Vladimir Putin and the negation of politics

Michael C. Kimmage,
Professor, Department Chair,
Department of History, The Catholic University of America,

Russian history abounds in ideology. Imperial Russia devoted itself to an elaborate ideology that merged ideas of empire, of Orthodox Christianity, of Russian culture into a political foundation for the Romanov dynasty. The Bolsheviks, whose metier was the rejection of tsarist ideology, were, if anything, more ideologically inclined than their reactionary opponents. They inherited the apparatus of empire from the Tsars, and they used it to propagate their Marxist-Leninist ideology within the Soviet Union and beyond its borders – with considerable success. Ideology survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. One might interpret the Sochi Olympics of 2014 as a showcase of the post-Soviet ideology in Russia: state power on the one hand, a long and proud history, a pronounced Russian element within an imperial purview. Consistent with this has been the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church under Vladimir Putin. An exponent of the “Russian idea” at home, Putin has pursued a foreign policy oriented toward the “Russian world,” an impulse without the global appeal of Marxism-Leninism but a potentially galvanizing ideal for the makers of Russian foreign policy.

If countries dabble in ideology, the crucial role of ideology in Russian politics – imperial, Soviet and post-Soviet – speaks to distinctive aspects of Russian political culture. Russia has had two experiments with parliaments, one shortly before the First World War and one in the 1990s, and Russia has a parliament today; but parliament has never been a meaningful venue of Russian politics. For this reason, the party politics familiar to the United States and to European countries is much less important in Russia. Party politics require legitimate elections, and they also require for the elected parties some measure of real power. This is missing in Russia, where there is the ruling party and there is everyone else. The ruling party has a monopoly on violence, and it can spin ideology with whatever tools it has at its disposal. Putin has long been interested in ideology, and his government has created one, cobbling together pieces of the old tsarist ideology, pieces of the Soviet ideology and a twenty-first century Christian conservatism that is sui generis. This has not been a failed project for Putin, and his ideology of state power and of Russian “greatness” informs the language of Russian foreign policy just as it sets the tone for Russian state media, for its portrayal of Russian virtues and for its depiction of the vices of the non-Russian world.

It would be wrong, however, to argue that this ideology truly undergirds the contact between state and society. Russia has never been less subject to ideology than it is in 2021. Putinist ideology is imposed with far less vigor than the Bolsheviks imposed theirs and than the Tsars, especially Nicholas II and Alexander III, required their subjects to adhere to the ideology of the Russian empire. The ideology that Putin improvised after 2000, when he came to power, is also less coherent than the ideology of the Romanovs and the Bolsheviks, all of whom had real belief systems capable of generating faith and at times fanaticism. The fact that today’s Russian government encourages a positive view of Stalin and at the same time promotes the civic importance of the Russian Orthodox Church limits the coherence and therefore the effectiveness of this worldview. That the ruling class in Russia espouses an ideology in which it most likely does not believe – that it does not share the wealth and does not personally adhere to Christian ethics – is a bit of hypocrisy that is not hidden in Russia. It needs no Alexey Navalny to reveal it. It is known by all.

A faux ideology might be a problem for Putin, but it may also be beside the point. The contract between state and society does not depend on ideology and it does not depend at all on party politics. Putin has attempted something new in Russian politics. Rather than making himself the high priest of an ideology, he has attempted to make politics disappear. The goal is not a mobilized society; the goal is an a-political society. To achieve this, Putin must make every alternative to his rule seem impossible. He does not try to persuade those Russians who admire Navalny and those who might wish for the Communist Party to regain its former stature. He pulls the lever of power in such a way as to render Navalny and the Communists an awkward, future-less sideshow. He need not do anything to have Zhirinovsky render himself an awkward, future-less sideshow: this is Zhirnovsky’s own profession. Putin benefits from rising standard of living, though he has not always delivered them. He benefits from foreign-policy victories, though he has not always delivered these either. Top-down political success is less salient than bottom-up acceptance of the Putinist system. No need at all to accept the ruling ideology. It can be ignored or made fun of, but the system behind must be accepted for the system to work; acceptance with cynicism is just fine. The invisibility of politics has become the lifeblood of Russian politics.

The recent Duma elections were at times falsely understood as a validation of Putin’s Russia, a ritual of support for United Russia, a preparation for Putin’s later efforts to continue on as Russia’s president. This they were not. They illustrated the extreme emptiness of Russian politics: that was their function. The greatest triumph for Putin had nothing to do with the number of votes cast or the number of votes illegally counted or falsely submitted. The greatest triumph for Putin was the absence of street protest at the time of the elections. The Duma’s irrelevance is obvious. The inability of parties to rise up in the Duma is obvious. The lack of alternatives to Putin is obvious. These vacancies are impossible to celebrate, and Putin has showed no eagerness to celebrate them. Yet these vacancies must be accepted, and the negation of politics under Putin must be affirmed. Putin has liberated Russia from politics, the symmetrical opposite of the claim that by engaging in politics people achieve their freedom. Only time will whether this experiment works, whether it keeps Putin in power, whether it inspires some more viable alternative to Putin, whether it leads to a Russia at peace with the world or whether it leads to revolution and war. No doubt politics cannot be kept at bay forever, and faction, grievance, emotion and ideology will all return. Until that happens Putin will continue enjoying the end of history a la russe.

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