Putin as culture warrior
For many years Putin was a sort of blank canvas, and imposing competence and rationality seemed like the natural thing to do. Early commentators constantly talk about his non-descriptness, apart from a few surprising word choices, and an image one gets of him is as a sort of political martial artist, using others’ effort against them without straining himself, whether that be quietly letting Germany have oil or whatever happened with the US and Trump.
But his recent actions should maybe make us change our minds about that. In the last thirty days he’s given two long, rambling speeches about the ills of the west, accusing it of things like ‘satanism’ or of attempting to ‘cancel’ Russia or banning the phrases ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ for ‘parent one’ and ‘parent two’ (in fairness, it wasn’t all like that, and much was in line with his often-expressed views about the west; but I’m only concentrating on the stranger things here). Large chunks of those speeches seem not like the product of a hyperrational world-leader, but like the rantings of the proverbial family member who watches too much Fox.
This has been pointed out: people have noted that for a very powerful world leader Putin’s rhetoric sure does seem to retread right-wing talking points and a very good article I can’t find right now points out that the ‘parent 1’ rhetoric/conspiracy theory is directly taken from Georgia Meloni.
My aim here is to further make the case for this view, thus lending support to the idea that when Putin says or does something weird, it’s not some n-dimensional chess we can’t figure out, but just might be an old man-yells-at-cloud type deal. Maybe it’s time to update our mental models, if we haven’t already done so, of Putin as a rational and deliberate actor, at least sometimes.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t serious: indeed, it might mean it’s even more serious, since most people who yell at clouds don’t have nukes, but nevertheless it’s good to know who the world is dealing with.
I will do so by concentrating on one, admittedly small, bit of Putin’s rhetoric from around the last year, the idea of cancel culture. I’ll suggest the best picture we have of why he talks about it is not that he’s giving voice to some deeply held and thought out theory of the world, but is just parroting things he heard from various sources, and producing something barely coherent.
A couple of days ago, Putin’s speech enlisted, bizarrely, Dostoyevsky as an unlikely fighter against cancel culture. The relevant text reads:
At one time, the Nazis reached the point of burning books, and now the Western “guardians of liberalism and progress” have reached the point of banning Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky. The so-called “cancel culture” and in reality — as we said many times — the real cancellation of culture is eradicating everything that is alive and creative and stifles free thought in all areas, be it economics, politics or culture
Fyodor Dostoyevsky prophetically foretold all this back in the 19th century. One of the characters of his novel Demons, the nihilist Shigalev, described the bright future he imagined in the following way: “Emerging from boundless freedom, I conclude with boundless despotism.” This is what our Western opponents have come to. Another character of the novel, Pyotr Verkhovensky echoes him, talking about the need for universal treason, reporting and spying, and claiming that society does not need talents or greater abilities: “Cicero’s tongue is cut out, Copernicus has his eyes gouged out and Shakespeare is stoned.” This is what our Western opponents are arriving at. What is this if not Western cancel culture?
Quite the connection! We have cancel culture as modern day book burning, a fact anticipated by Dostoyevsky. Is Putin giving voice to a deep understanding of one of Russia’s great writers? Or: is he not doing that?
Before answering that, let’s look at some other ways he’s talked about ‘cancel culture’. A pretty notorious one came at the end of March when, responding to the fact that people had stopped hosting Russian art in response to the invasion, he said:
Today they are trying to cancel the whole thousand-year-old country our people speak of progressive discrimination of everything associated with Russia the trend is working unfolds in the ranks of the Western states and with the full connivance of the ruling elites notorious… cancel culture has turned into the cancellation of culture … Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Russian writers of their books are also prohibited…the last time such a massive campaign to destroy objectionable literature almost 90 years ago, the Nazis carried out Germany not so long ago they canceled the children’s writer Joanne Rowling, author of books that have sold around the world hundreds of millions of copies did not please fans of the so-called gender freedom (here, my italics: the hardcoded English subs are better than this autotranslate)
One must say this is simply weird. We have: Dostoyevsky, Nazis, Rowling, and the refusal to play Russian music after the invasion all brought together as cancel culture. It’s hard to see the coherence, and at least superficially gives the impression of someone drawing connections where connections aren’t there.
There’s a core idea — the current rejection of Russian culture and the Nazi book burning. In October, we get an elaboration in terms of Dostoyevsky; in March, in terms of Rowling and arguments about gender. Can we explain this strange collection of ideas?
I think we can. Take first Rowling. Why is one of the most powerful people in the world apprised of what, for want of a better word, is social media bullshit?
Well, going back a few months to December of 2021, we maybe see an answer. In a press conference, a question Putin was asked began:
“My question is about system-wide problems in Western society that you spoke about recently. This is cancel culture, rejection of usual concepts like “mum,” “dad,” “family” and even “gender.” You might have heard that Joan Rowling also got her share when even Harry Porter actors ganged up on her because of her radical stance that a woman is a woman and a man is a man.”
Here’s my theory: he hears this question, learns about Rowling, and subsequently, just by that chance encounter, the Rowling talk enters his vocabulary. When he talked in March, he was parroting some half-remembered thing a reporter had mentioned a few months ago, in exactly the same way the proverbial relative rehashes talking points at the dinner time. He was not giving voice to a deep and coherent theory of the world.
Why think this? Well, of course it’s speculative that he picked up the Rowling reference from the journalist, but: come on, in what world is Nazi book burning like people on Twitter getting mad on social media? The best explanation is that he’s just saying stuff without considering it (again, not best in the sense that it’s good for the world: one doesn’t want one’s relative to have nukes.) Many of us do this; it’s just that not many of us are world leaders.
Something similar applies to Dostoyevsky. In the speech, he thanks his aides for finding the quotations. Here’s my theory: he hears the quotations, thinks: that sounds like cancel culture talk, and, without further investigation, says it to millions.
That’s the best explanation, because if you look at the context of the quotations, you’ll see they have nothing to do with anything like ‘cancel culture’. In that context, the talk of Cicero, Shakespeare, and Copernicus is about the idea is that in the name of equality we shouldn’t allow some to be put on a pedestal at others’ expense (at least, that’s what the speaker is conveying at that moment — exactly to whom if anyone one should attribute that idea in the book is unclear.)
(Incidentally, here’s both a weak point and a strong point of my view: December 2021 isn’t the first time Putin talked about ‘cancel culture’. This is, so he clearly knew the term before connecting it with Rowling, so we can’t say he learned it from the journalist; on the other hand, in the linked talk he explicitly mentions Shakespeare. I suggest that a through-time model of Putin’s concept of ‘cancel culture’ would be : <Shakespeare, anti-LGBTQ>==><Rowling, anti-LGBT>==><Rowling, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Russianness>==><anti-Russianness, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare> with the bard dropping in and out of the fuzzy concept through time. In any event, it doesn’t seem like an instance of clear and precise thinking, and that in itself seems at least moderately noteworthy given the attention people pay to how Putin speaks and thinks.)
Moreover, although the ills of enlightenment values like rationality are a core theme of Dostoyevsky’s work, it’s at least hard to see where something like cancellation fits in. ‘The nihilist Shigalev’ is the paradigm Dostoyevsky character driven by reason to absurdity and crime, but his idea — which is that pursuing socialist equality rationally will drive one, by the laws of nature, into a bizarre dystopian world in which 90% are slaves to a small set of masters — just seems to have nothing to do with any and all of Nazis, Russian culture, and Rowling. (Entirely unrelated to this, but I’ve written a fair bit about nihilism in Russian literary culture, if you want more information about a very interesting bit of intellectual history.)
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously talked about bullshit in political discourse: it’s speech that is unconcerned for truth and falsity. Putin’s speech and thinking about at least cancel culture gives every sign, it seems to me, of being bullshit, and supports the idea that in listening to his seemingly increasing diatribes, the model of whom you’re listening to shouldn’t be the geopolitical and rhetorical expert, but an angry person speaking in not-very-coherent anger. And if that’s so, you should expect different things from him, as you expect different things — in theory — from your leaders and your Facebook relatives.