Potemkin Power?


Review of Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West, by Walter Laqueur

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015

The names of few political leaders have been endowed with an ism. Dictionaries list Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Reaganism, and Thatcherism. There is no Obamaism, Bushism (although there are Bushisms), no Nixonism or Johnsonism or Trumanism, or even Rooseveltism or Lincolnism. Francoism and Bonapartism, but no Pinochetism.

Perhaps this is all an accident of language but the ism-izing of political leaders follows a pattern. It occurs when a leader combines (1) strong executive power, (2) a nationalistic outlook, and (3) a distinctive ideology that resonates with the public and continues to exert force after the leader has left the scene. Reagan and Thatcher advocated free-market capitalism and limited government. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao advocated communism and state control. In contrast, Nixon and Truman were pragmatists. Lincoln’s ideology did not go beyond his nationalism—he was essentially an emergency leader. Hitler and Mussolini could have received isms but they were subsumed by Nazism and Fascism. Roosevelt is a bit of a puzzle. Is Rooseveltism too hard to say?

The figure shows google hits for various isms. Surprisingly, Vladimir Putin shows up between Reagan and Thatcher. Putin checks the first two boxes: he is a strong leader and a nationalist. But does he also represent a distinctive ideology that appeals to the Russian public?

Laqueur provides the essential background. Putin is shrewd and competent, but he owes his immense and consistent popularity (frequently above 80%) to luck. Putin came to power in 2000 while Russia was at the nadir of its fortunes. After the Cold War, the economy collapsed, the Soviet Union broke apart, and Russia lost its influence on global events. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was frequently ill and drunk. Russians felt their humiliation keenly. Shortly after Putin came to power oil prices soared and, except for a brief period in 2008, remained high until last summer. Russia’s economy is a giant pool of oil and gas, along with extractive machinery and pipelines. Profits from high oil prices primarily enriched the oligarchs but trickled down to ordinary people as well, who rewarded Putin with their enthusiastic support.

Putin locked in these gains by using censorship, intimidation, and election-rigging to keep his opponents off balance. And after some hesitation, he adopted a confrontational attitude toward the West that has appealed to the injured nationalism of the Russian masses. Successful wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine revived national pride. Putin’s carefully cultivated tough-guy image is a Russified version of Reagan’s, and while we in the West are apt to mock it, we would do well to remember Europeans’ puzzlement about Reagan’s cowboy appeal. Foreign idioms are hard to decipher.

But does all this amount to a case for Putinism? The missing ingredient is an ideology, without which Putin looks like no more than a successful authoritarian leader. Putin himself realized that he needed an ideology even before oil prices plunged. An ideology ensures support and trust even in hard times.

But what should this ideology consist of? Putin has faced the same problem as China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping. Xi inherited a country that was held together by its booming economy. As the economy cools, so will public support. For Xi as for Putin, the recent past holds nothing of value because communism has been discredited. Xi has rooted around among Chinese traditions—above all, Confucianism—but so far has found nothing that has electrified the Chinese people.

Putin has appealed to social conservatism and religious orthodoxy but neither of these sources seems sufficient to motivate the public. Putin tried with little enthusiasm to revive Stalin as a kind of model, but Stalin was a strongman and a war leader—Stalinism without communism is just dictatorship. Putin and his supporters have therefore reached back further, to the religious nationalism of the nineteenth century. Russians, like Americans, believed in what Americans called “manifest destiny,” except that Russia, not the United States, would carry out God’s obscure plans. The Russian version was otherwise nearly the opposite of the American version—emphasizing religious orthodoxy (rather than religious pluralism), the collective (rather than the individual), rootedness in the earth (rather than mobility), authoritarianism (rather than democracy), mysticism, class structure, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.

In the nineteenth century, some brilliant Russian authors managed to create art out of this unappetizing stew, but no Russian today appears capable of reviving the Russian Idea. Laqueur devotes many pages to a supine intellectual class that strives to offer Putin a usable ideology. These crackpots and charlatans write best-selling novels, produce popular documentaries, are celebrated by the media, receive financial support from shadowy organizations, and advise the government. Not one of them (in Laqueur’s account) has produced a coherent idea. They traffic in conspiracy theories involving the CIA and Jews; advocate religious messianism and quasi-fascism; exhibit a bunker mentality bordering on paranoia; or indulge alarming fantasies of end-times-style violence, including nuclear Armageddon. The America of Donald Trump, who in comparison could pass as Isaiah Berlin, should count its blessings.

Laquer gamely defines Putinism:

Putinism is state capitalism, a liberal economic policy, but also a great amount of state intervention—almost total interference when important issues are concerned. It is an autocracy, but this is nothing new in Russian history and is almost mitigated by inefficiency and corruption. There is a parliament, but the opposition parties are not really in opposition. There is a free press, but the freedom is limited to small newspapers and the criticism must not go too far. There is a constitution, but it is not the best guide for the realities of contemporary Russia. (P. 118)

He also suggests that Putinism is characterized by “nationalism accompanied by anti-Westernism” (p. 120). But Laqueur adds rightly that there is nothing especially distinctive about these attitudes and ideas. Putinism is a generic type of authoritarianism that is not as harsh as it is in some places (for example, Saudi Arabia) but harsher than in other places (like Turkey). Nationalism and anti-Westernism can be found in every major power outside the West. If there is a consistent ideology associated with Putin, it is generic social conservatism tied to the obscure theology of the Russian Orthodox Church, along with an insistence on Russian greatness and suppression of political dissent.

Laqueur is less interested in the Russian Idea  than in whether Russia poses a threat to the West. He draws an arresting analogy between Russia after the Cold War and Germany after World War I—in both cases a prostrate country revives with surprising speed, driven by perceived injustices inflicted on it by its enemies, which generate stab-in-the-back mythologies and a desire for revenge. Yet Russia has immense problems, including demographic decline, excessive dependence on oil and gas, unrest among its many ethnic minorities, terrorism, economic inequality, and a lack of dependable allies. Laqueur sees no chance for democratic reform without a “cultural revolution,” given the deep-rootedness of Russian authoritarianism and Russians’ association of democracy with the chaos of the 1990s, and he sees no sign of such a revolution. Over the long term, Russia is a basket case. But in the short-term, Russia may well cause problems for the West, as the quest for a return to superpower greatness leads to reckless encounters.

And yet the one thing Putin cannot afford is a humiliating defeat. He has so far bluffed effectively but only picked on the weakest countries. Last month, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that strayed over its territory. Putin struck back with the unwarlike act of cutting off Russian tourism to Turkey and closing its borders to Turkish farm products. Has the Putin clone, Recep Erdoğan, revealed that Putin is all bluster?

Posted on 9 December 2015

ERIC A. POSNER is Kirkland & Ellis Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago Law School, and an editor of The New Rambler Review.