RUSSIA AND PUTINISM: THE RISE OF THE AUTHORITARIAN CAPITALIST ANTI-HERO
China is, of course, not the only country under the spell of an affective capitalist discourse of authoritarian nationalism. Its neighbor to the north, and one-time Cold War ally and then rival, Russia is displaying a similarly oppressive market politics. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin it has transformed into an oligarchic capitalist state, whose inequality is preserved through a combination of ruthless repression and charismatic despotic leadership. Its facade of democracy masks therefore a status quo that is simultaneously committed to the cause of deepening capitalist “reforms” and sustaining a politics of dictatorship. And just like its Chinese counterpart, it does so through a strident appeal against the threat of globalization.
The Birth of the Capitalist Tsar: An Authoritarian Legacy from Tsarism to the USSR
The roots of Russia’s current authoritarianism lie in both its Tsarist and Soviet past. Indeed, the despotism of Putin, while not identical to either of these regimes, draws heavily from both. He simultaneously promotes a triumphalist discourse of Russian exceptionalism while trumpeting his singular ability to properly implement market reforms for the betterment of the population. Further, his legitimacy rests on his resistance to globalization, portrayed as a colonizing force that is trying to destroy the country from the inside and out. He is, in this respect, a capitalist tsar with a distinctly Soviet flavor. More precisely, Putin is the epitome of a capitalist despot whose plutocracy and repression extends to rival oligarchs, foreign competitors, social dissidents and all those who oppose his state-led market revolution.
The Soviet experiment was given birth in the cauldron of an autocratic Tsarist state. For almost 400 years, starting in 1547, Russia was ruled by Tsars - regimes that differed, at times almost wildly, depending on the sovereign. It encompassed the early state-building and brutality of Ivan the Terrible to the modernization efforts of Peter the Great. What each shared though was a commitment to top-down control and primacy of the state in the form of the monarch for maintaining social order. They reflected a type of Russian “myth” of a great leader able to unite the people and rule them effectively and into prosperity (Cherniavsky, 1961).
The legitimacy of the Tsars, therefore, rested on their ability to rise above social cleavages and restore justice when needed. This duty to preserve Russia extended beyond economics and into the spiritual and social realms as well. This relationship between ruled and ruler was exemplified in the popular description of Russians as “slaves to the Tsar,” which “symbolically elevated the status of the tsar, provided his servitors with a respectful way in which to make claims on the government, and helped resolve tension within the governing class” (Poe, 1998: 587).
In practice, this amounted to a form of authoritarianism that was neither practical nor sustainable in the midst of an industrializing economy within a political environment of early twentieth-century Great Power imperialism. The intricacies of the workings and failures of Tsarism, obviously go well beyond the scope of this analysis. What is crucial, however, is its authoritarian politics revolving around the population’s affective investment in a strong leader who is expected to preserve the country against the chaos of revolutionary new ideas - ones perceived to be fundamentally “non-Russian” - of liberty and equality. Hence, under the Tsar:
[a]fter 1825 nationality was identified with absolutism, of consensual subordination, in contrast to egalitarian Western concepts. The monarchical narrative of nation described the Russian people as voluntarily surrendering power to their Westernized rulers. (Wortman, 2000: 12)
The replacement of this “official nationalism” of the Tsars by the Bolsheviks, and the establishment of a Soviet communist regime, was at once revolutionary and built on these autocratic foundations. Under Lenin, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) created the basis for both massive socioeconomic transformations in the direction of socialist central planning and collectivism as well as authoritarian repression characterized by secret police and the silencing of internal dissent (see Figes, 1997). Within a decade the country would descend into a fury of state-led terror, perhaps unseen in scale before or since
(Kuromiya, 2014; Thurston, 1998), as well as a dangerous cult of personality centering around its new communist leader, Joseph Stalin (Tucker, 1979).
The following five decades of Soviet power, while lessening the strength and excesses of this fantasy, did nothing to fundamentally alter it. The Party remained the pre-eminent actor for guiding the country in the proper historical and ideological direction. It promoted, in this respect, an idea of “partiinost (partyness) with expertise” linked to a general “commitment in a totalitarian society to an ideology of ‘politics takes command,’ to the control and preferably guidance of the society by a group of dedicated people committed to collective interests and to a utopian vision” (Linz, 2000: 86-7). Yet digging slightly deeper, the remnants of an authoritarian Tsarist rationale survived in the eight decades of communist rule. Notably, the Party was transformed from an agent of radical social change, to the protector of the nation’s territorial, spiritual and social sanctity. Its success, and the justification for its authoritarianism in practice, was intimately linked to the safeguarding of a “strong Russia” nationally and internationally. “The mobilizing impetus” observes Bialer (1982: 15) “came from the ‘truths of the state’, not of the party; from patriotism and nationalism, not from ideology in a communist sense.”
It was precisely on this basis that Putin would reinvigorate authoritarianism in the post-Cold War era. Amidst the perceived injustices and anarchy of the “gangster capitalism” characterizing Russia in the 1990s, he would project a sense of state-led justice and order. Central, in this regard, was the saving of Russia from foreign domination and their home-grown oligarch handmaidens. Emerging from this cauldron of chaos, oligarchy and the social pain of a rapid market transition was a new capitalist fantasy of Tsarism with the name of Putinism.