Ideological Change under Vladimir Putin in the Perspective of Social Identity Theory

By Evans, Alfred | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Ideological Change under Vladimir Putin in the Perspective of Social Identity Theory


Evans, Alfred, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: This article places Russia's recent ideological developments in a perspective that is drawn from social identity theory (SIT). The analysis presents examples of all three of the identity management strategies that SIT describes--social mobility, social competition, and social creativity--in the words and actions of Soviet and Russian leaders from the Brezhnev period to the present time. During 2012 and 2013 the Putin regime adopted a new strategy of identity management, for the first time in the post-Soviet years placing primary emphasis on social creativity. That change in approach has involved the open endorsement of an ideology that Russia's political leadership calls "conservatism." In the ideology of the Putin regime, hostility toward the West has assumed an increasingly prominent position, as Putin charges that the West is generating the most basic threats to Russia's identity, its security, and its domestic stability. Putin's increasingly anti-Western outlook has been reflected in his denunciation of the alleged disintegration of traditional moral standards in Western countries. This article also notes that Putin's emphasis on the importance of a unity of moral values for members of the Russian national community calls into question his previous pledge that the state will not interfere in the personal life of each citizen.

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Has Vladimir Putin become the author of a new political ideology? That question may be raised in the light of some statements about the president of Russia that have appeared in print. According to Owen Matthews, "Putin was basically pragmatic" in earlier years, but after Russia's annexation of Crimea, "Putin has become a different kind of leader, motivated by ideology, regardless of the cost to Russia's economic well-being." (1) In March 2014 Masha Gessen went so far as to say that "a new ideology has taken shape in the Kremlin," and "it has taken hold as Russia's national idea.'" (2) A number of observers would agree with Fedor Lukianov's assessment that before his third term as president, which began in 2012, Putin was "non-ideological" and a pragmatist, but after his return to the presidency "he promoted an ideology of conservatism." (3)

Interest in the possibility that Putin had made a commitment to a conservative ideology was stimulated particularly by his address to Russia's Federal Assembly in December 2013. (4) Certainly the situation has changed in some way. During an interview in September 2013, when a journalist asked whether he was a conservative, Marxist, liberal, or pragmatist, Putin replied that he was "a pragmatist with a conservative inclination." (5) But a few months later, in March 2014, during a lecture on conservatism for officers of the ruling United Russia Party, when the speaker, Ol'ga Vasil'eva, who is a history professor and the deputy head of the Administration for Social Projects of the presidential administration, was asked, "Is Vladimir Putin a conservative?" she answered directly, Classical." (6) So we might ask whether Putin has really moved away from pragmatism and adopted an ideology with a conservative content.

This article will address that question, and will place recent developments in ideology in Russia in a perspective that is drawn from social identity theory (SIT). Social identity theory offers the capacity for insights that help us to assess the significance of the change in the ideational framework of the Putin leadership described by the commentators cited above. There is not likely to be much dispute about the statement that in recent decades, "the attention given to the concept of identity--both in the social sciences and in the world at large--has continued to rise." (7) In the constructivist approach to the study of international politics, the central concept is identity, (8) but in that approach identity is not assumed to have an unchanging nature, but is viewed as variable and changing, and as the product of interaction among states and among forces inside national political systems. …

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