How Putin Made Russia into a Fascist State.
Putin preaches a fascist ideology to an oblivious Russian population, who then parrot fascist insults at Ukrainians they call Nazis…
“We have the great moral right to be principled and insistent in defending our positions, because it was our country that bore the brunt of the fight against Nazism…The young people of today are the heirs of the true freedom fighters…We will always be faithful to their valour, and that means we have a future*…Glory to Russia!”
Vladimir Putin, excerpt from Victory Day speech, May 9th, 2012. (1)
*Putin used the phrase ‘budushcheye yest’ which is an implied response to the idiom ‘budushchego net’, or ‘there is no future.’ A direct translation is not possible.
Nazi and Nazism are words that require no explanation normally. They bring such a weight of dreadful baggage and trauma that even if one is unable to find the words to construct a definition the meaning is abhorrently clear.
But both these weighty words, complete with their leaden baggage, are being thrown around by the media and on social media with such rampant frequency of late often without any understanding of what is actually being said.
It’s not that these words are being employed out of context, because they often fit perfectly, but we need to understand the complexities and nuances of how this word is being used by Putin, his cronies, and the Russian media at large to fully appreciate the difference between how we in the West might perceive things, in contrast to how those in Russia understand them.
For example, when Putin calls Volodymyr Zelenskyy a Nazi it is often pointed out in the media, and certainly on social media, that Zelenskyy is in fact Jewish, thereby implying the ridiculousness and inaccuracy of Putin’s verbal attack.
And whilst that is mostly factually correct; Zelenskyy is a Jew, and Putin’s use of the term Nazi is inaccurate, but it is not inaccurate in the way that it is being implied in the much of the media. What I mean is, that it is not Zelenskyy’s Jewishness that disqualifies him from being a Nazi, it is Russia’s perception of what he, and by proxy Ukraine, are doing ‘to Russia’ that make the term invalid.
But first there is one point that must be addressed before we can go any further; and that is whether Ukraine deserves the label that Putin and the Russian media is sticking it with?
Is Ukraine a hotbed of Fascists?
“Politics is the art of identifying and neutralizing the enemy.”
Ivan Ilyin, 1948.
Coming just days after the first war crimes cases are brought against Russian troops this question is more pertinent than ever. Why do Russian troops think the Ukrainians are Nazis and are they right to believe this?
In 2019 Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian elections in a landslide with 73% of the vote in elections that were deemed ‘free but not yet totally fair’ by observers — although it would seem that the ‘unfair’ part of the election process was undertaken by Zelenskyy’s opponents, and so were disastrously unsuccessful. The main far-right candidate, Ruslan Koshulynskyi, won just 1.6%, down from a whopping (can you feel my good old sense of English irony here?)10% in 2012, and yes, as we’ve already said, Zelenskyy is Jewish, and he lost family in the holocaust, facts which do not exhibit any great inclination towards fascist tendencies in the Ukrainian public at large or in their President.
In fact, in France just last weekend, Marine Le Pen, far-right challenger to Emmanuel Macron, won just over 41% which would make France arguably, 40 times more likely to be fascist than Ukraine, and yet France is not being tarred with same Russian brush.
So, with all the disinformation tools at his disposal why did Putin, and propaganda tsar, Vladislav Surkov, jump on the Nazi bandwagon?
Well, as with many things Putin, the answer is not always a short one, so please bear with me; I will be as concise as I can.
Putin’s political playbook…accuse, eliminate, justify.
The Ilyin quote above, is perhaps Putin’s approach to all things political. He identifies the problem, then, be it a rival, a political opponent or a country he sees as ‘in rebellion’ from the Russian family, he neutralises the problem using whatever method gets the job done — think Boris Nemtsov, assassination; Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with radioactive polonium; Alexei Navalny, failed attempt at poisoning with Novichok, so lock him up in jail on trumped up charges; Chechnya, bomb into submission and kills tens of thousands of innocents.
Then when all is done:
- Just flat out deny any involvement or knowledge of the crime(s) committed.
- Blame the West.
- Blame someone else entirely and scapegoat them.
These are the three nominated fallback positions; choose which one you like this time round and save the others for next time!
But Ukraine, is in itself a unique problem for Putin and didn’t easily fit into any of the prescribed boxes. In an ideal world Ukraine and its people would just slot in nicely alongside Belarus, and the Russians of course, and the Slavic nations would then celebrate their much overdue reunification, all fall to their knees in grateful submission and hero worship for the man who made it all happen.
Alas, fairy tales don’t happen any longer, despite Putin’s ire at such an outcome, and so with hubris and a hefty dose of mistaken, misinterpreted history uppermost, he pushed on regardless and in complete denial at his huge miscalculation of the facts.
It all started to go awry for Putin in 2013, when then Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, reneged on a cooperation deal with the EU. The huge protests that followed showed that Ukraine’s population was leaning more and more to the West and away from Russia’s malign influence, and more specifically, Putin’s increasingly oppressive regime, which all led Yanukovych — lovely, upstanding and honourable man that he is — to flee his country for the safer shores of Russia, or what may well now be the lush, tropical climes of Siberia. One can only hope…!
So Putin, in a fit of pique, annexed Crimea, and then backed separatists militarily in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions on the Eastern border with Russia. This is the 8 year long war that has been the forerunner of the today’s expanded conflict.
So Ukraine, whose military was much smaller in 2014 than it is now, called for volunteers, and one volunteer brigade of those was the Azov battalion led by one Andriy Belitsky, a white supremacist, far-right politician and leader of the National Corps political party.
The Azov battalion was then brought under government control and became part of the Ukrainian national guard.
In 2015 it was reported that between 10–15% of the Azov battalion held Nazi views, but it seems more than anything they were tolerated by the Ukrainian military because ‘they were such good fighters’ and Ukraine was desperate.
It was after all, under attack from it’s much larger, much more powerful neighbour.
Since that time the battalion has evolved, the leader has left, and the right-wingers have been largely moved on.
In terms of numbers, the Azov battalion has about a 1000 men, while the Ukrainian military (c.250k), including the national guard (c.50k), has 300,000 men. The percentage of right-wing supremacists is vanishingly small, even microscopic if you take the Ukrainian population of 40 million as a whole, and since the expanded conflict began today’s Azov battalion have been the staunchest defenders of Mariupol and, whatever number still remains alive, are now thought to be holed up in the Azovstal Steel Plant, under total bombardment with little or no chance of survival one would have thought.
I wish them well in their endeavours!
But for Putin, it was here with the Azov battalion that the rumour-mill about a Nazi-run state begun.
This is why Russia had to move in; this is why Russian troops were required; to protect the Russian speakers in the Donbas from the Nazified elements of Ukrainian society.
All 150 or so of them.
Never one to let facts get in the way of a good disinformation narrative, the idea of Ukraine overrun by Nazi’s has since taken hold among the Russian population with even mother’s of Russian soldiers telling their sons on the frontline to ‘kill the Nazis’.
After all, there were Ukrainian Nazis crucifying babies in the Donbas, while their comrades rounded up Russian speaking citizens to torture rape, and kill them. There were children gang-raped in front of their parents, and mothers in front of their children.
This is the “Russkiy mir” or Russian world, that is being promoted, and largely accepted by an information starved population who exist in a bubble wholly inflated and contained by a calculating, ruthless and self-obsessed dictator.
And the unifying message is reinforced time and again. Speaking directly to Russian troops a propagandist on TV says blandly, “Don’t ever let morality stop you from doing the right thing.”
It would seem that from what we know of the Russian military and their revolting antics in Bucha, that they took this message to heart and left their morality at home; perhaps having a nice picnic in Gorky Park.
By way of illustration to show how easily these stories take hold in the Russian imagination, Ilya Yablokov, a Russian media historian, related a lovely tale in an opinion piece in the NYT.
At his 2007 annual news conference “…Mr. Putin was asked a strange question. What did he think about the former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s comment that Russia’s natural riches should be redistributed and controlled by America? Mr. Putin replied that such ideas were shared by ‘certain politicians’ but he didn’t know about the remark.”
And nor should he have known about it, because it was a made up quote by journalists from the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a state-owned newspaper. And this should have all died there and then, except that in 2015 it resurfaced again when secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, repeated it by way of explaining why the US was ‘in Ukraine’ and has been used countless time since to illustrate the U.S.’s desire to ‘break up Russia.’
So successful have the Russians been with this disinformation campaign that I’ve had people who I had thought were quite reasonable, intelligent people spewing Putin’s rhetoric back to me in person. ‘The Ukrainians are all Nazis!’ ‘NATO wants to attack Russia.’ ‘The U.S. has biochemical weapons factories in Ukraine.’
I mean, seriously?
But once someone has dove down that rabbit hole to another fantasy reality there’s very little one can say to pull them out. Facts just don’t matter to them anymore; all that is real is what they are being fed in their echo chambers.
One day, I guess, they will be in for a rude awakening…
So, Ukraine is not overrun by Nazis. It does not have a Nazi President and Ukrainians does not crucify babies. As if it needed to be said…!
But what then motivates Putin, Lavrov and the rest of the lost Russian boys, to board the Nazi express to Nowhereland?
Putin’s ‘new idea’ for Russia…
Sergei Pugachev, Yeltsin’s one time ‘banker,’ who made the precarious jump from one regime to the next, becoming Putin’s ‘banker’ for a time, says that in the wake of the Beslan school attack — where more than 330 people died, most of them children, probably as a result of yet another disastrous intervention by the security services, though miraculously Putin managed to blame it all on the West (see fallback options above) in what he said was a continuation of the plots that had brought down the Soviet Union (2) — at the end of Putin’s first term and as the elections for his second neared, that Putin was desperately searching for ‘a new idea to bind the nation together after a decade of collapse’ (2) and the failure of communism.
Realising the disaster that communism had been for his country, Putin, speaking on the eve of becoming President said, communism “was a road to a blind alley far away from the mainstream of civilisation,” and so the search began, as Pugachev confirms, for a new message to feed to the Russian people.
Pugachev, who had been a devout Orthodox Christian his whole life, was in little doubt that Putin was not well versed in the rigours and doctrine of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, under Pugachev’s guidance initially, Putin decided to latch onto religion as a way to increase his appeal to the Russian people.
Pugachev related a story to illustrate Putin’s lack of understanding of the rituals of the Church. The two men attended attended a service on Forgiveness Sunday and Pugachev told Putin that he needed to prostrate himself before the priest, as was expected, and Pugachev says Putin looked at him in astonishment.
“Why should I?” he said. “I am the President of the Russian Federation. Why should I ask for forgiveness?” (2)
Religious ignorance aside, Putin was being coached in the finer details of Russian history and much time was spent on Russia’s imperial past. Part of that education covered the revolutionary White Russians — as opposed to the Red Russians, known as Bolsheviks, who of course, eventually won out — who had for the most part gone into self-imposed exile across Europe during the revolution, and had spent their time trying to build a new ideology to oppose the Bolsheviks.
One of those emigre’s was Ivan Ilyin (see the image at the top of the page and also my last post on here for more), who believed that this new ideology should be based on Orthodoxy and national patriotism, tenets that Putin bought into and has recycled heavily ever since.
Putin was also influenced by the writings of Nikolai Trubetskoi, another White Russian emigre, (who I also discussed previously in another post) and by the later ideas of Lev Gumilev, an ethnologist.
Much of Putin’s rhetoric and his foreign policy, including justifications for the annexation of Crimea, the incursions into the Donbas, and the current conflict with Ukraine, all drawn from the writings and philosophies of Ilyin, Trubetskoi and Gumilev.
Putin has used various facets of each men’s writings to construct a new direction for ‘his’ Russia, with himself as the mystical figurehead, ready to lead the Russian people into the glorious future that they were always destined for.
“All aboard the ‘Russkiy mir’ express! Stopping in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland and beyond…”
“Power comes all by itself to the strong man.”
Ivan Ilyin, from Tim Snyder’s article, ‘God is a Russian.’
Of three men who have helped shape and steer Putin’s ideology, Ivan Ilyin was and is, perhaps, the most influential.
In a previous post I touched on the philosophy developed by Ilyin, but to better comprehend Putin’s motivation for his many seemingly illogical, counter-productive and apparently self-destructive actions it is necessary to dig a bit deeper.
Ilyin’s basic theories were developed during the years leading up to the Russian revolution, and were fine tuned thereafter, whilst in exile in Italy, Germany and Switzerland, where he built on his theoretical base to construct a practical, pragmatic fascist approach to oppose Bolshevism.
His theory of Russian fascism was an evolving concept throughout his years in exile and came to comprise a “metaphysical and moral justification for political totalitarianism, which he expressed in practical outlines for a fascist state.”
In Ilyin’s topsy-turvy world, he turned commonly accepted political, legal and social constructs on their head. Tim Snyder explains this in much more detail in his enlightening book The Road to Unfreedom (3) and also in a paper, ‘God is a Russian’ published in 2018.
In the smallest of nutshells, Illyin’s torturous philosophical journey prior to his exile, took him through Kant, Hegel, Freud, Husserl and then to religion and Orthodox Christianity via the death, desperation and violence of the Great War, the civil destruction and chaos of the Russian Revolution, and finally Marxism, Leninism and Bolshevism, with which he profoundly disagreed on all things, except for the elimination of the middle classes — something for which Putin is well known and one reason why he doesn’t appear to bemoan the brain drain caused by his invasion of Ukraine.
A believer in God, Ilyin harnessed the notion of the Hegelian spirit, and God’s worldly failure, as he saw it, to the same wagon, coming to the conclusion that God had created an imperfect world where God himself, and not Adam, had committed the original sin.
As Tim explains: “The Russian (here you can intersperse Ilyin himself) looked Satan in the eye, put God on the psychoanalyst’s couch, and understood that his nation (namely Russia) could redeem the world. An agonized God told the Russian a story of failure. In the beginning, there was the Word, purity and perfection, and the Word was God. But then God made a youthful mistake. He created the world to complete Himself, but instead soiled Himself, and hid in shame. God’s, not Adam’s, was the original sin, the release of the imperfect.”
And that ‘imperfect’ was a damaged, fragmented world.
Inspired by the rise Benito Mussolini, and thereafter Hitler, Ilyin wrote a thesis, a metaphysical defence that comprised an ethical apology for an emerging system where “Christianity meant the call of the right-seeing philosopher (insert Putin) to apply decisive violence in the name of love. To be immersed in such love,” he said, “was to struggle ‘against the enemies of the divine order on earth.’ ”
Thus theology and politics become one.
Ilyin dedicated his thesis, the ‘Use of Violence to Resist Evil,’ (1925), to the future of Russia and to the White Russian emigre’s, of whom Trubetskoi was also one, to be used as a fascist manual for the fight against Bolshevism in a Russia where the rule of law would have to be turned on its head.
“Fascism is a redemptive excess of patriotic arbitrariness,” Ilyin wrote and, as Tim explains, in this one sentence two universal concepts, law and Christianity, are undone. A spirit of lawlessness replaces the spirit of the law; a spirit of murder replaces a spirit of mercy.
And so one can almost see Ilyin’s hands applying invited pressure to Putin’s actions. This is Putin’s world — one of lawlessness, replete with the spirit of murder, where mercy, empathy and compassion are seen as weaknesses to be exploited — and this is the world that he envisages for you, for me, for everyone.
Thus Ilyin provides the religious weapons in Putin’s armoury. The geopolitical arm is provided by Trubetskoi who suggested that Russia should be at the heart a Eurasian polity that would comprise the Slavic peoples, the Turkics, the Mongols, and more; in fact any people with Asian origins.
Trubetskoi implored the Russian intelligentsia to turn away from their obsession with Europe to embrace a much wider, more expansionist vision of humanity that would build on the legacy of Genghis Khan — Putin’s essay, ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ expresses the idea that today’s Russians are tied to the legacy of Genghis.
In a paper published in 1920 called ‘Europe and Humanity’ Trubetskoi laid out his vision for Russian imperial recovery without any need for reliance on communism, which he considered a harmful Western import.
He called his vision Eurasianism. It would be a sweeping, continent wide unified polity with Russia at its centre, and a benevolent Orthodoxy providing its spiritual, beating heart.
But with the rise of Stalinism, the works of both Trubetskoi and Ilyin fell into an intellectual abyss, lost for the duration of the Soviet decades, until resurrected in the 1980’s by a survivor of Stalin’s forced labour camps, Lev Gumilev.
Gumilev was an ethnologist who built a sociological framework to sit atop of Eurasianism and Ilyin’s vision, and in so doing it became the final piece in Putin’s armoury with which to unite the world, and return Russia to its rightful place at the top of the world order.
Gumilev suggested that this ‘ethnogenesis,’ this conglomeration of different ethnicities could become as one under the influence of a charismatic leader, that they could merge and unite into a ‘super-ethnos.’
And Putin, quite clearly, sees himself as the man to bring all this together. For all his historical ramblings, for all the threats, for all the baseless, shameless lies and misinformation, Putin’s vision is of himself atop the world like a God.
For Putin, God really is a Russian. And it is him.
All the rest is just spagetti sauce; a route to the main course and nothing more.
Thus, cold, cruel, heartless Russian fascism would form the base, to sit alongside a racialised ethnogenesis that would span the whole of Asia and beyond, to be ruled by a charismatic leader, a man of vision who could unify all the peoples under God with a single unifying message.
“Kill the Nazis.”
And the Nazis comprise anyone who adheres in any way to any proposal or suggestion that is anti-Russian. To be against Russia is to be a Nazi.
That’s all it takes (4).
In the end Putin’s ideology is little more than a ruse built on the ideas of a few intellectual radicals and designed to pull the wool over Russian eyes as he, and his cronies, steal and loot Russian resources with the sole intention of enriching themselves, and propelling him to the top of the world.
The problem though for authoritarian and dictatorial leaders everywhere is providing a legitimate cause or narrative for the downtrodden people to rally around, to keep them compliant.
In Russia, where a quarter of the population don’t have any indoor plumbing and still have to visit the outhouse in freezing Winters to relieve themselves, the state cannot make a big deal about any economic successes, so it blames visits to cold loo seats on the Russo-phobic West to cover up their own kleptocratic regime.
Dictatorships are by their nature unstable. Keeping the people compliant and their attention focused on issues other than their meagre plight is a challenge. This is why authoritarian leaders fear revolution and public protests so much. It threatens their monopoly like nothing else.
Therefore in a land with so little to cheer about, finding a suitable rally point is difficult, which is why Putin inevitably falls back on one of the Russian states few successes, that of the Great Patriotic War, and this takes us back to Putin’s 2012 speech quoted at the top of this piece, and his desire to keep that patriotic fervour alive.
Thus to complete his circle of deception he needed an enemy worthy of an extension of Stalin’s victory.
Enter the West leaning Ukrainians, and we have today’s manufactured Ukrainian Nazis who, so the narrative says, have been made the puppets of a diabolical West, led as always, by the satanic devils in the U.S..
And job done…take a bow!
And that might have been the end of it, except that we in the West we gave Putin all the space, time and military freedom he needed to push, push again and then push again. And all the time we stood by and did nothing at all.
To be fair to Putin, he didn’t make any secret of his aims. He hid his authoritarian bent and his imperial ambitions in plain view from the very beginning. The West was too busy patting itself on the back for the end of the Cold War, and then fighting the doomed War on Terror to take notice.
But we should have seen it right from the first days of Putin’s reign. His lies, hypocrisy and dishonesty were apparent and evident from the first. For example, in the week before Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Putin attacked the Yeltsin government for trying to create a system of ‘oligarchic rule.’
“We have a category of people,” Putin said, “who have become billionaires, as we say, overnight. The state appointed them billionaires. It simply gave out a huge amount of property, practically for free.”
Then scapegoating Yeltsin’s oligarchs further with words that apply perfectly to his own kleptocratic regime he added, “they (the oligarchs) got the impression that the Gods themselves slept on their heads, that everything is permitted to them.” (2)
For Putin of course, the problem was that they were Yeltsin’s oligarchs, and not his. The solution then, was simple. Take what the oligarchs had and give it to his own ‘siloviki,’ his KGB hardmen, his loyal lieutenants, who had been with him since the first in St. Petersburg.
So they took it all. And they have it all still. To this day.
There were those, however, in the West who weren’t fooled by Putin’s disingenuous market economy talk, by his democratic charade, and they said so at the time. But they were ignored…
The late John McCain was one such voice calling in the dark.
He said that, “A creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism in Russia is threatening the foundation of the U.S.-Russia relationship and raising the spectre of a new era of cold peace between Washington and Moscow…//The United States cannot enjoy a normal relationship, much less a partnership, with a country that increasingly appears to have more in common with its Soviet and Tsarist predecessors than with the modern state Putin claims to aspire to build.”
Wise words, from a wise man.
Thanks for reading.
- The Future is History: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen, 2017.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West, Catherine Belton, 2020.
- Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America; Timothy Snyder, 2018.
- Russian Rulers History Podcast with Mark Schauss; Episode 216, April 15th 2022, An interview with Author Brandon Gauthier.