The Perils of “Putinism”

The Perils of “Putinism”

Simplistic analytical models that cast Putin as an all-powerful autocrat obscure how the Russian political system actually works. 

Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth installment in a series on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s succession dilemma, featuring Anna Putina-Tsivilyova, Dmitri Patrushev, and Mikhail Mishustin.

As Putin is sworn in for his fifth term as President of the Russian Federation, today is as good a day as any to correct simplified explanations about how the Russian political system works. One faulty assumption on which the Russian studies community has become fixated recently is the notion of “Putinism,” a nebulous floating signifier that supposedly explains the nature of Russia and its regime. Even worse, this term leads to the misleading framing of Putin as an absolute dictator with total control over the system. While Putin certainly does exercise a level of power unacceptable to liberal democratic systems, he operates under a number of key constraints. 

From the beginning, the term “Putinism” was used to condemn, not clarify. The term first gained traction in a New York Times article by William Safire, published in 2000, which described the alleged failures of President Clinton’s foreign policy. For Safire, Putin was a “new Napoleon” set on developing a “cult of personality.” This article, translated into Russian as an example of so-called “Russophobia,” introduced the term to the Russian public. The far-right newspaper Zavtra published an article in 2000 decrying Putinism as a continuation of “Yeltsinism,” an “ideology of national treason” and “the worst phenomenon in Russia of the twentieth century.” From 2001 to 2004, Kremlin ideologists such as Sergei Markov and Gleb Pavlovsky tried to put a positive spin on this “ism.” For them, Putinism was about strengthening the state,” stability, and a law-based system. A United Russia Conference in 2004 declared that Putinism was concerned with consolidating democracy, just not English democracy.” 

But it was the Russian opposition who ended up owning the term. In 2001, leading human rights activists equated Putinism with a police state in a loud political manifesto. In 2004, oppositional figures, such as Gary Kasparov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, formed a “Committee against Putinism” that stated, Putin in 2007 will be gone, but Putinism will remain!” 

This same year, during the Orange Revolution crisis in Ukraine, the term Putinism returned to American journalism. Putinism was on the march against democracy, warned George Will. Other newspaper articles associated Putinism with a crackdown on free speech, the invasion of Georgia, and rigged elections

By 2015, Putinism had circled back around and entered Western academia. The consensus was that Putinism had no palpable ideology. It was not a rigid doctrine like Marxism-Leninism but rather a sort of “code.” This was not a mafia code; Putinism is not just simple kleptocracy. Instead, Putinism was a governing “mentality” that revolved around anti-Westernism, resentment, anti-liberalism, and hyper-masculinity. By contrast, other scholars have insisted that Putinism does entail a coherent ideology. As Maria Snegovaya, Michael Kimmage, and Jade McGlynn have argued, “Putinism elevates an idea of imperial-nationalist statism amplified by Russian greatness, exceptionalism, and historical struggle against the West.” However, there is nothing particularly distinctive about this kind of thinking. For Russia, it’s the norm rather than the exception.

There are many inconsistencies with the Putinism framework. The first problem is its tautological nature. If Putinism is simply how Putin rules Russia, this does not tell us much about what distinguishes the Putin regime from its Soviet and imperial predecessors. The academic purveyors of Putinism are mostly social scientists who cut their teeth in Soviet studies. And during the Cold War, there was a tendency to overuse “ism” attached to leaders’ names—Stalinism, Khrushchevism, Brezhnevism. While Stalin may be described as a quintessential dictator, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Putin do not really qualify.

More troubling is that adding the “ism” to Putin suggests that he is an outlier in his leadership style for Russia and for the contemporary world. Neither is true. In fact, the main elements of Putinism can be traced directly to the Yeltsin period and his super-presidency. Maria Pevchikh, chair of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, has connected the dots between the Yeltsin regime and Putin in a recent documentary. Moreover, when we look at Russia from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and after, it is clear that the outlier is Gorbachev, not Putin. If we look back further, say to the Principality of Muscovy in the thirteenth century to the current day to include princes, tsars, emperors, general-secretaries, and presidents, then an authoritarian and imperialistic Russian ruler like Putin is the norm. 

Some may point to Putin’s long tenure in power, twenty-four years and counting. But in the Russian context, this has been the norm. Since the late thirteenth century, 1283 to be precise, when Danil Alexandrovich became Grand Prince of Muscovy, eighteen leaders ruled over Russia and its predecessor states for over eighteen years. Combined, these eighteen potentates ruled for a total of 524 out of 717 years (1283-2000), or about 28.5 years per leader. While Russia has a reputation for political instability, with two revolutions in the last century, this is a remarkable record of long-tenured stability at the top.

All of these leaders viewed themselves as “gatherers of the Russian lands” and imperialists. All of them were patriarchal-authoritarian leaders who invested heavily in their militaries at the expense of the people’s welfare. They were all concerned with Russia’s traditional security dilemma on its borderlands. From the sixteenth century to 1917, the Russian Empire behaved pretty much as its European imperialist peers did. From this perspective, it seems that compared to his historical peers, Putin has achieved little in expanding Russian territory: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and parts of four oblasts in Ukraine.

However, our principal disagreement with the term Putinism is that it prevents a more accurate understanding of how the Russian system functions. The aptest description of how Russian elites and leaders interact can be found in historian Edward Keenan’s seminal article from 1986, “Muscovite Political Folkways.” He argues that “one of the system-preserving features of the Russian political culture is to deprive non-participants of crucial information about the rules of the system itself.” In other words, it is highly non-transparent. He takes on conventional wisdom, going on to say, “[…] the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocrat was in fact politically weak.” 

In this view, political elites are best understood as representing key clans with sometimes divergent interests. Clan management is thus the crucial task for the leader and elites:

The solution seems to have been quite simple: there must be only one coalition—that formed around the ‘divinely anointed’ grand prince of Moscow—and such a coalition must serve both to protect clans from internecine military competition and to guarantee the economic and political status through grants of land and income made nominally in the name of the grand prince and for loyal service, but in fact as a system of corporate resource-sharing controlled by the clans themselves.

Indeed, Putin’s greatest political skill is clan management within a complex polity with multiple interest groups competing for power and influence. Putin, like every successful Russian leader before him, uses patronage to allocate state resources to those elites judged most loyal and competent in ensuring systemic survival and relative stability. A vast corporate bureaucracy is required to manage the state, but efforts are always made to centralize power as a means of maintaining control. 

Whether Putin is weak or strong is a matter for debate, and the system’s profound non-transparency makes it very difficult to evaluate despite the loud chorus of “experts” purporting to understand the Kremlin definitively. Think of the Kremlin like Las Vegas: what happens in the Kremlin stays in the Kremlin. 

Ultimately, it is in the interest of the system to project the all-powerful nature of the leader both for internal and external political reasons. Putin views himself as an irreplaceable leader who must personally deal with a neverending array of state matters. As the president claimed on March 7, 2024: 

My life consists of an endless number of different events and activities. I sometimes compare it to a waterfall. You stand under a waterfall, and it pours endlessly. Even when I am next to my loved ones, I try not to show it, and, on the contrary, I pretend that everything is fine: we are relaxing. But I know that in five minutes, so-and-so should call me, and in ten minutes, I have to call somewhere, and in half an hour, such and such an event will happen, and I have to understand what happened, and if necessary, then react somehow, or correct something. 

Putin, if not indispensable, is a very difficult-to-replace clan mediator.

A failure to correctly analyze the nature of the Russian system can lead to ineffective policy outcomes. For example, the Obama administration mistakenly thought that they could empower the perceived “liberal modernizer” Dmitri Medvedev at the expense of Vladimir Putin. This was a fool’s errand that failed to recognize the traditionally conservative and closed nature of Russian political culture.