Along with Ukraine, Putin is Destroying Putinism
Communism's end wasn't bloody but the Russian dictator's ideology is going down in an orgy of violence
The last time Soviet tanks rolled into the capital of a sovereign European nation was in Prague, 1968. But that invasion had an unintended consequence for the Soviet Union: the end of communism as an ideology. It took another 20 years for the regime to tip over and fall, but as an ideology, it ended that year. Something similar is likely to happen now to what can be called “Putinism,” the inchoate ideological mix of political authoritarianism, xenophobic nationalism and reactionary social values that has exerted significant “soft power” since Putin became Russia’s president for the second time in 2012.
An ideology that has soft power does not need to resort to invasions because it spreads from mind to mind, rather than from tanks to buildings. Czechoslovakia’s 1948 communist coup d’état received Soviet assistance — but it did not require direct Soviet participation because, after World War II, a substantial minority of Czechs and Slovaks converted to communism.
By 1968, that minority had shrunk significantly because Soviet communism delivered not the promised utopia but 20 years of oppression, further driven home when the crimes of the Stalinist period were exposed. The younger generation that came of age at the time looked Westward, endorsed individualism and liberal social values instead of collectivism, and preferred to read Kafka rather than join labor brigades.
This forced the Soviet Union to intervene directly to impose its ideology on the many Czechs and Slovaks who had become indifferent to the allure of communism. It demanded they issue public pronouncements in the approved ideological gobbledygook, march in state organized communist holidays, sign nonsensical petitions and hang meaningless slogans. The Soviet rulers found enough locals to collaborate with the occupation forces, but the sympathizers’ reasons had more to do with cynical personal opportunism than ideological alignment. This participation allowed the Soviet occupiers to remain largely in their camps and barracks, while their local minions did the dirty work.
Once it became obvious in 1989 that the Soviets would not intervene after Poland appointed a non-Communist government, Hungary breached the Iron Curtain, and, most dramatically, the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet regime collapsed within days.
The 1968 occupation represented the end of communism as a viable ideological recruiting tool for the Soviet bloc. The occupation of a peaceful country whose Communist leaders at the time were developing more liberal versions of the ideology undermined the soft power of Soviet-style communism, forcing it to resort to hard power. The previous Soviet double-occupation of the Baltic States and Poland — and the annexation of Eastern Poland and parts of Finland — was undertaken under the cover of the Second World War and the struggle against Nazi Germany. But the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and even more so Czechoslovakia in 1968 exposed naked imperialism. After that, communist fellow travelers, especially in Europe, fragmented between the old faithful who maintained their allegiance to the Soviet Union and therefore became politically marginalized; the Euro-communists who attempted to keep the Marxist faith without the allegiance to the Soviet Union; and a disillusioned younger generation seeking a “third way” that didn’t involve dictatorship (including that of the proletariat), but social democracy.
Something similar will happen now to “Putinism,” the witches’ brew of authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, reactionary social values, illiberalism, anti-internationalism and anti-Americanism that Putin has deployed as his soft-power-tool to penetrate democratic societies. The cognitive dissonance that this ideology poses for its adherents outside of Russia is obvious. Putin’s faux-Czarist Christian orthodoxy does not fuse well, for example, with Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s avowed Soviet-era atheism or with the evangelical fundamentalism of some of Putinism’s American fans or the conservative Catholicism of Putinists in France or Austria.
Moreover, Putin’s populist allies in democratic countries have to win free and fair elections, something that he does not have to worry about. Even where elections are less than fair, as in Hungary, the leaders must take into consideration the opinion of voters who are about to be bombarded with daily images of the horrors of war, from civilian casualties to ruined cities — and that, too, in a part of the world where people look like them and live in cities and towns just like their own. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has disentangled and severed the thin strings that held together this mixed ideological baggage — and its contents are spilled all over the political highway that crosses the European continent from East to West.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being cast as a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. It is certainly that, given that Putin is a tyrant, whereas Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was democratically elected. But that is not all it is. Even more significantly, it is a struggle between empire and nation, imperialism and nationalism.
The relevant historical frame of reference is the end of World War I, when after a nearly century-long struggle between national movements and multinational empires, the empires lost and disintegrated. During the struggle, the national movements tended to be liberal in their opposition to autocratic dynasties in Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (though Austro-Hungary became quite liberal during the reign of Emperor Franz-Joseph). Nationalism later exposed its illiberal fangs in many of the successor states of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires when they eschewed democratic traditions and liberal institutions and took to persecuting minorities. Putin’s denial of Ukrainian nationhood harkens back to the 19th century, when empires refused to acquiesce to the national liberation demands of Ruthenians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, other Slavic nations, Italians, Estonians, Finns, Livonians and Lithuanians.
The hard-right Putinists in Europe and the United States are already finding it hard to reconcile their opposition to the European Union with their support for a far more oppressive Russian Empire that denies Ukraine its right to national self-determination. Many of them, such as Italy’s former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the Czech President Milos Zeman and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — not to mention parts of the American Republican leadership — are now rushing to condemn Putin. But things will only get worse for them.
Their political movements will experience the kind of fragmentation that the ideological left did after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Some will remain loyal to Putin but face political marginalization. Others will attempt to keep the Putinistic faith while dissociating themselves from Putin and Russia. Either way, they’ll be forced to constantly explain their relations to Putin and Russia and to apologize for their past attachment to the Moscow butcher.
Linking the populist authoritarian right with Putin is a no-brainer strategy for its political opponents, given that there is plenty of evidence to support the linkage: Trump’s comments expressing admiration for Putin and his regime; the personal meetings that Putin held with Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn; the financial subsidies the Kremlin gave to politicians like Le Pen and Zeman. This association is “sticky” — and the right will have a hard time washing it off. Indeed, the harder right-wing populists try to deny it, the more it’ll “stick” in the public mind.
The Russian invasion presents an opportunity for the European Union and NATO to return Poland and Hungary to the European fold. The choice now is clear: Either join Imperial Russia and embrace its authoritarian illiberal project, or return to Europe in the spirit of 1989 by accepting the rule of law, liberal-democratic norms and internationalism. Countries like Hungary that count on NATO to protect them from Russia’s imperial designs should be expected to share the West’s liberal values. After all, NATO countries would have little incentive to put their blood and treasure on line and whole-heartedly defend nations that have more in common with Russia, their foe, than with them.
Eastern Europe is likely to be flooded with millions of Ukrainians. Fellow Slavic nationals and former victims of the Soviet empire will accept these refugees. These countries will receive help from wealthier and larger Western countries to resettle displaced Ukranians, which will bring the two sides closer. The old debates about Syrian refugees, which were the result of previous Russian aggression, and which divided Europe, are about to become obsolete.
What of Ukraine itself then? It is easier to see what it will not be. Russia won’t be able to have its way with this neighbor, second only in size to Russia in the region, as easily or smoothly as it did when it invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Ukraine has an independent leadership that did not come to power with Russian help. It has a history of independence, and its military officers do not take orders from Moscow. The relevant comparison here is with the 1939 Soviet occupation of the Baltics and Eastern Poland, which was followed by the extermination of local elites either by execution, as in Katyn, Poland, or by imprisonment in the Gulags.
Even if Putin tries to pull something like this now, at least part of the Ukrainian leadership will survive to create a government in exile. The struggle between the Ukrainian nation and the Russian Empire will be a full-throttle 19th century anti-imperial struggle for national liberation. Zelenskyy will be remembered not as Czech statesman Vaclav Havel or Polish anti-Soviet dissident Lech Walesa, who struggled for human rights, political freedom and democracy in established nation-states. Rather, he will be seen as a national liberation leader in the mold of Poland’s Tadeusz Kościuszko, Italy’s Giuseppe Garibaldi or Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar. Killing Zelenskyy will only make him a national martyr and make his legacy stronger.
Ukraine has already existed for too long as an independent nation for the nationalist toothpaste to be put back in its Soviet-made imperial tube. No Russian imperial occupation, however brutal, short of genocide, is likely to erase Ukraine’s national identity and aspiration for self-determination.
Russia may continue its irredentist tour of Europe under the pretense of “defending” other Russian minorities in northeast Estonia and in Latvia’s capital port city of Riga, a significant prize both for economic and geopolitical reasons, even at the risk of a NATO confrontation. However, the mortal ideological damage to Putinism has already been done. It will now be seen for what it is: a naked, imperialist, land grab in a postcolonial world, a relic of the 19th century in a world where well-being, wealth and power are increasingly connected to science, technological innovation, information and international trade and commerce, rather than land and minerals.
Russia, as it currently exists, is the largest country in the world, thanks to its history of Czarist expansion. But not much good has come of it for the Russian people. We are witnessing now the denouement of Putinism, a beginning of the end. It started as an extreme nostalgia for a past that never was, for a patriarchy and ethnic homogeneity that was always miserable — but it is ending in a nihilistic orgy of death and destruction.