What is “Putinism” and how it is perceived in the West and Russia?

_ November 2nd 2015 Yuri Kofner, director, Center for Eurasian Studies and Olga Podberezkina, Phd in political sciences, research fellow, Center for Eurasian Studies, filmed an interview about Putinism for the «MGIMO 360» TV project. Down below we published the discussion’s transcription.

OP: Hello, dear friends. Hello, Yuri.

YK: Hello, Olga.

OP: Today we are going to talk about “Putinism”. Yuri, first of all let’s gain an understanding of what this term really means.

YK: “Putinism” is how Western researchers, journalists, all those who professionally study Russia, call the system of Putin’s views and his personal beliefs on how to rule the state, on how the economy should be arranged in Russia, etc. And recently, starting with the Ukrainian crisis, it is also viewed as an entire outlook based on Russian socio-religious philosophy. It is often interpreted being something like Stalinism or Leninism. Off course not left-wing, but rather right-wing populist. It is characterized by conservatism and the protection of traditional values, by the desire to revive Greater Russia…

OP: So the term is coined by Western journalists and political scientists. Can you please tell us by whom exactly? Who are they? And what are they really saying?

YK: Actually, this term is not new. It was embedded right after Putin had come to power in 2000. But then it was used mainly in the journalistic genre. Now, among the analysts and people who use this term I would mention the French journalist Michel Eltchaninoff, the American historian of German origin Walter Laqueur, who has published a book on “Putinism” I have reviewed recently. By the way, in this book he mentioned your father* as one of the inspireres of “Putinism”.  And, of course, Anne Applebaum, an American journalist who writes for the Washington Post. She held a noted lecture on the topic in the London School of Economics, but she mainly referred to it as Putin’s views on state and economic policy while I would like to pay attention to “Putinism” primarily as a philosophy. They also examine Putim from this stand point.

Here one should start with the fact that in January 2014 Putin charged Russian regional governors and the chiefs of “United Russia” party with the task to read three books: “The Justification of the Good” by Vladimir Solovyov, “The Philosophy of Inequality” by Nikolay Berdyaev as well as “Our Tasks” by Ivan Ilyin. All these authors are great Russian philosophers which we would attribute to conservatism. One may say that this is the foundation of Putin’s idea of state-building. You see, Putin gave instructions to governors to read these books, so he obviously wants to develop some kind of common attitude among the Russian governing elites…

OP: Do you think that the West considers this attitude as some kind of hostile anti-Western ideology?

YK: Yes, off course Putin is being accused of that. For instance, let’s see what Eltchaninoff says. He came to the conclusion that Putin, being an authocrat in his eyes, can not be driven simply by power hunger or any personal economic purpose, and that there must be some greater motivation behind his policies — a historic mission, to see himself in history. And thus those experts try to reveal in “Putinism” some traits that oppose the modern West, or, to be more correct, the postmodern West. They obviously perceive Russia’s cultural ressurgance, the protection of traditional values, the building a multipolar world as threats. They also argue that “Putinism” ostensibly comprises irredentism, that is to say, the desire to reunify Russia’s compatriots living in post-Soviet neighbour countries. It is used to explain why Russia allegedly invaded Ukraine, allegedly annexed Crimea. That is nonsense beyond all doubt. The term “Putinism” in this way is used to discredit Putin.

OP: That’s interesting. It turns out that in the West Putin is considered as a conservative, a staunch defender of Russia’s national interests, who also seems to be the enemy of the West. Meanwhile, in Russia Putin is criticized by some or even many of the people for being way too “liberal” and mild. Yes, we Russian see a strong foreign policy that really stands up for the national interests, but in the domestic policy some decisions made are quite “liberal”, at least a lot of ministers and chief that are considered here as “liberals” are still holding a high office. So, what do you think? Why does this difference in appreciation happen?

YK: Well, it really exists. And I guess, that the Western oversimplified concept of democracy may be the reason. It is a kind of fetish: the Transatlantic community firmly believes the only her view on democracy, freedom of speech and other human rights should be held up as the yard-stick for progress and spread all over the world following strictly Western patterns… And all those concepts are now closely related to progressivism, cultural marxism, post-structuralism with total leveling of any cultural, ethnic and even gender differences. So if they don’t see in Russia this expeted form of democracy, as it exists in the West, then they immediately consider it as an anti-liberal and anti-Western system. In this way, they solely rely on opinion makers which advocate their own postmodern Transatlantic values. I mean people like Alexandra Tolokonnikova, Inna Shevchenko, Garry Kasparov or Alexey Navalny. For us they are not only members of the opposition, but also members of the fifth column. And I do not think the Western expert community does not notice that public demands in Russia may be even more conservative than Putin’s policies, but they simply can not accept this.

Many of my collegues instead noticed that Putin’s early political career seemed to have a pro-Western and pro-European orientation. For example, he is a well known Germanophile. In the early 2000’s he would even admit a possible integration of Russia with NATO or the EU. Only later on, I suppose, he started to show more and more support for Eurasianism as a result of Western aggression and Western political pressure. And that turned obvious after the Ukrainian crisis. On this matter there is a very interesting opinion of the German-Greek liberal publicist Dimitrios Kisoudis. In his book, the“The Golden Background of Eurasia”, published in 2015, he writes that unlike the West Russia has the real liberalism, but “authoritarian liberalism”. What does he mean? He claims that the Russian political system is authoritarian when operating outward in terms of defending its sovereignty, its traditions, its polyethnicity. On the other hand, Putin’s system is quite liberal in domestic affairs as regards politics, freedom of speech, economy, etc. In fact, we do have liberal mass media, media that criticizes the government. They are widely available. Russia’s economic policies are also quite liberal. Our income tax is 13%, the state’s share in GDP is about 38%. This is by far lower than the EU-averege of 50%. Thus we can indeed consider Putin’s domestic policies quite liberal. Yes, he protects conservative values in the international arena, protects Christianity in Russia, Europe and Syria, promotes multipolarity, but within Russia Putin is a liberal politician (unlike, for example, Nicholas the Ist), even too liberal for many patriots.

OP: So “putinism” is a cliché, an attempt to label Russia as the “bad guy” who is going the wrong path. Yet this is not true. We want to move forward in cooperation with both the East and the West. So, even if Russia has turned to the East recently, the only reasons for that are Western sanctions and Western unwillingness to consider our voice. The Eurasian Union is also portrayed very negatively. In this connection let me ask: is there any possibility of cooperation between the Eurasian and the European unions? This is what Putin wants; this is what we all want.

YK: It all depends on Europe herself, on the European citizens primarily. But Europe is not sovereign in terms of its foreign and domestic policy; it is highly dependent on Washington’s standpoint. And yet, Putin is regarded by many European politicians and public figures as a national hero. Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Front in France, called him «the savior of Europe and a defender of Christian values». For a long time Putin has been advocating de Gaulle’s idea of a «Greater Europe», the idea of a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. This may be delayed at the moment because of Russia’s turn to the East, I mean her cooperation with China and attempts to integrate the Eurasian Economic Union with the New Silk Road project. But if in the coming 1-2 years European populists from both left and right wings of the political spectre (of whom most are in friendly relations with Russia) are going to gain more power, this idea of a continental block could prevail. This another side of “Putinism”, I guess.

OP: So, now a lot depends on the Syrian conflict, whether we will be able to declare that the world is going to be multipolar with strong civilization-blocks, such as Russia, the EU, the US, India, China and Brazil or if the world will remain unipolar. This would obviously  be not favorable for Russia or the European and other countries due to the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing in the US and the EU. It is obvious that they are facing a crisis now. Do you think that Russia will be able to change history and build a multipolar world in the future? It’s is quite obvious in my opinion that China is not going to oppose the US all alone.

YK: Well, the Soviet Union wasn’t considered the bulwark of left-winged ideas, the International, the working class and socialism for nothing. In my opinion, nowadays Russia is returning to her roots and is taking back her rightful place as the last stronghold of traditional values, Christian morals and ethno-cultural «diversity» called the «blossoming complexity» by famous Russian philosopher Konstantin Leontiev. These values are eternally true and many people all over the world support them. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that those Western journalists and scientists criticize Putinism for its alleged anti-democracy and the governance of the country using a system they wouldn’t like to see. We should remember those writers Vladimir Putin had recommended to his officials: Berdyaev, Soloviev and Ilyin. They all, especially Berdyaev had one common value – FREEDOM. Even Ilyin who supported authoritarian power considered it merely a prequestion for «creative democracy». Moreover, Vladimir Soloviev said that “being a good person” is the most important quality. It means that Vladimir Putin and the elite that follows his ideas and views in fact support democracy and openness. The difference being that we Russian have our own national vision of freedom, democracy and friendship.


* Alexey Ivanovich Podberezkin (born 7 February 1953) is a Russian politician, PhD in historical sciences, professor, member of Russian Academy of Sciences, member of Russian Academy of Military Sciences.

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