Svetlana Stephenson, Professor of Sociology at London Metropolitan and the autor of Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power (2015) has studied Russian criminal culture for a long time. She now shares her brief analysis.
Since Putin first became president, a number of peculiar notions and expressions have entered the Russian political lexicon: mochit v sortire (“snuff them out in the latrines”), otvetka (“retaliation”), patsan skazal, patsan sdelal (“the lad said, the lad did”) and other expressions originating from street gang culture, which was traditionally antagonistic towards the state. Such expressions are now being used to emphasize the firm determination of the authorities to restore the dignity of the country (“Russia needs to rise up from its knees”) and to repel all potential enemies.
In fact, it was Boris Yeltsin who began the political rhetoric associated with the restoration of the nation’s dignity. In his inaugural speech as president of the Russian Federation in 1991, Yeltsin said: “Great Russia is rising from its knees! We will surely turn it into a prosperous, democratic, peace-loving, law-abiding and sovereign state”. However, unlike the rhetoric of Yeltsin, who associated dignity with prosperity, democracy and the rule of law, when Vladimir Putin became president, the idea of restoring dignity began to be expressed through violence. As Putin said when he was prime minister: “Russia can rise up from its knees and strike hard”. Thus, in Putin’s rhetoric, the language of dignity is replaced with the language of honor. While dignity relies on inherent, inalienable qualities, honor is an attribute that requires external recognition. Dignity is protected by law, while honor is defended by violence or the threat of violence.
The culture of honor is characteristic of traditional societies, and there are still a few groups in the modern world whose relations are regulated according to its precepts. These are mainly closed masculine communities, street gangs and mafia groups, and, to a certain extent, military and security structures (1). The idea that the world of human relations is hierarchical and that one must defend one’s place in this hierarchy by all possible means, including violence, still prevails here.
Putin’s appeal to the language of real’nye patsany (true lads) used by members of street and criminal gangs can be explained by his own biography: his childhood and youth spent on the streets of Leningrad, his close interaction with members of post-Soviet organized crime when he was deputy to the then Mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and his many years of service as a KGB/FSB officer. But it was the language of the street gang that proved most suitable in expressing a vision of the world, built on the idea that one has to constantly demonstrate force or the willingness to use it. The patsan is the sovereign of his own territory, and he must always insist on his will. If he falters, his reputation inevitably suffers, and as a result he becomes a potential victim. As in other traditional honor cultures, the patsan‘s code (ponyatiya) includes the need to dominate in any situation, the principle of unity of word and action (the requirement to take responsibility for one’s words), the prohibition of displaying weapons without being prepared to use them, unconditional loyalty to fellow gang members, and no real obligation to those who do not belong to the gang (2).
Issues related to notions of honor have repeatedly appeared in statements made by Putin and members of his circle. In early 2000, in an interview with Mikhail Leontiev, responding to the journalist’s words about the International Monetary Fund slighting Russia by making endless claims and demands, Putin interrupted him by saying, “Whoever slights us will not live three days. Don’t even talk about ‘slights’.” According to gang code, it is forbidden to complain about a slight, because by doing so one admits one’s weakness and becomes a victim. A real patsan should not complain, but respond with force. Being weak inevitably opens one up to attack. In 2004, speaking about the Beslan hostage-taking, Putin said that the terrorists, and those who support and guide them, took advantage of Russia’s weakness. “We showed weakness. And the weak get beaten. Some people will try to snatch the best food from our plates, while others will support and assist them.”
In later rhetoric, the mores of the street began to be cited to justify the need for external intervention. Speaking at the 2015 Valdai Forum, Putin justified Russia’s decision to intervene in the conflict in Syria by saying, “Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me the rule: If a fight is inevitable, you must strike first.”
Following Putin’s lead, other state officials have begun to explain their behavior by referring to their honor and the need to defend it with violence. In 2018, General Zolotov, head of the National Guard, publicly challenged Alexei Navalny demanding “satisfaction” after Navalny had accused Zolotov of embezzling funds from state procurement. Zolotov threatened Navalny with physical retaliation. According to philologist Maxim Krongauz, in his address Zolotov mixed Soviet bureaucratic vocabulary with gang and army slang, and also used references to notions of aristocratic honor. Navalny suggested that Zolotov’s charges be settled in court instead.
Direct nayezd (aggressive verbal provocation) of opponents has also been used by members of the Russian diplomatic corps. When a member of a street gang anywhere in the world meets a potential victim, it is common for them to open the conversation with a demand that the person either looks them in eye or, on the contrary, stops staring at them – before the victim is inevitably relieved of their money or belongings. By using this technique, they immediately put themselves in a dominant position, forcing the victim to play by their rules (3). Speaking at the UN in 2017, Vladimir Safronkov, deputy representative of the Russian Federation, in a patsan-like manner, attacked the British representative, demanding from him “Look at me. Don’t look away. Why are you looking away?” Mockery of one’s opponent and insulting them publicly do not undermine the reputation of the patsan, but, on the contrary, reinforce it.
It is the word of the patsan, not abstract legal norms, that has the force of law. In February 2022, Sergey Lavrov, interviewed by RT, said that Russia would be seeking a fair deal in its security dialogue with the U.S. “We will push for everything to be fair. I don’t want to resort to jargon, but we have a saying, “The lad said, the lad did.” Such ponyatiya should be respected at the international level as well,” he added.
Honor cultures are not characterised by the experience of guilt. Guilt and remorse are linked to universal ethics, to the idea of a conscience. The Soviet philologist Yarkho, for example, wrote about this when discussing the lack of a conscience in the heroes of ancient Greek tragedy.
The experience of shame and disgrace caused by the loss of reputation, however, is common in traditional communities guided by honor. The denial of responsibility in cases that could lead to reputational loss (such as the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing over Donbass, or the strikes on civilian targets in the war against Ukraine) is fully consistent with this cultural logic.
But where representatives of an honor culture threaten someone, they must be prepared to carry out these threats. This sense of resolve was reflected in Putin’s statement in April 2022 when, speaking about Russia’s response to strategic threats, he said that all the tools for response were in place and, if necessary, would be used without delay: “We will not brag about them, we will use them.”
Endless anxiety about the recognition of one’s reputation, a readiness to respond immediately to perceived threats, contempt for the weak, denial of universal norms and a hardline adherence to one’s own conception of morality — all these attitudes found in street gang culture are reproduced in the political behavior of the Russian authorities. They are incompatible with the modern world, and have contributed significantly to Russia’s dramatic break with it.
- Jardar Østbø. Corrupt and Honorable, Gangster and Nobleman: Naval′nyi, Zolotov, and the Conflicting Moral Cultures in Russian Politics. Cultural Politics 1 July 2020; 16 (2): 171–19.
- Svetlana Stephenson. Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power. Cornell UP, 2015.
- Jack Katz. Seductions of Crime. Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil. NY: Basic Books, 1988.