03.03.23 Future Discussion

Putinism without Putin: what is it and is it even possible?

Nikita Savin
Lecturer at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka)
Opponents of the war and of Vladimir Putin himself envisage a hypothetical ‘transition’ as total regime collapse, with angry mobs breaking down the doors of political dungeons, Putin loyalists fleeing the country, and a democratic coalition calling for new elections to some transitional government. Although such a scenario does not appear completely improbable in the future, it remains unlikely for the time being. Worse yet, this vision is so radical, that for the moment it is much more likely to push elites to rally around Putin. More realistic, and therefore much more dangerous for the regime, are attempts to rescue and normalise the regime from within. Such a scenario, a ‘Putinism without Putin’, may appear much more appealing, not just to the elites, but also to a significant segment of the Russian population — the people who were largely satisfied with the economic successes of the past few decades. There has been a natural growth in the demand for such an alternative as the Putin regime has attempted to compensate for its military failures with destabilising repressive hysteria, and increasingly irrational economic behaviour. What precisely is ‘Putinism without Putin,’ is it even possible, who might want it, and where would it lead?

Before our eyes, a new public mood is taking shape, one which could soon play an important role in the political life of Russia. The idea that Putinism was a good thing and that, if not for the war, the regime could have very well outlived its creator and gradually democratised is increasingly capturing the minds of people who had been generally satisfied with the state of affairs prior to February 2022. Looking ahead, these people are beginning to murmur about a ‘Putinism without Putin,’ with a view to preserving the fundamental characteristics of the regime without Putin at its head. Such a vision of the future would undoubtedly suit most of today's Russian elite, who have been the regime's prime beneficiaries.

These kinds of ideas are not being discussed openly in public. Federal television networks and the loyalist media will not even hint at any future without Putin. Attempts to imagine a future without Putin were previously sublimated into conversations of a transit of power and succession. But, after February 24, 2022, even the idea of this Putinless future has been completely scrubbed from public discourse, surfacing very occasionally as fantasies about Putin being taken out by his closest allies with a snuff box (a reference to the murder of Tsar Paul I of Russia, who was murdered in 1800 in his bedroom by his underlings, who supposedly whacked him over the head with a snuffbox — translator's note). The high level of stated public support for the war obfuscates the internal contradictions of the regime and Russian society, especially for independent and oppositional media outlets who have been forced to operate outside of Russia. Pollsters are also incapable of capturing this sentiment. It is yet to receive the necessary ideological framing, and is thus undetectable in opinion polling. 

However, in this case, the ideological temperature can be taken without a thermometer. Many citizens believe that the war was initiated by Vladimir Putin personally, and that he should thus bear sole responsibility for it. The elites are frustrated with individual financial sanctions. Overwork and the patronage of ‘new territories’ irritate the country’s civil servants. Businesses have taken the brunt of the damage and are attempting to recover from the economic costs of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Citizens are concerned about the prospect of mobilisation and the hardships associated with war. All of these grievances coalesce into a collective phantasm, which slinks into a collective consciousness that has been perfectly prepared for such a scenario. For years, the regime's ideological apparatus has cultivated an image of Vladimir Putin as a national leader, who represents the interests of the people. As a result, the Russian people have acquired a kind of political materiality which now also has the opportunity to gain political subjectivity, based around the mounting doubts that surround Vladimir Putin's ability and right to speak for their interests and aspirations. 

As a populist politician, Vladimir Putin has had to wear many hats. He was the chief capitalist and personal guarantor of property rights for his own oligarchs. He was the personification of rule-based order for the bureaucracy. Some saw him as a nationalist and defender of family values; others saw him as the ‘only European’ and a moderniser; while others saw him as ‘their guy,’ who used to moonlight as a ‘cabbie’ when he was poor. This contradictory set of roles serves as the foundation for his populist leadership. The leader serves as a spokesman for the interests of the people as a whole, which are ephemeral and non-specific. Everyone conceptualises this idea of ‘the people’ in their own unique way. Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau emphasised that the concept of ‘the people’ is all-encompassing and thus meaningless. Anyone can apply whatever meaning they want onto it.

According to opinion polls, Vladimir Putin's popularity is still on the rise. The 'rally-around-the-flag' effect is in full swing. This support, however, can be deceptive. While on the surface things may appear calm, there is a structural transformation taking place within the collective consciousness concerning ideas about identity and the past, and visions for a desirable future. And, Vladimir Putin has now been compelled into assuming a single role: the main supporter of continued military action. This concretisation has shattered the identities of both the leader and the people. Putin is no longer a national leader who embodies the will of the people. Millions of Russians discovered in 2022 that Vladimir Putin has usurped everything associated with Russia. Vyacheslav Volodin's formula ‘No Putin, no Russia’ sums up this appropriation perfectly. Russians experienced an overwhelming sense of existential emptiness, which manifested itself in heavy but incessant conversations about the causes of events, and the culpability and responsibility of politicians and citizens for the country’s actions. For many of those who were not enthusiastic about the prospect of war, but were unwilling to indulge in fantasies about a ‘beautiful Russia of the future,’ neoputinism has become a logical and convenient response.

In terms of content, neoputinism could be expressed by the following set of ideas: 

  1. A free market economy with low taxes. The rise in household incomes and the consumer boom of the 2000s marked the beginning of Putin's reign. The implementation of a flat tax scale, lower income taxes, and a reduction in the total number of taxes continue to be cited as advantages of Putin's economic policy today.

  2. An authoritarian state that survives on natural resources and does not meddle in the affairs of its citizens. The notion of an enlightened bureaucracy and ideas of authoritarian modernisation is what Putin's second term is remembered for. For many, enlightened authoritarianism still seems like a simple and easy solution to the country’s problems. Against the backdrop of war and large-scale political repression, a romantic myth about the soft authoritarianism of the 2000s has begun to take shape. The state-owned oil and gas sector relieved the state from the burden of worrying about growing budget expenditures. It evolved into a monopoly corporation, or perhaps an ecosystem, with the citizens as its loyal customers. 

  3. Conservatism in family and national policies. Same-sex marriage, in which parent number 1 and parent number 2 endlessly change the sex of their child at their whims, is the main bogeymen of Putin's third term. Despite the abhorrent nature of the regime’s homophobic rhetoric, it has persuaded a sizable number of Russian citizens that freedom in the West has been exaggerated. Only negative freedom — freedom from external coercion — is recognised as true freedom in Russia. 

However, ‘Putinism without Putin’' is a phantasm, for two major reasons. First, Putinism has never been distinguished by its institutional or ideological coherence. This, however, does not dispel the myth of an imaginary pre-war Russia, where everything was fine. Second, in this depiction of Putinism, Vladimir Putin appears to be the source of all its problems and stands in opposition to the regime he established. This view is only partially correct. Putin is not an opponent of Putinism, but rather its true embodiment. Putinism arose from the oligarchic capitalism of the 1990s. The causes of the war run much deeper, and to reduce it to the folly of one particular man is to condemn oneself to repeat this mistake later down the line. 

In any case, the concept of ‘Putinism without Putin’ only appears paradoxical at first glance. Such constructions have been the common companions of both left- and right-wing personalist regimes. In some places, these ideas were abandoned immediately after the leader's death or resignation, while in others, they continued to spread. The most well-known example is ‘Peronism without Perón,’ which gained popularity in Argentina in the mid-1950s after President Juan Perón was deposed in a military coup and fled to Spain. Figures from the previous regime successfully legitimised their presence in the political arena by criticising Perón, and as a result, Neo-Peronism became a major political force within Argentine politics. However, it was never able to definitively shake off the spectre of its creator. General Perón triumphantly returned to power eighteen years later, winning the Presidential election. 

Putin's populism began to be eroded long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin's Russia was increasingly at odds with its creator by the early 2020s. For many citizens, Vladimir Putin was no longer the regime's backbone, but rather a familiar part of the political furniture. His public statements and initiatives had long lost their former zeal and credibility, and had at times become a source of mockery. The war has reinforced these tendencies, making Vladimir Putin the primary threat to Putinism. Neoputinism has the potential to unite the country’s oligarchs, state bureaucrats, and citizens who are tired of war and economic hardship, but are not ready for radical change. As a result, neoputinism is one of the most serious internal threats to Putin's power today. 

Neoputinism is very likely to shape Russian political life in the coming years. On the one hand, it has the potential to be a catalyst for the end of the war and a change of power. Even despite the uncertainty it suggests, it undermines the hegemony of Putin's regime and splits it from within. As the war drags on, neoputinism will begin take on an increasingly anti-war tone and seek common ground with other anti-war forces. In that moment, they will be natural allies. Only through integration with other anti-war forces can neoputinism take ideological shape and become a proper alternative to Putin's personalist regime. 

In turn, the antiwar movement must broaden its social base and engage with elites. Its ability to influence an early cessation of hostilities will be limited until it becomes a mass movement within Russia and splits the regime from within. 

At the same time, neoputinism is just another variant of right-wing populism, with all of the risks that entails. Its proponents are perfectly willing to accept new authoritarianism to replace Putin's regime. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a neo-fascist Putin retires to give way to neoputinism, only to return to the Kremlin like Juan Peron. However, it is not difficult to imagine how a new neoputinist authoritarianism, while initially somewhat softer, might eventually consolidate and face the same kinds of internal choices that sparked the current war. However, much depends on whether neoputinism becomes a link in the anti-war chain. While politically inactive, it is susceptible to outside ideological influences. In this case, solidarity with other antiwar forces and consistent repudiation of war could be the driving forces behind the transformation of neoputinism into a healthy version of Russian conservatism.