Hadrian's Reviews > Putinism: The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia

Putinism by Marcel H. Van Herpen
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's review
Sep 04, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, politics-and-foreign-policy, russia

In 2000, when Vladimir Putin first took power, Russia might still be taken for a democratic regime, as flawed as it was. Now, in 2014, no one would seriously make that mistake. What has replaced it is a more authoritarian state with aggressive nationalist ambitions, and his naked grab for territory in Ukraine has invited comparisons to Stalin and Hitler.

Dr. Van Herpen is a sociologist at the pro-EU Cicero Institute and has made a comparative analysis with various historical regimes in order to more accurately characterize Russia under Putin and whether there is a coherent ideology behind 'Putinism'.

The first area of comparison is the turbulent decade under Yeltsin and whether any comparison can be made to Weimar Germany. There are multiple parallels. There are long periods of economic turbulence, and threats of famine and inflation. There are multiple political parties and other organizations which trend to the far right. There is a pervasive a feeling of 'national humiliation', where Russia is perceived as having lost its way. There are substantial groups of Russian citizens abroad, like Germans in the territories lost in the Treaty of Versailles.

There were also trends of cultural pessimism and an obsession with decline. To counter balance this, there were also loud hawks and cranks preaching imperial ambitions. Take, for example, Aleksander Dugin, a member of the Eurasian Movement along with Vladimir Putin, who praised the Waffen-SS and howls about a Jewish-American conspiracy to destroy Russia and Orthodox Christianity. Take Igor Panarin, teacher at Moscow State University, who desperately hopes for a Soviet-style disintegration of the United States. Take Gennady Zyuganov, the chief of the Russian Communist Party who calls for the Stalinization of society. Or take Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Vice Chairman of the Duma, who said that the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor strike was part of an American conspiracy. These four are only a few examples of the paranoia and xenophobia now pervasive in Russian politics, not just from local isolated idiots but figures well-established in the public sphere.

But again like Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, there is also the question of national guilt and the representation of Russia's own history as a part of the Soviet Union. There is even a repeat of the 'Dolchstosslegende' or myth of betrayal as in post-WWI Germany, but there is some basis for it - the oligarchs of market liberalization did cause multiple problems for Russia, which is more substantive than the Jewish-Communist myth of the far-right Germans.

So Germany in the 1920s and Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s are in many ways similar, yes, but not identical. States which are similar are not always bound to follow the same actions. But it is true that Putin's Russia has become more authoritarian. But how was this accomplished, and what are the structures of this new state?

The next few chapters focus on a definition of fascism, always a difficult task.But although van Herpen hazards that 1990s Russia resembled 1920s Germany, Russia now is closer to Mussolini's style of fascism in Italy. But even here they are some substantial differences. In Hitler's and Mussolini's cases, the secret police apparatus was a creation of the state. But in Putin's case, the personnel of the old Soviet secret police remained, and they formed a major institutional basis for his state. And Putin did win a democratic election in 2000. Even though he dismantled democratic processes later, he had continued the pretense by maintaining a controlled opposition. That last characteristic is not quite fascist, but it is in many ways authoritarian. Similar to the regime of Napoleon III in France.

But Putinism also bears to another infamous Italian - Silvio Berlusconi. Putin shocked many by emphasizing their close ties before Berlusconi was shamed for his corruption and stripped of power. Their mutual tendency for integrating corporate and state power shows the similarity of their methods.

Thus van Herpen concludes by saying that Putin is his own brand of autocrat. He is not quite a Hitler or a Stalin, but has parts of Mussolini, Napoleon III, and Berlusconi. Hardly a terrifying list of contemporaries - but then again, none of them had nuclear weapons.

Van Herpen concludes with a list of continuing trends to monitor in Putin's Russia, including a risk of further aggressive behavior towards Putin's neighbors and an eventual confrontation with the United States. This was in 2012. Two years later and we now have conflict in the Ukraine, with Putin's barely disguised militias shooting down civilian planes in the name of empire.

This is a brief and incisive book, which helps you to understand the framework and methods behind Putin's Russia.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 4, 2014 – Shelved
September 4, 2014 – Shelved as: nonfiction
September 4, 2014 – Shelved as: politics-and-foreign-policy
September 4, 2014 – Shelved as: russia
September 4, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Manny (new)

Manny Very interesting and helpful review, thank you!

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Vice Chairman of the Duma, who said that the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor strike was part of an American conspiracy.

I had not heard this before. Do you think he actually believes it? It would be odd if the US had a meteorite-based weapon, given that their space program has been largely dependent on Russian rockets since the retirement of the Shuttle.

notgettingenough Does he discuss the idea of the West's possible complicity in their laughing and mocking Russia during the breakup and decline of its prestige etc, rather than helping it not to lose face? I have a Russian friend who sees that as important to the issue and it certainly is a familiar tune historically speaking.

message 3: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Hmmm... it seems like Russians themselves have much lighter view of their current state and future than any foreign "specialists". So far I've seen only criticism of Putin, but there is a shocking lack of discussion on how he improved the country. I would like to see both sides of the coin, because there is never only one side.

message 4: by Antigone (new)

Antigone Andrea wrote: "Hmmm... it seems like Russians themselves have much lighter view of their current state and future than any foreign "specialists". So far I've seen only criticism of Putin, but there is a shocking ..."

I'm certain that if you can find a Russian who is permitted to publish today, he will be speaking of the many improvements under Putin, yes.

Hadrian Manny: I have a source right from the state media.

notgettingenough: Only partially. He does speak about the idea of 'national humiliation'. He does say that some accuse the pro-free market Russian modernizers like Chubais and Gaidar, but others emphasize internal threats. These would include Gorbachev Yeltsin, among others. Only a little mention of the oligarchs, and this is one of the book's flaws.

Andrea and Antigone: I would add the role of media censorship which is becoming increasingly pervasive in Russia. It's easy for us to find a Pro-Russia point of view, but for a Russian, it's harder to find the opposite.

message 6: by Manny (new)

Manny Hadrian wrote: "Manny: I have a source right from the state media.

Maybe he's crazy enough that he actually does mean it. People didn't sound too surprised. Amazing and very scary.

message 7: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Zhirinovsky is a well-known political clown. Everyone likes to listen to his speeches because they are hilarious, yet nobody takes him serious. I'm not sure if all of this is just for the sake of publicity, but he might actually believe what he says. It's hard to say.

Hadrian, can you recommend a book with Pro-Russian point of view that was published in the West? Because I am stumped.

message 8: by Manny (new)

Manny I am glad if we can just laugh at Zhirinovsky... I don't know Russian politics at all. We must ask our Russian friend what she thinks!

Hadrian Yikes, he is a bit of a lunatic. I'm not really sure what to make of him. Might Putin et al. tolerate him because he is a distraction or meaningless opposition?

As for pro-Putin books, I'm sorry to say I can't mention any. Fellow travelers might include Dugin, who has a book in English. I can, however, point you to the TV news station RT.

message 10: by Warwick (new)

Warwick …but I wouldn't recommend Russia Today! I know quite a few people working for the channel and the extent to which it runs openly as a propaganda machine for Moscow is startling.

message 11: by Owlseyes (last edited Sep 06, 2014 04:03AM) (new)

Owlseyes -Good review
-‘Propaganda bullhorn’: John Kerry attacks RT during Ukraine address;in RT;
-there's yet to be discussed:"electoral fraud and corruption";the Khodorkovky case;Boris Abramovich Berezovsky;Alexander Litvinenko; and many more.





Hadrian Well, I wouldn't either! If you want a pro-Putin media outlet, this is as blatant as it gets.

message 13: by Caroline (new)

Caroline It’s interesting to see all the comparisons with other fascist leaders. I am used to thinking of Russian tyrants as being from a brutal world of their own, in a long internal tradition, from my limited reading of a book of Russian history, Custine’s letters, Herzen’s Life and more recent fiction. Is Van Herpen postulating that there are general types of such leaders, and that any tyrant will be more or less of a type, or is he suggesting that more exposure to the west has affected the Russian culture of dictatorship, or ?

message 14: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike the last part of the book sounds prescient, having been written in 2012. maybe it's just me, but i've found his actions throughout the ukraine crisis to be pretty surprising. it's not that i thought he was a good person, but i did think he was very cunning...not the sort of leader who would overextend himself, more prone to relatively quiet acts of intimidation.

Hadrian Caroline: Van Herpen is a sociologist, so he is speaking less about types of leaders here than broader societal trends. On page 204, he shows a table comparing of various characteristics of Napoleon III's Bonapartism, 'Berlusconism', and 'Mussolini' fascism. Only a handful of these characteristics are on the leader themselves, and all the rest are systemic trends (e.g. State-led modernization, control of the media, ultra-nationalism).

Mike: My first impression was that he was shady, but more interested in economic development. That changed in 2008 with the Georgian crisis, pressure against minority groups, and even further with the deaths of prominent journalists and dissidents.

message 16: by David (new)

David Sarkies Thanks for the review. I do agree that there are similarities between Russia of today and the Weimer Republic, but I have always seen Putin to be a lot cooler, calmer, and more calculating than either Hitler or Stalin. To me Putin is happy to bide his time and act behind the scenes as opposed to rushing blatantly into combat in the way Hitler did.

message 17: by Vjatcheslav (new)

Vjatcheslav Vlasov VICE News does good job at presenting what is really happening in Russia and in Ukraine right now. Dispatches from Ukraine are excellent and pretty damn unbiased. There is no need to watch RT at all. I am yet to read brilliant russian biographer's (Roy Medvedev his Let History Judge is very informative) take on Putin, but considering that Putin is a chekist, be sure he's coolness borders with psychopathy.

There is no need to take Zhirinovsky seriously, he is just shit stirrer who's sitting in DUMA only to play the role of fake opposition.

Real opposition is weak and disparaged right now, Navalny is person non grata, his brother is in jail as a hostage and their party is banned from participation in elections. His coalition with Chubais is laughable and they're already bickering about some trifles while Putin's imperial ambitions fuelled by masses of brainwashed patriots who crave for great and only Russian Empire but from what I see these people do not want to win they just want for Western democracy to fail. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his GULAG wrote brilliantly about Russian's psyche, explains a lot. So it goes...

message 18: by Vjatcheslav (new)

Vjatcheslav Vlasov By the way Dugin is some Russian mutation of Bill O'Reilly, Charles Manson and the beard))

Hadrian I agree that VICE's journalism in Ukraine is excellent. Their footage of the siege of the Donetsk airport is astonishing. I only occasionally watch RT just to see how they twist events. Lots of 'what-about-ism'. I hear it's even worse in Russian, where they talk more openly about conspiracy theories.

I've read more about Zhirinovsky since I wrote this review - he's hilarious. He makes Glenn Beck look like Edward Murrow or Bill Moyers. I'm don't know how people seriously take Dugin, but O'Reilly is still listened to in some conservative circles in the United States. I know his book on geostrategy is read in Russian military academies.

I'd agree with your comments about the opposition. Nemtsov appeared to be one of the few respectable figures, and now that he's gone, there's barely anybody left. At least his report on the invasion survived. I hope his family is safe now.

Your last comments about the fall of Western Democracy are also important - Putin has directly funded far-right political parties in an attempt to split the European Union and prevent opposition to his own expansion.


And of course, Putin's domestic propaganda says how Russia is strong and opposes the fascists in Europe while his government continues to suppress any democratic opposition. It's a masterpiece of doublethink.

message 20: by Vjatcheslav (new)

Vjatcheslav Vlasov VICE news is very good, it is even better than some Russian free-ish press. What I mean is, VICE's hands are almost untied, to work with shot and written materials, with Russian side it is a lot harder, there are regular check-ups for "extremist" materials, constants harassments by police, by bureaucrats. You know from reading Solzhenitsyn how most terrible things where done by little people who wanted approval from their bosses, it still works that way, clerks trying to move forward by overproducing on "enemy of the state" "list of foreign agents", and not only clerks, don't forget about orthodox church how fast they forgot how Soviets killed thousands of deacons and rubbed churches, now and again they prosper within the state and are fuelling Putin's propaganda machine almost as much as "supposed" hatred of that all evil conspiracy builder USA (we both know that states are not ideal but the stuff they're accused of from Russian side is just bizarre). Church lost all it's shame, not only they are in tandem with aggressive regime, they are pretty friendly with Communist party, I mean, I've seen with my own eyes people from communist party marching with icons with Stalin painted on them...

Now for younger generation, they have their own resurrection o Pioneer movements of different kinds, some of them are very xenophobic, some of them are educated to "troll" on the net. Some Russian reporters infiltrated these groups and have seen from inside how all the propaganda is born and created.

Now there is a fashion there for patriotism that mostly consists from hatred for USA and NATO and GAYrope as they call Europe. They say they have they're own unique way, godly way. So nowadays we have such bizarre variations of patriotism as orthodox communists and orthodox hell's angels style bikers who pretty much go about beating oppositions, gays etc. All of them are sponsored exclusively by the government.

Now, about Nemtsov. Shady story and I'm not sure we ever find out for sure who ordered him but there are very clear indications it was downright psychotic leader of Chechnya and Putin's favourite Kadyrov. Nemtsov was real opposition but he was hardly a threat to the regime, he was far more professional than Navalny but still he wasn't all that consolidating power of opposition, opposition was bickering with him as it does now without him.

After Charlie Hedbo Nemtsov said some harsh words about freedom of speech and of course primary Muslim population of Chechen Respublic (subject of Russian Federation and have same Constitution with it and their president is Putin) and even more offended was their leader who considered it personal and organised march for Muslim in city Grozny and it looked like something from the Soviet/Nazi rally.
After Hodorkobsky and Nemtsov said what they said about freedom of speech, Kadyrov very publicly (he actively uses Instagram) claimed these two enemies of Muslim Kingdom, and said some "good" muslims surely will take it to themselves to teach them infidels a lesson. Basically it was fatwa.

Russia is a magical country right now, where trolls live beside orthodox communists, orthodox outlaw bikers are friends with orthodox Muslims and atheistic officials steal away all including ashtrays and lightbulbs, by the way I said that Russia has Nuclear Weapons? That's that.

Pushkin's poem "Lukomorye" was prophetic.

PS there is no question about Putin's involvement in bribery scandals in Europe. Far-right parties the more dangerous they look the more he can get away with at home.

So here we are, I scratched some surface of Russias style of goverment and politics, underneath it all is even more sinister.

message 21: by Vjatcheslav (new)

Vjatcheslav Vlasov Dugin is an intellectual, crazy one at that, Lenin-like, there is no way in Russia for dumb down masses to follow him or to be effectively influenced, they understand only loudmouths with short slogans, these people work on national television, people like Dmitry Kiselyov, Vladimir Soloviov, Arkady Mamontov. Here is last opus of Mamontov https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY07h... happily youtube's ratings are pretty low (russian version of Sodom has 230000 views but primary audience is national television watchers so the scale of possible viewers is astonishing.

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