A Geneology of “Putinism”

As the sun begins to set on Putin’s Presidency and his direct personal sway over Russia’s future is still undetermined, there is one legacy we can count on. A new “-ism” called Putinism.

With the help of LexisNexis, I’ve been trying to track down the first appearance of this supposed ideology attached to the person of Vladimir Putin. A search of Major US and foreign publications, wire services, and TV and radio transcripts reveals a rather serpentine history to Putinism’s literary life.

According to my search, “Putinism” was born in early 2000. The first mention of the word came a mere six days after Vladimir Putin was named acting President of Russia. It was coined by an unlikely figure, Richard Gwyn, in an unlikely publication, the Toronto Star. I say unlikely because while Gwyn is considered “one of Canada’s best-known and most highly-regarded political commentators,” he is no Kremlinologist nor is he even a frequent commentator on Russian affairs. Still, this didn’t stop him from writing in “The World Needs a Strong Russian State” that Putinism means “a state that is strong and yet also is, more or less, democratic” (1/5/00). For Gwyn, Putin’s tenure in the FSB was more a blessing than a curse, a job that prepared him with the skill and will to meet the challenge the “cabal of billionaires” posed to his supposed “hatred of corruption.” In fact, for Gwyn, Putinism is not only predicated on a strong Russian state, which by the way he then claimed Russia and the world needed, its “distinctive hallmark . . . may turn out to be the rooting out of corruption and criminality.” Andrei Pointkovsky, however, saw Putinism as just the opposite. For him, Putin was more the protector of corruption rather than its scourge. He was destined to be mere pawn of the Yeltsin oligarchs. Borrowing Lenin’s famous statement about imperialism, Pointkovsky called Putinism “the highest stage of robber capitalism.” Both views seem to still hold water in 2007. However, whether Putin is a rooter or protector of corruption depends much on who’s playing the robber. Even more, Gwyn’s labeling of Putin’s government as “more or less” democratic would now be considered political heresy among the Anglophone chattering classes.

It would only take a few weeks after Gwyn’s piece for Putinism to begin its transformation into a system Western liberals and conservatives alike would love to hate. And what a better person to recast the light of Putinism into darkness than a conservative mandarin like William Safire. In a column titled, “Putinism Looms,” the conservative ideologue prophesied in Putin the emergence of “the cooler of repression and autocratic rule.” And for a unabashed free marketeer like Safire this not only spelled doom for Russia’s fledgling democracy, but would also usher in “an uncompetitive, economically weakened Russia.” Only a “Yavlinsky Era” could “marry a literate work force to a free-market system under law” and make Russia a competitive world power. In Safire’s mind, “Putinism” would only become “surly stagnation” (1/31/00). Looking back, Safire’s prophesy of economic doom has proved utterly false.

Still, “Putinism” itself began to catch on after leaving Safire’s pen. Even the British began to show a fancy toward it, thereby adding to its evolution. In April, the London Times warned Tony Blair of Putinism’s “low-intensity brand of Russian nationalism that seems reasonably inclusive unless you happen to be male, Chechen and of fighting age” (4/15/00). In May, the Guardian would be the first British paper to mention Putinism in conjunction with the S-word, Stalinism . The Guardian didn’t come up with the Stalinist connection on its own. The idea that Putinism was “nothing short of modernized Stalinism” was posited by “a band of former Soviet dissidents.” These unnamed “dissidents” were “widely dismissed as hysterical prophets of doom.” Nevertheless, the Guardian felt that their warnings were sane enough have “an uneasy new resonance” (5/29/00).

By summer, the Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir had adopted “Putinism” in his piece “Putin’s Recipe for a Strong Russia.” Weir never explicitly uses the term himself but quotes it from then vice president of the Parliamentary Foundation, Andrei Zakharov. And like Safire, Weir via Zakharov saw Putinism as the supposed contradiction between “autocratic measures” and fruitful “economic growth.” “This,” said Zakharov, “is the central paradox of Putinism.” Weir didn’t disagree, and like Safire, he was proved wrong too (7/13/00).

Perhaps the initial connecting of Putinism with Russian economic stagnation is what caused the term to fall virtually out of use until 2003. In fact, the last mention of it until then was in late 2001, when the NY Times’ Thomas Friedman reversed Putinism’s economic meaning entirely. Friedman saw Putin as the garden where the fruits of capital were being plucked from the free market trees. He congratulated Putinism role in cultivating Moscow’s “exploding middle class,” showered comparisons between Putin and Deng Xiaoping, and cited “young capitalists coming of age” as proof that the Russians could “actually do this capitalist thing.” Friedman saw Putinism as such a positive, he urged his readers to “keep rootin’ for Putin”(12/23/01).

Then suddenly and without warning the press went silent after Friedman’s adulation. Was the endorsement of the self-proclaimed guru of globalization enough to calm the emerging paranoia of America’s political class? Perhaps. But if I would place my a bet, the disappearance of Putinism was a delayed response to George Bush’s now infamous, “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The establishment press got the signal and any talk of Putin as -ism wasn’t uttered for over a year.

Perhaps having seen enough, William Safire finally broke the silence in late 2003. Days before he penned “The Russian Reversion” for the NY Times, United Russia swept the Duma elections, winning 223 seats. The “Yavlinksy Era” never dawned, and the liberals’ thumping in the polls didn’t inspire hope of their return. The Russian love for authoritarianism seemed in the air. The time was ripe to reintroduce Putinism. And this time Safire said nothing of its economic pretensions. Instead, Putinism was set alongside another word, the siloviki. “Russia’s short-lived experiment with democracy is all but dead,” Safire declared. Putinism was now “repressive rule through money and media control” (12/10/03).

As he seemed to do in 2000, Safire’s 2003 revision of Putinism set its future tone. Putinism’s similitude to the siloviki has since garnered the most consensus. It is even the definition that dominates Putinism’s Wikipedia entry. Four days after Safire’s rehabilitation, the Washington Post followed suit with a hysterical editorial by George Will titled, “Democracy Under Siege.” Will seemed intent on not being outdone by Safire in regard to editorial hyperbole. For him, Putinism was nothing short of

“uprooting the shallow seedlings of democracy across Russia’s 11 time zones. Putinism is becoming a toxic brew of nationalism directed against neighboring nations, and populist envy, backed by assaults of state power, directed against private wealth. Putinism is a national socialism without the demonic element of its pioneer who, 70 years ago this year, used plebiscitary democracy to acquire the power to extinguish German democracy. There probably are not enough Jews remaining in Russia to make anti-Semitism a useful component of Putinism. But do not bet on that either” (12/14/03).

To put it plainly, Putinism was simply Nazism in a Russian key. Russia’s economic dynamism made warnings of a communist comeback ring hollow. So Will reached deeper into his bag of historical villains of “Freedom” and pulled out Hitler. And thank god so many Jews left anti-Semitic Russia because if you listened to Will, the next Holocaust was right around the corner.

As for Putinism itself, Safire’s and Will’s salvos made the term stick. Of the 160 articles that mentioned Putinism between 2000-2007, 143 were published after 2003. Other pundits turn their ire to Putinism. USA Today columnist Bill Nichols called Putinism “a one-party state” that “smacks of Soviet-style authoritarianism” (3/15/04). Roy Greenslade of the Guardian said that Putinism “happens when Stalinism hooks up with capitalism” (10/19/04). Ah yes, history was nothing more than political clay in the hands of the pundit class.

Moreover, Putinism became a favorite of the American neo-conservative right to hoist upon the Great Bear as its “near abroad” sought to cast off the Russian yoke. George Will cried that “Putinism was on the march” when Putin backed Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich against the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko (WP, 11/30/04). Putinism was connected again with Russia’s “imperialist aspirations” as Russophobes saw “colored revolution” looming in Belarus. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl even went so far to suggest that Belarus was the weakest link in the Putinist chain. “A toppling of the Lukashenko regime would probably make Putinism unsustainable even in Russia,” he wrote (1/3/05). Whereas Putinism was the enemy of free market capitalism in 2000, the gravedigger of Russian democracy in 2003, by early 2005, Putinism was the antithesis of the great democracy blooming from “colored revolution.”

After Ukraine and Belarus, it appears that Putinism’s meaning finally began to crystallize. It started to tally up more and more “victims” of state repression–Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Aleksander Litvinenko, and Anna Politkovskaya. Virtually unknown and rather unscrupulous Russians were suddenly transformed into the mujahedin of Russian democracy. More and more often Anglophone columnists saw in Putin an echo of Stalinism or a Tsarist redux complete with its own slick image, mechanisms of repression, control, chauvinism, and cult of personality. To suggest otherwise was to either come off as a lunatic, a heretic in the global democratic faith, or a practitioner in the amorality of relativism.

By February 2007, Putinism as a metonym for neo- or quasi- Stalinism was all but complete. This is best seen in the historical broad strokes Arnold Beichman painted Putinism. Beichman, a research fellow at that bunker of anti-communist holy warriors, the Hoover Institution, wrote in the Washington Times that “Putinism in the 21st century has become as significant a watchword as Stalinism was in the 20th” (2/06/07). And to think George Will sounded like a nutjob. Still, Putin as Stalin is conventional wisdom now. A LexisNexis search shows that Putin and Stalin appear in the same sentence in major English language newspapers 1,237 times. 274 of those were in 2007 alone.

What can be made of this journey of Putinism from a mantra for a strong Russian, anti-corruption state, to a inherent contradiction of the free flow of capital, to a symbol of an anti-democratic, nationalist, and imperialistic system run by a cabal of chekisty, to finally end up nothing more than a postmodernized Stalinism?

There is something deifying yet damning about turning a person into an “-ism.” Many of the “-isms” connected with personalities are often ascribed by both critics or adherents. Never does the person prefacing the “-ism” make the egotistical jump to being an ideological adherent to himself. For better or for worse, this is left to others. For example, Lazar Kaganovich coined “Stalinism” in praise of the vodzh’, though Stalin himself would have simply called himself a disciple of Lenin. Marx denied that he was ever a “Marxist.” Lenin never said he was a Leninist. The same goes for Trotsky and Trotskyism. Joseph Goebbels often spoke of Hitlerism, though it is doubtful that Hitler ever referred to himself as its proponent. Reaganism was coined by Reagan’s critics in the New Republic in 1971. It’s difficult to exactly pin down when Gaullism was first uttered, but since then it has been and continues to be a staple in French politics. I doubt de Gaulle ever referred to himself as a Gaullist. And finally as shown above, Putinism was coined in 2000, but one can’t imagine Putin or any of his lieutenants calling themselves adherents of Putinism. But you never know. Maybe they will someday.

One thing is clear about the origin of Putinism is that at least in the Anglophone world, we can mostly thank American conservatives for its existence. The question, though, is why Putin’s name got an “-ism” attached to it at all. Is it because Putinism really is an ideology? Is it really a means of governance? Or is it merely an empty signifier to neatly wrap every criticism of Putin into a nice package? Whatever it is, one thing’s for sure. What stands for a term of analysis often masks the political positions and assumptions behind its use. And in our mostly post-ideological world, attaching “-ism” to a name proves to be an effective method of damnation. For the ominous “-ism,” especially in the American mind, resurrects the dark terrors of the past and reinscribes them into our understanding of present and, subsequently, the future.