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Putinism: The Ideology

Speaker: Anne Applebaum; Chair: Professor Michael Cox 

Tuesday 12 February 2012, 6.30pm, Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building  

For too long, Vladimir Putin was dismissed as a thuggish or thoughtless authoritarian leader.  But the institutional and ideological underpinnings of Putinism are in fact quite sophisticated and are becoming more so with time. Containing elements of managed democracy and of corporate capitalism - and reflecting the culture and values of the 1980s KGB -  Putinism is now  taught to Russian children and propagated in the media.  It comes complete with a foreign policy and an interpretation of recent history, and it has an ostensible goal: Along with protecting the power and wealth of Putin and his inner circle it proposes to make Russia strong and feared again. 

Suggested Twitter hashtag for this event #LSEPutinism.

A podcast of the event can be found here.

Video Interview here:



by Harriet Shone

Anne Applebaum, Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE IDEAS for 2012-2013, discussed ‘Putinism’, the ideology behind the politics of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Commentators, within Russia and outside it, maintain a fascination with the personality and beliefs of Putin that harks back to the obsessive way onlookers analysed the actions and backgrounds of Soviet leaders during the Cold War. Times may have changed but, in a country where power is vested not in institutions but in individuals, the personality of Putin is of incalculable importance for any understanding of Russia politics.

Professor Applebaum offered a cohesive argument that the ideas that underpin ‘Putinism’ - managed democracy, corporate capitalism and a fear of western liberal democratic rhetoric -  amount to a coherent ideology with a carefully worked out system and carefully designed institutions.

Putinism is taught to Russian children, promulgated to the voting public and propagated in the managed media. Foreign and domestic policies are rooted in it and it comes with an interpretation of the past and prediction for the future. The goal of Putinism is to make Russia strong and feared again and it legitimises this goal by criticising the chaos and failure of post-Communist Russia during the 1990s.

Applebaum identifies the central tenet of Putinism as the carefully managed elections that ensure there are no accidental winners because there are no accidental candidates. Putin very carefully maintains the appearance of democracy – building up a campaign atmosphere during elections despite doing little actual campaigning and allowing fringe opposition parties to exist – but Russian voters are at no stage allowed to genuinely intervene in the democratic process.

 While the appearance of opposition is maintained, any group or party that appears too popular or too powerful is systematically marginalised, harassed and insulted. Often Putin’s circle will label opposition groups as western spies in much the same way Soviet leaders dismissed opposition during the Cold War.

His managed elections are supported by an equally managed media. While it is possibly to function as a freelance journalist or a small free newspaper in Russia, it is crucial that you remain small. Putin’s intimidation of political and media opposition is subtler than his Soviet ancestors – there is no censor rubberstamping every news article, rather a system of extreme political correctness and self-censure born of fear. Unlike his hero Andropov, he has not yet needed to use widespread violence, instead he targets the most powerful and popular opposition and turns them into examples to discourage others. After all, no one wants to share the fate of Politkovskaya, Khodorkovsky or Pussy Riot.

However, if the media and the electoral system are so effectively ‘managed’, why does Putin work so hard to maintain the illusion of democracy? The answer Applebaum offers is not an especially new one but rather an idea that has lain at the heart of many dictatorships throughout history: the quest for legitimacy.

Putin’s goal is to maintain the dominance of his clique and the greatest threat to this is not the West per se but western democratic ideas. While in Dresden in 1989, Putin saw the way democratic ideas led to attacks on the regime and he has not forgotten the lesson he learned there. If he is to avoid an Orange Revolution at home, he needs to maintain his legitimacy at home and abroad. This is why he talks about democratic elections and describes the Russian rent-seeking oil economy as ‘capitalist’ despite its closer resemblance to the Saudi economy than a genuine free market.

So, Applebaum’s Putinism is the management of media, politics and economics, rooted in the quest for a stronger Russia, rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”. What then can we in the West do about it? In answer to this question, Applebaum pointed out that our control over Russian domestic events is minimal, as it always was, but that we could do more to protect ourselves from corruption. We needn’t accept the charade of Russian democracy by allowing Russia in the G8, we could stop accepting the extensive investment by Russian state-controlled companies in western oil and gas industries and we could counter Putin’s verbal attacks on NGOs as western spies. In other words, our values could remain our own.

Change almost always comes from within and the new generation of Russians, with greater access to internet and a declining quality of life, have not learned their lessons in the era of Andropov or Yeltsin’s ‘Wild East’ 1990s. Their political backgrounds will be different and, as the old generation retires and dies, change, for better or worse, is possible. Making this point, Professor Applebaum finished on a darkly optimistic note with the Slavic proverb, “where there is death, there is hope”.




Anne Applebaum is Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE IDEAS for 2012-2013.




Professor Michael Cox is Founding Co-Director of LSE IDEAS. He is also Head of Programme for Transatlantic Relations, Executive Programme Director and an Academic Management Committee Member.


Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building. London School of Economics. 


LSE IDEAS Public Lecture
Philippe Roman Chair Lecture