The fact that I’m writing a blog post about this topic shows how detached from reality the commentary on Russia is. It’s understandable, I guess. But shoddy, media-ready ‘analysis’ from public intellectuals that does its best to ignore any sociological knowledge about the country is just really lame.
Tim Snyder’s NYT piece is a mishmash of historical analogism that focusses on Putin and sidesteps scholarship on Russian society. Snyder claims Russia (what, all Russians?) is fascist because it has a ‘leader cult’; celebrates a ‘cult of the dead’ via Victory Day; and is hostage to a myth of an imperial golden age. Very little of the essay, in fact almost nothing apart from a passing mention of Z people and rallies actually pertains to Russia beyond the Kremlin and some ideologists of questionable relevance (‘not Dugin again!’, said one of my undergraduate students).
All of these things are ‘true’, but they don’t really mean what Snyder says they mean.
At home, Putin has always been an ambivalent figure and never enjoyed unalloyed ‘enthusiasm’, even among his voting constituency. There’s loyalty and respect, even among the ‘morally opposed’. But that’s not a leader cult. The fact that so-called political technologists had to create so much PR for him, rather than let it naturally develop, proves the point. The guy never had an iota of charisma. He could never build a following like Trump.
A ‘cult of the dead’? There’s been a few pieces on this in the media. They tend towards a dangerous culturalism (the libel that Russians have a genetic ‘Asiatic’ predisposition to devalue human life and value violent domination). What Snyder ignores is the sociological research on the ‘Immortal Regiment’ marches, by scholars like Gabowitsch. Russians marching with placards of their ancestors who fought in the war is mainly not even a patriotic statement. It’s a rare permission to express personal loss, to experience connectedness, and to give voice to frustrated feelings of a need for communal activity.
The ‘Imperial Golden Age’? Well, this is true to an extent. I’ve written in this blog in the last 3 months that this does motivate some to support the war. But these people are a minority and in any case exist more visibly in societies like the US, France, and the UK. The irony here of Snyder’s comment is that it ignores the bigger golden age myth in Russia: the time people really pine for is the 1970s – the period of détente, peace, and the cementing of non-Russian elite power in the future independent republics of the USSR. Hardly imperial fare.
In reality, Snyder merely projects yet another US-centric take on what’s happening. This reflects liberal anxiety about Trumpism, real white supremacism in the US, and the militarization and securitization of US and Western societies.
Shall we actually look at some definitions of fascism?
I re-read Ian Kershaw recently and anyone who wants to understand pro-war sentiment in Russia should read his account of German society in WWII.
Kershaw’s is not the only definition, but it’s pretty simple. Fascism is based on hypernationalism that’s violently exclusionary and racial; It’s violent towards all political enemies; it’s macho, disciplined and militaristic. Optional features: social ‘renewal’ based on romantic utopian thinking; irredentism/imperialism; anticapitalism; corporatism (people know their place in society)
On Kershaw’s definitions we do find some fascistic elements to the Russian regime. But this comes up against the contradictions in ethnicizing Ukrainians. The whole point of Putin’s irredentism is that in his view Ukrainians aren’t really Ukrainians, they’re frustrated and misguided Russians (actually he probably doesn’t even believe this). Yes, they are ‘incorrect’ and errant Eastern Slavs, but the whole racialized perspective on Russian attitudes towards Ukrainians is, once again, a US-centric projection. The dehumanization of the ‘other’ is present among Russians and Ukrainians since the start of the war (but of course the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Russia was strong for a time now). But this is nothing to do with race or racism. Against Kershaw’s set of features, Russia is an insipid and equivocal ‘fascistic’ regime. Some of these features do not fit at all.
What about recent scholarship on ideology in Russia? Here we must turn, as Snyder fails to do, to Marlene Laruelle’s painstaking research. Her book is called Is Russia Fascist? Snyder commits perhaps the worst possible academic snub in ignoring it in his piece.
I know Laruelle’s work and I read her articles with my students every year. But don’t trust me, we can turn to the excellent reviews of the book. For example, this one by Roger Chapman. This is a positive, but critical review that unpicks Laruelle’s argument that Russia is a kind of illiberal state: rejecting global institutions, promoting economic protectionism and revaluing multiculturalism. Chapman questions why we need the term illiberal when in his view Laruelle could have just written ‘authoritarian/totalitarian’. The reason Laruelle does not use these terms is that in her view ideological diversity is still permissible and that coercion has some hard limits within Russia (so far).
Laruelle (in Chapman’s reading) makes use of a different historian’s definition of fascism – that of Roger Griffin. According to Griffin, fascism is a ‘revolutionary-utopian form of nationalism’. It requires an anti-modern myth of regeneration involving the violent destruction of enemies. Enemies are racialized through an ideological doctrine that catalyzes mass mobilization to ensure domination of those enemies both at home and abroad. So far, pretty similar to Kershaw. Laruelle notes that by these criteria, “not only is Putin neither Hitler nor Mussolini, he is not even Pinochet”.
In a late-2018 piece for PONARS, Laruelle picks apart similar arguements Snyder has made before. She says his approach is comparable to those of an observer who would extrapolate from Charlotteville riots to conclude that white supremacists had an iron grip on US society. “Simplistic reductionist techniques and invalid reasoning further confuse the analysis—and bias policy responses.”
In my view, the ‘Russia is fascist’ argument is so far from the reality of Russian society that it amounts to dangerous disinformation. What do actual political sociologists find?
Political and social demobilization at every turn – even incorporation through a ‘party of power’ does not serve ideological purposes or help mobilize. On the contrary, incorporation by the regime serves its stasis and the continuing enrichment and insulation of the elite. With some visible exceptions (who now get a lot of undeserved attention) the elite is uninterested in ideology and even governance (so an Eichmann could hardly be found). There isn’t a banality of evil. Just banality. In some senses the ‘mafia’ metaphor is better (though I criticise it here and reprise an analysis of corruption as a ‘thing’ that drives the regime here). ‘Ideology’ and ‘causes’ are dangerous to this regime.
In actual fact, most Russians’ lives are profoundly depoliticized to an unhealthy extent. Ironically, here is where Russia is open to a charge of fascism: the idea of fascism as a creeping erosion of citizenship and the achievement of the aims of totalitarianism by procedural means. The irony? The scholarship of this ‘post-fascist’ fascism is about our societies. About the UK, European states and the United States.
So, what is Russia as a political regime? Well, my recent take is here: an authoritarian neoliberal regime of some complexity. I argue that elements of this are present in our own societies and that many states are hurtling into the precipice Russia already occupies.
In Russia there are many forces of prefigurative politics, resistance and renewal, stacked against the seemingly dominant authoritarian power (the topic of my current book project!). Russian society has its share of neo-Nazi far-right forces which are both feared and leveraged by the elite. Other formations are far more visible and make Russia look more like….. Ukraine. There’s a liberal mainstream that dominates the ‘discourse’ beyond the state-controlled media and a strong communitarian strand of political thinking. Takes like ‘Russia is fascist’ ultimately show, once again, the unhealthy focus on the current elite, an elite that’s more and more disconnected from the majority. The invasion of Ukraine itself illustrates the intellectual, political, and institutional exhaustion of ‘Putinism’. But it proves little beyond that.