‘Neo-Putinism Paradoxically Poses a Threat to Putin, as He Becomes an Unnecessary Element in the Construction He Himself Created’
February 8, 2024
  • Nikita Savin

    Political scientist

  • Maria Zheleznova


Political scientist Nikita Savin offers his view of what Putinism is, why the ghost of Vladimir Putin will hover over Russian politics for a long time, and what “neo-Putinism” – Putinism without Putin – might look like.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
When we say “Putinism,” what do we actually mean: the features of the regime or the ideology that feeds it?

The concept is still being developed and, despite significant interest in it, remains somewhat vague. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin has been in power for almost a quarter of a century, during which time a lot has happened and changed – from the technological backdrop to the constitution – but Putin remains a constant in Russian life. In this sense, it is not surprising it is his name that we use to label the political structure that has developed in Russia over these almost 25 years.
The Spanish Civil War. Armed civilians from the Republican side during the Battle of Irún in 1936. Source: Wiki Commons
On the other hand, what is included in this term remains conceptually unclear. It is both a political regime and some ideological practices. Some see a complete set of ideas and principles; some prefer to talk, on the contrary, about techniques and practices of management, meaning mainly repression; some have in view the state capture that took place in Russia at the beginning of the 2000s. What we place emphasis on to a large extent determines what political conclusions we draw in terms of this concept.

If we mean the regime, then how unique is the design to specifically have the name of Vladimir Putin attached to it?

It is a entirely typical design for right-wing authoritarian regimes, and this typicalness is its uniqueness, since conservative dictatorships of this kind are built around a specific leader, flirt with a cult of personality and, generally, are categorized by the name of the leaders: “Francoism,” “Peronism,” etc.
Vladimir Putin has nothing radically new to add to the toolbox used by his predecessors in this peculiar club of right-wing authoritarian dictators:
The Greek junta. Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos, Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos and Colonel Nikolaos Makarezos, the leaders of the 1967 coup d'état. Source: Wiki Commons
there are elements of populism, a search for internal enemies, the image of a besieged fortress and flirting with religion.

Franco, for example, talked a lot about Catholicism; he had his own version of traditional values and spiritual bonds. An example closer to us in terms of religion is the regime of the “black colonels” in Greece, when a lot was made about restoring a genuine Christian order, closer to the original meaning of Christianity than Protestantism or Catholicism, etc.

Researchers agree that personalist autocracies rarely live long after the death of their founder, but you wrote in one of your articles that neo-Putinism, or Putinism without Putin, may find demand in Russia in the future. Why?

Personalist regimes are personalistic because they are tied to the figure of a single person, and they have a rather difficult time with what political scientists typically call the transition of power and what sociologists and philosophers deem the routinization of charisma. This is a big problem for any political regime, from democracy to monarchy, but it is the Achilles heel of personalist autocracies in particular.

The regime of Vladimir Putin is unlikely to outlive him, meaning the regime will change after he leaves power, no matter the reason. The vector of these changes remains uncertain.

Does this mean that Vladimir Putin himself will fade into political oblivion and cease to have any significant influence on what happens in Russian life, in Russian politics?

This question, in my view, is much more complex. It seems that the ghost of Vladimir Putin will hover over Russian politics for a very long time, precisely because he dominated it for 25 years, and even after his departure from power such phantom pains will haunt Russia for a while.

Did this become inevitable only after Putin started the war – there are now too many consequences? Or would this have been the case without it?

Without it, too, I think – the war acted as a catalyst and exacerbated the trends that were playing out before.

Vladimir Putin’s presidency in the pre-war period was characterized by comparative stability – economic, social and political. These were not the worst years for the economy; Russia did not fight in large, protracted, bloody conflicts (of course, one cannot say that they did not happen at all – there was the Second Chechen War, the war in eastern Ukraine, Syria, etc. during this period – though many Russians viewed them from the standpoint of an outside observer rather than a participant); people felt safe...

The war with Ukraine sent waves across this placid surface of Russian life during the Putin period.
It is clear to the naked eye that the war has not triggered any mass upsurge or enthusiasm within Russian society. Instead, we have seen an increase in anxiety and uncertainty.
In a material on this topic, I wrote that society is in a state of confusion. In such situations, reactionary sentiment often rises. In Russia, it takes the form of retrotopia – the idealization of some moment of the past that has something we sorely lacking in the present. Neo-Putinism is a type of retrotopic consciousness. In the face of growing uncertainty, Russians are grasping for the recent past, where life was simpler and clearer.

There is an interesting point in this regard. On the one hand, it is the past of Putin’s Russia; on the other, it was Vladimir Putin who destroyed this retrospectively visible world of calm and stability. Thus, neo-Putinism paradoxically poses a threat to Vladimir Putin today, as he becomes an unnecessary element in the construction he himself created.

I specifically emphasize that neo-Putinism is not an ideology, it is not an ideological political configuration, as German sociologists called it, that will definitely continue to exist and significantly impact people for a century to come. It is a situational sentiment that created and continues to create threats to the regime of Vladimir Putin, as the elites, the bureaucracy and citizens increasingly notice this contradiction between Vladimir Putin and the stability of the political order that had existed for many years.
On the other hand, this sentiment allows for further ideologization and mythologization of these 25 years. This is a specific feature of politics – political phenomena often emerge only in hindsight.
“We will find out what Putinism was only in 10, 15 or 20 years.”
What might neo-Putinism look like?

What political form this will take remains uncertain for now, and there are myriad possibilities. On the one hand, it could take the form of ressentiment-driven right-wing populism, which right-wing politicians will flirt with, talking about a strong state, saying that Russia was respected and feared, had its interests taken into account, etc.

It could be something more radical and politically even more dangerous, including some form of religious fundamentalism, where the special role of the Orthodox Church in these 25 years will be played up, with the ideality of this period making politicians want to restore “Putin’s Russia that we lost.” In other words, Vladimir Putin is now trying to restore the Soviet Union, which has vanished into historical oblivion, but perhaps in 10, 20 or 50 years someone will try to restore these 25 years of Vladimir Putin.

Up to here, we have considered the pessimistic outlook, but the vector may be different. I deliberately put aside what will happen in the next 10, 15 or 20 years, as it is such a black box, though the outcome may well be that this neo-Putinism will be a completely healthy version of Russian conservatism, perhaps even some version Christian democracy.

In my view, from this neo-Putinism, which today exists only as sentiment, militaristic elements, for example, could be rather easily taken out, meaning that theoretically a transformation of neo-Putinism into something relatively healthier is quite possible.

Putinism without militarism, basically second- or third-term Putin but without the prospect of starting a war – is this perhaps the simplest version of what the moderate part of society desires for the present?

Yes, perhaps currently – now, at the beginning of 2024 – this remains the predominant mood. Yet moods are short-lived. On a time horizon of 2-3 years, we can say that a mood is steady. But as soon as we start thinking in terms of 5, 10 or 15 years, moods can change.

Turning back the clocks looks like an even simpler and more understandable option because back then the future seemed more or less clear, especially compared to today’s uncertainty. There was some potential for economic growth; Vladimir Putin was expected to step down in the foreseeable future...

But now we can imagine the following train of thought among Russians: Russia goes ahead and stops the war in Ukraine, Putin leaves, but then what? And there is no clear option. In fact, one cannot exist under the current regime.

In your view, what is the practical implication of the discussion about whether the Putin regime has an ideology or does not have an ideology?

It is quite important: the concept of ideology supposes that it is carried by a large group of people. Ideology is not just a set of ideas, principles, beliefs that exist in the head of a private individual.
So, for example, it is difficult to call Putinism an ideology only on the basis of what Vladimir Putin says today, since tomorrow he could wake up in a different mood and, perhaps, say different things.
If we say that Putinism is an ideology, the question arises: who is the carrier of this ideology? Is it a significant social group inside Russia? The majority of Russian citizens? “The people?”

The next step would be to assume that after Vladimir Putin leaves, the ideas that he expresses today and we understand as “Putinism” will live on without him. And the politicians who replace him will respond to this supposedly objectively existing demand for militarism and territorial expansion.

Moreover, if the Putin regime has an ideology, then its actions should be seen as the realization of a certain set of ideas carried by that undefined social group. That is why this question is not just a matter of academic research.

You belong to the rather numerous, as I understand it, camp of political philosophers, researchers and publicists who believe that Putinism is not an ideology. Why?

Correct. I believe that in regimes like the Russian one it is very difficult to separate political demands and how politicians react to these demands. In democratic politics, which is based on institutionally mediated political competition, different elite groups respond to demands from voters.

Accordingly, there are institutions that formalize voters’ demands, making citizens rationalize their emotions, desires, moods and experiences and transform them into political demands to which politicians should respond with certain policies.

Authoritarian politics is not based on such a set of institutions. In Russian politics, the demands of citizens and the actions of Vladimir Putin are intertwined into a single inseparable lump; they are very difficult to separate. Therefore, I cannot say that Vladimir Putin is responding to some objectively existing and independent demand from Russian citizens. In Russia it is part of one cycle.
A rally in honor of the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Tver, March 2015. Source: Livejournal
Then what is the “Putin majority” – the (large) part of the population that supported Putin and responded enthusiastically to all his initiatives in the spirit of “making the country a great power again,” etc.? Is it an empty construct?

The “Putin majority” – also called the “Crimea consensus,” a term that was in vogue after 2014, when Vladimir Putin’s approval figures soared to 89% – no, this is not an empty shell. It did describe some of the objective enthusiasm that we observed in Russian society. But this concept should be treated very carefully.
The Putin majority had more of an affective-emotional rather than a rational-cognitive nature.
Vladimir Putin at a concert dedicated to the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Moscow, March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
This means that it is quite volatile, fickle and unstable. We observed this in the 2010s, where every year saw the slow erosion of the Putin majority, a decrease in Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings, which is completely standard and normal.

Should this not be seen as “demand” by Russian society for expansion in one form or another – territorial, political, economic, ideological, etc. – which was met by “supply” from Putin?

No, I do not think so. Demand is, again, a term from democratic politics; here, again, we are taking only the tip of the iceberg. The formalization of demand is preceded by public debate, voicing of possible alternatives, sorting through of arguments and a series of discussions on different platforms.

This does not happen in authoritarian politics. You wake up in the morning and find out that Vladimir Putin has annexed part of a neighboring state. How should we feel about this in general? Is this good or bad for you? You do not have any ready-made set of arguments in your mind, and you should not, since you are not a professional politician, and it’s not your job to produce such political arguments – your job is to listen and compare them.

But in an authoritarian political environment, you hear only one point of view: they tell you on TV that the annexation of Crimea is good economically and politically, and for us personally. And your political position is shaped by what you hear.

Currently, it seems to me, we most often hear the word “demand” in the context of a “demand to end the war.” Researchers would probably hope that the discovery of such a demand, as in a democratic system, would lead to “supply” from politicians, but is there really this demand in Russian society?

I would not say that we are now seeing a demand to end the war – that suggests something positive; rather, we are seeing war fatigue, a desire to distance oneself from the agenda that federal TV channels are pushing, to distance oneself from politics as such, growing apathy, and irritation associated with defense spending and all this mobilization rhetoric.

These elements are not automatically transformed into political demands, much less into political action. There are a lot of intermediate links here, which are extremely difficult to see and trace in authoritarian politics. But the fact that we do not hear widespread discussions personally or on social media, that we do not see mass protests and rallies, etc., does not mean that political processes are not taking place within Russian society.
This is one of the features of politics in authoritarian countries: political processes there are hidden and often unobservable.
In Russia, the situation is similar: political processes take place in a latent, sublimated form. This is not trivial… and they are also worth following because, as we know, periodically power in authoritarian countries changes hands unexpectedly, in the course of events that come as a surprise to analysts and researchers.

Can the Russian opposition now formulate a clear and realistic political offer to society?

The Russian opposition has managed to create a parallel public sphere – a parallel space of meanings and ideas where active discussions take place, problematic issues are discussed and new political leaders emerge. This in itself is very valuable and important. This means that when political changes begin in Russia, there is unlikely to be a lack of ideas and political leaders, as this parallel public sphere is preparing for that moment.
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