How did Putinism come to pass?

By He Qinglian in March 2014
Source articles in Chinese: 普京主义是如何炼成的 (一)(二)

At the moment, Russia stations 100,000 troops at Northern, Southern and Eastern borders of Ukraine to intimidate that country. With the achievement of getting Crimea to join the Russian Federation, Putin is already seen by the Russian people as the hero who brings their country back onto the world stage, regardless of whether he takes further actions against Ukraine. And regardless of whether the international community would welcome Russia's return to the world stage, Putinism—which practices authoritarian rule at home and power politics abroad—has already taken shape.

Putinism and Russia's return to the world stage become a new topic in social transition theories: the transition from autocracy to democracy is not a one way street. So long as the social conditions still facilitate autocracy, it is possible that the people would someday vote back a dictator.

Putinism: a sword forged by great power politics and Russian chauvinism

When Putin ascended to power, most of the world saw him in a way similar to his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, and for a time there was a view that Putin wanted to become Leonid Brezhnev the second. Although there has all along been criticism of Putin's autocratic tendency, most people of the world were not so worried about Russia reverting back to dictatorship as they dreaded China, a country which is even more autocratic—they thought that, after all, in Russia there is a democratic framework which could more or less serve to prevent that from happening. After Crimea ceded itself from Ukraine and joined the Russian Federation, the world realized as it watched in shock a repeat of Hitler's annexation of Sudetenland that Russia poses a greater threat to the safety of the globe than China.

The notable turn of Russian politics came after Putin began his rule. Before Putin rose to power, Russia did for a period turn its back on dictatorship and switch to democracy. However, from 1999 on, Putin made perfect use of his mastery in politics to lead Russia onto the path of gradual reversion to dictatorship and hegemony, and he himself transformed from a democratically-elected president to a dictator.

It is worth noting that each of the major turns Putin made was backed by the mainstream public opinion of Russia, or it could put in this way: by skillfully catering to the Russian chauvinistic tradition and successfully exploiting Russians' reliance on authoritarianism that has been for centuries, Putin achieves his political ambition—becomes “Peter the Great” of modern-day Russia.

It could be said that it was the mainstream public opinion of Russia that ushered Putin as he sought to lead the country back onto the world stage. Analyze Russian politics from the 1990s onward and one could see that the emergence of Putinism is a result of interaction between Putin and the public opinion of Russia.

Stalin: Putin’s hero

Deemed in the Western world as a tyrant, Stalin remains influential in Russia, and his ghost still hovers above that country.

After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Russia has never completely negated Stalin. And since Putin formally took office as president in 2000, he began to affirm “achievements” of the Soviet Union. For a start, he restored the use of the national anthem of the Soviet Union that was used by Stalin; and he approved publication of a textbook portraying Stalin as an effective ruler with glorious merits in his leadership of the Patriotic War. From then on, Putin persistently and repeatedly commends what Stalin achieved.

In June 2007, Putin, serving as President at the time, commented that mistakes could be found in the history of any given countries, and other countries made even more mistakes than Russia did. In view of this, Russians need not be ashamed of the past of the country. He went on to say that “in our history we didn’t have a dark leaf similar to Nazism; problems could be found in the history of every nation and every people, thus we shouldn’t feel guilty”.

On December 3, 2009, Putin appeared in a live TV show to answer questions from the viewers. He mentioned in his own accord how he viewed Stalin and Stalinism. At that time, Western media outlets like the Times thought Russia was speeding up its effort to “rehabilitate” Stalin.

“Stalin's return to Russian life has been accelerating as the Kremlin prepares major celebrations for the 65th anniversary next year of the Soviet victory in the Second World War,” The report wrote.

Once again Putin spoke highly of Stalin’s achievements in his leadership of the Great Patriotic War and the Socialist construction. He commended Stalin’s industrialization achievement by saying that “between 1924 and 1953, when Stalin led the country, it changed dramatically: It turned from an agrarian country into an industrialized one”. He admitted this was done by sacrificing the farmers, though.

And again he mentioned the victory of the Great Patriotic War secured under Stalin’s leadership; “nobody can today throw stones at those who organized and led us to victory”, he said.

To pacify the Russians, Putin criticized repressions during Stalin’s reign, “All the undeniable positive things, however, had been accomplished at an unacceptable price. Repressions did take place. It is a fact. Millions of our fellow citizens suffered from them. Such a method of running the state, of achieving results is unacceptable... during that period we were confronted not only with a personality cult, but with massive crimes against our own people”.

After the Eastern Bloc fell apart, countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland adopted their respective Lustration Law to rid themselves of Communist influence and facilitate smooth social transition. The Czech Republic did so in 1991; Poland promulgated similar law in 1997. Russia, however, has never done this. The only occasion that made people think Russia might be beginning to overcome its political taboo was a photograph exhibition held in Moscow which documented how secret police of the former Communist Party of Czechoslovakia spied on dissidents.

Putin said: “People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain.” A variation of this remark is widely quoted: “Anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored the way it was has no brain.”

Those who read the variant remark assumed Putin would not seek to make Russia a new empire. To me, they misunderstood what Putin had in mind. And people came to see only recently that Putin has wanted to turn Russia into a great power all along. What he wants is not a simple reduplication of the former Soviet Union, he wants to move ahead; and what he meant by “no brain” was perhaps attempts to bring Russia back to its glory days without getting the timing right.

Russians' dream of becoming a great power and their chauvinism

For the people of Russia, who have a history of being chauvinists, Putin's charisma came to a large degree from his vocal advocacy of the great power ideal.

When Vladimir Putin was appointed by Boris Yeltsin as the Prime Minister and declared to be his successor, people did not think highly of him. It was until after his unrelenting approach in the Second Chechen war that the people of Russia came to see this man differently.

At that time, Putin directed the Russian Federation Army to enter Chechnya in three ways to eliminate armed rebels in the area. This move helped Putin created an image of a tough leader.

In December, Putin penned an article during his first premiership, “Russia at the turn of the Millennium”. He wrote, “Russia is in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in its history. For the first time in the past 200-300 years, it is facing a real threat of sliding to the second, and possibly even third, echelon of world states”.

These lines stirred a strong sense of consonance among the Russian people. They missed the glory days of Russia as a great power and, after struggling from the pains of the decade-long shock therapy, yearn for a strong leader who would bring Russia back to the rank of powerful nations on the world. Such a dream is described in the Russian press as “return to the world”.

From then on, Putin has allegedly become “the dream of Russian girls and the idol of Russian boys”, some are said to praise him as “a great man born for Russia”. His high popularity is reflected in a song which was claimed to be popular among Russian girls. Its lyrics went something like: “I dream of one such man, who does no smokin' or drinkin', and is decisive and strong like president Putin.”

In China, a country too with a tradition of worshiping authoritarianism and political strongman, there was also a period when people mad for Putin.

In the Russian dream of rebuilding an empire, the role of a Maxim Kalashnikov must not be overlooked. The real name of this Maxim Kalashnikov is Vladimir Alexandrovich Kucherenko, a former deputy editor of an online magazine and a reporter of a pro-government newspaper.

A prolific writer, Kalashnikov wrote, among others, The Broken Sword of the Empire (1998) and The Battle for Skies (2000). Both books went far in whitewashing the militarism of the USSR and were influential among the young people of Russia.

Kalashnikov believes the road of Russia revival lies in building a second Soviet Union, and he advocate this idea in his Towards USSR 2.0 (2003). This book had a number of reprints within 18 months since its publication, and from this one could see how popular this book was among the people of Russia.

Why did the reign of Brezhnev become a “golden age”?

In the process of Putinism taking its shape, quite a number of activities have been held to honor forefathers in Russian politics. Of these activities, the most surprising one would perhaps be the effort to recreate the image of Brezhnev.

Brezhnev ruled Russia for 18 years, nearly a quarter of the 80-odd-year lifespan of the Soviet Union. In the past, this period was summarized as one of immobility. There were comments that while Brezhnev might have expanded the international influence of the USSR, that was achieved at a price of economic stagnation in the Soviet Union; and the widespread corruption and cronyism during Brezhnev’s rule were most criticized.

When Yuri Andropov took over, he jailed several of Brezhnev’s cronies as major targets of his anti-corruption campaign.
At a time when the Russians gradually forget the history and the leader of this period, Putin brought Brezhnev back to their mind.

When Putin took office as President for the second time in 2011, it was said that his chief public relation adviser Dmitry Peskov is a particularly good at “reinterpreting” history, and Brezhnev was brought back to the mind of the Russian people as an unprecedented great man.

Of the things that Brezhnev achieved during his reign, it was perhaps his accomplishment of turning the former Soviet Union into a great power that caught Putin’s attention.

Back when Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union, the most notable things were military-related. In 1981, the military expenditure of the USSR reached $140 billion, 4.4 times greater than the 1965 figure of $32 billion; the total tonnage of its vessels was close to that of the United States, the number of USSR warships and attack submarines was greater than that of America; and it obtained the right to use over twenty naval and air bases in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In 1987, the Soviet Union had more ICBMs than the US, and it had 10 billion tons of nuclear warheads, nearly a double of that of America.

During the years when Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, Russia carried out a number of overseas military engagements. It ruthlessly crushed the Prague Spring movement in 1968; it invaded Afghanistan in 1979; in the same year, a war between China and Vietnam broke out, Moscow threw it weight behind Vietnam and stationed one million troops at the China-USSR and China-Mongolia borders, and threatened China’s security.

The international status of the Soviet empire during the Brezhnev era was backed entirely by its military strength; this was in stark contrast with the ideas advocated by Nikita Khrushchev (peaceful co-existence with capitalist countries of the West; peaceful transition from capitalist society to a socialist one; peaceful competition and reduction in support of nationalist revolutions in the third world).

What Putin’s adviser truly missed when he called the Brezhnev era “a golden age that would not be again” was the time when USSR pursued expansion through military means.

Infiltration of secret agents into society

It would take extraordinary means both to send troops to crack down on the unrest in Chechnya and to quell political dissents at home.

Since Putin took office as President, any oligarchs that he deemed as threats were either jailed or expelled. These could not happen without stepping up political and social control. And Putin achieved these through two measures.

First, he monopolizes Russian politics by making United Russia, the party under his control, the dominant party in the State Duma and the Federation Council. Any Russians who have political ambition would have to join that party and pledge allegiance to it.

Second, he uses in large number personnel of the former KGB system. Putin himself worked for the KGB and the Federal Security Service, and he would give priority to former KGB personnel when he recruited people to join his government. For example, it was reported that former KGB members Oleg Safonov was appointed as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs in 2006; Yevgeny Shkolov the head of the economic security department of the ministry and Valery Golubev an assistant to the general director of Gazprom giant.

In 2006, the Moscow Center of Research of Elites announced its finding that 78% of Russian leading political figures, heads of departments of the Presidential administration, all members of the government and members of both chambers of parliament, heads of federal structures and heads of executive power and legislature in regions, somehow in their career have been connected with the KGB or the organizations that had come to replace it. Thus, observers said that the Russia under the Putin administration is a country governed by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Unlike the Soviet Union era, the FSB now controls not just state apparatus but also economic life, political parties, non-governmental organizations, and local government branches; it even controls the cultural sector.

And in this way, the power of the FSB grows increasingly larger, to a point where no business could possibly proceed without its consent.

It is a convention passed on from the former Soviet Union that secret agents control the foreign affairs department. The federation “Honor and Dignity” which president stated openly that diplomats are secret agents, “the whole world does the same, isn’t it?”

And the State Duma granted enormous power to the Intelligence department for their overseas missions. They could even track or, if necessary, physically eliminate “suspected terrorists”.

In the former Soviet Union there was in circulation a political joke about “what happiness is” that illustrated the people’s fear of the KGB. In that joke, three persons of different nationalities discussed what happiness is. The American said: happiness is to become rich and famous; the Frenchman said: happiness is to have a romantic chance encounter with a beautiful woman in a trip; “You are both wrong”, the Russian said, “happiness is when KGB agents come knocking at your door, you can heave a sigh of relief and say, ‘comrades, the person you look for lives next door!’”

Under the Putin administration, the secret agent system that has once disappeared from Russia in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union is now back in that country.

Populism is bound to produce autocratic strongman

Both the experience of Russia and that of Egypt indicate that in countries where there is a tradition of authoritarian politics, the fruit of democratic politics may not necessarily be kept even if a democratic institution is in place.

Back in 2008, when signs of a duumvirate between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev began to emerge, the majority of the Russian people didn't choose to protest, they instead chose to suffer. A public opinion poll showed that 45% of the Russians believed Putin would appoint a successor, and that successor would become the next president; 25% believed Putin would amend the constitution so that he could have three consecutive terms. Observers commented that “almost everyone realized the transfer of presidential power is planned at the highest level and gets affirmed in ballot boxes”.

It is a pity for a country where democratic election system is in place and yet the people see their vote as something insignificant.

How did this situation come to pass? Apart from the cultural factor of worshipping political strongman, the economy recovery that happened after Putin began his rule is also a cause.

Major changes to the supply and demand of international energies took place in the earlier years of the 21st century, making it a seller's market where suppliers could name the price of their choosing and that led to continuous price hikes in energies and minerals. Resources like natural gas, and oil generated huge revenue for Russia, thus helping the Russian people to end their economic plight after the former Soviet Union broke apart, and markedly improved their living standard. The proportion of people enjoying comfortable life now is a lot higher than during the Soviet Union and surpassed any other times in Russian history.

And as a result of the political terror and the rampant KGB during the Soviet Union era, a habit of staying away from politics was formed in the Russian people. Many of them still don't want to be bothered with politics, and they have no idea that with a vote in their hands they have a right to hold the authorities accountable.

During the time of Putin’s rule, there has been a continuous improvement in the living standard of the middle class. There was a prediction that the bourgeois would become more involved in politics as their size grows. The Kremlin, however, uses a cunning method to isolate this social class.

The Kremlin makes conservative voters its foundation of power and uses populist factions to suppress those who are better educated. Under the strong influence of populist sentiments, the few opposition individuals who organize protests came under severe pressure and harassment. And the public stayed away from these people out of fear.

When the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist known for her opposition to the second Chechen war and Putin, took place, there was not a stir in the Russian public.

When Andrey Kozlov, first deputy chairman of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, was killed, many people would believe that his “business partners” were behind this.

In a worsening political atmosphere, many of the middle class either chose to emigrate or stay out of politics and even stopped voting altogether.

After the broke up of the former Soviet Union, and after the years suffering the pain from the shock therapy, Russia has reconstituted political stability and economic order. The claim of the Chinese government that “stability comes before everything else” is in fact also the mainstream public opinion of the people of Russia.

Because of this, it could be said that Putin is a leader that the Russians generally accept. Until the Russian people suffer under autocratic rulers again, most of them would not find anything wrong with the current situation.

If the current political situation of Russia is compared with that of China, one could see some similarities in these two countries: autocratic politics, corruption, infiltration of secret agents into society and increase in military capability. The things that set these two countries apart are that the people of China do not have a vote like the Russians do, and that China is overpopulated, its environment worsening, its people much poorer and enjoy less public welfare if compared to the Russians, and it does not have as many natural resources as Russia does.

Russia’s reversion back to autocracy presents a new challenge to Fukuyama’s views in The End of History and Huntington’s views in The Third Wave: in former Communist countries where there is a strong tradition of authoritarian rule, democratization would not just be a one-way transition. If certain conditions are met, it is entirely possible that those countries revert back to autocracy. And if this happens to a former superpower that is governed by a dictator who aspires to build a new empire, the reemergence of the cold war may be very likely.