President Vladimir Putin overdosed on dramaturgiya with his conservative values project
Russian elections used to be all about dramaturgiya, meaning an artificial and carefully-scripted drama. Elections may not have had the normal interest, like an uncertain outcome, but they buzzed with all the drama of artificial conflict. In fact, one of the tricks of local “political technology” was to deliver emotive narratives to marginalise subjects that the Kremlin didn’t want to see discussed.
The 2018 presidential election, however, isn’t just boring. It’s devoid of any politics at all. If it is about anything, it’s about the politics of nothingness. It may therefore apparently not be worth paying too much attention, but dramaturgiya has been a functional part of the Russian political system for over 20 years, and it’s not clear how things will work without it.
Under “Putinism”, dramaturgiya became the key means of maintaining Putin’s mega-rating, at 70 percent or more. This wasn’t about popularity in a bipartisan system like the USA, where the leader hovers either side of 50 percent. It was about creating and maintaining what the political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky and others used to call the “Putin majority”. Seventy percent or 80 percent was the level of loyalty that was expected in the system; a degree of opposition in discredited 1990s circles or amongst the intelligentsia mattered little, so long as the “majority” was intact.
The majority marginalized other voices, but most importantly it aligned political elites via a loyalty test to the script of the dramaturgiya. Political debate was replaced by a virtual chorus. The majority functioned as a post-modern equivalent of Václav Havel’s greengrocer in his well-known 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”. Back in the era of Leonid Brezhnev and Gustav Husák, it didn’t matter whether Havel’s conformist really believed in the slogan he was supposed to put in his window (“Workers of the world unite”) – what mattered was his display of loyalty to the official party line. The modern-day Kremlin script functions in the same way. It’s pointless to ask whether the Russian elite actually believe all the tropes, myths, propaganda and downright lies. The point is their loyalty to the overall narrative, and maintaining the closed circle of its reproduction.
One final change is that the record got stuck. In the 1990s, political technologists never really played the same trick twice. Since 2012, the refrain has constantly been foreign enemies, orchestrated by the USA, and channelled by the domestic fifth column. And in so far as the script didn’t change too much, its intensity changed instead.
If Gleb Pavlovsky was one of the original architects of the system, one reason why he fell out of favor in 2011 was that he began to warn of the dangers of over-mobilization, and of creating too many enemies. When I interviewed him in 2007, he said, “We have to prepare tranquilization, not mobilization”. And by 2011, Pavlovskii was in the Dmitry Medvedev camp. He thought he had saved Russia, job done.
But the Medvedev project was beset by internal tensions. Medvedev was designed to be a virtual liberal, but protesters wanted him to act like a real one. He was supposed to de-mobilize protest potential, but the spark for the Bolotnaya protests was the desire for a first term of rhetoric to be succeeded by a second term of action.
What the protesters got instead was reaction. Putin overdosed on dramaturgiya with his conservative values project in 2012, and we have been living with the consequences ever since. The Kremlin was grappling with the need for internal-external enemies after Putin’s re-election, even before the crisis in Ukraine. Who now remembers the row about American foster parents? Then confrontation with Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, sanctions and constant rows with the west took things to a whole new level. Ukraine segued into Syria. And America was always the Great Satan. But now we have nothing.