Political Math:

Different Equals the Same

January 8, 2024
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Humboldt Universität zu Berlin
Ilya Kalinin writes about the upcoming presidential election in Russia, breaking down the conceptual switcheroos and shifts accompanying talk about the topic. He claims it is no longer about falsification of election results, but the disappearance of the original meaning of the concept of election and their transformation into a fiction.
Vladimir Putin 2024 presidential campaign logo. Source: Wiki Commons
Subtraction: 1 – 1 = 1

As the presidential election in Russia approaches (March 15-17, 2024), discussions about the lack of alternatives are becoming increasingly trivial. The results will clearly not shock the world. In previous electoral cycles, not only the election results, but also criticism of them have lost their novelty and become uninteresting. It is not about criticism of the results themselves or their predictability, but about criticism of the Kremlin’s electoral strategies aimed at achieving those results.

A survey launched by Alexei Navalny in mid-October with 10 questions about the upcoming election collected less than 55,000 responses in a month. The number of responses and their content indicate an obviously low level of interest on the part of the opposition.

This relative indifference is attributable to the understanding that the already-narrow window of opportunity for views alternative to the policies of the current government to be expressed in the Russian presidential election has narrowed further (if not closed). Thus, the main strategy favored by a significant part of the opposition at the moment is voting for any candidate allowed on the ballot, just not Putin.

The problem is that this strategy is inherently a losing one (hopelessness is built into the very rules of the game dictated by the authorities and accepted by the opposition). And not so much because everyone already knows who will win the election, but because within the electoral field created by the Russian state, any legitimate figures and forces are systemic ersatz of the existing hegemony, surrogates of the current government – real doubles of Putin (unlike those “Putin doubles” who are constantly “exposed” by Kremlin-linked conspiracy theorists).

Thus, the lack of confidence in Putin expressed by voting for the Kharitonovs (KPRF), Mironovs (A Just Russia) and Slutskys (LDPR) of the world, and even for the independent candidate Ekaterina Duntsova (had she been officially registered), inevitably turns into support for Putin. And since everyone understands this too, the opposition’s energy is not focused on the upcoming political ritual. At least for now.

Voter apathy, symptomatic of both the segment of Russian society that does not support Putin and his policies, and of Russian society as a whole, makes another strategy proposed by the opposition – boycotting the election – meaningless.
“In a situation where the victory of one candidate is obvious to everyone, it becomes impossible to distinguish between indifferent disregard of the election and active refusal to take part in them. A protest apple disappears in a barrel of indifferent apples.”
Negative action is dialectically blanked, becoming indistinguishable from passive inaction. Thus, any subtraction of votes from Putin’s majority – either through nonparticipation in the election or by supporting any candidate other than Putin – essentially only reproduces this same majority (1 – 1 = 1).

Addition: 2 + 3 = 1

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the topic of the election is also in no way connected with the formally still-recognized normative ideas about this procedure – ideas of the election of the head of state as a free and transparent competitive struggle between candidates who express differing views on the present and future of the country.

The winner is clear, with the intrigue having been kept up for a long time solely because he delayed an official announcement of his intention to seek another term, instead collecting popular pleas to “continue his work.” Note that in Russian history, recourse to such a political ritual arose exclusively in situations where there was a crisis of legitimacy and the authorities sought to further monopolize their power.

In 1565, by pretending to abdicate, Ivan the Terrible forced “the people, priests and boyars of Moscow” to beg him to stay on, after which he introduced the Oprichnina, launched a terror against his own subjects and threw off the last constraints on his autocratic rule that had been inherited from the medieval past.

In 1598, Boris Godunov was able to similarly repeat the feat. Having abdicated the throne several times, he forced the public to demonstrate support, which allowed him not to sign an official agreement with the Zemsky Sobor that had elected him. As a result, he concentrated in his hands all of the autocratic power that had emerged under Ivan the Terrible.

Organized from above but coming from below, the pleas were not long in coming this time either: since November, they have been heard at almost every meeting of Putin with representatives of the public, from a meeting of the Presidential Council for Human Rights to the World Russian People’s Council. Athletes, deputies, deputies who were athletes, actors, officials, singers and beauty bloggers spoke about the need for a fifth Putin term (or for the first, considering the “zeroing” of presidential terms by the amendments to the Russian Constitution adopted in 2020: 2 + 3 = 1).

To produce this wave of public support, Putin did not even have to act out the desire to leave; it was enough just to delay expressing the desire to stay. In reality, the pause was taken to allow this wave of popular love for the permanent leader, engineered by so-called “political technologists,” to crest.

On November 28, at a meeting of the abovementioned World Russian People’s Council, Patriarch Kirill addressed Putin, linking what is God’s and what is Caesar’s; society, state and its head; and the beginning of Putin’s rule, its present and future: “from the very beginning of your time in the post of head of state... the absolute majority of our citizens began to link society and the state with you... may the Lord strengthen you... so that you continue your work for the good of our Russian fatherland, the entire Russian people.”

In front of those gathered, with “God’s help,” the patriarch transformed rational electoral discourse (“post of head of state,” “absolute majority,” “citizens”) into the good word about Putin’s continuing to “work for the good of the fatherland... and the entire Russian people.” The dry letter of election was imbued with the living spirit of chosenness.
“Inside the already-formed state ideology of national conservatism, the main proponents of which in modern-day Russia are the Russian Orthodox Church and siloviki, vox populi and vox Dei gradually replaced the individual votes of actual voters.”
Vladimir Putin confirmed he would run again in the 2024 presidential election in reply to a plea from Artyom Zhoga (right) a former military commander who fought in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Source: Wiki Commons
It is this unbeatable concert duet (vox populi & vox Dei) that has come to voice the position of the “absolute majority,” turning the electoral procedure into a way of embodying the collective “will of the people” fulfilling “God’s providence.”

The administrative mobilization of civil servants and public-sector workers resonated with the Church’s mobilization of spiritual bonds, producing a synthetic effect of social consensus rooted in the historical past. Thus, a political-technologist-contrived union of modern forms and traditional content arose (a brilliant illustration of this union was the plasma screen, flanked by miraculous images of the Savior, that transmitted Putin’s address to the World Russian People’s Council).

So, for the authorities themselves, the significance of this election is no longer the reelection of Putin. Presidential elections in Russia had completely lost this direct, political meaning by 2018. Rather, it is to further objectify the social and historical unity that has been cultivated around the figure of the national leader. As for the practical political side of the election, it is not positive (electing the president), but negative: to make it possible to eliminate any forms of discontent that may arise – but will immediately be neutralized thanks to the repressive electoral interface.

Division and multiplication

An indicator of the definitive loss of the normative, practical political pragmatics of elections is the semantic metamorphosis of their original meaning, traces of which are easy to detect in public discourse, which crystallizes social norms, political values and cultural guidelines both in the form of conscious categorizations and unconscious slips of the tongue.

The presence of such deformations indicates that the distortion of electoral norms is not only present at the level of specific practices and “technologies” (the use of administrative resources, manipulation of public opinion, persecution of potential candidates, falsifying results, etc.), but has also moved to a more fundamental level of conceptual framing of the predominant ideas about what elections are.

For an example of such an amalgam, fusing conscious articulation of a position and unconscious symptoms rooted in hidden desires, we can take statements made by two high-ranking Russian officials.

One is the deputy head of the administration of the future winner of the election, while the other heads up the Central Election Commission, which is charged with guaranteeing this crushing victory. Despite the glaring differences between the offered explanations of what the upcoming vote is, these statements equally indicate that the upcoming presidential election is not viewed by the current regime in its original meaning – that is, as a way to resolve uncertainty amid multiple alternatives.
Dmitry Peskov, Presidential Press Secretary, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration. Source: Wiki Commons
In an August interview with The Moscow Times, Dmitri Peskov quite accurately and frankly expressed the essence of the upcoming election: “our presidential election is not exactly democracy, but rather an expensive bureaucracy. Putin will be reelected next year with more than 90% of the vote.” Before us is a construction that offers two possible readings – at the same time opposed, symmetrical and supporting each other.

On the one hand, this can be seen as a Freudian slip, as an unintentional admission of the bureaucratic usurpation of the democratic procedure and administrative fixing of the required number of votes. On the other hand, it is a conscious statement of the real state of affairs, which has turned Putin into the lone national leader, who enjoys almost total public support and basically does not need such formal legitimation as a presidential election.
“Over the past decade, the repressive propaganda apparatus of the Russian state and the ‘Putin majority’ in Russian society have become reflections of each other. The apparatus forms the majority, but it also stands on it..
The majority is saturated with fears and desires transmitted by the apparatus, but it also objectifies them as “real,” feeding them back as a demand to be satisfied.

A month before Peskov’s interview, at a meeting with the president, the head of the Central Election Commission of Russia, Ella Pamfilova, explaining to the head of state the significance of the upcoming event, appealed not to the cost of the bureaucratic procedure, but to the fate of the world, which will be decided during the three-day March vote: “the upcoming presidential election is not just another ordinary presidential election , it is an election on which the fate of not only Russia, but the world for many years to come will depend (italics is mine – I.K.).

Here, we see a reverse discursive move, not profaning the manifestation of popular sovereignty as an administrative function, but, on the contrary, sacralizing the Russian presidential election as a global historical choice.

These statements differ from each other in rhetoric and the degree of emotional intensity: one divides democracy by bureaucracy, while the other multiplies it by geopolitical theology. By stretching the political semantics of the concept of “presidential elections” between almost polar points – between bureaucratic mechanisms to carry out an electoral procedure and deep mechanisms of historical providence – these statements commit semantic self-deconstruction. About the election they say the same thing: “this is not an election.” The resulting semantic washout is reminiscent of the famous painting by Rene Magritte in which a smoking pipe is drawn, while the caption under it reads: “ceci n’est pas une pipe”(“this is not a pipe”).

Equal sign: Putin = Putin′

There is an intonation of awkwardness or ironic quotation marks when commentators on opposite sides of the “electoral front line” (as Pamfilova called the upcoming election) talk about the “election.” An understanding of the bankruptcy of the very concept in relation to Russian electoral practices – especially after February 24, 2022, especially in relation to election to the highest public office – is a rare case where the monopolists of the ballot box and the outsiders are united.

For the former, the lack of an alternative to the current president is a reality – if not of a metaphysical, then at least of a historical order – that has made Putin the person who expresses Russia’s deep-seated national interests. For the latter, this is the result of the steady clearing of the political field to get rid of any manifestations of opposition to the existing government, as well as the honing of repressive electoral mechanisms that have turned the election into a false culmination that hides a much more fundamental and dramatic selection of participants in this political production.

And whereas at the level of parliamentary, regional and municipal elections various methods of manipulation in the run-up and falsification of the results are used, with regard to the presidential election it is a more fundamental and meaningful metamorphosis of the institution of elections. What we are dealing with is not so much procedural violations of normative practices, but a perversion of the very nature and meaning of elections.
“The difference between the election of a municipal deputy and the presidential election can be described as the difference between falsification and fiction.”
Critics of the current autocratic regime in Russia see in the upcoming presidential election a political campaign necessary for the authorities to demonstrate national unity and cohesion around the figure of Putin. Meanwhile, the task that is being completed in this campaign is not achieving victory, but ensuring the unprecedentedness of the voting results, which must be higher than those of the previous election, when Putin received more than 76%. As already noted, the issue is not Putin’s reelection for a fifth term, but the plebiscitary legitimation of his political line – the invasion of Ukraine, intense confrontation with the West and repression at home targeting anyone who is discontent with this line.

Having become the personification of the Russia of the historical era that bears his name, Putin is competing not against the other candidates, but against himself, against versions of himself in previous presidential emanations. Recently, in an interview for the student news channel MGIMO 360 (MGIMO is the Moscow State Institute of International Relations), Peskov, when asked what the next president of Russia should be like, answered, “the same,” and then paused, winked and added: “or different, but the same.”

Perhaps it is this formula of “different, but the same,” which makes no sense in mathematics or formal logic, that best defines the spectrum of political alternatives offered to Russian society in 2024. “Putin” is not only the name of the current president, who will be reelected next spring; it is the name of the mechanism for the reproduction of a political regime that plans to change only in order to stay the same.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy