The political mythology of the 90s: Putin’s war with his shadow

April 25, 2023
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Visiting Research Scholar, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies
In his essay, Ilya Kalinin describes the political mythology of the 90s that was created by the Putin regime to legitimize itself.
He shows how the various forms of civil conflict and war that characterized
the decade became the disguised basis of a new political order.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine happened in February 2022, though war had always been an important element of the political construction taking shape in Russia since the turn of the 1990s-2000s. The Second Chechen War served as a springboard for Putin’s first presidential term. The decades-long war against Islamic terrorism became a key justification for centralizing power, suppressing independent civil society, strengthening the repressive apparatus and gradually monopolizing political and economic resources in the hands of people connected in one way or another with that apparatus. The war with Georgia, followed by the military participation in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, was supposed to demonstrate to the whole world that Russia had returned to the regional and global geopolitical stage.

The intensive memorialization of the Great Patriotic War aimed at preventing it from ending in the minds of Russian citizens. On the one hand, the never-ending celebration of the victory in the war made it possible to reproduce a patriotic consensus about a glorious historical past, the heir of which the existing political regime claimed to be. On the other hand, the war, which since 2005 (since the 60th VE-Day) has taken over ever-increasing space in the media and the historical imagination of Russian society, has served as a symbolic substitute for the political and cultural confrontation that from that time has increasingly defined relations between Russia and the Western world.

The social ressentiment of recent times was invested in past victories, bringing revanchist dividends to the political regime channeling those investments. The past was used as a screen onto which the tensions and problems of today were projected and resolved in scenarios that were inspiring for society and favorable for the authorities.

The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas in 2014 allowed the regime to further strengthen its position – to trigger a real patriotic upsurge, to increase repression against oppositionist activity inside the country, and to force the West to constantly consider the Russian factor in its politics and economy. The problems began when the previous balance between virtual projections of the potential of global Russian power and real, yet limited displays of power in local conflicts – a balance that the Kremlin had masterfully learned to maintain – was destroyed by Russia’s getting into a real big war.
“Characteristically, this elective affinity of the Putin regime with war throughout its time in power has constituted a dialectical unity with the stability mythology that the regime developed”
A billboard widely seen during the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2007-08 with the slogan "Putin's Plan - Russia's Victory" to designate the government's political and economic program.
Source: VK
and put forward as a counterbalance to the socio-political turbulence of the previous decade. In fact, war – in the form of invisible or visible civil conflict, of a legal or criminal redistribution of property, of the suppression of separatist national movements – is the historical matter that links the first decade of Russian democracy with the two subsequent decades of its movement toward autocracy.

The fundamental difference lies in the constructive role of this matter in the systems of power that characterized these periods of modern Russian history. In the case of the 1990s, war in any form was a symptom of the weakness of the central government, which had lost its monopoly on violence and was unable to cope with the challenges coming from the geographical periphery and various ends of the social structure. In the case of Putin’s decades of rule, war has become a way of gaining and consolidating power in the hands of the central government, a symbol affirming it.

To expose the lines of continuity and points of divergence and splicing that separate and unite the two eras since the collapse of the USSR and are opposed within the framework of the official historical mythology, we shall look at how that mythology, which has allowed the regime to dress the matter of war in the garb of stability, was symbolically organized and assembled.

Myth as a form of control

Let’s start with a truism. Myth is a way of comprehending reality that endows it with generalized symbols, a character structure, plot coherence, content integrity and teleology. Whatever we emphasize as the constructive principle of myth, its function is to gain symbolic dominance over that which eludes other forms of control.

The need for the structuring and totalizing potential of myth becomes even stronger the deeper society falls into social, economic and political uncertainty. Mythological filters make it possible to transform an indistinct noise into a message, to decipher a grotesque ornament as a secret sign, to see a picture in a random spot, to recognize as a whole that which is not. Myth brings order to the comprehension of the world even when it defines that world as devoid of order.
President Boris Yeltsin announcing his resignation (and the words "I'm tired, I'm leaving" that public perception attributed to him). Source: VK
It was this ordering process that was produced by the myth of the 90s, which began to take shape from the very beginning of the new political era that chose unity and stability as its credo. It was all the easier and more convenient to close the books on the 90s as a kind of self-contained political monad, since that historical period almost perfectly fit into the decade that began shortly before the collapse of the USSR and ended with Boris Yeltsin’s New Year’s address (December 31, 1999) in which he announced his resignation as president – “I’m tired, I’m leaving.” Yeltsin, however, did not utter these words, which have stuck in the memory of the millions who listened to the address. With hindsight, these words are read as farewell greetings of the decade itself, vocalized by the raspy voice of Russia’s first president, which by the end of that decade began to resemble the sound of an audio cassette chewed in a player. Here you have another example of the inconspicuous, but unshakable work of myth, introducing additional touches necessary to complete the picture.

The new historical era was obsessed with the ideas of order, hierarchy and undivided authority. Its political language produced metaphors that were symptoms of this obsession: “united Russia;” “managed democracy;” “power vertical;” “centralization;” “unification of the legal and regulatory space;” “equal-distancing of the oligarchs [from power];” “consolidation of the elite.” On the opposite end of these concepts was the notion of the “collapse of the USSR,” which represented an assessment not only of a specific event, but also of the very prospect of fragmentation of anything.

The inspiring novelty of this positive agenda had to be contrasted with the grim backdrop of the recent past. The problem was that
“What separated that past from the new power was only the incoming president, who, moreover, had been named by the departing ruler as his ‘successor,’ and therefore his heir. All the greater was the need to present this inheritance as a discontinuity.”
President Boris Yeltsin and his future successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (autumn 1999). Source: VK
Luckily, the decade that ended at that time facilitated this task, allowing the new regime to renounce its own origin, defining its own shadow, cast into the past, as its antipode.

Inheritance through negation

The stage props that were given to this negative historical character, as well as the mise-en-scène assigned to it, are well known: double-breasted raspberry-red jackets from the “wild 90s;” Mercedes-Benz “600s” of “bandit Petersburg;” ethnic gangs, which reflected the “feudal fragmentation” of political sovereignty; conspicuous consumption by “new Russians” against the backdrop of mass impoverishment; the irresponsibility of “democrats” with regard to social welfare. Of course, if these props that were given to the 1990s at the beginning of the new millennium had not been recognizable, they would not have worked as a mythological plot, which endowed with stylistic wholeness and historical completeness what in fact continued to exist – just with a different wardrobe and decoration.

Already in the late 1990s, Petersburg was crowned by the Russian media as the criminal capital of Russia. Thus, all the negative energy generated in society by the drop in living standards, redistribution of public property, intense stratification, everyday violence, corruption of officials, etc., had found its own mythological chronotope, its own time and place. The television series Bandit Petersburg became one of the most successful of the early 2000s, condensing the realities of the 1990s into a holistic face of the era and localizing them in the very place whence the transfer of power had just occurred. The invented image of the “wild 90s” was both psychologically close and aesthetically alienated. After Putin and his St Petersburg team finally established themselves in Moscow, St Petersburg, the “criminal capital of Russia,” was redefined as the “capital of the criminal 90s.” The circumstances of the place (“Russia”) were re-described in terms of the perfect tense (“the 90s”) and thus left in the past.

“The 90s” – in the shape they took through spin-doctoring and the mass culture of the 2000s, which was sensitive to the demands of the era – had to be invented so as not to disappear with them. Meanwhile, neither the civil conflict nor war had disappeared: the war with Chechnya was gradually reformatted into a war on terrorism, and then Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya itself became the political bellwether for the rest of Russia, helping the federal government to crush the influence of oppositionist politicians and movements.

The unresolved conflicts were simply paved over with windfalls from oil exports in the early 2000s. Demonstrative abundance and internal tension became the yin and yang (stability based on the monopolization of resources and war for their redistribution) of the Putin regime. Criminality mixed with the merging of power with private capital, which had been born from the privatization of state property, also did not disappear after Yeltsin left. However, his departure, coinciding with the passing of a decade, allowed all these forms of war to be dramaturgically objectified, given memorable names, placed in the right stage context and settled in the past, so as to then ritually say goodbye to the newly created scarecrow. The arrival of the “noughties” – by the very magic of numbers – made it possible to actualize the arrival of a new historical era, overcoming the heavy political and socio-economic legacy of the recent past.

Needless to say, the trick worked. The body of the sovereign was split in two, like in Robert Stevenson’s story about the respectable Dr Jekyll and the monstrous Mr Hyde (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Everything that constituted the dark and unrespectable side of the continuing political regime that kept being reproduced was concentrated in the image of the past decade and sacrificed like a biblical scapegoat.

What was actually the source of and a resource for Putin’s power was designated as what the regime intended to fight (and it actually fought it, only not with what it itself articulated in the notions of the “wild 90s,” but with business that it did not control, grassroots initiatives, budding civil society and real federalism).
“In this sense, the ‘wild 90s’ of Kremlin propaganda is a schizophrenic twin of Putin’s power, repressed into the political unconscious but rising to the surface at critical moments.”
(this is the flashback from criminal Petersburg that is the figure of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in wartime is resuscitating Mr Hyde, the character who, it would seem, had been buried in the bandit cemetery of the 90s).

Thus, this version of the official political mythology of the 90s was created not so much as a form of reflection on them, but as a form of symbolic legitimation, with the help of which the next decade tried to establish itself as a new beginning. This was all the more urgent as, in terms of personnel and the main mechanisms of interaction between property and power, everything looked more like a continuation of what had been started rather than a fundamental shift toward something new. Only the vector had changed, not the underlying principle: in the 1990s, the possession of serious capital meant that one could influence political decisions, while in the 2000s the possession of power made it possible to seriously redistribute capital in one’s favor.

Interpretation through negation

The situation is different and not so simple with the way the social sciences described this decade, both in Russia and abroad. The concept of myth is also applicable, but not in the instrumental sense as with the image of the 90s that was constructed to justify this or that political legitimacy. Rather it is myth in the terminological sense that is described by Roland Barthes in his early book Mythologies (1957) – about myth as a metalanguage, a language for describing a certain social phenomenon that sets and predetermines its perception, putting emphasis on things in its own way and giving additional connotations to individual elements of the reality described.

Like any social object in the process of transformation, the economic, political, sociocultural dynamics that played out in the former USSR were the subject of heightened research interest. Social scientists got the opportunity to apply existing analytical tools, testing their robustness, checking and correcting them based on new empirical material.

Post-colonial and subaltern theories, democratic transition theory and institutional theory, interpretations of collective identity and collective trauma, studies of the mechanisms of nation-building and the collapse of empires – these, along with many other social theories and approaches, benefited a lot from the collapse of real socialism, getting fresh material to work with.
“Whereas for Putin the collapse of the USSR was ‘the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’ (2005), for the social sciences it was a great gift presented a decade before that century’s end.”
An internet meme “The wild 90s. Remember not to repeat" that ironically mixes the characteristic mythology of the 90s and the patriotic slogan “1941-1945. We can repeat”. Source: VK
What were the commonplaces that became and in many ways remain key in describing the symbolic, value horizon within which Russian society existed after the disappearance of the state that had embodied “real socialism?” “Ideological vacuum;” “discursive deficit;” “identity crisis;” “collective trauma;” “nostalgia;” “path dependency;” “post-imperial syndrome;” “anomie;” “cynical/ironic distancing;” “absence of normative behavioral patterns;” etc. It is not about questioning the correctness of these analytical frameworks. The point is that the 90s are presented here as no less whole and complete than the image invented through political spin-doctoring and mass culture, so convenient for the regime.

All these concepts describe their subject in the categories of deficit, loss, emptiness, dependence, presenting a negative horizon characterized by the absence of a stable and generally recognized coordinate system while at the same time asserting its necessity. The very label of the era as “post-Soviet” was based on the principle of opposition (Soviet), depriving it of its own positive content.

Again, this is not about the inadequacy of a term, but about the perspective that it put in place. Now, after several decades, it has begun to seem that the sociological diagnosis made in those years rather exacerbated the painful and unconstructive reactions to the breakdown of the former social system. The presented anamnesis only deepened the historical rut into which Russian society began to slip not only at the level of real processes, but also at the level of their description, as it could not find resources to overcome the crisis in categories through which the social sciences and the intellectual mainstream – realized through the branched channels of cultural production – proposed for it to identify.

The indisputable fact was the collapse of the former language in which Soviet society spoke and understood itself. However, the corrosion of its normative grammar had begun long before the political collapse of the country – it was not one of its consequences, but rather a factor in the social upsurge that led to the collapse. Consequently, the loss of a unified ideological coordinate system could produce not only apathy, atomization and anomie, but also a reconfiguration of the public space, mass politicization, individual and collective agency, and the ability for social action (which we saw during perestroika).

Had the analytical lens been calibrated differently, what looked like “discursive scarcity” could have appeared as “discursive abundance” where communists and scammers, democrats and psychics, entrepreneurs and national patriots, bandits and contemporary artists mixed. Instead of an “ideological vacuum” one could have found thick and competing layers of the ideological atmosphere. Behind the “crisis of collective identity,” “collective trauma,” “mass nostalgia” one could have seen the creative recycling of the ruins left from the Soviet past as they were recombined into new and shiftable value constellations, behavior patterns and economic scenarios that enabled adaptation to and transformation of the new conditions.
“Behind the weakness of the new social institutions one could have recognized not only the old rut, but also the abundance of institutional crossroads that slowed down the choice of where to go next.”
In other words, instead of a deficit, one could have seen an excess that compensated for the lack of a system and unformed norms through creative transgression, social improvisation and ad hoc invented schemes (the criminalization of society and the growth of crime were the other side of this “creative transgression,” which took over the state’s monopoly on violence). However, such analytical efforts were not made – at least not to the extent that they could have been.

Paradoxically, the “Putin” myth about the 1990s found a tactical ally in the analytical “mythology” of the 1990s that had developed within the social sciences. It used the metalanguage of loss and trauma, translating it into the understandable language of the “wild 90s,” which were said to have deprived Russians of a historical past and savings, a national idea and confidence in the future, a sense of everyday security and pride in their country.

The people said to be responsible for these losses were given names – “mobsters” and “liberals,” “oligarchs” and “national traitors” – and brought onto the stage to face laughter and condemnation as the main characters in what was unfolding lawlessness. Filling the void that was fixed by the Putin regime in the place of the 90s was the Russian world, the thousand-year history of Russia, a glorified past, a militarized present, rising prosperity (up to a point) and territorial expansion. Meanwhile, the people who emerged from this “void” went on to form the political elite of the current “united Russia.”
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