Retrofitting Totalitarianism

No sooner did the Western media learn to think of Vladimir Putin as an authoritarian ruler than the Russian regime changed again. Since Putin returned to the office of president in March 2012, Russia has experienced ...

The following essay, published in collaboration with Villa Gillet, was originally delivered as a lecture on November 20, 2015, at the Mode d’emploi festival in Lyon, France.

No sooner did the Western media learn to think of Vladimir Putin as an authoritarian ruler than the Russian regime changed again. Since Putin returned to the office of president in March 2012, Russia has experienced a political crackdown, has started a war against its neighbor, and has entered another, far from its borders. In the process, it has become an international pariah and sent its economy into a tailspin. But all of this has served to mobilize the population and make Putin’s grip on power appear firmer than ever.

In other words, Russia is no longer an authoritarian state. It is a state that has a lot of the features of a totalitarian state. But the process we have witnessed over the last three and a half years is unlike anything we have seen before. This was not a process of building a totalitarian state; it was the process of retrofitting one.

<i>Vladimir Putin inauguration, May, 2012</i>. Photograph by / Wikimedia.

Vladimir Putin inauguration, May, 2012. Photograph by / Wikimedia.

Imagine you have a car that you have suddenly decided to stop using. But instead of selling it or even taking it to a junkyard, you put it up on blocks and leave it in your garage for more than 20 years. Then, on a whim, you replace the blocks with wheels. To your surprise, the car starts rolling. It is creaky at first, but soon its gears grip each other, the engine starts working smoothly, the generator kicks in, the headlights go on, and even the radio, after crackling for a bit, begins transmitting. Happy, you steer this new-old car, which has been miraculously revived. Still, you don’t know what may have rusted through in the course of 20-plus years. You don’t even know if there is fuel in the tank, or if you are running on fumes. You are steering an old, familiar vehicle, but on a path of uncertainty.

I would argue that this car is a good metaphor for Russian totalitarianism. There is no single definition of totalitarianism, but generally the students of this 20th-century phenomenon have agreed on a few things. One, totalitarian regimes take full control of media, the military and the police, and the economy. Two, they are founded on ideologies. Three, they are built by exercising mass terror and they are maintained by its ongoing threat.

Control is, at this point, very close to total: Putin has long since dismantled Russia’s electoral mechanisms, taken over the media, and made the executive branch subsume the judiciary. The term “oligarchy” is still often used to describe Russia, but in fact it has not been accurate in more than a decade, since Putin made it clear that rich men who insisted on maintaining political influence would have to go either into exile or to jail. So the economy is in fact under control.


The new Russian ideology began almost by accident. Putin needed something to use against the protesters who came out into the streets in the winter of 2011-2012. He tried below-the-belt jokes and a few stock aspersions, such as casting the protesters as US agents and personal creations of Hillary Clinton’s, but this didn’t really stick. Finally, the Kremlin succeeded at gay-baiting the protesters. This worked, because branding the entire protest culture as queer served to frame it immediately as “other,” foreign, hostile, unfamiliar, and new. So successful was the gay smear that it demanded a wider application. Thus the ideology of traditional values was born.

There is a common misconception that totalitarian ideologies are complicated and coherent affairs. This is not true historically—in fact, in The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt spends time pondering the primitive and absurd nature of totalitarian ideologies—and it is not true in Russia. Like other aspiring totalitarian leaders before him, Putin cast about for ready-made bits of ideology that would fit his sense of the country’s new direction. He stumbled on philosopher Alexander Dugin’s ideas of a clash of civilizations in which Russia protects traditional values against Western expansion. This seemed perfect, and it was adopted.

According to Dugin, the West has been exporting a fallacy, the idea of universal human rights, and this export is aimed at making all countries like the West. In fact, says Dugin, there are two kinds of civilization in the world—the Western one and the traditional-values one. Hence, there is nothing “universal” about human rights. But the West’s insistence on spreading the concept threatens the integrity of traditional-values-civilization countries. They must be protected. The only country that has the courage of its convictions, enough to take up arms to protect the civilization, is Russia.

What’s great about the traditional-values idea is that it is geographically non-specific but still expansive. Many Western politicians are still talking about Putin’s desire to recreate the USSR, but that is not what’s happening here. The traditional values civilization, also known as the Russian World, is a shape-shifter. It can include Ukraine (where Russia is protecting traditional values with tanks and bombs), but it can also include Syria.

The most interesting aspect of Russia’s retrofitted totalitarianism is that the population exhibits fear, but the source of this fear is unclear. When opinion polls garner results showing that 86 percent of the population supports the president—or anything else, for that matter—we are no longer looking at opinions as we are used to understanding the word. We are looking at people’s ability to mirror back a message that is communicated to them as the only right one. But how does this happen in the absence of mass terror? In the 1970s and 80s, the Soviet Union was not a country ruled by mass terror—it was kept in control by the memory of mass terror. So, what is going on now? Is the memory of the memory of mass terror enough to keep Russia under control? Or will mass terror have to return soon?

But more than anything else, I want to ask the question, What made all of this possible? What enabled Putin to take one of the most prosperous and seemingly ambitious countries in Europe and turn it, almost overnight, into a docile society, isolated both economically and politically? I would argue that this car is rolling precisely because it sat on blocks for more than two decades—that is, because in all that time no one could be bothered to dismantle it or just plain smash it. icon

Featured image: OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine. Photograph by OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine / Flickr