chapter  8
Managing national ressentiment: morality politics in Putin’s Russia
Pages 22

Love is fleeting. The dramatic chain of events that has reshaped the relations between Russia and Ukraine in the last two years has brought another confirmation to that Machiavellian maxim. The unthinkable happened practically overnight as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the emergent military confrontation in East Ukraine caused a deep rupture in relations between the two, closely related, practically fraternal nations. The social dynamics accompanying these developments unearthed heaps of emotions on both sides – Russia and Ukraine – bringing attention to the affective side of politics and the place of emotions in the politicians’ professional toolkit. Political scientists normally shun emotions favoring, instead, institutionalist

approaches based on rationalist foundations. Only a selected few, interested in social mobilization or trained in political psychology, have paid attention and attempted to integrate the variable of emotions – at the individual and collective levels – in understanding political behaviour and decision-making.2 The accumulating evidence that emotions influence political attitudes, decisionmaking and actions makes it imperative that this variable is integrated more widely in political science. Indeed, the recent series of mass uprisings around the world has provided a new stimulus towards a more “emotionally intelligent” understanding of political action. The crisis in Russia-Ukraine relations and the emotional outburst accompanying it also provides an opportunity to explore the affective side of politics and integrate the analytical advances made in the studies of emotions in other disciplines such as human geography, anthropology and other sub-fields of political science that have been more in tune with the emotional micro-foundations of political processes. Recent Russian political developments provide a fascinating ground for

studying collective emotions and, more specifically, the potency of political leadership in uncovering, channelling and redirecting collective emotions – domestically and internationally – with the aim of propping the visibly weakened political legitimacy of the Russian government. At least two significant political developments occurred, one after another, in Russia’s recent history.

First, the widely unexpected public protests in 2011-2012 signalled an important shift in at least some of the strata of the Russian society that demanded more accountable and honest government. Second, arguably in response to a serious political threat emerging from the society, Russia’s leadership advanced new public discourse focusing on the issues of values, morality and ethics. In fact, this discourse was first introduced into political debate in Russia by

the political opposition that started questioning the ethical integrity of the regime and the system of values promoted by the Kremlin. The Kremlin responded with re-appropriating the language of values and ethics and starting a broad “morality” campaign on the domestic and international fronts that involved an increasing reliance on the Orthodox Church, a mobilization of “traditional Russian values” rhetoric and a campaign against “non-traditional” values that are allegedly associated with the decadent west. For the Kremlin, this new discourse represented a response to both the liberal opposition – those protesting on Bolotnaya – and to the rising nationalist groups taking part in the Russian March. Besieged on two sides, the Kremlin was pressed to develop a coherent response to both challenges. The international potential of this response, articulated first domestically, became quickly apparent. The 10th annual Valdai Club meetings held in September 2013 showcased a

newly assertive president of Russia taking upon himself and Russia the role of a defender of Christian and moral values. In a position that reverberated abroad, Vladimir Putin criticized Euro-Atlantic countries in renouncing their spiritual roots and consequently facing moral and demographic crisis as a result of policies that equated traditional families with same-sex marriages, and belief in God with belief in Satan. Highlighting the need for Russia’s national and cultural self-determination, Putin posited Russia as a protector of western civilization in the face of globalization, multiculturalism, and accentuation of minority rights allegedly leading to inevitable degradation and crisis. Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly in December 2013 reiterated the message of Russia as a global defender of traditional values, linked it up with Russia’s role in the successful resolution of a crisis over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and posited Russia as the last bulwark against the west rolling down into “chaotic darkness” – the path that presumably results from forgetting about fundamental civilizational values. This new, morality-based, discourse became a solid foundation for Putin’s

political victory over the domestic opposition. It also provided a building ground and a moral justification for Russia’s 2014 foreign policy actions with regard to Ukraine. Newly self-righteous, Russia’s political leadership did not hesitate to opportunistically take over Crimea, when Ukraine was overtaken by Maidan, and promote destabilization in East Ukraine, relying on a heated propaganda campaign. A shift from the rhetorical “global defender of traditional values” to a militarized defence of the Russkii mir occurred almost seamlessly. The sky-high popularity of Putin’s foreign policy actions testified, additionally, to the cleverness of the rhetoric advanced from the Kremlin and

the degree to which the new morality-based discourse targeted the softest psychological spots in Russia’s society. As noticed by other commentators, Putin’s new morality discourse expressed and fed into the society-wide ressentiment associated with the nation’s post-imperial trauma and “an extension of the inferiority complex which, in order to compensate for one’s own failures, forms a system of morality that denies the values of the enemy and blames him for one’s own faults”.3 Indeed, constructing the enemy was just another side of the Kremlin-initiated “morality turn”. Whether embodied in the US government, a “fascist junta in Kyiv”, or the “fifth column” at home, the statecontrolled media pounded the message of “the enemy at the gate”, fixating public attention on the economic, political and moral problems inflicting the west, Ukraine and the home-grown opposition, and displacing entirely any meaningful discussion of domestic problems at home. The nation’s mass consciousness turned outward with the public energy directed at degrading the symbolic Other (whether the west, the US or Ukraine), while Russia, herself, remained in the “blind spot”, unseen and imperceptible. The roots and outlines of Russia’s ressentiment have been discussed by a

number of perceptive commentators in Russia. This study explores the recent “morality turn” in Russian politics that became an important step in reshaping the public agenda, returning the sense of national dignity (however manipulative and illusory) and re-aligning Russia’s ideological position in accord with various conservative political groups in western democracies. Indeed, many members of the global audience bought into Putin’s rhetoric. The American conservative blogger Matt Drudge called Putin “the leader of the free world” and that sentiment seems to be shared by conservatives not only in the United States but also in France, where presidential candidate Marine Le Pen openly admires Vladimir Putin; in Italy, where the Italian National Front applauded Putin for his anti-gay laws and pro-Bashar al Assad’s regime stance, and other European countries.4 Recognizing Putin’s global influence, Forbes magazine ranked him No. 1 in its 2013 list of the world’s most powerful people. Meanwhile, some critical commentators have suggested that the world is “caving into the Russian leader’s brand of hard-core realism”.5

Even a shift from a discursive offence into an actual geopolitical and military offence in Crimea and Ukraine, and the ensuing series of western sanctions on Russia have not changed these dynamics. Time magazine named Putin the most influential person in the world in 2015. Just what is the secret of Putin’s charm? Putin latest ideational demarche marked Russia’s newly found ideological

niche used for articulating a new agenda of defending “fundamental Christian values” along with the Russian civilization. For the international audience (or at least some segments of it) this discourse fills the ideational vacuum left after the fall of the western discourse on democracy-promotion and the revealed failures in the US foreign policy around the world. For the Russian domestic audience, it represents a shift from а defencive stance vis-à-vis the west – “don’t teach us how to build democracy in Russia” – to an offensive

stance – “Russia will teach you how to stand up for your forgotten Christian values”, providing the ground for turning the repressed public feelings of defeat, shame, and humiliation harbored after the fall of the Soviet Union into the revealed emotions of righteous anger, moral superiority and even hatred. The space for aggression – internationally and domestically – was wide open as the Kremlin sanctioned and promoted these collective emotions on the public sphere through an intense media campaign. It is of course a quasi-ideology and a quasi-offence because Russia as a

whole and Putin personally do not fit very well in the traditional values framework expounded on the public stage despite Putin’s rhetorical appeals to Russia’s “historical roots” and her “national genetic code”.6 Russia’s identity issues are far from being resolved and, what is most important, the Russian leaders do not reveal any serious ambitions to give up on the achievements of the modern global economy and society. They want to be part of the WTO; they want to have access to global finance and world stock exchanges; they want to send their kids to western colleges and take advantage of other modern amenities. Still, the resonance of this new offensive discourse with both domestic and international audiences – provides it with an additional legitimation and the extent to which mainstream politicians in the west react to it, its quasi nature acquires elements of substance. The use of morality-driven issues in Russian politics is both puzzling and

revealing. It is puzzling to see the normally cynical and frequently vulgar Russian president Vladimir Putin to play the unfitting role of the spiritual leader and lament about lacking ethics, compassion and morality in Russia. His international ambitions are even more questionable, especially in the face of Russia’s aggressive stance vis-à-vis Ukraine. It is hard to see how anyone could mistake him for Nelson Mandela or any other leader with moral authority. The mystery is quickly solved when one considers the loss of the broad public support for Putin’s regime that became apparent during public protests in 2011-2012. The discursive shift is a clear response to the new political reality of the loss of the acclaimed “Putin majority” of the first and second of Putin’s terms in power. It represents an attempt to construct a new majority that would exclude all the “angry urbanites” and incorporate the rest of the public on an intense emotional ground. Indeed, the moralizing stance taken by the regime has been accompanied by the “divide and rule” political tactic whereby the establishment has juxtaposed the protesters (supposedly rich and spoiled Moscovites) to the rest of the Russian public that the regime was attempting to reconsolidate based on traditional, conservative values. The main target audience of Putin’s “moral” leadership is the more socially conservative, parochial, and nationalist segments of the Russian public; those who see themselves as the main losers of the Soviet collapse; those who make a living in struggling industrial cities and mono-company towns; those who hold a grudge against oligarchs and the new Russians with their lavish, cosmopolitan, glamorized lifestyles; and finally those who have sought out a refuge from cynicism and material values driven post-Soviet life in religion and

particularly in the Russian Orthodox Church. While the new morality-driven discourse aims to produce a new political majority, it is also “productive” in a different sense. It emboldens and creates specific types of political actors and privileges specific types of actions, opening a space for particular decisions, rules, and institutions. It mobilizes and strengthens particular attitudes and predispositions in society, reshaping public opinion and placing new issues on the public agenda. This study illustrates these actors and what these attitudes are.

The rhetoric and political action on morality-related issues has surged in Putin’s third term signaling a new symbolic focus of his presidency. In one of Putin’s programmatic articles published prior to March 2012 elections and entitled “Russia: The National Question”, Putin quoted Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevskiy on the importance of “the peoples’ moral will”. Such rhetorical devices are commonly used by politicians and rarely indicate a far-reaching strategy. Even when running for his first presidential term in 1999 Putin expressed an interest in values, highlighting patriotism, derzhavnost, statism and social justice as values that are traditional for the Russian society.7 This early rhetoric cast the values as broad as possible and sought to create the ground for consolidating the all-encompassing “Putin majority”. The policy actions that followed however were concerned with practical issues of rebuilding the vertical of power and strengthening the federal centre.8 Putin did promote patriotic education and revived some Soviet-era youth games but these events were framed in military-patriotic language rather than language focused on morality.9