Bakhtin’s Carnival as Part of Democratic Elections: A Reexamination

First published in 2008 in volume 6, issue 1 of Controversia: An International Journal of Debate and Democratic Renewal, sponsored by the Open Society Institute and the International Debate Education Association (IDEA).

Posted on Nov. 29, 2011

This essay was written in response to James Janack’s “Vladimir Zhirinovsky: The Clown Prince of Russia,” which appeared in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Controversia. It offers a critique of Janack’s portrayal of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who received just over 9% of votes in Russia’s most recent (2008) presidential election, as a carnivalistic candidate of the early 1990s and questions the applicability of certain elements of Michail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival – particularly the concepts of free and familiar contact and carnival’s temporality – as tools of rhetorical criticism and analysis of political discourse in modern democracies.


The 2008 presidential election in Russia was, by many measures, a curious affair. The outcome of the election seemed to have been known for at least a year: as early as in 2005, the majority of voters believed that if President Vladimir Putin did step down at the end of his second term as the Constitution required him to do, his hand-picked “successor” (preyemnik) would surely be elected.[1]

Importantly, whether Putin would leave office at the end of his second term was an open question until just a few months before the election, with analysts busily speculating about possible steps Putin could take to remain in office. Were he to pursue any of those options, he would have done so with the apparent consent of a sizable part of Russia’s electorate. According to a February 2007 poll, 60% of voters supported “the idea to allow Vladimir Putin to remain president for three or more terms.” In May 2007, 59% of respondents were willing to see the Constitution amended to allow Putin to be elected for a third term (Levada-Center “Presidentsky”). In the event, Russia’s voters were given, instead, the option of electing Dmitri Medvedev – a deputy prime minister who did not become the leading contender until he received Mr. Putin’s all-important endorsement as his preferred successor. Mr. Medvedev, who was quick to promise to not only continue Putin’s programs, but also appoint his mentor to the post of Prime Minister, received over 70% of the votes cast in the March 2, 2008 election.

It is no surprise, then, that this exceedingly predictable election did not generate as much excitement in the western press as, say, the 2008 presidential contest in the United States, where the outcome is likely to remain anyone’s guess until Election Day. Yet, a closer look at the presidential race in Russia is warranted for the following reasons.

For one, despite Putin’s high ratings, the field of presidential contenders in the 2008 election was much more vibrant than could be expected in a country portrayed by the western press as a place in an iron grip of the ex-KGB officer-turned-President. Despite all the flaws of the Russian political system – and such flaws are many – in the 2008 presidential election Russia’s voters still had a real choice among several candidates who had a reasonable chance to get their message out to the people.[2] The fact that the exact outcome of the election seemed predetermined is best explained not by the limitations of Russia’s “pseudo-democarcy,” but as a function of the unusually high popularity of president Putin, who enjoys the kind of support so intense and fatalistic that it has started to resemble a personality cult (see polling numbers cited above). Putin’s supporters may be forgiven for their exuberance, though, considering Russia’s dramatic comeback under his rule from the abyss of the 1990s.

Still, Putin’s hold on the public’s imagination was far from absolute. According to opinion polls conducted by the Levada Analytical Center, one of the most widely respected public opinion and marketing research organizations in Russia, throughout all twelve months of 2007 neither Sergey Ivanov (another deputy prime minister who had been considered a possible recipient of President Putin’s endorsement) nor Dmitrii Medvedev polled at more than 36%, and up to 56 percent of Russia’s voters who intended to participate in the 2008 election said that if the election were held “next Sunday,” they would give their vote to one of the other candidates, with the two leading opposition candidates getting up to 17% of the vote each. (In 2006, individual shares of hypothetical votes for two leading “non-Kremlin” candidates reached and at times even exceeded 20%.)

Even more surprising – at least to casual observers of Russian politics – would be the names of candidates for presidency whose poll numbers reached into double digits throughout 2006 and 2007, for they included not only Gennadi Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), but also Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the founder and leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). This is the same Vladimir Zhirinovsky whose unorthodox self-presentation and political views brought him notoriety and name recognition, but also made it difficult for many observers both in Russia and abroad to see him as a serious contender. A “protest” candidate of the tumultuous 1990s, his career was supposed to be all but finished as Russia slowly returned to stability under Putin. In 2005, James Janack concluded his analysis of Mr. Zhirinovsky’s rise and (apparently overstated) fall by observing, “Russians may have looked elsewhere for politicians who seemed to get work done.” And yet, here is Mr. Zhirinovsky three years later, receiving the support of over 9% of Russia’s voters – down from the high of 21% in an October 2006 poll, but still better than in his previous runs and strong enough to place him in third place after CPRF’s Gennadi Zyuganov, who received 17% of the votes in the March 2, 2008 election.[3]

Mr. Zhirinovsky’s unexpected resiliency presents us with an opportunity to revisit Michail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, which was used by Janack to explain Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s rhetoric and political fortunes. (For another application of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival to contemporary political rhetoric, see Janack’s analysis of the rise and fall of Jesse Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, pro-wrestler and movie actor who was elected as governor of Minnesota in 1998 and served one term, choosing not to run for reelection in 2002.[4] ) A re-examination of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival as a tool of rhetorical criticism is important for two main reasons:

First, several elements of Janack’s analysis, which is based on an application of Bakhtin’s theory, appear to be internally and externally inconsistent. Specifically, the concepts of free and familiar contact, appropriation of carnival, and temporality need to be re-examined. (For example, Mr. Zhirinovsky’s resiliency challenges Janack’s prediction, drawn from Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, that the LDPR leader’s political glory days were predetermined to be limited by the temporary nature of carnival, which he represented.) Such inconsistencies raise the question of how applicable certain elements of Bakhtin’s theory in its present form are to contemporary democratic politics. At a minimum, they signal a need for a theoretical clarification.

Second, an examination of possible limitations of Bakhtin’s theory in the context of modern politics may direct our attention to alternative explanations of political successes of third-party (or, in the case of Russia, second-party) candidates. This final consideration is becoming increasingly salient as political parties that used to exist on the fringe of European politics, particularly those on the far right of the political spectrum, continue to gain ground in local, regional, and national elections across Europe. Even when these parties do not win elections outright, they manage to influence the tone and tenor of political discourse and potentially even public policies – for example, by legitimizing the discussion of immigrants as a threat and a socio-economic problem to be solved. Continuing to develop an accurate understanding of these parties’ appeal, and the voters’ apparent willingness to overlook the less than respectable aspects of their political programs and/or rhetoric seems especially important in this context.

The Remarkable Mr. Zhirinovsky

Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky has been, arguably, the most colorful character in Russian politics since the time he stormed Russia’s political bon monde in 1991. A three-time presidential candidate (counting his 2008 run) who had the support of close to 8% of Russia’s voters in his first run for the post in 1991, a member of Russia’s lower house of the parliament (Duma) since 1993, its Vice Speaker since 2003, and the founding leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which held a quarter of the seats in the Duma – more than any other party – at the peak of its popularity in the mid-nineteen nineties, he remains one of the most recognizable Russian politicians both domestically and abroad. What makes Mr. Zhirinovsky’s achievements particularly worthy of notice is that his public persona, his sometimes scandalous (but then always widely publicized) behavior, and select public pronouncements and acts that could (and have been) classified as no less than outrageous, have earned him a reputation among observers and voters alike of someone not quite respectable, someone not to be taken too seriously, a kind of a clown even.

It would seem quite fitting, then, that Michail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival would be employed to explain Zhirinovsky’s remarkable success. In his essay, “Vladimir Zhirinovsky: The Clown Prince of Russia,” James Janack argued that at least part of Zhirinovsky’s appeal to the Russian voters in the early 1990s can be explained by his enactment of carnival, as conceptualized by Michail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World and Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. This thesis is consistent with the common (and, I think, accurate) view that for some of his supporters, the political outsider Zhirinovsky was a “protest” candidate, and by voting for him they were symbolically rejecting both the economic reforms that had reduced them to paupers and the entire political establishment that made those reforms possible. Janack’s analysis demonstrates convincingly that certain defining elements of Bakhtin’s carnival – particularly the bodily imagery and the ambiguity of words and actions – where clearly present in Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s rhetoric and campaign tactics. Zhirinovsky’s vivid accounts of co-ed urination in pre-school daycare and his recurring references to various sexual themes – including masturbation, homosexuality, and prostitution – as metaphors for political behavior may seem shockingly out of place from the vantage point of traditional western-style political campaigning, but they fit in naturally in the context of a carnival as conceptualized by Bakhtin. By debasing the realm of contemporary politics, such imagery and language play the same role as the literal drenching in urine and slinging of dung did during medieval carnivals.

A more elegant contemporary example of debasing the political arena through carnivalistic mockery but without the use of bodily imagery can be found in Michael Moore’s stunt in 2000 in the 11th congressional district in New Jersey, where he had a ficus – of the potted plan variety (!) – mount an election challenge to the Republican incumbent who had expected to run unopposed. The challenge, complete with campaign headquarters and staff, press conferences, meetings with editorial boards, public rallies, lawn signs and bumper stickers, persistent calls for a debate with the incumbent (talk about debasement!), visits to Capitol Hill, etc. was replicated by enthusiastic voters in 20 other congressional districts across twenty states (“Ficus”).

Similarly, inconsistent public pronouncements cease being unforgivable errors once we view them through the prism of ambiguity and evaluate them using the ethic of the loophole, which allows  “…the retention for oneself of the possibility for altering the ultimate, final meaning of one’s own words” (Bakhtin, “Problems” 233, qtd. in Janack, “Vladimir” 25). Both ambiguity and the ethic of the loophole are key elements in Bakhtin’s theory of carnival.

However, other elements of Janack’s analysis are less convincing. Three elements of Bakhtin’s theory as applied by Janack – free and familiar contact, temporality of carnival, and appropriation of carnival – in particular raise a number of questions about the uses of Bakhtin’s theory in its present form as a tool of rhetorical analysis in the context of modern democratic politics.

Free and Familiar Contact: A Sign of Carnival or Essential Part of a Democratic Process?

While Bakhtin’s notions of bodily imagery and ambiguity as characteristics of carnival do offer a partial explanation of the willingness by a small but not insignificant group of Russia’s voters to overlook Mr. Zhirinovsky’s less than dignified behavior and sometimes confusing statements, another key element of Bakhtin’s carnival discussed by Janack – free and familiar contact – shows some strain marks when used to explain Mr. Zhirinovsky’s rhetorical choices. Not that free and familiar contact with the voters was not a prominent part of Zhirinovsky’s campaign rhetoric, for it certainly was. Rather, it seems debatable whether such contact was an element of carnival (as conceptualized by Bakhtin) or a common tool of a political candidate operating within the constraints of a democratic electoral process. In a democratic electoral process, free and familiar contact is hardly unique to politicians exhibiting “carnivalesque” traits (two other examples cited by Janack are Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota, and to a lesser degree, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California). Neither Zhirinovsky’s descriptions of his deprived childhood, nor his interactions with the voters, in which he addressed prospective supporters using direct and easily accessible language, amount to a “‘temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank’ that allows for ‘a special type of communication’ during carnival time, a type of communication that is not governed by the rules of propriety outside of carnival (Bakhtin, “Rabelais” 10),” as Janack suggests (21).

First, it is not clear that there was any “hierarchical rank” to be suspended, or “impenetrable hierarchical barriers” to be overcome in the case of a novice political candidate with no institutional power seeking votes in a democratic election process. After all, Zhirinovsky did not yet belong to political or economic elites.[5] To the contrary, one could argue that the simple language of Zhirinovsky’s books and public speeches notwithstanding, the LDPR’s leader actually sought to erect symbolic barriers where none had previously existed  – by ensuring, for example, that he was always accompanied by an entourage of assistants/bodyguards, nicknamed Zhirinovsky’s Falcons, who were often dressed in military-style uniforms. According to a campaign spokesman interviewed by a New York Times reporter in 1993, the uniforms were used for “”representational” purposes – like a “presidential guard’” (Bohlen). One could interpret this as yet another element of carnival, but it certainly does not look like an attempt to suspend all distance and hierarchy, real or imagined.

Second, and more important, the ability to establish “free and familiar contact” with the voters makes electoral success in a representative democracy more likely, so most politicians operating in political systems with at least some democratic pretensions try to include such contact into their repertoire. As Janack acknowledges, Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification provides a good explanation of this behavior. What Janack  does not explain is why Zhirinovsky’s rhetorical choices are best explained as manifestations of Bakhtin’s carnival and not as examples of Burkean identification.

If the purpose of invoking Bakhtin’s carnival is to differentiate Zhirinovsky and other politicians Janack classifies as “carnivalesque” from “traditional,” non-carnivalesque political actors, then the test of free and familiar contact is not a very reliable tool for the task. For example, in the United States, even bona fide patricians, such as President George W. Bush and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, attempt to present themselves as “regular folks” while on the campaign trail, and so did Boris Yeltsin when he ran for office in the 1990s. That a candidate who could claim legitimately to be “one of the people” – in contrast to the highly privileged Soviet apparatchiks and their scions – would highlight his humble origins is only natural. The same objection can be made to Janack’s use of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival to explain Jesse Ventura’s political ascent to the office of governor of Minnesota. One can expect people who are led to believe that they live in a democracy to feel entitled to maintaining free and familiar contact with their elected officials. All savvy candidates try to meet this expectation by mingling with potential voters every once in a while and presenting themselves as close to “the people” as they can. Whatever rank and socioeconomic class differences may exist get downplayed as much as possible; some politicians are simply better positioned to play this game than others. President George W. Bush (as privileged as political candidates come) naturally has the speech mannerisms of “regular folk.” The same could be said of the late President Yeltsin, a life-long member of the Soviet nomenclatura who retained the vernacular and mannerisms (not to mention love of a stiff drink) of a stereotypical Russian peasant. Senator John Kerry, on the other hand, sounds like a blue-blooded aristocrat no matter how hard he tries not to. Nevertheless, try he did in 2004, albeit with mixed results.

It is no secret that the ritualistic behaviors enacted by political candidates and the electorate are often less than genuine. For example, by the most conservative estimates, at least half of U.S. Senators are millionaires – hardly representative of the less than 1% of US population blessed with a net worth of $1 million or more (Holzer, 2006). Thus, it could be argued that an element of some sort of carnival is inherent in the politics of modern democratic electioneering in the U.S. and, to a lesser or greater extent, in Russia and other countries with political elites nominally representing “the people” but in reality far removed from the populus both socially and economically.

If nothing else, the metaphor highlights the artifice of political candidates crisscrossing the continent in private jets so they can attend endless cookouts and barbecues with people they do not know and consume endless servings of what can be presumed to be really unhealthy food. Is it then not appropriate to describe all “free and familiar contact” taking place under such circumstances as a manifestation of Bakhtin’s carnival? Must we choose between Burke and Bakhtin’s theories, declaring one to be better than the other?  Can both not apply? These are valid questions (and they have, in fact, been asked by one of the reviewers of this essay prior to its publication); my answers are, respectively, “no,” “yes,” and “no.” Here is why:

First of all, we have to assume that some instances of the free and familiar contact between elected officials and their constituents in modern western-style democracies are not carefully scripted and staged performances, but genuine human interactions, part of normal everyday life consistent with the ideals of a true democracy (broadly defined as “government of the people, for the people, by the people”). Labeling such interactions “carnivalesque” would be simply inaccurate.

Second, when free and familiar contact between “the people” and “the government” is not a normal modus operandi of a democratic process but rather an element of a performance enacted at strategic moments (e.g. shortly before elections) and for strategic purposes (e.g. to demonstrate that the actor is one of the regular folk), the function and meaning of this performance are different from the ones carnivals had in the XVI century Europe.

As suggested by Bakhtin and his interpreters, in the time of Gargantua and Pantagruel the carnival signaled a temporary liberation from very real class differences that were obvious to (and acknowledged by) everyone involved. In a modern democracy, substantive class differences are supposed either to not exist (the United States represents a prime example of this mass fantasy) or to be of no real consequence for the democratic process. The periodically enacted carnival of pre-election “town hall meetings”; visits by political candidates to senior centers, schools, and firehouses; and other vehicles of free and familiar contact are routinely used to perpetuate this illusion. Thus, while the elements of Rabelais’ carnival may be present in the political process, the function of this carnival is not to liberate (at least temporarily) the society from the clutches of a readily acknowledged class hierarchy, but rather to perpetuate an illusion that no class hierarchy exists. This allows political classes to preserve the status quo by helping “the people” believe that they already live in a true representative democracy and that no major political change is necessary.

This distinction is critically important, for it points out that although we may use the same word to describe carnivals in medieval Europe and the carnival of western democratic electioneering, we are dealing with two drastically different phenomena. Despite all the ambiguity and role inversion that characterized European carnivals analyzed by Bakhtin, those carnivals were inherently honest. At no time was there any confusion about what was going on (a temporary suspension of certain rules), when or how it was going to end (on a predetermined date, with a return to the status quo) or what would change as a result (nothing). When confusion did arise, consequences could be quite dramatic. For example, M. Lane Bruner cites the example of an incident in XVI century Romans, France. One year, the poor people decided to have their own carnival, separate from the rich. When the carnival began to resemble a brewing uprising (among other things, the poor held mock military parades with mock weapons) the rich of the town “massacred the leaders of the poor people’s carnival, and after the official return of ‘law and order’ they publicly tortured and hanged the remaining rebel leaders and massacred thousands of peasants in the nearby countryside” (142, citing Ladurie, 218-28).

In contrast to the inherent honesty of Bakhtin’s carnival, the carnival of free and familiar contact in modern democracies – insofar as such contact is, indeed, an element of a carnival rather than an expression of a genuine human connection between elected representatives and their constituents – is based on deception: if the public sees through the artifice of the act, the device loses its power. As a technique of identification, it is only effective if all (or, at least, most) participants actually believe it is real. And if it is not real, but people are led to believe that it is, they are not acting as willing participants of a joyous celebration, which is what Bakhtin’s carnival is supposed to be. Rather, they become unsuspecting victims of a political con man, a swindler, a conniving hack. The swindle can certainly be described in terms of Burkean identification, but calling it a “carnival” would be not only unduly charitable, but also technically inaccurate. A more appropriate term here is “fraud.” Former US Senator Fred Thompson’s infamous – or famous, depending on one’s ethical stance on the matter – use of a red pickup truck as a prop in his 1994 and 1996 Senate campaigns is a paradigm case of such identification/fraud. Purchased by his campaign in order to help Thompson win over rural voters in Tennessee, the truck was used strictly to bring Thompson to and from campaign events; after each event, the candidate would swap the truck for a luxury sedan – his preferred mode of ground transportation:

Finishing his talk, Thompson shakes a few hands, then walks out with the rest of the crowd to the red pickup truck he made famous during his 1994 Senate campaign. My friend stands talking with her colleagues as the senator is driven away by a blond, all-American staffer. A few minutes later, my friend gets into her car to head home. As she pulls up to the stop sign at the parking lot exit, rolling up to the intersection is Senator Thompson, now behind the wheel of a sweet silver luxury sedan. He gives my friend a slight nod as he drives past. Turning onto the main road, my friend passes the school’s small, side parking area. Lo and behold: There sits the abandoned red pickup, along with the all-American staffer (Media Matters).

Appropriation of Carnival or Political Plagiarism?

While the observation that Zhirinovsky engaged in free and familiar contact with potential voters (his penchant for uniformed entourage notwithstanding) does not set him apart from other politicians enough to support Janack’s main thesis – to wit, that the carnivalistic, antinomian character of the public persona developed by the LDPR’s leader was a significant factor in his appeal to the voters – it does not weaken it either. However, another line of reasoning advanced by Janack has more profound consequences for his overall thesis.

While discussing “the right of the clown to be ‘other’ in this world,” Janack references Zhirinovsky’s biographers’ assessment of what they call “political plagiarism” perpetrated by the Russian government vis-à-vis Zhirinovsky. In particular, the author quotes Solovyov and Klepikova, who contend that in 1994 “there wasn’t a single foreign or domestic policy issue on which the Kremlin did not make a concession in some degree to Zhirinovsky” (216, quoted in Janack, “Vladimir” 34).

Janack sees this “political plagiarism” as an example of “appropriation of carnival by the establishment,” akin to “royal masquerade balls and feasts.” (The idea of the officialdom appropriating carnival is part of Bakhtin’s theory). This interpretation seems rather dubious.  After all, Janack does not claim (or provide any evidence to suggest) that the Kremlin copied or “appropriated” Zhirinovsky’s flamboyant communication style or the bodily imagery invoked in his speeches or any other element of his carnivalesque public persona. Rather, Janack seems to agree with the opinion of Solovyov and Klepnikova that President Boris Yeltsin adopted certain parts of the political program that had been advocated by Mr. Zhirinovsky and his party. This suggests that there was more to Zhirinovsky than clownishness and contradictions or populist “promises of high wages, cheap vodka, and the restoration of empire” (Janack, “Vladimir” 16). More specifically, this suggests that Zhirinovsky had in 1993 a program that was not only appealing to a sizable group of voters, but also realistic (at least in part) in the context of Russia in the early 1990s.[6]

In theory, political plagiarism (understood as appropriation of a political platform) does not completely preclude appropriation of carnival, but it is important to acknowledge that, while compatible, the two are not the same thing. It is equally important to recognize the main implication of the act of political plagiarism: although some elements of carnival may be present in the plagiarized political campaign or candidacy, these elements were unlikely to be the dominant factor in the success of the campaign. (After all, a political platform must contain something of real value for the winning party to plagiarize it.)

In 2004, an informal survey was conducted at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia. About seventy students enrolled in a lecture course on modern Russian politics were presented with 12 major theses from the LDPR’s program adopted at the party’s XIII convention in December 2001. Students were asked to come up with an educated guess about the identity of the party that had produced the program. Here are the results of that survey: 12% thought it belonged to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, 42% identified the source as United Russia party (highly supportive of President Putin) and 30% thought it was President Putin’s own program. A few students believed the program was penned by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In all, over 70% of students were convinced that the program was drafted by the ruling block (President Putin and the United Russia party, which fully supported him). It is important to note that the LDPR’s program, while evolving over the years, has been fairly consistent in its major principles. Thus, the results of this survey were likely caused not by Mr. Zhirinovsky’s shifting positions but by the Kremlin’s gradual adoption of the core of his political program (e.g. centralization of political power and strong support for the military-industrial complex), which also provides a better explanation of the decline in Zhirinovsky’s popularity than carnival’s inherent temporality or LDPR’s alleged failure to see its legislative agenda materialize: as Kremlin’s policies became increasingly reflective of the LDPR’s political program, LDPR’s image as an opposition party became less clearly defined. Thus, while we agree with McFaul when he describes Zhirinovsky as “easily and often bribed into cooperating with the Yeltsin government” (McFaul, 360, cited by Janack “Vladimir” 29), Janack’s suggestion that Zhirinovsky did not achieve anything substantive (“Russians may have looked elsewhere for politicians who seemed to get work done” (29)) seems like an overstatement. It is also at odds with his own analysis: “Indeed, one could argue that Yeltsin, the Communists, and Putin have all contributed to Zhirinovsky’s declining appeal by appropriating some of his language and platform, decreasing the degree of difference between him and other politicians” (29). Surely, influencing the language and platforms of two presidents as well as a major opposition party can, in fact, be considered a major accomplishment.

In 1993, the New York Times summed up the LDPR’s platform in the following way:

… privatization should be limited to small or medium-sized business, land should remain in the state’s hands, industry should be state-controlled and all forms of “speculative trading” should be stopped.

Mr. Zhirinovsky asserts that a halt to Russian assistance to other countries would improve life at home by 30 percent, that increasing arms sales abroad will raise national income by another 30 percent and that the elimination of organized crime will save yet another 30 percent (Bohlen).

Other than the overly optimistic assessments of the potential economic impact of reducing foreign aid and increasing arms sales, nothing in this description is particularly radical, outrageous, or unreasonable. As it happened, in the following decade and a half, and especially under President Putin, the Russian government did maintain – and in some cases increase – state control over major industries and natural resources, particularly natural gas and, with the takeover of Yukos, oil; expand its arm sales by close to 70% between 2000 and 2006 (Bullough); and crack down on the out-of-control crime that characterized much of the 1990s. (Long gone are the days when it was socially acceptable for young men to describe themselves as “bandits,” when the heads of private enterprises were routinely kidnapped and tortured for ransom or assassinated with explosives or high-power rifles, and the distinct lingo and fashions of criminals, previously a fringe sub-culture, were all of a sudden part of Russia’s cultural mainstream.) Centralization of power that took place under President Putin is also consistent with the blueprint of political reforms advocated by Zhirinovsky in the 1990s.

A detailed examination of Zhirinovsky’s political program vis-à-vis Kremlin policies under Presidents Yeltsin and Putin would take us beyond the scope of this commentary, but we believe that it is in Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s political program, and not in the carnivalistic absurdity and irrationality of some of his remarks and behaviors where one will find not only the real source of his popularity in the early 1990s and, more important, the LDPR’s continuing ability to attract highly educated, active supporters.

By 1995, Zhirinovsky had published at least nine works of programmatic scope: The Last Traincar to the North, A Spit to the West, Ideological Foundations of the LDPR, Political Landscape of Russia, With Tanks and Cannons or Without Tanks and Cannons, LDPR’s Guarantees to the Voters, LDPR and Russia’ Military Policy, Zhirinovsky Speaks to Journalists, and Zhirinovsky’s Press-Service is Authorized to Issue a Statement.  Even a cursory analysis of these writings suggests that they were authored by a capable politician able to segment the electorate – the military, students, teachers, retirees, factory workers, collective farm workers, etc. – and find the right message for each group, even if the message is in the title of a book rather than its contents (e.g. A Spit to the West). Message segmentation was critical for Zhirinovsky’s success. Viewed as a whole, his statements may indeed seem contradictory – although, one could argue, no more so than the statements made by many “mainstream” politicians in Russia or the United States, and not necessarily to the extent suggested by Janack.[7] However, even if we accept the thesis that some of Zhirinovsky’s statements indeed lacked consistency, one could expect that his supporters would focus on the parts of his message that were most relevant to their needs and priorities – just as voters seem to do in all democracies. Thus, at least some collective farm workers could be expected to respond positively to his promise to support them at a time when bashing collective farms and other forms of socialist ownership was at its height of popularity. A similar reaction could be expected from military officers and their families, teachers, students, and other groups that received pledges of increased funding and restored respect from the LDPR’s leader. (Importantly, renewed self-respect felt by Russian voters by the end of Putin’s presidency is often cited as one of the major accomplishments of his presidency, together with paid-off foreign debt, a booming economy, and steadily increasing affluence of an expanding middle class.)

Interestingly, appropriation of the LDPR’s platform by the Kremlin has not made either the party or its leader less relevant. This is not terribly surprising, though: after all, we would not expect Democrats in the United States to switch to the Republican Party simply because that party appropriated certain elements of the Democrats’ rhetoric and political platform. The fact that Zhirinovsky was one of the first to advocate policies that were later “plagiarized” by other parties and effectively implemented by Putin could be expected to actually enhance his credibility and strengthen his supporters’ commitment to their leader.

Why does this capable politician and master manipulator dons a clown’s hat with such regularity? Zhirinovsky’s “antics,” which make it so easy to write him off as a “clown,” could be explained by the calculated cunning of a natural-born public relations genius. Perhaps he was one of the first politicians in Russia to recognize and take to the extreme the old dictum “any publicity is good publicity.” Perhaps they are an outgrowth of his personality. A collection of video clips on YouTube provides ample examples of Zhirinovsky’s angry outbursts that seem too genuinely uncontrolled to be premeditated. One of the latest incidents, in which Zhirinovsky repeatedly addressed his opponent in a televised debate as an “idiot” (“pridurok”) and “scoundrel” (“podlets,” “podonok”) and then proceeded to physically attack the man and call on his bodyguard to throw the opponent out of the studio and “shoot him in the hallway,” clearly demonstrates that the LDPR’s leader has no more self-control now than he did in the 1990s (“Shokiruyushee”).[8]

Whatever the causes of Zhirinovsky’s predictably peculiar carnivalesque style, it probably does attract a certain number of disaffected voters who, as Janack and others have argued, use their support for Zhirinovsky and his party to reject not just a particular party or policy, but “the entire prevailing order” (Janack, “Vladimir” 28). Still, one is left to wonder whether in the long run his idiosyncrasies were (and remain) more of a distraction from his populist message than a draw.[9]

Temporal and Political Limits of Carnival in a Democracy

One element of Janack’s analysis most open to debate has to do with his suggestion that the decline of Zhirinovsky’s popularity “seems consistent” with Bakhtin’s concept of carnival:

Tom Sobchack notes that carnival is only temporary and fails to last. Eventually, carnival ends and the status quo keeps its grip on society. Mikita Hoy reminds us that it would be unwise to forget that the potential of carnival for radical rebellion is in the end politically limited, since it is, after all, licensed misrule, a contained and officially sanctioned rebellion, after which everybody gets back to work” (291, quoted in Janack, “Vladimir” 29).

Obviously, the decline in Zhirinovsky’s popularity has been overstated. He did not win presidency in 2008, but he did receive a larger share of votes than ever before. There are several possible reasons why the temporality of carnival does not seem to apply to Zhirinovsky and, most likely, other carnivalesque politicians. (I would argue that there was nothing inevitable about Jesse Ventura’s decision to not run for reelection as governor of Minnesota; and Arnold Schwarzenegger has been reelected to a second term as governor of California with a respectable margin of victory.) One reason is that carnivals that used to take place in tightly controlled European societies in centuries past were unlike today’s democratic politics. Carnivals described by Bakhtin had a start and end date, determined by omnipotent rulers. In contrast, an election of a carnivalesque politician to office may very well be a rebellion against a stifling status quo, but it is not exactly “licensed misrule,” “contained” within a limited time period. In cases of true modern carnivals, which are rather rare, there may exist certain temporal limits. (For examples of recent carnivalesque political performances and a discussion of the conditions that make them possible, see M. Lane Bruner’s “Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State.”) However, I see no reason why temporal limits would automatically apply to the longevity of politicians who appropriate, knowingly or unknowingly, certain elements of the carnival.

Importantly, joining the “ruling class” of political and economic elites does not automatically disqualify a politician from the role of a protest candidate and thus impose an additional temporal limitation. One of the reviewers of this manuscript questioned the validity of Janack’s assertion (with which I fully agree) that for many voters Zhirinovsky has been a “protest candidate”; I believe this point deserves a clarification. The argument against such a characterization goes like this: if LDPR votes with Putin’s United Russia more than 90% of the time (which it does), how can a vote for Zhirinovsky be a “protest vote”? Would not it be more accurate to use the term to describe a vote for, say, the Communist Party and its leader, Gennadi Zyuganov? My answer to this question is two-fold. First, it is not clear that the facts about LDPR’s voting record is known to the majority of Zhirinovsky’s supporters, for Zhirinovsky’s public statements remain as direct and uncompromising as ever. The recent attack by Zhirinovsky on an opponent in a televised discussion, which I cited earlier in this essay, was precipitated by the opponent’s suggestion that, indeed, given LDPR’s voting record, Mr. Zhirinovsky’s posturing as a member of political opposition was unjustified. Zhirinovsky became quite agitated by the challenge and proceeded to assault his interlocutor both verbally and physically (to the delight of some of his supporters, no doubt), but did not address the question at hand.[10]

Second, and more important, a protest vote is about symbolism rather than substance. Or, perhaps, the symbolism of a protest vote is its substance. As argued by Janack, by giving support to a candidate who robs the political sphere of decorum and respectability, voters are registering dissatisfaction “with the entire prevailing order” (28). The substance of the candidate’s platform or voting record is of secondary importance – by definition. If one votes for a candidate because the candidate’s platform best reflects one’s political views, values, and aspirations, then it is not purely a protest vote. To use an example from the current presidential campaign in the US, a supporter of Democrat Hillary Clinton threatening to vote for Republican John McCain (who differs from Clinton on most policy issues) if Clinton is not named the Democratic Party candidate, rather than support Democrat Barack Obama, whose politics and proposed policies are very similar to Clinton’s, is threatening engage in a protest vote, while someone who votes for McCain because she supports his candidacy obviously would not engage in any kind of protest.

If there are limits to how far a carnivalesque candidate may go, those limits probably lie in the characteristics of carnival itself. No matter how dissatisfied Russian populus becomes or how attractive Zhirinovsky’s political platform is, there is likely a limit to the number of Russian voters who are willing to support his candidacy either because or in spite of his antics. The 9% of the vote Zhirinovsky received in the last election may be his “ceiling.” Then, again, the Putin years were remarkably successful by most measures. If the situation were different, who knows how many voters would be willing to give LDPR and its leader a try?


By invoking Bakhtin’s theory of carnival as an analytical framework, Janack offers an interesting and insightful explanation of the electoral successes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and American politicians whose unorthodox communication choices could be expected to render them unelectable. In particular, frequent and explicit references to bodily functions normally considered too crass to be included in any polite conversation (and certainly in national political discourse) are explained particularly well through Bakhtin’s theory. However, when other elements of Bakhtin’s theory are applied to the political discourse in Russia or the United States, results can be less than satisfying.

Attempts to engage in free and familiar contact with potential voters, which Janack considers signs of Bakhtin’s concept of carnival, are not limited to Zhirinovsky and other politicians defined by Janack as “carnivalesque.” In a democracy, however defined and operationalized, voters expect to have such contact with their elected leaders, and most candidates try to meet this expectation to the best of their ability. We may consider the spectacle of democratic elections as a whole and the ritualized courtship of campaign events in particular as examples of carnival – for there is plenty of pretense and make-believe in such rituals – but not in the sense in which Bakhtin used the term. The purpose of modern political carnival is fundamentally different from the function of its medieval prototype: then carnival signaled a temporary liberation from an oppressive (by modern standards) order with a strict hierarchy, which was recognized as such by all participants; today political carnival attempts to create an illusion that no such hierarchy exists in the first place. I would go so far as to argue that in a polity with expectations of free and familiar contact between elected officials and the people, such contact cannot be considered an element of Bakhtin’s carnival. In reality, it probably exists somewhere between the extremes of a completely genuine and honest manifestation of egalitarian values of a democratic society on one end, and blatant fraud on the other. Carnival, as conceptualized by Bakhtin, exists on a different plane altogether.

Finally, the idea of appropriation of carnival, as applied by Janack to the Vladimir Zhirinovsky phenomenon, actually undermines Janack’s main thesis. A vote for Zhirinovsky may be, in part, a vote of protest – and the 9% of votes he received in the 2008 presidential election, coupled with the 17% of votes cast for communist Gennady Zyuganov indicate that over a quarter of Russia’s voters remained immune to Mr. Putin’s charms and may actually have something to protest – but Janack’s own analysis and the examples he uses to support it highlight the importance of distinguishing between appropriations of carnival and appropriations of a political platform of the carnivalesque politician.

Ultimately, the truly important lesson of Zhirinovsky’s early successes and continued resiliency may not be that incorporating some elements of Bakhtin’s carnival can improve one’s visibility and, therefore, chances of winning a democratic election (although this may be true in some cases), but that at least some voters will be likely to vote for a populist candidate who is responsive to their expectations and offers a program they relate to, even if the candidate exhibits some truly bizarre behaviors and parts of his stated aspirations are outright scary. This lesson seems especially important when we consider that, contrary to Janack’s analysis, there is nothing inherently temporary in the success of modern carnivalesque politicians.[11] We may be tempted to write them off as clowns, but then the last laugh may very well be on us.


[1] When asked in April 2005 whether there would be a real contest (bor’ba) for Presidency or just an imitation of a contest, 57% of respondents chose the latter option, agreeing that the new president will be “whomever Putin points to” and the votes will be divided by the authorities (Levada-Center “Vybory 2008”).

[2] For example, all registered candidates, including Andrei Bogdanov who had to collect 2 million signatures to prove his viability before his name was added to the ballot and ended up receiving 1.3% of the vote, could participate in a series of televised debates. (Interestingly, it was Medvedev who decided to not participate in those debates.) Compare this to the 2000 US presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, who was not only excluded from participating in televised presidential debates, but in one instance actually barred from attending a debate as a spectator, even though he had a valid ticket to the event.

[3] Polling numbers are from Levada-Cenre (“Vybory 2008”); election results are from the Central Electoral Commission of Russian Federation.

[4] See Janack, James. “The Rhetoric of “The Body”: Jesse Ventura and Bakhtin’s Carnival.” Communication Studies 57:2 (2006): 197-214.

[5] Before his first presidential run, Zhirinovsky had no formal political experience. Remarkably, the electoral system and the media environment of the early 1990s – arguably, the golden age of Russian democracy – allowed such a candidate to gain enough exposure and support to get on the ballot and ultimately receive a sizable number of votes.

[6] Obviously, I am not talking of the clearly improbable of Zhirinovsky’s pronouncements, such as his forecast that Russian soldiers would soon be “washing their boots in the Indian Ocean.”  Predictably, this is the kind of outrageous claim that received the most attention from Zhirinovsky’s critics. However, such statements were probably seen as little more than rhetorical flourishes even by Zhirinovsky’s most fervent supporters.

[7] For example, it is possible to support collective farms while also encouraging small farming, just as a professed commitment to peaceful co-existence with neighboring countries does not preclude maintaining a strong military. Janack seems to suggest that these are contradictions that can be only explained through the unusually high tolerance of ambiguity and contradiction in times of carnival. Of course, threatening to invade and partition neighboring countries, as Zhirinovsky did in his first book, is more difficult to reconcile with the idea of peaceful coexistence. Difficult, but not impossible. (See, for example, the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the United States, routinely described by its president, George W. Bush, as a “peace-loving” nation.)

[8] The video can be found on YouTube, <>. Knowledge of Russian, while helpful for appreciating the nuances of the incident, is not necessary to get a sense of the intensity of Zhirinovsky’s rage.

[9] While Zhirinovsky has produced plenty of ammunition for his detractors to accuse him of outrageous behavior, it is worth noting that some examples cited by Janack might not seem as outrageous to Russian voters as they did to western observers. For example, it would not be surprising if in the context of skyrocketing violent crime and the seeming inability of the state to protect its citizens in the early to mid 1990s, the idea of jailing (if not executing) a hundred thousand “offenders” did not seem particularly outrageous to many members of Russia’s demoralized electorate. Similarly, the infamous “bra incident,” in which Zhirinovsky marched to a lingerie counter in a department store, held up a bra and stated that prices would be cheaper if he were to be elected to Duma – which Janack describes as a “less-than-respectable antic” – does not strike me as inappropriate or bizarre. Unusual – perhaps. But to voters faced with exorbitantly high prices on necessities (including women’s underwear, which in the early 1990s could easily cost one-half of one’s monthly paycheck or more), the promise from a candidate to do something about high prices must have sounded as more relevant than general pronouncements about democracy and free markets, especially when they came from former Communist Party bureaucrats who had never personally experienced any lack of necessities.

[10] The resiliency of Zhirinovsky’s image as a “rebel” can be compared to the reputation of US Senator John McCain as a “maverick,” although he votes with the majority of his party more often than not – 79.4 to 88.3% of the time over the past five years – and more often than a number of other members of the Senate from either party.

[11] In the March 2, 2008 presidential elections, Vladimir Zhirinovsky received the highest share of votes to date – an achievement made more notable by the unusually high (by western standards) popularity of President Putin and the apparent willingness of large numbers of voters to trust Putin’s judgment on the question of who is best suited to succeed him.


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