Review: Putinism

What does Putin want?

(I won’t tell you, but Walter Laqueur will try…)

The aforementioned question is likely asked by many in the Russia-watching sphere, and is one with no shortage of answers from political commentators and pundits. In the earlier years of the Putin era, analysts tended to view Putin as a non-ideological pragmatist; however, since the beginning of his third term in office and especially after the onset of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, there has been a tendency to regard Putin and the Russian government as more conservative in outlook. Yet despite this consensus, few books seek to understand his beliefs. Generally speaking, what Putin wants is assumed to be self-evident, based on the particular analyst’s own (usually negative) attitude towards the actions in question. Very rarely are these assertions backed up with heavy research. We hear that Putin “wants” to reconstitute the Soviet Union, but what of the conservative ideas he supposedly espouses? What of the conservatism of contemporary Russian discourse and its philosophical roots? These things are not as sensational and exciting to hear about as Putin’s foreign policy moves, but are no less important. Without knowledge of Russia’s conservative tradition, how can we truly understand the Russian government?

Historian Walter Laqueur’s book Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West comprises a rare effort to break the silence. Drawing on a solid knowledge of Russian intellectual history, Laqueur aims to analyze the ideology guiding the current Russian leadership and reveal the essence of Putinism itself.

Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it has become common among some pundits to equate Putinism with fascism. But Laqueur thinks it is something else, albeit close to fascism. According to Laqueur, Putinism is a paranoid, nationalist, far-right doctrine consisting of six components:

  • Eurasianism
  • patriotism/nationalism (the line is blurred)
  • geopolitics
  • religion (Russia’s holy mission, the third Rome, the New Jerusalem, Russians’ ‘spiritual bonds’)
  • a besieged fortress mentality, and
  • fear of the West (or zapadophobia, as Laqueur calls it).

According to Laqueur, the contemporary search for Russian identity is strongly influenced by the ‘conviction that Russia is not Europe and that there is a giant conspiracy to destroy Russia’ and the belief that all of Russia’s ills, both domestic and foreign policy, can be traced back to the efforts of foreigners. His conclusion is staunchly negative: because of Russia’s belief in neo-Eurasianism, zapadophobia and all kinds of conspiracy theories, and its ‘enduring persecution mania and exaggerated belief in a historical mission’, ‘a retreat from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system seems…unlikely’.

Well, then. There really is no hope for that country.*

How does Laqueur arrive at this conclusion?, you may ask. He does so by embarking upon a superficial history of Russian political thought, and then veers into an often-disjointed exploration of far-right philosophy, contemporary Russian attitudes toward Stalin, demography, and Russian foreign policy. There is sometimes no clear focus as the text jumps backwards and forwards in time and from one topic to another, sometimes in a matter of paragraphs. There were even a couple times I was confused. But after a while an overarching theme does emerge, namely that Russians believe in some really absurd ideas.

There are a few points on which Laqueur and I can concur; take, for example, the reactionary statements of some high-ranking members of the Russian Orthodox Church, which both he and I consider outlandish. I can also understand the grounds for his negative appraisal of Eurasianism. However, there are many flaws to Laqueur’s book, the most important being that he fails to prove that the doctrines of far right philosophers really have an impact on how Putin and his cohort think and behave.  For example, he alleges that the Russian government’s current support for Eurasianism stems from the popularity of Lev Gumilev’s teachings, but does not provide much evidence to support that assertion. Laqueur then goes on to say that in Putin and his team have ‘found the prophet to present their much-needed new ideology’, Ivan Ilyin. Very well, but how can one claim that modern Russia is Eurasianist and Ilyin is the country’s prophet in the same breath? If I remember correctly, he was not too fond of Eurasianism.

While reading this book, one gets the impression that Laqueur dislikes the conservative thinking that is popular in modern Russia, and as a result he is quick to stress its dark side without exploring the potential light side as well. Nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of Ilyin, which focuses almost exclusively on the philosopher’s support of fascism. (But what of the need for the state to help the people develop a ‘legal consciousness’? His concept of gosudarstvennost’? Anyone?) And while it is true that Russian politics does have its share of crazy theories, not all Russian conservatives are crazy theorists. Anti-Western Eurasianism is part of contemporary Russian conservatism, but it is only one small part. Laqueur is far too one-sided, and this subject deserves a deeper, more sensitive analysis than he is willing to give it.

Not since the heat of the Cold War (HAH!)  has there ever been such a need to understand Russia in all its complexity. But in order to do that, we must take the trouble to shed our fears and misconceptions and allow Russia to speak in its own voice. Laqueur’s Putinism doesn’t do this. Rather than deepening its readers’ understanding of Russia, this book will only propagate the idea that Russia is ruled by a bunch of lunatics utterly impervious to reasonable dialogue.

Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West by Walter Laqueur. Pub. 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books. Hardcover, 288 pages. ISBN13: 9781250064752