« | Home | »

Pseudo-Augustus

Tags: | |

Moscow, the myth of the city says, is the Third Rome. And Vladimir Putin has often been compared to the emperor Augustus. Putin, like Augustus, came to fix a cracked superpower, where rule was fracturing between warring regional governors, where democracy was manipulated by powerful oligarchs. Putin, like Augustus, centralised power, tamed the oligarchs, and shifted the political model from a corrupt democracy to a more effective form of quasi-monarchical rule. And, like Augustus, Putin retained the facade of democracy (parliament, elections) with none of its political power. Much of Mary Beard’s account of Augustan Rome in the latest LRB could apply just as well to Putin’s Russia:
 

Dissimulation and hypocrisy… lay at the heart of Roman imperial politics, and had in a sense been the foundation of the governmental system established by Augustus. In making one-man rule work successfully at Rome, after almost half a millennium of (more or less) democracy… Augustus resorted to a game of smoke and mirrors in which everyone, it seems, was play-acting… According to the Augustan principles, stable relations between Senate and emperor demanded that the Senate continue to debate issues apparently freely – but always in full knowledge of the outcome desired by the emperor… The politics of the empire were founded on double-speak.

 
Over the ten years since Putin came to power, opaque language and double-speak have come to dominate public discourse in Russia. Television programmes and Putin’s speeches are full of paranoid allusions to foreign enemies, never defined or identified. The Kremlin creates opposition movements which then seem to take on a life of their own – or do they? The opacity of language and corruption of meaning are mirrored by the economic model of the Putin era: corporations are owned through tangled webs of shadowy off-shore firms so there’s no way of telling who really controls them; taxes disappear into the black hole of the Kremlin to reappear as Spanish villas for bureaucrats.

One of the dangers of double-speak for its practitioners is that they can begin to believe what they’re saying. Beard writes:

In Caligula’s world the rejection of coded language and double-speak had the effect of validating the absurd and extravagant claims about imperial power. It didn’t expose the suggestion that the emperor was a god as empty rhetoric or subtle metaphor, and so in a sense defuse the deification. Quite the reverse: if words must always mean what they say, then Caligula was divine.

On 7 May Putin is to be crowned again as president. In just a decade he has gone from a symbol of necessary centralisation to a buffoon dictator, with obscene palaces, botox and staged displays of machismo. From pseudo-Augustus to pantomime Caligula.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...
    • Geoff Roberts on What happened in Cologne?: The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported...
    • EmilyEmily on What happened in Cologne?: The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two. Alfalfa's poin...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement