Staunton, April 21 – Until recently, most analysts had described the Putin regime as authoritarian. Now, some are calling it “neo-totalitarian;” but the best term to use, Andrey Kolesnikov argues, is “hybrid totalitarianism,” because the current system combines elements of authoritarianism and totalitarianism rather than being purely one or the other.
Most modern dictators, the New Times commentator says, rely on the manipulation of information rather than mass repressions. That was true of Putin until recently, but now he is prepared to use repression ever more broadly rather than rely primarily on information campaigns (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/211258).
But the primary indication of any shift from authoritarianism to totalitarianism is that in the first, the state is prepared to accept “the silent assent” of the ruled while in the second, it demands the expression of active support by its subjects. Indeed, it is this mobilizational model that Ralf Dahrendorf defined as being the essence of totalitarianism.
That seconds much of the understanding of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich in the 1950s when they argued that “under authoritarianism, the main thing are prohibitions and an understanding of what people must not do, while totalitarianism combines prohibitions and imperatives and prescriptions.”
And the launch of the war in Ukraine, Kolesnikov continues, Putin has moved in many but not all ways from the authoritarian to the totalitarian model. Kolesnikov continues. How far he will go remains an open question, but for the time being, it is best to describe his system as a hybrid of the two.
The New Times columnist enumerates other features of totalitarianism to which Putin either has reached or is approaching: the need to hate enemies foreign and domestic, the increasing spread of the language of hatred, and the belief that the state has primacy over everything else.
A further indication of Putin’s moves from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, albeit still incomplete, is the self-isolation of the country and the regime’s assertion that it is superior to everyone else in ways that recall Stalin-era claims that Russia invented radio and all the rest, Kolesnikov says.
Beyond doubt, Russia has “plunged into a kind of dystopia,” one that seems to require the term “totalitarianism.” But at the same time, it retains a number of concepts from democracy, civic culture and a market economy that make it inappropriate to suggest that it has gone the whole way, according to the New Times columnist.
In the minds of many, the situation seems “not only hopeless but irreversible,” he continues. But because history has shown that totalitarian regimes are ineffective, Russians may have the chance to keep their country from going the entire way toward that abyss rather than having to experience it once again only to see the entire edifice collapse.