Why Putinism Is (Still) Not An Ideology

Nikita Savin
Lecturer at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka)

The debate about the ideological nature of Putin's regime ultimately hinges on an understanding of what ‘ideology’ actually is. If one considers ideology as a coherent system of concepts with strong mobilisation potential, creating a forward-looking utopian perspective and outlining principles for achieving a goal, as was characteristic of the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th-century, then it must be acknowledged that Russian kleptocratic authoritarianism lacks such an ideology. The stability of the Putin regime is, on the contrary, closely linked to its ability to manoeuvre and utilise other people's ideological constructs and narratives to its advantage, thereby maintaining the loyalty of various social groups and preventing the consolidation of opponents. Typically, ideologies create a kind of map of politics that can be used to understand where political processes are heading, but Putin has long and successfully avoided ideological certainty, which has allowed him to maintain political intrigue around his key decisions. This characteristic of the regime persists to this day: the Kremlin cannot explain the reasons and goals of its war in Ukraine, nor can it ensure ideological mobilisation in support of it. This also implies that, when Putin eventually steps down from power, the system he leaves behind will lack any ideological momentum and find itself at a crossroads.

Political analyst Nikita Savin continues Re:Russia’s discussion series on the ideology of the Putin regime, offering a comprehensive response to the article by Maria Snegovaya, Michael Kimmage, and Jade McGlynn.

The debate about the ideological contours of Putinism did not start yesterday. For many years, scholars and experts have been debating the nature of the Russian regime and the role ideology plays within it. Two extreme positions can be identified within this debate. Some argue that the regime's stability is maintained through a standard set of authoritarian practices (clientelism, electoral manipulation, persecution of the opposition, etc.) and that it lacks a cohesive ideology. Others believe that, as Putinism has evolved and solidified, it has gradually developed its own ideology, which plays a pivotal role in its foreign and domestic policies today. These debates might have remained the domain of a narrow group of researchers but, with the full-set invasion of Ukraine, they have gained political significance. The answer to questions about the nature of the Russian regime and the role of ideology within it directly impacts the political decisions Western governments make to contain it and their perceptions of its resilience.

Towards an Understanding of Ideologies: Doctrine, practice, or mentality?

At the heart of this disagreement, as is often the case, lies a dispute over the way we define concepts. Supporters of the de-ideologised nature of Putinism typically rely on classical theories of authoritarian regimes. The concept of an authoritarian regime emerged in political science alongside totalitarianism and democracy. In contrast to these two types of political systems, post-war autocracies were noted for their low level of ideological commitment.

The Spanish-American political scientist Juan Linz argued that ideologies should be understood as systems of thought characterised by relative intellectual sophistication and organisation. According to Linz, these underpin belief systems in totalitarian and democratic regimes. In the former, ideologies manifest as fixed elements, characterised by strong emotional appeal, and possess high manipulative and mobilising potential. In democracies, on the other hand, competing ideologies intersect at a common point, ensuring consensus on the procedures for the transfer of power and policy formation, thereby defining the space for legitimate political competition.

Linz used the term ‘mentality’ to refer to authoritarian regimes. He understood mentality as an unstructured set of ways of thinking and feeling, which have a more emotional than rational nature and determine an approximate range of reactions in different political situations. In other words, mentality exists as fluctuating predispositions, while ideology exists as a developed and reflexive system of views. Another distinction between ideology and mentality is their orientation towards the future. Ideologies contain a strong utopian component, enabling them to paint a compelling vision of a desirable future, justify this vision, and propose methods for achieving it. On the contrary, mentality is focused solely on the past and the present. It is incapable of creating a convincing image of the future.

The reasons why autocracies rely on mentality rather than ideology are quite clear. These regimes typically lean on a rather contradictory mix of forces, traditions, and interests. The autocrat's stability depends on their ability to navigate these contradictions and prevent the consolidation of their opponents. Ideologies structure and order the political landscape, while mentality, conversely, obstructs the formation of stable boundaries between political forces. Thus, the authoritarian leader must accomplish two tasks: maintain relative consensus within their support base and neutralise the formation of political opposition.

This position is usually contrasted with a broader understanding of ideology as a set of ideas about reality that are maintained and reproduced through social practices. This perspective traces its roots to structural Marxism, particularly the works of the French philosopher Louis Althusser, as exemplified in 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. The main feature of this understanding is the notion of the materiality of ideologies, specifically the idea that ideologies are practised. In their work, Maria Snegovaya, Michael Kimmage, and Jade McGlynn present an Althusserian thesis of ideology as a set of rituals and practices through which a new reality is produced. In Althusserian terms, the 'ideological apparatuses' of the state, such as the church, school, family, media, and others, play a pivotal role in this production. It is within these apparatuses that citizens are 'trained' to accept the existing political order.

From the perspective of structural Marxism, any political order is underpinned by ideology. Moreover, human life is, in principle, inconceivable without ideology. From this point of view, the question of whether Putinism has an ideology does not have any sort of mystery or intrigue; of course it does. Over the course of 23 years, Vladimir Putin’s regime has cultivated ideological practices in various aspects of Russian society. Snegovaya, Kimmage, and McGlynn draw attention to the involvement of the church in education, the military, and the penal system, the standardisation of history education, the introduction of patriotic education lessons, funding of Cossack organisations, and more. But in such ideologisation, it is the practices that are primary, not the content behind them. Such a focus on the external aspects of ideological influence overlooks the question of the scale of its impact on those undergoing ideological indoctrination.

However, structural Marxism sheds light on the functioning of ideological practices in regimes like Russia’s. Fascism, with its fetishisation of state order and a cult of authority, is a natural companion to right-authoritarian regimes. Snegovaya, Kimmage, and McGlynn observe that the pillars of Putinism are the idea of a strong state founded on exceptionalism and traditional values, as well as anti-Western sentiments. These characteristics link Putinism to the autocracies of the Cold War era, which played on the contradictions between blocs and capitalised on the uniqueness of their countries. Many of these even strove for a 'third way' for countries unwilling to choose between socialism and liberalism. This ambition was evident in figures like Franco and Perón, and it is a feature of the Putin regime as well. In Putin's speeches, there is a vision of Russia as an alternative to the West. In his worldview, the West is mired in its own contradictions, while Russia embodies everything rational, good, and eternal. The authors provide a detailed account of how the regime has increasingly invested in ideological apparatuses, but have these investments led to the formulation of a coherent ideology?

Ideology or Populist Mythology?

To answer this question, we can introduce a set of simple criteria. The British researcher of ideologies, Michael Freeden, has suggested understanding ideologies as sets of ideas, beliefs, opinions, and values that exhibit four characteristics: 1) they manifest in a recurring pattern; 2) they are held by large groups of people; 3) they compete to shape and control the course of policy; and 4) they aim to justify, challenge, or alter social and political orders and the processes of the political community.

Does Putinism exhibit some recurring pattern? There is a temptation to answer this question affirmatively as, looking back in history, it is often easy to construct a simple narrative with recurring patterns. This is how ideological apparatuses work — today's school textbooks describe Russian history as an ongoing struggle with the West, in which, apart from the army and navy, Russia had two other allies on its side — authoritarianism and centralisation. However, a closer look reveals a much more complex picture.

The nostalgia for the Soviet past, which Snegovaya, Kimmage, and McGlynn appeal to, is relatively limited within Russian society. Although the majority of people perceive that period as the best in the country's history (75%, according to a 2020 survey), far fewer (28%) actually want to return to it. People find in the Soviet past what they lack in the present, making it a source of myths about social justice, the world's best education, and universal quality healthcare. These sentiments are only indirectly related to the revanchism of the political leadership. While a majority of the population is not against the restoration of military and political might, they are not willing for this to be at the cost of falling living standards and reduced social guarantees. Foreign policy issues have consistently ranked at the bottom of the list of citizens’ concerns over the past decade. The fact that the Soviet past becomes a source of such myths largely confirms the thesis that Putinism is grounded in mentality, rather than ideology. In the absence of a coherent ideological-political system of coordinates to guide them, people turn to their own life experiences, which appear in retrospect in a mythologised form.

Putinism exploits these feelings but is extremely averse to any attempts at ideological formalisation. The 'Citizens of the USSR' public movement was declared an extremist organisation in Russia. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) is still viewed by the regime as a potential source of political problems: in parliamentary elections, candidates associated with the CPRF are often labelled as 'spoiler' candidates whose task is not only to syphon votes away from the party of power but also to intensify dissonance in the left side of the ideological spectrum.

Similarly, Vladimir Putin’s regime exploits the pre-revolutionary legacy, which goes beyond just imperial symbolism. The key to the regime here is the contradictory nature of Soviet and pre-revolutionary symbols, which provides Putin with room to manoeuvre. The regime succeeded in replacing the red flag with the St. George ribbon as a symbol of Victory Day. However, the attempt to mythologise the Time of Troubles and create a new holiday, National Unity Day, has proved unsuccessful.

Snegovaya, Kimmage, and McGlynn note that one of the cornerstones of Putinism's ideology is anti-Western sentiment. However, there is no compelling evidence for the sustainability of this pattern of anti-Westernism in public opinion. While this theme played a significant role in late Soviet ideological practices, the post-Soviet dynamics of attitudes toward the United States and European countries show that these practices did not generate any stable attitudes. Late Soviet anti-Westernism easily shifted to a more positive view of the US and European countries, as seen in survey data. The authors highlight the Yugoslav War as a potential turning point, but this mainly reflected the Russian political elite's recognition of their secondary role in global politics. Surveys demonstrate highly volatile public attitudes towards Western countries. For example, according to Levada Center data, in March 1999, 72% of respondents expressed a positive attitude towards the US. In May (after the famous 'U-turn over the Atlantic'), this figure dropped to 32%, only to bounce back to 70% by September that same year. These fluctuations suggest that respondents' answers merely mirrored the media discourse at that time and did not reflect any formalised ideological position. There is no reason to believe that the present figures signify something more profound, with 22% of those surveyed in August 2023 holding a positive attitude towards the US and 61% viewing it in a negative light. 

Are 'large groups of people' the supporters of Putinism? If Putinism indeed has an ideology, then who embodies it? The obvious answer might be Putin himself. A less apparent yet conceivable answer is 'the people'. In some sense, this response serves as a clear indicator for the ideological identification of Putinism. 'The people' is a key category of populism, which most researchers do not consider a fully-fledged ideology in the traditional sense. Unlike fully-fledged ideologies, populism lacks a clearly defined ideological core that allows for the formulation of coherent political programmes. For this reason, populism is remarkably flexible in its connections with other ideologies. In democracies, it aligns with fully developed ideologies, forming combinations of both left-wing and right-wing ideologies. In totalitarian systems, it reinforces the dominant ideology and functions to qualify those who support it as 'the people.' For authoritarian leaders, populism is a convenient tool that does not confine them to specific ideological frameworks. To some extent, one could agree with researchers who deny populism the status of an ideology, describing it as a structural characteristic of politics as a whole.

Before 2008, Putin actively presented himself as a president for all Russians. By his third term, this construct needed an overhaul. During the 2012 presidential elections, Putin positioned himself as the representative of the 'common people' in contrast to the 'white-ribbon' movement. In 2014, another flawed ideology emerged: nationalism. Putin presented himself as a unifier for all ethnic Russians, whether they lived in Russia or abroad.

The recourse to ideological tools in the early 2010s was symptomatic of the fact that the ideological vacuity of Putinism increasingly clashed with public demands. This was reflected in Putin’s declining approval ratings (while he maintained state control over major media outlets). By 2022, Putinism faced this challenge once again. It was quelled by amplifying nationalist rhetoric and the regime's veer towards fascism. These measures supplied the regime with extra reserves of loyalty and resilience, but there is no basis to believe they resonate with the core beliefs of large groups of the population.

Another criterion of ideologies is that they 'compete with each other for the control and content of the policies pursued.' Putinism has long ceased to engage in any competition. In the political system, various viewpoints may, at best, diverge on the instruments used for specific policies. However, this limited diversity of perspectives does not apply to the political objectives — only one person can define those. The survival logic of the Putin system does not necessitate ideological principle and consistency. Ideas can only originate from Putin himself; the system is designed to implement them, fostering loyalty and careerism. This has a flip side: when Vladimir Putin departs from power, the system he leaves behind will lack ideological momentum and find itself at a crossroads.

In totalitarian systems, ideologies also do not compete. However, the struggle against alternative ideological projects is shifted to different spheres. Totalitarian ideologies purport to offer all-encompassing explanations not just for society but for nature as well. Hannah Arendt pointed out that they carry a super-meaning, a key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Stalinism gave rise to Lysenkoism and the defeat of genetics, while German Nazism promoted Aryan eugenics. Opponents of these pseudoscientific currents within such regimes were considered political enemies, and the natural sciences themselves became battlegrounds for the totalitarian ideology to contend with its adversaries.

Putinism does not yet have the ambitions and resources to present alternative laws of nature. This requires a robust utopian component. For Stalinism, it was the belief in the possibility of building a classless society; for Nazism, the creation of a new super-race. Nothing of the sort is evident in Putinism.

The Mentality of Inaction and the Challenges of War

Another criterion is the 'justification, questioning, or alteration of social and political orders.' February 24, 2022, did not mark the culmination of Putinism's ideology. On the contrary, that day exposed its absence. The regime still lacks a clear answer to the questions of why the war was started and when it will end.

To some extent, the ideology of Putinism has turned out to be as much of a myth as the notion of the strength and might of the Russian army. Following the start of the full-scale invasion, Russian society did not demonstrate enthusiasm or a massive patriotic surge. On the contrary, Vladimir Putin's announcement of 'partial' mobilisation led to a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of citizens from the country. The regime's increased repressiveness was a response to the failure of its ideological apparatus.

It was the regime's lack of a clear ideological and value-based foundation that made the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine so unexpected for the vast majority of observers. This bewilderment may be called naivety and myopia today, but it is a social fact. Ideologies provide a conceptual map for politics, allowing one to understand the direction of political processes. The unpredictability of Vladimir Putin's decisions has often caught both observers and the political system itself off guard. The members of the Russian Security Council likely did not anticipate that their statements during the meeting on February 21, 2022 would go down in 'big' history.

Putin has long and successfully avoided adhering to an ideology, allowing him to maintain a degree of political intrigue around the key issues in Russian politics. This characteristic of the regime persists to this day. It fuels endless discussions about the possibility for peace talks and hopes for a return to normal life. However, for the first time during his presidency, Vladimir Putin finds himself relying heavily on fear and the threat of violence to suppress protest activity.

Certainly, today, technologists close to the regime are working to correct their mistakes and attempting to establish the ideological pillars of Putinism. Snegovaya, Kimmage, and McGlynn rightly emphasise these attempts. However, it is impossible to say that these efforts are being met with great enthusiasm from citizens. They do not resist them, but rather seek to evade them. In light of all the regime's efforts, what stands out most is the demobilisation of Russian society. In this regard, the reception of late Soviet ideological practices has revived the practices of evasion.

The regime's increasing move toward fascism is a perfectly natural response to the challenges of a long war. The regime is mobilising its ideological apparatuses, bringing them into harmony with each other, and experimenting with new tools. This activity is intended, among other things, to create the illusion of universal support and approval for the policies it pursues. However, as Juan Linz rightly noted, the value of the concept of ideology lies in the fact that it describes ideas that drive action. This is its main difference from mentality, which produces inaction. The foundation of Putinism still rests on mentality. The regime continues to successfully quell discontent but faces difficulties in involving citizens in its ventures. Despite all its attempts, it still lacks an ideology, and it is unlikely to develop one during Vladimir Putin's lifetime.

Ideologies mediate between the structural and agentic dimensions of politics. They arise in response to objective social contradictions and express them in the consciousness and behaviour of citizens. Vladimir Putin's departure from power, in whatever form it may take, will lead to structural changes in various aspects of Russian society. These changes will almost inevitably be accompanied by trends towards the ideologisation of Putinism. Whether Putin's ideas will live their own separate lives or be consigned to the dustbin of history will depend on future developments. Russian society will have to undergo a lengthy process to understand and articulate what has happened. But, for now, it is premature to label Russians as the supporters of a Putinist ideology.