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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Magical Power Of 'Vlast'

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 21 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "Vlast" -- the Russian word for "the powers" -- has had an almost magical impact on discussions about the political system in that country, according to one Moscow analyst. But precisely because of its use, the word itself has also distorted the development of politics there.

Writing in Friday's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Fedor Pogodin notes that "vlast" acquired this power only after the October 1993 clash between the parliament and then President Boris Yeltsin. Indeed, he suggests that the word itself became more powerful than the individuals and institutions the word was intended to refer to.

According to Pogodin, that marked a serious terminological shift from Soviet times. In the past, "vlast'" was used colloquially to refer to "the powers." But in Soviet times, he says, "vlast" was seldom used to refer to power relationships in the here and now. Instead, it was about events taken from history such as "the power of the workers and peasants" or from foreign affairs like "the power of capital." And as a result, he suggests, it seemed inappropriate to apply it to the Soviet government itself.

But after 1993, more and more Russians and more and more outside observers have discussed the political system of the Russian Federation precisely in terms of "vlast," of the "power" impersonal and otherwise unidentified that they wish to see expand or, more rarely, limited. But "vlast," Pogodin argues, "is a fiction" not because there are not people in power but because the term refers to something beyond human experience.

On the one hand, the invocation of this term virtually calls on individuals to subordinate themselves to "the power" because as Pogodin suggests, "the mechanisms of force are incomparably weaker than the instinct of voluntary subordination."

And on the other hand, by abstracting from the here and now, the term "vlast" has the effect of limiting discussions about this or that institution of the state or this or that political leader. Indeed, "vlast" becomes a kind of invocation intended to stop such discussions by suggesting both that "the power" is beyond any consideration and also that "the power" must simply be obeyed.

This is not the only terminological innovation in recent Russian political discussions. Several observers have pointed out the distinction between "gosudarstvo" and "derzhava" in the context of the debate about strengthening the state. As former U.S. Ambassador Steven Sestanovich put it, being for the first is probably benign and welcome, while being for the latter is potentially threatening.

But that confusion is mostly in the eyes of outside observers who must deal with the fact that "gosudarstvo" and "derzhava" are both translated into most Western languages as "the state." The problem with "vlast" is more fundamental for Russians themselves and for those who would understand what is taking place in that country as it goes through its efforts at reform.

Not only has the use of this word increased over the last year -- Moscow newspapers are now full of stories with headlines invoking "the power": "The power requires this..." "The power needs that..." and so on -- but it has had an impact on language more generally, or as Pogodin suggests, "the language of power has another logic -- the logic of power itself."

He gives the following example. "'Illegal' armed formations' arise." By the logic of ordinary speech, "legal armed formations ought to 'destroy' them. And this is what is taking place in reality." But the language of "vlast" not only insists on another formulation but makes it difficult for those who want to use ordinary language to discuss what is going on.

As a result, words, at least political words, "lose their connection with thought; they are deprived of a denotative meaning." They become empty or "dead words." And that in turn means that political discussions increasingly acquire not a rational but "an emotive and expressive component," Pogodin suggests.

Fifty years ago, in his classic essay, "The Politics of the English Language," George Orwell warned of the dangers to political liberty that are likely to arise when key words lose their meaning or when meaningless words take over a debate. Now, a Russian writer is warning that his country's language faces that risk as a result of the rise not of power but of the word "power" itself.