Book Review | Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West

Putinism, Walter Laqueur writes, seems to be state capitalism with elements of a liberal economic policy but significant state intervention

For Christmas in 2013, President Vladimir V. Putin sent three books to every regional governor and other senior officials in Russia. One of them was Our Tasks by Ivan Ilyin, an early-20th-century Russian philosopher who disdained Western-style democracy and argued for an authoritarian, though not totalitarian, state.

Putin has developed something of a man crush on that exiled writer. He has quoted Ilyin in several addresses, helped arrange for Ilyin’s body to be returned to Russia from Switzerland for reburial, was reported to have personally paid for a new headstone and later travelled to a Moscow monastery to lay flowers on his grave.

This admiration contains clues to Putin’s own, somewhat enigmatic philosophy, the venerable historian Walter Laqueur writes in Putinism: Russia and Its Future With the West, an aptly timed and much needed look at the mercurial master of the Kremlin.

With Russia grabbing territory and sponsoring a separatist war in Ukraine, putting it once again at odds with the West, efforts to peer inside Putin’s head have taken on profound significance. The White House has spent months on an interagency review trying to answer the question: What is Putinism anyway, and what should be done to counter it, beyond the immediate crisis in Ukraine? Into this examination comes Laqueur, with trademark scholarly discipline deconstructing Putin, who in his 16 years as prime minister and president has defied the understanding of some of the world’s best-informed leaders and intelligence agencies.

“What is Putinism?" Laqueur asks. “A great amount of mental energy has been devoted to finding an accurate definition, as so often happens when a new regime appears. But it has not been a very successful enterprise."

Laqueur, who has studied Russia for more than 60 years and has written more than 25 books, does not fall for the easy traps. While some in the US see Putin as simply a revanchist Soviet, even a latter-day Stalin, Laqueur understands it is not so simple.

To be sure, Putin, a former KGB officer raised with Soviet sensibilities, has paid homage to the old symbols and promoted nostalgia for a lost superpower. He has in some ways rehabilitated Stalin, in keeping with the views of a strikingly large share of Russia’s populace. But Putin is not a Communist in the old sense. He does not talk of the dictatorship of the proletariat or the worker’s paradise, nor does he export ideological revolution beyond his own neighbourhood.

To the extent that he has defined a governing philosophy, Putin has made clear he favours the restoration of a strong state. At first, the ruling philosophy was called the “vertical of power"—in other words, a top-down system with him at the top. Later, amid criticism in the West that he had forsaken freedom, the phrase was recast as “sovereign democracy," with the emphasis on the sovereign. But that seemed more of a brand, not an ideology. Putin’s efforts at political definition have often felt more opportunistic than organized, the product of a leader playing the angles to preserve power and nervous about what he portrays as outsiders trying to take it from him.

Laqueur searches for the organizing principle. Putinism, he writes, seems to be state capitalism with elements of a liberal economic policy but significant state intervention—“almost total interference when important issues are concerned". Russia has the trappings of democracy—elections, a Parliament, news media—but that all increasingly seems to be for show. And “the most important component in the new ideology is nationalism accompanied by anti-Westernism".

In recent years, Putin has tried to position himself as the champion of a Eurasian power, setting Russia as a counterpoint to Europe. Laqueur does not buy this, either. For all the talk of the Mongol influence on a country that stretches all the way to the Pacific, Laqueur notes that Russia remains much more tied to Europe in terms of culture, history, language and religion.

His approach has always been rooted in resentment over at Russia’s lost superpower status and his promise to restore its greatness. Where he once sought that greatness through membership in the world’s elite organizations, lately he has stoked anger at the West, presenting it as determined to keep Russia down. He is the self-appointed protector of Russians, even those living in other countries like Ukraine.


Peter Baker is chief White House correspondent for The New York Times.

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