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.