In the run-up to the Russian presidential election of 2018, the concept of sincerity played a central role in the political language of various candidates. Putin, Sobchak and Navalny, all employed the notion of sincerity as an instrument for political legitimization and projected a negative image of hypocrisy onto a constitutive ‘Other’. The rhetoric of sincerity often presents straight talk as ‘having a right to say what others only dare to think’ and can pose a significant threat to deliberative democracy, writes Barbara Roggeveen in her BA-thesis.
by Barbara Roggeveen
There is a growing trend amongst contemporary politicians – both in Russia and elsewhere – to employ the notion of sincerity as a rhetorical device. In the run-up to the Russian presidential election of 2018, the concept of sincerity played a central role in the political language of various candidates. Where presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak continuously foregrounded her own sincerity, political activist Alexei Navalny eagerly projected a negative image of hypocrisy onto his opponents. Political scientist Elizabeth Markovits refers to these practices as a ‘politics of sincerity.’ Politicians who make use of this discursive strategy employ the notion of sincerity as an instrument for political legitimization.
In the age of ‘post-truth’ politics – in which sociopolitical debates are increasingly framed by appealing to emotions in lieu of factuality – it is imperative to recognize the performative power of sincerity discourse. In this article I explore how a rhetoric of sincerity shapes and operates within current political debates in Russia. What historical and cultural assumptions about frank speech and ‘truth-telling’ feed the current political preoccupation with sincerity? What political goals and strategies inform this rhetoric? And are there parallels between sincerity discourse in Russia and populist discourse in Western Europe and the United States?
President Putin at a rally in Luzhniki. Winter, 2018.
This essay is a summary of my bachelor’s thesis ‘Everyone Likes Naturalness and Sincerity’: Sincerity Rhetoric in Contemporary Political Discourse in Russia, supervised by Prof. Dr. Ellen Rutten at the University of Amsterdam. The aim of my thesis is to explore the practical implications of sincerity discourse as a tool for political legitimization. I focus on statements published between 2013 and 2018 made by three central figures in Russia’s political landscape: president Vladimir Putin as a representative of the political establishment, political activist and opposition blogger Alexei Navalny as a representative of the non-systemic opposition, and presidential candidate and socialite Ksenia Sobchak as a representative of the systemic opposition. For each of the three actors I analyze a selection of discursive statements in which they explicitly employ the term ‘sincerity.’
Readings of sincerity from Plato to Pomerantsev
To fully understand the current political preoccupation with sincerity, we should first explore the theoretical and historical developments in which these contemporary claims to frankness, truth, and moral righteousness are anchored. What historical and cultural assumptions about frank speech and ‘truth-telling’ underlie our present-day understanding of the concept of sincerity? How do sociohistorical factors contribute to our contemporary interpretation of frank speech and ‘truth-telling’ as largely political practices? And how do historical readings of sincerity influence discursive strategies in contemporary political discourse?
The concept of ‘frank speech’ first occurred in ancient Greek literature. In this classical context, parrhesia – i.e. the courage to speak the truth candidly – was seen as a political virtue. The use of parrhesia was not unproblematic. Plato first warned that the parrhesiastic act could be misused for the purpose of gaining political capital. As Elizabeth Markovits illustrates in her book The Politics of Sincerity: Plato, Frank Speech and Democratic Judgment (2008), a similar risk of political opportunism looms in today’s society. Contemporary politicians increasingly employ the notions of ‘frank speech’ and sincerity as tools to increase political efficacy.
Literary critic Lionel Trilling locates the roots of our present-day preoccupation with sincerity much later in history. Trilling argues that in the sixteenth and seventeenth century a ‘mutation’ in human nature took place. It was at this point in history that the idea of a society – much as we know it today – was born, and it was in this society that the concept of individuality came into being. The new social dimensions of early modernity created the sense of an audience, while at the same time invoking a greater awareness of internal space. Modern society required of its inhabitants to present themselves as being sincere and the most effective way to see to this demand was to ‘sincerely act the part of the sincere person.’
Sincerity rhetoric makes its way into Russian political discourse in the late-eighteenth century. Even though the Russian-language equivalent of sincerity – iskrennost’ – already occurred in written sources from the eleventh century onwards, it wasn’t until then that sincerity was used within a distinctly political context in Russia. In her book Sincerity after Communism (2017), cultural historian Ellen Rutten argues that in eighteenth-century Russia a ‘conceptual transition’ took place: inspired by French revolutionary thinking, Russian sentimentalists framed sincerity as a moral trait specifically accredited to ‘the common people.’ The sentimentalists’ preoccupation with sincerity brought about a concurrent interest in a different notion that still flourishes in current political debates on socioeconomic inequality, that of hypocrisy.
The newly acquired sense of nationhood that characterized the nineteenth century generated an entirely different political paradigm. In this paradigm, the notion of sincerity became an important rhetorical tool in the construction of a national identity. Russian thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy and the Nihilist movement eagerly projected the notion of sincerity onto their own nation-state. As Rutten illustrates, these thinkers constructed sincerity as a moral trait specifically within reach of the Russian people, whose cultural identity they defined in opposition to Western Europe. As I will illustrate below, this binary opposition of ‘Russian sincerity’ versus ‘western hypocrisy’ is still a powerful axiom in the construction of a national Russian identity.
Under communist rule, the notion of sincerity attracted heightened attention. As Igal Halfin explains in his book Terror in My Soul (2003), the ‘soul-judging framework’ implemented during the Great Purge could present anyone as an enemy in disguise. In order to avoid persecution it became imperative to subscribe to the ideals of Soviet socialism or – at least – to be perceived as a sincere advocate of these ideals in the public domain.
The debate on sincerity takes a new turn in the latter half of the twentieth century. Shortly after the death of Stalin, former police investigator and author Vladimir Pomerantsev published an essay entitled ‘On Sincerity in Literature’ (1953). In this influential essay Pomerantsev criticized the varnishing of reality during the Stalinist era and pleaded for a revised concept of sincerity. His essay triggered an influential debate amongst the intelligentsia about what it meant to be true to oneself, and, the concept of sincerity became instrumental in discussing and confronting collective traumas of the Stalinist period.
Although contemporary politicians might not consciously or deliberately revert to – say – the classical concept of parrhesia or the eighteenth-century sentimentalist’ understanding of sincerity, these historical readings have been formative for the ways in which politicians today employ the notion of sincerity in their political language. So, how exactly do Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, and Ksenia Sobchak make use of sincerity as a tool for political legitimization?
Vladimir Putin: the hyper-masculine and sincere realist
President Vladimir Putin makes use of a highly gendered political rhetoric. As political scientist Valerie Sperling argues in her book Sex, Politics, and Putin (2014), the Kremlin employs Putin’s hyper-masculinity as a ‘vehicle for power.’ This hyper-masculine discourse is inextricably linked with a so-called ‘fight against political correctness.’ Under the pretense of expressing ‘genuine feelings’, political scientist Tatiana Zhurzhenko argues, Putin’s style of political communication enables him to ‘transgress cultural conventions and political taboos, such as the ban on sexism and racism.’
Putin actively foregrounds his own sincerity as the basis of his popular success. Not unlike the Renaissance ideal of sincerity – in which one needed to be perceived as sincere in public life to avoid falsehood towards others – Putin incessantly emphasizes his own sincerity to avoid the idea of dishonesty in the public domain. For example, when Putin was asked how he managed to receive such high support from the Russian constituency, he answered that the Russian people see how ‘openly, honestly, and sincerely [he] strives to achieve the results that the country needs.’
Although popular media often emphasize Putin’s antagonistic relationship with ‘the West’, in a diplomatic context, Putin systematically employs a tactful rhetoric of sincerity when he speaks about his western political counterparts. He explicitly associates the notion of sincerity with the concept of trust. In an interview with Bild-Zeitung, for example, Putin referred to Chancellor Angela Merkel as a ‘very sincere [and] professional person whom he trusts highly.’ In this (and many other) statements, Putin employs the notions of sincerity and trust as rhetorical ‘detours’ to pre-empt or canalize political conflict or to avoid politically sensitive subjects.
President Vladimir Putin congratulates German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her birthday. Source: Kremlin.ru.
This diplomatic discourse is in stark contrast to Putin’s rhetoric of sincerity in a nationalist context. Here Putin relentlessly articulates Russia’s political authority in opposition to western culture. At first sight, this strategy parallels the rhetorical device that – as we saw above – such intellectuals as Leo Tolstoy employed in the nineteenth century. Putin’s political language, however, has taken a new turn: where nineteenth-century nationalists vehemently attacked the Russian elite for being ‘westernized’ and, thus, insincere, Putin gladly embraces the (political) elite as the sincerest social stratum within Russian society.
Putin particularly makes use of this rhetoric when he talks about Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In a speech about the controversial Crimean referendum of 2014, for example, Putin said that he perceived ‘western interference in Ukraine as actions directed against the integration of Eurasian space, at a time when Russia sincerely sought a dialogue with [its] colleagues in the West.’ Here and elsewhere, Putin constructs the ‘hegemonic West’ as an aggressor against whom he should protect both Russia and other countries in the post-Soviet space. Under the pretense of ‘Eurasian integration’, this geopolitical construct has not only been deployed as a legitimization strategy to justify irredentist claims to regions in the post-Soviet sphere, but also to mobilize actual military power.
Alexei Navalny: Sincerity and digital media platforms
Central to Alexei Navalny’s political discourse is the antagonistic relationship with his opponents. For Navalny, the issue of sincerity is tightly interwoven with a wider debate on socioeconomic inequality, corruption, and the need for political reform. This is highly reminiscent of the role sincerity played in similar discussions in the eighteenth century.
Not unlike eighteenth-century discourse on sincerity, both the political opposition and those with close ties to the authorities characterize themselves as ‘sincere’ and socially engaged, while projecting a negative image of hypocrisy onto each other. Take – for example – the recent ‘YouTube battle’ between Alexei Navalny and Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov. In a series of video blogs, both men repeatedly accused one another of dishonesty, and, through a fierce rhetoric of sincerity, appropriated the act of ‘truth-telling’ as their own distinctive feature.
To make a broader public susceptible to these pleas against hypocrisy, Navalny actively engages with new media tools. His political strategy consists of a fusion between politics and media entertainment in which he perfectly combines memes with uncompromising political criticism and catchy one-liners with the discussion of serious socio-political issues.
A still from Alexei Navalny’s video blog about Alisher Usmanov in which he compares Usmanov to a ‘gangster rapper.’ Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sM8_EvVD4iw.
Navalny not only employs a rhetoric of sincerity to talk about his political adversaries, but also to promote his own political agenda. In a flyer entitled ‘how to campaign for Navalny’, for example, he advises his campaigners ‘to be themselves [because] everyone likes naturalness and sincerity.’ And on his presidential campaign website, Navalny writes that ‘without […] propaganda [he] achieved what no other Russian politician has achieved before – the sincere support of ordinary people.’
These examples illustrate the strategic sincerity rhetoric that Navalny employs. That his purportedly ‘sincere’ team consciously attracts ‘sincere’ fans through keen media campaigning is something that his blog posts do not mention. What they do offer, are consistent readings of the notion of sincerity as a political virtue. The classical ideal of parrhesia is clearly reflected in Navalny’s political language. He frames sincerity as a ‘moral obligation’ and employs the notion as a tool to emphasize a higher morality on the side of his supporters.
Ksenia Sobchak: A new sincerity
According to activist and poet Kirill Medvedev, appeals to sincerity, authenticity, and direct expression are a natural reaction to the restrictive political culture in Russia. He argues that this ‘new sincerity’ (a concept first introduced by Russian conceptual poet Dmitri Prigov in the mid-1980s) is an inevitable outcome of the synthesis of two mutually contradictory, antithetical paradigms – the Soviet paradigm and that of postmodernism. In Medvedev’s words, these paradigms blended into a schismatic political culture that ‘never fully grasped the ambivalence of postmodern theory […] replacing the dead author with a uniquely living, all-consuming “I”.’ He points to Ksenia Sobchak as an example of this ‘new sincerity.’
The duality in Russian political discourse that Medvedev describes is similar to the ambiguity that characterizes Sobchak’s political language. Even though Sobchak frames herself as an oppositionist, her support for the political opposition persistently coincides with some sort of side note or relativization. On ‘elite network’ Snob.ru, for instance, Sobchak praises political activist and Pussy Riot-member Yekaterina Samutsevich for her ‘sincere and pure personality’, only to then call her ‘an absolute child […] and a confused, introvert girl.’
Ksenia Sobchak speaking at a rally in Moscow against a backdrop that reads ‘for honest elections.’ Source: Wikimedia Commons
Similar to the classical notion of parrhesia and not unlike Alexei Navalny’s rhetoric of sincerity, Sobchak presents sincerity as an admirable political virtue that she specifically attributes to the opposition. At the same time, however, she formulates it as an unfeasible property. In Sobchak’s success-driven, ‘dog-eat-dog’ world there is no time for undiluted virtuousness or moralism. She frames sincerity as a commendable, yet infantile quality, therewith presenting the political opposition as childish and naïve; all the while, incorporating the notion of sincerity into a regressive and anti-liberal discourse through which she tries to validate a highly traditionalist political agenda.
What do my findings teach us? The current political preoccupation with sincerity has two main manifestations. On the one hand, politicians appropriate the act of ‘truth-telling’ by laying claims to sincerity and moral righteousness. On the other hand, they project a negative image of hypocrisy onto a constitutive ‘Other’, whether that is the western political elite (read: Putin), progressive liberalism (read: Sobchak), or the Kremlin and the oligarchy (read: Navalny). Even though – at first sight – this might look like an innocent discursive strategy, there are wider implications to consider.
A somewhat similar dynamic is visible in populist discourse in Western Europe and the United States, where (mostly right-wing) populists frame themselves as the ‘sincere’ alternative to the ‘liberal elite’ and employ the notion of sincerity as a tool to express ‘genuine feelings.’ In the name of free speech, these politicians allow themselves to transgress political taboos, often resorting to racist, homophobic, or sexist slurs. In this ‘post-truth’ rhetoric, political claims no longer have to be supported by facts; statements are primarily measured on the basis of their emotional persuasiveness.
This rhetoric is underpinned by a firm belief that ‘sincere expression’ equals the right to say anything at all (regardless of its discriminatory, racist, or sexist content). This interpretation of straight talk as ‘having a right to say what others only dare to think’ poses a significant threat to our deliberative democracy – it enables those that employ a rhetoric of sincerity to devaluate other political actors without ever having to get into a substantiated debate.
It is, therefore, imperative to critically reflect upon the notion of sincerity as a tool for political legitimization – not just in Russia, but also in Western Europe and the United States. We can only understand the practical implications of this rhetoric, if we first expose the sociohistorical forces and cultural narratives that feed it. By exploring the language of three central figures in Russia’s political landscape, my thesis, as well as this article, were one attempt to do so.
Barbara Roggeveen studied Slavic languages and Cultures (BA) at the University of Amsterdam and law (LL.B) at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. During her studies, she worked as an intern at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in St. Petersburg and the Atlantic Council in Washington DC. She currently studies Russian and East European studies (M.Phil) at the University of Oxford.
 http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53455: [...] Думаю, что люди видят, что я работаю напряжённо, открыто, честно и искренне стремлюсь к достижению тех результатов, которые нужны стране. [...] Но полагаю, что главным является искреннее стремление к максимальному результату, к тому, чтобы страна чувствовала себя в большей безопасности, а люди жили лучше […].
 http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/51154: […] [Вопрос] Вопросы санкций, а также вопросы Крыма Вы часто обсуждали с госпожой Федеральным канцлером Ангелой Меркель. [...] Вы доверяете ей? [В. Путин] Да, я уверен, что она очень искренний человек. У неё есть определённые рамки, в которых она должна работать, но она искренне, и в этом я не сомневаюсь, стремится к поиску решений по урегулированию в том числе и ситуации на юго-востоке Украины. […] [Вопрос] Каково Ваше отношение сейчас к госпоже Федеральному канцлеру? [...] [В. Путин] Я и сейчас к ней так отношусь. Я уже сказал, что она очень искренний человек, очень профессиональный. Во всяком случае, уровень доверия, мне кажется, очень высокий. […]
 http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20603: […] Мы понимаем, что происходит, понимаем, что эти действия были […] против интеграции на евразийском пространстве. И это в то время, когда Россия искренне стремилась к диалогу с нашими коллегами на Западе. Мы постоянно предлагаем сотрудничество по всем ключевым вопросам, хотим укреплять уровень доверия, хотим, чтобы наши отношения были равными, открытыми и честными. […].
https://mmd.navalny.com/media/flyers/h18agitmanual2017-05-24.pdf: “Как агитировать за Навального: советы, аргументы, вопросы” […] Будьте собой: Естественность и искренность нравятся всем. […]
 https://snob.ru/selected/entry/53948: [...] Я увидела в ней абсолютного ребенка — передо мной был человек с энергией детства, наивности и безрассудства. [...] Во всяком случае, лично я увидела растерянную интровертную девушку [...] В целом я могу сделать несколько выводов из интервью. Первое: она очень искренний человек и, несмотря на содеянное, чистый. [...]