Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin observed amidst soldiers during the military parade in Belgrade, Serbia on October 16, 2014. Photo by Dimitrije Ostojic.

Please cite as:

Valev, Radoslav. (2024). Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). June 14, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0057     

 

The thirteenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia,” convened online on May 30, 2024. This event delved into the evolving political landscape of Russia. Moderated by Dr. Maxine David, a respected lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University and a foreign policy analyst specializing in Russian and EU foreign policy, the panel featured a distinguished line-up of scholars who provided unique insights into Russia’s populist autocracy from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

Report by Radoslav Valev

The thirteenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Resurgence of Expansionist Tsarism: Populist Autocracy in Russia,” convened online on May 30, 2024, delving into a multifaceted exploration of Russia’s evolving political landscape. Moderated by Dr. Maxine David, an esteemed lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University and foreign policy analyst specializing in Russian and EU foreign policy, the panel assembled a distinguished line-up of scholars, each offering unique insights into Russia’s populist Autocracy from diverse disciplinary lenses. 

Dr. David initiated the discussion by reviewing the deteriorating EU-Russia relations, emphasizing the need to understand domestic politics and the impact of populism in both regions. She also highlighted the importance of including gender and minority perspectives in research to better understand these dynamics globally.

The subsequent presentations delved into more specific discussions in Russia’s political landscape. Dr. Luke March, Professor and Personal Chair of Post-Soviet and Comparative Politics at the University of Edinburg, argued that while populist elements exist in Russia, they are outweighed by Putin’s overarching ideological foundations of statism, imperialism and nationalism, as well as his leadership approach prioritizing state control over populist mobilization. Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk, Researcher at IRHIS-CNRS at the University of Lille and a lecturer at Sciences Po, France, argued that Putinism’s populist rhetoric extends beyond political discourse and is actively supported and disseminated by various allies. Dr. Yulia Gradskova, Associate Professor, Researcher at Södertörn University, Sweden, focused on how the Russian government uses “Traditional Values” to justify restrictive policies, particularly against the LGBTQ+ community, to control women’s reproductive capacities, intertwining these values with militarism and patriotism to support the war against Ukraine. Finally, Dr. Dóra Győrffy, Professor of Economy at Institute of Economics, Corvinus University of Budapest, provided a comprehensive analysis of Russia’s economic prospects in the aftermath of the Ukraine war and the impact of Western sanctions.

Through comprehensive analyses and interdisciplinary perspectives, the panellists examined the intricacies of Russia’s authoritarian practices and their global implications. As geopolitical landscapes shift, understanding Russia’s trajectory is essential for gaining critical insights into the evolving dynamics of international politics and governance.

Dr. Maxine David, the moderator of the panel, provided an overview of the panel’s topic. She began by noting that her academic focus is primarily on EU-Russia relations, stressing the importance of understanding both domestic politics in Russia and within EU member states. She highlighted the disbanding of the EU-Russia Expert Network (EURAN) in February 2022 as a sign of deteriorating relations, which has halted valuable dialogue among experts.

Dr. David stressed the necessity of a clear understanding of populism and autocracy, cautioning against overemphasizing populism‘s role in contemporary Russian politics given the state’s dominance in Putin’s discourse. However, she pointed out that populism significantly impacts EU member states, where right-wing populist parties often echo Russian narratives. Despite a noted decline in positive views of Russia among right-wing populist supporters in countries like Italy, France, Hungary, and Germany, Dr. David warned against complacency, as these supporters still tend to view Russia and Putin favourably. Maintaining solidarity in supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia requires a focused attention on the far-right, and also on the far-left, as was suggested by Dr. Luke March.

Dr. David also reflected on the need for introspection among those involved in EU-Russia relations, acknowledging that certain perspectives, such as gender and minority issues, have been underrepresented in past work. Dr. David commended Dr. Gradskova’s emphasis on gender, noting that women and minority groups, including indigenous peoples, have not been sufficiently centered in research on Russia and populism. This conversation is deemed crucial not only for understanding Russia but also for its implications in a broader global context, where the division between autocratic and democratic regimes remains significant, despite being a somewhat simplistic binary.

Dr. Luke March: “Why Putin Is Not a Populist, But Worse” 

Dr. Luke March emphasized that while Putin exhibits some populist elements, they are not systematic or central to his ideology and leadership. Instead, Putin’s core ideology revolves around statism, imperialism, conservatism, and nationalism, with populism serving as a selective and strategic tool rather than a defining feature. Putin’s anti-mobilizational approach and the Russian political system’s aversion to grassroots mobilization make him fundamentally different from populist leaders who seek to rally the people against elites. Putin’s primary concern is maintaining state control and depoliticizing the population, which contrasts sharply with the mobilizational nature of populism.

Dr. Luke March began his presentation by acknowledging that Putin exhibits certain populist elements in his communication style and leadership persona. Putin presents himself as a macho, taboo-breaking outsider who identifies with the common person while also portraying superhuman qualities. This approach aligns with the populist playbook of leaders like Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, as he cultivates a cult-like following through mass events and portrays himself as a voice for the people.

However, Dr. March argued that focusing solely on these populist elements provides an incomplete portrayal of Putin’s leadership. Putin also adopts a statist, organizational persona as the sober CEO and state-builder, invoking Russia’s historical traditions and continuity with Soviet structures. This non-populist style involves more high-blown rhetoric, quoting philosophers, and positioning himself as the guardian of Russia’s statehood rather than an outsider.

While Putin holds mass events that could be seen as populist, the Dr. March contended that these are often stage-managed and rely on paid activists, lacking true spontaneity and grassroots mobilization. Crucially, Dr. March’s analysis of Putin’s speeches and rhetoric revealed a limited emphasis on core populist elements like anti-elitism and popular sovereignty. Putin is people-centric, identifying with the masses, but he does not consistently mobilize this identity against domestic elites or empower the people against them. His anti-elitism is primarily directed at foreign, Western elites, but even then, it is packaged within a broader anti-Western narrative rather than a populist call for popular empowerment.

Dr. March concluded that while Putin exhibits some populist elements, they are not systematic or central to his ideology and leadership. Instead, Putin’s core ideology revolves around statism, imperialism, conservatism, and nationalism, with populism serving as a selective and strategic tool rather than a defining feature. Putin’s anti-mobilizational approach and the Russian political system’s aversion to grassroots mobilization make him fundamentally different from populist leaders who seek to rally the people against elites. Putin’s primary concern is maintaining state control and depoliticizing the population, which contrasts sharply with the mobilizational nature of populism.

While there may be populist elements in Russian media or opposition, the presentation focused on Putin himself, concluding he is not a populist leader at his core. Dr. March concluded that while populist elements exist, they are outweighed by Putin’s overarching ideological foundations of statism, imperialism and nationalism, as well as his leadership approach prioritizing state control over populist mobilization. Portraying Putin primarily as a populist is selective and misleading.

Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk: “Katechontintic Sovereignty of Z-Populism in Putin’s Russia” 

Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk argued that Putinism’s populist rhetoric extends beyond political discourse and is actively supported and disseminated by various allies, including the Russian Orthodox Church, neo-conservative thinkers, and popular culture figures, who collectively promote the ideas of Russian sovereignty, nuclear Orthodoxy, and Russia’s sacred mission as the Katechon. This collective effort contributes to the normalization and aestheticization of these narratives in Russian society.

Dr. Alexandra Yatsyk’s presentation discussed the concept of "Putinism" and its populist rhetoric, focusing on the ideas of Russian sovereignty and the role of nuclear weapons. It argues that while Putinism may not be a populist rhetoric per se, it contains populist arguments, particularly in its portrayal of enemies – both external (the West) and internal (those disloyal to the state, liberals, LGBTQ+ individuals).

According to Dr. Yatsyk, the key rhetoric of Putinism revolves around the notions of security and sovereignty, drawing from the concept of "Katechon" – a figure who restrains apocalyptic forces. This idea, rooted in theosophy and Russian philosophy, portrays Russia as the “Third Rome” and the Russian leader as the Katechon, tasked with protecting the world from evil.

This concept of Russia as the Katechon and defender of sovereignty has been actively developed by Russian neo-conservative thinkers like Alexander Dugin and projects like the Izborsky Club. Dugin, in particular, has become an influential figure in promoting the idea of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as a final battle between the forces of God and Satan, with Russia playing a sacred role.

The presentation also highlighted the idea of “nuclear Orthodoxy,” which portrays Russia as having a divine nature and nuclear weapons as enabling the country to protect its sovereignty. This notion has been reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church, with Patriarch Kirill stating that Russia’s nuclear weapons were invented with God’s help to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty.

Dr. Yatsyk then examined how these ideas of sovereignty and nuclear Orthodoxy are disseminated through popular culture, particularly by “Z singers” – artists who actively promote the idea of Russian imperialism and mission. Dr. Yatsyk gave examples of singers like Julia Chicherina, Akim Apachev and Shaman, whose lyrics and aesthetics reinforce the narratives of Russia as a great, strong country with a sacred mission to defend itself, including through the use of nuclear weapons.

The presentation also discussed the “normalization and aestheticization” of nuclear explosions in popular culture, with references to Shaman’s work depicting nuclear blasts in an aesthetic manner, drawing parallels with fascist aesthetics. Interestingly, Dr. Yatsyk mentioned how some Z singers, like Apachev, attempt to reinterpret Ukrainian cultural legacy from a Russian imperial perspective. For instance, Apachev has rewritten the lyrics of a famous Ukrainian song, “Plyve Kacha,” to portray Ukrainian fighters as demons fighting against the “right country,” while also singing in Ukrainian as a Mariupol native.

In conclusion, Dr. Yatsyk argued that Putinism’s populist rhetoric extends beyond political discourse and is actively supported and disseminated by various allies, including the Russian Orthodox Church, neo-conservative thinkers, and popular culture figures, who collectively promote the ideas of Russian sovereignty, nuclear Orthodoxy, and Russia’s sacred mission as the Katechon. This collective effort contributes to the normalization and aestheticization of these narratives in Russian society.

Dr. Yulia Gradskova: “‘Traditional Values’: Gendered and (New)Imperial Dimensions in Russia” 

Dr. Yulia Gradskova underscored that the convergence of actors spreading “traditional values,” including religious groups and state-supported women’s organizations, aims to control women’s reproductive capacities and strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position. It silences the suffering of women and children in Ukraine, presenting women as responsible for providing human and economic resources for the “Imperial War.” This ideology gains strength despite open rejection by part of the population, as contestation and resistance are difficult in an authoritarian dictatorship. The demographic problem has transformed into portraying women as responsible for the lack of resources for the war against Ukraine.

Dr. Yulia Gradskova began her presentation by stating that the Russian government promotes “Traditional Values” as a value system based on social cohesion, family values, and traditional family life. However, these values are used to justify policies that restrict individual rights and freedoms, particularly targeting the LGBTQ+ community. There is a demographic anxiety in Russia surrounding low birth rates, with “traditional values” emphasizing the importance of motherhood. Organizations like the Patriarchal Commission and Sanctity of Motherhood actively promote these values, sometimes controversially discouraging abortions.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, “traditional values” have become increasingly intertwined with militarism and patriotism. Measures incentivize motherhood, such as reestablishing the “Heroine Mother” status and new public holidays. Simultaneously, laws criminalizing LGBTQ+ expression as “extremism” and effectively outlawing trans identities have been introduced. “Traditional values” place significant expectations on women to have multiple children for “reproducing the nation,” serve as primary caregivers, and instil patriotic values. This is facilitated by state-dependent women’s organizations like the Women’s Union of Russia, which promote “traditional values” through campaigns, courses, and events focused on motherhood and women’s health.

These organizations have also been involved in supporting the war effort, encouraging women to volunteer, produce items for soldiers, and participate in patriotic events that involve children in militaristic displays. They combine rhetoric about caring for women’s welfare with promoting “traditional values” and instilling patriotism in children. The Women’s Union of Russia is particularly influential, with regional chapters across Russia ensuring control over diverse populations. It organizes campaigns discouraging abortions, trains psychologists to convince women against having abortions, and promotes courses on “traditional values” for pregnant women.

The convergence of actors spreading “traditional values,” including religious groups and state-supported women’s organizations, aims to control women’s reproductive capacities and strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position. It silences the suffering of women and children in Ukraine, presenting women as responsible for providing human and economic resources for the “Imperial War.” This ideology gains strength despite open rejection by part of the population, as contestation and resistance are difficult in an authoritarian dictatorship. The demographic problem has transformed into portraying women as responsible for the lack of resources for the war against Ukraine. 

The Women’s Union actively promotes the “happiness of motherhood” through campaigns like “Plus One” instead of abortion. It trains psychologists to convince women not to have abortions and organizes events, festivals, and seminars on women’s health, often focused on future mothers. “Traditional values” are integrated into mandatory courses for pregnant women on how to raise children. Beyond promoting motherhood, the Union diversifies its activities to support the war effort. 

Other state-dependent women’s groups like “Mothers of Russia” similarly combine “traditional values” rhetoric about caring for women’s welfare with support for the war. They host photo exhibitions honouring wives and mothers of soldiers fighting in Ukraine, inviting them to be proud and show their relatives’ military uniforms to children. Dr. Gradskova argued that this convergence of actors spreading “traditional values,” with open state support through presidential grants and local administration involvement, aims to control women’s reproductive capacities for strengthening Russia’s geopolitical position. The suffering of Ukrainian women and children has been silenced, even as Russia faces criminal persecution for abducting Ukrainian children.

Dr. Gradskova concluded by saying that despite open rejection by some, this ideology gains strength in an authoritarian context where contestation is difficult. What was once framed as a demographic problem is now portrayed as women being responsible for providing human and economic resources for the “Imperial War” against Ukraine. 

Dr. Dóra Győrffy: “The Economic Costs of Autocracy in Putin’s Russia”

Dr. Dóra Győrffy’s presentation emphasized that Putin’s autocracy in Russia carries severe economic costs in the medium and long term. Russia has become asymmetrically dependent on China, which is primarily interested in procuring raw materials rather than fostering Russia’s economic development. Although state spending on the war sustains short-term economic growth, the long-term outlook for the Russian economy is dire. The war in Ukraine has undermined every essential factor for long-term growth, including capital, labor, technology, institutions, and freedom.

Dr. Dóra Győrffy’s presentation provided a comprehensive analysis of Russia’s economic prospects in the aftermath of the Ukraine war and the impact of Western sanctions. It highlighted the initial resilience of the Russian economy, with a 3.6% growth rate in 2023 and a projected 3.2% growth for the current year, defying expectations of an economic collapse due to sanctions. This resilience is attributed to Russia’s ability to redirect energy trade, particularly oil, to countries like China, India, and Turkey, aided by a “shadow fleet” that circumvents the G7 oil price cap. Additionally, widespread evasion of sanctions through complex trade networks has allowed Russia to import battlefield goods and other essential items from countries like China.

However, the long-term economic outlook for Russia appears grim. The presentation drew upon theoretical frameworks, such as the Solow Growth Model and the work of Nobel laureates like Paul Krugman and Douglass North, to analyze the factors that determine long-term economic growth: physical capital, human capital, technology, institutions, and culture.

Regarding physical capital, Russia has lost access to Western financial markets, faced asset freezes, and witnessed the exodus of Western companies, resulting in losses of around $107 billion. Foreign direct investments have dried up, with Greenfield investments in Russia plummeting to near zero. Russia’s current account surplus, fueled by energy exports, has been steadily decreasing since its peak in 2022, while imports have become more expensive due to increased transaction costs associated with sanctions evasion.

The labor force in Russia is also facing significant challenges. The country’s population decline, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and the Ukraine war, has been partially offset by migrants from former Soviet republics. However, the war has led to an estimated 350,000 to 450,000 Russian casualties and the emigration of around 900,000 Russians, including many educated professionals and IT engineers. Measures to address population decline, such as limiting abortion access and increasing payments for having children, are unlikely to produce sustainable results.

Russia’s access to technology has been hampered by its dependence on Western inputs in sectors like computers, electronics, motor vehicles, and machinery. Import substitution efforts have proven problematic, and while sanction evasion has allowed Russia to procure some high-tech products, China’s unwillingness to provide advanced technology remains a significant obstacle.

Institutionally, Russia has been steadily deteriorating in terms of governance quality, property rights protection, and accountability, as indicated by the World Governance Indicators. The war has further entrenched state control over the economy, stifling private initiative and innovation. The mobilization of troops has forced companies to negotiate for retaining their workforce, and the potential return of decentralized corruption and violent groups poses additional threats to business activity.

The presentation concluded that autocracy has severe economic costs in the medium and long term. Russia has become asymmetrically dependent on China, which is primarily interested in procuring raw materials rather than fostering Russia’s economic development. While state spending on the war sustains economic growth in the short-term, the long-term outlook for the Russian economy is dire, as the war has undermined every factor essential for long-term growth, including capital, labor, technology, institutions, and freedom.

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