This article follows the transformations of the official narrative about Russia’s post-Soviet transition over 20 years of Putin’s stay in power. To detect how the gradual evolution of political regime toward authoritarianism was legitimized, it focuses on comparison of concise narratives articulated in the Presidential Addresses to the Federal Assembly between 2000 and 2020. The method of research is computer-assisted qualitative content analysis. The article reveals how the declared stages of modern Russia’s development correlated with the evolving representations of the West. The initial goals of establishing democracy, the market economy, and the rule of law over time were either reinterpreted or dissolved into minor practical tasks. The most often articulated policy goal was raising the people’s living standards, which was narrated as overcoming the trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hard 1990s. In the Addresses, Russia became represented as a country that completed its transition between 2012 and 2018, with restoring its international positions and military strength, as well as resources for better social welfare. The “democratic society” was declared to be instituted; however, this term was associated with formal elections and facilitating civic participation, not with the alternation and accountability of power.
In 2000, after being elected the president of the Russian Federation for the first time, Vladimir Putin declared that the peaceful succession of power from Boris Yeltsin to himself has “proved that Russia is becoming a modern democratic state” (Putin, 2000). Since then, he has never explicitly disclaimed democracy as a declared goal, though it did not prevent Russia from moving in the opposite direction. In the recent period, its political regime is regarded as autocratic (Gill, 2015; McFaul, 2018), or electoral authoritarian (e.g., Smyth, 2014; Matovski, 2018), or hybrid (e.g., Treisman, 2011; Colton & Hale, 2014; Colton, 2018), or increasingly populist (Robinson & Milne, 2017). The amendments to the Constitution, introduced after a national vote on 1 July 2020, leave little doubt about the direction of the regime’s evolution, as they “reset” Putin’s presidential term count back to zero, which gives him the opportunity to remain in power until 2036. While some scholars consider slipping to the authoritarian path a result of series of successive decisions that go back to the Yeltsin administration (Gill, 2015, p. 21; Goode, 2019), it is widely believed that Putin’s policy during the last 20 years was a decisive factor in the failure of democratic transition (Taylor, 2018; McFaul, 2018). How was this gradual deviation from the declared goal represented in the discourse of Russian state officials? What was done to legitimize the gradual transformation of the political regime without explicitly abandoning a commitment to democracy? Answering these questions sheds light upon the strategies of legitimization of nondemocratic regimes in the contemporary world, where “democracy became the only legitimate game in political discourse” (Lu & Shi, 2015, p. 21).
Certainly, there is no lack of literature about the ideological underpinnings of Putin’s regime (including the period of the Putin-Medvedev “tandem”). In particular, much attention has been given to the concepts that signaled remarkable shifts in official discourse, such as “strong state” (Prozorov, 2005; Petrov, 2006), “sovereign democracy” (Evans, 2008; Chen, 2011; Casula, 2013), “modernization” (Liñán, 2012; Urnov, 2012; Wilson, 2015), and “cultural/conservative turn” (Sharafutdinova, 2014; Evans, 2015; Robinson, 2017; Melville, 2018; Laruelle & Radvanyi, 2019). This literature demonstrates how introducing new buzzwords helped to adopt the legitimizing narrative about Russia’s transition to the changing context.
There is also a growing literature about Putinism that is often regarded not only as a distinctive form of authoritarian regime (Fish, 2018; Colton, 2018), but also as an ideational construction—a narrative (Bacon, 2012), a set of ideas (Laqueur, 2015), the leader’s vision (Gill, 2013, pp. 48–78), a worldview (Laruelle & Radvanyi, 2019), a collective mentality, or a “code” shared by Putin and those around him (Taylor, 2018). This literature provides useful insights to the inner logic of Putin’s regime, as well as to the modes of its legitimation in a changing context. Yet it is more interested in revealing the “mature” ideational constructions than in following their evolution. It is widely believed that the core ideas of Putinism were expressed as early as December 1999 in the famous “Millennium Manifesto,” the article published under Putin’s name in Nezavisimaia gazeta, the day before Yeltsin announced his resignation (Bacon, 2012, p. 773; Laqueur, 2015, p. 119; Ruutu, 2017, p. 1154; Colton, 2018, p. 461). More prudent accounts postpone the appearance of Putinism in “its true form” to 2003–04, and claim that even if it has changed somewhat over time, “its core tenets have remained quite consistent” (Taylor, 2018, pp. 5–6). While emphasizing a significance of ideational factors for understanding the dynamics of the regime, this literature interprets Putinism as a more or less established set of beliefs that were explicitly used for communicating the regime’s legitimacy (Bacon, 2012), and probably governed decision making (Gatov, 2016; Taylor, 2018). Yet, I stand with those who allow the ideological underpinnings of Putin’s regime a more gradual development over time (Robinson & Milne, 2017). If the evolution of the political regime in Russia were an incremental process, then the political vision of what is desirable, necessary and possible, must change step-by-step.
To reveal how the gradual transformation of the political regime was legitimized in the official discourse, I focus not on the core principles of Putinism, but on transformations of the narrative about the transition Russia is taking / has taken after the collapse of the USSR. All political leaders tell stories that establish connections between present-day concerns, past developments, and political decisions that aim to provide a better future. Such stories play an important role in legitimizing their authority and justifying a current policy (Bacon, 2012; De Fina, 2017). Comparing how these stories are told over time elucidates important modifications of the political vision of the ruling elite. This is particularly relevant for a country that has abandoned its former modus of existence and “moved” to a new one, as Russia did after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To reveal how the narrative about the post-Soviet transition1 has been transformed throughout 20 years of Putin’s stay in power, I focus on how it was articulated in the context of justification of the current political course. Using a computer-assisted qualitative content analysis of the Presidential Addresses to the Federal Assembly, delivered between 2000 and 2020, I follow variations of how the story about Russia’s recent past, present, and future was told.
According to my analysis, the official narrative about modern Russia’s development transformed over time driven by reactions to significant events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Iraq War, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the anti-Putin protest campaign in 2011–12, and the annexation of Crimea (cf. Sharafutdinova, 2014; Robinson & Milne, 2017; Rak & Bäcker, 2020), but also by the need to demonstrate an effective achievement of the previously declared goals. Introducing new buzzwords was not the only way of adopting the legitimizing story to the changing context. There were important alterations in articulation of the key goals of Russia’s development over time. Some of them were reinterpreted, like democracy; some were dissolved into minor practical tasks, like market or rule of law; and some kept their salience, like raising the people’s living standards. I found that the official discourse stopped representing Russia as a country in transition sometime between 2012 and 2018, when its international status and military strength, as well as resources for social welfare, were declared restored. However, Putin’s arguments for the amendments to the Constitution in 2020, which opened an opportunity to postpone “an alteration of power” for more “stable” times, seem to contradict the story about the completed transition. Overall, my research suggests that the official narrative of Russia’s post-Soviet transition transformed over time more appreciably than it is sometimes argued in the literature.
Studying the Evolution of Official Narrative: Methods and Materials
Sociologists consider narratives as “an ontological condition of social life” since telling stories is a fundamental way of grasping social reality (Somers, 1994, p. 614). It stimulates a growing interest in a narrative analysis in various fields of social sciences. In studies of politics and international relations, such an interest revealed itself in the development of various theoretical frameworks for the analysis of public political narratives (Shenhav, 2006; Bacon, 2012, 2014; Chatterje-Doody, 2014), strategic narratives (Rosele et al., 2014), and biographical narratives of the state (Berenskoetter, 2014). The narrative approach to political analysis rests on the fact that political actors habitually employ narrative explanations in communicating with the public (Bacon, 2012, p. 768). It happens not only when politicians are trying “to shape the present in the light of lessons learnt from the past” (Shenhav, 2006, p. 246), though such a practice is an often-used legitimation mode (Holmes, 2010; Von Soest & Gravogel, 2017). Actually, narrative structures are part and parcel of political rhetoric. Narrative explanations suggest some causal connection between events or situations by representing them in a time sequence. Thus, “following, not verifying the story, is essential to a successful narrative” (Griffin, 1993, p. 1099). It makes a narrative an effective tool for manipulating public opinion (De Fina, 2017, p. 233).
There is a controversy over a proper definition of “narrative” (Griffin, 1993; De Fina, 2017). Basically, narratives are considered as analytic constructs that are based on a timeline; they unify some past or contemporaneous events, actions, or happenings into a coherent relational whole (Griffin, 1993, p. 1097). For revealing the narrative structures in texts, I adopt the minimal definition that suggests an existence of the time sequence between at least two events, actions, or happenings, and an explicit or implicit causal connection between them (Shenhav, 2006, pp. 247, 250–251; De Fina, 2017, p. 234).
Much of scholarship of political narratives is focused on what Anna De Fina (2017, p. 236) calls “master” or “grand” narratives, that is, public dominant discourses about particular social issues that function as frames through which other discourses are interpreted. Being interested in studying the narratives that are typical for political leaders or groups, political scientists tend to draw attention to the most salient samples from larger collections of texts. For example, Edwin Bacon considerably based his detailed and insightful analysis of the narrative of Putinism on the summary of “Putin’s plan” provided in the booklet composed by Alexei Chadaev and Kirill Loginov in 2005, while also referring to some original texts of Putin and Medvedev (2012). Later, he found sweeping changes in Putin’s narrative analyzing his “Crimea speech” on 18 March 2014 (Bacon, 2015). Vasily Gatov (2016) drew his remarks about Putin’s “story” from “a patchwork collection of quotes from Putin and his closest subordinates” (p. 621). Such an approach is distinctive for this kind of research. However, even if a selection of the most salient quotations can work well for describing the “mature” form of Putinism, it does not reveal its evolution precisely enough.
My approach follows another tradition of scholarship that concerns what De Fina (2017) describes as “narratives in the discourse of politicians” (pp. 239–240). I study storytelling as a way of claiming legitimacy in the official rhetoric. It entails a different method of selecting material for analysis, as the latter depends on systematic observations from a relevant and feasible corpus of texts. My research is based on the computer-assisted qualitative content analysis of the Presidential Addresses to the Federal Assembly. In the course of analysis of the current tendencies, assessment of the political course, and setting goals for the future (Frolova, 2020, p. 70), the Addresses time and again reproduced the official narrative about Russia’s post-Soviet transition by connecting present problems and achievements with past circumstances, and anticipating future developments. They contain plenty of what Shaul Shenhav defines as concise narratives, that is, the text segments that “capture both the earliest and the latest periods mentioned by the speaker,” which provides a good opportunity to observe “how references to day-to-day politics are framed by historical perspectives” (Shenhav, 2005, p. 316). The analysis of hundreds of concise narratives about the regime’s performance in the Addresses provides a good opportunity to follow the transformations of the “grand” narrative about Russia’s transition. Of course, a study of the Addresses does not exhaust the whole range of articulations of the official narrative about Russia’s post-Soviet transition, but the fact that these official speeches are delivered annually, cover more or less similar topics, and are widely discussed by media and experts makes them particularly relevant for following its evolution.2
To reveal how the official narrative about Russia’s post-Soviet transition was adapted to a changing political context, I have coded the Addresses delivered by Putin and Medvedev between 2000 and 2020 in the MAXQDA2018 app. The coding has been done manually; the primary material was read in Russian. The units of analysis were coherent segments of texts that presented the time sequence between causally connected events, actions, or happenings. The details of the code system will be discussed in the context of further analysis. This method of research not only facilitated comparison of relevant fragments across 20 Addresses, but also made possible some observations based on the frequency of specific codes and subcodes.
Depicting the Stages of Russia’s Development According to the Presidential Addresses
As the program documents focused on analysis of a current state of affairs and setting goals for the future, the Presidential Addresses are particularly suited for articulating performance-based legitimacy claims. The “performance-related narratives” (Von Soest & Grauvogel, 2017, p. 291) tend to legitimize the regime and its political course by linking the actual problems to past misfortunes and representing recent achievements as steps to some long-term goals. In the official discourse, Russia’s post-Soviet transition was described by a number of goals that related to social well-being, economic growth, political development, and international status. They were worded and prioritized in different ways in various contexts. As soon as it was hard to point out a visible progress, the presidents and their speechwriters often met the challenge by “employing claims of achievements in the absence of real improvements” (Von Soest & Grauvogel, 2017, p. 291). The framework of narrative perfectly fitted this task, as it provided the narrator a capacity “to define and orchestrate” the story by voluntarily including “a particular series of actions in a particular temporal order for a particular purpose” (Griffin, 1993, p. 1097). Describing Russia’s recent development in terms of stages was an often-used way of legitimizing the current political course in the Addresses. Comparing such descriptions over time and correlating them to changing characteristics of Russia’s international environment is a good starting point for following transformations of the official narrative. The most notable shifts are mapped in Figure 1.
Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Addresses, 2000–08
From the very beginning, Putin’s coming to the presidential office was represented as a new stage in Russian political history. Even being obliged to demonstrate loyalty to Yeltsin, as his appointed successor, Putin never missed an opportunity to distinguish himself from his unpopular predecessor (Malinova, 2021). As early as 2001, Putin claimed that “a stormy decade of reform” is over, “we have exhausted the potential of transition period measures,” and “are now entering a period where our long-term success depends on our will, our qualifications and our determination” (Putin, 2001).3 Since then, Putin more than once articulated Russia’s embarking on yet another “new stage,” which created an impression of multiple false starts to the “real” transition. The references to changing international context often helped to mitigate this discontinuity.
At the end of his first term, being inspired by the evident economic growth and seeming rise of Russia’s international status after the terrorist attack on 9/11, Putin announced “an entirely new stage in our country’s development.” According to his words, at this stage “Russia will take its recognised place among the ranks of the truly strong, economically advanced and influential nations” (Putin, 2003). It meant that Russia must become a country with “a flourishing civil society and stable democracy,” “competitive market economy,” “modern, well-equipped and mobile Armed Forces,” and a country where “the conditions for people to enjoy a decent life” are created. Thus, Putin endorsed the official goals of the post-Soviet transition, declared at the beginning of the 1990s. By his account, only now, after solving “a great number of more urgent problems that we had to tackle first,” can Russia address this ambitious aim (Putin, 2003).
It is notable that in the same Address, Putin explicitly challenged Yeltsin’s historical grand narrative, based on a contrast between the “new, democratic” Russia and the Soviet and tsarist autocratic regimes (Malinova, 2018), by arguing that “maintaining a state spread over such a vast territory” was a “truly historical feat” by the people of Russia (Putin, 2003). By emphasizing the continuity of the Russian state over a thousand years, Putin implicitly recognized that the collapse of the USSR was a regrettable break of the tradition of keeping “our country’s integrity.” While formally endorsing the goals of the transition declared by Yeltsin, Putin (2003) shifted their priority by representing the integrity of the state and “a strong presence on the international stage” as the essential values connected to “untold victims and sacrifice” of the people.
In the next year, after being reelected for his second term, Putin (2004) proposed to divide the development of post-Soviet Russia into three periods. He called the 1990s the stage of “dismantling the old economic system”; the beginning of the 2000s, “the time of clearing the debris resulting from demolishing the old edifice”; and the present stage, the time for “more rapid development” and “more ambitious national tasks.” In this Address, Putin (2004) mentioned a “considerable success” in the establishing of the “young Russian democracy,” thus disclaiming worries about the autocratic tendencies of the political reforms in the beginning of the 2000s,4 but clarified that “we are at the very beginning of the path.” So, by 2004, Russia was represented as a country that had survived through the Times of Troubles after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was firmly moving along the path that should bring it to the “club of the advanced,” that is, economically prosperous and democratic countries.5
However, these dreams failed, and in the next Address, delivered after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the story of Russia’s transition to democracy has been notoriously transformed. Putin shifted its timeline by starting with acknowledging the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “major geopolitical disaster of the century,” and continued by picturing the horrors of the 1990s. Then he argued that those who believed that “our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse,” were mistaken, because actually it was a time when Russia rallied its forces (Putin, 2005). While endorsing the commitment to democracy, he particularly emphasized that “Russia has chosen democracy through the will of its own people,” and concluded: “As a sovereign nation, Russia can and will decide for itself the timeframe and conditions for its progress along this road” (Putin, 2005). This passage resembles the main ideas of the doctrine of sovereign democracy proposed a couple of months earlier by the first deputy chief of the Presidential Executive Office staff, Vladislav Surkov. In accordance with this doctrine, his patron’s Presidential Address represented Russia, not as a developing country stuck in a protracted transition, but as “a major European power” that for three centuries, “together” with other European countries, moved toward extending human rights and other social gains, “sometimes behind and sometimes ahead of European standards” (Putin, 2005).
Of course, as early as in the “Millennium Manifesto,” published under Putin’s name in 1999, it was argued that the hopes for a worthy future depended on “combining the universal principles of a market economy and democracy with Russian realities” (Putin, 1999). However, it was in 2005 that Putin made disclaiming the status of “the pupil,” who needs to learn from “the most advanced countries,” the central motif of his discussion of democracy. According to Kirill Petrov’s (2020) analysis, the color revolutions in the neighboring countries have reshaped the balance within the Russian elite groups, and made a perception the Western discourse about democratization as a security threat a dominant mood. By proclaiming the democratization Russia’s own business, Putin delegitimized its critical assessments according to foreign criteria. Now the end of the Times of Troubles was described not just as reaching the stability that opened a perspective for Russia’s becoming one of the “economically advanced and influential nations,” but as it’s gaining a capability to move along this path in a “sovereign” way.
Yet, as soon as it became clear that linking the present problems with the past misfortunes remained the most convenient mode of articulating performance-based legitimacy claims, Putin tended to postpone the end of hard times. In the last Address of his second presidential term, delivered three days after Boris Yeltsin’s death, Putin reproduced the narrative about the Times of Troubles that simultaneously were times of “building a new life.” He did not hesitate to stress the positive results of his own rule by stating that “people’s real incomes have more than doubled since 2000,” but emphasized that “we are still only at the beginning of the difficult road to our country’s full and genuine recovery” (Putin, 2007).
Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidential Addresses, 2008–12
The rhetorical style of Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidential Addresses differed from Putin’s. He avoided explicit speculations about the periodization. Yet at least in 2009, introducing modernization as a new political course, he could not avoid discussing the previous stages of modern Russian history.6 According to Medvedev’s (2009b) argument, the modernization is needed because “we have not done enough over these last years to resolve the problems we inherited from the past.” Thus Medvedev (2009a) blamed both the drawbacks of the Soviet system, which “largely ignored individual needs,” and his predecessors, as “twenty years of tumultuous change has not spared our country from its humiliating dependence on raw materials.” Medvedev (2009a) recognized some achievements of the previous stage of the post-Soviet period, such as “establishing and stabilizing” democratic institutions, or “gathering the country together to stop centrifugal tendencies.” However, it appeared that only now, with taking course on modernization, Russia had a chance to achieve the desired prosperity and high international status. In Medvedev’s narrative, Putin’s two terms were included in the “twenty years of tumultuous change”; they were considered definitely better than the 1990s, when the country was “paralyzed,” but still were represented as a time of lost opportunities.
In the article “Go, Russia!,” which gave a start to the discussion about modernization that was continued in the 2009 Presidential Address, Medvedev’s (2009a) discourse about democracy largely followed the pattern that has become salient since 2005, as he emphasized that “Russian democracy will not merely copy foreign models,” and insisted that the further steps of gradual democratization should be decided by “our own experience of democratic endeavour.” In his Presidential Addresses, he spoke extensively about a need to protect and develop democracy, though sometimes his words were at odds with his proposals. For example, in the Address delivered in 2008, after praising the Constitution, on the occasion of its 15-year anniversary, he proposed amendments to increase the constitutional mandates of the President and State Duma to six and five years, respectively (Medvedev, 2008), which facilitated the consolidation of the personalist regime in Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Addresses, 2012–20
After returning to the presidential office in 2012, Putin (2012) quickly proclaimed another “new stage,” aimed at building “a rich and prosperous Russia.” Finishing his third term, which lasted six years, Putin (2018) summed up the way Russia had progressed in this way:
We have gone through major challenging transformations, and were able to overcome new and extremely complex economic and social challenges, preserved the unity of our country, built a democratic society and set it on the path to freedom and independence.
As I will demonstrate in the next sections, the official rhetoric became much more triumphalist. Listening to it, one could conclude that Russia transcended its “transitional” status somewhere between 2012 and 2018. It did not mean that the tasks of modernization, which Medvedev represented as a decisive stage on the road to the desired prosperity and high international status, have been recognized as achieved. Even if Putin did not use the term “modernization,” innovative development was one of the most salient topics of the Presidential Addresses in 2012–20. It also did not mean that the Russian economic and social systems were capable of providing a desirable level for people’s quality of life. Even reporting about the success in overcoming poverty, low level of income, disproportions in access to social goods, and so on, Putin and Medvedev always recognized that a lot still remained to be done. Nonetheless, the annexation of Crimea, the military intervention in the Syrian conflict, and the intensive investments in the Russian Armed Forces were regarded as important indicators of the rise of Russia’s international status. It means that among the many declared goals of the transition, which were mentioned in the official rhetoric, the restoration of what was perceived as the respected international status and military strength, peculiar to the Soviet Union, became considered as the main goal. Interestingly, that “democracy” did not disappear from the Addresses as something irrelevant, and “building a democratic society” was proclaimed, among other achievements. As demonstrated below, it was facilitated by the transformation of the meaning of this goal.
Inscribing the Stages of Russia’s Post-Soviet Transition to International Context
Mobilization for “the next stage” in the Addresses was often explained by the need to respond to external challenges. Correlating the characteristics of stages of Russia’s development described above with changing representations of the international environment (see Figure 1) provides a good opportunity to see how “autocrats use international engagement to bolster their domestic legitimation narrative” (Von Soest & Grauvogel, 2017, p. 291). Until the mid-2000s, the external challenges were associated with the world economic competition and residue of Cold War thinking. Joining the anti-terrorist coalition in 2001 gave an impetus to Russia’s collaboration with Western countries, which was perceived as recognition of its status. In 2002, Putin (2002) even declared that “after 11 September last year, many, many people in the world realized that the “cold war” was over.” Yet during Putin’s second presidential term, the emphasis of the official narrative shifted from praising the cooperation with Western countries to lamenting about their unwillingness “to deal with an independent, strong and self-reliant Russia” (Putin, 2004). The issues of the “sovereign” democratization and unfair double standards of “our partners” came to the fore. The discourse about the relations with the West has been marked by the resentment, caused by Russia’s inability to obtain the status that it regarded as fair, and its striving to change the rules, even if at the level of discourse (Casula, 2013).
This pattern was also typical for the first of Medvedev’s Addresses, in which he legitimized the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008—though since 2009, with declaring the course of modernization and “the reset” of relations between the United States and Russia under the Obama administration, he has preferred to speak about economic cooperation. Noticeably, the issue of the enforcement of democratization in Russia from the side of the West was temporarily ignored.
It appeared again in 2012, after Putin’s return to the presidential office, though not for a long time. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, the hybrid war in Donbass, and the imposing of reciprocal sanctions, the official discourse radically changed. Putin (2016) kept declaring a willingness to collaborate with the West, but under his conditions:
Unlike some of our colleagues abroad, who consider Russia an adversary, we do not seek and never have sought enemies. We need friends. But we will not allow our interests to be infringed upon or ignored.
Now, he ostentatiously disregarded the Western criticism of the political regime in Russia, thus endorsing the claim that democratization is a domestic concern. Issues of security and development of the armed forces, which never have been forgotten, now got an unprecedented salience. In 2018, during the announcement of the Address, Putin boasted of new nuclear weapons, heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles called Sarmat, and other advanced weapons. He supported his claims by illustrating colorful graphics and videos, which was unusual for this kind of speech. In conclusion he said: “Everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy [of seeking unilateral advantage against Russia] has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia” (Putin, 2018). The declared restoring of Russia’s military strength was represented as its recovery after the losses of the post-Soviet period—a recovery that was gained by its own efforts, in spite of an unfriendly international environment.
The comparison of articulations of the stages of Russia’s development, as well as their correlations with the international context, reveals both continuity and changes in how the story of its post-Soviet transition was told. On the one hand, its main plot, focused on Russia’s overcoming the difficulties it faced after the collapse of the Soviet Union and striving to the ranks of the most advanced nations, remained invariable. On the other hand, the representations of Russia’s development noticeably changed over time. While in 2000–11 Putin and Medvedev again and again declared another “new stage” that must lead to the desired goals in the future, in 2012–18 the official discourse shifted toward representing the most important goals as mostly achieved, which implied that Russia’s transition is going to be completed. These transformations correlated with the changing representations of the international context, particularly of the West, that appeared as both an incarnation of dreams and a source of challenges.
Analysis of Code Combinations: Temporal Framing and Attribution of Causality
As soon as the Addresses aimed to justify the current political course and proclaim goals for the future, they repeatedly reproduced the official narrative about modern Russia’s development splitting it into hundreds of concise narratives about specific policy issues. These performance-related stories, typically establishing some causal connection between events or situations in the past and current policy tasks, saturated the official narrative of Russia’s transition with multiple details that are important for understanding its transformations.
The analysis of frequencies of codes reveals some notable shifts in the official narrative over time. Of course, frequency is not the only indicator of salience of the topic. A single statement about the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a major geopolitical disaster of the century” could be more significant for the evolution of the official discourse than the repeated mentions of freedom and democracy. However, some variations of frequencies are rather insightful for understanding transformations of the official narrative.
As discussed above, the Addresses were coded in the MAXQDA2018 app. The units of analysis were coherent segments of texts that described the connection between some past events or circumstances with the present and/or future. The code system included three dimensions: the temporal framing, the attribution of causality, and the articulated policy goals. As soon as calculations were performed for the presidential terms that lasted for unequal periods, all figures were provided in percent to the total number of coded units, for each period.
In this section, I make some observations concerning the frequency of specific combinations of the temporal framing and the attributed causality. The temporal framing was determined by the timing of the connected events, actions, or happenings. The attributed causality was described by agency, where it was identifiable, and the character of outcomes (positive, neutral/ambivalent, negative). The concise narratives without a clear agency mostly fall into the category “political responses to the challenges/urgent tasks,” which is typical for the genre of Presidential Addresses.
As we can see in Figure 2, the temporal framing of the performance-related narratives in the Presidential Addresses varied from one presidential term to another. Connecting “the recent past” with “now and future” was the most typical. The proportion of fragments, representing such temporal framing, evidently raised after Putin’s second term, which pointed to a growing emphasis on the political results of the 2000s. By the same token, referring to Yeltsin’s period diminished though still remained significant. It is noteworthy that the proportion of concise narratives establishing connections with the Soviet period varied less evenly—it increased during Putin’s second and fourth terms.
As we can see in Figure 3, this was not because in these periods Putin more often praised the Soviet time (the total share of the fragments that connected the present concerns with positive outcomes of that time was less than 1%). Rather, the Soviet period was considered as a source of contemporary problems. It was often referred to either to vindicate the present rulers by the difficult legacy they deal with, or to stress their success. In 2000–07, while regularly referring to the Soviet past to maintain historical continuity (“lessons of the past”), Putin also pointed to the problems inherited from this period. For example, speaking about the ineffectiveness of the Russian industry, he argued: “Yes, we know that this is the legacy of the way our economy and our industry developed during the Soviet period, but it is not enough just to know. We have to take concrete steps to change the situation” (Putin, 2006). In contrast, in 2019–20, references to the Soviet experience were employed not so much to remind people about the continuity, but as to emphasize the recent achievements in providing social welfare and development of advanced industrial technologies. Thus, when promising to provide free hot meals to all primary school students, Putin (2020a) remarked that “these benefits were not available even during the Soviet period, when there was large-scale social support for the people.” Boasting of the new weapons, he emphasized that “for the first time in the history of nuclear missile weapons, including the Soviet period and modern times, we are not catching up with anyone, but, on the contrary, other leading states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already possesses (Putin, 2020a). In official discourse, the end of the transition was associated not with “returning” to the Soviet level, but with advancing it.
No less remarkable were the representations of the 1990s (see Figure 3). During his first presidential term, Putin often referred to this period’s difficult legacy. His statements concerning the 1990s almost invariably fell into the categories of “the negative policy outcomes” or “challenges – policy responses” (the share of the concise narratives with positive characteristics of Yeltsin’s time was less than 1%). This observation corrects Edwin Bacon’s (2012) claim that “the temporal framework of Putin’s narrative shifted to focus on the Yeltsin years” “by some time around the beginning of his second term in office in 2004” (p. 776). The content analysis of Addresses, as well as the study based on a broader range of sources (Malinova, 2021), demonstrates that since Putin’s election to the presidency, the “hard legacy” of the 1990s and criticism of political decisions made in this period have played a big role in his rhetoric. Thus, he contributed to the establishment of the myth about “likhie devianostye” (the “hard/dashing” 1990s) that became a decisive point of his narrative about Russia’s transition. One can see that framing the 1990s as the time of disaster and fallacious political decisions remained peculiar for Putin’s Addresses in 2012–20, even if Yeltsin’s time was mentioned less often than in 2000–07 (Medvedev was noticeably more positive about this period).
Finally, the comparison of frequencies of the combinations of temporal framing and causality over presidential terms reveals a remarkable increase of the share of stories of success, associated with the recent period. It started with Medvedev, but one should remember that in his Addresses, the proportion of narratives focused on the recent past was extremely large (see Figure 2). It climaxed in Putin’s Addresses in 2019–20, with 35% of all coded units falling into this category.
These observations confirm that representations of the causal connections between different periods in the Addresses changed over time. The only invariable thing was a predominantly negative interpretation of the 1990s. The continuity with the Soviet times could be marked positively or negatively, depending on the context. An increase of statements emphasizing a superiority of present situation over the Soviet period, as well as proliferation of stories about recent success in the Addresses of Putin’s fourth term, signaled shifts in the official narrative. Instead of describing the present moment as a decisive step to “the good times,” now it tended to emphasize the recent achievements, as a pledge of even more success in the future.
Analysis of Code Frequencies: Changing Representations of Policy Goals
The articulated policy goals were important indicators of the evolution of the key meanings of the official discourse. In the Addresses, they were often presented as concise narratives. Some of the policy goals were associated with values (e.g., unity, sovereignty, democracy, freedom, a respectful place in the world, security, stability); others dealt with prioritized practical issues (e.g., economic growth/sustainability, innovative development/modernization, improving the demographic situation). The goals were attributed by their formulations in the texts.
In official discourse, democracy was never considered the only goal of post-Soviet transition. In the early 2000s, the official formulation included “the democratic development of Russia, the establishment of a civilized market and state of law,” yet the most important point in this list was “raising the living standard of our people” (Putin, 2002; cf. Putin, 2000). The dynamics of representation of these goals in the Addresses is rather remarkable.
By my analysis (see Figure 4), the establishment of a civilized market was a salient issue in the Addresses, delivered during Putin’s first and second terms, when a series of liberal economic reforms were conducted, including the flat income tax of 13%, and reduced profits-tax and new land and civil codes. Later it disappeared from the agenda, though the related issues were discussed under the labels of attracting investments and improving business climate.
The issues connected to the rule of law were typically framed as establishment of “the dictatorship of law” (during Putin’s first term) and development of the courts and law enforcement systems. These themes figured prominently in the Addresses in 2000–03, when restoring functionality of government and legal unification at the regional level were central elements of the political agenda, and also during the presidency of Medvedev, who paid them more attention as a professional lawyer. It might be said that over time, the market reforms and the rule of law were dropped from the agenda as special goals of transition, becoming part of the political routine.
By contrast, the goal of raising the living standard of the people has remained the central element of the official narrative for all 20 years. A related issue of improving the demographic situation is another long-term concern that has become salient since 2009. The analysis of the combinations of the subcode “the good of the people” with various types of causality attribution reveals important changes in how this goal was represented in official discourse.
As we can see from Figure 5, “the good of the people” was most often discussed as “a task that needs some policy measures.” This kind of causal linking is typical for the Addresses, as they largely focus on identifying the problems that need to be solved. Discussing “the good of the people” was often connected with assessment of the results of elites’ activity. In 2000–07, Putin often lamented the negative legacy of Yeltsin’s time, claiming that his own policy made people’s life slightly better. In 2012–20, about one-third of Putin’s statements about “the good of the people” were made in the context of boasting about the positive results of recent policies. For example, introducing plans for the “national projects,” Putin (2019) stressed: “Thanks to years of common work and the results achieved, we can now direct and concentrate enormous financial resources—at least enormous for our country—on development goals.” While discussing the demographic challenges, he argued: “We succeeded in overcoming the negative demographic trends in the early 2000s, when our country faced extreme challenges. This seemed to be an impossible challenge at the time. Nevertheless, we succeeded, and I strongly believe that we can do it again” (Putin, 2019). By such framing, Putin repeatedly stated that now, when the state got more resources, the misery, associated with the post-Soviet period, was over.
Variations of frequency of the policy goals associated with a transition to democracy, including “democracy,” “freedom and human rights,” and “development of civil society,” are nonetheless noteworthy. Quite expectedly, these values were more often mentioned in 2000–11. Since 2012, they have been referred to less, though have not totally disappeared from the Addresses (see Figure 6). Discussion of Russia’s democratization notably correlated with representations of its international environment. It became salient with the rise of resentment toward the West, but was abandoned when the desired status of “economically advanced and influential nation” was declared achieved.
At the same time, some new related issues, which I have coded as “civic participation,” have appeared. This category includes a support of civic activism and development of such public institutions (or “substitutions,” by Nikolai Petrov’s  term) as federal and regional Civic Chambers, public councils that federal and regional executive authorities recommended be established, a public control exercised by the Russian Popular Front, and creating a special digital platform for entrepreneurs who would like to make public any instances of pressure on business. The establishment of such “substitutions” was presented as an important aspect of development of the “democratic society.” According to Putin’s (2012) formulation,
we share the universal democratic principles adopted worldwide. However, Russia’s democracy means the power of the Russian people with their own traditions of self-rule and not the fulfilment of standards imposed on us from the outside.…Democracy is not only an opportunity to elect power, it’s about being able to monitor it and evaluate the results of its work. We must pay greater attention to the development of direct democracy and self-rule.
In the context of the “patriotic” mobilization that started in 2012 and got a real boost after the annexation of Crimea, the development of civic participation was represented as Russia’s “own way” of consolidating democracy. This argument was based on a rather specific understanding of relationships between the state and citizens. According to Putin’s (2014) description,
Citizens don’t have to think about where to apply for a social service: at a state, municipal or private organisation. They have the right to come to those who can provide professional assistance, with full dedication, putting their soul in their work. All the other things—including technical, organisational and legal issues concerning the provision of services—is the responsibility of the state, the responsibility to properly organise the work.
By considering a “provision of services” for civic activity as the task of the state, such interpretation denied its autonomy. In official discourse, civic participation was invited to focus on the social activity and “people’s oversight” (narodnyi kontrol’), as distinctive from the institutionally based accountability of power. Taking part in the competition for power was also excluded from its domain. Consolidation of democracy was associated with “maturing” of the “main” parties that held seats at the State Duma (Putin, 2020a). Such interpretation hardly corresponded to “the universal democratic principles adopted worldwide”; rather, it resembled the concept of the “socialist democracy” that in Soviet times was contrasted to the “bourgeois” one, as a more “advanced” version. This confirms the suggestion that to resist the Western liberal hegemony, some authoritarian regimes tend to develop alternate discourses on democracy, relying on their own historical background (Lu & Shi, 2015).
The revealed changes in articulation of the key goals of Russia’s development over time were not clearly visible. Whereas the regime evolved counter to some of the declared goals, shifting the meaning of the words facilitated an accommodation of the official narrative about Russia’s development to changing reality.
Amendments to the Constitution in 2020 as a Symbol of the Completed Transition?
Taking into account the abovementioned changes, one could assume that the amendments to the Constitution, proposed in Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly in January 2020, would symbolize a completion of the post-Soviet transition. In fact, the discussions of the amendments disclosed a lack of consistency in the official description of the current stage of Russia’s development. Initially, Putin’s arguments for amending the Constitution evidently followed from the premise that the transitional stage is over. He started with a reminder that Yeltsin’s Constitution was adopted “amidst a severe internal political crisis,” and argued that “the state of affairs has completely overturned” and that “the socioeconomic situation has stabilised” since then. Then Putin (2020a) claimed that the Russian state had maintained its sovereignty, in terms of restoring its unity, disempowering the oligarch clans and restoring the status of “a country whose opinion cannot be ignored.” Finally, he declared that the “Russian society is becoming more mature, responsible and demanding,” as well as “the main political forces,” who now “speak from the position of patriotism and reflect the interests of their followers and voters.” In the Address, these achievements were represented as a reason for amending the Constitution to fit it to the new, advanced stage of development.
However, in several weeks’ time, Putin revoked the story about Russia’s completed transition. At the meeting with residents of the Ivanovo region, he argued:
At present, stability and the country’s steady progress are probably more important. But later on, when the country becomes more confident, will accumulate more of various resources, the “fat” as they call it, then we will definitely need to ensure the alternation of power. (Putin 2020b)
So, it turned out that the present level of stability is still not good enough to ensure the alternation of power that in 2000 Putin (2000) himself referred to an indicator of Russia’s becoming “a modern democratic state.”
In the same way, Putin undermined the idea of the completed transition in his speech at the State Duma plenary session, in which he accepted the proposal to lift restrictions for the current president preventing him from taking part in the next election. He explained the need for the strong presidential power not only by the difficult situation in the global policy and economy, but also by the fact that “many things in the country have only been tacked together hastily, as people say, and that we remain vulnerable in many respects” (Putin 2020c). So, it turned out that after 20 years of building “the strong state,” the Russian political system is still not strong enough to allow the alternation of power.
This discontinuity demonstrates the fragility of the contemporary version of the narrative about modern Russia’s development. On the one hand, to demonstrate the effectiveness of his regime after 20 years of being in power, Putin needs to “employ claims achievements” even “in the absence of real improvements” (Von Soest & Grauvogel, 2017, p. 291). On the other hand, as soon as “the stability” reached in the 2000s is represented as Putin’s main feat, referring to challenges that could undermine it is the most convenient way to legitimize his rule. Typically, appealing to external threats helps to mitigate this discontinuity.
Politicians are not historians. They appeal to the past not for cognitive but for pragmatic purposes, among which legitimation or delegitimation of the political regime and its current policy are the most important ones. The framework of narrative fits for these purposes, as it enables the narrator to represent the connection between the past, present, and future in the most favorable way by selecting particular series of actions and putting them into a particular order (Griffin, 1993; De Fina, 2017). For the ruling elite of a country that was striving to find a new modus of existence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, orchestrating the official narrative of transition was an important way for claiming legitimacy in the course of the regime’s evolution in counter with some of the declared goals. This article contributes to the literature that focuses on a gradual transformation of the ideological underpinnings of Putin’s regime, which are considered as a series of reactions to the changing international environment, but also to the need to present some results of effective performance and leadership.
My analysis of 20 Presidential Addresses has revealed both continuity and change in how the story of modern Russia’s development was told. The main plot, based on connections between the country’s misfortunes in the 20th century, with particular focuses on the hardships in the 1990s, and the present efforts to construct a better future, remained immutable. However, representations of the achievements in process of transition, as well as of its goals, changed over time.
The initial goals of establishing democracy, the market economy, and the rule of law were not discarded, but reinterpreted and partly dissolved into minor practical tasks. This is particularly evident in the case of democracy. In the beginning of the 2000s, it was recognized an indispensable condition for joining the club of the most advanced countries. In 2005, Russia’s declared capability to develop democracy in a “sovereign” way was represented as the end of the Times of Troubles that started with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2012–18, democracy was reduced to the electoral competition between the “main,” that is, parliamentary parties, and “civic participation” under the patronage of the state. The good of the people was the most persistent of the declared goals of the transition. Since the early 2000s, in Putin’s discourse, the good of the people has been framed in terms of trauma and relieving the misery caused by the reforms of the 1990s. The relative increase of budget resources in the 2010s gave the state an opportunity to expand social spending, which was extensively exploited in the official rhetoric. The end of the transition period was associated with advancing the Soviet level of social well-being. Restoring the lost international status was another permanent goal that was reframed over time. In the early 2000s, it was associated with joining the club of the advanced democratic states. From 2003 to 2004, it became more explicitly associated with retaining the great power status possessed by the Soviet Union. The annexation of Crimea, war in Donbass, and intervention in the Syrian conflict were represented as the realization of this goal. This rhetoric was facilitated by depicting the international environment as hostile to Russia, bringing back the Cold War associations.
Finally, after 20 years of Putin’s stay in power, the official narrative about modern Russia’s development has become a story of success. It tells about overcoming the trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Troubled Times of the 1990s, that finally succeeded in restoration of Russia’s respectful international status, military strength, and resources for raising people’s living standard. Considering the analysis of the Presidential Addresses, Russia became represented as a country that has completed its transition between 2012 and 2018. Of course, this observation still needs to be checked by further research.
In addition, there is no confidence that the revealed tendency will remain stable in the face of new challenges. Some important tensions within the official narrative have become apparent in the context of the recent discussions about the amendments to the Constitution. On the one hand, the need to amend the Constitution was explained by the achieved progress. On the other hand, to prove that at least in the foreseeable future, Russia was not ready for alteration of power, Putin (2020c) had to confess that “many things in the country have only been tacked together hastily.” At the moment it is hard to say whether the Russian official discourse will definitely abandon the idea of the completed transition and come back to the story about the prolonged Times of Troubles. It is evident that the need to legitimize the personalist political regime has revealed the many inconsistencies of the official narrative that has declared democratization in Russia has been achieved.
This article emanated from the research project “Values-Based Legitimation in Authoritarian States: Top-Down versus Bottom-Up Strategies, the Case of Russia,” financed by the Research Council of Norway, project number 300997.
I use the term “transition” to capture this vague idea of a movement toward some desired social and political condition that was typical for the Russian political discourse, without a connection to some specific transitologist theory.
Quotations are given by the translated scripts published at the official website www.kremlin.ru.
The Address was delivered in May, before the next round of political reforms that took place in autumn 2004, after the Beslan school siege, when gubernatorial elections were canceled and a proportional voting system for the election of State Duma was introduced.
Avoiding mention of “the West” is typical for the Presidential Addresses (see Malinova, 2012). In the analyzed 20 Addresses there are only two exceptions to this rule: in 2014 Putin mentioned “the Western colleagues,” and “the West,” as opposed to “the East,” and in 2015 he referred to “some Western companies.”
As the Presidential Address, delivered in 2009, was said to take into account the public discussions of Medvedev’s article “Go, Russia!,” published in September the same year, I analyze both texts.