by Kate Graber
On the eve of a U.S. presidential election in which Russia and its presidential figurehead have loomed “yuge,” it is perhaps time for some observations about that central action figure of Russian political communication, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
A lot has been written about Putin in English, including biographies by journalists and scholars. They vary in their foci, many locating his rise to power in his personal background or connections, others locating it in the nature of the Russian people. There is also Putin’s own autobiography, which he insists is a “frank” (it’s in the freaking title of the book) and transparent view into his personhood—more on which later. Closer to CaMP anthropologists’ interests, Eliot Borenstein often writes provocatively and entertainingly about the intersections of Russian presidential and cultural politics on NYU’s Jordan Center blog. Nothing that I say here should be taken as evidence that Putin is bad or good, or that his very personal style of political communication is bad or good. As a linguistic anthropologist, I’m interested instead in the content, context, and form of what he says and the cultural significance of those features of talk.
Why Putin? It should (but, sadly, does not) go without saying that Russian political life is far more diverse than what is broadcast by the Kremlin or captured in media coverage of “Putin’s Russia.” Personally, I am less interested in the centers of power than in what’s going on in the rest of Russia, particularly those regions well east of the Urals. There are all sorts of fascinating daily struggles in Omsk and Bratsk and Magadan that reveal more about what it is to be human—and perhaps more about power—and have little to do with what happens in Moscow. But what are you going to do? Russia’s relationship to the U.S. and its political future has increasingly been invested in the person of the president, often in laughably tangible form (again). So here we are.
Putin’s face has popped up onto my screen on a regular basis for the past 12 years, not because I was seeking it out, but just by chance, in the course of my research on minority media in Russia. For some of those years, Medvedev was president and Putin technically played second fiddle as prime minister, but somehow Putin appeared nearly nightly anyway. Now consider for a moment, if an outside researcher like me has accidentally watched that much of Putin for that long, how much more of him a Russian citizen living within Russia has seen. Television is the main medium by which contemporary Russians get their news, over radio, newspapers, or internet sources by a large margin. Most households in Russia have more than one television set, one in the living room and a second or third in the kitchen or a multi-use bedroom. Two broadcasting networks, the Rossiia network of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company and the majority-government-owned Channel One, produce most of the daily political, economic, and cultural news that Russians watch. Now, it would be easy to assume that this news is overwhelmingly positive in its portrayal of the president. It is, but Putin is not without his critics. Nor is he the only actor in Russian politics guilty of (or successful at) “media manipulation.” Let’s leave aside for a second the question of whether this is orchestrated positivity or not, and just assume that if nothing else, yes, Putin has some control over how he presents himself on television. What is it that Russian viewers then see?
On camera, Putin is unfailingly calm, cool, and collected. He is a study in controlled gestures, measured pauses, and an infamously steady (sometimes steely) gaze. Whatever you think of his positions and policies, you have to admit that the guy exudes quiet confidence.
There are some important elements of Putin’s communicative style that are so different from U.S. presidential style that you might not put them in the same framework. When Putin’s PR team circulated photographs of him riding bare-chested on horseback through Tuva, or tranquilizing and tagging an Amur tiger in Russia’s Far East, U.S. audiences were bewildered and amused. Presumably they found this brazen machismo anathema to presidential politics (which now seems ironic, given the machismo that has appeared in uses of “locker room talk” and hyper-sexualized male discourse within the soon-to-be-finally-over U.S. presidential election, and anyone suspicious of why gender norms are being used as tools of authority-building in a U.S. presidential election should read Valerie Sperling’s book on similar issues in Russia).
Some scholars and clever pundits have observed that such performances are geared not toward an international audience as much as to a domestic one. Or rather, they are geared toward a domestic audience via an international performance. Putin is showing a Russian audience that he is taken in the West as a tough guy or the ultimate action man. And it largely works. But if you look only at the action man imagery, you miss an important element of Putin’s communicative style.
In Putin’s appearances on Russian television, he spends a lot of his airtime listening.
He sits beside or behind a heavy-looking wooden table or desk, usually flanked by the Russian flag and looking official, as he speaks with one of his ministers or advisers, or occasionally a regional political actor such as the governor of one of the vast Russian state’s many provinces. You-the-viewer watch the other person talk, sometimes at great length. Sometimes you then see Putin respond, quietly and firmly, and sometimes not. Sometimes you watch the ministers waver, nervously averting their eyes or cringing under Putin’s quiet gaze. Within these variations, however, there is a solid genre of news broadcasts about Russia’s president: you always watch Putin engage in a face-to-face conversation, staged as though it were between equals, in which he primarily listens.
Is this another iteration of machismo, in that Putin comes across as the quintessential “strong, silent type”? I would argue no. He engages in what is often called “active listening,” reacting to the speaker, following his partner’s gaze and lead, occasionally nodding slightly or otherwise providing some uptake. He is paying attention. If anything this is the type of thoughtful, sustained listening stereotypically attributed to women.
You don’t have to take my word for it; you can watch an example of a Rossiia broadcast from Thursday of Putin meeting with the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinskii. Medinskii briefs Putin on plans for the current and coming year, updating him on construction projects at the Moscow Philharmonic and Malyi Theatre and the state of funding for infrastructure. You don’t have to understand anything that’s being said in Russian to appreciate the visual details of context, gesture, and comportment. Sitting opposite one another in ornate chairs in a wood-paneled office, Putin and the minister lean forward, their hands on the table. The minister provides informational sheets; Putin appears to read or study images. The minister holds Putin’s gaze; Putin meets his eyes and nods. The minister talks; Putin listens.
Of course, there’s plenty of airtime of Putin speechifying on news programming too. He holds press conferences, gives interviews, and leads ceremonies of state. Television coverage marked the occasion of Friday’s Unity Day (a holiday celebrating the unity of varied religious traditions, ethnicities, and, yes, Crimea within a single Russian state) with Putin speaking in Moscow. But the daily news is at least as likely to include an instance of this genre of Putin in face-to-face conversation, and it is a far greater share of what Russians see their president do on a regular basis than riding bare-chested through Tuva.
What does he accomplish by having his television audience watch him listen?
When Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times in 2013 and claimed sole authorship of it, American commentators saw it as a risky or outrageous move to speak directly to the people of the U.S. But Fiona Hill correctly observed that it was also a way of demonstrating his abilities to “work with” or “communicate with people,” and to “work with information”—points of personal pride that she traced to his years in the KGB. Wherever his motivations come from and whatever is in his head, the directness of address that Putin achieved in his op-ed is also on display in his routine performance of active listening. Although the listening events are staged, the content of the conversation itself always appears spontaneous. Putin is getting this information now—and in your living room, you’re watching him digest it.
In both the U.S. and Russia (and elsewhere), heads of state are often televised in face-to-face conversation, often seated in armchairs and looking relaxed. Likely we-the-viewing-audience are supposed to be reassured that our political leaders are getting along, that they have not angrily stormed out of meetings or committed a faux pas at last night’s dinner that will accidentally result in a war. Similarly, Putin’s cordial conversations with ministers telegraph that all is well with the gears of power.
Listening like this also suggests to the audience that the president is not acting carelessly or alone, but intelligently and under good advisement. I remember commenting once to a friend in Buryatia, a political activist who opposed most of Putin’s and Medvedev’s policies, that state television news seemed to feature a lot of Putin listening. I expected him to respond cynically, perhaps by saying that Putin would do whatever he wanted anyway, or that this was just an elaborate act. “Well, he’s a very smart guy,” he said instead, “and smart guys listen.”
Hmm. I think the reason I noticed how much Russian television audiences were seeing of Putin in these interactions is that American television audiences rarely watch U.S. politicians listen. In fact, we rarely watch extended face-to-face interactions between domestic leaders of any sort. It is part of what makes televised debates so communicatively peculiar: we watch leaders who are otherwise televised talking instead listen to one another, and to the moderator or ordinary citizens in town halls, for extended stretches of time. During the U.S. presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, social media overflowed with discussion of their respective “listening faces.” Eyebrows and lips were dissected like no one had ever seen the candidates listen before (though in fact there was plenty of material on Clinton on this point). CNN reported that Clinton had carefully crafted her “listening woman” face, as though that were surprising.
Anthropology is at its best when we excavate not only the cultural assumptions informing some weird thing those foreign-Other-type people do, but also our own unexamined expectations. My friend in Buryatia had never noticed how much time he spent watching his president listen, and I had never noticed how little I spend watching mine do anything but talk.
On the other hand, I do like talk.
Kate Graber is a linguistic anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. When not mulling over Putin’s taste in chairs, she researches minority media, language politics, materiality, and value, especially in Siberia and Mongolia.