‘Putinism is Based on Very Deep Demands’
January 18, 2024
In an interview, historian Mikhail Suslov claims that Putinism as a political and ideological model is greater than Putin himself. In Suslov’s view, it is a complete set of values and ideas about the world that are shared by a significant segment of the Russian population and attractive to many outside Russia too.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
Alexei Khomyakov, the Russian philosopher and cofounder of the Slavophile movement. Wiki Commons
Putin has been in power for almost a quarter of a century, and Putinism for sure did not come about all at once. When did it take shape as an ideology?

Of course, Putinism is not a monolithic ideology that was handed down once and for all. It has developed and continues to develop. I would highlight three main stages in this process.

The first is the period between 2004 and 2009, when United Russia discussed and adopted its ideological program. During this period, there was an attempt to define the ideology of Russia as liberal conservatism, which would combine human freedom and a strong state, as well as adherence to tradition. It was a completely civilized, European liberal-conservative ideology.

But it turned out that it is very difficult to develop such liberal conservatism in Russia. And so in the second stage they moved from liberal conservatism to radical conservatism – this is what I call “identitarian conservatism.” “They” are the “political mainstream,” people who have access to the central media: experts, politicians, intellectuals who in one way or another talk about ideology, about Russia’s place in the world. In my book, I’m talking about around 200-300 people, but overall there are probably about 10,000 members of the political elite.

The third stage began after 2014, when geopolitics was added to the identitarian conservatism and the idea of Russia as a separate civilization emerged.
And this civilization has its own stable identity, which never changes.

We can probably say that the next stage, the fourth, has now begun. It began in the context of the war, around the autumn of 2022, when there was a desire to make Putinism more attractive outside of Russia, to the third-world countries – what they call the “global majority.”

Conservatism is very difficult to “sell” on the international market because ⁠it is always defined in national terms.That is, for Russia conservatism is Russian, while for Britain it is British.
In this sense, a leftist agenda is what makes Putinism more universal, and consequently more international.
How is this manifested?

First of all, in the concept of justice. This is what was conceptualized by Andrei Bezrukov, a spy unmasked in the US who is now actively involved in Russian politics and teaches at MGIMO. He expressed this idea very well when he said that in the 1980s and 1990s the main agenda was the agenda of freedom. But now the global trend has changed: people want justice, not freedom.

Moreover, justice can be understood in different ways: as international justice, as economic justice. And here Putinism is quite attractive to many outside and inside Russia, because the West has truly failed to cope with the challenge of uneven economic development across the globe.

Before we talk in more detail about Putinism, I would like to clarify: why did liberal conservatism, which they tried to build at the beginning of Putin’s rule, not take root in Russia?

This is probably the main tragedy of Russian intellectual history in the post-Soviet period. Because liberal conservatism could well have been an engine of progress. But there are several problems. First of all, it is the country itself, with the structure of its historical development. Because conservatism is always about organic development. Conservatives like to use the metaphor of a plant: a plant grows naturally, but if we somehow trim it or put it in a box, it will only wither; therefore, let society, just like a flower, grow without outside force being applied.

But in Russia there were periods when the “plant” did not grow naturally at all. There were revolutions, wars and other upheavals. And what has grown since 1917? Is this the natural growth of the “flower” or is it an unnatural hybrid that needs to be gotten rid of?

In fact, a conservative’s intuition should tell him that yes, this is a terrible hybrid, let’s forget about the USSR as a nightmare. But this is impossible, because the Soviet Union, for the majority of Russians and for Putin’s elite, was the highest stage in the development of Russian civilization. And behind this view there are objective facts – the achievements of the Soviet Union in science, in education, in the international arena.

And the question arises: what, exactly, should a Russian conservative “conserve?” What tradition? If it is the Soviet tradition, then this is no longer conservatism, but rather revanchist communism. If it is the tradition before 1917, then ideologists should radically abandon the Soviet period and identify with the White movement, but they are in the minority and will never enjoy the support of the majority of the population.
And then the idea arises: instead of specific political constructions, let’s preserve the identity of Russia in terms culture and values. Russia was once the Tsardom of Muscovy, then the Soviet Union, then a post-Soviet democracy, and so on. But the essence remained the same, and the people have always been the Russian people with a stable set of values. For me, as a historian, this is complete heresy. But for many people this sounds convincing, and even in the Russian Constitution, after the 2020 amendments, it is written that Russia is characterized by its “thousand-year history.” This suggests that each period of this thousand-year history is valuable and important, but the identity of the people is unchanging.

This is a special conservatism that no longer has anything in common with liberal conservatism. Everything else is built on the basis of this identitarian conservatism.
And the whole of Putinism is connected with the idea that the Russian people have not changed.
A monument to Count Sergei Uvarov, the Russian statesman and ideologist of Russian conservatism, was erected in St Petersburg in November 2023. Source: Yandex
From the standpoint of liberalism, the political process is a process of discussion, argument, voting: today, we, the people, decided one thing, and tomorrow we might change our minds and decide another. But from the point of view of an anti-liberal, communitarian or identitarian understanding, the political process is unnecessary decoration – we already know all the most important things about our people, they have thousand-year-old values.
For example, it can be argued that our people are Christian and therefore hate LGBT people. And there is no need to vote, because we already know what the people want.

How much of Putin’s personality is there in Putinism? And is there a Putin personality cult in Russia?

It seems to me that there is no cult of personality yet. At the same time, Putinism itself, as a certain political and ideological model, may be greater than Putin. Because it was not Putin who imposed his ideas on the majority of Russians and the political elite, whose consolidation, after the outbreak of the war, was amazing. This is their ideology, they like it. That is, Putin’s personality is only a small component of Putinism.

So, when Putin is gone, Putinism can live on even after his death? But what about the thesis that such a personalist dictatorship, strongly tied to the personality of a single person, will collapse as soon as that person disappears?

There are several options for how events could play out. If we imagine a situation where, in the event of Putin’s death or departure, more or less fair elections are held, the question arises: who would win? If you look at the values of Russians, you will see that they are not at all in line with the ideas of Russian liberals. Someone like Putin will be elected, maybe a little more or a little less radical.

And if we imagine that there are no elections, but power is seized by some siloviki, then the hypothetical Patrushev will definitely not have the same capital as Putin. And he will definitely have to continue Putin’s line without changing the foundation of the system.
It is important to understand that Putinism is not some random aberration or mistake. It expresses the deepest sentiments of many Russians.
Including dissatisfaction with the West and the feeling that the Western model offers Russians the role of a student. The deepest idea of many Russians is: who are you in the West to teach us? We are a thousand-year-old great culture. We defeated Napoleon and Hitler. And this will not go away with Putin. Putinism is based on very deep demands.

What are the origins of Putinism? Some compare it with Stalinism, others with tsarism. At the same time, there is a feeling that Putin likes the role of the tsar-father (tsar’-batyushka), who solves all problems.

I see two possible answers. The first is that Putinism certainly fits into the intellectual system of Russia, and fits well. To put it very roughly, Putinism is the political embodiment of the ideology of Slavophilism. In both we see elements of populism. That is, the idea that the people and the elite are something united: we are united by a thousand-year history; we have common values. And therefore, the ideal leader is one who expresses the interests of the people, since he is united with the people. This is exactly what you are talking about: the tsar-father will come and decide everything.
Another answer is that the roots of Putinism lie in the 1990s, in the feeling of secondariness, inauthenticity that Russians have experienced. Actually, the ideologists of the 19th century, the Slavophiles and others, worked with the same problem. And I think the same pattern repeated itself for a lot of people in the 1990s. There was a feeling that Russia was sitting in this “democracy class” like some kind of student who was held back, with bad grades, and this was offensive to the majority. This is where the idea of Western values and institutions being “forcibly imposed” and the desire to get rid of them arose.

In fact, it’s not only Russia that thinks so. Similar ideas are visible in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and all those countries that have a rich imperial history. They cannot just say: come and teach us how to live. They believe that they know how to live. And Russia thinks that it does too.
So, we can say that Putinism has two roots: the problem of imitation in the 1990s and the intellectual history of Russia with its traditions of populism, conservatism and communitarianism.
Alexander Prokhanov, the founder of the Izborsky Club, which unites conservative thinkers and experts. Source: Wiki Commons
What are the main features of Putinism?

Putinism is a combination of three main postulates: identitarian conservatism, right-wing communitarianism and populism. We have already briefly discussed identitarian conservatism. The idea is that there is an identity of the people that is unchanging.

At the World Russian People’s Council, where church intellectuals meet with politicians and try to determine the ideology of Russia, in 2011 they identified 10 main features of the Russian people. The first is faith in God; the second is justice; the third is solidarity, and so on. You can laugh at this, but at its core this is a deep contradiction with the liberal understanding of politics.

Putin’s ideologists say that the main thing for us is faith in God, justice and solidarity, not life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

The second feature is communitarianism. In fact, now not only in Russia, but throughout the world, the main nerve of politics and political debate is the struggle between liberals and communitarians. The difference is that liberals believe that a person is a rational mature being who can always define his own background. Roughly speaking, I was born in Russia into a religious family and speak Russian, but as a rational adult individual I can say that I no longer want to be Russian, or I no longer want to be Orthodox, or I no longer want to speak Russian. It is in my power, in my strength.

But a communitarian will say that this is impossible, that we are children of our context, our environment, our parents. If I was born in Russia, I must be Russian.
And if I say I do not want to be Russian anymore, I am a traitor. By doing so, I do not cease to be Russian, but I seem to be betraying my Russianness.

And the third point is populism. I think this is the central idea, even though many researchers say that this is impossible, because Putin is the one in power and populists are usually an opposition movement that criticizes the elite. But there are two important points here.

The first is that Russian populism imagines that the world is divided into an elite (the “golden billion” as they call it), i.e., the Western world, and a “global majority” that is everyone else. They see Russia as Spartacus, a fighter for the rights of the oppressed all over the world: now we will defeat this decaying Western elite and make the world a fairer place.
Thus, Putin’s populism is geopolitical, taking the contradiction between the people and the elite to the international level.
A monument to Simon Bolivar, the fighter for the independence of Spanish colonies in South America, was erected in Moscow in July 2023. Source: Yandex
And the second point is the idea that Putin and the Putin regime express the deepest needs of the Russian people. That is, there is no contradiction between the elite and the people because Putin, as the leader, expresses the thoughts of the people.

At the beginning of the conversation, you said that Putinism is spreading not only in Russia. Is there demand for it in the world?

Yes, Putinism certainly has external audiences who are potentially ready to listen to it. And people in the Kremlin understand that international support is important – it is saving Russia from isolation. For example, in the summer of 2023 there was an economic summit with African countries in St Petersburg, which was presented as a triumph, Russia’s breakthrough into third-world countries: they say the West has turned its back on us, but we express the interests of the majority and are saving the world from Western globalization.

In this sense, support for Putinism can be found in African countries and probably in Latin America in particular. For example, there is the ideology of Bolivarianism, named after Simon Bolivar, the famous fighter for the liberation of the South American colonies, which is the official ideology of Venezuela. There are many parallels with Putinism.

European countries are also no exception. Before the last elections, Hungary and Poland were close to Russia in the sense that they also understood the transition of the 1990s as an insult, that they had been a great nation but had been made to go back to school.

But in both Poland and Hungary, anti-Russian sentiments are historically very strong. Russia invaded Hungary and has a very complicated history with Poland. Therefore, illiberalism there is not necessarily pro-Russian. Even rather anti-Russian.

But, of course, for the Putinists, the main prize and dream is to ensure that China is ideologically on their side. Here, everything is a little more complicated, and it may be the other way around – Russia will end up on China’s side. In any case, it is possible that Putinism will come to mix traditional values and a leftist agenda. And if this happens, yes, it will become a very powerful ideology, attractive to the majority. It seems to me that the Kremlin is aware of this and is aiming for it.
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