Globalist Perspective

Is Russia Fascist?

No previous fascism made it past its youth. This one is a late-stage fascism. It necessarily takes some styles and structures from late-stage Soviet Communism.

Takeaways


  • Under Putin, the Russian regime has gradually transformed itself and now crystallized before our eyes into a fascist form.
  • The new order in Russia today has enough in common with previous fascisms to make the classification accurate. The differences are secondary.
  • Russia presents in many respects a "mature form of fascism" or "late-stage fascism".
  • The fact that the Putin regime does not brand itself as "fascism" is of little significance.
  • It is revealing that the Russian regime claims to be fighting against fascism, and slanders Ukraine as fascist. This projection of one's own vice onto one's enemy is more confirmation than refutation of the classification for Putin's Russia.
  • No previous fascism made it past its youth. This one is a late-stage fascism. It necessarily takes some styles and structures from late-stage Soviet Communism.
  • The Putin regime could aptly be called “late Communism in style, fascism in substance.”
  • Communism was most reckless where it fancied itself scientific: in economy and social classes. Fascism was most reckless in the sphere of its own “science”: war and race.
  • What the fascism category tells us is not what specifically will be done, but the seriousness of the problem we face, and the range of options for the future.
  • It behooves us to prepare our minds for making a success of it if we suddenly come again to a post-fascist world.
  • Our post-cold war years look depressingly similar, in retrospect, to the interwar ones. We are facing off against Russia a second time around, as if in a repeat match.

[Note to journalists: You may quote from this text, provided you mention the name of the author and reference it as a new Strategic Intervention Paper (SIP) published by the Global Ideas Center in Berlin on The Globalist.]

Does post-February 24 Russia fall within the category of “fascism”? Scholars and analysts see that it has a lot in common with fascism. And they mostly agree on which features it has and has not. Yet, their answers land on opposite sides of the question.

To make a long story short, my answer to the question is basically: Yes. Under Putin, over the past 20 years, the Russian regime has transformed itself. And, in recent months, it has crystallized before our eyes into a fascist form.

Putin’s road to fascism

The first years of Putin’s rule, the period from 1999 to 2005, exhibited a conservative, cautiously authoritarian political regime that was paired with liberal economics.

The subsequent period, lasting from 2005 to 2021, when Putin had to contend with the Rose and the Orange and “Dignity” Revolutions, was counter revolutionary in character. That is a category short of fascism, although connected with it in its ideas and its place on the
political spectrum.

In the days surrounding February 24, 2022, Russia’s evolution crystallized into a new order.

The previous Putin years may have to be reevaluated as preparation for that, but we will have to leave that question to future historians: It depends on what the next stages will be – if, in fact, next stages exist.

In line with previous fascisms

The new order in Russia today has enough in common with previous fascisms to make the classification accurate. The differences are secondary. They point to a need for refinement of the term “fascism” via some subclassifications, but not for another term.

The most relevant applicable subclassifications are “early-stage fascism” and “late-stage fascism”. Russia presents in many respects a “mature form of fascism” or “late-stage fascism”.

It has most things in common with “early-stage fascism” – the fascisms we remember from a century ago — but not its age and age-related features. Those previous manifestations of fascisms all died young, and, unlike Communism, they never made it to a stage of maturity.

Fascism and Communism

In Russia today, there is not the fervent mass movement, ideologically motivated and revolutionary, that was one of the hallmarks of the early-stage fascisms, say, of the German or Italian brand.

To understand fascism in Russia, it is important to look at the other form of totalitarianism, that is, Communism. Fascism was originally Communism’s historic brother, a close imitation of its totalitarianism and, in its ideology, its mirror image. The two brothers each considered the other its dark twin and they fought each other like Cain and Abel.

In contrast to fascism, which in the German case only held power for 12 years, Communism made it to an old age. Quite remarkably, Communism transformed itself several times before eventually giving up the ghost.

The Putin regime could aptly be called “late Communism in style, fascism in substance”. Putin’s party – United Russia — is more akin to the late Communist party of power than to the early fascist parties. The latter came to power by toppling their predecessors with mass mobilizations. So did the early Soviet Communist Party.

The late Soviet party was an organic outgrowth of the original revolutionary one, not a different species. Putin’s is a further successor to this party of power, not an organic continuation of it but a reconstitution after a brief hiatus. There is less difference than meets the eye.

Putin’s fascist role reversal

The fact that the Putin regime does not brand itself as “fascism” is of little significance. First, it could not possibly call itself “fascist,” because fascism was badly discredited by three factors: its destruction in war, the revelation of its mass crimes, and its use by

Communists and by the West alike as a term for the most stinging and exclusionary denunciation of political enemies.

At the same time, it is very revealing that the Russian regime claims to be fighting against fascism, and slanders Ukraine as fascist just as the Soviets slandered myriad of their enemies.

This projection of one’s very own vice onto one’s enemy is more confirmation than refutation of the classification for Putin’s Russia. It is another case of the regime’s operational maxim: “Accuse others of what you yourself are doing to them.”

Recent efforts to address the question

While there are many specific arguments to sort out on Putin’s relation to fascism, I find it most instructive to consider it in the broader context of the works of Alexander Yanov and Andreas Umland.

Yanov pioneered the field starting in 1977. Umland has produced an enormous compendium of literature on the development of Russian nationalism since 1991, coupled with his own studies on understanding the classifications and the nature of fascism.

Umland has taken fascism as a serious problem in Russian politics and in Putin’s politics, despite not regarding Putin as fully fascist. He has also had the experience, or honor, of being attacked by Alexander Dugin, Russia’s chief fascist ideologue, for it.

Dugin’s own goal

Umland had, quite accurately, pointed out that Dugin had advocated a “Red fascism” — expounding the political and theoretical motivations for reconciling the Red and the Brown and freeing them of their former mistake of mutual enmity.

Dugin has since grown sensitive about the point. Fascism had become a curse word in Russia even more than in the West. He thus understandably preferred to avoid it once he matured a bit politically and saw openings to anchor his viewpoint in more mainstream Russian venues. But in terms of substance, his viewpoint itself does not seem to have changed.

The overlap between Red and Brown in both Germany and Russia

Russia’s dissident far right, operating under mature Soviet Communism, found itself in a different era and different circumstance than the fascist movements of the early 1900s. This did not make it non-fascist. It made it, or rather parts of it, an updated and contextualized fascism.

The dissident far right found a project tailored to its circumstances. It recommended itself to the hardline organs of the regime as a way to regenerate the totalitarian system and to fill the ideological vacuum left by the fading out of the belief in Communism.

It was a proposal for an ideological transfusion from an estranged brother of Communism, curiously similar despite their longstanding enmity.

Unlike the proposal from the Ayatollah Khomeini for the Soviet Union to adopt Islam to fill its ideological vacuum, the Russian fascist proposal found real resonance in the Slavophile sector of the regime and intelligentsia.

There was a reason for this. The overlap between Red and Brown in both Germany and Russia dates to their common roots in German Romanticism. The connection had been demonstrated in
depth in the intellectual histories by Hans Kohn.

In his youth as a Jew in the expiring Austro-Hungarian empire, Kohn had been entranced by romantic nationalism; but after the catastrophe of German nationalism, he became the major Western historian of nationalism.

He showed how romanticism had given rise to both nationalist extremism on the Right and classist extremism on the Left. He also showed how the Western civic nationalisms were feeding into the more hopeful Euro-Atlantic integration process.

Post-Soviet fascism and the original European fascisms: Secondary differences

The original European fascists were not dissidents within a decaying totalitarian system. They did not have a sprawling crumbling empire to hold together by infusing the largest nation within it with a nationalist fervor harsh enough to suppress the other nationalities by force and war.

Rather, Europe’s original fascists dreamed of constructing an empire by force. And they did not have a totalitarian system to offer to regenerate, but rather proposed to construct one.

The original fascists feared Communism, which they saw as the ultimate fulfilment of the liberal degeneration of the old order. They imitated Communism with their mass politics and their totalitarianism in order to fight it better.

The late-Communist era new fascists, by contrast, had a prefabricated totalitarian shell all around them to fill with their substance.

They praised Communism, backhandedly perhaps, forhaving saved their society from wholesale westernization and from full-scale liberal-individualist degeneration.

Fascism’s “revolutionism” was always against revolution

Fascism was an extreme form, not of revolutionism, but of conservative counter revolutionism. Communism and anarchism were extreme forms of ideological revolutionism.

Carl Schmitt wrote of the “conservative revolution” in 1920s Weimar Germany. But in truth he was a counter revolutionary, not a revolutionary.

Schmitt was a prominent political and legal philosopher who became a Nazi, but it is debated whether he was really a believing Nazi or just a counter revolutionary trying to keep the regime from becoming too extreme and revolutionary. The “revolution” in “conservative revolution” was a term that he used for stealing some elan from the Left.

Alexander Dugin used the same term, copying Schmitt’s verbal acrobatics many decades
later in the Weimar-like Russia that existed after 1991.

Applying the essentialist definition of fascism to Russia

Let us use the most influential scholarly definition of fascism presently extant: Professor Roger Griffin’s essentialist concept of generic fascism.

It centers on a “palingenetic” myth of national-civilizational regeneration: a rejection of the present as degenerate, a dream of a return to an imagined healthy past, but on steroids.

The old organic, totalistic society is supposed to replace the selfish individualistic modern one, a feat to be done by a nation which blessedly has been spared being totally liberalized and rendered hopelessly decadent like the West, and so can save itself and take over the leadership of the world from the West, combining its resurrected past with all the technology and dynamism of modernity.

Putin’s regime does indeed meet this essentialist definition. It also has the same “stab in the back” myth. And the Weimar syndrome. And some of the same glorification of violence as a means of regeneration.

And it has the same amoral “whataboutism”: it ridicules the moral criticisms it faces from the West by finding similar-sounding things to accuse the West itself of doing.

It says the West’s criticisms are just a hypocritical ploy to hold onto superior hegemonic power in the world. With this argument, it plays on the resentments of the West that exist everywhere.

It discovers that it can seem to get away with excusing itself in this manner for any crimes it might commit. It revels in this as a liberation — but a liberation for its
dark side. Anyone who has studied fascism or Communism is familiar with this nihilistic mentality and how far it can lead into horrors. It is back today in Putin’s Russia.

Russia’s multiethnic empire and fascism

But some ask, can Russia be fascist as a multiethnic empire? It has been a multiethnic empire with a core nation for half a millennium.

It is trending toward ethnonationalism and racism despite this, but not to the same degree as the original fascist states, which were relatively homogeneous nation states.

By treating a comparable level of racism and ethnonationalism as the criterion for fascism, some would exclude the Russian empire from the fascist league a priori. However, this would be a misleading argument from an analytical standpoint.

Russian fascism is of course going to be less exclusively ethnonationalist and less racist than the earlier fascisms. This is almost a mere tautology: a multiethnic empire is a multiethnic empire.

In fact, Russian fascism takes positive nationalistic pride in Russia’s leadership of a multiethnic empire, the likes of which Hitler could only dream of creating.

Its imperial status was stressed by Dugin as making Russia a civilization of its own, a project of how to live, not just another merely limited nation.

In this way, Russian fascism synthesizes its ethnonationalism with its multiethnic imperialism.

What is striking is not that Russia has less ethnonationalism and racism than Nazi Germany.
What is striking is the extent to which Russia today is incorporating similar themes of ethnonationalism and racism, even though that seemingly contradicts its multiethnic imperial condition.

This can serve as an indicator of the strength of the fascist thrust in its politics.

Us vs. Them in Russia and in fascism

Wise analysts have pointed to the Us-Them dichotomy as more relevant and important than racism per se as a supplementary aspect of the fascist vision of decadence and regeneration. The dichotomy is far more than a mere distinction between Us
and Them.

It makes them mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive: a world divided strictly into two camps. You are either with the saved or with the damned. An activist approach is taken to this dichotomy. You must proclaim yourself to be with the saved camp. He who is not with us is against us.

It follows, almost as a logical deduction, that the Them must be purged and separated from the Us. The Them is a dangerously corrupting element that will Them-ify the Us if tolerated and cause the Us to degenerate. The good news is considered to be that the expulsion of the Them can propel the Us to regeneration.

This is arguably a major key to what fascism is. It is a near- equivalent to palingenetic regeneration. It is certainly a better key than ethnonationalism per se, although it will often take the form of ethnonationalism.

This criterion too indicates that Putin is fascist, with his call not long after February 24 for the self-purging and exile of those who disagree.

There was his affirmation that the loss of these people — whom the rest of us will see as the best, and best educated, people of his society — will strengthen Russia.

And his praise of Russian society for having the healthy regenerative instinct of spitting them out like bugs. And even his use of Hitler’s term “nationaltraitor” as a single word.

To be sure, this mentality is not exclusive to Right-fascism. Left- Communism is even more two-camp, even harder on the “Them” as corrupt and corrupting, even more enthusiastic about expurgation of the Them as the path to a utopian regeneration.

The ethnonationalist definition of the Us-Them camps is more prominent in fascism, the class definition more prominent in Communism, but the two overlap.

Both -isms “ideologize” their camps. In practice they classify people by party loyalty, not just by race or class; otherwise, they would not be able to succeed in making their categories mutually exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

What matters most for both is the radical division of the world into two camps, the counting of the Them classes/races/affiliations as degenerative ones versus Us regenerative ones, and a consequent activist approach of expurgation toward the Them camp.

Mature versus young fascism, not fascism versus non-fascism

In post-Soviet Russia, Putin is second generation. He was present in its first generation but as small fry until he rose high in Yeltsin’s last years. Revolutionary mass mobilizers are usually first-generation regime-founders.

Stalin was a major first-generation revolutionary figure, in the tier just under Lenin. Mao, Mussolini and Hitler were all the main leaders in the revolutionary first generation.

Moreover, Putin has to be seen in the context of the Soviet Union in which he grew up and whose demise he regrets. Counting the Soviet period, Putin is approximately a fifth-generation leader. Putin is more the new Andropov than the new Peter the Great of his hopes.

Will Russia be recklessly adventuristic, like early fascism? What of the much-remarked recklessness of fascism? Will Putin be reckless in his aggressions, as the Nazis were? Is he already becoming reckless?

There have been wildly overconfident predictions on this, saying that Putin will never back down and can only escalate; sometimes concluding that we must fight him harder, sometimes that we must appease him. But the truth is: we don’t know.

Past examples can lead to either conclusion, recklessness or caution. A contrast has often been made between the Left and Right totalitarianisms in this matter. The Nazis were reckless aggressors. The Soviets were more cautious about attacking countries that could defeat or destroy them.

Fascism vs Communism: Who is more reckless?

It is held that this is because Communism was an optimistic philosophy of history that could always live with postponements of its dream, while Nazism was given to romantic pessimism and an idealization of suicidal heroism.

There is an additional explanation, however. Fascism was reckless in war, in racial policy, and in international relations. Communism was reckless in economy and in social classes. Both were reckless in the very field where they believe themselves to be expert and “scientific”.

Their science may be illusory, but it leads them on to act out their fantasies with great confidence until they have gone over the cliff and destroyed an immense amount of their own world. The Communists went over the cliff in economy and class, the Nazis in war and race.

The Communists were far less reckless in foreign relations than in their sphere of scientific gnosis: their socio-economic policies. The fascists and Nazis were far less reckless in their socio-economic policies than in their sphere of scientific gnosis: race and foreign relations.

There is a third explanation for the difference: the desperate, kamikaze style of Germany was due to its fragile strategic position, in 1914 as well as 1939.

Packed into the middle of Europe with hostile powers on both sides, it always needed a sudden breakthrough to transform the situation.

Russian traditional strategy, by contrast, has always been calmer and more cautious. It is a bookend country of Europe like Britain, moreover one with vast expanses and hinterland.

Russia does not need a breakthrough. Japan, like Germany, was in a fragile position, making a transformative stretch at Pearl Harbor that ultimately brought it down, and embracing kamikaze heroism at the end.

Italian fascism was, however, not reckless; it only attacked weak countries located in places where its attacks would not threaten any great power. Hitler had to drag it into the world war.

Franco’s Spain was quite careful internationally; but then, it is often classified as counter revolutionary rather than as fascist in its early years, and conservative reformist rather than counter revolutionary in its later years.

Finally, there is the fact that the regime in Moscow is a mostly late one, dating primarily to 1917, despite some early-fascist features dating to the period after 1999.

As a fascism, it must be counted as a mature fascism: the first one in the species, and therefore one without precise peers for use in making comparative political predictions on such matters as recklessness.

What the fascism category tells us is not what specifically will be done but how serious the problem is that we face.

What is to be done?

Putin probably can be deterred in a normal way; he is not a young revolutionary Hitler. But there is no guarantee.

Similarly, it is simply not the case that we know, no matter how often some of our pundits and analysts say so with a tone of certainty, that Putin must be given more things as an “off ramp” or else he’ll never stop the war and will blow up the world.

He already has many available off-ramps. He will more likely stop the war and take one of them, if he concludes that he has nothing more to gain from prolonging the war, a conclusion that the off- ramp discussion discourages him from drawing.

Until he makes that decision, he will continue threatening to blow everything up. He has already done so far more than the Soviets did, and he does it particularly often with those leaders and elites that show themselves prone to reward it and yield to the blackmail.

Would he make fewer nuclear threats, or more of them, if, in the name of providing an off-ramp, he is given more concessions to his demands? He will have been rewarded for the threats.

He can always go on to further demands, of which he and his entourage have already laid out a fair number.

Will losing make Putin more dangerous?

It is possible, but usually it is winning that makes dictators more dangerous, especially dictators with an ideology and a streak of overconfidence.

In sum, we are in the dark. There is no guarantee that he and we won’t blow things up either way, by our being strong or weak. We cannot achieve anything even remotely close to certainty in this new cold war.

It is as dangerous as the old one; in its initial stages, even more so, as it is akin to being in the unstable conditions of the late 1940s but with thousands of nuclear weapons on both sides.

On the positive side, we know how we worked out arrangements for reducing the danger after 1950, and some of those arrangements are still in place.

We can only exercise our best judgment in each specific situation, taking into consideration both the dangers of a posture of strength, and the dangers of weakness and yielding. That is our main task on a daily basis.

But we must also look — as we too often failed to look during the cold war — into scenarios for transformations in the overall situation into something better, so we will be better ready for this and for the question of our own role in building a different future if the occasion arises.

We have to walk the hard walk of the present and chew gum – chew over our scenarios about the future — at the same time.

When the West slacked off

We grew too accustomed, in the long decades of Soviet Communism, to the Soviet regime and the cold war as if they were eternal fixtures.

We never prepared ourselves for what to do when those twin realities ended. We treated the very question as outrageous, until the reality was upon us.

The West’s preparation before 1991 compared unfavorably to how we had prepared ourselves on what to do after World War II ended.

Back in the 1940s we did ask ourselves many of the necessary questions about the future of both Germany and Europe, and what we had done wrong after 1919.

By 1947, we were acting vigorously on our answers. It had been terrible enough to have to do the world war all over again a second time. We did not want to repeat our catastrophic mistakes of the interwar years and have to do it all over again a third time around!

But our late cold war preparations compare all too closely in some respects to our mistakes in preparing ourselves during World War I for a post-war Europe and Germany.

Our post-cold war years look depressingly similar, in retrospect, to the interwar ones. We are facing off against Russia a second time around, as if in a repeat match. And this, in a nuclear era when we really cannot afford unnecessary repeat matches.

Conclusion

We must not grow too accustomed to Putin’s Russia and the new cold war, as we did with the previous Russian regime, as if it were an eternal fixture.

Putin’s regime has more shallow roots than the old Soviet Russia and cold war. It could come to an end at any moment. It behooves us to be entertaining scenarios for its coming to a close, and to be better prepared this time for making a success of the subsequent world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Ira Straus

Ira Straus is the Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies and U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.

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