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22 October 2015

‘The national unity’ by Putin

Consolidation of Russian society: illusion or reality?

Due to poorly developed civil institutions, societies in transition are often unable to cope with the disintegration caused by a transition from one system to another on their own. As a result, the national elite - having the necessary set of tools of symbolic imposition due to its status – is effectively given a certain carte blanche to build a society in accordance with its own vision. Vladimir Putin, among others, was presented with this opportunity when he came to power in the early 2000s. ‘Consolidation of the society’ was even cited as one of the major tasks of the state. However, unfortunately, the model, enthusiastically built by the incumbent president, is unlikely to provide for real social integration and rather, contrarily, it gives rise to anomy and deeper disunity. It suffices to look at the key elements of his consolidation rhetoric in order to understand this.

In European societies, social solidarity is based on the recognition of the values of personal freedom and equality of the interests of all individuals, which inevitably creates awareness in members of a society of the expediency and reasonableness of cooperation as the most effective tool for achieving developmental goals. The Russian model rejects the principle of individual freedom, replacing it with sacralization of collective action in the name of the nation and the state. In other words, the priority of interests of a certain collective entity – the state or the nation – is the consolidation basis under the Russian model, whereas the interests of the individual are insignificant and are considered secondary to the interests of the state.

This idea was articulated quite explicitly by Putin in 2012 in his address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation (FA RF) in which he stated that, previously, there had been: ‘a period when the importance of their [citizens’] private interests regained relevance’, which was undoubtedly only natural. However, ‘working for one’s own interests’ – he added – ‘has its limits and has its boundaries’. Then Putin expressed his confidence that, starting with this period, ‘the rise of civic engagement’ will be observed. ‘People begin to relate their own lives…. with the aspirations of the nation as a whole and the interests of the state’.

The alignment of one’s own interests with the interests of the state is referred to as ‘civil responsibility’ or ‘responsibility for our country’ by Putin who elevated this rhetorical category to the status of constitutional principle in his address in 2013. And although he alluded to a certain reciprocity between the state and the citizen ‘to protect each other’ only once at the beginning of the 2013 address, in general, the entire political discourse is built around the responsibilities of the citizen to the state. At the same time, so-called ‘civil responsibility’ is presented as almost the only way for Russia and hence, for citizens themselves to survive: ‘…a society cannot survive without civil responsibility, and so a country… cannot exist without nationwide responsibility’ – Putin quotes Solzhenitsyn. Thus, the false notion of the necessary prevalence of the state over the individual is strongly inculcated into public consciousness.

The semantic meanings of the concepts ‘consolidation’ and ‘solidarity’ are distorted within this etatist model of societal formation. What is solidarity? Theoretically, it is a certain state of a society expressed through common interests and unity in terms of sympathy for certain views and values. Consolidation is a process which leads to solidarity in a society. As noted early on by the classic figure of sociology Emile Durkheim: social solidarity can be ensured in various ways. For example, contemporary Western societies achieve consolidation by identifying common ground for the establishment of a mutual compromise between groups with different values and world views. Putin’s model does not recognize diversification of views. It requires that all members of society have the one and ‘only view’, of the ‘most important tasks of state policy’ and ‘full nationwide unity when it comes to assessing the country’s strategic objectives’ (the addresses of 2003, 2012 and subsequent years). And since, formally, it is precisely the president who is the exponent of ‘interests of the state’ and ‘strategic objectives’, then, correspondingly, consolidation according to Putin’s interpretation primarily implies unconditional loyalty to the incumbent leader, that is, to him and his policy. Within the framework of Putin’s discourse, patriotism and civil responsibility are seen through this prism.

At the same time, patriotism and the very idea of unity are, on the one hand, raised to the status of historically entrenched national traits; an element of Russian culture while, on the other, as noted above, they are presented as a vital prerequisite for the survival of the nation. Back at the beginning of his presidential career, in his address to the FA RF in 2000, he said that ‘… throughout our history Russia and its citizens undertook, and are undertaking, a truly heroic deed’. The historic deed of ‘preserving a state which spans a vast area’. And although this requires tremendous effort and constitutes a severe hardship for the nation, ‘such is Russia’s thousand-year historical path; such is the way towards its revival as a strong country’. Subsequently, he reiterates this thought again and again while institutionalizing it by introducing a holiday on National Unity Day: A day to commemorate the period when ‘the nation itself – according to Putin – defended Russian statehood, displaying true civic-mindedness and utmost responsibility. Not due to coercion from above but by answering the call of their heart, people … united to determine the fate of their Fatherland together and out of their own volition’. At the same time he stresses that such a readiness to make sacrifices has always been one of the most admirable traits of the Russian. Thus, through the extensive use of historical narrative in combination with constant reiteration of the rhetoric of threats, unity in terms of patriotic aspirations and whims is imposed upon the Russian citizen as a certain ‘sacred duty’ by the very fact of their national identity.

Such a consolidation model of the national-patriotic type is extremely convenient for the authorities. On the one hand, it shifts the issue of the effectiveness of the political strategy pursued by the leader outside of the discourse entirely. Since Russia is portrayed as a state under constant threat from ‘developed countries’ which do not want to ‘see a strong Russia’, survival rather than development enters the agenda. The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the socio-economic policy of the existing authorities becomes irrelevant; everyone should support the leader if they want the country to survive. And the issue of development is set aside for later.

On the other hand, this model does not envisage reciprocal actions on behalf of those in power. Representatives of the political elite are not expected to show heroism or practice self-denial, they are not required to show their readiness to make sacrifices or work hard. The analysis of lexical items used by the President in his calls for consolidation addressed to the elite and ordinary citizens exhibits a significant difference in his demands in relation to these two addressees. When addressing the people, the President most frequently uses the terms ‘sacrifice’, ‘heroic deed’, ‘mobilization’, ‘civil responsibility’ whereas one more frequently comes across terms such as ‘cooperate’, ‘dialogue’, ‘collaborate’, ‘exchange of views’ and ‘balanced criticism’ in excerpts targeted at the elite. In other words, all sacrifices and heroic deeds in the name of Russian statehood are traditionally bestowed upon the people, completely bypassing privileged officials.

Generally, that which is described as a manifestation of the highest civil responsibility by Putin was defined by Durkheim some 100 years ago as ‘mechanical solidarity’, that is solidarity based on the subjugation of the individual to the collective. This type of solidarity, on the one hand, is incapable of providing for real integration among the members of society as well as between the population and the authorities, as, it is, in fact, based on the only common trait – national identity. Solidarity based on similarity is weaker than solidarity based on diversity, which is confirmed by the developmental practice of numerous countries. On the other hand, prevalence of the collective over an individual hinders the development of the latter, which inevitably hampers the progress of a society in general. So, is it worthwhile putting the future development of the entire nation at risk for the sake of a short-lived illusory sense of ‘national unity’ which, in fact, is tantamount only to the short-term mobilization of a society and has nothing to do with genuine consolidation? 

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