Staunton, January 12 – Vladimir Putin does not have a well-developed ideology, however much people want to find one. Rather, his eclectic cynicism provides him with the flexibility to keep himself in power, is congruent with a consumerist Russian society skeptical of any broader systems, but points to a horrific totalitarian future for Russia and an ever more dangerous world.
That damning judgment is offered by Mikhail Ryklin, a Russian philosopher and author now living in Germany whose wife committed suicide after being harassed by the Russian authorities for her role in the “Watch Out: Religion” exhibit at the Sakharov Museum in 2003.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Dmitry Volchek, Ryklin says that since he came to power in 1999, Putin has sought to inculcate in the Russian population “a cynical attitude toward everything. Now this cynicism has affected an enormous number of people as the Crimea events show.”
Some people argue that Putin is a conservative nationalist, he continues, but “no big ideology stands behind Putinism.” He is completely cynical about all of his moves and it is worth noting that today he is simultaneously persecuting liberals and also those harsh nationalists who understand in their own way how it is necessary to conquer ‘the Russian world.’”
“Chekists are not that educated,” and Putin is one of them, Ryklin says. “They do not need an ideology; for them the main thing is to have everything under control. If that is an ideology, then Putin and his entourage have one. But it isn’t an elaborate ideology like National Socialism or even more Communism.”
That absence of any core set of beliefs – other than self-preservation and control – in turn helps to explain why Putin and his regime can suddenly change course and also why his and their reaction to events is often schizophrenic, reflecting the fact that they see value of being on both sides of an issue.
Thus, official Moscow’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist act, Ryklin says. On the one hand, Putin and other officials condemned the actions of the Islamists. But on the other, they and even more those close to them signaled that the Europeans in significant ways had themselves to blame for being overly tolerant.
Because of this eclecticism and cynicism, he continues, “Russian society still does not imagine what awaits it in the next year or two.” But neither does Putin, Ryklin suggests. His playing with nationalism, his authoritarianism, and his cynicism has brought Russia nothing but pain even while Russians continue to view him as a great patriot.
If Putin can continue his current course, Russians will eventually find themselves in the position of the Germans in 1945, forced to confront the horrors carried out by their leaders and in their name. But if the economic crisis intensifies, the very consumerism and cynicism that have led Russians to support Putin could lead them to turn against him.
But that is probably a vain hope, Ryklin says. “Liberals have no chances now in Russia” given how successful Putin has been in spreading cynicism while gaining support as someone who won’t allow any repetition of the early 1990s. And both he and the Russians more generally are increasingly infected with a kind of unthinking consumerist fundamentalism of a most dangerous kind.
“This is an achievement of the Putin system,” the Russian philosopher says, but it is one that has involved the descent of Russians into a radical consumerism – “I have not seen a country as consumerist as Russia,” he says – and allowed him to impose his rule on millions of people and threaten both them and the outside world.
But despite this “achievement,” Ryklin says that he believes that “the powers that be will have big problems” too. The fall of the ruble reflects not just the decline in the price of oil or the imposition of sanctions but also “the enormous expenditures” the Kremlin is making to maintain the police and the military.
And this is “happening in parallel: “the price of oil is falling, but [these] expenses are growing,” an indication that Putin and his entourage see troubles ahead. It is thus likely given Putin’s current radicalization, that he will respond by taking ever more risky and dramatic moves both at home and abroad, hopeful that these will give him a way out.
In that event, many are going to suffer, and many are going to have to answer even if the answer they are likely to provide is like the one the Germans gave in 1946: “we didn’t have any relation to all this; we are small and simple people.” Unfortunately for them, that will not save them either.