By Paul Goble
It has become a commonplace to say that the Kremlin doesn’t have an ideology, but that is not the case, historian Mikhail Suslov says. Not only is its ideology more carefully developed than a first glance might suggest but it combines elements from the left and right that are often assumed to be at odds.
Indeed, Suslov says, while the vocabulary some use comes from the church, the ideas they are articulating are more from the Soviet past; and while Putin talks about conservatism, his views are not Burkean but reflect “a utopian conservatism” with leftist elements designed to appeal to those opposed to Western liberalism (novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/07/22/kreml-khochet-chtoby-putinizm-stal-universalnoi-ideologiei).
Putinism emerged to address a fundamental problem faced by the Russian elite, the historian continues. And that is the question of what to do with the Soviet past. A real conservative Russian position would reject that revolutionary period, but “for the overwhelming majority of the political establishment in Russia, the Soviet past is an important anchor.”
The Kremlin sought a formula that would overcome this split but integrating the Soviet past into a common Russian past, one in which identities but not political forms would be preserved. For the leadership, “the identity of the Russian people doesn’t change;” only the political forms of the state.
Such an approach, Suslov argues, also has made it easier for Putin and his supporters to promote what appears to be antithetical to their conservatism, leftist appeals to opponents of Western liberalism and globalism that allow Moscow to regain its positions in the Third World and among those in the West who feel they have been sacrificed by liberal elites.
Because of these combinations, he suggests, the Russian world is not nearly as central a concept as many assume. What is central is the notion of civilizational unity and its stability. Those who challenge that are thus not opponents but traitors, a perspective that explains Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Suslov argues that Putinism already has a stable structure that he is promoting at home and abroad. This ideology rests on three basic ideas: populism, an identity-based conservatism (but not a systemic conservatism as in the West), and a right of center communitarianism which rejects liberal principles of governance.