Meet the Author | Katharina Bluhm

‘The Focus On Putin Has Narrowed The Perspective’


In her book Russia and the West (Russland und der Westen), Katharina Bluhm explores how the illiberal conservative countermovement to liberalism and Western integration – a movement which increasingly sought to establish itself in the political arena from the late 1990s – is turning into a project that is led and driven forward by the state. But this is not only about ideology and power politics: political-economy and social policy factors also come into play.

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

What motivated you to write this book? Which dimension did you feel was lacking in the academic or, for that matter, the public discourse about Russia?

One of the key motivating factors was indeed the public discourse. I started the book around five years ago and I could see that the public discourse was focused very strongly on Putin: the books he read, the articles he wrote, who had personal access to him, that kind of thing. I don’t deny that in a personalised system, these issues are important, but they narrowed the perspective. The first point to make is that the movement against liberalism and Western integration that gradually became established from the 2000s onwards is a broad social and political movement; it doesn’t just come from the top down, from one person or a small group of people with a handful of spin doctors.

Today, it’s fairly clear that ideology comes into play, but when I started working on the book, Putin tended to be viewed as a pragmatist. Even now, there is still some doubt as to whether anything akin to a state ideology actually exists. So that was the second major motivating factor. The third was that when this ideological debate began, there was a lot of talk about identity, great power status and foreign policy. But the fundamental conflict within Russia – which also plays out in the conflicts among the elites and various factions close to the elite – revolves around still another question, namely what kind of economic and social model works for Russia. And finally, there was a growing emphasis on continuity, from the Tsarist Empire to the Soviet Union and then Putinism. So that was the fourth aspect that I wanted to address: I wanted to show that it is not about historical determinism: history is open-ended, so I wanted to reveal the turning points and the breakpoints.

Let’s take come back to the title. What lies behind this terminological construct that we know as “the West”? And why is it so important in Russian thought?

The book is centred around new Russian conservativism – in other words, the attempt, through the vehicle of conservativism, to establish an ideological alternative to Western integration, to Western liberalism as we know it today. That means identifying allies in the West but above all, it means framing an alternative to liberal cosmopolitan Europe.

In the book, I look at the West mainly from Russia’s perspective. But what is “the West”? That has changed over the course of this century. At first, it primarily referred to Western Europe – not even Germany, but France, Great Britain. With the Soviet Union and the shifting of the hegemonic status of world power away from Europe to the US, it was clearly the transatlantic West, with the US figuring as leader. In essence, this is still the Russian conception of the West nowadays. Later, through the process of globalisation, transnational capital entered the frame. This is “the West” today – a social construction. But the Europeans and the US still define themselves as the West. This self-construction as “the West” against “the East” gives rise to a number of problems, partly because it thrived on a sense of superiority over the East for quite some time. That is being massively undermined at present by China and other rising powers, but the perception of asymmetry still plays a role.

How is this turn away from the West, whose outcome we are now witnessing, occurring in practice?

Russia’s challenging of the West is a stepwise process. And, of course, it is always coupled to intersecting events in the foreign and domestic policy contexts. Putin did not initially present himself as an anti-Westerner. What we are seeing with Putin, in some ways, are escalation dynamics at play. At first, he attempted to push both a rapprochement with the US and cooperation with the European Union. During his first term in office and, indeed, throughout the 2000s, there was the notion of “Greater Europe”, this idea of free trade from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which was the subject of intense debate in Russia but barely registered here.

And then there were breakpoints, especially around 2004/2005 – after the Yukos affair, which led to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s lengthy imprisonment, and the Orange Revolution. Ukraine’s increasing orientation towards the West, NATO and EU enlargement and the hesitant response to initiatives such as Greater Europe caused the Russian elites and Putin to become disillusioned with “the West” just as Putin was able to consolidate his power. Putin’s famous speech in Munich in 2007 was his pro-active assertion of a “sovereign” foreign policy: a reckoning with the USA’s unilateralism and, simultaneously, a warning to the West: “Do not go ahead with the expansion of NATO”. He still suggested a “dialogue between civilisations” at that time, but that in itself was a shift, because if you talk about a “dialogue between civilisations”, you’re no longer saying “Russia is part of Europe”, which was still the wording in 1999 and 2000. And then 2008 came along, with Georgia and what appeared to be the promise of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, and that really was the breaking point. This is the point where Russia’s elite realises that the West has repeatedly failed to acknowledge them and will never see Russia as the great world power with spheres of influence in Europe which it aspires to be. And then we had the global financial crisis and we had Medvedev heralding another “reset” of relations with the US under Obama.

So when did this fundamental ideological turn away from the West occur?

In fact, the crucial shift occurred in 2012; in the literature, the “conservative turn” is now more or less an established term. I would say that this was the point when the illiberal conservative movement that had attempted to establish itself in the political arena was, in effect, transformed into a state-led project. This was no longer merely a United Russia party claiming to be a “conservative party” for the “majority” to occupy the term for itself in the official Russian party spectrum; instead, the message was “Russia is conservative. Russia is not liberal”. And so it became a kind of state-led conservativism, a state doctrine which was then driven forward in waves. And you can see the new state conservatism is enshrined in the constitution from 2020 onwards.

When we hear some of the statements about history policy and the anti-Western rhetoric, we inevitably wonder: “Is this what they really believe?” But just how important is ideology to the Russian leadership?

Well, first of all, we must assume that there are still major lines of conflict within the Putin administration and the diverse factions within the Russian elites. There is no uniform belief system or consensus on what is, in effect, this state-ordered conservativism and which socioeconomic model is most suitable for Russia. On the contrary, much of the Russian elite is still strongly Western-oriented, and that prompts this accusation from people who have driven this ideology, who say: “You are traitors, you are agents of the West." And of course, in that moment, when a raison d’état is in effect established, there is also a fair amount of opportunism, which means that no one knows what people really think. And that’s why I have always been interested in the avantgarde; in other words, the people who have driven the illiberal conservative agenda forward before they enter the mainstream – although even then, the ideas might not gain currency everywhere. These are people who invested their biographies in this project. And there are elite members who share the agenda: to name a few, former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, the current Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev are members of the political elite who almost certainly share many of the ideas propounded by the illiberal conservative movement against (neo-) liberalism and Western integration. So there are certainly people who represent and carry forward this ideologically grounded belief within the Putin-administration.

As for Putin, what does he think? I don’t know if that’s so important. But it is my belief that he has undergone a process of radicalisation and major disillusionment and that he does espouse the new state ideology to a large extent, far more so than the earlier “system liberals” in some sections of the elite. Whether the decision to wage this war of aggression was taken by Putin alone during 2021 or involved a very small group of people, it does resonate with ideologues in and around the elites and ties in with their discourses, and it resonates with the Russian Orthodox leadership and the conservative, Orthodox and traditionalist civil society organisations that are supported by the Church and the state. These actors function as an echo chamber or sounding board but they also drive the discourse. In that sense, the decision to start the war may well have been taken by one individual, but there is active support for it within a certain segment of Russian society, and we should not assume that this is solely due to the effects of propaganda.

The interview was conducted by Stefanie Orphal, communications director at ZOiS.

Katharina Bluhm is Professor of Sociology with a focus on Eastern Europe at the East European Institute and the Institute of Sociology, Freie Universität Berlin.

Bluhm, Katharina: Russland und der Westen. Ideologie, Ökonomie und Politik seit dem Ende der Sowjetunion. Matthes & Seitz, 2023.