Category Archives: Russia in the media

Is Russia Fascist?

A painting depicting WWII through Russian ‘eyes’ at a Moscow market in 2022

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 arguments 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.

Why Russia is not a mafia state

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This week in a research event at Aarhus University I was asked to discuss with Lucia Michelutti her work on the mafia-like nexus of business-organised crime-politics in Uttar Pradesh. Her work is really thought-provoking and I recommend you check out her book on Mafia Raj.

Michelutti argues for the use of the term ’bossing’ to describe the partly performative work of criminal dons and wannabee mafiosi in India. This is because of the awkward absence of a word in English to describe the enactment of power: we have ‘to empower’ and ‘overpower’, but not a verb that clearly describes  power as a process. For Michelutti, ‘bossing’ by criminals-cum-politicians involves the mobilisation of performative competencies and which is subject to contestation in an unstable constellation of authority (and which lacks legitimacy), charisma, and local contexts (particularly community problems). The highlights of her talk for me were an elective affinity between delegated governance and organised criminality; starting from the premise of the ‘emic’ grounded use of language – ‘boss’ is the currency of talking about criminal/political entrepreneurs; mafia as a systemic yet amorphous reality, not a discrete organisation in itself.

This set me thinking about the use and abuse of the now common-place ‘Russia as a mafia state’. I was sceptical of Luke Harding’s book when it came out in 2011. Subsequent events have proved him right on some things (and me wrong). However, I still want to object to the looseness of the term ‘mafia’, and how it obscures more than it reveals. Quite reasonably, even ‘ordinary’ readers criticised him for not defining why Russia is a ‘mafia state’ when so many other corrupt, kleptocratic regimes are not. Broadly, Harding uses it to indicate collaboration of security services with organised criminality, to indicate the ‘kick back’ ubiquity of corruption to higher officials, to indicate the willingness of the state to use extortion against foreign states, or to indicate a general prevalence of extortion/protection relationships.

First a caveat: there are strengths to Harding’s book – the perspective of a person who feels the full sun-like gaze of the security services when they are let off the leash to harass a foreigner – see Kelly Hignett’s review here https://www.ceeol.com/search/viewpdf?id=61177. However, let’s not forget that Harding gets off lightly in comparison to many Russian victims of the state’s displeasure. Journalists of course write books and are professional writers. But I can’t be the only person to be disturbed (and of course made envious) by the attention these anecdotal, ultimately piecemeal and largely ‘readers digest’ accounts generate. For a critical review of Harding’s evidence-light work see a review of his book on Trump-Russia collusion by Paul Robinson: https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/collusion/ . Now, I’m not saying he wasn’t harassed by the FSB, just that in moving from journalistic fluff and anecdote to book-length serious analysis he, and most others, fall short (I haven’t read Galeotti’s latest). Harding at worst gives readers a version of Cold War 2.0 that seriously impedes better understanding of the everyday reality of Russia.

So, some basic problems with the term ‘Mafia’. Mafia implies an overall structuring of all activity towards the end of enriching the boss via captains, and clandestine activity linked to membership of an elect community with elements of charismatic leadership.  Okay, there’s a certain affinity here with descriptions of clientelistic and personalised relations, but why not just use that conceptual toolkit and ditch association with types of charismatic and in-group derived leadership as represented in popular culture by Vito Corleone, Paulie Cicero, or Tony Soprano?

The ‘true’ mafia ( of course they cannot be separated from their popular cultural depiction anymore because they in turn are influenced by that depiction) are only ever peripherally ‘political’, as Michelutti, points out (that of course, does not mean that they don’t buy politicians and political leverage). As a classic, yet parasitic ‘other’ to capitalism, mafias can only be defined in opposition to state structures. Most of all this is because they actively choose to occupy niches of criminality and employ physical violence, albeit in a limited way, that challenges the monopoly of violence that the state reserves for itself. Most notably coercion is of a limited nature (there is a ‘civilian’ category, ‘victims’ are mainly from the same ethno-cultural community). Indeed, that ‘anyone’ can fall victim to the rapacious raiding of business by the kleptocratic Russian elites, means that if anything, Mafia is too ‘soft’ a word!

For organised crime, ‘criminality’ is the keyword. But, in the diffuse, corrupt, dysfunctional and contradictory world of the rule and unrule of law in Russia, words like ‘extortion’, ‘bribery’, ‘racketeering’ lose their meaning, because if state actors take assets from you in a way you experience as illegitimate, it is by virtue of their superior command of legal-administrative resources, but most importantly, their ability to make what appears to us as ‘criminal’, merely accumulation according to a logic of nearness to other more powerful state actors plus the superior command of already existing financial resources. (Of course a bit of violence does help here – see the interesting work of Jacob Rigi on the ‘Corrupt State of Exception in Russia’).

Using the mafia label is unhelpful as it conjures for a Western audience an image of a Don, a clear hierarchy of made men, of grifting in secret and in fear of discovery, and of highly ritualised organisation of criminality. All of these things exist within the organised crime world of Russia, sure. But it is a massive stretch to make the leap from Goodfellas to The Kremlin. The ‘mafia-like’ practices of the state are both more organised (and less ‘illegal’) and more chaotic (influenced by political expedient rather than just graft), than that of any organised crime group. Indeed, in contrast even to the Sopranos’ ‘postmodern’ mafia, where charisma and tradition begin to fail to limit conflict or reproduce loyalty, the kleptocratic workings in the Russian state show an absence of a shared normative understandings of power and sovereignty. Despite Kordonsky’s work on ‘kick-back’ culture, there are no ‘made men’, nor is there a shared understanding of timeserving before becoming captain, and there is no honour, no chance of a ‘sit down’, and no percentage kickbacks with any permanence that would allow them to become informal rules governing ‘taxation’ or authority. What there is is an ever changing landscape of potentially equally powerful others, where the ‘rules of the game’ can change more abruptly than in any criminal conspiracy, and where there are also ever-present political, policy and governance goals distracting from – what I admit is the main task – making money.

Then we come to the ‘killing of enemies’ argument that people put forward because of Skripal, or Litvinenko. For the mafia metaphor to have explanatory meaning here it would require the state, security services and organised crime to have clearly demonstrable and densely redundant network characteristics over time. Even if it is shown that the Skripal was targeted because of his knowledge of organised crime in Spain linked to the Russian security services (I think that’s unlikely), a quick glance at the conflicting interests within the elite (and between security agencies), and the infighting of factions even at the highest level, the relative ‘weakness’ of the Presidential Administration to have its orders carried out, shows that such ‘networks’ would break down as soon as they arise, and could only be connections of expediency.

Take the Donbas – more a political project with hot and cold support from Moscow and a way of getting rid of nationalist and violence-orientated entrepreneurs. Most importantly, it is a huge drain on resources which has enriched only a few local players (hence the assassination of the them now). Not the actions of a ‘mafia state’ looking to get resources flowing upward from a ‘take’. The Skripals and Litvinenko before them are evidence of incompetence if nothing else. They remind me more of contexts like organisational rivalry, poor operational control, and opportunism, than methodical revenge. Certainly, the execution of these operations would embarrass any self-respecting professional hit man in the pay of a ‘mafia’.

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Tony says: ‘You call that a hit? My ducks could do better’

A British journalist discovered that if he writes critical articles in a semi-authoritarian state, the security services will target him. Sometimes there is a blurry line between activities the security services take against critics of the state and other corrupt activities. Sometimes the security services are not under control of the state, even though there are lots of powerful politicians who have a security services background. Particularly on the last point, it’s been shown by scholars like Bettina Renz that this background is largely irrelevant and to propose a ‘silovik takeover’ is a correlation-causation error.  To end, a similar reminder from Marelle Laruelle on the dangers of rhetorical techniques of facile association. I might come back to this as, in the first place, I started thinking about this topic because I am working towards the idea of the everyday ‘incoherent’ state in Russian, particularly in the workings of the lowest level of street-level bureaucrats.