“The West” in Linguistic Construction of Russian-ness in Contemporary Public Discourse




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“The West” in Linguistic Construction of Russian-ness in Contemporary Public Discourse

Lara Ryazanova-Clarke


For centuries, the notion of the ‘West’ has occupied a special place in public narratives about the Russian national self. It is the ‘West’ that was calling Peter the Great to embark on his ‘grand embassy’, after which he implemented his interpretation of the ‘West’ by building St Petersburg, shaving his subject’s faces, introducing European dress, and establishing а navigation college. It was the ‘West’ that was the cornerstone of the nineteenth century debate between the Westernizers and Slavophiles, sparked by Alexandr Chaadaev’s Philosophical Letters. The answers to the debate’s major question, whether Russia should progress along the road of the European development, drove Russian intelligentsia into two different camps. According to one, Russia was backward, ever catching up with the ‘West’, while the other believed in the Russian special path and spiritual light and contrasted it to the morally decadent ‘West’. The twentieth century grand narratives of Russia and the West included Vladimir Soloviev and Nikolai Berdiaev’s concept of ‘the Russian idea’, the movement of Eurasianism which originated among the Russian émigrés and the Soviet doctrine of Cold War, a specific form of rejection of the ‘Western’ civilizational route.


The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the post-Soviet Russia did not seem to have dispensed with the centuries-long concepts of Russianness incorporating the notion of the ‘West’. Opening up the country to the outside world, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the narrative of the ‘common European house’, of which he saw Russia to be an equal member, while in 1996, the first president of independent Russia, Boris Yelstin, articulated the need to manufacture a new ‘Russian idea’ and formed a Kremlin think-tank tasked with drafting yet another Russian ‘special path’, the notion further developed under Vladmir Putin’s rule. Thus, the public discourse of contemporary Russia continues to debate and negotiate the imaginative ‘West’: as Vera Tolz notes, the comparison with ‘the West’ has been “the most important ingredient of modern Russian identity”.1


The writings of Stuart Hall may offer some explanation for the Russian preoccupation across the centuries with ‘the West’. Elaborating on Jacque Lacan’s idea of the mirror stage in human psychological development, Hall argues that identity arises from some lack of wholeness in the individual or society, which causes the need for its articulation from outside the self (Hall, 1992: 287). He concludes that “identities are constructed through, not outside, difference, through the relation to the Other.2


Much of contemporary literature has been devoted to cultural, historical and anthropological investigation of ‘the West’ in relation to Russian identity. Tim McDaniel,3 Kathleen Smith,4 Boris Paramonov,5 Dmitry Shalin6 discuss the notion of ‘the West’ over different historical periods as a compound of an unfading myth which Russia constructed and reconstructed for specific purposes of the time. Works debating the ways Russian-ness is reflected in various strata of the Russian language are also numerous7 however a discursive perspective into the analysis of the West in the Russian identity narrative has been applied to a lesser degree. In this regard, Paul Chilton and Mikhail Ilyin’s analysis of the perestroika metaphor of the ‘common European house’ and Zhdanova’s exploration of the notions of чужбина and родина in the languages of Russian speakers in Germany8 are marked exceptions.9 Yet, according to current discourse scholarship, it is the discourse analysis that specifically reveals the ways in which language use is constitutive to institutional practices and social ordering of institutional domains, such as national identity.10 My own studies of the words запад and западный occurring in the corpus of media discourses during the period of Vladimir Putin’s presidency (2000-2008) have confirmed that these words are constantly brought up in conjunction with the narration of the post-Soviet Russianness.11 This essay expands on the above study, dealing with specific discursive strategies employed for the contemporary portrayal of ‘the West’ that contributes as its significant Other to the construction of Russianness.


It has been pointed out that during this period, the public discourse portrayed different versions of Russian identity. The dominant discourse associated with the voice of the authorities has its own picture of Russin-ness which diverges from that depicted by the counter-discursive stream located at the margin of the public space.12 Here, two case studies of contemporary Russian public discourse explore the linguistic construction of ‘the West’ in the narratives of the national self, produced by those discursive streams. The dominant discourse is represented by the programmatic speech given by the chief Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov who was at the time the Deputy Head of Presidential Administration and Aid to the President. His speech of February 2006 was addressed to students of the Centre for “United Russia” party staff development,13 and according to some analyst interpretations, constitutes the central and the most comprehensive articulation of contemporary Russian ideology of power14. The counter-discourse is exemplified by the text “Velikaia reka ekonomiki” by Iuliia Latynina, a famous investigative journalist and a personality connected with the liberal oppositional movements. Latynina writes for the liberal Novaia Gazeta and Kommersant (2006-2007), participates in several internet publications including Gazeta.ru and the demonstratively oppositional electronic Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal and writes scripts for and presents the political phone-in programme Kod dostupa on the free-thinking radio channel “Echo Moskvy”. Known for her criticism of the authorities, in 2004, Latynina was among those who founded the “2008 Free Choice Committee” which openly opposed Vladimir Putin’s government and campaigned for free and democratic presidential elections for 2008. The article in question was published in Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal on May, 22, 2007.


Ascribing meanings from the Kremlin: Russia and ‘the West’ in Vladislav Surkov’s speech


Speaking in front of a next generation of the “United Russia” party leaders, Vladislav Surkov centres his rhetoric upon the contrast between the in- and out-groups, or ‘us’ and ‘them’. His vision of Russia throughout the speech is pitted against ‘the West’, which seems to be evoked and linguistically constructed to both facilitate and complement his articulation of Russianness. In particular, Surkov takes ‘the West’, also phrased as ‘Europeanism’, as a point of departure, thus marking its intrinsic importance for his defining the Russian qualities.


In general, this portrayal of Russianness through the mirror of the significant ‘Other’ incorporates two major strategies with regard to the notion of ‘the West’: one of assimilation and the other, of relativization including the negative presentation. The speech starts with the topos of similarity which allows the speaker to begin constructing his version of Russian identity through the strategy of legitimization: here, the notion of the European civilization is called upon to support Russian validity, cf.: (1) Никакого секрета не открою, если скажу, еще раз повторившись, что Россия – это европейская страна.15 This notwithstanding, the metalinguistic asides and hedges (еще раз повторившись; Никакого секрета не открою), that accompany Surkov’s articulation of commonality give away a good deal of his unease and uncertainty towards this categorization.


(2) Начиная издалека хочу сказать, что развитие европейской цивилизации, частью которой является цивилизация российская, показывает, что люди на протяжении всех наблюдаемых эпох стремились прежде всего к материальному благополучию… 16


Further into the text, within certain domains, Vladislav Surkov maintains the topos of similarity by continuing connecting Russia and ‘the West’, while in others, he turns to the distancing strategy. In (2), in the genuinely post-communist spirit, his argument goes that it is the aspiration towards personal material wealth that is a key characteristic connecting the Russian character with the European civilisation. A far cry from the Soviet rhetoric that vilified the Western bourgeois acquisitiveness and contrary to the centuries-long narratives embedded in Russian culture, claiming the non-material spirituality of the Russian character, it is the prioritisation of material prosperity above all that Surkov now attributes to Russianness. Describing it as natural and noble, the speaker uses the normative framing of ‘the West’: Russia is measured by the Western norms and as a result, the existing status quo of wealth distribution in contemporary Russia looks natural, justified and even equitable.


Despite the strategy of assimilation, the West is also depicted as a corrupter of the Russian materialistic quality. For those oligarchs who move their assets offshore Surkov ascribes to his audience an assumption that those would be placed into the category of the ‘enemy’. According to Surkov’s text, the rich have a duty to get properly integrated in Russian society – and moreover, to become its stalwarts, guarantors of its prosperous future, - but for that ‘наши граждане’ need to undergo a patriotic transformation. The speaker linguistically constructs this transformation by shedding their ironically-hued ‘western’ set of categorisations - nouns of aristocratic titles qualified by attributive references to the foreign offshore lands: оффшорная аристократия ‘offshore aristocracy’, графы Бермудские и князья острова Мэн ‘counts of Bermuda and princes of the Isle of Man’, and by modifying the references by more the ‘nationally coloured’ adjectives: национальная (буржуазия), современная бюрократия (3).


(3) Если наше деловое сообщество не трансформируется в национальную буржуазию, то, конечно, будущего у нас нет. Причем даже называя многих этих людей "оффшорной аристократией", отнюдь не нужно считать их врагами: все эти графы Бермудские и князья острова Мэн наши граждане, у которых есть масса причин так себя вести. […] Трансформировав оффшорную аристократию в национальную буржуазию и постсоветскую бюрократию в современную, успешную, гибкую бюрократию, общество может быть спокойным за будущее нашей страны.17


Surkov’s framing of ‘the West’ receives a further blow as the speaker applies strategies of relativization when it comes to mentioning the more traditional Western characteristics – the democratic rights, freedoms and institutions. Relativization occurs through the strategies of downplaying and minimisation which are manifested in such linguistic devices as the ‘yes – but’ figure, further hedging, and the topos of a small number, among others.


(4) Напомню, что всеобщее избирательное право, всеобщее право участвовать в политической жизни – это изобретение недавнее.18


For example, in (4), the common assumption that the universal right of suffrage and political activism is a ‘Western’ value is relativized by stressing that it has a short history. The democratic right is referred to as изобретение ‘invention’, the noun that is often used to relate a whimsical quality; and modified by the temporal adjective недавнее ‘recent’. The first person speech act of reminding in the clause напомню (‘to remind you’) re-focuses the listeners’ attention on the relativized quality. The mentioning of the short length of the Western democratic tradition can be seen as a version of the ‘small number’ device, a tool of downplaying. Furthermore, novelty has an implication that the Western habit may be untested and unreliable.


(5) Но мы все вроде бы согласны, что изобретение это прогрессивное, и в таких обществах жить и выгоднее, и интереснее. Естественно, человек, у которого есть знания, человек, который может участвовать в той или иной степени (кто-то больше, кто-то меньше) в принятии решений по демократическим процедурам, у такого человека и больше свободы выбора, и больше чувство собственного достоинства.19


As he positively constructs the ‘Western’ principles of democracy in further statements (5), Vladislav Surkov pre-empts that with linguistic hedging: the modal particles вроде бы ‘sort of’ mark uncertainty and the multiple relative markers в той или иной степени (кто-то больше, кто-то меньше) ‘to one degree or another (some more and some less)’ convey the downplaying sense and ultimately cast doubt on the possibility of full democratic participation. In addition, the speaker uses the evasion strategy when he does not mention the basic notions of equality and fairness usually attached to the concept of the ‘Western’ democracy. Instead, the benefits of living in a democratic society are formulated here only as выгоднее ‘more profitable’ and интереснее ‘more interesting’ while the category of participation is linguistically limited to the bureaucratically phrased ‘decisions on procedures’ -- принятие решений по демократическим процедурам – in contrast to the use of the procedures to exercise the people’s will, which is not mentioned here at all.


In implementation of the strategies of avoidance and euphemization towards ‘the Western’ democratic qualities, the noun демократия is replaced by the underspecified term всеобщее право участвовать в политической жизни, and rephrased with pseudo-synonyms, such as технологии, modified by attributes underscoring the manipulative qualities of the described system: сложные, мягкие, изощренные. These linguistic substitutes create an impression that Western democracy is nothing but a craftily managed political manipulation (6).


(6) В связи с этим и социальная технология, и технология власти, и технология самоорганизации общества становятся все более сложными, все более, если угодно, мягкими и изощренными.20


Following the strategy of disassociation of Russia from ‘the West’, Surkov mixes or even swaps around the distinctive attributes that traditionally define Russia/Soviet Union and ‘the West’. Raising the spectre of Soviet sophistry and furnishing his point with the emphatic quantifying prefix сверх- and the particle куда более, he paradoxically attributes to the ‘Western’ democracy more ideology than to totalitarianism: (7) Как ни парадоксально, демократическое общество, по моему мнению, сверхидеологизировано, куда более идеологизировано, чем тоталитарное, где страх заменяет идею.21


As he continues with attribution to ‘the West’ the qualities of unreliability and negativity, Vladislav Surkov explains the Western people’s convictions regarding democracy and human rights with the success of ‘the Western’ propaganda technologies. The metaphoric constructions – the participle unit гвоздями вбиты ‘nailed in’ and the idiom Их ночью разбуди ‘you wake them up at night’ serve as tools of portraying those inhabiting ‘the West’ as passive, brain-washed unthinking experiencers rather than conscientious citizens (8):


(8) И насколько "гвоздями вбиты" основные ценности демократии гражданам США, Англии, Франции. Их ночью разбуди – они вам начнут рассказывать про права человека и так далее.22


While he linguistically downgrades ‘the Western’ notion of democracy surrounding its discourse referent with markers of hesitation, or even recasts it as false, Surkov uses the term демократия ‘democracy’ unreservedly when he moves to talk about Putin’s Russia. It is attributed the quality of being genuine without any possible doubt or evidence and it is described almost ecclesiastically as a word, whose real sense the president personally rediscovers and hands down to institutions: (9) Просто демократия в Россииэто всерьез и надолго; Президент возвращает реальный смысл слова "демократия" всем демократическим институтам.23


As Surkov moves to describing the details of the Russian brand of democracy, it appears that the speaker’s understanding of the term relates not to the post-Communist Russia but only to the period of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The period of the 1990s marked by Boris Yelstin’s presidency, at the time associated with democratic rule, is described here through strategies of demontage and delegitimization. In particular, similar to the narration of ‘the West’, it is qualified as not a democracy: демократия is framed as a failed expectation by the particle phrase вместо того, чтобы ‘instead of’, and is deconstructed by the chain of local antonyms articulating contrast: зоологический период, ‘the zoological period’ олигархия ‘the oligarchy’, придворные интриги ‘court intrigues’, манипуляция ‘manipulation’. The animal metaphor of the first reference is demeaning and by the means of contrast highlights the ‘civilised’, ‘human character’ of the period that followed (10).


(10) зоологический период нашего развития; То есть вместо того, чтобы двигаться к демократии, мы получили то, что справедливо названо олигархией. …В результате все основные идеи демократии были искажены. Вместо общественной дискуссии мы получили сплошные придворные интриги. Мы получили манипуляцию вместо представительства.24


Surkov does not seem to be consistent in his various definitions of democracy that according to the speech both unite and separate Russia and ‘the West’. One such inconsistency occurs when he attempts to establish a connection between the notion of democracy and the Soviet regime, thus revoking and reconstructing legitimacy of the latter. Using the topos of ‘history as a teacher’, he finds roots of the present variant of Russian democracy in the Soviet period and in particular, in the Soviet constitution. The desire of Russians to live in a democracy is interpreted as a movement back in history to the Soviet past, ‘a return’ to the letter of Soviet legislation. Again this is emphasized by the use of first person замечу ‘I will note’: (11) И он (народ) попытался вернуться к демократическим ценностям, которые, замечу, были подробно прописаны в советской конституции.25


The dominant discourse of the Putin era habitually equates the notion of ‘the West’ with globalization and contrasts the commonality of ‘the Western’ globalized world and the uniqueness of Russia. In line with this, Surkov evokes this contrast for the realization of the strategy of demontage towards ‘the West’. Thus, глобализация is presented here as the main threat against a dominant qualifier of the modern day Russian identity, the notion of ‘sovereignty’, assumed here to be fragile, requiring constant protection and guarding. (12) Что касается суверенитета: почему мы, собственно, должны все время о нем помнить и его беречь? Есть такое явление — глобализация.26


In (13), ‘the West’ is thus portrayed to be a source of problems befalling Russia. In particular, demontage of ‘the West’ carries on as Russia is described as a potential victim of international terrorism: the qualifier международный ‘international’ blurs the real, experienced danger of domestic terrorist activity sparked by the conflict in Chechnya with the Western discourse of Muslim terrorism after the September 2001 attacks on Twin Towers in New York. The only hypothetical military clash with an unnamed enemy is also listed among the threats, so here underspecification is employed for depiction of the West as an enemy. Anthromorphic metaphors too contribute to conveying the idea that ‘the West’ is a dangerous Other, against whom it would be prudent to sharpen alertness. In this vein, it is conceptualized here as some predatory entity able to consume other countries as if they were soft food, мягкое поглощение ‘soft swallowing’, while Russia is constructed through the metaphor of a feeble body with a low immunity, unable to resist disease, which arrives from the ‘West’. There is also a rhyming connection between суверенитет at the beginning of the paragraph and иммунитет and the end. This rhyming game perhaps bears specific additional sense coming from Surkov who is also known to be literati and in particular, writing poetry.27


(13) Что угрожает суверенитету как составной части нашей существующей и будущей политической модели? Основные угрозы суверенности нашей нации – это международный терроризм; это (к счастью, пока очень гипотетическая) угроза прямого военного столкновения; …мягкое поглощение по современным "оранжевым технологиям" при снижении национального иммунитета к внешним воздействиям. 28


Finally, Сурков’s discussion of Russian participation in global information systems reveals further still the duality and incoherence of his vision of the place that ‘the West’ takes in relation to Russian identity. As (14) demonstrates, on the one hand, despite building up the sense of ‘the Western’ threat he uses the ameliorative personification in his reference to it as приличное общество ‘a decent society’, which Russia is apparently keen to join. Here we see an element of construction of the ‘West’ within the normative frame, however it is also clear that Russia is to achieve a favourable position in the outside world not by joining but circumventing the norm. To relate this, Surkov’s choice of imagery for depiction alternatives for Russia comes from the arsenal of animalistic metaphors: he imagines the nation either in the role of a spider or a fly. This leads to the understanding that for Russia, the route to ‘the decent society’ and possibilities of engagement with the ‘West’ are limited and can only be achieved through mistrust, watchful one-upmanship, and trickery.


(14) Что касается средств связи, то только прямое участие российских компаний в создании глобальных информационных сетей сможет обеспечить место России в приличном обществе. От этого зависит наш суверенитет, и кто мы в мировой паутине – пауки или мухи.29


Taken Vladislav Surkov’s official role and influence, he is certainly instrumental in developing patterns of identity constructed and perpetuated in the dominant discourse. The pattern that emerges from this case study regards the ‘West’ as a constant comparator against which Russian national qualities are interpreted. While some instances of commonalities are present in the text, the preference for the discursive tools seems to focus on othering, that is, on stressing the distinction of Russia from the ‘West’ with the predominantly negative attribution to the latter. Such discursive construction of the ‘West’ occurs with the implementation of discursive strategies of distancing, demontage and with the production of ambiguity. Specific meanings which attribute to the ‘West’ the normative quality and positive categorizations are overshadowed by the more prominently positioned meanings that negate and relativize the former, while Russia is described as the rival of the West and a vigilant, mistrusting counterpart.

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