Popular Culture and Putin’s Legitimacy
Popular Culture and Putin’s Legitimacy
WASHINGTON, DC: The analytical tools of political science, which variously describe the Russian regime as undemocratic, illiberal, authoritarian or patronal, fall short of providing an understanding of legitimacy mechanisms at work in the Russian society. Popular culture, often seen as reflecting the values of the overarching political system, can also be an engineer of ideological content and may help explain Vladimir Putin’s success.
Putin’s reelection for a fourth presidential term in March – by a margin of 76 percent, with 70 percent turnout – was a success for the Kremlin, needed to strengthen the regime’s legitimacy in order to face forthcoming challenges including stagnating growth and wages. Observers report that the level of falsification of the poll may have been lower than in 2012, but still amounted to several million votes. To this should be added about 7 million votes secured through administrative and corporate enforcement. Even without these manipulations, however, the Russian president would likely have received 70 percent of the vote with just over 50 percent turnout – a good result that many Western politicians would envy.
There are multiple reasons for this success including the rally-around-the-flag effect of the annexation of Crimea, which boosted Putin’s popularity to a massive 80 percent; the feeling of a majority of Russian citizens that they must back the regime in its confrontation with the West; the lack of genuine political opponents with Alexei Navalny not allowed to run (he would probably have received around 15 percent); the population’s need for stability and predictability; and the widespread impression that no one can do better than Putin under current conditions.
Tools of political science tend to look for top-down dynamics, exaggerating the regime’s capacity to shape public opinion with powerful media strategies. The realm of bottom-up interactions and the regime’s impressive ability to adapt and capture existing symbolic reservoirs remain largely understudied. The study of memory issues and of nostalgia for the Soviet Union offer insightful windows into that realm. Another path is to look at popular culture – understood as the cultural habits and consumption patterns of ordinary citizens, in particular the working class. This approach was launched in the 1960s by the University of Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, examining how cultural products are “consumed” and how average consumers may also produce meanings.
Popular culture also shapes political ideology, and this is the case in Russia, where many of the ideological schemes of the Putin regime were already present in the 1990s pop culture realm. Unlike cinema and television series, often funded wholly or in part by state institutions, Russian pop music develops almost entirely based on the logic of profit, targeting commercial success. Interactions between music and politics are neither new nor unique to Russia – think of the role of country music in connecting the rural American working class to the Republic Party, for instance.
One group that, already in the 1990s, advanced ideological repertoire for the Putin regime that followed was Lyube, one of Russia’s most popular bands– and reportedly Putin’s favorite. The band combines several styles: Russian rock and romance, songs from the criminal world, Russian folk music, Soviet retro and Soviet military songs.
The group, which emerged during perestroika – the reform movement within the Soviet Communist Party – derived its name from the Lyubertsy, an underground youth movement in the Moscow suburbs linked to the urban criminal subculture that practiced boxing, bodybuilding and martial arts. In the early 1990s, the group experimented with new sounds and ideological topics in tune with the contemporary rediscovery of Russia’s early 20th century, especially the civil war years (1918-1922). One of their first albums, for instance, featured the band dressed like Red Army soldiers from the civil war era. In 1994, the album Lyube Zone and film of the same name celebrated the zona, the jail world – and rehabilitating the culture of the criminal underground has since then been a major theme for the band. In 1995, for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Lyube revisited songs from the war, such as Combat, which strongly resonated with the then war in Chechnya. At precisely the same time, a weakened liberal president Boris Yeltsin decided to reinvest in the cult of World War II as one of the cornerstones of the social consensus—Lyube was invited to play its war songs at a Victory Day concert in Moscow. The group then focused on Soviet retro of the 1960s and 1970s, using vintage instruments, in tune with the burgeoning wave of nostalgia for Brezhnev-era Soviet culture that has since captivated Russian society.
Since the 2000s, Lyube has emphasized patriotic lyric songs, often used as soundtracks for blockbuster mini-series about the army, the security services or siloviki, the special forces or spetnaz, and the navy – all celebrating male courage and romanticizing the military way of life. In recent years, Lyube has acquired quasi-official status, becoming one of the bands ubiquitous in state-sponsored concerts, commissioned to write songs for branches of the Armed Forces. The group does not hide its intimate relationship with the Kremlin. Soon after arriving in power, Putin appointed the group’s lead singer, Nikolay Rastorguyev, now 61, to the position of cultural advisor to the government. A member of the presidential party, United Russia, Rastorguyev has since been elected to the Duma several times and displays his support for the president whenever called upon.
Yet Lyube should not be seen as a product of state-sponsored ideology. The band is genuinely popular and commercially successful, with tens of millions of albums sold and views on YouTube. It tours concerts all over Russia, uniting several generations of fans, from older to younger, from big cities to remote provinces.
Lyube succeeded in embodying in the musical realm the main ideological schemes and themes of the Kremlin. Its trajectory echoes that of the Putin regime: The late Soviet-era fashion for martial arts and bodybuilding inspired the regime’s virile body language. The rehabilitation of the early 20th century and of the Soviet criminal subculture – its language, values, hierarchy and heroes – has become part of the state-sponsored search for cultural consensus. Nostalgia for Soviet retro, and a progressive move toward a militarized patriotism exalting human sacrifice for the motherland, became one of the main ideological and successful toolkits of the regime.
State narratives and Kremlin-backed media may distribute and diffuse these fundamental units of ideology. Yet what makes the ideologemes relevant to a large part of the society is that they are produced by a grassroots culture that is mainstream – therefore commercial, market-oriented and entrepreneurial – not by top-down pressure. This popular culture does not follow “the Kremlin’s orders” in deciding what is meaningful. On the contrary, the presidential administration tries to co-opt popular culture, capture some of its themes, to secure its cultural hegemony. Both thus reinforce each other into a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Study of the cultural consumption of ordinary citizens avoids a Putin- or Kremlin-centric analysis of the Russian regime’s legitimacy – and Lyube is just one of many examples of how understanding popular culture can help in pinpointing a genuine “Putin consensus.”
Marlene Laruelle is research professor of international affairs with the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University; co-director of PONARS Eurasia; and associate director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. She works on Russia and Central Asia and explores post-Soviet political, social and cultural changes through the prism of nationhood and nationalism.
This article is based on a longer paper, “Cultural Studies and Their Role in Understanding Russia’s Political Regime,” which she presented at the conference on Regime Evolution, Institutional Change, and Social Transformation in Russia: Lessons for Political Science, April 28, 2018, at Yale University.