Fixing meaning. The many voices of the post-liberal hegemony in Russia
This contribution looks into a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin after the terrorist attack against a high school in the Northern Caucasian town Beslan in September 2004, widely seen as marking the end of the liberal hegemony in the Russia of the post-soviet period. However, a closer look reveals the many possible readings that are made of the speech. According to the reactions found in a corpus of press articles, the speech activates both “internationalist” and “sovereignist” readings in media discourse. By pointing out the polyphonic organization of discourse, I make the case for a productive exchange between the French tradition of discourse analysis, interactionism and critical discourse analysis. In this view, the readers have to deal with the many different voices crisscrossing political discourse. In the light of its polyphonic organization, the meaning of discourse needs to be “fixed” by the participants of political discourse.
1. Introduction: President Putin’s address to the nation after the Beslan massacre
On Wednesday, September 1, 2004, about 30 heavily armed militiamen stormed a high school in Beslan (the capital of North Ossetia, a Caucasian province of the Russian Federation) and took hostage more than 1000 people, among them about 800 children.1 After shooting a dozen male hostages, the attackers, close to the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, mined the gym where they held their victims until Friday September 3. On that day at about 1pm, Russian security forces moved in, trying to take the school by force. In the ensuing battle, almost 400 hostages were killed as well as almost all the attackers.
This traumatizing event marks the climax of a series of terrorist attacks that had shocked Russia since the late 1990s. After the 1999 apartment bombings with almost 300 victims, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin started the second war against Chechnya before becoming President of the Russian Federation a few months later. Other incidents followed, such as the siege of the Moscow Dubrovka Theater in 2002 with almost 200 deaths, or the 2004 metro blasts and aircraft bombings, which occurred just before Beslan. While there is an ongoing controversy over the role played by the Russian government and the secret service in the attacks, it is generally believed that these events paved the way for a new hegemonic constellation during Putin’s presidency (2000–2008). After the neo-liberal hegemony and the implosion of the state in the Yeltsin years, Putin aimed at the resurrection of the Russian state by centralizing the decision-making process, de-activating the Duma, seeking control over “Big Oil” and the oligarchs, and curbing the liberal and democratic achievements of the post-Soviet era. In the aftermath of Beslan, the Kremlin intensified its efforts to consolidate its power over the mass media, the provinces, and corporate Russia. The Beslan attacks were widely seen as crucial events in this shift from a “Western-liberalist” hegemony to what Russian observers sometimes call “Russian” democracy.
On September 4, 2004, just after the bloody end of the Beslan hostage crisis, Putin gave a televised address to the nation in which he declared war on terrorism and promised “the strengthening of the unity of the country,” a “new system for coordinating the forces and resources” as well as “fundamentally new approaches to the actions of the law-enforcement agencies.” In his ten-minute speech, released on the President’s official site (http://www.kremlin.ru/appears/2004/09/04/1752_ type63374type82634_76320.shtml, for excerpts in English see http://news.bbc. co.uk/2/hi/europe/3627878.stm), Putin mourns the victims and their families while giving special prominence to the “many tragic pages and grave experiences” in Russian history. Putin goes on to say that
(1) we live under conditions which have emerged following the break-up of a vast great state, a state which unfortunately turned out to be unable to survive in the context of a rapidly changing world. (2) But despite all the difficulties, we have managed to preserve the core of the colossus which was the Soviet Union. […] (3) We have stopped paying due attention to the question of defense and security, allowed corruption to defeat the legal and law-abiding realm. (4) Moreover, our country — with the most powerful defense system for its exterior frontiers — turned out to be unprotected both by the West and by the East. […] (5) We showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon. (6) Some want to cut off a juicy morsel from us while others are helping them. (7) They are helping because they believe that, as one of the world’s major nuclear powers, Russia is still posing a threat to
certain people, and therefore this threat must be removed. (8) And terrorism is, of course, only a tool for achieving these goals. […] (9) We are dealing here not just with separate actions aimed at frightening us, not just with separate terrorist actions. (10) We are dealing with the direct intervention of international terrorism against Russia, with a total, cruel and full-scale war in which our compatriots die again and again. […] (11) But the main thing is the mobilization of the nation before a common danger. (12) Events in other countries have shown that terrorists received the most effective rebuff when they encounter not only the power of the state but an organized, united civil society.”
It is easy to understand this speech as a move against the “liberalist” hegemony of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, based on “Western” values like individualism, pluralism, tolerance, freedom of enterprise and of expression etc. (cf. Chilton, Ilyin and Mey 1998). Yet, a closer look reveals two competing argumentations which draw from two rather different ideological backgrounds and allow the readers to produce either “sovereignist” or “internationalist” readings or even both at once.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was unable to deal with her internal and external enemies. The terrorist attacks underscore the need for a strong state that defends Russia’s position and interests in the world. Thus, Putin’s address is framed by a “sovereignist” discourse which revolves around the resurrection of the centralizing state and its power. According to such a “sovereignist” reading, Russia has no reliable friends in the outside world; she has to deal with the reality of a fundamentally hostile environment (“unprotected both by the West and the East” (40)).
Yet we can also infer a different reasoning, revolving around the topos of “international terrorism” (10). According to this “internationalist” reading, terrorism is a problem that has afflicted the whole world since 9/11 (“events in other countries” (12)). Therefore, if the U.S. wants to smoke out terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, nobody can prevent Russia from waging war against fundamentalists on her own territory. Moreover, vis-à-vis a “common danger” (11), Russia can expect the solidarity of all who reject terrorism. Therefore, by demonstrating an “organized, united civil society” (12), Russia turns out to be in perfect line with the world community.
Despite his avowed rhetoric of plain talk, Putin seems to play with different frames by means of which readers can construct different, even opposing political messages of the address. By demanding more security and control, Putin draws from two contradictory lines of reasoning that cannot be easily reconciled, i.e. a “sovereignist” and an “internationalist” frame. Thus, as the Russian head of state,
he makes his claim on the ground of the long-lasting conflict between Russia and the West, while demanding at the same time global solidarity in the face of international terrorism. Therefore, depending on the argumentative context, “international terrorism” turns out to have entirely different implications: does “international terrorism” emphasize the need for an even closer rapprochement with the West? Or, quite the contrary, does “international terrorism” not in fact imply another conspiracy against Russia concocted by the West? The question therefore is: can a discourse which means to get across a clear message be built on such shaky ground?
The answer I will give in this contribution is clearly affirmative. Political discourse can be ambiguous, vague and even contradictory. Ambiguity and contradiction is even strategically deployed in order to address multiple publics. What is more, the plurality of readings that can be made of talk and texts is an inherent quality of discourse which it is impossible to get around, however much we just want to use plain talk, to couch our thoughts in clear words and to dismiss any doubts.
I therefore want to plea for a discourse pragmatic approach to discourse accounting for the inherently unstable character of meaning and discourse. Inspired by the poststructuralist critique of the speaking subject, my method requires scanning the text for markers reflecting discursive heterogeneity. In this view, a text never just expresses a given meaning; it says always more than its author means to say (cf. Angermüller 2011). Thus, we cannot talk or write without mobilizing a multitude of voices, some of which are marked as rather “close” to us, others as “far” away. Rather than drawing on a unified source of meaning, texts let many voices speak, which turns any use of language into an interpretive balancing act. However fixed, hegemonic, pure a discourse may appear, therefore, there is no meaning without gaps and fissures, no text which doesn’t contain the traces of other voices, no discourse which stages power without its critique.
If political discourse often operates with different and even contradictory frames, the challenge will be to account both for how texts orientate the readers interpreting the text and for what readers do with them. In this paper, therefore, I suggest analyzing post-liberal discourse in Russia in two steps: Firstly, I will show how the Putin text orchestrates a host of voices which the reader can frame by means of both the sovereignist and the internationalist narratives; secondly, I will look into the reactions triggered by the address in the political sphere. Not only can Putin’s speech activate different frames, but it indeed was understood differently — and this doesn’t necessarily seem to be a problem for anybody!
2. Theoretical preliminaries. Polyphonic discourse after Bakhtin
For theorists of discursive polyphony, a discourse mobilizes many different voices, even texts by a single author or statements made by a single speaker. In the West, the idea of polyphony was first introduced by Julia Kristeva, well known for her intertextual approach to literature (1970). Soon, the idea of non-unified, multivocal meaning entered the French debate on discourse analysis as can be seen in Pêcheux’s interdiscourse concept (1981), Authier-Revuz’s insistence on the heterogeneity of discourse (1982), or Oswald Ducrot’s theory of polyphonic utterances (1984). In the English-speaking world, too, polyphony has become an important question. While interactionist sociologists and anthropologists like Goffman (1981) have investigated the polyphonic organization of discourse. Following these impulses, some critical discourse analysts have insisted on the heterogeneous nature of discourse (Fairclough 1992: 101FF.).
What do these different approaches have in common? They are all usually associated with the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895– 1975). For Bakhtin, the literary work is a stratified whole consisting of a plurality of social styles, languages and voices. Literary texts contain the traces of the dialogical situation in which they are written and read (1981). In her introduction to the French translation of his Poetics, Kristeva (1970) acclaims Bakhtin as a poststructuralist thinker avant la lettre who articulates the problems of “discourse,” “text” or “word” (all going back to the Russian slovo) with a theory of the split subject constantly making and unmaking itself in language. Anticipating as it were Lacanian psychoanalysis and Benveniste’s enunciation theory, Bakhtin is presented as a theorist of a fluid and multifarious discourse in which the subjects occupy ever-changing positions. In the wake of Kristeva’s introduction, many Western critics have celebrated Bakhtin as a dissident philosopher who, during the darkest period of the Stalinist regime, defends the subversive powers of laughter and carnival, diversity and heteroglossia against the normative-centralizing forces of a repressive state and its institutions.
In the following, I will investigate the hegemonic configurations that Putin’s speech articulates in political discourse in the Russian Federation. By tracing the marks of the many Others speaking in Putin’s address, I will point out how the text orients the reader in the construction of its meaning. Against normative or grammatical models of meaning production, I subscribe to a reader-oriented constructivism that considers meaning as the product of active readers trying to understand the message by contextualizing the text according to its formal instructions. Following various strands in pragmatics — such as enunciative linguistics (Benveniste 1974; Culioli 2002; Maingueneau 1993), pragmatics (Verschueren, et al. 1996), post-humanist strands in ethnography (Garfinkel 1994; Goffman 1981;
Latour 1987) and recent developments in cognitive discourse analysis (van Dijk 2008) — I want to call into question theories of meaning conceived of in terms of a sender-message-receiver (SMR) model of communication. For SMR theories, messages typically circulate with a stable core of meaning, encoded by a sender in order to be decoded by a receiver. SMR theories usually posit that the receiver can reconstruct the intended meaning with the appropriate code or grammar; that the message is transmitted from one actor to the other; that it can be read off from the textual surface, etc.
While questioning the essentialist implications of this model, I want to advance a constructivist alternative: the locutor-allocutor (LA) or polyphonic approach to discourse, inspired among others by enunciative-pragmatic strands from France. From an LA point of view, meaning is a construct of the reader who follows the formal instructions given in the textual material in order to discover who says what in discourse. The question, then, is not what is the meaning contained in the text, but rather how the text allows the reader to attribute its various contents to different “subject positions,” such as the author (or locutor) and the Other(s) (allocutor or addressee) of discourse. The locutor and allocutor are not physical individuals; they are communicative instances which allow the reader to reduce the many voices of discourse to a limited number of discursive positions. Like postal addresses, the locutor and allocutor receive some of the many messages circulating in discourse. While the locutor refers to the individual that is responsible for what is said, the allocutor takes up that which the speaking individual does not want to be held responsible for. The crucial point is that both locutor and allocutor leave their traces in the text. The text is strewn with the formal markers of polyphony that can stage a complex dialogical spectacle between the personae of discourse.
Thus, following Bakhtin, Oswald Ducrot (1984; cf. Nølke, Fløttum and Norén 2004) has pointed out the role of words like not or but which have little or no semantic content. It is these enunciative markers that reflect the complex polyphonic organization of discourse down to the level of individual utterances — not only in the case of negation and argumentation but also for many other phenomena like citations, paraphrases, presupposition, metadiscourse etc. (cf. e.g. Fairclough 1992: 118–124). By following the formal hints and clues, the reader can gain knowledge about the different protagonists who act on the discursive scene (cf. the notion of scenography in Maingueneau 1993). In this view, a text is not the container of a given message that a sender transmits to a receiver. Instead, every written or oral text we read or write marks the speech not only of the locutor, who is responsible for what is said, but also gives a voice to a host of other figures. In order to account for the interpretive degrees of freedom which readers have in interpreting what the locutor and the other figures say, I follow a reader-oriented theory
of discourse. In other words, the message is a construct of the receiving system of interpretation, the reader (cf. authors as diverse as Iser 1978; Eco 1979; Hall 1980).
3. Tracing the many voices of discourse in poststructuralist and critical discourse analysis By making the plea for a polyphonic or LA approach to political discourse, I would like to contribute to a productive exchange between two critical strands investigating discourse at the intersection of the social sciences and linguistics: Critical Discourse Analysis and poststructuralist discourse theory, which both problematize the traditional linguistic focus on abstract texts. While CDA research has mobilized a range of different methods and theories, the common denominator is the endeavor to help solve social problems (Wodak, et al. 1999). Poststructuralism (or Theory, constructivism, linguistic turn…), by contrast, usually includes social scientists, literary theorists, historians and philosophers critically interrogating the notion of the free speaking subject and closed, determining structures. As a key notion in poststructuralist social theory, “discourse” reflects the growing insight in the materiality of the symbolic. Language is no transparent medium which expresses the meaning intended by the actors. Rather, the actors are entangled in language. Subjective meaning and agency are an effect of the rules of a linguistic system.
Two major strands can be distinguished in poststructuralist discourse theory: Foucault is the leading figure for the investigation of the historical power-knowledge nexus (Foucault 1989), whereas Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, taking up ideas from Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridian deconstruction, have crucially contributed to the Essex school of hegemony theory (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). While most poststructuralist discourse theorists share CDA’s critical view on power and inequality, they usually deal with language on a purely theoretical level. Yet even though Saussure’s (and to a lesser degree Wittgenstein’s) contribution is acclaimed as a crucial contribution to the linguistic turn in social and cultural theory, close analyses of the linguistic material are rare (but see Nonhoff 2006). Conversely, if CDA’s strength undoubtedly is to reflect on the social, political and historical uses of language, its theoretical and methodological choices tend to be rather eclectic.
Concerning the study of political discourse, the LA or polyphonic approach may help define a common ground of poststructuralist theory and CDA in that it offers a rigorous framework for the investigation of the manifold ways in which texts refer to their social contexts by giving a voice to the discourse participants. With respect to the analysis of the post-liberal hegemony in Russia, I see the main strengths of the LA model in the following two points. Firstly, the LA approach
can show that even in the absence of real oppositional individuals, even the most streamlined government discourse is bound to betray the presence of the opposition (i.e. the allocutor, addressee or other). In this way, even in a discourse to which access is highly restricted (as is the ease in mass-media discourse) or in which certain positions are systematically censored (as in authoritarian regimes), we can account for the many ways in which the borderlines between pro- and anti-government positions are drawn even in the absence of open opposition. Secondly, the LA approach does not need the notion of a true or objective meaning of the text that receivers can get, rightly or wrongly. Instead of trying to outdo journalists in their quest for truthful and objective representation of what discourse means, we will focus on how the correct meaning of Putin’s speech is ratified by the participants of discourse. The “objective” meaning is seen as an effect produced in hindsight. Therefore, if the point is not to discover the objective meaning of the speech, let’s observe how its meaning is fixed in discourse.
3.1 Step I. Analyzing the many voices in Putin’s speech
In the days following its broadcasting on September 4, 2004, the speech produced a number of reactions in Russian newspapers. How do we account for the way the speech is understood? If its meaning is a result of the way its readers contextualize it with their knowledge about the protagonists of political discourse, the first step will be to look into the formal organization of the text that instructs the readers about the antagonistic situation in which the speech originated. The second step will be to search the reactions of the journalists who fix the meaning of Putin’s address by selecting and ratifying certain interpretations from the many possible interpretations. As a result of interpretive activity, the hegemonic force lines of the political field become visible to the readers.
Let’s have a closer look at the polyphonic organization of this speech. We will begin with a polyphonic analysis which requires us to scan the text for the markers of polyphony such as negators (not, un-etc.) and argumentators (but, however…). With Ducrot, negation can be seen as a complex polyphonic procedure in which something is proposed by the allocutor in order to be immediately rejected by the locutor. In Ducrot’s famous example The wall is not white, for example, we can recognize the voice of the allocutor who states that the wall is white — a point of view which the locutor of course rejects. Thus, unlike hermeneutic models of meaning production, which posit a unifying source of meaning (the “subject,” the “life world” or “culture”), we conceive of negation as triggering at least two voices,
i.e. the polyphonic play of a locutor and an allocutor. What does the dialogical configuration look like in the following utterances which contain the markers of polyphony such as not or un-:
(4) Moreover, our country — with the most powerful defense system for its exterior frontiers — turned out to be unprotected both by the West and by the East.
From a polyphonic point of view, the negating prefix in “unprotected” (незащищенный in the original has the corresponding prefix) signals a dialogue between two parties, one — the allocutor — saying that A: “Our country is protected by the West and East,” the other party — the locutor — responding L: “No, it is not (protected by the West and the East).” By means of un-, a fragment of a dialogue is inscribed into a single utterance.
Another marker of polyphony is attested by the utterance (1), where the locutor (“unable to survive” or “нежизнеспособным“!) rejects the allocutor’s utterance that “the Soviet Union was able to exist in this changing world”:
(1) we live under conditions which have emerged following the break-up of a vast great state, a state which unfortunately turned out to be unable to survive in the context of a rapidly changing world.
While by means of negation the Putin locutor mobilizes the speech of three allocutors in (1), (4), we can now ask who are these Others whose names the locutor
(i.e. Putin) does not reveal. This is where the contextual knowledge and the interpretive imagination of the readers come into play. It is the readers who need to give these anonymous sources a name, address or label from the social world and situate them in the political space. Without attributing these anonymous voices to “real” protagonists of political discourse, the reader indeed could not understand the underlying political message of Putin’s speech, for it would be entirely unclear who is the implicit Other: does Putin speak against “Bush” and the West, as a sovereignist reading of the speech may lead us to think? Or does he speak against “fundamentalists” and “terrorists” as an internationalist reading would imply? For the citizens whom Putin addresses in his speech, it should usually go without saying who these Others are. But for a non-Russian observer of Russian media discourse like me, the complex interpretive efforts that are needed to guess who is “really” meant easily become the object of conscious investigations. Thus, by playing through different interpretive hypotheses one by one, I will try to reduce the many voices speaking in this discourse to a limited number of subject positions and develop some more general knowledge about Putin’s position. My interpretive work will have to go on as long as the voices I have to attribute with “Putin” are not consistent with what I know about him.
Who, then, are these anonymous voices, beings and speakers that populate Putin’s discourse? The utterance (1) makes clear that the Putin locutor rejects the “nostalgists of the Soviet period” (the Communist Party?). At the same time, as
“unfortunately” may allude to Putin’s own career as a KGB officer, Putin apparently shrinks back from disqualifying the Soviet experience. Yet the interpretation of Putin’s speech as “anti-Western or nationalist discourse” is still dependent on the reader who may associate the allocutors of (4) and (9) with a “Western” camp of “liberalist weaklings” by mobilizing his knowledge about the dominant political strands of the Yeltsin era. By no means does such interpretation impose itself, since the Others evoked by the locutor remain anonymous throughout Putin’s speech.
Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the purpose of the speech was not to produce a “nationalist” message, at least not exclusively. On the contrary, it is precisely by rendering possible a variety of interpretations that this speech may unfold its symbolic efficacy. Therefore, the speech may not only be interpreted in the framework of Russian media discourse, in which different actors had competed for political power since the era of perestroika (among them The Communist Party or Western-oriented parties such as Iavlinski’s Iabloko, which had played some role in the early 1990s). In fact, even though Putin’s speech was extensively broadcast on Russian television and printed in Russian newspapers, the readers or listeners of his speech will easily understand that Putin’s statement was not limited to the national political scene. One knows that as a head of state, Putin never addresses a domestic public alone. Thus, Putin’s message can also be read as a message to the “international community,” where he does not speak as a representative of a political faction dealing with other factions within the domestic public sphere, but as a representative of a country that needs to deal with other countries on an international scene. On such an international scene, the reader may recognize a different set of antagonisms. The same utterances can now be read as resulting from a discourse about “international terrorism” in which the reader will recognize the allocutor of (1) and (4) as being the images of political leaders from the West or the East, and the allocutor of (9) as one of the voices criticizing the “international war on terror.” In this reading, Putin calls for the international solidarity of Western countries by citing the experiences other countries have had with terrorism ((12) “Events in other countries…”). The point now is that the argumentative effect of what is said crucially depends on the frame in which the reader places the sources of Putin’s speech, the locutor and the allocutor.
Therefore, despite the rhetoric of “plain talk,” the political meaning of the speech is anything but unambiguous. Rather, the meaning of the speech is a construction of the readers (including of course Putin himself) who associate the (anonymous) sources mobilized by Putin in his speech with “real” actors in their political fields. For this reason, one and the same reader can apply more than one frame to “get the message.” By switching between a sovereignist and an internationalist frame, he or she may associate the voices of Putin’s discourse with different political fields with different hegemonic lines of conflict between different
actors. What is more, the reader can activate these different frames all at once. Thus, it would be anything but absurd to assume that, in the act of reading, the readers not only understand that Putin is calling for a centralized government in Russia, but also understand that there are readers out there who understand that Putin is evoking the international war on terror to justify his position. We could even go so far as to say that the readers understand that Putin understands that there may be readers who understand that Putin wants to make some point or some other point or several points at once. It may also be said that the readers understand that whoever understands what Putin wanted to say may understand that Putin is understood differently by other readers, while Putin himself may or may not be conscious of what the readers finally understand!
Indeed, the discourse participants have to grapple with the problem that the production of ever-new interpretive hypotheses can never stop once and for all. Any meaning a particular reader realizes is unstable and preliminary, which underscores the limits of any SMR model of communication: there is no message circulating from a sender to a receiver simply because there is no message that is not always on the point of being interpreted, understood, constructed. But if we refuse an essentialist approach to meaning which takes texts as some kind of symbolic container for a meaning to be read off by the reader, are we therefore not bound to be overwhelmed by interpretive hypertrophy — as in postmodern novels where the reader gets lost in the many unfinished plots? Of course not all interpretations are realized by all interpreters; only few of them are ratified in discourse; only few of them turn out to be legitimate; only few of them are finally considered as “true.” Thus, if we follow ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1994) and conversation analysis (Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson 1974), meaning must be considered as the ex post product of a process of alternating moves in which certain readings are approved while others are discarded. Even though the participants of written discourse do not share face-to-face situations and cannot react immediately to each other, written texts, too, are understood as responding to certain claims made elsewhere. If any meaning presupposes that it is ratified, fixed and channelled by somebody, we need to have a look at Putin’s speech as much as at the reactions that it provokes in the press. Therefore, rather than interpreting the speech, we will observe how the interpreters interpret it. Discourse analysts may not be able to say what Putin “really” means to say. But they can describe how the meaning of his speech is fixed by the professionals of political discourse — the journalists, pundits, and politicians whose daily work is precisely to account for what is said as well as for what is not said.
3.2 Step II. Analyzing the reactions in the press
If the meaning of Putin’s speech is only realized in the succeeding communicative events, we need to assume indeed that the media system is “unlikely” to produce a response to Putin’s speech. In fact, his speech produced a number of reactions (it was the first time Putin gave a televised address to the nation), but not every newspaper reacted. Our corpus2 consists of the complete coverage of newspapers and magazines which are based in the Russian Federation, including two dailies (512 articles from Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti, 439 articles from Nevskoe Vremia), and three weeklies (60 articles from Argumenty i fakty — Peterburg; 53 articles from Novy Peterburg, 20 articles from Novaia Gazeta, which appears twice a week) during the two weeks following the events in North Ossetia, i.e. for the period of September 1st to 15th, 2004. I also browsed through other online available papers, such as Komsomolskaia Pravda, Izvestia, Nezavisimaia Gazeta and the Englishlanguage The Moscow Times. A quick look reveals that especially newspapers considered to be rather critical of the government line (such as Novaia Gazeta and The Moscow Times), weeklies (Argumenty i Fakty) and many local papers do not seem to have taken notice of Putin’s address. Some papers like Nezavisimaia Gazeta reproduced Putin’s address without giving any commentary. Among the newspapers that did comment on what Putin said on Saturday, the 4th of September, I want to direct special attention to three newpapers which each shed a somewhat different light on what Putin said: the Saint Petersburg-based Nevskoe Vremia, the newspaper of the youth organization of the Russian Communist Party Komsomolskaia Pravda and the all-Russian Izvestia. With the editorial offices closed during the weekend, Putin’s speech was covered only in the Monday issues (i.e. of the 6th of September).
In Nevskoe Vremia from Saint Petersburg, where Putin originally comes from, the speech is covered in great detail. On the first page, the reader finds not only a full reprint of it but also a long commentary by a staff writer, Pavel Vinogradov, with the rather flashy title: “The President Enters the Battle.” In this article, the journalist frequently draws upon Putin’s words in order to explain and interpret what is meant. In the first line, we can see, for example, how Putin’s discourse is reframed by the journalist’s discourse.
“It is difficult to talk. And bitter,” he said, and with these words he immediately took sides with the people as a whole.
While the quotation marks signal the transition from one locutor (Putin) to the other (Vinogradov), the latter makes a claim about the first, viz. that Putin “took sides with the people as a whole.” Yet the Vinogradov locutor gives not just some supplementary information about the values of the Putin locutor who had
enunciated the speech on the 4th of September; he also alludes to some of the controversies surrounding that locutor:
Those who accuse Putin of an absence of emotions saw only what they wanted to see. Anybody with an unbiased view understood that this man wanted to cry because of his pain.
Thus, while the journalist gives a voice to those “who accuse Putin of an absence of emotions” (a point of view which he rejects), the reader can take from this utterance that Putin has to deal with his political opponents who reproach him for various faults. The reader can infer from the journalist’s refutations that somebody reproaches him for not dealing properly with the victims:
And the accusation that Putin did not immediately apologize before the victims and their relatives is unjust.
Again, from a polyphonic point of view it is important to see how the text instructs the reader about the different voices speaking in this discourse. Thus, in order to create the ingratiating effect that the journalist seems to create vis-à-vis Putin, the journalist is forced to give a voice to other individuals, to those who disagree with him. In fact, the journalist plays an important role in the kind of division of labor that Putin’s discourse demands. In a way, Putin seems to make Vinogradov say something that Putin himself cannot say easily without recognizing the others who reproach him for just that, i.e. that he is a cold personality, that he is indifferent to the victims, etc. Therefore, in reading the Nevskoe Vremia article, the reader can gain a more precise knowledge about who is on what side of the hegemonic conflict to which Putin alludes by staging the various others in his speech.
In a similar way, Vinogradov specifies Putin’s stance to the Soviet past.
[The USSR] produced evil, but it was also able to withstand evil. The thing is not to give birth to the Communist Union, which is impossible anyway. But to strengthen the new Russia is possible and necessary.
Let’s point out the use of the argumentator but here. But signals to the reader that even though the USSR was evil and cannot be reconstructed, the obvious conclusion that Russia cannot become an important player in the world again is wrong. As in the Putin speech, the political space is divided between those who, like Putin, are in favour of a strong Russian state and their opponents. Vinogradov seems to be rather pessimistic about the solidarity and help of the West. In so doing, the “sovereignist” reading of Putin’s speech is ratified, whereas there is no hint of any “internationalist” interpretation of the speech. The journalist even goes so far as to associate the Beslan terrorists with the more general threats coming from the outside world against Russia:
[The terrorists] wanted a bloody outcome, leading to carnage in the Caucasus, producing outrage among the government structures in all of the country, revolt, resignation of the president, dismemberment of Russia and her reduction to an “international administration” which as a natural consequence becomes a perfect means for the very powerful monopolies.
There is no indication that this narrative of Russia’s eternal struggle with her external enemies is the object of a controversial debate. For Vinogradov it seems to go without saying that Putin’s speech is framed according to a “Russia under siege” narrative.
With his comments on Putin’s speech, Vinogradov fulfils an important task: if the voices of the Other remained anonymous in Putin’s speech, they are attributed with precise roles and names in a story — the story of a grand international conspiracy in which dark Western and Eastern powers engage in machinations in order to destabilize Russia (which seems to have been typical of the Soviet period, Pocheptsov 1998).
A different reaction can be witnessed in the issue of Komsomolskaia Pravda of the same day. Under the title “Vladimir Putin gives an address to the nation for the first time in the two years of his rule,” which is accompanied by a photograph of an old man hugging a child and the headline: “Who are those ‘we’?,” the journalist, Sergei Iurev, gives a critical account of Putin’s speech. He starts by citing “certain political scientists who, immediately after the President’s appearance, saw it as an act of political repentance.” Iurev then goes on to point out the “repentant motifs” running through Putin’s speech, citing utterance (3): “We have stopped paying due attention to the question of defense and security, allowed corruption to defeat the legal and law-abiding realm.” For Iurev, Putin’s speech is full of self-criticism, for the President bemoans that “we” allowed corruption to spread in the courts and the police, that “we” could have been more effective in dealing with these problems, that “we” did not care about the many difficult and dangerous problems in the world and in Russia. By ironically citing and turning around Putin’s words, the journalist distances himself from Putin’s “new political line”: “the liquidation of democratic institutes, the reign of unitary ideology, the break with the West and the alliance with who knows who (North Korea?).” Therefore, he concludes that “in the message of the President we can tell the recognition of the necessity of the creation of an organized civil society. And this is precisely what we cannot reject. Only such a society will make the country stronger. And for its creation the government (властям) just needs to accurately share power (властью) with the people. And in this case we all will indeed take responsibility for what happens in the country.”
In this way, the speech may be read in a “sovereignist” frame, too, but with entirely different ideological consequences since the author takes a stance against the authoritarian implications of what was said. Indeed, if Putin mentions “the power of […] an organized, united civil society” (12) and, a little later on, stresses “that all these measures shall be carried out in full compliance with the country’s constitution,” he seems to address people like Iurev whose objections need to be countered in advance. Obviously, Iurev is not convinced by these reassuring words, which he reads against a horizon of certain expectations he already has towards Putin. Iurev seems to expect that (almost) anything Putin says may just be a pretext to do away with democratic and liberal rights. He also knows that his readers know that he, as a journalist of Komsomolskaia Pravda, is likely to be critical of Putin. And of course Putin, too, knows that people like Iurev would expect a very strong sign if he really wanted to be understood as pleading for liberal and democratic values.
A third type of reaction to Putin’s speech can be found in Izvestia, which extensively covers the events of Beslan. While the preceding issue (Friday, 3rd of September, 2004) had used unfiltered graphic material and minutely accounted for the course of events in Beslan, I have not found any extensive editorial comment on the Putin speech such as the ones in Nevskoe Vremia and Komsomolskaia Pravda. However, Izvestia did publish a tribune with a number of experts voicing their opinions on Putin’s speech. This tribune begins with some anonymous journalistic voice stating that “nobody was left indifferent by the President’s address.” While the journalist himself abstains from taking a position on what Putin wanted to say, we learn that it has triggered a controversial debate: “Some saw in the speech of Vladimir Putin the call for the resurrection of the Empire, others the call for the strengthening of civil and social (общественных) organizations; some saw a plan to reinforce the police task forces, others measures to reinforce their accountability and responsibility before society.” In so doing, Izvestia does what quality newspapers usually try to do: to represent the different opinions and positions and to create an effect of objectivity.
Eight political scientists, council presidents and think tank representatives comment on the speech. The range of reactions testifies to the different expectations against the background of which it is read. While some commentators express their approval (S. Belkovskii: “I very highly appreciate the message of Putin”;
I. Bunin: “Society does not have any other guardian than Putin”), most stress that it is difficult to know what Putin “really” has in mind (S. Karaganov: “I don’t know yet what the President will decide to do”; G. Pavlovskii: “Putin talked about a lot of things…”; V. Nikonov: “Now it is difficult to say what Putin’s plans are.”) Not surprisingly, all the respondents seem to discuss Putin’s words according to their own agenda, which we can vaguely guess from the organizations with which they are associated. Sergei Karaganov, the president of the Council of Foreign Defence
Policy, for example, takes Putin’s speech as a plea for a “modernization of all security structures,” whereas Stanislav Belkovskii, the president of the Institute for National Strategy, concludes that “the formation of a new elite” will be necessary. The NGO representatives, by contrast, demand “the participation of (civil) society and NGOs in the formation of government” (Gleb Pavlovskii, president of the Efficient Policy Foundation). They think that “it is necessary not to fight for the territories but for the people” (Dmitrii Oreshkin, leader of the research group Merkator) and “to think about how this whole system can be put under civilian control” (Mark Urnov, president of the Fond Ekspertiza).
Interestingly enough, all claims are made in the name of what the President is supposed to have said. All the commentators base their demand for more democracy on Putin’s call for an “organized, unified civil society” (12). Unlike in the preceding readings, whose emphasis was on “organized unified civil society,” the NGO commentators read Putin’s address as a demand for an “organized unified civil society.” Here, the speech is not read as a plea for a “Russian” approach to democracy. On the contrary, by saying that Putin pleads for engaged citizens and human rights, they place it in an “internationalist” reading.
Yet if the meaning of Putin’s address is produced by reactions such as these, are there as many readings as there are readers? The speech can certainly not be read in whatever way. But in order to discover who speaks in discourse, the readers will construct a rather stable stock of knowledge and develop hypotheses with which they solve interpretive questions raised by the text. Once the readers “know” what the discourse is about, the meaning of the text appears in full evidence, as it were, and the actors of political discourse (like Putin) can hardly challenge established opinions (see Iurev’s case). With such knowledge readers, it seems, can explain away almost any emerging cognitive dissonances, which is why political opinions are so hard to change. Let’s assume the reader thinks that Putin is a threat to Wester-style democracy. In that case, he or she may read the op-ed in Izvestia as some last-ditch effort of some remaining NGO activists to defend human rights in Russia. The reader may just not believe that these NGO “really” think of Putin as being in favour of liberal democracy. Rather, their remarks will be understood as an appeal to the President not to revert to a more authoritarian policy. An important question is, therefore: what are the sources the reader considers to be trustworthy? There can be no trust without newspapers and journals with different ideological lines competing for the production of the most reliable information. Therefore, the plurality and independence of journalistic sources may not only touch normative questions of good and objective coverage, but the very question that he or she will or will not understand. Indeed, the process of understanding the speech depends on the knowledge he or she has about the conditions under which the contributions to political discourse are produced.
4. Conclusion. Fixing the meaning fixers
In this contribution, I have looked into Putin’s address to the nation after the Beslan tragedy. While my question was how the speech articulates an end of the liberal hegemony in Russia, I pointed out the interpretive dynamics that can lead different discourse participants to understand different messages. Thus, a hegemony typically requires a specific division of labor between 1) political actors who speak by conjuring up a multitude of voices with or without names, and 2) the “meaning fixers” — the journalists and other mass media professionals who have to come to terms with its interpretive problems by responding to the questions raised, by filling in its gaps, and by revealing the anonymous sources with which the political actors operate. In order to account for how the discourse participants dealt with its interpretive degrees of freedom, my analysis proceeded in two steps: first, I looked into the polyphonic organization of Putin’s speech and secondly, I gathered the reactions it provoked in the media space.
Yet if texts are interpreted differently by different readers, how can we as discourse analysts account for the text’s true meaning? If every text can be read in more than one way, is the only solution “to turn to Vladimir Putin for the question how to decode the words uttered by Vladimir Putin”, as M. Urnov suggests in Izvestia? The answer is clearly no. For discourse is always in the making — an opaque and loosely knit network strewn with more or less allusive instructions, links, and indices the readers need to follow in order to discover the hegemonic alliances and conflicts between the personae of the political scene. Therefore, this contribution may serve as a reminder that whatever the discourse participants understand, the text’s meaning is the result of complex interpretive processes that are sometimes more, sometimes less predictable, even though never arbitrary since every act of interpretation is grounded in the linguistic forms and social procedures and practices of meaning production.
If the meaning of a text can never be decided once and for all, the discursive process can go on indefinitely and include any piece of information the reader finds to infer the meaning of the speech. I want to point out some of the reactions that I found out about outside newspaper discourse which have crucially changed my interpretation of what Putin may have meant to say.
1) On September 6, 2004, the chief editor of Izvestia resigned. Given the close ties the owner of the paper had with the Kremlin, this step was widely perceived as a result of political pressure. A few months later, Izvestia’s loss of independence was sealed when it was bought up by the Kremlin-controlled oil company Gazprom. 2) In 2006, the St. Petersburg-based European University was shut down by the Russian authorities for “hygienic reasons.” Hosting the team which collected the press corpus I analyzed in this article, the European University had been involved in a research project on the Russian presidential elections. Apparently, the results were not to the liking of certain political circles. It is from these reactions that I infer that the rules of political discourse have indeed changed in Russia. If, before Beslan, journalists and researchers fixed the meaning of political discourse by ratifying certain readings from the plurality of possible interpretations, now the government subjects the work of journalists and researchers to ratification. With papers shutting down, publishers being bought up by multinationals and journalists being murdered or disappearing, meaning fixers are fixed themselves — and not only by means of words. Yet if the journalists are no longer seen as independent observers, how can they produce a meaningful discourse for their readers? How is political communication possible if the government can enforce “good” interpretations on the journalists? Can we still understand “the message” if the distinction between sender and receiver collapses? A monological discourse would be a frightening prospect, indeed. For if all the voices of political discourse merge into one, discourse, communication, meaning would collapse. But such is unlikely to happen. For in order to do away with the many voices of discourse, we would have to refrain from using language altogether.
Postscript: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a linguist from Lausanne, Patrick Seriot, who pointed out to me differences between the “Western” and the “Russian” readings of Bakhtin (Seriot 2007). From a “Russian” point of view, Bakhtin never subscribed to a theory of the split subject or to the division of locutor and enunciator as suggested in Benveniste, Lacan, or Ducrot. Moreover, given Bakhtin’s proximity to the more conservative factions of the Russian intelligentsia, it is difficult to celebrate him as a subversive mouthpiece for marginalized cultural identities. If there is no way to read Bakhtin as a poststructuralist discourse theorist avant la lettre, is Bakhtin, as he is presented here, nothing more but a contingent discursive construct of Western observers like Kristeva who have used Bakhtin to pursue their own intellectual agendas? This question would call for another contribution in which would have to deal with the question how different readings of Bakhtin are ratified by different readers in academic discourse. Fixing meaning is not only a problem in political discourse!
Notes I thank Walter Allmand, Teun van Dijk, Felicitas Macgilchrist, Ruth Wodak and Jan Zienkowski for their valuable comments on earlier version of this paper.
The corpus was produced in an EU-INTAS project on Russian media discourse (“Tolerance and Intolerance in the Post-Soviet Press”) carried out from 2005–2007 and led by Howard Davis (University of Bangor, Wales) with Xavier Giró (University of Barcelona) and myself. I thank Eduard Ponarin from the Petersburg group for making their data base available. All translations are mine.
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Johannes Angermüller University of Mainz Department of Sociology Colonel-Kleinmann-Weg 2 D-55099 Mainz Germany http://www.johannes-angermueller.de
About the author
Johannes Angermüller is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mainz. In 2003, he obtained his PhD from the Universities of Magdeburg and Paris 12. Working on intellectual and higher education discourses as well as political discourses, he has coordinated the Germanlanguage network “Methodologies and methods of discourse analysis” since 2007, see http:// www.discourseanalysis.net, where you can register and receive the latest information on discourse analysis. His publications include Voices of Theory. More information on http://www. johannes-angermueller.de.