Public Relations Failures by Russian State Officials: A Botched Cultural Transmission?
In 2018, during a public meeting, Olga Glatskikh, head of the Sverdlovsk Region Youth Politics Department, gave the following response to a question about the lack of state funding for youth projects: “The state owes nothing to you in principle. Your parents who gave birth to you owe you things. The state did not ask for you to be born.”  This episode which resulted in Glatskikh’s widespread condemnation and temporary suspension is just one example on a long list of insensitive statements by Russian state officials that have provoked lasting public outrage. Other notable cases included Minster of Labour, Natalia Sokolova’s assertion that one can easily survive on a $56 per month subsistence wage by eating a “balanced” and “slimming” diet of macaroni and seasonal vegetables , Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev’s suggestion that teachers should have become businessmen “if they wanted to earn money,”  and Children’s Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov’s tone-deaf question to survivors of a 2016 canoe accident in Karelia, which claimed the lives of 13 children: “So, how was the swim?”  One interesting thing about these statements is how starkly they contrast with the rhetorical style of President Vladimir Putin as well as official state policies of raising birth rates by subsidizing families with children and incentivizing young people to become teachers by promising them higher salaries. From the evolutionary perspective on cultural transmission which predicts selective learning from and imitation of behaviors of “successful” individuals (Atkisson et al. 2012; Henrich and Gill-White 2001; Henrich 2015), such public remarks by Russian state officials that often cost them their careers appear puzzling: after all, why would they not just copy the style of their leader and reproduce the official line of the ruling United Russia Party?
The diffusion of discursive strategies regarded as successful with the public is a well-documented phenomenon among social elites – from celebrities and media personalities to politicians (Campbell and Manning 2018; Littler 2008; Renninger 2018). This trend has only been amplified with the rise of social media and the so-called ‘call-out culture,’ which entails swift reputational sanctions for public figures voicing opinions or engaging in practices seen as unethical or problematic by their target audiences (Gerrie 2019). Russia’s recent conservative turn under President Putin has led to the powerful proliferation of patriotic and nationalistic discourses among pro-regime cultural elites and state officials alike. Yet, unlike abstract references to “national greatness,” the communication strategy that centers on respect and concern for the well-being of average citizens has received considerably less traction among Russian state officials – a curious trend that I believe requires further explication.
At first sight, the logic or strategy behind Vladimir Putin’s interactions with the public does not seem particularly hard to understand or costly to imitate: display compassion when tragedy strikes, offer symbolic recognition to members of the public by listening to their concerns, and make vague promises of a better future. Rinse, repeat. The failure of so many state officials to follow this simple model has baffled many Russian political commentators whose attempts to explain this phenomenon range from questioning bureaucrats’ IQs and allegations that ruling elites don’t care about their image because they are often appointed, not elected, to suggestions that PR failures are deliberately staged to distract the public. However, none of these explanations feel fully satisfactory to me, even though I do acknowledge the partial relevance of the first two theories. Instead, I propose an alternative interpretation that draws attention to the structural position of specific actors and that I believe has broader implications for thinking about diffusion of different political styles and negotiation of the discourse of grievance in contexts where assignment of blame is limited.
While the withdrawal of state support from multiple sectors of the Russian economy has been a de facto policy for the past 30 years, President Putin has never blanketly endorsed neoliberalism and instead goes to great lengths to portray himself as a caring, compassionate leader. To protect his approval ratings, Putin often distances himself from unpopular social policies and blames their disastrous outcomes on the corruption and incompetence of regional heads and mid-level state officials – a political strategy popularly known as “Good Tsar, Bad Boyars.” This strategy does not mean, however, that the President’s government benefits from controversial statements by officials that generate resentment and further exacerbate existing social tensions. The forced resignation of disgraced officials and recently proposed amendments to the “insulting speech” law that envision fines for state representatives who offend citizens speak to efforts to curtail the embarrassing incidents.
While such sanctions might push some state officials to avoid direct insults, I predict that they will have little impact on their overall communicative strategies because the structural position of officials as “bad boyars” virtually precludes them from successfully imitating the president’s rhetorical style. Popularly blamed for most social problems, when asked to comment on them, mid-level state officials hardly see it as an opportunity for self-promotion via public displays of compassion. Instead, they feel attacked and choose to go on the defensive by invoking the neoliberal discourses of “individual responsibility” as a justification for existing problems. Pensioners, teachers, and doctors are struggling to put food on the table? They should have chosen more lucrative professions! State inspectors failed to shut down a summer camp that routinely sent children on unsafe canoe trips? Perhaps the children themselves should have known better than to “go for a swim.” Although they often fail to predict the public’s reaction to their statements, these officials clearly do care about their public image. In fact, their provocative statements can be seen as an attempt to defend it by shifting blame from the institutions they represent, but do not fully control, to individual citizens. As they fear the wrath of their superiors significantly more than the Russian public, officials cannot point fingers back at the inadequate funding or oversight by the federal government. Nor can they acknowledge the validity of average people’s grievances, as in this context it would be tantamount to an admission of personal guilt.
A similar analysis can be applied to the patterns of diffusion of populist discourses that enable political actors to make a claim of representing “the people” by channelling popular discontent and scorning elites. Many political commentators have long held that the major danger of “fringe populist movements” lies in their capacity to influence mainstream political discourse, as established parties adopt parts of their agendas to avoid losing voters (Camu 2011; Curran 2004; Mazzoleni 2008; Van Spanje 2010). Yet, the diffusion of populist tropes has not been as widespread as predicted. While clearly successful with aggrieved constituencies, it is difficult for political actors who have been part of the establishment for decades to faithfully employ this rhetorical strategy. As a result, their options for responding to populist challenges are rather limited: they can either attempt to defend the status quo and refuse to acknowledge the often legitimate grievances underlying populist agendas (as was the case with Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” comment and her declaration that “America is already great”) or they can try to adopt modified versions of populist discourses that acknowledge social problems, but place blame on “external” forces – transnational governing bodies (EU, UN, OECD, etc.), foreign governments, or groups perceived to act on behalf of these forces (dissident intellectuals, NGOs, immigrants, infiltrators, etc.). Contrary to the persistent stereotype of politicians as incorrigible demagogues or opportunists eager to say whatever will please their voters, in reality, the structural position of long-term officeholders in precarious economies substantially limits their capacity to engage with critical discourses. From this perspective, the PR failures of Russian politicians and leaders in many other countries often ascribed to an individual inability to absorb changing cultural norms or understand public expectations, may in fact reflect the strategic choice to stick to tropes that exculpate the interest groups they represent.
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