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  • Eleanor Thornber

Propaganda 101: How Putin gives a speech

“Let me repeat again, we believe - I want to stress this - everything happening and connected with the special military operation is an absolutely forced and necessary measure”. This is Putin’s response to a Kremlin-approved journalist’s question of how exactly 2022 has gone for Russia. He stands in a suave suit, typical red tie and is seemingly his usual calm and though still unsettling self. He is, as ever, playing the part of a stable and certain leader. With a 16-year long career in espionage working for the KGB and political experience dating back to Boris Yeltsin, he plays this part incredibly well.

Artwork by Innes Clark (IG: @Innesclarkillo).

This sentence alone captures many of the techniques Putin uses in his speeches to achieve this unwavering appearance of certainty and composure. He uses two phrases to convey certainty before he goes on to make his key point: “let me repeat” and “I want to stress this”. He says “we believe” rather than “I” or “me” again to make it clear that he has considered and consolidated the advice and opinion of others. It is not a “war”, but rather “a special military operation”, a carefully calculated labelling which has been maintained since the invasion in February last year. This labelling has been so successfully maintained that really only Westernised or Russians with access to Western sources will refer to or recognise the events in Ukraine as a war. The majority of Russians who don’t know how to use a VPN or only watch Russian-state television will, unfortunately, not know of any other narrative. Besides, the Ukraine war is an absolute must and, according to Putin, his hands are tied - he has been “forced” into doing something difficult though “necessary”.

Russian state news often heavily dissects and criticises speeches from Western political figures, including Zelensky, Truss, Biden, Johnson as a means to both discredit the West and boost Putin’s reputation of a great political figure. Zelensky’s speech in Washington from his USA visit in December 2022 was repeatedly mocked on state news - his hands are shaking, he has to hover his finger of his script otherwise he will lose his place, he attempts to speak in English rather than successfully doing so and he is ridiculously dressed, to name a few. To an average Russian television viewer, it doesn’t have to be explained that Putin would never do any of these things because they already know that is the case.

There is no doubt that Putin can give a good speech and is a master of public appearance. In comparison to many Western politicians, something Putin is very good at is public speaking. You won’t catch him not knowing where he is, or saying “I’m not walking anything back”, in the words of Biden, the supposed shining beacon of the West.

It starts with visuals. Putin is always immaculately dressed. There is usually not one or two flags behind him, but rather a myriad of them. Journalists never have to ask “are you actually going to answer my question?” because he always does, often breaking questions down into segments to make sure that he is answering them in full. He never visibly panics when asked what are at surface-level difficult topics. His answers are usually packed with statistics, mentions of Russia as the motherland, gratitude for the Russian military - he is a master of rhetorical devices, constructing propaganda and misinformation that is presented in an entirely coherent and logical manner. In short, Putin deliberately presents himself in a way that is very difficult to critique.

What sprang to mind while watching one of Putin’s most recent press conferences is the time an old Russian teacher innocently and genuinely asked me if Boris Johnson was an alcoholic, having seen a video of him giving a speech with his usual matted hair, unkempt suit and chaotic tendencies. In contrast to Putin, it’s understandable to see why she thought I would be embarrassed to admit that this was my country’s leader, only made worse by the fact that this was around the time of partygate.

There is no doubt that speeches have become the main weapon in Putin’s arsenal of maintaining control. There is a reason why Western media outlets are obsessed with reading in between the lines of his speeches - unnervingly, it’s almost impossible to determine what will happen next with Putin. He speaks like the dictators that came before him, and for good reason. In Moscow, you can see the body of Lenin, completely preserved in a glass box. I suspect Putin will expect the same treatment when he dies.

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