The Black Book of Vladimir Putin, a collective work edited by Galia Ackerman and Stéphane Courtois (Perrin-Robert Laffont, 2022), draws a detailed picture of the rise of Vladimir Putin, from the St. Petersburg mafia to the Kremlin, and gives an original analysis of the nature of his regime. A sum rich in information and thought-provoking.
The Black Book is first of all a very precise account of the irresistible rise of Vladimir Putin, from the thug of St. Petersburg to the absolute master of the Kremlin: how, as an oligarch among oligarchs, he became their master, how he meticulously prepared his wars of revenge, while fooling complacent Western “partners. The chapters as a whole are more than a synthesis: they reveal a real cultural revolution which is, I believe, the engine of the regime’s tyrannical evolution and of its excessive imperial revanchism. This cultural revolution had already begun during the Yeltsin years, and Putin has amplified it to build a new regime in stages. Heir to the USSR and the tsarist autocracy, it also has original and disconcerting features, which make it a new type of totalitarianism1.
The recipe for Putinism is simple: “The Putin regime was born of the osmosis of the organized forces that survived the collapse of the USSR: the special services and the underworld” (Françoise Thom, p. 246). This osmosis had already been underway since the Brezhnev years, with the transformation of the black market into a large-scale mafia economy, and the generalization of the corruption of the ruling elites, corruption supervised and manipulated by the KGB. From Brezhnev to Gorbachev and from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, the KGB and the mafias were the country’s supporting structures when the Party, state property and the army collapsed. The advent of Putin is therefore not a rupture but the completion of the post-Soviet system.
The regime’s evolution towards totalitarianism had already begun during the “liberal” period: far from being a celebration of freedom regained after the greyness of the Party dictatorship, the amiable post-modern nihilism of the 1989-1999 decade – so well described by Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing is True, Everything is Possible (2015) – was the beginning of a transformation of an entirely different nature in Russian society. Quite discreetly at first, from his accession to power in 1999 to 2011-2012, and brutally afterwards, Putin muzzled the media, crushed NGOs and opponents, waging a veritable “war against civil society”, according to the dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva (quoted by Cécile Vaissié, p. 309). In 1994, Putin, then unknown and a simple deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, had publicly declared that the breakup of the USSR was an aberration and that Russia’s vocation was to reunify the “Russian world”.2 At the time, he was simply repeating the unbridled historical revisionism of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. While deceiving his Western interlocutors about his attachment to democracy and human rights, Putin was preparing his wars of conquest as soon as he came to power, following a proven pattern in the Chechen wars: internal destabilization, anaesthetization of the West by means of an informational war aimed at denying the sovereignty of the targeted countries and, finally, military aggression and partial occupation, preparing for a total annexation in the next move.3
But, although it flatters the imperial conscience of the Russians, this policy of expansion by force and crime could not by itself gather the support of the population. It is on this point that the regime rests on a cultural revolution: the creation of Homo post-sovieticus, according to the happy formula of Françoise Thom. By subtitling the chapter devoted to this specimen “the engineering of souls under Putin”, she suggests bringing the Putin revolution closer to Bolshevik totalitarianism, with its “engineers of the soul” dear to Stalin. In fact, as much as the Homo sovieticus described by Alexander Zinoviev and Svetlana Alexeyevich is the pathetic figure of a decrepit Soviet regime that no longer has a revolutionary spring, the Homo post-sovieticus is an anthropological mutant at the heart of a totalitarian project.
Isn’t it too much to speak of totalitarianism when talking about a regime without a real ideology, turned towards the past – Russian and Soviet – and in no way towards some bright future? Yet the concept of totalitarianism is coming up more and more often in the public debate, and the authors of the Black Book provide all the data needed to judge the totalitarian character of Putin’s regime.
The most obvious totalitarian trait of Putinism is the control of the past. As Orwellian historian-in-chief, Putin claims that “the main resource of Russia’s power and future lies in our historical memory” (quoted by Stephane Courtois, p. 327). He has amplified the Soviet mythology of the Great Patriotic War by adding lie after lie, from the conquests of Peter the Great to the “genocide” of the Russians in Ukraine, including the alliance with Nazi Germany from 1939 to June 1941 – denied or minimized in the Soviet era, it is now claimed without reservation. This new mythology is more than simple propaganda, it literally takes the Russians out of the real world and locks them in a parallel world, where they live submissively and prostrate. The lie has no limits when Putin and Lavrov say without blinking that there is no war in Ukraine because Russian troops are there “to help the people”.
The militarization of consciousness from kindergarten on4 is part of “an evil propaganda that has systematically trained Russians for crime” (Françoise Thom). Zhirinovsky’s outrages yesterday and those of the television talk shows on the “special military operation” today have served not only to justify wars, but also to accustom Russians to violence and immorality, and not least to the language and behavioral norms of the mob. Since the Yeltsin years, excess, the taste for the paranormal and the sensational have acclimatized “the passion for one-upmanship, the intoxication of breaking all the prohibitions, including those of common morality. Vladimir Zhirinovsky was the inventor of the Putin cultural revolution, the precursor of Kisselev, Soloviov and other Simonians: “as he cheerfully assumed his role of buffoon, the spectator let down his guard, believing himself in a fictional universe where nothing was of consequence, where anything could be said […] From the outset, he played the role of an icebreaker, introducing by the tape, in a clownish form, ideas cherished in the circles of the KGB from which he emanated” (Françoise Thom, pp. 95-97). This conditioning established new ethical criteria by virtue of which the plundering of Ukrainian homes, rape, torture and murder became acceptable5. This barbarization of the population is comparable to the Nazi regime’s training of a large part of the German population, which allowed “ordinary men” to commit nameless crimes or to consent to them without any qualms. Thanks to Putin’s cultural revolution, the country has gone from a society controlled by the KGB and mafias at the end of the Soviet era to a Mafia-State that has reshaped all the organs of power and morals in its image.
The demonization of the adversary and panic victimization (“the West wants to destroy us”) are also typical features of totalitarian regimes, as is the permanent escalation to the point of self-destruction. In Russia, uninhibited violence, territorial expansion in defiance of the law, global racketeering and incontinent nuclear blackmail have heated up the country until the outbreak of this failed war of annihilation, from which it is difficult to see how the regime could survive. The great writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya – one of the few Russian personalities to have condemned the annexation of Crimea – had this visionary comment in 2014: “Politics today in Russia is suicidal. It represents a danger first and foremost for Russia, but it can also provoke a new war, the third world war” (quoted by Antoine Arjakovski, p. 376).
But, unlike its predecessors, Putin’s totalitarianism is not carried by a messianic ideology. Its dream of empire is reduced to revanchism and the affirmation of brute force. So his civilizational rhetoric rings hollow. Putin changes it according to the moment: on the continuous basis of an ultra-nationalism, sometimes ethnic and sometimes imperial, he embroiders sometimes on the Orthodox religion which would found the planetary destiny of the Third Rome, sometimes on a misty Eurasism in which Orthodoxy merges with jihadist Islamism and paganism, sometimes on a crusade federating the countries of the South against the colonial West. Ultimately, Putinism cannot give itself any principle of legitimacy apart from terror and submission by force. This is the weak point of mafias: however powerful they may be, they cannot hope to be desirable to those who suffer them and are vulnerable to other, even more ferocious “families”. The reduction of imperial ambition to brute force produces a staggering effect and a legitimate terror in the face of the nuclear threat, but it is a fatal weakness for Putinism. It is doomed to invoke justifications that self-destruct as they reveal their falsehood.
Thus, the myth of the brotherhood of Slavic peoples has been shattered by the aggression against Ukraine since 2014, which has been accompanied by a dehumanizing hate speech worthy of Nazi propaganda. Vladislav Sourkov, Putin’s eminence grise – who inspired The Kremlin Magus – a grandmaster of post-modern nihilism, expressed in a bantering tone the negation of Ukraine: Ukraine’s identity would only be a disease that needs to be cured, and “coercion of fraternal relations by force is the only method that has historically proven effective when it comes to Ukrainians” (quoted by Mykola Riabchuk and Iryna Dmytrychyn, p. 228). Similarly, the Orthodox religion is self-destructing by becoming a political weapon. Antoine Arjakovski shows that the new Orthodox fundamentalism has lost all credibility by merging with the Putin state. Moreover, it conveys a number of heresies, notably gnostic, and integrates signs that “resemble the faith of Putin, the true pontiff of the neo-imperial religion of Homo post-sovieticus, to that of a follower of the Greco-Roman polytheistic religion” (p. 379).
Even more serious for its survival, Putinism is not able, unlike other totalitarianisms, to mobilize the population, it can only maintain it in the parallel reality of a dream of empire. The difficulties of partial mobilization demonstrate this infirmity. There are still many Russians who support the war in Ukraine and believe in the threat of NATO, but very few are ready to die for the motherland.
The shameless cynicism of “forcing brotherly relations by force” reveals the deep nature of Putinism and its impasse. “Love me or I’ll kill you,” Putin commands. One could say that Putin’s totalitarianism is a primitive version of Nazism. The Nazi ideology tended to the exclusive valorization of brute force: for the Nazis, civilization is only an illusion, only the struggle for life exists, the struggle of the races. Putin sees the world in the same way, but so to speak immediately, without ideological elaboration: he believes only in force because he is a gangster. There is no such thing as society, law or institutions; there are only gangs, and one gang is stronger than the others, the Mafia-State. In what it is closer to Nazism than to Communism, although Nazism had its followers, including outside Germany, while Putinism has in fine only spectators.
In this account, I have emphasized the novelty of Putin’s cultural revolution, but this is not to say that it has no connection with the imperial culture inherited from tsarism and sovietism. Putin holds on to this heritage, hence the ultra-conservatism of his discourse on values and his attempt at economic autarky, which constitute a deliberate regression, an enterprise of demodernization. On the other hand, if Putin has remained in power for 23 years, it is because his cultural revolution is based on this imperial culture deeply rooted in Russian history. Hence the nuances, if not the debate between the authors of the Black Book, depending on whether one emphasizes the novelty of Putin’s barbarization or its continuity with Russian culture and reactionary thought. The injunction to brotherhood by force with the Ukrainians is related to the Russian tendency to profess love for others without worrying about their opinion. Having said that, what I understood from reading the Black Book is the originality of Putin’s cultural revolution, which cannot be reduced to the fundamentals of Russian culture, any more than Nazism is the inevitable outcome of German culture, even if it values certain traits of the latter. No culture is monolithic, especially not German and Russian culture, which are on the contrary worked by a tension between the refusal of modernity and the aspiration to be the best of the Moderns. Hence the division of Russian thought between Slavophiles and Westerners and the fake, kitschy character of the conservatism displayed by Putin. He willingly refers to Berdiaev as a champion of conservatism, but he omits – and probably ignores – Berdiaev’s diagnosis in 1904: “Russian conservatism is impossible because it has nothing to preserve […] our conservatism has not asserted a particular kind of culture, but has denied the creativity of culture, has degenerated into nihilistic reaction.”