Putin’s Fascism

Putin’s Fascism

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

During the past decade, the term ‘fascism’ has become ubiquitous in Russia’s public discourse. The more the freedom of expression and of the press has been curbed in this country, the synonymous use of the word ‘nazism’ has been on the rise, too.[1] The preferred form of both is that of a slur or political invective, namely, ‘facists’ (фашисты fashisty) and ‘nazis’ (нацисты natsisty). In the West, this phenomenon has been largely disregarded as a peculiarity of the political language in present-day Russia; arguably, not more than a rhetorical flourish. But is it, given that on 24 February 2022, in a totally unprovoked move, the Russian president ordered his armies to invade peaceful Ukraine, officially to ‘denazify’ this country?[2] A day later, he gave a bizarre speech in which he denigrated the Ukrainian government as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-nazis.’[3]

It appears that Mr Putin and his inner milieu seriously believe in the truthfulness of their own rhetoric, not supported with a shred of evidence. What is more, the state-controlled Russian mass media have done what they could to instill this propaganda message among the Russians and Russophones in the post-Soviet countries, but also in Germany and Israel. On top of that, the Kremlin-controlled multilingual television network RT and Sputnik news agency pump this distorted image of reality across the world via satellite and cable TV distributing networks. Hence, this distortion and its uses merit urgent attention for the sake of an improved comprehension of the manner in which the Russian leadership perceive the world. It informs their decision-making process, and what they see as ‘rational.’

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Friends and enemies

Despite the nominal show of holding regular parliamentary and presidential elections, few have any illusions about the autocratic character of governance in Russia. Putin has time and again reasserted his position as the country’s unquestioned dictator, or ‘tsar.’ Alternative candidates – or Putin’s peers – from the 1990s, who could have become Russia’s democratic leaders were sidelined, coopted, compromised or even assassinated in cold blood, like the former Russian Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. The new generation of aspiring democratic leaders of Russia are either pressed to become loyal cogs in the authoritarian system. Otherwise, they are made to leave the country or are imprisoned on trumped-up charges, as in the case of Alexei Navalny.

In the meantime, more powers were increasingly concentrated in Putin’s hands. Across the length and width of the Russian Federation the number of regional, local and municipal elections was reduced, while the prerogatives of remaining elected officials were eroded. The honorific ‘president’ was banned from any use for elected regional officials.[4] At present only the Russian president can legally avail himself of the title. Putin’s party United Russia controls the Russian parliament and all the country’s other elected assemblies. The executive is under the Russian president’s tight personal grip, including the electoral process. Thus, potentially successful opposition candidates are prevented from standing for any parliamentary or other assembly mandates. If needed, the election results are rigged. The legally guaranteed recourse to courts of law changes nothing, because it is the executive that dictates to the judiciary. In Russia justice is dispensed in a highly arbitrary manner.

In Putin’s Russia the constitutionally guaranteed tripartite division of power was de facto liquidated, alongside any effective political opposition. On the other hand, the officially accepted ‘opposition’ parties and their deputies, are nothing else but branches of United Russia under alternative names. All of them are the sitting president’s political friends, pampered with financial and other perks into submissive loyalty. Any attempt on a deputy’s part at political independence is short-lived and often suicidal. In the recent weeks, as usual, the Russian Parliament voted unanimously, but this time even more so, passing any measures[5] that Putin needs[6] to wage the ongoing war on Ukraine. Enemies – or genuine democrats and any other effective opposition leaders – are now abroad, in penal colonies or dead. Russia’s political system officially known as ‘sovereign democracy’ (суверенная демократия suverennaia demokratiia)[7] is none other but dictatorship, or Lenin and Stalin’s democratic centralism, though less communism. After all the main goal is to re-establish a new Russian empire, with Putin on the throne. Imperialism is the new-old ideology’s proper name.

‘Democracy,’ as understood and upheld in the liberal West, is a dirty word in Putin’s Russia of ‘conservative’ values. In turn, such Russian values have more to do with the Soviet ethos of a KGB officer rather than with what the term conservatism denotes in the West. Supporters of Putin enjoy mispronouncing the word ‘democracy’ as дермократия dermokratia, which literally means ‘shit-o-cracy.’[8] The Russian state mass media present the West to Russian viewers as degenerate and in terminal decline. The leading ‘proof’ that the Kremlin marshals for supporting this diagnosis is the Western acceptance of LGBTQ persons and irreligiosity.[9] In Russia this acceptance typical of democratic open society is assessed negatively as ‘un-Christian permissiveness.’

The view reminds of the nazi propaganda’s use of Oswald Spengler’s 1918 reactionary work The Decline of the West for ‘justifying’ the replacement of democracy and civic freedoms in the 1930s Germany with totalitarian autocracy under a single and totally virtuous leader’s (Führer) rule. At the same time, in the Soviet Union the personality cult of Joseph Stalin as the Soviet people’s ‘beloved’ вождь vozhd ‘great leader, commanded-in-chief’ flourished. This Russian term was employed to translate Adolf Hitler’s honorific Führer into Russian. In this language both Hitler and Stalin were titled vozhd, basking in the sun of authoritarian camaraderie until 1941.[10] Nowadays, this past has caught up with the present. Almost no one blinks, when Putin is declared to be vozhd of the Russian nation.[11]

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Fascists and nazis

In Putin and his supporters’ rhetoric, democratic opposition leaders, LGBTQ activists and Western liberals are all ‘fascists.’ Why? Because they either do not support or even dare to oppose Putinesque Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’ and its ‘conservative’ values. According to the Kremlin, the problem is that the West is unable to see ‘light’ that comes from Russia. After all the Latin tag has it that ex oriente lux (‘out of the east, light comes’). This reluctance to embrace Moscow’s kind ideological offer ‘proves’ the West’s deepening ‘degeneracy.’ As a result, from Putin and his milieu’s perspective, the West is becoming ‘fascist’ again, like it happened prior to World War II.

The fact that during the 1930s, fascist dictatorships replaced continental Europe’s democracies does not concern Moscow’s ideologues too much. Putin the Vozhd’s guiding hand firmly steers the public discourse away from this cul-de-sac that might muddle a typical Russian’s ‘correct’ thinking and views. Likewise, in 2021, any comparisons between Hitler and Stalin, or nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were banned in Russia at the pain of legal sanctions.[12] Hence, the Stalin and Hitler’s red-brown alliance of 1939-41 must be consigned to oblivion.

From the ideological vantage of observation what counts most in today’s Russia is the ‘Great Patriotic War.’ It began with Germany’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union, making Stalin to switch allies, from the fellow totalitarian regime of nazi Germany to the hated West’s liberal democracies of Britain and the United States. World War II as such is not really mentioned in Russian school textbooks of history. Propaganda focuses on the Allied victory over Germany. The symbolical capital of this event has been so huge that neither the collapse of communism, nor the breakup of the Soviet Union has managed to erase it from everyday practices in these post-Soviet states that chose autocracy. In 2001 I observed in Tajikistan how a newlywed couple made a somber beeline to the local Great Patriotic War monument. They laid flowers and paid respects in silence. It was explained to me that the couple did it to ensure prosperity and a quick arrival of their first son. Soviet gods still rule supreme three decades after the end of the Soviet Union.

Soviet, Russian and Western textbooks agree that nazi Germany’s Hitler was worse than Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. In Putin’s Russia this conclusion translates into the gradation of the official slurs as employed for branding the regime’s opponents. Hence, these two pejoratives ‘fascist’ and ‘nazi’ are not simple synonyms. In today’s Russian rhetoric, a ‘nazi’ is a worse kind of a ‘fascist.’ As a result, the Kremlin’s official labelling of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainians, who effectively fight against the Russian invaders, as ‘nazis’ means that they are at the human pile’s odious bottom. That they are like Hitler and wartime Germany’s nazis. In turn, this conclusion ‘justifies’ not observing any agreements that post-Soviet Russia contracted with Ukraine. Hence, it is fine for Moscow to employ all tactical tricks and illegal kinds of weaponry to ensure ‘victory over fascism-nazism’ in Ukraine.

After all, in Putin’s view, this war against Ukrainian ‘nazis’ is like the Great Patriotic War against Hitler’s Germany. It does not matter that unlike in the case of the 1941 German attack on the Soviet Union, in 2022 it is Russia that pounced on Ukraine. Supposedly, Russia’s very existence has been at stake, leaving the Kremlin no choice in this regard. That may be a correct diagnosis, but it is based on a misreading of the actual causes of such an existential danger. Should Russia fall or break up soon, it will not be of Ukraine’s making, but due to Putin’s ill-thought decisions and his personal demons. That the Russian elite and the Russians at large allowed themselves to be led by this apparently unbalanced dictator into the abyss.

 

Who is a fascist?

Not a single and universally accepted definition of fascism exists. But most present a considerable overlap with one another when it comes to the ideology’s main observed elements and practices. For instance, British historian Ian Kershaw enumerates the following:[13]

  • Hypernationalism;
  • racial exclusiveness;
  • complete destruction of political enemies;
  • emphasis on discipline, manliness and militarism.

One of the goals of Russia’s current war on Ukraine is to ‘regain’ Kyiv. In the variety of Russian ethnolinguistic (hyper)nationalism, as espoused by Putin all the ‘Eastern Slavs,’ or the Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians (must) constitute a single nation. In this ideological schema Belarusians and Ukrainians are Moscow’s ‘younger brothers,’ who need to give up on their ‘peasant, lowly’ languages and cultures in order to ‘merge’ with the mighty Russians who produced world-class Russian ‘high’ culture and a Russian language of international importance. In this way of thinking about the past and future, the medieval polity of Rus’ with its capital in Kyiv cannot be seen as an ‘early or medieval Ukraine.’ The Kremlin maintains that it was ‘early Russia,’ while Kyiv was Russia’s first capital. No wonder that Putin’s politics informed by this messianic-style historiosophy convinced him to attack Ukraine in order to seize what ‘rightly belongs’ to Russia.

It appears that racial exclusiveness does not play an obvious role in Putin’s self-made ideology. Yet, his imperial-style identification of all ‘native-speakers’ of Russian as members of the Russian nation, irrespective of their own identificational wishes and whether they are holders of citizenship of other countries than Russia, points in this direction. Ethnolinguistic nationalism played an important role in nazi Germany’s ideology. All ethnic Germans were expected to be fluent in German or to learn this language soon. The German nation (Volk) was defined as a biological entity in dire need of ‘living space,’ Lebensraum. The only group of German-speakers excluded from the German nation as defined by nazis were Jews.

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The Kremlin’s current definition of the Russian nation to a degree excludes Russia’s non-Slavs, who account for a fifth of the country’s population, or 30 million. A certain reprieve is offered to these ‘sub- or worse’ Russians in the form of assimilation through mastering Russian, rejecting their native languages, and by accepting at least Orthodox culture as their own, if not Orthodox Christianity. Ethnically (East) Slavic Russophones are seen as ‘better’ or ‘more promising’ Russians than non-Slavic ones. The fact that after the breakup of the Soviet Union so many of them live outside present-day Russia is an ideological scandal. In Moscow’s eyes, the ‘tragedy proves’ that that the Russian Federation is too small a state for the Russian nation, that the Russians urgently need more Lebensraum.

As discussed above, part and parcel of liquidating any political opposition in today’s Russia was the suppression, expulsion or liquidation of political opponents. Such liquidation squarely fulfills this definition’s criterion of the complete destruction of political enemies.

In Putin’s Russia, militarism rules supreme. Even elementary schoolchildren are encouraged to ‘man up’ by donning military-style uniforms, joining paramilitary youth organizations, or learning how to shoot and kill ‘fascists.’ De facto censorship of all the country’s main mass media, coupled with the repressive and arbitrary judiciary, ensures ideological unity, in other words, discipline among the entire Russian society.

Kershaw adds that the above are the means to achieving fascism’s goals, namely,

  • building or rebuilding an empire;
  • constructing a new man for such an empire;
  • doing away with the degenerate West’s ‘wrong values,’ including capitalism;
  • ensuring each citizen an appropriate place in a new society in line with their loyalty and skills (corporatism).

Putin’s criticism of the break-up of the Soviet Union and his ideology of the Russian world (Русский мир Russkii mir) offers a millennial vision of a renewed Russian Empire. In the Russian leader’s thinking such an empire should include all the territories that used to belong to the tsarist empire when the Great War struck in 1914.

The new man that would befit such a rebuilt Russian Empire would pledge unwavering loyalty to the vozhd, become fluent Russian, follow Orthodox culture, and bravely join any war to which the empire calls him. In turn, the new man would be required to reject the degenerate West. For instance, this would entail ‘struggle’ against the ‘disease’ of LGTBQ persons who ‘sully’ the purity of the Russian nation, alongside the rejection of capitalism. The latter process of doing away with capitalism economy began with Putin’s subjection of the oligarchs to his politics and ideology, as exemplified by the imprisonment of defiant Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. At present, in the course of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, the West imposed punishing economic sanctions on Russia and its ally, Belarus. As a result, unless the Kremlin desist and stops this conflict, the Russian government has no choice but prop up the economy in free-fall through the state’s direct intervention. Russia’s economy is rapidly becoming state-owned and state-controlled, like its Soviet predecessor.

If the pariah Russia’s rapidly emerging new socio-economic system is going to last, one’s place in it will be decided by the citizen’s constantly expressed and assessed loyalty toward the vozhd and the empire. For instance, in North Korea the most trusted citizens whose loyalty has been checked time and again in the course of several generations constitute the elite. Beyond this hard core of loyalists, the ‘wavering caste’ (corporation) consists of those who follow the state’s requirements but without too much of required enthusiasm. Additionally, in the past, some of their relatives even crossed one of the ruling ideology’s red lines. Lastly, the remaining caste are the ‘hostile population’ to be ‘reeducated’ in the concentration camps, or in some cases, executed. Today’s Russia, with its security police and special task forces inherited from the Soviet period and modernized under Putin’s rule, has already embarked on this course during the recent years. The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war and the imminent collapse of Russia’s capitalist economy are only going to hasten this process. Furthermore, the gulag concentration camps, now known as penal colonies (исправительная колония ispravitel’naia koloniia ‘corrective colony [through forced labor]’), survive to this day, ready for ‘processing’ however a high wave of inmates. Free forced labor may once again be an answer to Russia’s coming economic woes.[14]

 

Conclusion: Pax Rossica?

The Russian-language collocation Russkii mir tends to be officially translated as ‘Russian world,’ meaning all the lands where Russian-speakers live. With Putin’s war on Ukraine raging on, I believe, that is fair to propose that the collocation is none other but a code name for a ‘new Russian empire.’ Another meaning of this term immediately discernible to any Russian-speaker is ‘Russian peace.’ Bearing this in mind, an Orwellian intimation of 1984’s Newspeak becomes immediately obvious:

  • war is peace,
  • lie is truth,

so, the peaceful Ukrainians going about their own business must be ‘fascists,’ while Putin’s fascist regime is this ‘pure Russia’ that is going to defeat the degenerate West and save the world. What if all that does not go to the Kremlin’s plan? Vozhd already thought about this worrying possibility. The Kremlin has Plan B, if it is necessary to unleash a worldwide nuclear war to win in this confrontation of civilizations. Putin in his self-declared garb of the globe’s ultimate religious leader sees further than any mere human, the Pope, the Moscow Patriarch, Iran’s Supreme Leader, or let alone the Dalai Lama. After wiping off humanity from the planet’s face in such a nuclear war, the Russians will go straight to heaven, while the rest of us will just die, like animals.[15]

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What a solace! What a joy! What a Russian wisdom of black milk! Sucked straight from the teat of this delusional KGB officer’s gun barrel. Mr Putin, spare yourself shame, man up, and at long last make good use of your issue sidearm.

 

Postscript: Russian occupation

What if Putin manages to occupy Ukraine? Swamping the country of 40 million and the size of France with a quarter of a million of Russian and Belarusian troops is a realistic possibility. But what then? The Kremlin’s official line is that the Russian military are liberating Ukraine from ‘fascists.’ These fascists were to be a minority of the population, or the country’s ‘nationalist and corrupt’ elite. They ‘illegally’ kept Ukraine’s inhabitants in an unwanted stranglehold, preventing them from enjoying joys of Russiandom. Freed from such fascists’ ugly control the inhabitants were supposed to welcome the Muscovian liberators with bread and salt.

This deluded dream of the Russian propaganda did not come true. The danger now is that the Kremlin may interpret this fact as a ‘proof’ that the majority of the population were ‘poisoned by fascism.’ Increasingly, Russian propagandists equate what they see as fascism with Ukrainian language, culture and statehood.[16] Thus, any effective Russian occupation of Ukraine would need to be heavily militarized, entailing the widespread use of brute force for ‘denazifying’ the Ukrainians,[17] before they come to understand that they have to be Russians.[18] That they have always been Russians. That Ukraine has been none other but an ‘artificial state’ maliciously created by fascists and imposed on this fertile land’s peaceful Russians.[19]

Therefore, a genocide of the Ukrainians by Russia’s politicians and military is now on the cards,[20] in place of Moscow’s big lie about a concocted genocide of Russians by ‘Ukrainian fascists.’[21] The Kremlin is no novice to using genocidal-scale measures for forcing Ukraine into submission. Putin extols Stalin and wants to be seen as his worthy successor. In 1931-32, this Soviet vozhd unleashed state-imposed hunger on Soviet Ukraine to ‘convince’ this country’s peasants to give up their farms for the sake of the collectivization of agriculture. The resultant Holodomor (death by starvation) cost over 4 million Ukrainians their lives.[22]

Subsequently, the Ukrainian-language elite and culture were liquidated in the latter 1930s. As many as 30,000 people were repressed.[23] Numerous were summarily executed, more died in the gulag concentration camps. 86 percent of the interwar Soviet Ukrainian-language writers perished.[24] It was a might blow to Ukrainian language and culture, which allowed Moscow for accelerating the Russification of Soviet Ukraine after World War II. Nowadays, this process would be classified as a case of cultural genocide.

Chillingly, it is reported that the Kremlin is busy drafting blacklists of Ukrainians to be killed or deported to concentration camps.[25] The plan is a repeat of Stalin’s repressive policies for Ukraine but ten times more quickly, in less than a year. Stalin took extra care and intricate subterfuge to conceal from the West what his regime was doing. On the contrary, Putin is more than happy with the thorough live coverage of Russian atrocities and war crimes. Russia’s vozhd believes that he is above any human or international law. What now Westerners see on their television and smartphone screens is to frighten them witless, so that no Western country would even dare to think about standing in Moscow’s path.

But what is the Kremlin’s constructive and peaceful plan for occupied Ukraine? First, the military conquest with the vast loss of lives on a genocidal scale, alongside the wanton and rampant destruction of the urban areas, production plants and vital infrastructure. (Moscow does not shy away from shelling Ukraine’s nuclear power plants that can trigger a disaster for all of Europe, as it happened in the case of Chernobyl in 1986.[26]) In the dead of winter with subzero temperatures and blizzards raging, hunger, thirst, exposure and lack of medical assistance are going to take their toll on the country’s population, too. Not only rockets, but also elements will beat the surviving Ukrainians into docility. Second, with the blacklists ready, Putin is busy preparing a genocide of the Ukrainian elite. Siberia’s frozen emptiness – more than three times larger than the EU itself – will welcome them to its deathly embrace, as it did in the past in the case of their grandparents and great grandparents. A cultural genocide of Ukrainian language and culture will follow in quick succession. In neo-imperial Russia’s future province of Великая Новороссия Velikaia Novorossiia (Greater New-Russia), Ukrainian will be banned from any official or public use. After all, the tsarist administration pronounced on this question already in 1863: ‘the [Ukrainian] language has never existed, does not exist and cannot exist.’[27]

Now we have been reassured, in the early 21st century, death is a master from Russia. The great nazi-fascist vozhd in the Kremlin can cast a calm glance southward – the empire expands again. Not such a thing, like decolonization for Russia. That is Putin’s legacy – a new dark future for Russia and Europe.

March 2022

[1] фашисты,нацисты: 2020-2019. 2022. Books Ngram Viewer. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=фашисты%2Cнацисты&year_start=2010&year_end=2019&corpus=36&smoothing=3. Accessed: Mar 4, 2022.

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/24/putin-denazify-ukraine/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/25/its-not-rational-putins-bizarre-speech-wrecks-his-once-pragmatic-image

[4] https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-tatarstan-president-title-abolished/31608905.html

[5] https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-luhansk-donetsk-duma-recognition/31704804.html

[6] https://hindustannewshub.com/russia-ukraine-news/the-state-duma-unanimously-adopted-a-bill-on-terms-of-up-to-15-years-for-fake-about-the-russian-military-the-moscow-times-in-russian/

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20060418035317/http://www.edinros.ru/news.html?id=111148

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbWr-IW0x38

[9] https://fpc.org.uk/russias-traditional-values-leadership/

[10] https://topwar.ru/188026-vtoraja-mirovaja-v-period-velikoj-depressii.html

[11] https://www.ozon.ru/product/2019-putin-vozhd-rossii-osobennosti-natsionalnoy-politiki-161411336/?sh=XHl-ZwAAAA#section-description–offset-140–offset-80

[12] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/vladimir-putin-bans-comparisons-between-soviets-and-nazi-germany-in-second-world-war-wtdtw6g9n

[13] Ian Kershaw. 2016. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949. New York: Penguin Books, pp. 228–232.

[14] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-09/it-s-not-a-gulag-russia-says-of-plan-to-put-prisoners-to-work

[15] https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/putin-lied-about-his-nuclear-doctrine-and-promised-russians-that-they-would-go-to-heaven

[16] https://rusnod.ru/novosti/lnr-i-dnr/svodki-s-poley/2021/03/05/svodki-s-poley_79315.html

[17] https://lenta.ru/news/2022/03/03/z_denaci_ukr/

[18] https://obivatel007.livejournal.com/100224.html

[19] https://ukraina.ru/interview/20220305/1033445865.html

[20] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/03/01/volodymyr-zelensky-pleads-west-prevent-genocide-russia-ukraine/

[21] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-lodges-case-against-russia-world-court-zelensky-2022-02-27/

[22] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor

[23] https://uk.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A0%D0%BE%D0%B7%D1%81%D1%82%D1%80%D1%96%D0%BB%D1%8F%D0%BD%D0%B5_%D0%B2%D1%96%D0%B4%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%B6%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BD%D1%8F#%D0%9C%D0%B0%D1%81%D1%88%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%B1%D0%B8_%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%96%D0%B9

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executed_Renaissance#Scale_of_the_tragedy

[25] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/21/us-claims-russia-creating-lists-of-ukrainians-to-be-killed-or-sent-to-camps-report

[26] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60613438

[27] https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Valuyev_Circular

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