Although the area of northern and central Asia is comprised of a large number of independent and sovereign nations, including the Russian Federation and the central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, its recent history is dominated by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). For most of the twentieth century each of these now independent nations was a part of the USSR; since 1991, the central Asian states have struggled to survive in the shadow of the Russian Federation. The central story of rhetoric in this region in both modern history and contemporary times must therefore be framed in terms of the former USSR and its transformations in the continuing period of post-Soviet democratization, mock-democratization, and authoritarian reinstantiation.
Rhetoric During The Soviet Period
Rhetoric in the USSR was not at all times in all places the same, but certain general patterns were evident. Two dominant influences on Soviet rhetoric were the lack of strong rhetorical traditions from Tsarist times and the systematic suppression of the human rights vital to the flowering of rhetoric, such as freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, as well as most academic freedoms. Soviet rhetoric was thereby constrained: inventional and deliberative attributes were systematically shorn from rhetoric in pedagogy, theory, and practice, leaving rhetoric as, primarily, a concern with either compositional stylistics or effective arrangement and presentation of pre-determined messages, following the “party line”.
The study and practice of rhetoric was never vibrant under Tsarist regimes, nor did it prosper under the Soviets. Reuer (2000) surveys the historical study of rhetoric in Russia, finding little interest in it as a discipline. Although there were exceptions, interest and pedagogy in rhetoric were either for ceremonial purposes or limited to precepts for literary composition. Under the Soviets, the guiding principle of the curriculum was Marxism–Leninism, and there was no room for orientations that were rhetorical rather than material. In general, rhetorical pedagogy (although never by that name) within the Soviet academy emphasized style and presentation rather than invention and argumentation. The stylistic focus of rhetoric was indirectly reinforced during the Soviet period by state constraints on political and intellectual activities: both “subversive” activities and texts were suppressed. Just as dissident speech was not tolerated, neither were the texts that had the potential to equip readers in the arts of deliberative rhetoric. After all, such texts are designed to bring to public consideration possibilities of things being other than the way they are.
In a study of Soviet approaches to rhetorical education and practice during the 1950s and early 1960s, Butler found “a surprising amount of speech activity” that was “apparently grounded on classical rhetoric” (1964, 229). Butler focused much of his analysis of Soviet rhetorical pedagogy on a translation of The art of oratory, edited by A. Tolmachev (1959), which was one of only two Soviet texts on rhetoric that he located in the Library of Congress through 1963. Among venues for rhetorical practice, Butler found an abundance of “discussion clubs” as well as “groups, panels, committees, chapters, unions, directorates, and councils (the word soviet means council).” In all of these contexts, however, communication practices were “designed to express a single ideology,” creating a “dominant ‘downward’ flow of communications”: “Discussions are used for making decisions, but the answers sought are mainly the ways and means to implement an official policy decreed from above” (Butler 1964, 230).
The most prominent among forums for discussion were “study groups” to assist in “adult education.” Although there were local groups in virtually every social entity, from schools to factories to collective farms, there was also an overarching national organization: the Znanie Society. The activities in these groups varied, ranging from indoctrination in Marxism–Leninism to the promotion of pragmatic government goals, such as increased production quotas. As Butler notes of Soviet speech situations generally, the “ends of speech,” including “to inform, entertain, stimulate, and convince,” were generally present, “but to the Soviets these are means to an end – that end being the building and perfecting of the Communist state” (1964, 238).
It follows that in public education, “speech skills” were “conceived of largely as a political instrument” (Butler 1964, 231), but one always in the service of “state-approved ideology” (238). Butler concludes that although the “standards of eloquence” that are “taught and practiced in the Soviet Union” include the basic “rhetorical elements” of speaker, subject matter, audience, and occasion, “the Soviets have added a fifth requisite – agitation and propaganda.” Rhetoric was a mode of propagation, not a mode of inquiry: “Oratory is thereby reduced to an instrument for control over individuals, rather than for the development of individuals” (Butler 1964, 238).
In restricting the role of rhetoric to propagation of Marxism–Leninism, as interpreted by Party leaders, the vitality and range of rhetoric was severely limited. The relative constancy of constriction of rhetorical topics during the Soviet period is evident in Hannah’s (1965) content analysis of 120 speeches made by delegates from the Soviet Union to the UN Security Council over a period of roughly 15 years. Hannah concludes “on the basis of the evidence available that the Soviet delegates’ formal political communications did not basically change during the years 1946–1960,” although fluctuations were noted (Hannah 1965, 147).
The late Soviet period saw reforms under Gorbachev that loosened the ideological yoke on rhetorical practices, though education experienced little reform. Communication patterns remained predominantly “top-down,” but under perestroika a “nascent Russian civil society” began to develop (Weigle 2000, 2), and with it came some grassroots political deliberation.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union gave rise to 15 independent nations, including the Russian Federation and the five central Asian nations. The hegemony of the Soviet Union had broken asunder, and in many ways new and “open” societies were instantly born. But the old Soviet habits of life and attitudes toward authority did not simply vanish, and in many ways they merely reinstantiated themselves in “democratic” form (Williams 2007). There has not been a decisive shift from “closed” societies to “open” societies, nor has there been a consistent trajectory in this direction. Consequently, it might be more accurate to think of social and political regimes in northern and central Asia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “opening” and “closing” in varying degrees.
Curricular incorporation of rhetoric during the post-Soviet era has been spotty and ad hoc. In Russia itself, the curricula for both secondary and higher education are still centrally controlled: Moscow defines required courses of study as well as “majors” and areas of concentration. Neither rhetoric nor communication has gained national sanction, and although classes in various areas of communication (especially intercultural communication and public relations) are taught at several universities, they are generally taught as “electives” under the auspices of other approved programs of study such as foreign languages (especially programs in English and translation). They remain marginal to the primary curricula. Even so, occasional courses in rhetoric do now appear, as do classes in argumentation. Although most Russian approaches to argumentation remain primarily linguistic or philosophical, contemporary European perspectives on argumentation are gaining attention, notably the Amsterdam School’s approach of pragma-dialectical analysis (van Eemeren et al. 1996, 353). Some of the texts of the Amsterdam School are now translated into Russian.
A professional education organization, the Russian Communication Association (RCA), was formed in 2000; however, it does not have national NGO status under current Russian regulations. RCA functions primarily to promote the study of communication and as an information clearing house, facilitating course development, textbook acquisition, and pedagogical approaches for those who do teach courses in communication in various corners of the Russian curriculum. RCA, with support from the North American Russian Communication Association, has sponsored a biennial communication conference since 2002; rhetoric, argumentation, and political communication have been among program topics at these conferences. An affiliated NGO, “Metacommunication,” associated with the Rostov Institute of Management, Business and Law, publishes an annual Bulletin of the RCA, Vestnik. Rhetoric, argumentation, persuasion, and public speaking are all categories included in its call for manuscripts. The first rhetorical journal in Russia, Ritorika, began publication in 1995, and a new Russian Journal of Communication will begin publication in the United States in 2008 in English.
Although there are some initial efforts to begin a Kazakh Communication Association along the lines of RCA, that initiative is in its early phases. Despite the lack of professional organizations in central Asia to promote the study of rhetoric, international NGOs such as the International Debate Education Association (IDEA; www.idebate.org) have made great inroads throughout central Asia, and especially in Kazahkstan, in the promotion of debate training in secondary schools, institutions of higher learning, and civic organizations. IDEA incorporates into its debate training programs elements of argumentation and public speaking. IDEA is also active in Mongolia, again promoting debate as an agency of personal and political empowerment. Overall, since its inception in 1999, “IDEA has grown from a collection of debate clubs into the pre-eminent global debate organization, touching the lives of over 70,000 secondary school students, 15,000 university students . . . in 27 countries.”
Rhetorical practices in the Russian Federation during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin were, relative to the darkest years of the Soviet Union, open and free: political parties with diverse ideological perspectives, political leaders with divergent styles and often dissident visions, as well as charismatic and demagogic leaders, all vied for public allegiance. Russian political space was opening at a rapid pace; however, it was not fully open, and Yeltsin continued throughout his presidency to resort to authoritative methods when more democratic ones became too cumbersome or unpredictable. Indeed, Russia’s democratic “revolution” had a typically Soviet flavor to it: it was imposed and implemented in a “topdown” manner (Williams 2007).
Rhetorical analyses of Russian political communication (Williams et al. 1997; Janack 2002) and transformations in Russian national identity (Ishiyama et al. 1997) have begun to appear in English-language journals, but few have appeared in Russian journals (an exception is Launer et al. 1997). From the perspective of rhetorical theory, the role of memory in post-Soviet rhetoric is of increasing interest. The particular concern is with public memory, both relative to finding usable history from which to generate arguments for democratic actions and to reconciling with repressive and brutal dimensions of the Soviet legacy.
The central Asian nations did not open as radically after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as did the Russian Federation. Each retained strong elements of centralized, autocratic control, yet blended that control in different ways with democratic reforms. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia is now closing: media are centralized under government control, new laws greatly inhibit the development of civil society, and opposition political parties are de-registered and/or physically harassed. The dissolution of the Soviet Union created the political space for the cultivation of rhetoric in pedagogy, theory, and practice, and in the opening of the Russian Federation and the central Asian nations the seeds of rhetorical study were sown. As those nations, and particularly Russia, are now closing, it is not clear that rhetoric will come to a full flowering.
- Butler, J. H. (1964). Russian rhetoric: A discipline manipulated by communism. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 50, 229–239.
- Hannah, W. J. (1965). Environmental change and verbal stability. Journal of Communication, 15, 136–148.
- Ishiyama, J. T., Launer, M. K., Likhachova, I. E., Williams, D. C., & Young, M. J. (1997). Russian electoral politics and the search for national identity. Argumentation and Advocacy, 34(2), 90–109.
- Janack, J. A. (2002). We’ll guarantee freedom when we can afford it: The free market, the Russian constitution, and the rhetoric of Boris Yeltsin. Controversia, 1, 57–74.
- Launer, M. K., Young, M. J., Williams, D. C., Likhachova, I. E., & Ishiyama, J. T. (1997). Analysis of political argumentation and party campaigning prior to the 1993 and 1995 state Duma elections: Lessons learned and not learned. Politia, 2, 33–44 (in Russian).
- Reuer, L. N. (2000). The eighteenth-century Russian rhetorical tradition: V. K. Trediakovsky’s career and rhetorical views, doctoral dissertation, Purdue University, UMI no. 3033153.
- van Eemeren, F. H., Grootendorst, R., Snoeck Henkemans, F., et al. (1996). Fundamentals of argumentation theory: A handbook of historical backgrounds and contemporary developments. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Weigle, M. A. (2000). Russia’s liberal project: State–society relations in the transition from communism. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
- Williams, D. C. (2007). Instant democracy: Rhetorical crises and the Russian Federation, 1991– 2007. Advances in the History of Rhetoric, 9, 227–242.
- Williams, D. C., Young, M. J., & Ishiyama, J. T. (1997). The role of public argument in emerging democracies: A case study of the 12 December 1993 elections in the Russian Federation. Argumentation, 11, 179–194.