- Where Is Putinism Leading Russia?
Brian Taylor's The Code of Putinism is an insightful book that examines the motivations of Vladimir Putin and his associates, describes the means by which they have ruled, assesses how successfully Putinism has been in both the domestic and the foreign policy realms, and analyzes the sustainability of Putinism. Unlike Marxism-Leninism, which was an explicit ideology, Taylor describes Putinism as a mentality, or code, consisting of not just ideas (such as great-power statism, anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism, and conservatism or anti-liberalism) but also habits (such as control, order, unity or anti-pluralism, loyalty, and hypermasculinity) and even emotions (including desiring respect but feeling humiliated by the West, resentment, and vulnerability or fear) (pp. 10–11, 20, 30, 35).
Taylor emphasizes that Putinism is a mentality held by both Putin himself and the ruling elites who support him. Putinism also has a broad following among the Russian public. Putin, though, is very much at the center of it all through his control of the formal mechanisms of government, the often competing informal clans and networks, and the petroleum- and mineral-extraction enterprises that provide the bulk of Russia's—and the elites'—income. The pursuit of Putinism, along with rising oil prices, helped Russia achieve impressive economic growth during Putin's first two terms in office (2000–2008), but it has since produced economic stagnation (p. 128). Even so, Russia has punched above its weight in the foreign policy realm (especially since Putin's return to the presidency in 2012), as shown by Moscow's successes in annexing Crimea in 2014, supporting secessionism in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014, intervening in Syria since 2015, and contributing to domestic doubt and uncertainty in the United States through interference in the 2016 presidential elections (see chap. 6). The book argues that with economic growth increasingly difficult to obtain due to sanctions, lower oil prices, and corruption, Putin has become more and more reliant on the foreign policy realm to achieve the successes that Putinism needs to sustain public support and its own self-image. Putin may be preparing the ground for [End Page 90] another such foreign policy "success" in Belarus. However, Taylor casts doubt on Moscow's ability to continue punching above its weight in the face of likely continued economic stagnation, poor relations with the West, and a rising China.
Throughout the book, Taylor emphasizes that Putinism is not just how Putin himself thinks but also the mentality of the government, security service, and economic elites that support him. The question that arises, then, is whether Putinism will outlast Putin. The pervasiveness of the Putinist mindset within the ruling elite suggests that it will, but past experience with leadership changes in Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia suggests that it might not. This is because each new leader who has lasted for any significant period has reversed important aspects of the previous leader's policies. Alexander III put a complete stop to the liberalization efforts pursued by Alexander II. Unlike Alexander III, Nicholas II allowed for some liberalization after 1905, although more out of necessity than choice. Lenin eliminated the tsarist elite and dramatically reoriented the basis of politics and economics in Russia. Stalin ended Lenin's New Economic Policy. Khrushchev pulled back from and denounced Stalin's use of terror. Brezhnev ended Khrushchev's "reforms." Gorbachev sought to reform Brezhnev's "stagnation." Yeltsin pursued more thoroughgoing reforms than did Gorbachev. Putin halted Yeltsin's liberalization and pursued his own brand of authoritarian modernization.
Given this pattern, it would not be surprising if the leader who eventually replaces Putin dramatically alters Putin's policies as well. (One of the ways we knew that Medvedev was not really supplanting Putin during his 2008–12 presidency was that he did not alter Putin's policies much.) And just as a shared Marxist-Leninist ideology did not prevent policy changes from one leader to the next during the Soviet era, continuing to share a Putinist mentality might not prevent a successor from altering Putin's policies either. Of course, Putin might not actually be replaced until his current term expires...