Now that we have identified three components of Putinism: identitarian conservatism, right-wing communitarianism, and geopolitical populism, we can try to define its “message” or main argument. All ideologies can be likened to software designed to deal with a particular task or historical challenge. The historical challenge that Putinism claims to process and make sense of is the problem of imitative Westernization after the fall of the Soviet Union. In this sense, it is in line with classical 19th-century Slavophilism, whose ideological message was the doctrinal response to Petr Chaadaev’s bitter comparison of Russians with children who receive all their ideas ready-made and do not learn to think independently. Slavophiles, on the other hand, emphatically insist that Westernization is not a voluntary process of learning from others, but a violent suppression of native culture by the foreign hegemon. Indeed, Slavophiles were among the first (arguably the first) anti-colonial theorists. Part of the appeal of Putinism (and part of the poison in its sting) is that it freerides on the agenda of decolonization, arguing that Russia, and by extension the entire non-Western world, is in semi-colonial relations with the West. This false decolonization has three components.
The first, in contrast to the decolonization program of Soviet Marxism, is the non-linear vision of history. Putinism lacks any version of utopian teleology, which represents history through the metaphor of a boat on a lake. There is no final destination, and one can sail in all possible directions as long as one can keep the boat afloat. Putinism in this sense amounts to an operational code of how to keep a boat afloat, or an ideology of “don’t-rock-the-boat-ism,” as the infamous Kremlin slogan of the early 2010s put it: “Don’t rock the boat.” The corollary of the boat-on-the-lake metaphor is that all civilizations should have the right to sail wherever they want, without fear of a pirate takeover of their boat by Western globalists.
The second, which follows from the first, is what could be called “geopolitical liberalism,” when classical liberal principles are extended to create a normative theory of civilizations. Dmitry Peskov (the president’s representative on digital technologies) expressed this with great intellectual force in his article “The Island of Russia” from 2022: the world is moving towards islandization, i.e. the isolation of civilizations and continental blocs. According to him, the task for Russia is not to settle on someone else’s “island”, but to build its own “island”, “on which we are the bosses, we are adults, we make decisions and take responsibility for them”. Here the theory of sovereign democracy found its ultimate logical expression in isolationism: true democracy requires civilizational solitude, or in today’s context, a radical disengagement from Western globalism.
The third is the spread of the concept of a “more just world order”. Indeed, the aforementioned value of justice is central to Putinism, which derives from the argument of 19th-century Slavophiles and then Narodniki that the Russian word pravda condenses two meanings: factual correctness or truthfulness and social fairness or justice in the strict sense of the word. Significantly, Putin referred to the famous phrase from the movie “Brother -2” (“Power is in pravda”) on two major occasions, in his annexation speech in 2014 and on February 24, 2022. Elsewhere, he summarizes the West’s mistreatment of Russia as “nas grubo kinuli” – the West has grossly deceived us. In all these cases, he echoes the Slavophile’s double iteration of Pravda: factual falsehood leads to social injustice. Specifically, the idea of the universality of Western values has led to an unjust world order dominated by the “golden billion” at the expense of the rest of the world. Therefore, the strategy of decolonization proposed by Putinism lies in the negation of liberal universalism and in the restoration of the world order based on a system of independent civilizations.