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When Putin goes, will Putinism persist? Russians debate.

Why We Wrote This

When the Kremlin’s ex-chief ideologist speaks, people listen. Last week, he said that the governmental structure that Putin built would outlive the man who built it. Now Russians are arguing over what “Putinism” is.

Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Reuters/File
Vladimir Putin (l.) meets with then-Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow in December 2011.

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Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s once-foremost ideologist, last week argued that the political regime set up by Vladimir Putin is itself a complete ideology – a “Putinism” – that can survive any challenges, even the loss of its founder. In doing so, Mr. Surkov has triggered a firestorm of debate among leading Russian intellectuals over the essential nature of Russia.

The central idea in his article is that Mr. Putin has developed a form of government that unites the will of the leader with that of the people. In Putinism, Surkov claims, the Russian state has no need for trappings of Western democracy. Whereas Western democracy requires a hidden “deep state” to steer the ship despite the capricious choices voters might make, he writes, Russia has a “deep nation” that runs in harmony with its leaders.

But Russia’s educated class largely regards the article as an attempt to flatter Putin. Putinism is “not an ideology,” says Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist. “Surkov’s article shouldn’t be taken seriously for any of the ideas it presents. It should be seen as a mirror of our present moment, with its uncertainties and complications.”

For Russians, ideology looms as all-important in political discourse.

Since the collapse of the USSR, a state in which ideology regulated everything from foreign affairs to personal life, some Russians have searched hard for a new “Russian idea” to animate national existence and impart a sense of belonging and purpose. Many others push back at any attempt to impose an official ideology, which they view as the bane of Russian history.

But Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s once-foremost ideologist, last week argued in a newspaper article that the political regime set up by Vladimir Putin is itself a complete ideology – a “Putinism” – that can survive any challenges, even the loss of its founder.

And in doing so, Mr. Surkov has triggered a firestorm of debate among leading Russian intellectuals over the essential nature of Russia, and particularly whether the undeniably resilient regime that Mr. Putin has created can outlast his personal rule.

And even those who take issue with the substance of Surkov’s arguments, of whom there are many, assume that the article’s publication has a greater significance.

“Surkov used to be the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, he is always interesting and entertaining, and he is one who tries to invent grand political systems,” says Nikolay Petrov, a political scientist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “No wonder so many people take this article as more than an expression of personal opinions, but as a signal from above. People are sure he must have been instructed, or at least given permission to publish this piece.”

Russia’s ‘deep nation’

Surkov’s article, landing at a time of growing social unrest and uncertainty over what happens when Putin leaves the scene, was bound to set off an explosion of controversy. Surkov’s grand schemes have shaped the political landscape of the Putin era – and unabashedly manipulated Russians’ perceptions about democratic choice.

Surkov was the architect of Russia’s so-called managed democracy,  which included an array of somewhat differently flavored pro-Kremlin political parties that Surkov, acting out his own conception of how Western democracy works, offered voters an elaborate illusion of choice. It also included civil society groups such as the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi and the Civic Chamber, a kind of parallel parliament of public groups. He lost his Kremlin job a few years ago after Putin apparently grew tired of his scheming. But he has been brought back repeatedly to handle delicate tasks, most recently as the Kremlin’s main point man to handle Russia’s crisis of relations with Ukraine.

The central idea in his article, titled “Putin’s Lasting State,” is that Putin has developed a form of government that cuts out the middle men, like parliaments and bureaucracies, and unites the will of the leader with that of the people. In Putinism, he claims, the Russian state has found the “sweet spot” of harmony with the eternal Russian people, and it expresses their will without any need for elections, opinion polls, or other trappings of what he openly derides as the fake dog-and-pony show of Western democracy.

“The stress tests which [this model] has passed and is now passing have shown that this specific, organically arrived at model of political functioning provides an effective means of survival and ascension of the Russian nation not just for the coming years, but for decades and, most likely, for the entire next century,” Surkov writes.

Whereas Western democracy requires a hidden “deep state” to steer the ship despite the capricious choices voters might make, Surkov writes, Russia has a “deep nation” that runs in harmony with its leaders.

“Our state is not split up into deep and external; it is built as a whole, with all of its parts and its manifestations facing out,” he writes. “The ability to hear and to understand the nation, to see all the way through it, through its entire depth, and to act accordingly – that is the unique and most important virtue of Putin’s government.”

‘Not an ideology’

Surkov’s article has brought howls of derision from many leading Russian intellectuals, who tend to be aligned with the opposition. Most of them regard the article as a transparent attempt to flatter an audience of one: Putin.

The key bone of contention is whether or not there is such a thing as Putinism.

Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked in the Kremlin with Surkov during the early Putin years, suggests that Surkov has mistaken the relative stability of the Putin years for some kind of eternal formula for social harmony.

“In post-Soviet Russia, we, alas, have not created a real state,” Mr. Pavlovsky told Business-Online, an internet newspaper. “Our system is a system of power whose behavior has no normal values. And this model of behavior is common for elites and for the population of Russia in general.”

Although Putin has developed mechanisms for communicating with average Russians over the heads of officialdom, such as his regular electronic town hall meetings and some impressive innovations in “digital democracy,” there is nothing that would add up to a mystical bond between leader and people, say experts.

“We can only understand Putinism as this particular regime, which has demonstrated its durability and flexibility in ways that need to be explained,” says Mr. Petrov. “But it’s not an ideology. It’s just a cynical and pragmatic manipulation of power, a constant search for majority support, which has until now been quite successful.... Surkov’s article shouldn’t be taken seriously for any of the ideas it presents. It should be seen as a mirror of our present moment, with its uncertainties and complications.”

A simplified proto-fascist state?

But some do see a distinct Putinist ideology emerging. In the West, scholars like Timothy Snyder see Surkov and Putin drawing on the Christian-fascist ideas of 20th-century Russian emigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin to create a modern-day to establish a Mussolini-like corporatist state. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ivan Ilyin’s last name.]

But Western critics often appear to read too much into Putin’s occasional references to ideological thinkers. At one point the Russian Eurasian nationalist Alexander Dugin was labeled “Putin’s brain” in Foreign Affairs magazine. Yet Mr. Dugin, fired from his university job a few years ago, is a critic of Putin who has never acknowledged any connection. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the source of the “Putin’s brain” article.]

Andrei Kolesnikov, a political expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that Putin, with Surkov’s help, has been constructing a fascist-type state out of familiar ideological elements.

“Surkov represents the views of very influential groups, in the Kremlin and security services, and that’s why it’s very important to analyze this,” he says. “His views are a simplification of social reality. It’s a fascist, or proto-fascist, conception. He is testing the waters to see how liberal opponents and other people react.”

Putinism, Mr. Kolesnikov says, “is a mixture of nationalism, imperialism, dirigisme [state control of the economy], and anti-Western discourse. It’s authoritarianism with an imitation of democracy. It is not unique, and Surkov surely exaggerates its potential. But this is a serious moment.”

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Russia’s top elite-watching sociologist, says Surkov is just trying to stay relevant as the national conversation shifts to life after Putin.

“I heard all these ideas from Surkov 10 years ago,” she says. “I think he’s trying to reassure public opinion that what we have now is durable. At times like this there is alarm, fear of transition, and people turn critical of the authorities. His message is: Calm down, everything will turn out OK.”

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