Putinism as Gaullism


Le reflet de Paris dans une flaque (photographie Richard Bouigue)

Première parution : Marlène Laruelle, « Putinism as Gaullism« , Opendemocracy, 21 février 2017.

The Russian state under Vladimir Putin’s leadership is often seen as a specific kind of regime, labelled by its own name, Putinism. Defining a regime by the name of its leader has obvious limits in terms of analysis. First, it takes the risk of emphasising too much the role and the personality of the individual over structural elements of governance. Second, regime typology in general has shown little heuristic values, and tends to categorise regimes that share little in the way of common ground. However, this form of naming can capture a certain Zeitgeist that explains how a leader personifies a country, a policy and a society at a certain moment in history, as, for instance, with Thatcherism.

“Putinism” can also usefully be compared to other -isms, but so far has been likened, mostly by its opponents at home and abroad, to Stalinism, Fascism, and even Nazism. In these cases, the assumed goal is to label the regime as one with which one cannot engage as equals, and which cannot be recognised as politically legitimate. When one tries to avoid name-calling, Putinism could be compared with many other -isms that would offer meaningful and less politically loaded comparisons. Some experts have been indeed more acute in their parallels, for instance Marcel van Herpen, who compared Putinism to Berlusconism and Bonapartism. I propose another comparison.

Putin and De Gaulle both built their legitimacy on a double victory. De Gaulle represented the France that resisted Nazi Germany and refused to collaborate with the occupying authorities, and thereby embodied the symbolic continuity of the French republican ideal in troubled times. De Gaulle also pacified French public opinion, which was on the brink of civil war, by accepting the 1962 Evian Accords that put an end to the bloody decolonisation war in Algeria.

Putin has based his legitimacy on relatively similar fundaments. His high popularity is famous: after the annexation of Crimea, Putin prances above 80% of positive views, but even before he accumulated high scores compared to any other Russian politicians or institutions. Levada Centre surveys explained this exceptional status by two phenomena: Putin is seen as the personification of the Russian nation and the Russian state beyond political ups and downs, and as the leader who reasserted Russia as a great power after the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. Putin is also credited for having stopped the process of internal disintegration of the early 1990s, when Russia was perceived to be on the path to its own dismemberment.

In both cases, the two names (Putin, De Gaulle) personify the continuity of the state after a major trauma — collaboration for France, collapse of the Soviet Union for Russia — and success in rebuilding national consensus and avoiding social and internal fractures. The parallel between Algeria and Chechnya in shaping respectively French and Russian public opinion and, later, xenophobia, is striking. Both France and Russia had to come to terms from their imperial past and build new forms of identity and interactions with the former “colonies”/ “Near Abroad”. In both cases too, the two leaders were reluctant to expose the “dark pages” of national history: De Gaulle insisted on resistance and was unwilling to see collaboration discussed publicly; Putin focuses on Russia’s victory in 1945 and put aside the issue of the occupation of Eastern Europe after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.

But the comparison goes further. Both men established a relatively authoritarian and censorial regime in which the political opposition (leftist in Gaullist France, liberal in Putin’s Russia) was still legally allowed but in fact marginalised, and bureaucratic practices in the management of political affairs were endemic. They both promoted a national consensus based on the country’s alleged need for law and order, and on conservative values around “traditional family” and “respectable mores”, with the assumed willingness to prevent the continued liberalisation of mores and changes in family patterns.

Both regimes also advanced an ideology of national grandeur. De Gaulle was a fierce nationalist, convinced of the uniqueness of the French cultural and political message to the rest of the world. De Gaulle promoted the notion of Francophonie, in many ways similar to the current “Russian world” notion. This notion is founded on a linguistic concept (a large group of French/Russian speakers outside the country itself) and is associated with a prestigious cultural heritage that the state brands as its main public diplomacy tool. It has obvious political ramifications for the defense of a “French/Russian vision” or “French/Russian voice” in the international arena. It also serves to justify opaque post-colonial policies, such as “French Africa” of the 1960-1970s, and Russia’s position in the “Near Abroad” today. In both cases, commercial and military interests of the former colonial centre overlap with the defense of clientelist relations with the post-colonial states, driven by rent-based regimes.

De Gaulle was also starkly anti-American and distrustful toward Great Britain. He was convinced that “Atlanticism”, i.e. the Anglo-Saxon vision of global affairs, was too confrontational towards the rest of the world — he pulled France out of NATO-integrated structures. On the contrary, de Gaulle saw continental Europe, in the sense of classical, ancient Europe and of the German-French partnership, as offering better prospects for a peaceful cohabitation between “the West” and the then Third World.

Suspicious of European institutions, de Gaulle promoted a Europe of nations, relatively friendly toward the Soviet Union, in which he saw a new kind of eternal Russia. The parallel with the Russian state’s vision of the world today is striking, in particular the insistence on a Europe of nations that would interact closely with Russia and distance itself from both the “Atlanticist” world and its institutions, such as NATO, and from Brussels-based European institutions.

Obviously, there are differences between Putinism and Gaullism, between the two political regimes, the two men and the two societies. But the comparison is telling, and helps us to look at the Russian state today under a more “normalising” light. Politically-loaded definitions of Putin’s regime identifies it as the “bad guy” and governs some western politicians and political opponents to the regime. But it doesn’t offer a meaningful approach for experts and academics to comprehend the nature of Putin’s regime. Far from any Russian exceptionalism, Putin is a relatively classic example of a patriarchal leader who emerged to consolidate a post-trauma society and provide social peace based on a consensual celebration of national grandeur and conservative values.

Even if these kinds of models are overthrown once their historical purpose is over and some sort of social peace achieved, they often reflect a critical moment in the trajectory of the country. They are rooted in some of the society’s grassroots needs and therefore are co-creational — i.e. products of the society in question, and not only a top-down mechanism.