The Speech Genres of Vladimir Putin

Micahel Gorham, University of Florida

In this paper I offer a rhetorical analysis of the dominant speech styles employed by Vladimir Putin in order to explore the means by which prominent leaders in Russia today use language to establish linguistic identity and political authority. Putin provides an apt case study, because, to this day, he is the most powerful and popular politician, whose popularity arguably stems more from his image than from his policies or accomplishments. One of my underlying premises is that the public persona of such a prominent figure is largely shaped by language -- by the words, phrases, tropes, registers that most often give shape to that individual's overall manner of speaking. Another is that a leader's linguistic identity emerges not so much from some formula of proportional frequency of the various voices or genres employed, but rather from the voices and genres that listeners and readers come to most readily identify with that leader. In the case of Putin, I show that the oft-cited image of the president as "enigmatic" finds support in a range of intersecting speech styles, in his ability to don a variety of linguistic hats and invoke different tones and registers depending on the context and content of his utterances. More specifically, I map out five distinctive, though often overlapping, linguistic identities (which I label technocrat, delovoi, silovik, muzhik, and patriot) and discuss some of the more notable correlations between speech styles and subject matter. (In a surprisingly similar manner, for instance, Chechens and Oligarchs tend to bring out the more rhetorically aggressive, if not violent, side of the president).

Grounded in anthropological and sociolinguistic theories of language identity and linguistic ideology, my study is based on hundreds of pages of transcripts of Putin's interviews and press conferences from January 2000 through June 2005. It also makes use of second-hand accounts of the president's public image and speech practices from a variety of sources, including journalistic accounts, biographical studies, and public opinion polls. The implications of the discourse strategies and profiles I discuss extend beyond the insights they provide into the linguistic underpinnings of Putin’s political success. To the extent that popular political leaders can be seen as reflections of national sentiments, the voices outlined also suggest some of the dominant linguistic identities that compete for symbolic authority in Russia today.