Brian Taylor Shows How Putin’s Mentality Shapes Russian Politics

(Re-published from SU News | July 5, 2018) The running joke among foreign analysts is that, despite Russia’s dismal FIFA ranking, it may emerge as the real winner of the World Cup.

Between now and July 15, 2018, millions of fans will flock to various Russian cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi, to watch their national teams compete for soccer’s Holy Grail. Billions more will watch the action on television.

“Emotions often get short shrift from social scientists trying to decipher political behavior, but Taylor insists they are integral to Russian decision-making.”

Although Team Russia has dialed up some surprise victories, President Vladimir Putin, who has invested more than $13 billion on stadia and infrastructure, seems to have more than soccer on his mind. Those close to him insist he is using the World Cup to foment feelings of national pride, while enhancing his popular standing.

“The World Cup is more important to Putin than you think,” says Brian D. Taylor, professor and chair of political science in the Maxwell School and the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). “A lot has happened to Russia since 2010, when Putin won the bid to host the tournament—his re-election, the annexation of Crimea, Russian’s intervention in the Syrian war. The games come at a time when Russia’s standing in the world is precariously low.”

Taylor speaks with authority. A scholar of Russian and comparative politics, he is the author of “The Code of Putinism” (Oxford University Press, 2018), a new book about how Putin’s mentality shapes his country’s politics. As Russia teeters on the brink of economic stagnation and international ostracism, Taylor argues that mega events, such as the World Cup and the Winter Olympics in Sochi, four years earlier, have strong political ramifications. “Merely hosting the World Cup is a major coup. It shows Russia still matters,” he says.

Most of Taylor’s career has been a warm-up for “The Code of Putinism,” which he began researching five years ago. Drawing on hundreds of interviews and speeches, Taylor thinks Putin’s messianic vision could be Russia’s undoing.

Speaking by phone from his office in Eggers Hall, the bespectacled, clean-cut author riffs on how the code motivates Putin’s decisions and influences the way he and his allies view the world. “The code of Putinism has molded Russia’s political system, along with its economy and foreign policy, since Putin’s election as president in 2000,” says Taylor, who also authored State Building in Putin’s Russia: Policing and Coercion After Communism (2011) and Politics and the Russian Army: Civil-Military Relations, 1689-2000 (2003), both from Cambridge University Press. “Key factors of Russian politics—authoritarianism, Putin’s reliance on a small group of friends and associates, state domination of the economy, an assertive foreign policy—owe their existence to the code.”

Golfo Alexopoulos, director of the University of South Florida (USF) Institute on Russia, praises “The Code of Putinism” for exposing Putin’s worldview, leadership style and method of governing. “It is critical for Americans to understand Russian thinking and motives, so we can formulate an intelligent Russia policy that advances democracy and global security,” says Alexopoulos, also a history professor at USF. “Dr. Taylor has a deep understanding of contemporary Russia and its historical and cultural legacies.”The basic notion of the code was inspired by Max Weber, an early 20th-century German sociologist. He believed that people are motivated by not only rational self-interest, but also ideas, habits and emotions. Taylor builds on this insight to analyze Putin’s mentality.

In Putin’s case, ideas include statism, anti-Westernism, conservatism and anti-liberalism. “Putin is a great power statist who believes in a strong Russia at home and abroad. He also is a conservative, prioritizing the group over the individual, as well as tradition over change and reform,” says Taylor, who earned a Ph.D. in political science from MIT. “Putin’s Russia is a ‘service state’—not one that provides services to its citizens, but one that expects citizens to serve it.”

Habits are unconscious reactions to stimuli, rather than deeply considered ideas. Putin’s key impulses involve control, order and loyalty. “Many of his habits were cemented by the time he joined the KGB in the ’70s,” Taylor says. “He and his aides made their careers as bureaucrats, not politicians, so they are used to hierarchical organizational structures. Witness Putin’s early presidential slogan: the ‘vertical of power.’”

Emotions often get short shrift from social scientists trying to decipher political behavior, but Taylor insists they are integral to Russian decision-making. “Emotions relate to how Putin sees Russia,” he says. “They include feelings of resentment, vulnerability and loss of status, stemming from Russia’s perceived humiliation after the Cold War. Putin believes it is time to redress these feelings and gain back the respect of the world.”

That the Putinist code is making inroads into classrooms is proof Taylor is onto something. Lauren McCarthy, associate professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says “The Code of Putinism” is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand how Russia operates. “Once you immerse yourself in the habits, emotions and ideas that make up Putinism, everything that happens in Russia makes more sense,” says McCarthy, who teaches a course on Russian politics, law and society. “My students [who study the code] walk away feeling like they know how to interpret Russian politics and Putin, himself.”

Thomas Keck thinks Taylor is uniquely qualified to assess the return of Global Russia. “He is a leading expert on Russian politics, particularly the state’s military and law enforcement apparatus,” says Keck, professor of political science and the Michael O. Sawyer Chair of Constitutional Law and Politics in the Maxwell School and A&S. “Brian is a popular but demanding teacher, as evidenced by his courses on Russian politics and civil-military relations. His book could not be more relevant.”

Not since the Cold War has interest in Russia bordered on obsession, if not paranoia. Doubtless that the World Cup will help burnish the country’s newfound swagger … MORE

Teacher-scholar Brian Taylor Shows How Putin’s Mentality Shapes Russian Politics

Share this!