Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a virtual interview from Moscow with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 5, 2021, addressed a number of pressing issues. Photo: Nick Raille.

The Contours of Populism in Russia: An Elite Strategy to Preserve the Status Quo

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West applies unproblematically in Russia. Being different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues.

By Ilkhom Khalimzoda

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West (Western Europe and North America) applies unproblematically in Russia. Although Russia has a very long history of populism dating back to the Narodniki of the late 19th century, the renewed focus in the West means that populism in Russia is again in the spotlight. This renewed attention requires a clear idea of what Russian populism is and how it manifests through the political system.

Minayeva (2017: 130) has described the differences between populism in the West and Russia as follows:

For Europe and the United States, populism is a technological component of liberal democracy, which at the present stage is more competently used by opposition parties. In Russia, populism does not entail a change of political elites while maintaining the political system but is a way of preserving the existing state of affairs. The current President of the Russian Federation decided the issue of countering the Populist movement, effectively leading it as the leader of the country.

Of course, scholars have long recognized distinct regional forms and manifestations of populism. We can now turn to unpack that idea in more detail.

How Should We Understand Populism?

As is well understood, populism remains a contested concept in political communication research and is studied heavily in political manifestos and the mass media (Engesser et al., 2017: 1109). For some, populism is a political style or logic, and for others, it is an ideology, discourse, or a strategy of governance (Burrett, 2020). In sum, there is no broad consensus concerning the conceptual definition of populism, which is inherited chiefly from the democracies, because— as noted above— it is described as a component of liberal democracy that is most skilfully used by opposition parties (Minayeva, 2017). One scholar has even described it as a “slippery slope” that escapes precise definition (Ylä-Anttila, 2019). Nevertheless, there is a core of at least five key elements that comprise populist communication. Thus, populist discourse manifests in advocacy for the people, attacking elites, ostracizing others, invoking the heartland (Engesser et al., 2017: 1111), and making unfeasible promises to the electorate (Kynev, 2017).

The Contours of Populism in Russia

Populism manifests itself differently depending on contextual conditions (Priester, 2007). Its appearance may also change depending on the needs of the actors (right- or left-wing) and the political system (democratic or authoritarian). For example, in Western Europe, it is opposition parties that adopt populist rhetoric the most, while in Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, populists have acquired sufficient support to gain power and govern. Naturally, populism differs in Russia. Populism is undoubtedly used both by the establishment and the opposition. Indeed, Mamonova (2018) speaks of “populism in power” in Russia, “where governmental leaders use populist rhetoric and practices to gain popular support and maintain their positions.”

In Russia, populists spread their message through party press, mainstream mass media, and also more recently, through digital platforms. The most intensified media visibility of the populists is seen close to election time. In his investigation on electoral populism, Kynev (2017) has found that both the ruling party and oppositional actors adopt populism in practice. For example, he notes that mediatized public discourse—or, indeed, any political demand that enters the public domain—forms part of the ruling class’ populism. The opposition, however, promises more legislative achievements, such as raising salaries and pensions or ensuring prices remain low and stable, neither of which, needless to say, are ever implemented. Readers can find plenty of case studies in Kynev’s work.

Populism in the Russian Media

In a recent paper, Burrett (2020) examines the Russian media from 2000 to 2020 to analyze whether the label “populist” is appropriately applied in the case of President Vladimir Putin. The study uncovered a range of different political communication strategies used by the president during his 20 years in power. For example, Putin’s first term in office covered the war in Chechnya and the discourse around that, as well as his initial attempts to paint himself as an anti-elite president, ready to fight for the country against a corrupt elite. However, according to the study, once he became the core of the new Russian elite, he changed his rhetoric to position himself against the global elite. In all this, his control over the media has allowed these shifting (and somewhat contradictory) messages to be disseminated to large audiences in Russia. Overall, Burrett finds that Putin can be described as populist in discursive terms only since he has consistently deployed some aspects of populism while avoiding others.

Populism and Popular Culture

In a chapter titled “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet,” Vera Zvereva (2020) has analyzed in depth the way populist messages have been crafted strategically for maximum impact with Russian audiences. She notes how in Russia, “political messages are often … expressed in the language of popular culture.” As a result, populists translate “complicated ideas—i.e. the workings of modern social systems—into simple categories that are clear to everyone, while its arguments are often based on the ‘politics of fear’.” She further points out that populist messages are often overly “simplified, black-and-white constructions around ‘the people, their ‘enemies’ and the ‘dangers’ they bring are borrowed from the genres of popular culture, with noble heroes and innocent victims, scheming enemies and evil powers” (Zvereva 2020: 236).

Populists Love Affairs

As many scholars have noted, a central element of populism today displayed in the media is the idea of the virtuous “heartland” set against the villainous Other (immigrants, globalists, liberals, etc.). Russia is no exception. In their recent edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, Tumbler and Waisbord (2021) bring together several chapters that show how anti-immigrant disinformation has a long history across the globe and how a diverse network of actors pushes anti-immigrant disinformation, bolstering and promoting anti-immigrant attitudes among the wider public. This sort of disinformation is strongly associated with the ideology of exclusion and nativist supremacy that underpins right-wing populism and far-right extremism. The modus operandi is to spread fake, incomplete, or manipulative information on given topics through social and mass media. In this regard, scholars stated that “anti-immigrant disinformation is part of a culture war in which an ecosystem of actors (far-right, alt-right, populist, and conservative) reinforces a common opposition to a pluralist worldview” (Culloty & Suiter, 2021: 10).

Also, on the Russian media sphere, among others, political actors like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the Liberal Democratic Party) have normalized anti-immigrant disinformation, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, often in cahoots with sympathetic media outlets. Another very intriguing example is a Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (now in prison), who released YouTube videos describing himself as a “certified nationalist” and advancing thinly veiled xenophobic ideas (Luxmoore, 2021). Although he has retreated from his ultra-nationalist stance in recent years, it is still interesting to observe how populism is an appealing strategy.

Conclusion

As we can see, different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse (Zamiatin, 2018) when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues. As Zvereva (2020: 234) puts it, “the state authorities try to present politics as either too complicated for ‘ordinary people, or as a battleground of malevolent forces, or a stage for eccentric individuals. This strategy helps to marginalize the political voices of the opposition and exclude the very possibility of critical public discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues.”


 

References

Burrett, T. (2020). “Charting Putin’s Shifting Populism in the Russian Media from 2000 to 2020.” Politics and Governance. Vol 8, No 1 (2020): Leadership, Populism and Power. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i1.2565

Culloty, E.; Suiter, J. (2021). “Anti-immigration disinformation.” In: T. Howard and W. Silvio (Eds.). The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Engesser, S.; Ernst, N.; Esser, F. & Büchel, F. (2017). “Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology.” Information, Communication & Society. 20:8, pp.1109–1126, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697

Kynev, A. (2017). “Elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah [Electoral-populism-in-Russian-elections].” Вестник общественного мнения. No. 1–2 (124). P.65–84. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Luxmoore, M. (2021). “Navalny’s Failure To Renounce His Nationalist Past May Be Straining His Support.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertyhttps://www.rferl.org/a/navalny-failure-to-renounce-nationalist-past-support/31122014.html(accessed on September 1, 2021).

Mamonova, N. (2018). “Vladimir Putin and the Rural Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Russia.” Open Democracyhttps://www.opendemocracy.net/en/vladimir-putin-and-rural-roots-of-authoritarian-populism-in-russia/ (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Minayeva, A.V. (2017). “Russian Populism: Political Reality or Perspective? [ROSSIYSKIY POPULIZM: POLITICHESKAYA REALNOST’ ILI PERSPEKTIVA?” Вестник Пермского университета. ПОЛИТОЛОГИЯ. 2017. NO 4. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/rossiyskiy-populizm-politicheskaya-realnost-ili-perspektiva/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Priester, K. (2007). Populismus: Historische und aktuelle Erscheinungsformen. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus.

Scoones, Ian; Edelman, Marc; M. Borras Jr. Saturnino; Hall, Ruth; Wolford, Wendy & White, Ben. (2018). “Emancipatory rural politics: confronting authoritarian populism.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 45:1, 1–20, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1339693

Tumber, Howard, and Silvio Waisbord, (Eds.). (2021) The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Ylä-Anttila, T. (2019). “Populismista, eli meistä ja muista.” Media & Viestintä. 42(2). Noudettu osoitteesta https://journal.fi/mediaviestinta/article/view/83377.

Zamiatin, Alexandr. (2018). “Depolitizatsiia: kak nas otluchali ot politiki.” Colta. July 3. https://www.colta.ru/articles/society/18498 (accessed on September 3, 2021).

Zvereva, V. (2019). “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet.” In: M. Wijermars, & K. Lehtisaari (Eds.). Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere. (pp. 225–247). Routledge. BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429437205-12

DanielaPisoiu

Radicalisation and Violent Extremism by Dr. Daniela Pisoiu

The session introduces the definitions of and differentiation between radicalism, radicalization, extremism and fundamentalism, as well as the main approaches to explaining radicalization processes. Pursuant to this, some recent developments are discussed in terms of their relation to populism and the influence of the pandemic.

KaiBosworth

Environment and Populism by Dr. Kai Bosworth

How are scholars considering the relationship between populist social movements and the politics of climate change? What are the terrains and spaces through which populism is performed? This talk and discussion consider historic and emergent forms of “populist environmentalism” from a performative, social movement perspective. The session distinguishes the populist constructions of “the people” that social movements produce from the popular analyses of political scientists of “populist leaders.” Next, it examines case studies of progressive climate and environmental activism which attempts to produce a pluralistic, transnational people. Dr. Bosworth examines the promise and pitfalls of such movements, and how they sometimes understand themselves as “populist.” Finally, he examines why we must understand “populist environmentalisms” in relation to other forms of environmental ideology.

HaleyMcEwen

Gender, Race and Populism by Dr. Haley McEwen

This session will examine the emergence of ‘anti-gender’, or ‘pro-family’ ideology and transnational countermovement building against sexuality and gender-related rights. The lecture will trace the historical emergence of the so-called ‘pro-family’ movement, and show how key concepts and ideologies informing this movement are informed by white supremacist and heteropatriarchal geopolitical interests. The lecture will focus specifically on ‘antigender’/‘ profamily’ activities in African contexts, but will also highlight some of the movements activities at global scales. The lecture will consider the following questions in its interrogation of the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and geo-politics within ‘pro-family’ discourse and ideology: What geo-political interests are at stake within anti-gender/pro-family discourses of ‘gender’ and ‘family’? What does anti-gender/pro-family discourse and ideology reveal about the intersections of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy? How does the ‘profamily’/‘ anti-gender’ movement relate to other right-wing populist movements?

JocelyneCesari

Populism and Religions by Dr. Jocelyne Cesari

Throughout the January 6th 2021 “Save America” March, also known as the Jericho March, and the ensuing attack on the Capitol, crosses and American flags were brandished side by side and religious slogans were on full display. The attention paid to this “spectacular” religious display by media has highlighted the scarcity of studies on the interactions between religion and populism. This session will offer a comprehensive mode of investigating the interactions between populism, religion and nationalism to foster comparison across countries and religions. It will present findings from an ongoing investigation based on three case studies: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

MajidKhosravinik

Populist Discourse and Digital Technology by Dr. Majid Khosravinik

The session starts out by providing a brief overview of notions in critical discourse studies. It elaborates on how discursive power has commonly been envisaged in/behind media and how digital technologies of participatory web may have changed such power dynamic between media and society. The lecture then explains the view in which social media is primarily defined as a paradigm of communication which may occur across endless and various digitally facilitated platforms, spaces, including but not limited to Social Networking Sites. After setting up the parameters for a social media approach to critical discourse studies, the lecture explores how technological context of digital discourse is related to populism. It elaborates on the business model of (production, distribution, and consumption of) online meaning-making content and how the algorithmically regimented values of popularity, attention economy and political expressions can collaborate in re-emergence of populist discourses.

DaphneHalikiopoulou

Populism, Nationalism and Identity by Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou

The terms ‘populism’ and ‘nationalism’ are interlinked, often used interchangeably by academics and pundits alike. The ‘new nationalism’ is often used to describe parties and groups that share a common emphasis on national sovereignty and a pledge to restore it in the name of the people. These groups have enjoyed increasing electoral success in recent years, and have become increasingly entrenched in their domestic political arenas. This session will address the dramatic rise (and in some cases decline) of this phenomenon by posing a twofold argument: (1) in terms of demand, nationalism is only a partial explanation, as voters economic concerns remain pivotal within the context of the transnational cleavage; (2) the explanatory power of nationalism is in the supply, i.e. the ways in which parties use nationalism strategically in an attempt to broaden their electoral appeal.

TsvetaPetrova

Populism, Democracy and Authoritarianism by Dr. Tsveta Petrova

Over the past decade, a number of European populist parties have become increasingly competitive in key votes, and in Eastern Europe, these parties have not only come to power but also remained in office in consecutive elections. This session looks at both the supply and the demand side of the rise and the resilience of populism in the post-communist world and considers both the political and civic embeddedness of populism in the region.

AnthoulaMalkopoulou

Introduction to Populism by Dr. Anthoula Malkopoulou

This session introduces the concept of populism by discussing what it is and how it relates to other key political ideologies. It is divided into three parts. First, it presents various definitions, approaches and theories of populism. The second part discusses the connection of populism to nationalism, socialism and liberalism. In the third part, we contemplate the relation of populism to democracy. For more information about the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) visit: https://www.populismstudies.org/​ Follow on Social Media https://twitter.com/populismstudies

White nationalists and counter protesters clash in during a rally that turned violent resulting in the death of one and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner.

Homegrown Hate – Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists are Waging War Against the United States by Sara Kamali

Colak, F.Zehra. (2021). “Homegrown Hate – Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists are Waging War Against the United States by Sara Kamali.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 19, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0003

 

Dr. Sara Kamali’s book illustrates why strategies to countering extremism are not effective and how they lead to the surveillance of entire Muslim communities, uncovering the complex ways such measures and policies reinforce the injustice and oppression of minority groups.

By F. Zehra Colak

In her timely book Homegrown Hate (University of California Press, 272 pg.), Sara Kamali scrutinizes the identity of White nationalists and militant Islamists, examines their grievances, hatreds, and the acts of terrorism, and lastly asks how these threats can be addressed. Drawing on in-depth interviews with key figures, as well as other primary and secondary source documents, Kamali shows how, despite differences in their motivations and goals, both White nationalists and militant Islamists share a narrative of victimhood, a shattered sense of belonging and alienation, and a perception of self-righteousness while instrumentalizing their theologies to express their disenfranchisement through violence. 

Homegrown Hate is a book of four parts. The first focuses on the beliefs, worldviews and ideologies of White nationalists and militant Islamists, offering a rich outline of their historical backgrounds, organizational structures, and shared methods. Kamali details how The Fourteen Words serves as a mission statement for all White nationalists, defining their supremacist beliefs and honing their identities and political aims while perpetuating the need for militancy to prevent the so-called racial annihilation of Whites by people of colour. The book offers an insightful glimpse into the complex and overlapping stories, anti-government sentiments, and strongly interwoven affiliations of White militant nationalists as well as the most impactful ideologies shaping White nationalist discourse, including Christian IdentityCreativity, and Wotanism. The book then offers a comprehensive overview of the political strategies and the complex and intersecting connections and theologies of prominent militant Islamist organizations, including al-Qa’ida and Islamic State (Dã’ish), which share a political desire to establish a global caliphate. Key terminology and concepts (e.g., jãhiliyya) exploited by militant Islamists to determine who is deserving of loyalty and disavowal and to justify their war as God’s command are well described.  

In the book’s second part, Kamali investigates White nationalist and militant Islamist grievances against the United States. The notion of White genocide is endorsed by the former to justify a narrative of victimhood and displacement and to support a call for a racial holy war, RAHOWA. The chapter sheds light on the role of demographic changes, economic shifts, and gun rights in understanding the grievances of White nationalists and delves further into how antisemitism, antiglobalism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and Queerphobia manifest and intersect within the White nationalist discourse. Interestingly, the role of women in upholding the norms of White nationalism is not sufficiently explored, although women have been key figures in designing a White supremacist system and promoting far-right groups like QAnon. 

In her analysis of the layered grievances of militant Islamists, Kamali shows how such narratives are rooted in a specific interpretation of Islam, US foreign policy, the Crusades, and colonialism to justify the need for self-preservation, defence against oppression, and the establishment of a global caliphate. Kamali addresses how the rhetoric adopted by many American presidents has contributed to the image of the US as a “Crusader” in alliance with Zionists, fuelling militant Islamist propaganda. Such propaganda claims that the US and its pro-Zionist allies aim to eradicate Islam and dominate Muslim-majority nations. The book acknowledges that while some of the grievances of militant Islamists regarding American foreign policy could be legitimate, their adopted methods to address such injustices are undemocratic. 

The third part of the book explores the legitimization of holy wars (e.g., RAHOWA and jihad) by White nationalists and militant Islamists who distort interpretations of traditional scriptures and theological concepts to fulfil their political ambitions. Kamali illustrates how White nationalists consider racial war essential to stopping White genocide and to establishing a White ethnostate in line with the aims of Fourteen Words. In the same vein, militant Islamists portray the West as a threat to Islam and propose holy war against all who they perceive as non-Muslim to establish a global caliphate. While many White nationalists imagine a White and Christian America inspired by the Founding Fathers’ divine vision and the sacred US constitution, militant Islamists envision a future where the US is part of a global caliphate. 

Kamali also illuminates how both movements utilize apocalyptic and violent eschatological visions to justify their terrorism. These grand narratives about the End Times, Kamali argues, offer a sense of belonging and meaning to members of both groups, who believe they play a central role in establishing God’s kingdom through fighting against evil. She explains the role of the internet in bolstering such narratives legitimizing violence and amplifying the voices of militant Islamists and White nationalists. Social media platforms, for instance, are often used to recruit followers and cultivate a sense of community feeding off a narrative of victimhood and hatred towards the “Other.” Questioning the myth of the “lone wolf,” the book highlights the key role of (virtual) communities, transnational ideological connections, and complex psychosocial and political dynamics in explaining the violent actions of an individual. 

In the conclusion, Kamali proposes a new approach to counterterrorism by critiquing the current counter-terrorism strategies as bolstering Islamophobia and failing to recognize White nationalism as a legitimate security threat. The framework, named holistic justice, is founded on principles of anti-oppression and empathy and aims at rectifying the systemic inequities (e.g., structural Islamophobia, institutionalized White privilege) underlying the current counterterrorism approaches. This approach, Kamali explains, holds White liberals accountable for using their privilege to enact institutional change and calls on Muslim Americans to organize at a grassroots level and build solidarity with minority groups. While Kamali’s holistic justice framework aims at rectifying systemic inequities, the role of empathy in bringing about structural change is not sufficiently explored. Although intergroup empathy might contribute to the formation of critical consciousness, encouraging individuals to reflect on their histories and privileges, it is not clear whether empathy is seen as a pre-condition for mobilizing for systemic change or an outcome of anti-oppression work. 

The book illustrates why strategies to countering extremism are not effective and how they lead to the surveillance of entire Muslim communities, uncovering the complex ways such measures and policies reinforce the injustice and oppression of minority groups. The lack of a federal statute criminalizing domestic terrorism, for instance, works to the benefit of militant White nationalists who cannot be prosecuted as terrorists on a national level unlike militant Islamists. Although racial disparities and injustices targeting people of colour are recognized in the book, the question of how systemic racism impacts the psychosocial circumstances of already vulnerable people who are driven to militancy remains insufficiently addressed.

Overall, Homegrown Hate is a valuable up-to-date resource not only for scholars and policymakers but for anyone who is looking to gain an in-depth understanding of current security threats and political violence facing the United States and many other countries around the world. The range and breadth of the complex layers of White nationalism and militant Islamism scrutinized are beyond comparison. The book is a significant contribution to the field—deeply informative and written in an engaging manner.