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The three ages of Putinism

Two years ago, on 4 March 2012, Russians went to the polls to elect a new president, and returned Vladimir Putin for his third term in office. Since then he has been putting the finishing touches to his personal ideology. на русском языке

Although it might seem on the surface that the Putin regime hasn’t changed since 2000, in fact there have been profound changes, and in the two years since his re-election the President has in effect created Putinism Mark 3.

Putinism Mark 1, created mainly by former Presidential Administration head Alexandr Voloshin, lasted from 2000 until the 2004 presidential election. It was based on a form of collective leadership by the so-called ‘Yeltsin Family’, with Putin as merely the first among equals. The Family firm included, as well as Voloshin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Yeltsin’s daughter and son-in-law Tatyana Dyachenko and Valentin Yumashev and several more less well known names. By 2004, however, Putin had removed all these other Family members from political power, established himself as sole ruler and also imprisoned businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a protégé of Voloshin and Kasyanov.

Vladimir Putin with Boris Yeltsin on 31 December 1999. Vladimir Putin with Boris Yeltsin, 31 December 1999. By 2004, he had politically neutralised the 'Family.' Photo via

By 2004 Putin had removed all the Yeltsin 'Family’ members from political power and established himself as sole ruler.

Putinism Mark 2, whose architect-in-chief was Vladislav Surkov, the Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration, lasted from 2004 until the winter of 2011-2 and included the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who made lots of loud noises about reform but didn’t actually change anything.

Finally, Putinism Mark 3 began to develop as soon as Surkov was replaced by Vyacheslav Volodin as Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration in October 2010. Today its core elements are all in place and we can probably talk about what Russia will be like for the next few years.

The Surkov system…

We should start, however, by analysing the legacy which is being rejected. Surkov’s system was based on a number of key points:

  • 1) The mass media (the main TV stations and a few mass market newspapers) lose any freedom of speech and become mere channels for government propaganda. Since the bulk of the population imbibes its opinions about life in Russia and the activities of its politicians exclusively from the TV screen, this means that the outcome of elections becomes a foregone conclusion. The regime can then allow freedom of speech on the internet and certain papers and radio stations: this can act as a safety valve for any discontented intellectuals, and if foreigners start criticising the Kremlin for the lack of freedom in Russia, you can always point them at your free press.

2) Parliamentary elections are based on a party list system, which means that small parties can be excluded from them. To do this, you simply deprive them of TV time (see above) and access to potential sources of serious finance. People in business who don’t initially get the message about which politicians they can support and which they can’t, can be first reminded of this fact and then if necessary punished. 

  • 3) There has to be an official opposition in parliament in order to imitate what Surkov christened ‘sovereign democracy’, but it mustn’t be allowed to dominate proceedings. With the help of a little spin and open election rigging each party can occupy the number of seats allocated to it by the Kremlin, and the pro-Kremlin ‘United Russia’ party will always come out on top. The Communists are permitted their ritual pronouncements about the hard life of the people and the need to overthrow the oligarchic regime, to show the west that democracy is not entirely absent from Russia.

The Kremlin created a ‘reserve’ ruling party, ‘A Just Russia’, so there would be a second party waiting in the wings.

Surkov nevertheless didn’t ignore the possibility of a serious weakening of support for ‘United Russia’, and formulated his so-called ‘two leg theory’ for this eventuality: one leg of power, he argued, might tire at some moment, and weight could then be transferred to the other. Working on this theory, the Kremlin created a ‘reserve’ ruling party which it named ‘A Just Russia’, so that if ‘United Russia’ lost its popular support for some reason, rather than defending it at all costs there would be a second party under Kremlin control waiting in the wings, ready to take over in Parliament and ensure the continued smooth running of the Putin regime.

Surkov’s system even allowed the possibility of a contest between ‘United Russia’ and ‘A Just Russia’, but only for the votes of Putin supporters. However, this should not be permitted to weaken the regime, so any debate between them should not include any criticism of the charismatic leader Vladimir Putin or expose systemic weaknesses such as corruption. 

…and its limitations

Surkov however failed to realise that the ongoing status as understudy for ‘A Just Russia’ might breed resentment against the regime that had promised it an influential political role in the foreseeable future. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2011, its MPs revolted and stopped complying with the restrictions placed on them. Immediately after the disputed elections they were joined by the intellectuals who, according to Surkov’s theory, should have been quietly sitting at home venting their frustrations on the internet, and not on the street. Instead of which they turned up on Bolotnaya Square, loudly demanding first free and fair elections, and then a complete regime change.

Vladislav Surkov addresses the pro-Putin 'Nashi' youth group at their annual congress. Vladislav Surkov addresses the pro-Putin 'Nashi' youth group at their annual congress. Photo CC Nashi 2.0

The system was constructed on the premise that the Kremlin's monopoly on TV news would keep voters on board. 

These two slips alone should in theory have raised the issue of Surkov’s dismissal, although they were not a direct threat to the regime. But the situation was exacerbated by growing serious economic problems. After the 2008-2009 crisis Russia found itself unable to return to the earlier GDP and real income growth rates that would have ensured Putin’s further unconditional dominance of the political arena. There was now a danger that sooner or later the absolutely loyal electorate reliant on Kremlin-controlled TV channels for all its information might also start protesting – at the rise in unemployment and the fall in the value of wages and pensions. The whole Surkov system, after all, was constructed on the premise that the Kremlin’s monopoly on TV news would keep the voters on board.   

Goodbye Surkov, hello Volodin

So all in all, it was time to ditch Surkov. Volodin, his successor, embarked on a comprehensive transformation of the system and today, two years after the political crisis of the winter of 2001-2002, the outlines of Putinism Mark 3 are clear enough to be analysed as follows:

1 )It is essential to separate potential protest coming from Russia’s increasingly impoverished provinces from that of the leaders of the intelligentsia awaiting their return to Bolotnaya Square. Should these two streams ever merge, it could pose a real threat to the Kremlin, since the situation would be similar to what has been happening in Kyiv. The Kremlin’s strategy for averting the urbanisation of social conflict is a concerted programme of discreditation of the protest movement’s best known leaders.

2) To avoid as many such potential balls-ups as possible, parliament is busy passing various pieces of maximally complex legislation outlawing much of what passes for normal in the free world. So if it becomes necessary to put pressure on a given person or organisation (including the press), there will always be some repressive law to hand, be it to do with promoting homosexuality, injuring the feelings of churchgoers or proposing the break-up of the Russian Federation.

3) MPs can continue this work ad infinitum, since the more restrictions of freedom they create, the greater will be ordinary Russians’ fear of falling foul of some law or other: it will soon be impossible to remember them all. So even a simple post on a blog site or a social network might get you into trouble. The regime’s aim is not of course to put all bloggers behind bars, but it means that anyone can be brought in and cautioned for some infringement of the law, should the need arise. A similar system of dissidence prevention was used back in the day by the KGB under Yuri Andropov and worked pretty effectively: the vast majority of people cautioned preferred to give up their dissident activity than risk a prison sentence.

4) If protesting intellectuals are cut off from the general public, it will be easier to exercise influence over the masses, with the help of a new ideology. Such an ideology, based on conservative principles, is already being developed; Surkov may have just talked about this, but Volodin is putting the idea into practice. And thanks to Kremlin propagandists such as Dmitry Kiselyov, the electorate should year on year be feeling ever more proud of their country, whether or not these feelings have any basis in reality.

5) Russia’s education system is also being remodelled in line with the new ideology. This is at its most obvious in the recently unveiled draft of a new standard history textbook to be used in secondary schools, which will not only gloss over the uncomfortable moments of Russia’s past and present, but by using a ‘one size fits all’ approach will prevent good teachers from giving their more academic students extra information about the past. Any deflection from the standard lesson plan and a teacher will be breaking the rules, with all the potential consequences of such a lapse from conformity. 

If you can’t buy the voters, just brainwash them

Russia’s failing economy and lack of cash may make it difficult to buy all the voters, or even the majority of them, but grass roots political activists emerging in the provinces might be bought with the help of the carrot and the stick. Putin has ordered Russia’s Central Electoral Commission to prepare a draft law proposing new rules for electing the Russian parliament. At present all Duma deputies are elected by a proportional representation system based on closed party lists, but the President plans to reinstate the system used up until 2003, where half of the members of the Duma are elected in this way, but the other half are chosen using first-past-the-post elections in single member constituencies.

Putin awards Vyacheslav Volodin with a medal for 'Services to the Fatherland' in 2006. Putin awards Vyacheslav Volodin a medal for 'Services to the Fatherland' in 2006. Photo via

In single member constituencies you let the best candidate win, then make them an offer they can’t refuse.

The thinking behind this is that it will gradually lessen the Kremlin’s dependence on ‘United Russia’ and ‘A Just Russia.’ In single member constituencies you let the best candidate win, then make them an offer they can’t refuse. If they do nevertheless refuse, you launch a personal smear campaign against them and their voters discover that their MP is a criminal, a pervert, an enemy of the people and an agent of every possible foreign intelligence service.

Putinism Mark 3 is a complex but coherent system, with all its elements complementing one another, as indeed was Surkov’s Mark 2 model that preceded it. The new, more hard-line model has arisen in response to Russia’s economic stagnation. Without money to buy the public’s votes, you have to resort to a mass brainwashing programme in order to awaken in them an ‘unconditional love for the regime.’ 

About the author

Dmitry Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies.

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