Russia and the world were stunned by the assassination of Vladimir Putin as he walked out of a midnight mass at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on January 7, 2008.” This line is not out of Brad Thor’s spy thriller State of the Union or Robert Ludlum’s historical dystopia The Tristan Betrayal. This fanciful scenario can be found in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ new report “Alternative Futures for Russia to 2017.” More specifically, “A Shot in the Dark … and True Dictatorship,” the second of three “alternative scenarios” Kremlinologist Andrew Kuchins, formerly of the Carnegie Endowment, predicts for Russia over the next decade, a report which caused a minor shitstorm in Russia last week.
Predicting Russia, however, is more than just an academic venture. It is a genre in and of itself. A sort of “social science fiction” where the Socratic Method is employed to weave fanciful and farcical tales about the Great Bear. And like any literary genre it posits a narrative filled with heroes and villains, climax, and foreshadowed resolutions. All that is historically contingent is flattened. All that is seemingly unexpected is, by the plot’s end, all too expected.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
As the sun begins to set on Putin’s Presidency and his direct personal sway over Russia’s future is still undetermined, there is one legacy we can count on. A new “-ism” called Putinism.
With the help of LexisNexis, I’ve been trying to track down the first appearance of this supposed ideology attached to the person of Vladimir Putin. A search of Major US and foreign publications, wire services, and TV and radio transcripts reveals a rather serpentine history to Putinism’s literary life.
According to my search, “Putinism” was born in early 2000. The first mention of the word came a mere six days after Vladimir Putin was named acting President of Russia. It was coined by an unlikely figure, Richard Gwyn, in an unlikely publication, the Toronto Star. I say unlikely because while Gwyn is considered “one of Canada’s best-known and most highly-regarded political commentators,” he is no Kremlinologist nor is he even a frequent commentator on Russian affairs. Still, this didn’t stop him from writing in “The World Needs a Strong Russian State” that Putinism means “a state that is strong and yet also is, more or less, democratic” (1/5/00). For Gwyn, Putin’s tenure in the FSB was more a blessing than a curse, a job that prepared him with the skill and will to meet the challenge the “cabal of billionaires” posed to his supposed “hatred of corruption.” In fact, for Gwyn, Putinism is not only predicated on a strong Russian state, which by the way he then claimed Russia and the world needed, its “distinctive hallmark . . . may turn out to be the rooting out of corruption and criminality.” Andrei Pointkovsky, however, saw Putinism as just the opposite. For him, Putin was more the protector of corruption rather than its scourge. He was destined to be mere pawn of the Yeltsin oligarchs. Borrowing Lenin’s famous statement about imperialism, Pointkovsky called Putinism “the highest stage of robber capitalism.” Both views seem to still hold water in 2007. However, whether Putin is a rooter or protector of corruption depends much on who’s playing the robber. Even more, Gwyn’s labeling of Putin’s government as “more or less” democratic would now be considered political heresy among the Anglophone chattering classes.
It would only take a few weeks after Gwyn’s piece for Putinism to begin its transformation into a system Western liberals and conservatives alike would love to hate. And what a better person to recast the light of Putinism into darkness than a conservative mandarin like William Safire. In a column titled, “Putinism Looms,” the conservative ideologue prophesied in Putin the emergence of “the cooler of repression and autocratic rule.” And for a unabashed free marketeer like Safire this not only spelled doom for Russia’s fledgling democracy, but would also usher in “an uncompetitive, economically weakened Russia.” Only a “Yavlinsky Era” could “marry a literate work force to a free-market system under law” and make Russia a competitive world power. In Safire’s mind, “Putinism” would only become “surly stagnation” (1/31/00). Looking back, Safire’s prophesy of economic doom has proved utterly false.
Still, “Putinism” itself began to catch on after leaving Safire’s pen. Even the British began to show a fancy toward it, thereby adding to its evolution. In April, the London Times warned Tony Blair of Putinism’s “low-intensity brand of Russian nationalism that seems reasonably inclusive unless you happen to be male, Chechen and of fighting age” (4/15/00). In May, the Guardian would be the first British paper to mention Putinism in conjunction with the S-word, Stalinism . The Guardian didn’t come up with the Stalinist connection on its own. The idea that Putinism was “nothing short of modernized Stalinism” was posited by “a band of former Soviet dissidents.” These unnamed “dissidents” were “widely dismissed as hysterical prophets of doom.” Nevertheless, the Guardian felt that their warnings were sane enough have “an uneasy new resonance” (5/29/00).
By summer, the Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir had adopted “Putinism” in his piece “Putin’s Recipe for a Strong Russia.” Weir never explicitly uses the term himself but quotes it from then vice president of the Parliamentary Foundation, Andrei Zakharov. And like Safire, Weir via Zakharov saw Putinism as the supposed contradiction between “autocratic measures” and fruitful “economic growth.” “This,” said Zakharov, “is the central paradox of Putinism.” Weir didn’t disagree, and like Safire, he was proved wrong too (7/13/00).
Perhaps the initial connecting of Putinism with Russian economic stagnation is what caused the term to fall virtually out of use until 2003. In fact, the last mention of it until then was in late 2001, when the NY Times’ Thomas Friedman reversed Putinism’s economic meaning entirely. Friedman saw Putin as the garden where the fruits of capital were being plucked from the free market trees. He congratulated Putinism role in cultivating Moscow’s “exploding middle class,” showered comparisons between Putin and Deng Xiaoping, and cited “young capitalists coming of age” as proof that the Russians could “actually do this capitalist thing.” Friedman saw Putinism as such a positive, he urged his readers to “keep rootin’ for Putin”(12/23/01).
Then suddenly and without warning the press went silent after Friedman’s adulation. Was the endorsement of the self-proclaimed guru of globalization enough to calm the emerging paranoia of America’s political class? Perhaps. But if I would place my a bet, the disappearance of Putinism was a delayed response to George Bush’s now infamous, “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The establishment press got the signal and any talk of Putin as -ism wasn’t uttered for over a year.
Perhaps having seen enough, William Safire finally broke the silence in late 2003. Days before he penned “The Russian Reversion” for the NY Times, United Russia swept the Duma elections, winning 223 seats. The “Yavlinksy Era” never dawned, and the liberals’ thumping in the polls didn’t inspire hope of their return. The Russian love for authoritarianism seemed in the air. The time was ripe to reintroduce Putinism. And this time Safire said nothing of its economic pretensions. Instead, Putinism was set alongside another word, the siloviki. “Russia’s short-lived experiment with democracy is all but dead,” Safire declared. Putinism was now “repressive rule through money and media control” (12/10/03).
As he seemed to do in 2000, Safire’s 2003 revision of Putinism set its future tone. Putinism’s similitude to the siloviki has since garnered the most consensus. It is even the definition that dominates Putinism’s Wikipedia entry. Four days after Safire’s rehabilitation, the Washington Post followed suit with a hysterical editorial by George Will titled, “Democracy Under Siege.” Will seemed intent on not being outdone by Safire in regard to editorial hyperbole. For him, Putinism was nothing short of
“uprooting the shallow seedlings of democracy across Russia’s 11 time zones. Putinism is becoming a toxic brew of nationalism directed against neighboring nations, and populist envy, backed by assaults of state power, directed against private wealth. Putinism is a national socialism without the demonic element of its pioneer who, 70 years ago this year, used plebiscitary democracy to acquire the power to extinguish German democracy. There probably are not enough Jews remaining in Russia to make anti-Semitism a useful component of Putinism. But do not bet on that either” (12/14/03).
To put it plainly, Putinism was simply Nazism in a Russian key. Russia’s economic dynamism made warnings of a communist comeback ring hollow. So Will reached deeper into his bag of historical villains of “Freedom” and pulled out Hitler. And thank god so many Jews left anti-Semitic Russia because if you listened to Will, the next Holocaust was right around the corner.
As for Putinism itself, Safire’s and Will’s salvos made the term stick. Of the 160 articles that mentioned Putinism between 2000-2007, 143 were published after 2003. Other pundits turn their ire to Putinism. USA Today columnist Bill Nichols called Putinism “a one-party state” that “smacks of Soviet-style authoritarianism” (3/15/04). Roy Greenslade of the Guardian said that Putinism “happens when Stalinism hooks up with capitalism” (10/19/04). Ah yes, history was nothing more than political clay in the hands of the pundit class.
Moreover, Putinism became a favorite of the American neo-conservative right to hoist upon the Great Bear as its “near abroad” sought to cast off the Russian yoke. George Will cried that “Putinism was on the march” when Putin backed Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich against the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko (WP, 11/30/04). Putinism was connected again with Russia’s “imperialist aspirations” as Russophobes saw “colored revolution” looming in Belarus. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl even went so far to suggest that Belarus was the weakest link in the Putinist chain. “A toppling of the Lukashenko regime would probably make Putinism unsustainable even in Russia,” he wrote (1/3/05). Whereas Putinism was the enemy of free market capitalism in 2000, the gravedigger of Russian democracy in 2003, by early 2005, Putinism was the antithesis of the great democracy blooming from “colored revolution.”
After Ukraine and Belarus, it appears that Putinism’s meaning finally began to crystallize. It started to tally up more and more “victims” of state repression–Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Aleksander Litvinenko, and Anna Politkovskaya. Virtually unknown and rather unscrupulous Russians were suddenly transformed into the mujahedin of Russian democracy. More and more often Anglophone columnists saw in Putin an echo of Stalinism or a Tsarist redux complete with its own slick image, mechanisms of repression, control, chauvinism, and cult of personality. To suggest otherwise was to either come off as a lunatic, a heretic in the global democratic faith, or a practitioner in the amorality of relativism.
By February 2007, Putinism as a metonym for neo- or quasi- Stalinism was all but complete. This is best seen in the historical broad strokes Arnold Beichman painted Putinism. Beichman, a research fellow at that bunker of anti-communist holy warriors, the Hoover Institution, wrote in the Washington Times that “Putinism in the 21st century has become as significant a watchword as Stalinism was in the 20th” (2/06/07). And to think George Will sounded like a nutjob. Still, Putin as Stalin is conventional wisdom now. A LexisNexis search shows that Putin and Stalin appear in the same sentence in major English language newspapers 1,237 times. 274 of those were in 2007 alone.
What can be made of this journey of Putinism from a mantra for a strong Russian, anti-corruption state, to a inherent contradiction of the free flow of capital, to a symbol of an anti-democratic, nationalist, and imperialistic system run by a cabal of chekisty, to finally end up nothing more than a postmodernized Stalinism?
There is something deifying yet damning about turning a person into an “-ism.” Many of the “-isms” connected with personalities are often ascribed by both critics or adherents. Never does the person prefacing the “-ism” make the egotistical jump to being an ideological adherent to himself. For better or for worse, this is left to others. For example, Lazar Kaganovich coined “Stalinism” in praise of the vodzh’, though Stalin himself would have simply called himself a disciple of Lenin. Marx denied that he was ever a “Marxist.” Lenin never said he was a Leninist. The same goes for Trotsky and Trotskyism. Joseph Goebbels often spoke of Hitlerism, though it is doubtful that Hitler ever referred to himself as its proponent. Reaganism was coined by Reagan’s critics in the New Republic in 1971. It’s difficult to exactly pin down when Gaullism was first uttered, but since then it has been and continues to be a staple in French politics. I doubt de Gaulle ever referred to himself as a Gaullist. And finally as shown above, Putinism was coined in 2000, but one can’t imagine Putin or any of his lieutenants calling themselves adherents of Putinism. But you never know. Maybe they will someday.
One thing is clear about the origin of Putinism is that at least in the Anglophone world, we can mostly thank American conservatives for its existence. The question, though, is why Putin’s name got an “-ism” attached to it at all. Is it because Putinism really is an ideology? Is it really a means of governance? Or is it merely an empty signifier to neatly wrap every criticism of Putin into a nice package? Whatever it is, one thing’s for sure. What stands for a term of analysis often masks the political positions and assumptions behind its use. And in our mostly post-ideological world, attaching “-ism” to a name proves to be an effective method of damnation. For the ominous “-ism,” especially in the American mind, resurrects the dark terrors of the past and reinscribes them into our understanding of present and, subsequently, the future.
By Sean — 9 years ago
When I first saw the ads Russia Today is using in its American and UK ad campaign, I immediately had the reaction that most Americans and British probably had. Comparing Obama to Ahmadinejad? That’s like comparing Christ with the devil! Is RT crazy or just stupid!? But then I started to think about the ad, realizing my gut reaction is exactly what it was supposed to provoke.
By Sean — 13 years ago
Apparently Vladimir Putin is not just President of Russia. He’s not just a karate expert. Or just a lover of blondes. He’s also Vladimir Putin, PhD. According to a REN TV report on February 2, Putin wrote a dissertation, “Strategic Planning of Regional Raw Material Operations in a Market Economy,” in 1997 as a student of the St. Petersburg Mining Academy. Anyone can go read it. It’s stored at the Leninka. REN TV took a trip to the Leninka to see if the dissertation was in fact there. Apparently the work has seen some heavy traffic. “Last year the thesis was lent for reading eight times,” reported REN TV’s Aleksandr Zhestkov. “Librarians say it is a lot: some theses remain without anybody’s attention for years, whereas here there is a clear interest.” So much interest that it is rumored that it is required reading by Kremlin staff.
It seems that Putin’s PhD is not simply a thesis on raw material; it is a object that lends to his emerging cult. “You are holding in your hands something that was typed by the person who wrote it,” said Aleksandr Soshnin, the Leninka’s head librarian after handing the text to Zhestkov. “It is like an old manuscript. You are touching something that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] also touched.” Such an experience is bound give you the chills.
But the cult of personality goes beyond that. Putin’s thesis is also characterized as a “prophecy of the gas war with Ukraine, obviously expressed in a coded fashion.” Or so thinks Vladimir Litvinenko, Vice Chancellor of the St. Petersburg Mining Academy:
One can indeed find if not a direct answer to those processes that are today taking place with Russian gas which passes through Ukraine, then general views on the state’s presence in the system of regulating the activities of large companies.
Prophecy or not, one thing is for sure. The thesis gives some idea of what Putin thinks about the relationship between energy, the state, and the market. One part of the text reads, “Irrespectively of who owns natural, namely mineral, resources, the state has the right to regulate their development and use.” This is enough to make the free marketers at the G-8 meetings quiver.
Perhaps Putin was on to something. Or so thinks Professor Vladimir Shlapentokh of Michigan State University. Energy exports and exerting influence over the global energy market is one way for Russia to reemerge as a superpower.
“In the last few years,” writes Shlapentokh,
The Kremlin has realized that Russia, with its expansive oil and gas resources, can reclaim its superpower status. A few of the president’s myrmidons have recently suggested that Putin had actually predicted this turn of events as early as 1997 when he worked as Petersburg’s deputy mayor and wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled, “The strategic planning of the natural resources in the region.” In any case, on December 22, 2005, at the meeting of the Russian Security Council, Putin proclaimed that the country was back on top and playing a key role on the world stage. A few days later, Moscow decided to settle the score with Ukraine for choosing the West as an ally after the Orange Revolution in 2004. The Kremlin sent an ultimatum to Kiev, forcing it to accept a five-fold increase in the price of gas. One month later, the Kremlin sponsored a rather primitive spy scandal against Britain in the style of the Cold War. It accused the British special services of helping human rights organizations destabilize Russia.
To do this, the Putin government had to overcome a series of “dogmas.” First if the economy was going to rely on energy exports, it had to create a reserve of hard currency to prevent default if oil prices dipped. Putin succeeded in this by creating the “Stabilization Fund” which contains over $35 billion, almost 10 percent of Russia’s GNP. With energy prices on the rise due to the combination of possible “peak oil” and increasing demand from emerging industrial giants of China and India, there is no indication that Russia will have to dip into that fund to stave off a default.
The second dogma concerns “backwardness” or Russia’s reliance on energy exports like other Third World countries as a negative refection on its potential to join “civilized nations.” The fear was that this “backwardness” would prevent the development of alternative export sectors in the economy like manufacturing like so many industrial economies had. The dangers of backwardness have since been rejected by the Putin Administration:
Though strong in the past, the dogma of backwardness is now being rejected by the Kremlin. Putin’s team sees its enormous oil and gas reserves as a blessing that will allow them to solve many of the country’s problems without increasing the production of manufactured goods for export (an unrealistic goal for a country that is unable to make structural economic reforms). However, the high export revenues have allowed Moscow to forget about the times when it had to scrounge for money from world financial organizations. Moscow can now boost military expenditures, pay salaries and pensions regularly, increase social benefits, make some improvements in infrastructure and refurbish not only Moscow and Petersburg, but all major cities in the country.
I hesitate to embrace Shlapentokh’s optimism that capital from energy exports will be redirected to improving Russia’s infrastructure. It’s a possibility, though not without consequences. When Stalin used grain exports to generate capital for industrialization, it increased domestic grain prices and as a result discontent among the population. It also drove the regime to collectivize agriculture to avoid the fluctuations of grain supply the Politburo perceived was a result of peasants withholding grain to get a better price. I should state that I am in no way saying Putin is Stalin-like. I know that placing anyone next to Stalin invites all sorts of political enmity. My point is that Stalin’s move required the centralization of grain production. Such seems to be the case with the energy sector in Russia. The trick seems that the Russian government has to balance exports with domestic consumption. That is, dependence on energy exports requires high energy prices on the global market, but at the same time the state must somehow keep the domestic prices low. Russians have already seen a steady rise in energy costs. The question is how high they can go before cutting into the increased standard of living Shlapentokh hopes an energy export based economy can produce.
It seems that to get out of this bind there needs to be a concerted effort by the state to reinvest the income from energy exports back into the domestic economy. Given the general increase in the gap between rich and poor, the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a thin layer of the Russian middle class, and the geographical concentration of wealth first around Moscow, and then urban centers, one wonders how Russia will break this cycle and redistribute its vast capital more evenly. My guess would be increased state intervention. But if Andrei Illarionov’s charges that the Russian economy and politics is based on “nashism” are correct then how will this redistribution happen?
But does it need to? A lot of the ill effects caused by robber barons can be quelled with ideology. If Russians imagine themselves and their country as a “superpower” then the increased concentration of wealth might not matter. On this, Shlapentokh is right to note the importance of the fact that “the price of oil itself has become a sort of national symbol in Russia, a country that has been searching for a national idea for twenty years.” Oil is the road in which all former glories can rise again: Russia’s military strength, the sanctity of its cultural institutions and traditions, its modern role as a global player. The belief in oil might return the national confidence lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the instability of the Yeltsin years. If Putin’s gamble pays Russia will continue on its steady path of regaining its international footing. But, a sole reliance on energy is not a feasible long term strategy. Energy prices will certainly rise in the coming decades. But what will happen if they rise so high they create a scissors crisis with the costs of living? What will sustain the Russian economy then?