Evolution of Putin’s rhetoric: from universal pan-European values to the supremacy of traditionalism and “patriotism”
Kremlin values: crack and fracture
Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric on the values has changed tremendously over the course of the last 16 years. The transformation process was never linear; there are two key phases that are easy to track while analyzing his speeches.
Humanism, democracy and the human rights
The very first time then acting president Vladimir Putin mentioned values was the Christmas congratulations speech on January 6, 2000, where he said, “[t]he monumental values of Christianity formulated two thousand years ago have retained their deep meaning right up to the present day.” A week later he clarified: “Christian commandments of kindness and mercy, the ideals of love and compassion for thy neighbour, permeate all of Russia’s culture, including the works of its greatest thinkers and writers…Millions of Russians practise different religions, but all of us share one future, one motherland and one country: Russia. This is our uniqueness, our wealth. Russia’s whole historical experience has proved that it is these values that are lasting.”
Religious, but at the same time, humanitarian values, became a key pillar of Kremlin rhetoric. The second key priority (as declared) was for democracy and human rights. In the same 2000 address, speaking to the “siloviki”, Putin stated, “I urge you to remember the main thing: basic values – the protection of the individual and his civil rights and freedoms – must be central to all the work of the country’s law enforcement system.”
In April 2000, Putin said, “The new political face of Russia, its legislative and executive authority creates a unique opportunity for the consolidation of Russian society, assertion of values of democracy and progress.” In June of the same year he called to “provide the Russians and the Germans with a new perspective, contribute to the well-being of our peoples, and the unity of Europe on the basis of common values of progress, democracy and freedom…Of course we accept common European values… Today basic European values are becoming an integral part of the Russian way of life,” said Putin in 2001.
“[The Constitution] proclaims basic human rights and freedoms to be of the highest value, and these norms are treated as self-implementing,” Putin stated, loud and clear in 2002. “Yet another important step has been made towards bringing Russia and the European Union closer together, bringing them closer on the basis of democratic values, partnership and mutually beneficial cooperation,” he said in 2003.
Putin’s most affirmative statements were made in his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly in May 2004: “There will be no going back on the fundamental principles of our politics. Commitment to democratic values is dictated by the will of our people and by the strategic interests of Russia itself.”
Putin’s first presidential term was marked by a lack of a solid position on values. At times, Putin spoke of values as if they are something fixed and permanent. In 2000, he stated: “I believe that inventing or, as you put it, implanting a national idea is a futile and meaningless thing. It cannot be invented. The morality and ethics of a people are shaped over centuries.”In 2004, “Our strategic goals are set, in my opinion, quite clearly – it is the preservation of democratic values, development of rights and freedoms of the people, and strengthening of the state.”
However, from time to time, certain ambivalences would appear: values were either to be found or reconstructed, formulated or reviewed:
- “Today we are not simply learning to listen to and hear each other, we are genuinely looking for common values.”
- “But we also need a different kind of inventory. An inventory of the moral values, the right benchmarks, common goals, criteria and assessments.”
- “Many moral values of the old period of time are lost, and new ones are rather slowly taking their place in the hearts and souls of the people.”
- “We need to create a time consonant system of cultural values.”
In the period before 2004, statements in Putin’s speeches which run contrary to the mainstream started to appear. For example, he suddenly spoke of the supremacy of the state over the individual:
- “No other fundamental values except patriotism, love for country, love for home, love for one’s people, religious values and cultural values – all that forms the basis of our being.”
- “We share something that is the supreme value for normal civilized modern man: we have a common Homeland.”
- “What system of values can unite us today? That system, in our view, which will develop the basics of nation-state identity and the unity of all Russian citizens, a sense of patriotism and pride for their country.”
Most troubling were the messianic undertones:
- “From time immemorial, our country was called the Holy Rus’, and it had its own historical and geographical reasons. But this name primarily has more moral meanings, emphasizing the special role that Russia has voluntarily committed itself to as the guardian of the true Christian values.”
- “This [positive change] in no small measure attributed to Russian culture, a culture that organically combines spirituality, largely adopted from the Byzantine and European humanist values, to which Russia has made a huge contribution.”
- “When people speak about Holy Rus’ they mean the revival of traditions, of the moral foundations of our culture, which is based on Christian values.”
A sound of resentment
The contradictions of the eclectic set of values were noticeable not only to the audience, but the speaker himself. Putin tries to convince his audience that “contradictions are not contradictory”: “We are not always able to combine patriotic responsibility for the destiny of our country with what Stolypin once called “civil liberties.”. So it is still hard to find a way out of a false conflict between the values of personal freedom and the interests of the state. At the same time, “a strong state is unthinkable without respect for people’s rights and freedom” Putin stated in July of 2000.
Doubts about the chosen path of liberal and democratic development were first voiced in 2001. In turned out that declared rules of the game don’t help achieve tactical victories in the fight against terrorism and international affairs. “Terrorists, like pernicious bacteria, quickly adapt to the organism which hosts them and behave as parasites. They use the Western institutions and Western ideas of human rights and the protection of civilians to further their own ends, but they do it not in order to promote these ideas, not to protect the Western values and Western institutions, but in order to fight them” he said in October of 2001. A month later Putin stated: “Terrorists are outplaying us all in the information field… they achieve their goals better than those who fight terrorism by appealing to universal human values while having nothing in common with them.”
Resentment toward the West was the second factor used to reconsider the path chosen: “In general, we often hear about liberal values in the economy when it comes to demanding that Russia grant some privileges and preferences. But these values are promptly forgotten when those who propagate the values are affected.”
These doubts, caused by two separate reasons, by 2006 merged in President’s perception into one image of a two-faced and aggressive environment: «The symptoms of a conflict between civilisations are becoming more and more apparent, provoked not only by terrorists and all manner of extremists but also by ‘one-size-fits-all’, ideology-driven approaches to international relations, attempts to ‘export democracy’ by force and to impose one’s own cultural and social standards and values on others.”
The final turn in the Kremlin’s rhetoric can be traced back to the beginning of Putin’s third presidential term. In his Presidential inauguration speech of May 7th, 2012, the word “values” appeared for the first time, “We will certainly achieve success if we stand firmly upon the solid foundation of our multi-ethnic people’s cultural and spiritual traditions, our centuries of history, the values that have always been the moral backbone of our life, and if each of us lives according to their conscience, with love for and faith in their country, their families and loved ones, and care for their children’s happiness and their parents’ welfare.”
All of Putin’s later statements only confirm his right turn:
- “We remained committed to a sovereign, progressive development of the state, formed a broad popular coalition based on the values of patriotism, civic consciousness, justice and a common desire to serve Russia.”
- “We all sense the uninterrupted flow of centuries, this long road that Russia has travelled, and we know that we are the direct inheritors of the common cause to which our forebears dedicated their lives. We know that we must honour and preserve their traditions, traditions such as genuine deep-rooted patriotism and mutual respect between peoples. These values help to consolidate our society today too.”
Even when mentioning the Constitution, Putin stresses not the human rights: “The nation-wide responsibility for our country to the present and future generations is hailed by the Constitution as a fundamental principle of the Russian state. It is in civil responsibility and patriotism that I see the consolidating force behind our policy.”
Now patriotic consciousness, involvement with the destiny of the Homeland, bond to the ethnic and religious routes are trending.
This is not a turn, but a U-turn – from future to past, history, “routes” and archaic traditions.
Most illustrative was president’s statement at the recent Valdai international discussion club: “Russia made its choice. Our priorities are further improving our democratic and open economy institutions, accelerated internal development, taking into account all the positive modern trends in the world, and consolidating society based on traditional values and patriotism.”
On the December 1, 2016 while addressing the Federal Assembly Putin stated: “Our people have united around patriotic values. We see this unity and we should thank them for it. They have united around these values not because everyone is happy and they have no demands, on the contrary, there is no shortage of problems and difficulties. But people have an understanding of their causes and, most importantly, are confident that together we can overcome these problems. It is this readiness to work for our country’s sake and this sincere and deep-seated concern for Russia that form the foundation of this unity we see.”
The transformation of rhetoric from “a state for the people” to the “people for the state” is now fully complete.
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