Comrade Chat, Final Edition! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Russia (Week 13, Day 2)

Hello, comrades! This is our video for Week 13, Day 2. Our subject is Putin’s Russia, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

I have a couple of announcements for you. First, please remember that next Tuesday, May 5 at 12:50pm Eastern we will meet in real time on Teams for our last day of class. We are going to do two things: first, we’ll discuss the SRB Podcast episode “Political Diary from Russia.” And second, we’ll have a broader discussion about what we’ve learned together this semester. Please note: You are in charge of this discussion! Please come to class with one question or comment about the podcast that you would like us to discuss. We’ll start with those and see where the day takes us. If anyone is not able to access the class by video, please let me know.

Today, we’re looking at Russia in the last 20 years, during the many presidencies of Vladimir Putin. As I explained last time, Putin became president on December 31, 1999, when Boris Yeltsin resigned, which helped ensure that he won the presidential election in March 2000. He was also helped by the Second Chechen War, which started in the fall of 1999. Putin had just become Prime Minister, and his harsh speeches about the war set his tone as a strong leader and convinced many Russians that he would take care of Chechen separatism for good. In fact, while Russia declared “victory” fairly quickly and installed a former warlord as head of Chechnya, guerilla fighting continued into the 2010s, and Russia still experiences terrorist attacks.

Publicly, Putin framed himself as everything Yeltsin was not: strong, stable, sober—the guy who was going to return Russia to its rightful position as a world power. And, indeed, during his first two terms, the economy stabilized and grew significantly, the standard of living went up (though wealth stratification remained), crime went down (though corruption was still tolerated), and government proceeded more smoothly, thanks to new laws that pushed out minority parties. Foreign policy remained a challenge. First NATO, then the EU moved aggressively to expand into the former Eastern Bloc and install missile sites there, which Russia viewed as a threat to its traditional sphere of influence and its safety. Things got particularly intense during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian War, both of which Russia saw as having been encouraged by the West. By speaking aggressively and acting decisively, Putin maintained his image as a strong leader who stands up to threats from abroad.

While Putin was genuinely popular, he also hedged his bets. Between 2000-2008, he moved to significantly limit freedom of speech and other civil rights. He helped Kremlin-friendly oligarchs gain control of major media outlets and went after independent journalists, particularly those who reported on corruption. As you read last time, in 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote a series of exposés about atrocities committed by the Russian army in Chechnya, was murdered, and her killers were never caught. The same year, the human rights NGO Memorial, which was started by former Soviet dissidents, was forced to register as a “foreign agent” because it accepts funding from international sources. Official harassment has continued since then, but Memorial has found new ways to continue its operations. Protest leaders also remained vocal, including Boris Nemtsov, a Yeltsin-era politician who became an oppositionist under Putin, and Alexei Navalny, a blogger who has made it his mission to uncover corruption in Putin’s government.

The Russian constitution limits presidents to two terms. Interestingly, Putin has so far respected the letter of this law. In 2008, he stepped down and his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. When Medvedev won, he appointed Putin Prime Minister and they operated as a “tandem.” During this time, the Duma voted to extend presidential terms to six years. When Putin announced he was running again in 2008, the prospect of 12 more years with him in charge was enough to get protesters out in the streets for the first time since 1991. Putin still won that election, and a second term in 2018. But despite new restrictions on free speech and the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the protest movement has not gone away.

This brings us to a point that I think is really important, though often hard for American students to understand. Russians know that what they have is not democracy. And a lot of them are really bothered by this. But at the same time, after Russia’s experiences of the 1990s—both domestically and internationally—many Russians have come to feel that “real” democracy either isn’t worth it or isn’t a luxury they can afford. The only stability and national pride they have experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union has come during Putin’s presidency. The persistence of protests seems to indicate that may be starting to change, but it hasn’t done so yet.

Since Putin returned to the presidency, foreign policy issues have heated up significantly. In 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Western president negotiated an Association Agreement with the EU, but that November, he lost an election to a pro-Russian candidate. When the new president announced Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Agreement, protesters took over Maidan Square in Kiev. The protests continued from November 2013 to February 2014, when the parliament deposed the president. He fled to Russia, and Ukraine turned back to the EU. Russia responded by annexing Crimea, which is home to a large population of ethnic Russians, and more importantly, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This sparked a civil war in Eastern Ukraine, which is ongoing. Ukraine expected help from the West, but while there has been some saber-rattling and economic sanctions, it’s become clear the West is not willing to intervene militarily.

Bolstered by this success, in September 2015 also Russia intervened in the ongoing Syrian civil war, where American troops were already engaged. Putin’s aim seems to have been to demonstrate that Russia has returned to great power status and no longer has to accept terms set by the West, as it did in the 1990s. Both the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria have significantly boosted his domestic approval ratings. Many Russians feel he has served them well by returned to Russia the dignity it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The other foreign policy event we surely cannot avoid is Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election and 2017 French presidential election. Analysts agree that in both cases, Russian maneuvers had little effect on the outcome. The larger impact has been the damage done to international relationships. Particularly in the US, politicians have been quick to blame everything on Russia, rather than deeper systemic issues, and consequently, bilateral relations have descended into mutual enmity. Clearly, both sides played a role in this breakdown. The real question is not who is at fault, but rather, what it will mean for geopolitics going forward.

Over the past 20 years, Russian pop culture has responded to Putin’s presidency, with some artists praising him and others protesting. As you no doubt gathered from their video, the group Singing Together are big fans of Putin. It’s worth noting that the Kremlin did not commission “A Man Like Putin,” though it surely helped the group’s career. On the other side, Pussy Riot has been a thorn in Putin’s side since 2011. Pussy Riot is both an art collective and a punk band, and our textbook gives you a good overview of their most famous creation, “Punk Prayer,” which they staged in 2012. While many Russians disapproved of Pussy Riot’s actions, they also felt that the two-year prison sentence was too harsh. Additionally, the trial brought unwelcome international attention to the fragile state of free speech in Russia. The two who had been imprisoned were freed a couple months early, in honor of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. As you can see from the second video, they returned immediately to making protest art. The third video, “Chaika” (2016), criticizes Russia’s Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and demonstrates both Pussy Riot’s continuity and its evolution.

There is one last development I should mention. Putin’s two-term limit is coming up again in 2024. In January, he announced a referendum on a constitutional amendment to consolidates the authority of the State Council, which was previously an advisory body. Russia watchers suspect that Putin may have himself installed as head of this council so he can continue to run the country indefinitely without being subject to further elections.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. In The Invention of Russia, Arkady Ostrovsky argues that the Russian media, which is dominated by the state and by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, has played a major role in shaping how contemporary Russians think about Putin, their country, and themselves as Russians. He goes so far as to say the media acts like a drug and manipulates people’s sense of reality. This may remind you of Stalin Era propaganda (Ostrovsky invites us to make that comparison). But do you think that it’s possible to control people’s worldview so thoroughly in the 21st century? Russia’s media landscape is thoroughly constrained, but at the same time, this is the age of the internet. How might the Russian media’s tactics convince Russians not to believe alternate narratives? Or could it have the opposite effect and drive some people to seek alternate narratives? How does this situation compare to our own situation, where the media is free, but we worry about “alternate facts” and “fake news”?

2. Ostrovsky explains that while Putin initially won over educated Russians by ensuring their financial stability in the 2000s, once they got comfortable enough, they started to want political rights, too. The middle class wanted a role in politics, but they didn’t trust political parties. Make a close reading of Ostrovsky’s take on this situation, and particularly his description of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny on pp. 308-311. Can you unpack the nature of this protest movement? Do you think it has the potential to unseat Putin in the long term? Or is it too diffuse in its aims? How does this movement compare to the protests that Anna Litveiko took part in in 1917 or the protests staged by Soviet dissidents in the 1960s?

3. In Ostrovsky’s view, the real purpose of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and provocation of a civil war in Eastern Ukraine has been to bolster Putin’s approval ratings. And it worked. But it has also encouraged a rising tide of nationalism. Ostrovsky warns, “Russia is running the risk of overdosing on hatred and aggression.” (Ostrovsky, 322) Can you unpack this claim? What are the actual dangers of encouraging such virulent nationalism? How might it affect Putin and Russia as a whole in the future?

4. Russia’s intervention in Syria is a slightly different story. Here, Putin has taken aim specifically at the West, demanding that the US and Western Europe recognize Russia as a world power and an equal. In part, this attitude has come about because the West has not treated Russia with much respect since the end of the Cold War. NATO and the EU have expanded into Eastern Europe and even taken in former Soviet republics like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. On global issues from the “war on terror” to the Arab Spring, the West has not taken Russia very seriously as a strategic partner. In your analysis, how could the West have done a better job in its approach to geopolitics and avoid the adversarial relationship it has with Russia today? Would it have been possible in the long term to make Russia into an ally rather than an enemy? Why or why not?

5. Putin’s “Speech at the Munch Conference on Security Policy,” which dates from 2007, gives us insight into how he views Russia’s relationship to the West. He denounces the idea of a unipolar world order, and the United States in particular for presuming to act as the world’s policeman. On this point, he says, “Russia—we—are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.” (Putin, web) It’s obvious that Putin’s goal is to make the US look bad. But, even so, does he have a point? Is it bad for global peace when one country has a disproportionate amount of power? Should the US, and all countries, use force only when supported by a UN resolution? Considering Russia’s actions since 2014, do you think Putin himself believes this in all cases?

6. Further on, Putin addresses the issue of NATO expansion. Find the paragraph that begins “The Adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe was signed in 1999.” Make a close reading of that paragraph and the next five. Can you unpack Putin’s thoughts here? What exactly is his grievance against NATO? Is this just about missiles, or is there something more? What does he mean when he says that Russia chose “a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family”? Is this just politicking, or do you detect an element of sincerity?

7. Putin gets very defensive in the Q&A, particularly on the issue of Russia’s arms deals with Iran. Find the paragraph that begins “Well, first of all, I do not have data that in the 1990s…” Review his full statement on this issue. Can you unpack what’s going on here? How does Putin defend Russia’s actions? Does he convince you that Russia has done nothing wrong? Part of his argument is that Russia has behaved no differently than the US. What do you make of this line of argumentation? What does it reveal about how Putin views US-Russia relations?

8. Later in the Q&A, Putin responds to the question of developing new weapons technology. Find he paragraph that begins, “Fine question, excellent!” Make a close reading of that paragraph and the next three. Concentrate on not just what Putin is saying, but how he says it. What does this answer reveal about Putin as a politician? How does it fit with Ostrovsky’s analysis of how Putin maintains his popularity and power?

9. Analyze the music video “A Man Like Putin.” In this pop culture construction, what kind of a man is Putin? What personal and political qualities do the singers praise him for? How do they use actual clips of Putin to help create this image? What are the pros and cons of this “macho man” persona for Putin, when the song first came out in the 2000s and today?  

10. In the “Punk Prayer,” Pussy Riot uses two very different types of music: punk rock and traditional Orthodox church singing. How do these two styles interact in the video? How does the juxtaposition of them work to enhance Pussy Riot’s message? Why do you think they chose the form of a “prayer” in the first place? How does this fit with the range of subjects they are protesting in this song? (It may be helpful to go through the video slowly and make a list of all the issues they raise. There are many!)

11. Pussy Riot relies on new media to stage their actions. The “Punk Prayer” is not a straight recording, but a series of cuts edited together and overlaid with a separate audio track. How have new technology and the internet changed the landscape of protest in Russia, a country that lacks a strong commitment to free speech? How has the Internet changed these cultural protesters’ relationship to their audience? Who and where is there audience, and what are the repercussions of that?

12. Pussy Riot likes to stage their actions at significant locations. Consider their use of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and of the 2014 Olympic site in Sochi, venues where they knew they would be attacked by police. What are the pros and cons of this strategy? Do you think it is wise? Why or why not?

13. “Chaika” is a very different production, in terms of the music and the video. Comparing this video to the others, how did Pussy Riot evolve from its origins to 2016? What has changed and what has remained the same in their activism and artistry? How do those changes relate to the consequences of their earlier actions? Do you find the more playful, coherent style of “Chaika” more or less effective than the raw, chaotic, “Punk Prayer” and “Putin Will Teach You To Love”? What are your predictions for Pussy Riot’s future?

12 Replies to “Comrade Chat, Final Edition! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Russia (Week 13, Day 2)”

  1. In response to question #9, the music video “A Man Like Putin” portrays Putin as a strong, reliable, ideal man and leader. The chorus of the song praises Putin for being strong, not a drunk, harmless, and trustworthy. Politically, the singers see Putin as stable and say that even when the world is at crossroads, Putin makes it smooth and easy for them to still go on about their daily lives successfully. He is seen as a praised, respected leader, and the actual images of him help portray this because he is always seen walking in front of big groups and conducts himself in an almost charming way. Some pros of this portrayal are that it makes him more personal to the people and that he is respected without feeling incredibly subordinate. Some cons to this, however, may be that this respect for Putin may come from a fantasized idea and not from his actual policies and implementations.

  2. Pussy Riot has always been known for their extreme forms of activism and public displays of anarchy. The choice to use the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was a very smart choice on their part- regardless of the fact that they were attacked. They knew that using that location would get their message out on an international scale, whether that be good or bad news, it would still make its way into the homes of hundreds of thousands of people. The cons are obviously the fact that they would be attacked. However, I do think its wise. They know exactly what they want and they won’t give it up just because they are physically in danger.

  3. In regards to question #12:

    I think it is extremely powerful for Pussy Riot to stage their protests in very public places. The police presence and particularly, the violence towards them and others in “Putin will teach you to love” is striking. I think these interactions with Russian authorities are exactly what the group is looking for to promote their point. I think it is a very smart strategy. It’s similar to marches in our country for women’s rights or pro-life/pro-choice to host them in Washington D.C. Their point is to bring their issue right to the people who create laws for the national while Pussy Riot is bringing their point right to the members of Putin’s “army” that they oppose. Once they get the reaction they want, it further pushes their narrative. I think the true downside is the punishment that you take for these actions but to protesters like Pussy Riot, that seems to be just part of the process. Russia’s best play against this would likely be to ignore it as their interference has only brought Pussy Riot more international publicity, like them being jailed for 2 years highlighting Russia’s free speech limitations.

  4. 12. Pussy Riot likes to stage their actions at significant locations. Consider their use of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and of the 2014 Olympic site in Sochi, venues where they knew they would be attacked by police. What are the pros and cons of this strategy? Do you think it is wise? Why or why not?

    The reconstruction of the cathedral happened at the same time the old Soviet anthem was revived. A lot of people were uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of these two things as they were in direct contrast with one another. Putin did not care. Years later when Pussy Riot decided to perform at a place like this. It’s a very intentional choice. They are already making a point by being there. Additionally the Olympic site is a very prominent and famous venue. There are both places where there will be a lot of foot traffic in addition to those intentionally attending these events. It’s particularly antagonizing to the police to be in these high profile sites. There is a guarantee that police will come to these sites when Pussy Riot is staging their actions here. This only adds to the attention the band garners. It also makes the police look bad in the eyes of the people. The police are out there attacking artists who are just trying to do their thing. Performing in places of significance to Russian society has the effect of double attention. And of course this puts a bigger spotlight on the message Pussy Riot is trying to get across.

  5. In response to question five, I believe that Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy really emphasizes the concept of a unipolar world and how the world should have multiple powers to keep a healthy balance, especially if a country does not do as they tell others to do. If we want a world where there is peace each country has to work together to create this and find ways to stop those who try to destroy the possibility of working together and living together. I believe those who listened to Putin at this conference should really believe his words and try to work towards this goal by focusing on multiple powers rather than one. I believe the point of this is really to create a balance between countries so none ever get out of hand and have the most power and control over other countries. Although, I think Putin’s actions sometimes do not reflect what he said at the Munich Conference in 2007 and wants to have power over some countries or take control of certain events in another country, even those actions contradict the idea of peace in a world with everyone working together. I think that Putin might only wish for that scenario if Russia is being threatened directly by another world power, but does not wish to execute it with other countries that he believes he has more power then.

  6. 9.
    I found the music video for ‘A Man Like Putin’ to be quite interesting because the song actually seems to be about Yeltsin. All positive attributes used to describe Putin, sober, strong, and decisive, were criticisms of Yeltsin. While Putin may embody these traits on his own, this is overshadowed by Yeltsin’s presence in the video and failed leadership. Despite the controversy surrounding Putin, he is evidently a source of great nationalistic pride for many. The media used in the video is especially interesting as Putin appears to be a celebrity walking on the red carpet. He is met with applause and encouragement from onlookers. Along with his strength as president, footage assures viewers that he is physically strong enough to fend off those who disagree. Putin’s presidential powers are also a source of pride as he is seen corresponding with western powers, the US and UK. While viewers may not be ‘fans’ of the west, Putin appears capable and loyal to Russians.

  7. #5

    It is certainly bad for global peace if a single nation has a majority of the power. Especially if their economic and military strengths are comparable. Little cooperation or consent can happen if a country has that insurmountable power and thus complicates the legitimacy of a UN resolution. The power of a UN resolution only begins to legitimize armed conflict under the pretense that all countries were mindful of global unity and human rights from the outset of that resolution.

    Russia is no saint in the matter. The 2014 annexation of Crimea is a prime example. Putin’s rhetoric holds weight but is directed at the United States in hostility rather than justice.

    Conflict between permanent members of the Security Council of the UN also complicates the legitimacy of armed conflict from traditional (or former depending on perspective) superpowers as both the United States and Russian Federation are members.

  8. 9.
    In the video, they depict Putin as a man opposite of Yeltsin— a man of strength, sobriety, kindness and loyalty. They praise him for, again, being the opposite of Yeltsin, especially on the part of not being drunk. They use actual clips of Putin to show the characteristics they sing about, that Putin actually is like. For example, when they say he is a man of strength, there are clips of him participating in martial arts. Another where he is courteous when with the Queen of England, and respects her space and does NOT touch her (one of the rules I believe). Overall, the clips show him to be a true gentleman and a good leader.

  9. Question 5:

    I do not think Putin has a point as not only do I feel that “global peace” is unachievable but I do not feel that the United States has a “disproportionate” amount of power. While it is undeniable that the US has an immense amount of power in comparison to other countries around the world, it is also undeniable that other countries (like Russia) do as well. Putin is trying to paint the US as an imperialistic state that operates on a false form of democracy. As a traditionalist and a conservative, I believe that the world does need what Putin calls “a policeman” that attempts to maintain the closest thing to “world peace” possible. I feel that the debate over American imperialism is one that should be dismissed quickly, but the words of those like Putin in this speech keep it alive. While I do support the concept of force only being used upon approval of the UN, I feel that I may be part of the last of a dying breed that still encourages American exceptionalism. However, based on the fact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not approved by the UN, but their movement into Ukraine was, I personally have trouble getting a read on Putin’s thoughts on this matter.

  10. I would like to respond to Question #9. In this song, Putin is idealized as the perfect man. He is seen to be nothing like the “troublesome” Yeltshin and that is why he is so admired in this hit. They depict him to be not only wise and respectful, but also relatable; hence, the cool handshake his lookalike is seen to do at the end of the video. Also, throughout the video, they use real life clips of Putin to exemplify both his popularity and the positive characteristics he has which is seen to make him a good leader for Russia. I believe this “macho man” image benefits Putin because it shows that his people look up to him and see him to be someone that no one should mess with; however, this image the song is depicting is very opinionated so it might not be taken serious outside of Russia.

  11. In answer to #1:

    I believe it is very easy to control people’s worldview in the 21st century, namely because the basis is to create a sense of distrust in other sources of information. It is easy to control someone’s thoughts when they believe only one source contains the truth. When they are confronted with facts, many then refuse to believe them because their entire belief system has been built on a sense that everyone is out to get them and they can only count on a select view to show them the way things really are (There is a striking similarity here to a few presidentially-friendly news outlets in the U.S.). In Putin’s Russia, his political capital from the early 2000s particularly comes into play here. The knowledge that he had helped Russia rebuild in the past and is rebuilding a nation to once again become a global superpower is consoling to many, and I’m sure that it leads many to overlook the criminally corrupt acts he has committed while everybody was busy looking somewhere else. The fact that we are once again in an age that somewhat pits Russia vs. the West undoubtedly helps the media control Russia to the liking of Putin and various Russian oligarchs, as it creates an environment fed by fear and anger of and towards the rest of the world, feeding a unique type of conservative nationalism within Russia.

    In answer to #3:

    The dangers of fueling this nationalism are evident in what we have discussed so far this semester. Firstly, there is the extreme comparison to the French Revolution dying to be made. If the leadership is not careful in confining the media so as to be harmless to themselves, they risk enabling others to point fingers which might eventually circle back to those in control of said government and media. I’m sure Putin does not like the idea of becoming the 21st century Russian equivalent of Maximilien Robespierre. The second danger is that it can fuel the opposition to Putin and fan the flames of appeal towards a return to the Soviet Union. In Dr. Shaugnessy’s “Two Germany’s” class, we discussed how many in the former GDR have an urge to return to the days where they were a separate country before reunification, particularly since reunification meant major job loss in many regions of the former GDR. With the current economic troubles in Russia, and across the world, I would say that if Putin does not address many of the issues Russia has with swiftness, the media will not matter. Just as in 1917, people will demand a change, and with the connections many protests have with each other, I would not be surprised if Russians looked towards what Czechslovakia was trying to achieve in Prague Spring in having a sort of Socialist democracy, bringing back many popular programs of the USSR combined with a renewed sense of national pride. However, in this dream-like hypothetical, it could easily be corrupted just as happened with Stalin and Putin without a strong leadership figure who is willing to peacefully turn over power without him or herself being compromised in some way as Yeltsin was.

  12. Question 9
    In this song, Putin is described as everything Yeltshin was not. The main part of the song was describing how Putin was strong, not a drunk. Politically I believe they praise him by saying he won’t run away from power when times get tough, and won’t hurt the Russian people because of the great man he is. Actual clips used in this video help convince the viewers see how great of a person and leader Putin actually is like they are saying throughout this song. The “macho man” persona prortrayed during this song benefits Putin in a way that people will begin to trust him and know that he will be a great leader for them to rely on. This could be negative for him today in a way because this song doesn’t seem very serious, and especially could be seen as a joke.

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