An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2017

Paradoxes of Putinism

Timothy J. Colton

Vladimir Putin's trademark since taking charge of Russia's government almost two decades ago has been stability. He has achieved much in terms of this master goal, including economic and demographic recovery. But development on the part of Russian society has been juxtaposed with growing rigidity and control-mindedness on the part of the state. The accumulation of economic, social, and foreign-policy problems in recent years naturally raises questions about the sustainability of the current regime. Paradoxically, Putin's personal popularity has not always been matched by confidence in his policies, although the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine gave that confidence a boost. Another paradox is that Russia bucks the global trend that seemingly links social and economic modernization to political democratization. The essays in this issue that follow will probe dimensions of this knot of puzzles.

TIMOTHY J. COLTON, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2011, is the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis (1995), Transitional Citizens: Voters and What Influences Them in the New Russia (2000), Yeltsin: A Life (2008), and Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016).

From day one, the declared priority of Russia’s second president–it is no exaggeration to call it a sacred priority for him–was to engineer political and social stability. His chosen course reflected the instinctive embrace of control for control’s sake of a career silovik, the Russian catchword for an associate or veteran of the security and military services. But Vladimir Putin also took a more philosophical view. Disorder was not only inherently undesirable, he affirmed in the “Millennium Manifesto” published in his name on the eve of his appointment as acting president on December 31, 1999, but was a stumbling block to normal life and development–and nowhere more than in Russia, given its tumultuous history. Although Communism had its accomplishments, on the whole, in Putin’s estimation, it had proven a recipe for keeping the Soviet Union backward and out of the global mainstream. As the way out, Putin rejected the “shakeups, cataclysms, and total makeovers” that accompanied the Communists to power and defined Russia’s twentieth century. The twenty-first century demanded a forward-looking “strategy for . . . revival and prosperity . . . based on all the positives created in the [world .  .  .

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