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The evolution of Putinism

Jack Wilkin

During the Soviet era, Putin was a KGB agent working in East Germany. Some within the KGB felt strongly that the Soviets' rigid economic model was not working. As such, they created a shadow economy so that they could fund their activities outside of government control. The KGB’s black market gave them proxies inside Russia’s criminal underworld.

After the collapse of the USSR, these black-market operatives and criminal gangs were the only ones rich enough to buy shares in newly-privatised former state assets. Putin helped by leveraging the connections he made whilst serving in various government roles in Saint Petersburg, and selling state assets cheaply to ex-KGB agents in order to gain more political authority. 

By 1998, Putin’s influence had grown to the point where he was made head of the FSB (one of the successor agencies to the KGB). In 1999, he became a permanent member of the Russian Security Council, and finally Prime Minister. Being more influential than President Yeltsin, Putin is highly suspected to have used these political appointments and his control over the security services to orchestrate the 1999 Russian apartment bombings, which killed more than 300 and triggered the Second Chechen War. Putin’s handling of the crisis boosted his popularity greatly and helped him attain the presidency within a few months. 

The coup was complete; Putin and those who ran the ex-KGB black markets had control of the Russian state. But gaining power was the easy part –  now he had to secure it. 

The evolution of Putinism

Russia was a mess, mostly due to the actions of his Kleptocratic allies. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disastrous way in which the country transitioned out of socialism, Russia plunged into the 1998 financial crash, which saw inflation reach 84% and the government default on its loans.  

Putin realised that if Russia was to exert power over its neighbours it needed a strong state, and that requires a strong economy. So, he reformed taxes and increased oil prices in order to pay off Russia's debt, which in turn helped attract foreign investors. The lives of Russians did improve during this time – at least materially, if not so much politically. Indeed, the GDP rose from $200 billion to $1.7 trillion between 1999 and 2008. This is why Putin was generally popular in Russia, and why many Russians still view him through the lens of his early economic reforms. 

However, things were not as rosy as they might seem at first glance. Putin spent much of the early 2000s cracking down on the Yeltsin-era oligarchs –  except for the ones loyal to him – and centralising power around himself and a select group of followers. 

The jailing of Russia’s richest man and outspoken Putin critic in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsk, was a show of power to the other oligarchs; even the richest were subordinate to Putin. Heads of media companies that didn’t push the Putin narrative were exiled or jailed and most Russian media was placed under the control of pro-Putin groups. 

Putin continued to privatise state industries by “gifting” these to wealthy friends while ensuring that the various state security services were under his direct control. This period also saw the Second Chechen War (the invasion of ethnically Russian parts of Georgia), and continued crackdowns on political dissidents. 

After stabilising the economy and securing power, Putin began to push for conservative Christian values.

After his highly suspicious re-election in 2012, Putin introduced socially conservative policies, including the infamous law banning gay “propaganda” and a law that banned “questioning the integrity of the Russian nation” (aimed primarily at minority groups). These laws aimed to give the state more surveillance and censorship powers – the state security system was one of the only things Putin didn’t give away to his oligarchs. He also placed key allies in the Russian orthodox church, in order to increase its influence and promote a form of Orthodoxy which he could use and control. Economically, Russia maintained a conservative fiscal policy, running a small budget and keeping national debt low. 

Putinism in Russian foreign policy 

Outside of Russia, Putin has used oligarchs to infiltrate Western democracies. For instance, Russia interfered in the 2016 US elections and is likely to have meddled in the Brexit referendum. In Europe, several far-right parties and politicians have been linked to Putin’s web of donations, including Marie Le Pen and Alternative for Germany.  

In the UK, Putin operatives gave money to anti-NATO members of Labour and those on the far right of the Conservative Party, and laundered billions of pounds in “Londongrad”. Further, when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, he was denied access to certain classified information due to his close relationship with Russian oligarch and British media tycoon Evgeny Lebedev. After a British citizen was killed by the nerve agent used four months prior in the Salisbury assassination attempt, Johnson left a NATO meeting discussing the chemical attack to attend a party at Lebedev’s home in Italy. To make matters worse, one of the first things Johnson did after becoming Prime Minister was to appoint the oligarch to the House of Lords despite the concerns of MI5. 

Being a Russian oligarch comes with its perks, but Putin is surely not the friendliest of bosses; he has a tendency to assassinate ex-oligarchs and former agents to stay on top (for example, Alexander Litvinenko in 2006). The rate of murders has only increased following the disastrous invasion of Ukraine, whether it be Ravil Maganov suspiciously falling out of a window, or Prigozhin dying in a plane crash after launching a failed rebellion against Putin. They are among the many people listed on a Wikipedia page dedicated to the “Suspicious Deaths of Russian Businesspeople (2022–2023)”.

Despite having always been a murky individual, Putin hasn’t always been an ethno-nationalist; in 2008, he deemed the phrase “Russia for Russians” was for “fools and provocateurs”. But things started changing. In 2018, Putin removed hate speech laws that suppressed any excessively nationalistic statement (Article 282). In addition, the 2020 constitutional reforms made explicit reference to ethnic Russians as the state-forming people of the Russian Federation –  previously, the constitution only referred to Russian citizens. 

Putin’s ethno-nationalism grew and culminated in the invasion of Ukraine with the Novorossiya policy in 2022. Indeed, his essay titled “On the history of unity of the Russians and Ukrainians”, which forms the ideological basis for the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, references the large number of ethnic Russians that deny the existence of Ukraine as an independent nation. 

Throughout the war, Russian forces have committed innumerable war crimes. In truth, the kidnapping of Ukrainian children in order to “Russify” them is a policy that is particularly reminiscent of the Nazi's Lebensborn program. Even the Z symbol looks more like a wonky swastika than anything from the Soviet era. 

It seems likely that the Ukrainians will be victorious in their war against Putinism. Ukraine is not the first victim of Putinism – there were also the botched invasions of Georgia and Belarus, the latter of whom’s dictator is only in power because of Putin. But what about Russia? Just as the first victim of Nazism was Germany, the first victim of Putinism was Russia. The Russian people have a history of overthrowing tyrants; let’s hope that it comes sooner rather than later. 

Image: Getty Images

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