David Lewis is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter. Before joining the University of Exeter, David held academic posts in the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, and worked for the International Crisis Group in Central Asia and in Sri Lanka. He has written extensively on politics and security in Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and on different aspects of international relations and peace and conflict studies. His books include The Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia (Hurst, 2008) and Russia’s New Authoritarianism: Putin and the Politics of Order (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). His recent research has been on the rise of illiberal ideas and authoritarian practices in global politics, particularly in relation to conflict management and peace-making.
David, you just published Russia’s New Authoritarianism. Putin and the Politics of Order . You explain that the Russian regime has been articulating a “chaos versus order” narrative as one of its key legitimacy tools. Can you develop that point for our readers?
I always found the simple binary of democracy vs authoritarianism too simplistic a frame to understand Russia’s complex post-Soviet development. There is this dominant Western narrative that tells a partial truth, in which a struggling democracy that emerged under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin reverted to authoritarianism after the coming to power of ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin. But for many conservative Russian thinkers, the Western narrative of failed democratisation makes little sense—and misses a completely different conceptual binary, that between ‘chaos’ and ‘order’.
In this view, the period from 1985-2000 was not, as liberals would argue, one of liberation from Soviet rule and democratisation. Instead, conservatives describe it as yet another ‘Time of Troubles’—one of the periods of disorder and state collapse that have punctuated Russian history since the end of the 16th century. In this cyclical view of Russian history, Putinism is understood as a necessary period of political order and consolidation of centralised power, critical to ensuring Russia’s continued existence as a viable state.
This cyclical theory of history, between periods of chaos and periods of centralised power, has a long tradition in Russian historiography. But the chaos-order binary also fits with a long-standing strand of European conservative thought that views political order as fundamentally threatened by liberalism. Illiberal conservatives argued that political pluralism—the existence of multiple interests and centres of influence represented in institutions and civil society—fatally undermined the state and political order.
For conservatives in Russia, the 1990s were not a period of nascent democratisation, but instead represented a dangerous fracturing of society through the rise of oligarchs, regional elites, separatist movements, criminal gangs, and so forth, that all threatened the very existence of the Russian state. From this point, it was only a short step to argue that the promoters of pluralism and democracy—Russian liberals and their Western supporters—were deliberately seeking to weaken Russia as a political actor in the world. So the search for political order in Russia became by definition both an illiberal idea and an anti-Western geopolitical project.
But this understanding of political order as opposed to liberalism does not necessarily mean that it was seen as anti-democratic. From the very beginning of his political career, Putin made the point that the demand for political order was a democratic demand from below—a response to what ordinary people wanted and needed. He had a point. Back in 2000, opinion polls showed more than 80% of the Russian public was willing to prioritise order over individual rights. Putin came to embody this popular demand for political order and was able to form a solid majority of support throughout his first two terms for this prioritisation of political values: first order, then rights.
Russian conservative thinkers spent a good deal of time thinking about how to form a democratic majority in support of their understanding of illiberal political order—using ideas such as conservative values to mobilize support, while painting liberal values as those of an urban, Westernised, elite minority distant from ordinary people. This attempt to divide liberalism from democracy has been a central feature of illiberal conservative philosophy—not only in Russia, but in the global trend towards authoritarianism and illiberalism.
You insist on the major role of Carl Schmitt in Russia’s promoting a politics of regional spatial projects as an answer to the liberal world order. How do you see Schmitt being read and used by the Kremlin’s thinkers or polit-technologists?
Despite his reprehensible personal history as a Nazi and an unrepentant anti-Semite, Carl Schmitt has enjoyed a renaissance among political thinkers on both the left and right of European politics since the 1980s. For leftists, his powerful critiques of parliamentarism and U.S. foreign policy undermined the self-righteousness of Western liberalism. For rightists, he was simply the foremost critic of liberalism in the 20th century; someone who enables a “critique of liberalism in a liberal world,” as Leo Strauss put it. So it was not surprising that Schmitt would also find followers in Russia. He was read by an eclectic array of philosophers, publicists and political technologists, and influenced many of the debates among conservative thinkers that dominated political thought in Russia after 2000.
There was something about Schmitt’s style that particularly resonated with Russian thinkers, perhaps it was his polemical tone or the sense of existential angst that overshadows much of his writing. Certainly, Schmitt’s analysis of the failings of Weimar democracy struck an obvious chord. Comparisons between Yeltsin’s Russia and Weimar Germany became almost a cliché in the 1990s. But what really attracted Russian conservatives was the way Schmitt’s work seemed to offer a conceptual framework for developing ideas about how to build illiberal forms of political order. You can see the influence of these illiberal ideas in political concepts such as Surkov’s ‘Sovereign Democracy’, and later on in some of the conservative amendments to the Constitution in 2020.
Schmitt offered two big ideas that resonated with Russian conservative thinking about domestic political order. First, Schmitt argued that only a genuinely sovereign leader, able to act outside the law and the constitution—to declare an exception, as he phrases it—could ensure lasting political order. A sovereign power needed to have a monopoly on decision-making, unconstrained by institutions or political opponents. This conceptualisation of sovereignty became central to the Putinist state. It involved taking back control from regional leaders, oligarchs, civil society, parliament, the IMF and so forth. But it was also about declaring the exception—acting outside the law. Take Chechnya for example—it became a space of exception where normal constitutional rules did not apply. But very soon the basic flaw in Schmitt’s conceptualisation of sovereignty became obvious: the exception was not reserved for genuine emergency situations where the state was threatened. Instead the line between the exception and the norm became blurred and exceptionality became a common feature of Russian governance.
Schmitt’s second big claim is that the fundamental distinction that defines the political is that between friend and enemy. The idea that a political community could be defined by identifying its enemy—its Other—seemed attractive for many Russian thinkers during a search for identity. For a brief moment, during the so-called Crimean consensus, there was a glimmer of this sense of unity—a nation poised against the outside world in a common purpose. But the Crimean consensus was short-lived as the underlying political and social fractures in society re-emerged. Instead, the obvious problems of Schmitt’s simplistic friend-enemy formulation have become evident in the search for internal enemies in Russia, the obsession with ‘color revolutions’ and with a ‘fifth column’ of CIA-trained activists, and the growing repressions and attacks against political opponents, including the murder of Boris Nemtsov and the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny.
Finally, to come back to your original question, Schmitt’s international theory envisages a world divided into ‘Great Spaces’, essentially spheres of influence dominated by a Great Power. For Schmitt—as for other realist thinkers—a balance of power among major powers is the only way to ensure lasting international order. For Schmitt, this concept of world order is in fundamental opposition to a liberal world order, which is dominated by the West and which promotes universalist ideas. For him, this is not a sustainable order, but one that instead risks a constant threat of total war—an ideological war of liberals against the rest.
For Schmitt, these geopolitical spaces are an ideological concept: they are spaces created in opposition to the liberal international order. Unlike traditional realist ideas, Schmitt argues that these spaces are united not only by military means or economic influence, but by a political idea. For Russian geopolitical thinkers, this idea of a multipolar world divided into grand regions has obvious attractions: if Russia can develop its own region—some versions of Eurasia—in which it is a pole, then it can also ensure its role as a global great power. But it also introduces an existential edge to Russian debates about world order: the liberal international order in this way of thinking is not a benign system that can be easily accommodated or reformed, but a threat to Russia’s existence as a fully sovereign power.
There are many debates about the “nature” of the Putin regime: pragmatic and cynical, or led by deep ideological beliefs. How do you position yourself on that question? A whole chapter of the book is devoted to the notion of katechon and Russia’s sense of a moral mission.
I think this question is often discussed with a particular view of ideology in mind—one that harks back to the age of the great –isms—in the Soviet case Marxism-Leninism, a codified ideology based on the interpretation of written texts. Of course, in this sense Russia does not have a state ideology, either for domestic use or for export. But a broader understanding of ideology (that proposed by Michael Freeden for example) sees it as a set of shared concepts about the world, a kind of lens through which we interpret reality. So, in this sense, Russian decision-makers—like everybody else – have ideological frameworks through which they interpret the world. My argument is that over the last two decades Putinism has produced a fairly coherent shared set of ideas and concepts about how the world works. It is a worldview shared by a large part of the Russian elite, and it also resonates with some other political movements and political leaders around the world.
In that sense, there is an ideology that shapes and informs decisions, but it is not a set of rigid rules or norms that prevents more pragmatic or cynical decisions being made. It’s perhaps easier to understand this as a form of ‘common sense’—shared ideas about the world—or in more academic terms, a hegemonic discourse that polices language and dictates meaning about the world.
Russia’s intervention in Syria was driven by a range of factors—geopolitical, economic etc.—but the emphasis in Russian narratives on a moral mission, a messianic element, was an important device for self-legitimation. The famous concert in 2016 when the Mariinskii orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev played Chopin in the ruins of Palmyra is a perfect illustration of this messianic framing of Russia’s military mission. Russia presents itself as a kind of tragic bulwark of stability against the forces of disorder in a way that echoes the idea of the katechon—the Biblical figure that holds back the anti-Christ. In this messianic discourse, Russia is a civilisation fated to play an essentially tragic role in an imperfect world; a bastion against the chaos and destruction unleashed by the dangerous excesses of American liberalism. You can identify this katechontic trope in official Russian narratives, from Sergey Lavrov, for example, who talks about Russia as the historical defender of Europe, as well as from conservative writers who explicitly cite the idea of the katechon.
Whatever the view of the role of ideology in the Putinist regime, I think it’s certainly the case that not enough academic research has focused on the role of ideas in Russian politics. The popular focus on kleptocracy in contemporary Russia, or the rationalist approach of much of the comparative literature on authoritarian regimes tends to overlook the importance of ideas. That’s a pity, because by studying common ideas and conceptual frameworks I think we can better locate Russian illiberalism within the wider global trends in illiberal and authoritarian politics.
You theorize the Putin regime as promoting a “politics of order”. Does that mean that the liberal world order is not an order? Isn’t a rule-based order an order? How do you entangle that conceptual definition of a “politics of order”?
Certainly, there are multiple interpretations of order and how it is produced. After all, the disciplines of political science and international relations are essentially devoted to understanding competing views of how human life should be ordered. In more concrete terms, the political history of post-Soviet Russia can also be interpreted as a struggle over how to define order and how it can be constructed. The Russian tragedy—at least in the view of liberals like me—is that the search for order under Putin was based on a fundamentally flawed theoretical premise, i.e. the Schmittian view that political order can only be produced in opposition to liberal values.
Russian conservatives picked a flawed theory of political order. But the mistake of many Western political thinkers was to assume that order did not matter, that it was sufficient to promote political and economic pluralism and assume that a sustainable political order would follow. The idea that in 1999 what Russia needed was more liberalization and more political pluralism in a situation of serious state weakness seems to me to be highly questionable. But the Russian conservative response—that political order must come first, and all democratic procedures and civil rights be subordinated to that end—was also inevitably flawed. Illiberal conservatism produced an ideological dead-end in which political order is only achieved at the expense of all other values—justice, individual rights, democratic representation, private property, and economic prosperity. And paradoxically, such an order is itself unstable and faces frequent institutional and political crises.
On the international scale, the argument of Russian conservative thinkers is simple. The liberal world order is neither liberal, nor global, nor an order, but is a Western imperialist project that produces chaos. Again, Schmitt is the most brilliant exponent of this view, which is why this former Nazi became so popular among leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy. The façade of humanitarianism in which liberal internationalism wraps itself is hypocritical—Schmitt famously quips that “whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat.” The rules-based order is one in which, as Putin claimed in his Munich speech, you have ‘one master, one sovereign,’ who not only makes the rules, but also breaks them at will. Putin’s argument is that this hegemonic system leads not to a rules-based order, but to a world without rules, in which Russia presents itself as the status quo power, the bulwark against chaos.
This leaves us in a paradoxical situation—Western analysis portrays Russia as a purveyor of disorder in the international order, while Russia views Western powers as the creators of chaos. Consequently, even when Russia breaks the rules blatantly—as in its intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014—it is still convinced that it is engaged in an order-producing act. The geopolitical divide between Russia and the West is based on deep-seated conceptual differences.
How do you see the Russian case as specific or, on the contrary, archetypical of the rise of illiberal regimes or movements across the globe?
This is an important question, and a difficult one. Each case has context-specific drivers and factors. But it is also obvious that the rise of illiberal regimes in such disparate places over the last decade is more than just coincidence. That’s why arguments claiming that Russia is simply reverting to historical type are not sufficient to explain the emergence of Putinism. We must be able to discuss some common, comparative factors that go beyond Russian political culture. Of course, there is a long tradition of autocratic governance in Russia, but historical precedent does not fully explain the emergence of the current authoritarian regime.
Talk of the rise of populism or nationalism in global politics describe essentially secondary phenomena—there is something much deeper going on across these cases. The most fundamental common theme is a rejection of the tenets of liberalism (defined in all sorts of different ways) and the assertion of national or civilisational spaces that deny the application of universal norms. So, in that sense, it is a spatial and anti-universalist movement, aimed at ‘de-spatialising’, normative institutions –the European Union, transnational civil society and so forth. A second common feature is the attempt to separate democracy from liberalism—we can call this illiberal democracy or democratic authoritarianism, but in each case an illiberal political order denies the validity of political pluralism, but still claims a popular mandate from society.
In politics, two features—both of them typical of Schmittian politics—also run through these cases. The first is the willingness of political leaders to break the rules, to step outside the law and to reject all sorts of constraining institutions—constitutional courts, international law, political conventions and norms. This is a politics of transgression and exception, and that in itself appears to draw an emotional response in some parts of society, revelling in a kind of vicarious rebellion against liberal rules.
Second, Schmitt’s idea that the political is not about forming a wholly liberal consensus but is something forged through antagonism—through division into friends and enemies. This is an identity-forming political divide that cuts across liberal ideas about citizenship and civic identity. A politics of division can mobilize communities in tribal ways, something very effective in plebiscite-styles politics. But this politics of division and exception is much less successful at achieving normal governance. The difficulties that populists have faced in managing the COVID-19 pandemic are witness to the shortcomings of this type of mobilizational politics.
In your book, you seem to use ‘authoritarian’ and ‘illiberal’ as quasi-synonym. Our Program is named ‘Illiberalism Studies’. How do you relate to the term illiberalism? Do you think it fits better conceptually than other existing terms to describe the current evolution or is it limiting our understanding?
I think illiberalism is the best term to describe a wide ideological turn in global politics, which involves a broad range of negative reactions to liberal ideas, institutions and practices. Illiberalism is a negative concept, but I think it gets at the central point that whatever claims may be made about liberalism being obsolete—as Putin claimed last year – illiberal ideas are still articulated in a world where liberal norms and liberal ideas are still powerful. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, describes a political system informed by illiberal ideas, but it is not simply defined by a ‘lack’—the lack of democratic process or the failure to develop the rule of law. Authoritarianism has ideological and political content in its own right—it is a hierarchical political order, in which authority is the primary concept around which political life is constructed.
There are a couple of challenges in using the concept of illiberalism. First, as I say, it’s a negative concept and that accurately describes its dialogic relationship with liberalism. But there is also a risk that it is viewed as only a shadow of liberalism—existing without its own tradition of political theory and political ideas. There is a tendency to dismiss the ideological content of illiberalism—instead referring to it as a kind of psychological reaction rather than an ideological shift—as Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes tend to do in their fascinating recent book. I think this overlooks a long tradition of illiberal conservatism in political thought and downplays the role and power of ideas in these political movements. This risks underestimating the power and influence of illiberalism and its ability to generate new political forms and alternative ideological and political orders.
Second, illiberalism is useful in that it takes us beyond the binary of regime types that I mentioned at the beginning—the divide between democracy and authoritarianism. It allows us to identify illiberal practices in established democracies and—potentially—liberal spaces in authoritarian regimes. This usefully blurs regime categories, but also perhaps runs the risk of overlooking the importance of democratic thought and democratic institutions in thinking about these trends in global politics. For Schmitt, liberal democracy was an oxymoron—liberalism undermined any political order and therefore the people who were represented by it. In Russian thinking, liberalism and democracy were also often conceptual opponents—Russian liberals have often seemed dismissive of the views of wider Russian society beyond the Moscow bubble—while Russian conservatives talked constantly about the need for representation of a silent majority, a term borrowed from American conservatism. In using the term illiberalism we should also continue to keep in mind the complex but vital relationship that has always existed between liberalism and democracy.