Russian populism is something nobody denies, not critics of the current regime, not its supporters. Political leaders openly appeal to the ‘people’ as the group in whose interest they are acting. However, what is important to remember that a) it has been the case for quite some time; b) Russia did not truly engage into neoliberal ideology of any kind; and c) every political party in Russia, including the opposition, use populism as a viable ideology.
However, some scholars think that Putinism is an imperfect fit to populist ideologies as Vladimir Putin did not come into power thanks to his populist platform. He was ‘an ‘annointed’ successor to President Yeltsin who stepped down leaving him to rule the country. Putinism represents a platonic model of autocracy, in which populism an inherent part of the official discourse (Oliker 2017). At the same time, despite the circumstances of his coming to the office, Putin had to go through the elections, for which he came up with a populist program. Populism also became the ideology for his newly founded United Russia party.
What is populism a-la-Rus?
There are three components of the official populist discourse: 1) sovereign (democracy)/sovereignty to account for current relationships with others; 2) traditional values to deal with social problems; and 3) patriotism to provide for national unity.
Phillip Casula identifies several characteristics of Russian populism as main features of political discourse. Firstly, the populism comes ‘from above’ but not ‘from below’, it is not oppositional but systemic. Secondly, it relies heavily on being structured around a name (Putin or Navalny), which acts as a nodal point, sort of an empty signifier. Therefore, populism works as an attempt to split the political space into two camps ‘with us’ and ‘against us’ both in domestic and foreign policy fronts (Casula 2013, p. 7). The concept of sovereignty comes very handy here; it is interpreted not a positive creative concept for better territorial and political development, but as a negative concept of defence against all types of corruption. Traditional values and patriotism work along the same lines.
Depoliticization is a flip side of populism. In the Russian case, it introduces management as the key procedure in politics (Makarychev 2008). The leadership attempts to declare objective (national) interests such as economic efficiency (anti-sanctions) or demographic revival (anti-LGBTQI and pro-heterosexual family) as a rebuttal of any ideology. Political conflicts are presented as economic, technical questions. Thus, Russian obvious support for Trump has been often portrayed as a wish to have a ‘businessman’ not a ‘politician’ (such as Clinton or Obama) to deal with.
Parapolitics is another key feature of Russian populism. It aims at deantagonization of politics. At the inscription of oppositional demands and the cooption of dissidents. The United Russia party (and political leadership) use the following strategy: they take some pragmatic elements form the liberals (especially in economy), some from the left (wages, strong employee protection etc.), some from the nationalists (patriotic discourse), and some from conservators (traditional values and preservation of stability). It makes opposition parties redundant or pushes them to be even more populist as official leadership as in case of Navalny, who organised his campaign around the fight with corruption and exposing how corrupt Russian leaders are.
To conclude, current Russian populism is a ‘catch-all’ ideology. It is rather effective and resilient. It does work miracles both in within the country and abroad as Putin’s name figures in the speeches of both far-right and far-left populist parties. Answering the panel’s questions, though, in the Russian case, populism is not a reaction to neoliberal ideology but rather an effective management strategy that came about in the dire situation of economic, political and ideological transformation, which means that as far as works as a stabilising discourse it will continue to be employed by the political leadership. As to what happens next, much depends on the ability of neoliberal ideologies to self-reform and address those issues that ‘the masses’ see as a failure.
Casula, P. (2013). Sovereign Democracy, Populism, and Depoliticization in Russia: Power and Discourse during Putin’s First Presidency. Problems of Post-Communism, 60(3), 3-15.
Makarychev, Andrey S. (2008). Politics, the State, and De-Politization. Problems of Post-Communism 55(5), 62–71.
Oliker, O. (2017). Putinism, Populism and the Defence of Liberal Democracy. Survival, 59(1), 7-24.
Marianna Muravyeva is a Senior Research fellow of the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Tampere and Professor of Law at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia. Her research focuses on gender, criminology, family violence and human rights.