Professor Robinson: Evolution of Putinism as ‘Collective Putin’ Reshapes Russian Politics

Dr. Neil Robinson, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Limerick.

Professor Neil Robinson expresses his concerns regarding a potential escalation in the crackdown on dissent, heightened control measures, intensified efforts to label domestic opponents as foreign agents or traitors, and increased indoctrination through the education and media systems following Vladimir Putin’s resounding victory in the recent election. Additionally, he underscores the notion that Putin does not operate alone at the apex of power but rather is bolstered by a circle of allies. Robinson argues, “While this has always been true, there’s now an effort to transform this ‘collective Putin’ into more than just a hegemonic identity that Russians are expected to adhere to; it’s becoming a true collective, an unquestionable identity. Thus, the expansion of these dynamics may lead us to reconsider Putinism as something distinct from official populism.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In a landscape characterized by shifting power dynamics and heightened political tensions, Professor Neil Robinson, a distinguished scholar of Comparative Politics at the University of Limerick, offers profound insights into the evolving nature of Putinism and its ramifications for Russian politics. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Robinson delves into the intricate layers of Vladimir Putin’s regime, shedding light on the mechanisms through which power is consolidated and dissent suppressed.

Professor Robinson’s analysis underscores a fundamental shift in the dynamics of Putinism, emphasizing the emergence of what he terms as the ‘collective Putin.’ Contrary to conventional perceptions of Putin as a solitary figure at the helm, Professor Robinson elucidates how Putin operates within a circle of allies, transforming this collective into an unquestionable identity for the Russian populace. He warns against overlooking this transformation, asserting that it signifies a departure from traditional notions of official populism, warranting a re-evaluation of Putinism as a distinct political phenomenon.

Moreover, Professor Robinson highlights his concerns regarding an escalation in the crackdown on dissent, heightened control measures, intensified efforts to label domestic opponents as foreign agents or traitors, and increased indoctrination through the education and media systems in the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s decisive victory in the recent election.

Drawing from his extensive research, Professor Robinson elucidates the evolution of populist rhetoric in Russia, contextualizing it within broader political frames such as constitutional order and legality. He delves into the strategic deployment of these discourses to stabilize regime hybridity, putting forward how they interact to shape the political landscape. Robinson’s nuanced analysis dispels simplistic characterizations of Putinism, emphasizing its complex ideological layers rather than a cohesive doctrine. He cautions against dismissing Putinism as devoid of ideology, highlighting its profound impact on political discourse and policy formulation.

Professor Robinson provides critical insights into the intersection of official populism with cultural themes, probing its implications for addressing the material needs of diverse social groups within Russia. He explains how the cultural-centric approach adopted by the regime has ramifications for economic development and social cohesion, underscoring the inherent tensions between the cultural narrative of official populism and the economic realities faced by the populace.

Furthermore, Professor Robinson examines the strategies employed by Putin to consolidate power domestically and advance Russia’s interests on the global stage. He analyzes the utilization of events such as terror attacks and elections as opportunities to bolster the regime’s position, both domestically and internationally. Professor Robinson’s comprehensive analysis offers invaluable insights into the complexities of contemporary Russian politics, providing a nuanced understanding of Putinism and its implications for the trajectory of the Russian state.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Neil Robinson with some edits.

The Construction of Putinism Has Undergone Significant Evolution Over Time

In the article titled, ‘Populism and Political development in Hybrid regimes: Russia and Development of Official Populism’ you argue how populist rhetoric in Russia evolved alongside other political frames, such as the emphasis on constitutional order and legality. Could you elaborate on how these competing discourses were strategically employed to stabilize regime hybridity, and how they may have interacted with each other to shape political discourse in Russia?

Neil Robinson: Obviously, Russia exhibits a distinctly different type of populism compared to the forms prevalent in Europe or Latin America, although significant differences exist among those regions as well. In Russia, populism evolved as a response to electoral threats faced by the regime in 2011-2012. It aimed to ensure stability for the regime while simultaneously excluding political rivals to Vladimir Putin. This form of populism allowed the regime to assert a democratic façade while consolidating power. Therefore, while Russia saw the emergence of a more authoritarian and ideological form of politics post-2011-2012, it purported to maintain democratic continuity within the existing constitutional framework, rather than merely serving as a power grab by Putin. 

This narrative of stability and continuity was constructed by amalgamating various discursive frames, including democracy, market economy, and conservative cultural values. This synthesis introduced an ideological shift from the earlier stages of Putin’s presidency. However, it’s essential to recognize that this form of populism does not advocate for radical restructuring of the political system to reflect the will of the people. Instead, it promises continuity to safeguard the popular will and prevent its displacement by foreign values.

In addition, other forms of political discourse utilized by Putin are crucial and should not be overlooked in political analysis. Unfortunately, they are often overshadowed by the focus on the traditional, conservative themes present in his speeches, with many viewing these as the sole elements of significance in his ideology. However, every aspect contributes to the construction of Putinism, and their usage has evolved over time. This adaptability has allowed the regime to address various challenges differently since 2012, particularly with the incorporation of populist tropes into its rhetoric.

Conservative Traditionalism Constituted the Core of Putin’s Populism

You discuss the development of official populism under Vladimir Putin, particularly its acceleration after 2012. Could you elaborate on the factors that contributed to this rapid acceleration, and how did war in Ukraine reinforce the narrative of official populism?

Neil Robinson: In some respects, although one should be cautious not to draw too rigid a line, there exists a distinction between articulating the official populist stance, as Sarah Milne and I described in the article you referenced, and the war in Ukraine. The official populist position was formulated to safeguard the political system and imbue it with purpose, serving as justification for Putin’s return to power. Thus, there was a pragmatic aspect to this articulation; it functioned as a tool in discourse. However, this discourse took on a life of its own as it permeated Russia’s media landscape, particularly the official media structures, fostering a more aggressive, nationalistic, and anti-liberal environment that has persisted over the past decade or so.

On one hand, the ideology of conservative traditionalism, which formed the core of Putin’s populism, seeped into the public consciousness through the media infrastructure. However, it also began to influence other areas of policymaking, albeit much later. Slowly over the course of the 2010s, it started to feature more prominently in foreign policy discourse. Furthermore, it began to shape how Russian democracy was conceptualized and what its purpose was, particularly evident in 2020 when Putin amended the constitution. These ideological themes, expressly embedded in other articles of the Russian Constitution, came to define the essence of the Russian people within the constitutional framework. Gradually, the populist message spread, evolving into a force that was increasingly independent of Putin as its original articulator. It morphed into a structural force in its own right.

Ukraine presented a dilemma within this discourse. It was perceived to be a part of the “Russian world,” sharing the same values as the Russian people and the diverse traditional religions present in Russia. However, this posed an ontological trap in Putin’s ideology. How could one claim authenticity to the “Russian world” when elsewhere within it, different ways of life existed? How could one reconcile the divergence in relationships with the West, with some embracing liberalism, which was deemed a threat, and others embracing a European direction of development, considered a betrayal of organic interests?

Though there wasn’t a straightforward trajectory from the articulation of the official populist stance in 2012 onwards, particularly during the period spanning 2012 to 2014, the war in Ukraine reflects the biases and concerns of Putin’s official populism. It can be seen as a response to the most imminent and significant threat to that discourse: the existence of individuals within the “Russian world” living in divergent ways. The onset of the war served to entrench and intensify this discourse, also engendering a necessity for mobilization around it. Initially exclusionary, the discourse aimed to undermine the political agency of liberals and ethno-nationalists in Russia, providing Putin and the Kremlin with a means to regulate political participation and discredit alternative forms of engagement as futile. However, with the advent of the war, this discourse evolved into a foundation for mobilization in its own right. This shift has led to the utilization of symbols and an increased emphasis on patriotic education, as well as the incorporation of the educational sector—encompassing both school-age children and higher education—into the ideological state apparatus. These developments have both deepened and broadened in conjunction with the war, altering the relationship with populism in Russia. While complex, this dynamic has also transformed the activation and enactment of populism within the country.

Russia Will Need to Confront Its Persisting Development Challenges

A beggar spotted begging in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Elena Rostunova.

You argue that official populism in Russia is primarily centered around cultural themes, lacking a significant focus on socio-economic or political issues. How does this cultural-centric approach impact the regime’s ability to address the material needs of different social groups within Russia? Are there potential conflicts between the cultural narrative of official populism and the economic realities faced by the populace? 

Neil Robinson:  Yes, the focus was on politics, values rather than on economic and social development for Russia, and this was a deliberate choice. The regime adopted a populist approach that could be touted as successful regardless of economic circumstances. After the global economic crisis of 2008, Russia failed to address the structural causes of its own economic downturn. Uncertainty loomed over how these issues would be tackled. Thus, a political narrative of success was constructed, detached from any substantial economic changes. This populist rhetoric did not advocate for specific economic policies or structural reforms; instead, it narrowly focused on maintaining political legitimacy.

Economics, meanwhile, was relegated to other discourses, continuing ineffective attempts to blend patronage politics with marketization. These efforts had previously failed to stimulate economic growth in Russia beyond its energy sectors. The populist success that can be declared and demonstrated through speeches, as well as aggressive actions against Western hegemony, is often portrayed as something tangible and real. The regime struggled to find a solution to this dilemma, only stumbling upon a resurgence in economic growth around 2012, largely due to the accidental uptick in energy prices. This rediscovery marked a return to economic growth, albeit without a deliberate strategy in place.

Following the declaration of war in Ukraine, there has been a form of military Keynesianism, essentially injecting funds into the military economy and observing some spill-over effects into the broader economy. However, these measures do not lay the groundwork for Russia’s long-term development. Sooner or later, the war will end—hopefully sooner—and Russia will need to address its ongoing development challenges, including issues such as depletion horizons in the oil industry. The focus on cultural values has come at a cost to Russia. While this cost hasn’t been immediately detrimental to the regime due to fortunate circumstances, luck is not a sustainable strategy in the long term.

Putinism Cannot Simply Be Disregarded as Irrelevant

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they attended a ceremony celebrating the 1025 anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus in Kiev, Ukraine on July, 27, 2013. Photo: Shutterstock.

In your article titled "Putin and the Incompleteness of Putinism" you argue against both the notion that Putinism resembles Soviet ideology and the idea that ideology plays a negligible role in Putin’s regime. Could you elaborate on why neither of these extremes accurately characterizes Putinism, and what implications this has for understanding contemporary Russian politics?

Neil Robinson: This question delves into a vast territory. Within the realm of Russian studies, there’s a prevalent inclination to seek parallels with the Soviet era. Much of the analysis concerning Putin and ideology is filtered through this Soviet prism. Historically, two perspectives have dominated the discussion of Soviet ideology. One perspective regards the Soviet system as fundamentally flawed and absurd—a relic of totalitarianism. Consequently, there’s a strong temptation to interpret Russia’s increasing authoritarian tendencies as a regression into Soviet-style governance. On the flip side, another viewpoint questions whether Soviet leaders genuinely adhered to Marxist-Leninist ideology. Many argue that these leaders lacked philosophical depth, especially post-Lenin, viewing their ideological pronouncements as mere lip service. So, instead of fixating on ideological roots, it’s more prudent for us to scrutinize the material interests at play in politics and prioritize our analysis accordingly.

The issue with both of these explanations is twofold. Firstly, they set an excessively high bar for defining something as ideological. By insisting that an ideology must adhere to a structured worldview like Marxism-Leninism, we inadvertently limit the scope of what can be considered ideological. This leads to a strained analysis when trying to fit Putinism into predefined ideological categories. Conversely, dismissing Putinism as non-ideological overlooks its significant impact. The articulated discourse within the Kremlin shapes media environments and political participation, extending beyond mere pragmatism.

To dismiss these factors as inconsequential would be a mistake. Putinism cannot simply be disregarded as irrelevant after over a decade of shaping policies and narratives. Assertions likening Putin to Stalin or portraying him as merely pragmatic miss the mark. The reality lies somewhere in between these extremes.

A more nuanced approach is to view Putinism not as a traditional ideology in the vein of Marxism, but rather as a complex discourse. This discourse encompasses elements of cultural conservatism alongside discussions of constitutionality, democracy, and economic development. These facets often conflict with one another, creating a dynamic and multifaceted system. Putinism cannot be neatly categorized as a continuation of the Soviet Union nor reduced to a purely pragmatic authoritarian regime serving the interests of a small elite. While the elite undoubtedly benefits, the system encompasses broader complexities that defy simplistic characterization.

There are pitfalls in veering too far in either direction. Currently, there’s a risk of leaning towards a totalitarian characterization due to the ongoing war. The heightened mobilization may indeed resemble aspects of totalitarianism, particularly in its outreach to the populace, which previous forms of populism lacked. However, it’s overly simplistic to entirely categorize these developments as totalitarian without considering their broader implications.

In my article, I aimed to caution against such extreme categorizations and advocate for a more balanced perspective. It’s essential to remain open-minded and not dismiss statements outright simply because they may seem intellectually lacking. While much of the discourse may indeed lack coherence or deep philosophical grounding, we must still examine its effects and implications. It’s a call to engage critically with ideas, even if we don’t view them as inherently profound or coherent philosophical positions.

The Indiscriminate Application of the Label “Russophobia” by Putin

You argue that Putinism has ideological layers rather than a cohesive ideology. Could you elaborate on how these layers interact and how they contribute to the overall political discourse in contemporary Russia?

Neil Robinson: This question presents a significant challenge for me, not because I lack belief in it, but rather because I perceive shifts occurring within the relationships among these layers. What I originally posited was the existence of a regime-supporting discourse emerging after 2012, characterized by conservative ideologies. This discourse was instrumental in facilitating Putin’s return to the presidency that year and in legitimizing the system. However, its scope was rather limited, focusing on specific topics. Subsequently, ideological entrepreneurs, including individuals in the media and certain political factions aligned with Putin’s regime, seized upon and expanded these ideas, forming what I term a regime-supporting discourse. They took Putin’s concepts and intertwined them with other prevailing notions in Russian politics, thereby enriching the discourse surrounding the regime. Their objective was not only to secure positions for themselves within Russia’s media infrastructure but also to extend the reach of the regime’s own narrative. Thus, we can discern multiple layers: Putin’s original discourse, augmented by additional elements, propagated by secondary political figures and media personalities associated with Putin-aligned parties, whether officially part of the opposition or not.

The demarcation between these layers remained relatively clear until around 2020. However, with the constitutional changes, Putin began incorporating ideas from the broader regime supporting discourse into the official narrative, blurring the lines between the two. This interaction marked a significant shift, epitomized by the constitutional amendments of 2020, where the regime’s discourse expanded to include elements from below, integrating them into the official rhetoric. This evolution underscores a crucial change in the landscape of ideas, challenging the notion that everything is purely pragmatic. As ideas flow from below into the official discourse and are adopted by Putin and others, disentangling from this discourse becomes increasingly challenging.

Now, one significant method to discern these shifts is by examining the language employed. For instance, within the regime-supporting discourse, arguments about Russophobia were prevalent, portraying the West as inherently anti-Russian. Initially, such rhetoric wasn’t commonly used by top political figures like Putin. They acknowledged Russophobia but were more discerning in attributing it. It wasn’t a blanket accusation against all who criticized Russia. Rather, it was a narrative cultivated within the regime-supporting discourse, emphasizing a sense of victimhood: "Look at the way the world hates us." However, this has now undergone a reversal. Putin and others at the apex of the political system regularly utilize this rhetoric. The label of Russophobia is indiscriminately applied to almost anyone critical of Russia. This shift highlights how certain ideas migrate between layers of discourse over time.

This relay of ideas has been further bolstered by recent war as mentioned earlier. These developments contribute to the reinforcement of authoritarian tendencies and provide new justifications for repression. As these dynamics evolve, they create fertile ground for authoritarian practices in novel ways.

Efforts to Transform ‘Collective Putin’ into More Than Just a Hegemonic Identity

Vladimir Putin’s portrait. Illustration: Tpyxa_Illustartion.

In light of Vladimir Putin’s landslide victory in the recent election just weeks after murder of Alexei Navalny, what strategies do you anticipate him employing to further consolidate his power domestically, particularly considering the heightened repression of dissent and independent voices witnessed in the lead-up to the election?

Neil Robinson: More of the same: more repression, more control, more doubling down on labeling domestic opponents as foreign agents, traitors, or individuals lacking the correct patriotic spirit. There will be increased mobilization around these narratives, along with heightened efforts to embed them into people’s minds through the education and media systems.

In essence, there’s been much discussion about what’s sometimes referred to as the "collective Putin." Putin doesn’t operate in isolation at the top; rather, he is supported by a circle of allies. While this has always been true, there’s now an effort to transform this "collective Putin" into more than just a hegemonic identity that Russians are expected to adhere to; it’s becoming a true collective, an unquestionable identity. Thus, the expansion of these dynamics may lead us to reconsider Putinism as something distinct from official populism. However, this transformation is a gradual process, and the extent and pace of its progression remain uncertain. Only time will reveal the full extent of these developments.

Election Victory Spurs Putin to Further Marginalize Dissident Voices

Mass protests in Russia demanded the release of Alexei Navalny. Police detained protesters in Moscow, Russia, on January 31, 2021. A girl holds a sign saying “Freedom for Putin from office!” Photo: Elena Rostunova.

Given the international condemnation of the election as a sham and the concerns raised about its legitimacy, how do you envision Putin leveraging his victory to advance Russia’s interests on the global stage, particularly concerning the ongoing occupation in Ukraine?

Neil Robinson: It’s evident that the election results will likely be used to justify the annexation of territories claimed as part of the Russian Federation, where purportedly overwhelming support for Putin was reported. Regions like Sevastopol, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, etc., supposedly showed significant support for Putin, though the legitimacy of these figures is questionable. This tactic mirrors previous attempts, such as the 2014 referendum in Crimea, aimed at legitimizing annexation efforts. While such assertions may not hold sway with much of mainstream political opinion in the West, they find traction elsewhere, even among certain European politicians who congratulate Putin, citing the "will of the people." Supporters of Putin’s populist, authoritarian, and international agenda are likely to echo the Kremlin’s narrative regarding the elections and support for Putin.

In terms of expectations, I anticipate more of the same: a reinforcement of existing narratives, further marginalization of dissident voices within Russia—evident during the election and the aftermath of Navalny’s death—and continued crackdowns on protestors. These actions perpetuate the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Russia today.

Professor Robinson, considering the recent terror attack in Moscow claimed by the Islamic State group, how do you anticipate President Putin will leverage this event to strengthen his regime’s position domestically and internationally?

Neil Robinson: I think we’ve seen it, haven’t we? There’s been this weak attempt to tie events to Ukraine, perpetuating a narrative that terrorist attacks in Russia are part of a broader global conspiracy encouraged by the West, particularly the United States. Despite repeated instances where Western intelligence agencies, including those in the US, warned against such attacks, these claims persist. It all contributes to the conspiratorial narrative integral to Putinism—a worldview characterized by an "us against the world" mentality, where individuals are either allies or adversaries. This narrative is clearly the one Russian authorities seek to propagate. They even acknowledge that some responsibility lies with Islamist terrorists like Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), but they argue that ISK itself is a byproduct of Western actions: destabilization and arrogance. According to their perspective, Russia unfairly bears the brunt of these consequences.

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