Putin’ as a Metaphor and/or Metonymy for Russia

March 18, 2024
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and Institute for Global Reconstruction
Ilya Kalinin identifies general discursive frames that organize particular relations between the president and the Russian Federation, Putin and Russia. He shows how these frameworks produce the effects which are determined specific social imagination and political unconscious.
The question of political rhetoric is generally addressed to the specific sphere of how rhetorical techniques are applied (stylistic features of the speech of a particular politician or common linguistic traits characteristic of representatives of a certain party or social movement). However, the relationship between the political and the rhetorical lies at a more fundamental level, a common basis allowing us to consider them as two ways of managing the difference or distance between the ruler and the ruled, the state and society, language and reality, and direct and figurative meanings.

We are talking here about representation, which can mean both political representation and symbolic one. The rhetoric of representation consists of denoting one thing through a name or concept that belongs to another thing (for example, saying “Tsar Boris,” as was common in the 1990s, instead of “Boris Yeltsin”). The politics of representation is to give one thing the voice, will, and sovereignty that belongs to another thing on whose behalf it governs (for example, saying “the president of the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1999,” instead of “Boris Yeltsin”).

In the context of the language of Russian politics – more precisely the discursive conceptualization of the figure of the Russian president – I mean not so much the rhetorical specificity of the political discourse of power, but rather the functional, instrumental specificity of political action itself (the form of establishing a link between the one who represents and those who are represented ) within the framework of the current political system in Russia. Thus, we shall analyze not so much political rhetoric,but rather the rhetoric of politics – the real existing rules for building relations between the state and society, as well as the imaginary forms of these relations that modulate ideas about what these rules should look like.

The mesmerizing magic of metaphor/the humble charm of metonymy

In his book Aesthetic Politics, Frank Ankersmit gave a quite vivid metaphorical definition of the relationship that can be found between rhetorical figure and political theory: “metaphor is the heart that pumps the blood of political philosophy.”

The logical basis for this figurative formula is the fact that political philosophers, responding to the challenges of political reality, acquire the ability to reflect its social novelty thanks to the “semantic novelty” characteristic of metaphor.

Thus, Plato compares the ruler with a doctor, a weaver, a potter, a shepherd and a helmsman; Machiavelli, describing an exemplary ruler, resorts to a hybrid image of man and beast, which in turn should combine the features of a lion and a fox; Hobbes, writing about the state and the abuses of government leading to civil discord, uses the biblical images of Leviathan and Behemoth; Rousseau, discussing the conditions for the emergence of the state, turns to the metaphors of the “natural man” and the “social contract,” etc.

However, the role of metaphor in the articulation of political concepts is not limited to linguistic novelty that allows one to conceptually grasp previously unfamiliar social realities.
Spawning a new language of description, the formal structure of a political metaphor not only reflects, but also creates a meaningful, value-based, conceptual framework for understanding what it means to rule and represent or how things are naturally supposed to be.”
Is the head of state the embodiment of the inner essence of the social body or a temporary and formal conductor of popular sovereignty? Is the natural state of things realized in a war of all against all or in the pre-social harmony between the individual and nature?

Moreover, the rhetorical texture of metaphor, which frames our perception, can be found not only at the level of political philosophy, which terminologically conceptualizes political reality at the level of the language of its description; it can also be found at the level of political reality itself, since metaphor, by mediating forms of perception and recognition of the world, determines the horizon of obligation and therefore the horizon of possible action.

Thus, Ankersmit’s metaphorical formula should be adjusted and improved: metaphor is the blood of political practice. Indeed, political practice in recent years has proven capable of literalizing this biological metaphor.

The specificity of any rhetorical mechanism is that it allows the agents of discourse to structure and produce reality, which they understand as objective and external to themselves. “Мetaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson defined this modulating function of metaphor in their book that rose to frame, Metaphors We Live By (1980). By realizing the desire of the speaker, a rhetorical figure retains traces of this desire. By configuring our experience in specific and purposeful ways, tropes shed light on the structure of experience itself, not just the structure of its representation.

Here it is necessary to briefly outline the two basic rhetorical structures that Roman Jakobson described in his classic 1956 work, Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances, in which he defines them as two poles of language and thinking.This is metaphor, which establishes relationships of similarity or equivalence, and metonymy, which is based on relationships of spatial or temporal contiguity, as well as logical connections (part and whole, cause and effect, action and result, tool/material and product). The basic nature of these cognitive structures means their descriptive power can be extended to capture how the political landscape is structured.

The relationship between the ruler, the ruled and the administrative apparatus – which determines the possibility of their being equated, as well as the relationship of contiguity or coherence between the parts of this apparatus, and which defines the ruler as only one of those parts – can be seen as the difference between metaphor and metonymy. Thus,
“Further paraphrasing Ankersmit’s formula, it should be said that both metaphor and metonymy are the blood of political practice.
Metaphor and metonymy constitute the two poles of this practice, just as they constitute the two poles of the workings of language as described by Jakobson. Metaphor refers to a code – a system of semantic equivalences that provides persistent language structures. Metonymy refers to context – the internal combination of signs. The former asserts essential similarities between objects. The latter shows the potential of combinatorics – connectivity based on proximity rather than on essence and therefore suggesting the possibility of replacement.

Metaphor distances the object from the public, elevates it, endows it with an aura of distance, since here a totum pro toto substitution occurs, when one whole is replaced by another. Thus, to interpret such a metaphorical representation, the perceiving consciousness needs to perform abstraction, identifying a common constitutive feature in the two objects and thereby recognizing their conceptual uniformity.

Metonymy, on the contrary, brings the object closer to the public, since it produces a pars pro toto displacement, playing on the relationship between part and whole, appealing to contextual connections that do not require reflection abstracted from the horizon of the self-evident, common sense and direct relationship between the objects. Relationships of contiguity or cause-and-effect relationships permeate nature itself, while relationships of similarity and equivalence are attributed to nature by consciousness.

This same general distinction between them also applies to the case of political metaphor and metonymy. The former, by definition, needs an ideological perspective based on which certain objects are endowed with similar or identical characteristics. The latter does not need this ideological meta level, automatically registering the relationships between social objects as contained in their formal definitions (constitution, laws, legal acts, job descriptions, and so on).

Metonymy refers to the “prose” of social relations and formally approved institutions, and metaphor to the “poetry” of political authority and informal practices, to personalized charisma.
The figure of the politician and the rhetorical frame

In the presented photograph (Ill. 1), through the half-open doors of the Kremlin’s St George’s Hall, the former/future Russian president is seen going to the 2012 inauguration ceremony. In this gap, permeated with ceremonial imperial symbols, endowing a small human figure with political charisma, one can see an allegory of the discursive frame organizing the special relationship between the president and the Russian Federation, Putin, and Russia.

The representation of the figure of the Russian national leader over the quarter century of his rule has built up a rich rhetorical repertoire, embodied by various medial means and spread across the entire political spectrum.
The heart of public discourse, which at different times has tried in different ways to figuratively capture the specificity of Russian power, is sustained by a strong pulse of rich political tropology, ensuring an uninterrupted rhetorical blood flow.
“A strong hand that meets the people’s demand for strong power,” “effective management,” “managed democracy,” “sovereign democracy,” “tandemocracy,” “hybrid regime,” “a lasting state expressing the will of the deep nation,” “the union of television and refrigerator.” This is just a short list of this rhetorical repertoire.

As already mentioned, metaphor expresses a relationship of similarity, claiming to be an essential characteristic of an object and to reveal its immanent properties that allow for the possibility of finding semantic similarities with another object. The rhetorical practice of representing the Russian leader generally operates with precisely this figure. This is what turns the head of state into a substantial personification of a particular group of objects or qualities, asserting their similarity or equivalence. Moreover, the metaphor does this regardless of from what ideological or political position this equivalence is affirmed or what series of substitutions are constructed as a result. Putin is Russia, the Russian people, stability, patriotism, care for citizens; or: Putin/the “collective Putin” is a group that has usurped power, the personification of the “party of crooks and thieves,” the face of corruption, foreign policy aggression, domestic political repression, the name of a national disaster.

This metaphorical mechanism of equation was exposed in the sensational joke of the Russian comedian Maxim Galkin that “Putin is not a surname, but a position.” “People already think that this [the president] is not the position, that the position is called ‘Putin.’ And in that Putin can only be Putin” (Galkin performance in Novosibirsk, October 2019). This satirical gag makes it possible to interpret the lack of turnover in power in Russia, supported by rhetorical or logical-semantic mechanisms of meaning formation that have become familiar to Russian voters, who, due to the electoral routine that has arisen over decades, have ceased to problematize the premises behind it.

From this perspective, the slogan “Putin is our president!” turns out to be a pleonasm (a redundant construction that duplicates elements meaning the same thing).
“The predicate ‘president’ does not add anything about the subject ‘Putin,’ since a relationship of total semantic equivalence is built between them (‘Putin = president’).”
Illustration 2
Thus, the metaphorical equation of a figure with that position of power, which it no longer so much occupies as it personifies, ultimately leads to a mirror coincidence between them, completely devaluing the meaning of the statement (“Putin is our Putin!” or “Our president is the president!”). Ill. 2.

What is devoid of distinction is also devoid of meaning – this is why most Russian citizens have no interest in the institution of elections, which were discredited beforehand as a formal legitimation of existing semantic equivalences between name and position or between party affiliation and voting results.
Illustration 2
At the same time, the structure of the tautology blocks the very prospect of historical changes, looping the relationship between the subject and the predicate, between the given and the new, putting them in bad infinity (“Putin is our president” → “Our president is Putin”). Another political metaphor of recent times – “nullification” or “resetting” (obnuleniye) – in a condensed form summarizes this cyclical type of temporality guided by the tautological reproduction of the status quo.

The national leader metaphorically condenses in himself the features of a historical period, his name becomes the name of an era – in turn, the metaphorical relationship of likeness, similarity or equivalence established between an individual and what is entrusted to him to govern are circular, mutually reversible.

As soon as an essential connection is discovered between them (objectified in the structure of the metaphor), the fate of the latter turns out inextricably linked with the fate of the former. “There is Putin – there is Russia, there is no Putin – there is no Russia” was the rhetorical formula with which Vyacheslav Volodin, at the time (2014) was deputy head of the Presidential Administration, expressed the political ontology of modern Russian power.

The metaphorical form of rhetorical representation turns the procedure of political representation into a simple formality of regular confirmation of the substantial connection between the representative and the represented. Moreover, the relationship of semantic symmetry between the target (what is being compared) and the source (to what is being compared) that is characteristic of metaphor allows them to change places.

As a result, it is no longer the head of state who, based on rational choice, represents the people, but the people that are the mystical emanation of the head of state. This internal and perforating diffusion between the head of state, the state and the people found expression in another political metaphor of recent years – the “deep nation” – authored by one of the most rhetorically inventive ideologists of the Putin regime, Vladislav Surkov.

It is the “deep nation,” and not a rationally organized multitude of citizens, subject to sociological analysis and political organization, that “Putin’s lasting state” deals with: “the ability to hear and understand the people, to see through them, to the full depth and to act accordingly is unique and the main advantage of Putin’s state. It is appropriate for the people, concurrent to them, and therefore not subject to destructive overloads from the countercurrents of history. Therefore, it is effective and durable,” claimed Surkov.

The understanding of the relationship between the ruler and the people inherited from Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt is affirmed here as an “effective and durable” circulation of voices and meanings realized within a closed loop and ensuring total similarity (“appropriateness,” “concurrentness”) between the personality of the leader and the people.

Thus, “Putin’s state” can be defined as a metaphorical machine that organizes a direct and essential (“trusting”) connection between the people and the ruler. This connection is located deeper than an impersonal and institutionalized system of communication (the “branches of power”), which must work on the basis of rational mechanisms of contiguity that organize the relationships of part and whole, place and function, cause and effect, and action and result (in other words, that organize semantic relationships characteristic of metonymy). The situational context is presented here as a code of tradition, metonymic combination is replaced by metaphorical totalization.

At the same time, Putin himself has always sought to emphasize the metonymic, contextual connection between his position and the country he represents as its leader. Particularly symptomatic in this perspective is his own version of the common ship/state metaphor. Unlike his supporters, who emphasize his role as a captain with whose future the future of the country is inextricably linked, the helmsman himself prefers to talk about his more modest role on the ship: “I have nothing to be ashamed of before citizens who voted for me twice, electing me to the position of president of the Russian Federation. All these eight years I broke my back like a slave in the galleys, morning to night, and I gave it my all” (2008).

This self-description – “a slave in the galleys” – at that time stuck in the Russian political lexicon, becoming associated with the name of the president. However, for us it is not important as an alternative to the “ship captain/head of state” metaphor; rather, what is important is the articulation of his own political identity through the affirmation of a metonymic connection that sets up the relationship between slave and galley.

A captain is essentially connected with the ship, personifying it – the skill of the captain is the quintessence of the capabilities of the ship itself. A slave isconnected to the ship contextually, by contiguity, an easily replaceable part. In other words, if the captain is a metaphor for the ship, then the slave is its metonymy that emphasizes a technical, procedural form of connectivity between part and whole, between place and function.

However, repetition is not always quantitative in nature – it can develop into a qualitative shift. The regularity of repetition turns the accident of metonymy into the necessity of metaphor, a contextually mediated accident into a paradigmatically founded substance, a slave into a captain, a hired manager into a national leader. From this perspective, we can say that
“Putin is a metonymy of Russia, usurping the role of metaphor, staking his claim to an essential, and therefore irreplaceable, nature of relations between them.”


One of the ways to criticize the current regime in Russia is to analyze the structural and rhetorical principles of how the political landscape is organized, those habitual and automatic conceptual categorizations that mediate the nature of the action possible in that landscape. We must stop reproducing the metaphorical figure of identification offered by the regime (Putin = Russia = Russian society), as seen in both the Kremlin’s official discourse and the Western media mainstream. Instead, we should turn to the structural resources of metonymy, which allows us to see in what is happening not the totality of the whole, but the mutual tension between different social groups and political positions, current interests and visions of future, potentially allowing us to make the necessary metonymic shift and thus undermining the existing hegemony.
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