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The Nature of the Putin Regime: A Case of Successful Political Mimicry

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

To some extent, all states – even democracies such as the US – engage in some artful deception to rule. The aim is to manipulate citizens to rally to their government, giving even dysfunctional systems legitimacy and stability. Indiana University South Bend historian Dmitry Shlapentokh, author of Ideological Seduction and Intellectuals in Putin’s Russiapublished by Palgrave Macmillan, writes that in his initial years in power Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to tap into people’s nostalgia, presenting himself as a Soviet-style leader when his main mission, set for him by his predecessor and vested business interests, was to preserve the post-USSR status quo.

The Nature of the Putin Regime: A Case of Successful Political Mimicry

Putin and predecessors: In his first years in office, the president portrayed himself as a Soviet-style leader (Credit: Amy Allcock)

Deception as the art of rule is intimately connected with the economic model of the modern West. The major goal of producers is not to manufacture useful products but to create the image of products as useful – in that they make life better than it was before – and absolutely essential. Advertisements are a peculiar acceptable form of deception masked as information. They have become more important than the actual production.

Deceptive manipulation is also a major way in which governments and the masses in the modern West interact. But there are limits. Western propaganda might insist that capitalism is the best form of government. Yet, Western, especially American, propagandists would not claim that present-day socio-economic policies are socialist or, even more so, communist. Very few politicians in the US would pretend to be “socialist” or “communist”. Most Americans would not know what real socialism is or would have only a very vague knowledge of it.

In the Russia of Vladimir Putin, the story was different. At least in the beginning of his rule in 1999, he actively pretended that his regime was different from what it really was. The reason for this ploy can be understood in the context of predecessors Boris Yeltsin, who was Russian president from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR.

Power player: President Putin meets members of his government on October 20, 2021 (Credit: President of Russia)

Power player: President Putin meets members of his government on October 20, 2021 (Credit: President of Russia)

Gorbachev had emerged as a reformist leader with a program that was quite different from that advocated by Deng Xiaoping in China. The Chinese leader followed two tracks of policy, one seeming independent from, and even contradictory to, the other. On one hand, Deng cautiously dismantled the state’s absolute control over the economy. The state still controlled the “command heights” of the economy and, in many cases, “private” property was not actually private. The government intervened if private interests harmed the overall economy and society. It was not so much privatization as it was liberalization of economic management.

This was just one side of the story. While state control in the economic realm was weakened, the story was different in the political and social spheres. While there was more intellectual freedom in China after Mao Zedong, the state jealously preserved its power and, if needed, ruthlessly suppressed dissent. Post-Mao, China emerged as more hierarchical and suppressive. During Mao’s rule, there had been no public executions, which were frequent during the first years of Deng’s rule. So in China, two apparently opposite trends emerged seem to be opposite trends which emerged – limited economic freedom but with a strengthened state. The result was great economic success.

Gorbachev’s approach was very different. He weakened both the state and its control over the economy. Disaster soon followed. In 1991, the economy plunged, ethnic strife ensued, and the government failed. It was not just the USSR that collapsed but also the Russian state as it had existed for centuries. Yeltsin, the leader of the Russian Federation, the biggest part of the Soviet Union, followed Gorbachev’s approach. The state became practically dysfunctional, and Russia appeared to be on the same self-destructive path as the USSR.

The majority of Russians lived in absolute misery, while a few business magnates “privatized” national wealth. All types of crime and immorality spread. In addition, Moscow was engaged in a protracted war with separatist Chechnya. At that point, a considerable segment of the Russian population started to look at the Soviet era with nostalgia. Yeltsin and people close to him, including tycoons, of course, did not want a return to a Soviet-style regime, which would have entailed nationalization of their ill-gotten wealth. They also feared for their personal safety. Consequently, they planned a pseudo-restoration.

The man, the mystique: A leader who mastered the art of deception to rule and political mimicry (Credit: President of Russia)

The man, the mystique: A leader who mastered the art of deception to rule and political mimicry (Credit: President of Russia)

Yeltsin’s successor would mimic the Soviet rulers without actually implementing any socio-economic changes. Putin was selected to be this pseudo-Soviet ruler. To start with, he would demonstrate toughness and decisiveness. He would, in a way, imitate Josef Stalin, whose image was recast in the populace’s mind from bloody tyrant, as he was officially portrayed in the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, to decisive and heroic figure. Putin would not restore Soviet arrangements such as nationalization. But he would nonetheless perform explicitly as a pseudo-Soviet, pseudo-totalitarian ruler.

Putin’s initial task as Russia’s leader was to demonstrate that he was indeed a Soviet-style ruler, a new edition of Stalin. To provide him with the opportunity to demonstrate his resolve to take on the role, a plot was hatched, most likely with Putin’s knowledge, that would entrench his strongman image. In 1999, several big apartment buildings in Moscow were blown up during the night. Several hundred people died instantly. Chechens were blamed for the disaster, and Putin promised to deal decisively with the rebels.

This episode enhanced Putin’s prestige and persona as a harsh and decisive neo-Stalinist ruler. In his first years in power as president, he took over the property of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s richest tycoons. Some others such as businessman Boris Berezovsky, Yeltsin’s éminence grise, were driven into exile, their property – whatever was within the government’s grasp – confiscated. These actions led many to believe that Putin was ready to engage in massive renationalization.

With Putin, significant ideological shifts were introduced. During Yeltsin’s rule, the Soviet Union was depicted through most of its history as nothing but an utter failure. A few pro-Western liberal historians portrayed the entire history of Russia as a black spot. Putin changed all that. The glory of Russian history was restored, and some positive aspects of the Soviet Union’s past highlighted.

Safe hands: Boris Yelstin passes the presidency to Putin on December 31, 1999 (Credit: President of Russia)

Safe hands: Boris Yelstin passes the presidency to Putin on December 31, 1999 (Credit: President of Russia)

But Putin’s appeal to citizens’ nostalgia for the Soviet era was calculated, a pretense that the Soviet regime was back. This was a sham, an act of mimicry. The engaged in this ploy because it tapped into the longing of the majority. It was in fact a play to secure the status quo. Yeltsin and the rich tycoons picked Putin to take over for only one reason: He was to preserve the status quo. The main goal was to preserve the spoils of privatization. And while some rebellious tycoons were stripped of their property and some such as Berezovsky even lost their lives, no nationalization followed. The socio-economic dysfunctions of the Yeltsin period survived.

This mimicry helped Putin through the first years of his rule. As time progressed, he strengthened the control and repressive machinery of the state, and in his second and third terms, he has abandoned any pretense of being a Soviet or even neo-Soviet ruler. He has practically and openly identified himself with the tsars of late Russian empire. Reactionary Alexander III, who ruled from 1881 to 1894 and reversed liberal reforms of his predecessor, his father, has been a role model for Putin, who has personally unveiled two monuments to Russia’s penultimate hereditary emperor.

In his statecraft, Putin’s has demonstrated the superb use of mimicry, manipulative skills that have secured his rule over his people. Rather than govern in a way antithetical to practices in the West, as the vast majority of Western observers assert, Putin’s regime is similar to those in the West, including the US, in that he has engaged in the dark art of deception to rule. The only difference is that Putin has become more artful at public manipulation than his Western counterparts.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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