What Putin really really wants

Political commentators regularly line up to tell us ‘What Putin wants’ (see for instance this, this, and this). In the early years of Putin’s rule, analysts tended to the view that Putin was non-ideological, and that he was above all a pragmatist, perhaps even an opportunist. More recently, though, there has been a tendency to regard the Russian president as having become more conservative in his outlook. Yet, despite this, there have been very few serious efforts to attempt to understand his beliefs. For the most part, ‘What Putin wants’ is assumed to be self-evident, based on the particular commentator’s own attitude (normally very negative) towards the actions in question. Little genuine research is done to back up the assertions. In particular, the conservative ideas dominating much of contemporary Russian discourse remain understudied, as do their historical and philosophical roots. ‘As a result,’ I wrote in an article a few years ago, ‘Western commentators nowadays, lacking any knowledge of Russia’s conservative heritage, are unable to place contemporary Russian government within the correct intellectual context.’

A new book by veteran historian Walter Laqueur, entitled Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West, constitutes a rare effort to come to grips with the subject. Drawing on a solid knowledge of Russian intellectual history, Laqueur attempts to analyze the ideology guiding the current leadership of the Russian Federation, and thereby to answer the question ‘What is Putinism?’

Laqueur’s answer is that it isn’t fascism, but it is something close to it – a paranoid, nationalist, far right doctrine, made up of six components: ‘religion (the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, Russia’s holy mission, the third Rome, and the New Jerusalem), patriotism/nationalism (with occasional leanings towards chauvinism), geopolitics Russian style, Eurasianism, the besieged-fortress feeling, and zapadophobia (fear of the West).’ Underlying the contemporary search for Russian identity, Laqueur says, is a ‘conviction that Russia is not Europe and that there is a giant conspiracy to destroy Russia. Accompanying it is another set of beliefs that whatever went wrong in Russia is the fault of foreigners.’ Laqueur concludes that ‘Among the Russian weaknesses is the fatal belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories and strange ideas, such as neo-Eurasianism, neogeopolitics, confabulation, and zapadophobia, accompanied by an enduring persecution mania and the exaggerated belief in a historical mission.’ In these circumstances, a ‘retreat from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system seems … unlikely.’

To reach this conclusion, Laqueur embarks upon a potted history of Russian politics, and then upon a rather rambling examination of various other subjects including conservative and far right philosophy, demography, post-Soviet attitudes towards Stalin, and Russian foreign policy. The effect is somewhat incoherent, as the text leaps backwards and forwards in time and space and from topic to topic. But an overall theme does emerge, namely that a lot of Russians believe in a lot of really crackpot ideas.

In some respects, I agree with this. I share, for instance, Laqueur’s negative appraisal of Eurasianism. The reactionary pronouncements of some high-ranking members of the Russian Orthodox Church are also fair game. And Laqueur’s observation that Russian political culture has a paranoid streak is accurate. There are, however, some weaknesses in his thesis. In the first place, he doesn’t do a very good job of showing that the loopy rantings of far-right philosophers and historians really have an impact on how Russia’s rulers think, let alone prove that they have any impact on their behaviour. He says, for instance, that the Russian government’s current alleged support for Eurasianism (which I think in any case is much exaggerated) ‘has to do in part with their aversion toward Europe, which (they feel) rejected it, but it is also a reflection of the immense popularity of the ideas of Lev Gumilev’. But are the ideas of Lev Gumilev really ‘immensely popular’? I can’t say that I see any strong evidence for that assertion. Laqueur then goes on to say: ‘Putin and his colleagues believe that the long search for a new doctrine has ended and that in [Ivan] Ilyin they have found the prophet to present their much-needed new ideology’. But is that really so? I have suggested elsewhere that Putin is fond of Ilyin, but it is not clear how many others share his preference, and in any case Ilyin could hardly be said to be the sole source of the modern ‘Russian idea’, even if it could be shown that such a thing exists. It also makes little sense on the one hand to claim that modern Russia is Eurasianist in orientation and on the other hand to say that Ilyin is the country’s prophet, given that Ilyin most definitely was not a supporter of Eurasianism.

Laqueur does not appear to like the conservative trend in Russian thinking, and as a result emphasizes its negative side to the detriment of anything positive which might be found in it. One can see this in his treatment of Ilyin, which concentrates almost entirely on the favourable things the philosopher had to say about fascism. But there is more to Ilyin than that. Similarly, while it is true that contemporary Russian politics contains more than its fair share of crazy talk, not all Russian conservatives are loony conspiracy theorists. As Paul Grenier showed in a recent article, ‘anti-Western Eurasianism is part of contemporary Russian conservatism. But it is only one part.’  Russian conservatism, Grenier notes, is very varied, and its adherents contain many intelligent, creative, and in some instances even quite liberal people. It deserves a deeper and if not sympathetic, at least more empathetic, analysis than Laqueur is willing to give it.

Grenier comments that, ‘If we wish to understand Russia in something like its true complexity, we have to take the trouble to listen to it, to let it speak in its own voice instead of constantly projecting onto it all our own worst fears.’ Laqueur’s Putinism doesn’t do this. My worry is that rather than deepening its readers’ understanding of Russia, this book will serve only to convince them that Russians really are a bunch of crazies with whom no civilized conversation is possible.

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7 thoughts on “What Putin really really wants”

  1. I can’t imagine why Eurasianism should be perceived as something more sinister than pan-Americanism, pan-Arabism, or common pontifications about ‘European values’. Well, actually I can imagine. But I’ll keep it to myself.

    As for Putin, considering the popularity of his policies, wouldn’t it be reasonable to suggest that his secret is, simply, in him being good at deducing and implementing whatever the country’s population wants? What did Franklin D Roosevelt really-really want?

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  2. It is unfortunate that the “authoritative” voices on Russia continue to be selected from the generation of historians whose work is entirely rooted in the era of the Cold War, its gross ideological distortions and its unconscious, unexamined and historically unfounded assumption of the universality of the Western “liberal-democratic” model for all peoples and all times.
    But the use of the word “paranoia” – which I take to mean and unreasoning fear among Russians about the West – in your post nonetheless seems to me to be symptomatic of this same syndrome. I don’t find Russian fears about the West to be at all unreasonable. The experience of 1941-1945 was only the very latest in a centuries-long series of conflicts during which the Russians had to fight for their survival against invaders. Even a cursory reading of the primary sources – the Novgorodian First Chronicle, if you like, rather than the later and more tendentious Muscovite redactions – suggest that the Russian State in its autocratic guise was formed, in its infancy, out of the crucible of an almost constant military emergency on its Western borders and the long struggle to construct (or re-construct, if you prefer) a centralized State capable of organizing the resources for defense of the realm and of extinguishing the centrifugal tendencies that emerged clearly after the death of Vladimir Monomakh in 1125. Over the centuries, various Tatar, German, Polish, Polish-Lithuanian, Swedish, and French state entities all “tried their luck” at invasion well before 1941. The “color revolutions” of the most recent era are mostly cut from the same cloth. In sum, I would say that Russian “paranoia” has a quite reasonable historical foundation.
    To be sure, the era during which the Russian principalities existed as an “ulus” of the representative of the heirs of Ghengis Khan also exerted the most profound influence as a sort of model of unfettered personal rule which the descendants of Daniil Aleksandrovich adopted from the time of Ivan (“Moneybag”) Kalita, and which remained – and remains – a feature of Russian political practice. Yet the centrality of the “state interest” (gosudarstvennyi interes) in this tradition and its primary focus on the mobilization of the resources of the nation for defense continues to reflect a very real historical past.

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  3. Re “zapadophobia” – the problem with promoting this as a foundation of modern Russian ideology is that the Russian elite *loves* the West, to the point of keeping their real estate, investments, and even children there. Until recently, Putin’s own daughter lived in Holland. If you’re an elite Russian, a home in “Pindostan” or “Gayropa” is practically a requirement.

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    1. There is no contradiction here. One can enjoy being or living in the West and also believe that the West seeks the destruction of Russia. Nor is investment a sign of affection; it is a judgement call on the future of parts of an economy, sometimes based on a perception of the likelihood of war.

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