoviev's 1985 novel Homo Sovieticus, who declares at one point that what he is saying does not express his convictions. "I haven't got any convictions... Convictions are something Western man has, not Soviet man. Instead of having convictions the latter has a 'stereotype of behaviour'."

Like joking about rape.

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