20 years under Putin: a timeline

There is an unspoken consensus in contemporary Russian political discourse that 'Putinism' does not constitute an ideology. However, this consensus may blind political observers to the emergence of a new approach of legitimizing Putin's regime, namely, a mythology of the unique nature of the Russian civilization. Historian Alexander Yanov discusses the philosophical foundations of this approach, decisively demonstrating that Putin's new ideological project has more bark than bite.



If Russian liberals, nationalists, and communists can agree on one thing, it is that Putinism is not and cannot be an ideology, and that the current ruling elite is guided only by a hunger for power. Political commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky put it concisely when he said that “The only ideology governing the authorities is the the ideology of self-preservation.” To me, this seems to be a dangerous over-simplification.

Like any other authoritarian power, the Putin regime is acutely aware of its lack of an ideological foundation. There is a desperate longing for a new variety of Marxist-Leninism, and the regime is constantly trying to create its contemporary equivalent and, occasionally, nearly succeeding. Meanwhile, if its opponents stick to their mantra about self-preservation and survival, instead of readily preventing the regime from forming an ideology, they are in danger of missing the moment when it is finally rears its head.

Thus, for example, few observers noticed that Putin’s pre-election articles represented a kind of  revolution in regime rhetoric. It is quite plausible that Putin and his speechwriters had even believed that they had finally found what they were looking for. Following the articles’ publication, Putin was able to answer all questions on hot-button issues ranging from the fate of Sergei Magnitsky to the draconian new law on nonprofits without the slightest embarrassment, and in fact, with a certain sense of pride: “We are fortifying our state-civilization […], binding this unique civilization together is the great mission of the Russian people.”

This is not some amateur slogan like ‘sovereign democracy.’ Putin’s words imply that Russia is not just a country adjacent to Europe, let alone a part of Europe, but another civilization altogether. Therefore, Western laws and rules of conduct do not apply to Russians. Everything that is wrong by Europe, is just right for Russia, and vice versa.

Putin’s pre-election articles represented a kind of revolution in regime rhetoric.

This sentiment stands in contradiction with Putin’s previous statements. For instance, in 2002, he told leading Polish newspaper Gazeta wyborcza that,  “Russia is by all means a European country because it indubitably is part of European culture.” If Putin’s latest articles prevail over the latter sentiment, Russia will have its justification for repudiating European conventions and cutting corners, a mode of action long-advocated for by politician Dmitry Rogozin. Putin is prepared to proclaim Russia its own separate civilization for the sake of creating a doctrine advantageous to its regime.

It wasn’t until recently that the notion of multiple civilizations came into vogue. In 1996, in his The Clash of Civilizations, American thinker Samuel Huntington resurrected the post-modern construct originally put forth by German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler. Before Spengler, it was not believed that there could be multiple civilizations, let alone ones that were each civilized in their own way. According to this model, if Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the emperor of the Central African Empire, is rumored to eat human beings for breakfast, there is nothing to be done about it because it is simply a matter of this behavior being appropriate to this emperor’s civilization. One could only respect its rules. Following the success of Huntington’s book, Putin put this idea to use for his own ends.

Putin’s Ideological Gamble: Are the Cards Stacked in his Favor?

This embryonic ideology of “civilizational differences” has no less legitimacy than Marxist-Leninism. It is no less convincing in justifying all the misdeeds of the regime and providing a cover for all sorts of eclectic political configurations, such as the elite’s glorification of Tsarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (previously discussed on this site), which falls in line with current Russian liberal thought, alongside the glorification of USSR General Secretary Yuri Andropov, who is also idealized by the defense and police agencies.

Inside Russia, Putin may feel impervious to criticism. Is there anyone in Russia who would challenge the notion of Russian exceptionalism? Nationalists have always seen Russia as a separate civilization from Europe – whether it was the Christian Orthodox civilization in Stolypin’s times or the socialist civilization during Andropov’s. Communists are similiarly eager to buy into it. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov attested to this in his book Za gorizontom ("Beyond the Horizon"), writing “The communal, collectivist, spiritual and moral foundations of Russian folk life are quintessentially different from the Western model of the free market.” Or, in worker-peasant parlance, “Capitalism does not and will never take roots in the Russian soil.” Everywhere else it does, but here in our country, it will not. A unique civilization indeed. Who is left to oppose Putin? Liberals? But even they race to churn out articles and books featuring competing theories about the so-called Russian civizilation.

It would seem that in Putin’s ideological gamble, all the cards are stacked in his favor. At this point, questioning the idea of a ‘multiplicity of civilizations’ which serves as the foundation for Putin’s embryonic ideology is tantamount to discounting most waves of post-Soviet political thought, including that of the regime. In light of this, it seems almost impossible to cut down Putin’s attempt at an ideology.

However, it isn’t impossible. Upon closer examination, it is easy to see that the foundation for Putin’s new ideological project – Oswald Spengler’s ‘multiplicity of civilizations’ – is shaky.


Two portraits of Oswald Spengler (1880 — 1936.) Left: a photo taken in 1917, at the height of his creativity; right: a photo from 1935, a year before Spengler's death.


First of all, it is fundamentally at odds with the experience of the classics of world political philosophy, all of which write about a single civilization that would consider His Majesty Bocassa I a barbarian and not a monarch with his ‘own special way of being civilized.’ The second reason is that, as we will see below, contemporary followers of Spengler are torn apart by irreconcilable contradictions.

The Vanished Barbarians

Aristotle is widely acknowledged as the founding father of political thought. He would have never entertained the notion that the Persian Empire, which,  in the 5th century B.C., set out to obliterate tiny, democratic Athens, was just a neighboring civilization, ‘civilized in its own way.’ Indeed, Aristotle called Persia a ‘permanent tyranny,’ and therefore a state of barbarians. His understanding of being civilized implied ‘citizens participating in the courts and the councils,’ something that didn’t exist among the Persians.

Twenty-four centuries later, another classical European thinker expressed Aristotle’s concept of civilization and barbarism in a rigorous formula, stating that “world history is progress in the consciousness of freedom” (or, as he wrote elsewhere, “in man’s attainment of inner dignity”). The natural implication of Hegel’s formula was that the people who do not pursue “the attainment of inner dignity” cannot be civilized. It also implied that they remain barbarians as long as they do not have this as a goal.

On the other hand, it is true that Hegel did not know that in the actual course of history, the ‘progress’ he spoke about is not linear, that  civilization was bound to fall back into barbarism, and that his homeland, Germany, would demonstrate this pattern. Humanity had to live through the 20th century in order to acknowledge this non-linear aspect of historical development. But what does this change for our argument? The very concept of barbarism rules out Spengler’s ‘multiplicity of civilizations.’ This was precisely the concept that the postmodernists dropped.

Contradictions in the thinking of contemporary Spenglerians is a more complex matter. Examining them requires a careful review of a great deal of contemporary postmodern writings. This undertaking is worth the effort. Without this theoretical foundation, the Putin regime’s latest attempt at creating a coherent ideology would simply hang in the air—or, in other words, remain harmless.


Let us begin with the postmodern definition of a civilization. Here is how it looks in Huntington’s work: “[Civilization] is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religions, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.” The problem here isn’t only that “the attainment of inner dignity,” let alone the “citizens’ participation in the courts and the councils” that once distinguished civilization from barbarism have disappeared without a  trace. The trouble is that it is not clear why all these “common objective elements” should now be called civilization, when, from time immemorial, they were known under their proper name, culture.

There are indeed many different cultures in the world. Huntington himself admits that “culture is the common theme in virtually every definition of civilization.” Furthermore, he says that “civilization is culture in the broadest sense.” What do we gain by proclaiming a “culture in the broadest sense” to be a civilization? What does this masquerade add to our understanding of history and politics? To Putin, as we saw earlier, it provides an ideological justification for arbitrarily wielding power. But what does it do for Huntington and his countless followers?


Influential American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington's works covered multiple sub-fields of political science.


It seems that they understand the implications of repackaging cultures as civilizations. After all, Huntington did not call his famous book “The Clash of Cultures.” Admittedly, this would have been much less impressive than The Clash of Civilizations.

The Paradoxes of Postmodernism

At this point, the following question arises: are Spengler and Huntington actually concerned with the same issue as Aristotle and Hegel? As we saw earlier, the classical thinkers formulated the criteria of being civilized with great clarity, precision, and the clear purpose to explain the prerequisites of a transition from barbarism to civilization.

This decisive distinction between “culture” and “civilization” has so far eluded postmodernists. They fail to grasp that culture, no matter how barbaric, is an open system that always contains the choice of whether to become civilized or maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, the status of ‘civilization’ is determined by history and never up for appeal. It is this very difference that Putin plays upon.

But what is in it for the postmodernists? If one agrees that barbarism did not – and does not – exist, and that all cultures are equal, why then would postmodernists elevate a handful of cultures to the senior rank of “civilizations,” while others are left out as inferior? After all, every people has its own language, religion, and everything else named in Huntington’s definition. How then should one explain this strange discrimination among cultures, their arbitrary separation into ‘elite’ and ‘rank and file’? The criteria used by postmodernists when comparing cultures are even murkier. Why did no one among them ever explain the reason behind this paradox?

The pure arbitrariness of the postmodernist approach to history and politics is the strongest argument against it. First of all, it spreads chaos into the study of history as well as political philosophy. Furthermore, it is dangerous as it enables authoritarian rulers, such as Putin, to manufacture pseudo-ideologies. We already saw how Putin does it. Let us now take a closer look at Spengler’s chaos (and I ask the reader not to feel inundated by the tide of unfamiliar names: all the authors that I will refer to are renowned postmodern theorists of history and political philosophy)

Following Spengler, Huntington reiterates that “only seven or eight cultures” deserve to be called civilizations. But then what should we make a major historian such as Arnold Toynbee identifying twenty-one and later twenty-three civilizations? Toynbee only considers five of them to still exist today, but even this number is not the same as the seven or eight named by Huntington and Spengler.

And what do we do with Huntington’s colleague Philip Bagby whose Culture and History identifies eleven civilizations, both historical and contemporary? And what about Carroll Quigley, whose The Evolution of Civilizations mentions sixteen? In his The Nature of Civilizations, Matthew Melko names twelve, five of which have survived until our day, which is the same number, but not the same civilization, as determined by Toynbee. Melko’s list includes the Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, and Western civilizations (if my memory does not fail me, Toynbee counts the Orthodox civilization in lieu of the Japanese – the history of the Eastern Roman Empire was a favorite subject for him). Renowned American historian William McNeill disagrees. His book, The Rise of the West, counts only nine civilizations, the same as in Fernand Braudel’s On History.

So who is right and who is wrong among all these highly-respected scholars? How many civilizations are there? We have no answer. There has been no attempt somehow to explain, let alone reconcile, all these discrepancies. As we already mentioned, there is not even any kind of consistent measure for determining the difference between a culture and a civilization. This is chaos more than scholarship.

In this context, what is most important is that not a single one of these thinkers mentions the existence of a Russian civilization. Not even Nikolay Danilevsky, who was seen as the precursor of this entire school of thought by famous American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin.

I have no idea how Putin’s speechwriters will deal with this glaring omission on the part of the post-modernist thinkers, an omission that completely undermines all their efforts. Of course, they can rely on amateurish writings such as Oleg Platonov’s The Russian Civilization or Mikhail Nazarov’s Russia’s Mystery, as long as the regime doesn’t mind being mocked. The latter works posit that there is just one civilization in the world, which is the Russian civilization, and that, in the authors’ opinion, this will be proven in the hour of the Apocalypse, when only Russians will survive the onslaught of the Antichrist.

Wearing this kind of intellectual armor on the international stage would seem odd at the least. Meanwhile, the whole point of Putin’s new policies is to have Russian internationally recognized as a civilization.

Readers can judge for themselves: given all this, will Putin be able to achieve this recognition for Russia, or is it all too easy to neutralize this latest attempt to put forth an ideological basis for Putinism?