In the forthcoming book on ideology of Putinism, I grapple with the problem of post-Soviet ideological developments in the context of the Russian tradition of political philosophy. Trained as a historian of ideas, I apply my method to understand contemporary Russia and its agonistic relations with the West. In the book, I interpret this confrontation as essentially an ideological one, and claim, that the lack of awareness about its ideological nature, or attempts to represent it as yet another colonial and imperialistic war, undermines the Western position. This is because the ultimate reason for fighting this war is only one: Putinism’s comprehensive and radical rejection of liberal democracy.
Putinism as a major challenger for liberal democracy is a new and relatively original ideology; it cannot be reduced to conservatism, nationalism, fascism, or populism, but it bears characteristics of all these and other ideological blocs. Putinism is bigger than Putin, and it can stay with us for a long time, perhaps under different names and in different countries, regardless of the victory over Putin’s army on the battlefield. This is because Putinism criticizes Western-led globalization, engages with the issues of justice and ecology, and tinkers with the leftist agenda – all these components can give it a real international appeal and resonance beyond Russia.
In order to understand Putinism’s actual place in ideological landscape, we have to critically reassess its connections with fascism. The fact is that Putinism lacks two out of three elements of the canonical definition of fascism offered by Roger Griffin: “a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism,” namely, the absence of the revolutionary impulse to restore the past, as well as ultranationalism. This leads to reassessment of thesecond parallel: between Putinism and nationalism. I show in the book that Putinism isn’t the same as nationalism, although it could be safely put in the box of ”nationalistic discourses”. This is because it tends to quickly suppress any extreme ethnic views and prefers a form of rule that includes many different nationalities under one empire.
Moreover, it fails to define the geographical contours of the community of “ours”; as Putin infamously declared, “Russia ends nowhere.” Nationalism, by definition, assumes that the division into nations is the only legitimate and natural division of the world, whereas for Putinism the world is divided into civilizations with porous and overlapping borders.
To be sure, argue that Putinism is not fascism is not to justify the former; on the contrary, it is quite possible that it is more dangerous than fascism because it is more consistent in its denial of the basic premises of the Enlightenment. One of them is a belief in universality of human nature, that is that all people, regardless of their nationality or walk of life, have similar basic needs; as it is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, inalienable rights include “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”. Putinism, by contrast, is emphatic in its assumption that each “civilization” has its own set of values. When Putin proclaimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions on 30 September 2022, he quoted from émigré religious philosopher Ivan Il’in, who said “If I consider Russia my Motherland, that means that I love as a Russian, contemplate and think, sing and speak as a Russian”. A lot of intellectual effort was spent on arguing, how exactly “Russian way” of thinking is different from all others. The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, came up with a list of “Russian values”, the first three of which included faith in God, justice and solidarity.
The question of the conservative identity of Putinism is trickier, because here I have to go against the conventional wisdom in academia that Russia has been undergoing its “conservative turn” since 2011-12, with traditional values at the top of the agenda and the Russian Orthodox Church as the main provider of ideology. However, if we follow the canonical, Burkean understanding of the political philosophy of conservatism as the acceptance of only organic changes in society, it becomes clear that what has happened in Russia under Putin’s third term is actually a turn away from conservatism.
So, after a relatively brief engagement with conservative ideology in 2005-2009, which was manifested in the debates inside the United Russia Party and in Medvedev’s slogan of conservative modernization, Russian leadership turned to what I call “identitarian conservatism”. It claims that despite all sociopolitical upheavals, Russian identity remained the same throughout centuries. This reinterpretation of conservatism is a watershed moment in contemporary Russian intellectual history, and it happened simultaneously in the secular milieu, when the ruling United Russia Party (URP) absorbed some argumentation from the so-called Young Conservatives, in the religious circles, when Patriarch Kirill came up with the theory of “basic values”, and in the academic and expert institutions (especially in the centers of the study of conservatism in Moscow State and St Petersburg State Universities).
The idea that there is a stable set of people’s values, manifested in history, religion, tradition and in the willpower of a national leader puts Putinism squarely into the ideological family of populisms. Around 2012-2014, another important ideological shift happened, which is characterized by geopolitization of right-wing populism in the context of the annexation of Crimea, and by the advent of the theory of Russia as a state-civilization. It hardwired the idea of expansionism into Putinism by arguing that the “us”-community is larger than the Russian Federation and that it stands in geopolitical antagonism with the West. If “classic” populism distinguishes between the grassroots and the corrupt elites, geopolitical populism stretches this antagonism on the international arena by arguing that there is the corrupt “golden billion” (rich population of the Western Europe and its offshoots), and the “global majority” – the rest of the planet. Russia in this disposition is represented as the leader of the oppressed “global majority”.
Having discussed the ideological position of Putinism as identitarian conservatism and geopolitical populism, we still need to understand, how it constructs its “point”, or its message to the domestic and international audiences. This will be done in the next essay.
NB: The dystopian illustration set against the backdrop of Moscow’s skyline, incorporating the themes of dictatorship, ideology, and a gas pipeline, has been generated by the AI.