Putin’s gradual unmasking

Cosplaying Hitler: Putin’s speech at a rally and a concert marking the annexation of four occupied regions of Ukraine on September 30, 2022. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP)

I doubt that Putin imagined his 70th anniversary to be like this. Very few heads of state congratulated him. Comrade Xi didn’t call, what a disappointment! Still, there were some nice presents. Belarus’ dictator Lukashenko gave him a tractor, and Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon sent a pile of melons. The enemies won’t see the Russian Führer starve to death.

But an anniversary is also a good moment for reflecting on one’s life paths and future directions. Let us have a look at Putin’s language from 2012, when he became President after his placeholder Medvedev, until now. Has it changed? Obviously, any politician has to address current political and economic issues, so it is normal to see fluctuations in the use of different words related to these topics. For example, in this article I write about the changes in the frequencies of different countries and international organizations in Putin’s speeches.

But what about Putin’s grammar? Grammatical changes are more difficult to notice. Luckily, we can use the Universal Dependencies tools, which provide parts of speech, syntactic dependencies and morphological categories of words in a corpus. I have computed the relative frequencies of different grammatical phenomena in my corpus of Putin’s speeches and addresses (available on Zenodo) for every year from 2012 to 2022. I have looked at 234 grammatical features in total. They all point in one direction.

Probably the easiest to interpret without getting into too much technical detail (not every reader is a professional corpus linguist!) are the results based on parts of speech. These are word classes like noun, adjective, verb, adverb, preposition and so on. The figure below is a Correspondence Analysis map. The red labels are the years, and the blue ones are the parts of speech (with the exception of some rare word classes, punctuation and proper names).

The part-of-speech abbreviations are the following: ADJ – adjectives (words like nice and blue), ADP – adpositions (with, into); ADV – adverbs (quickly, well); AUX – auxiliaries (be); CCONJ – coordinate conjunctions (and, but); DET – determiners (my); NOUN – nouns (car, President); NUM – numerals (three, ten); PART – particles (not, too); PRON – pronouns (you, something); SCONJ – subordinate conjunctions (because, if); VERB – verbs (make, invade).

How to read the figure? If two year labels are close to each other, this means that the parts of speech are distributed in these years in a similar way. We can see that 2012 and 2022 are farther apart than 2012 and 2013, for example, and that the other years are in-between. This suggests that the grammatical change has been gradual, not abrupt.

But what exactly is the change like? In order to understand that, we should look at the part-of-speech labels and where they are located. On the left, we can see nouns, adjectives, numerals and auxiliaries. They are more associated with the earlier period. On the right, we find particles, pronouns and adverbs. They occur more often in the later years.

This plot (and numerous others, based on other grammatical units) reveal one striking pattern: Putin’s communication has gradually changed since 2012 from more informative, “objective”, to more argumentative, “subjective”, personal. The increase in particles is particularly striking. The particles mostly serve to express emotions and add emphasis, for example, dazhe “even” and zhe “very, right, even”. The negation particle ne “not”, as well as the words da “yes” and net “no” are also annotated as particles. Some examples from Putin’s speeches are below.

Ну ладно , не хотите видеть в нашем лице друга и союзника , но зачем же делать из нас врага ?

All right, you do not want to see us as friends or allies, but why [zhe] make us an enemy?

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828 (21.02.2022)

Это не блеф.

This is not a bluff.

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69390 (21.09.2022)

Some of the pronouns that have gained in frequency recently are indefinite and negative pronouns like “nothing”, “nobody”, “something” and “somebody”. They often express strong beliefs and commitments, as in this example:

При этом в наши планы не входит оккупация украинских территорий. Мы никому и ничего не собираемся навязывать силой.

It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force.

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843 (24.02.2022)

Adverbs serve many different functions. In Putin’s speeches, they often describe the enemies’ actions:

Речь о том , что вызывает у нас особую озабоченность и тревогу , о тех фундаментальных угрозах , которые из года в год шаг за шагом грубо и бесцеремонно создаются безответственными политиками на Западе в отношении нашей страны .

I spoke about our biggest concerns and worries, and about the fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians created for Russia consistently, rudely and unceremoniously from year to year. 

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67843 (24.02.2022)

So, Putin’s speech has shifted from informative to argumentative, from rational to emotional. It has become more expressive and personal. Is that a change of personality? I don’t think so. Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician killed in 2015, said that Putin was “f****** nuts”. As Putin gained more and more power in Russia and more and more influence abroad, he saw fewer and fewer reasons to hide his true self. This is what we see in his grammar: a patient, step-by-step unmasking of his true beliefs and values.

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