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From Nicholas to Putin: Russia Since 1900: Vladimir Putin and the Rise of Putinism: 2000–present

By David M. Durant

Vladimir Putin and the Rise of Putinism: 2000–present

Numerous books have been published about Vladimir Putin in recent years, and readers can be overwhelmed trying to find a reliable account of his life. One excellent, recent biography is Philip Short’s Putin. Short offers a lengthy but highly readable introduction to the Russian dictator, making clear his ruthlessness without portraying him as a James Bond villain. Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin is similarly thoughtful, discussing the various beliefs and influences that have made Putin who he is. A third work, French scholar Michel Eltchaninoff’s Inside the Mind of Vladmir Putin, takes a relatively measured look at the ideas that have helped influence Putin’s worldview.

While Hill and Gaddy differ with Eltchaninoff on the extent to which Putin is influenced by certain thinkers as opposed to cynically appropriating them, they do broadly agree on the nature of Putin’s worldview. Above all else, Putin is committed to restoring the power and authority of the Russian state as well as its status as a Great Power. He also feels embittered at the United States and the West for having exploited Russia’s weakness in the 1990s to expand their power and influence at Russia’s expense. American and Western support for the 2014 Maidan uprising, which overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was the final straw.

As a result, Putin and his regime see themselves as essentially at war with the United States, NATO, and their allies. While Putin is a very different type of autocrat than Josef Stalin, he and the former KGB men who populate his regime share the obsession that conflates external threats with the possibility of internal subversion. Putin and his cohorts believe that the West deliberately brought about the collapse of the USSR. Now, through everything from “color revolutions” and support for NGOs to NATO’s eastward expansion, America and its allies seek to undermine Russia again. Thus, all-out political war is once again justified and, indeed, necessary. This includes asserting Russia’s leading role in the former Soviet space, especially in Ukraine.

One major aspect of Putin’s efforts to legitimize the Russian state he has rebuilt is once again the use of history for ideological purposes. Just as Stalin rehabilitated Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, so has Putin substantially rehabilitated Stalin. This does not mean that Stalin’s crimes, or at least some of them, are not officially acknowledged. However, they are treated largely as the unfortunate side of a great leader who modernized Russia and made it a superpower. Emphasized above all else is Stalin’s role in leading Russia/the USSR to victory in World War II. Putin has adopted the cult of the Great Patriotic War—which as Jonathan Brunstedt shows in his 2021 book The Soviet Myth of World War II: Patriotic Memory and the Russian Question in the USSR was implemented in the mid-1960s to foster a sense of cross-ethnic Soviet patriotism—for use as a historical pillar of his regime. As documented by Shaun Walker in The Long Hangover and Katie Stallard in Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea, the official Soviet myths about Stalin and the war, which were deconstructed in the 1990s, have been increasingly restored to prominence.

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