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What is Putinism?

In the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin seemed to be a pragmatic politician. However, since then his actions have become weighed down with an anti-Western ideology nourished by references to certain conservative Russian philosophers. Could he have taken a step backwards when he became a point of reference for all the "non-aligned" and conservatives of the planet?

When he acceded to the Russian presidency at the beginning of the year 2000, Vladimir Putin solemnly declared: "I am opposed to the restoration of any kind of official state ideology in Russia ("Russia at the Turn of the Millennium").

His objective was to stabilize a country seriously affected by the economic and social crisis and eradicate the wounds of the recent past. He attempted to reconcile the red and white memories of the country by mixing symbols of tsarism and the Soviet Union.

This politics of harmony was clearly an ideological act since it resulted in restraining any freely critical assessment of the USSR. The rampant return of Stalinism in the country today is proof of this. Instead of facing up to the past, Putin proposed burying it in order to move forward.

His first term in office from 2000 to 2004 was marked by a pragmatic attitude that aimed at helping Russia meet western "standards" and which was also pro-European. Putin frequently quoted Emmanuel Kant. However, after 2004, the President's rhetoric became harsher. It played a role in the Baltic states' accession to NATO and the European Union. He saw the former satellite nations shaken by "color revolutions" (Georgia at the end of 2003 and the Ukraine in late 2004). A former member of the KGB, Putin regarded this solely as the result of manipulation by the American secret service organizations.

By the end of his second term in office in 2008, his rhetoric had become colored by anti-Western tones. He started quoting from the speeches of the Russian émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) who criticized European democracies and dreamed of a "guide" for Russia who "knows what needs to be done." According to Ilyin: "The guide serves instead of making a career; fights instead of playing a secondary role; strikes the enemy instead of uttering hollow phrases; leads instead of selling out to foreigners" (Our Tasks, not translated). A hollow, flattering portrait of the person who is to become a national leader.

However, it was necessary to wait for Vladimir Putin's third term - after the Medvedev intermezzo (2008-2012) - to be able to witness the renaissance of a Russian ideology. After the year 2012 had been devoted to putting the opponents to heel, 2013 was the one for "turning conservative". Putin denounced the "Many Euro-Atlantic countries [that] have moved away from ethical principles and their traditional identity: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. Policies are being pursued that place a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership on the same level, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.

The excesses of political correctness are leading to the point where people are talking seriously about registering parties whose goal is legalizing the propaganda of paedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations." The President concluded that that this would result in a "demographic and moral crisis". Wishing to give form to the fight against this tendency, he called for the "defence of traditional values" and accepted that: "This is a conservative position." Incidentally, he quoted the anti-Western philosopher Constantin Leontiev (1831-1891) who assured that Europe had fallen into decadence and, in contrast, praised the "flourishing complexity" of the Russian Empire. And could Russian make a Europe that had fallen into amnesia aware of its Christian roots once again? This discourse fell on the ears of certain European politicians.

The second pillar of Putinism, in line with certain Slavophil thinkers such as Nikolay Danilevsky (1822-1885), the author of the classic Russia and Europe, became concrete in his defence of a "Russian path" that was both cultural and political. In March 2014, the Kremlin annexed the Crimean Peninsula - as a reaction to the revolution in the Ukraine, which the official Russian media interpreted as a Fascist "putsch". At the time of the major speech celebrating the event on 18 March 2014, Vladimir Putin asserted that: "We have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of the containment of Russia, which was pursued in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call a spade a spade and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there are limits." This is clearly an expression of a revanchist programme.

Finally, the Eurasian Economic Union came into force. Reverting to the concept of Eurasia, theorized by an intellectual trend in the 1920s and very much in fashion in the 1990s, this project foresees the constitution of a single market of 180 million people. It unites Russia, Kazakhstan, Byelorussia, Armenia and Kirgizstan and expects other states from Central Asia to join. This launched the concept of a community of continental states to rival Europe, which was considered stillborn, and dominating Atlanticism. And, Putin therefore quoted Lev Gumilyov a Eurasist of the 20th century.

Conservatism against the moral degeneration of the west, the defence of a "Russian path" in the face of hostile manoeuvres from abroad, the affirmation of a Eurasian power as a counterbalance to the Atlanticist sphere - all of these vectors for the new ideology of the Kremlin were forcefully affirmed by the highest state instances. They were taught to high-level government officials and were the subject of symposia and television programmes. In 2015, at a time when the Russian economy was suffering, these ideological fragments were intended to create adhesion. It is quite obvious that these loans from a certain kind of Russian philosophy - its most anti-Western, warmongering and pseudo-scientific element - has, above all, a pragmatic effect and that Putin is in no way a philosopher-president. Nevertheless, the proof of the effectiveness of this ideological patchwork can be seen in its influence that has become global. In France, politicians and intellectuals show themselves pro or contra. A sector of public opinion - anti-American and anti-system or conservative - recognizes the strong man who does not mince his words in the Russian politician.

A new stage has been reached with the intervention in Syria that was preceded by a speech at the United Nations that was more radical than ever in its anti-Western sentiments. How far will Putinism take us? That has become a question that no longer only concerns the Russian people.

This article was translated by Robert Scott McInnes.