The past couple of years witnessed a welcome sensitization of the Russian public towards skinhead attacks and ultra-nationalist propaganda. Nevertheless, Putin’s administration and the Kremlin-controlled mass media maintained an ambiguous stance regarding xenophobic tendencies in politics and public discourse. While primitive hatred of foreigners and ethnic violence are officially stigmatized, the dissemination of national stereotypes and anti-Americanism, in particular, by government-directed information channels and political pundits continues unabated. For example, the notorious publicist Alexander Dugin, who openly propagated fascism in the 1990s, has become an important player in shaping the discourse of Russian political and intellectual elites today. It remains to be seen how the Russian leadership will handle the challenges resulting from such a contradictory approach to its domestic and foreign policies in the coming years.
A New Sensitization Towards Right-Wing Extremism?
In view of escalating violent attacks and other actions against foreigners, the debate on Russian fascism is currently experiencing a new high in the Russian media. There was a similar debate in the mid-1990s, when the confrontation between President Boris Yeltsin and the “intransigent opposition,” a state of near-civil war in Moscow, the ascent of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the appearance of neo-Nazi parties, and the first Chechen war, gave rise to the notion of a “Weimar Russia.” Even though this construct has made only rare appearances in commentaries in recent years, the current media debate is also marked by increasing alarmism.
It is to be welcomed that the increasing right-wing extremist tendencies within the party landscape and youth culture, which had been largely ignored for many years, are now at least partially acknowledged by the Russian public, and countermeasures are being debated. Even the Russian judiciary which has been known for its pro-nationalist bias is beginning to submit to the pressure of public opinion (or the presidential administration), and now applies the Russian penal code’s section on xenophobic crimes more frequently than was the case during the 1990s. Other promising developments include the sharp reactions of state officials to a xenophobic campaign advertisement aired by the “Rodina” alliance ahead of elections for the Moscow municipal parliament in 2005, and recent measures against the often deadly skinhead attacks on immigrants and visiting students. Official statements on such issues occasionally refer to the “anti-fascist” heritage of the Soviet Union and to the Russian people’s alleged special deep-rooted aversion against fascism.
Despite such encouraging signs, the Kremlin-controlled mass media have an altogether ambivalent stance toward right-wing extremist tendencies. Although manifest anti-Semitism and violent racism are now heavily criticized and visibly stigmatized, other xenophobic patterns remain present in reporting on foreign news and political commentaries. In addition to the traditional anti-Western, anti-Baltic, anti-Gypsy and anti-Polish reflexes, this is increasingly true for prejudices against Ukrainians and Caucasians, recently, especially, against Georgians. Unquestionably, though, it is the US that holds first place among the “enemies of Russia,” as projected by Russian state-controlled mass media. The primitive and profound anti-Americanism seen, for example, in prime time political television shows like Odnako (“However”, hosted by Mikhail Leontiev), Realnaia politika (“Real Politics”, hosted by Gleb Pavlovsky), or Post scriptum (hosted by Alexei Pushkov) is raised to the level of a Manichean world-view, where the US is made responsible for the majority of mishaps and failures in recent Russian, and, indeed, global history. In these accounts, US society mutates into the negative Other of Russian civilization.
Curiously, Germany – the country that has caused Russia the most harm in recent history – is often excepted from this paranoid perception of the external world and stylized as a collective friend of Russia, probably not least because of Putin’s personal preferences (a distorted view that has, however, been stoked by the unorthodox approach to Russia of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder).
It is also important to note that, despite the increasing censure of certain right-wing extremist tendencies, the representatives of ultra-nationalist political groups regarded as close to President Putin have been excepted from the Kremlin’s campaigns against the radically nationalist camp. This is true in particular for Zhirinovsky’s so-called Liberal Democratic Party, although many statements made by Zhirinovsky and his entourage equally stir xenophobic hatred among the population. For example, in his notorious 1993 pamphlet The Last Leap toward the South, Zhirinovsky, a Turkologist by training, blames the peoples of “the South” (i.e. Muslim Asia) as being responsible for most of Russia’s past and current problems, and explicitly proposes to make Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan part of the Russian empire. Nevertheless, Putin, in 2006, personally awarded the “Order of Merit for the Fatherland” (fourth degree) to Zhirinovsky – a man who in September 1995 had physically attacked a female MP, Yevgenia Tishkovskaya, in the State Duma in front of TV cameras.
Aberrations of the Intelligentsia
Besides such tendencies in the broader public, there are similarly contradictory developments in the discourse of the elites and political pundits. On the one hand, the political leadership is promoting integration of Russia into Western organizations such as the G8 and the World Trade Organization. On the other hand, the discourse among political experts, as well as intellectual life in general, are characterized by the spread of an anti-Western consensus often described as “Eurasian,” the essence of which is the assertion that Russia is “different” from, or indeed, by its nature, the opposite of the US. The Russian book market is experiencing a glut of vituperative political lampoons whose main features include pathological anti-Americanism, absurd conspiracy theories, apocalyptic visions of the future, and bizarre fantasies of national rebirth. Among the more or less widely read authors of such concoctions are Sergei Kurginyan, Igor Shafarevich, Oleg Platonov, Maxim Kalashnikov (a.k.a. Vladimir Kucherenko), and Sergei Kara-Murza.
Probably the best-known writer and commentator of this kind is Aleksandr Dugin (b. 1962), who holds a doctorate in political science from an obscure Russian provincial institute, and is the founder, chief ideologue, and chairman of the so-called International “Eurasian Movement,” whose Supreme Council boasts among its members former Russian Federation’s Culture Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, the Vice Speaker of the Federation Council, Aleksandr Torshin, several diplomats, and similarly illustrious personages, including some marginal Western intellectuals and CIS politicians. Dugin’s increasing celebrity is remarkable considering that the chief “Neo-Eurasian” is not only among the most influential, but also one of the most brazen of the ultra-nationalist publicists. While authors such as Kurginyan or Kara-Murza are satisfied to promote a renaissance of classical Russian anti-Western sentiments in their pamphlets, and only subtly draw on Western sources, Dugin admits openly that his main ideas are based on non-Russian anti-democratic concepts such as European integral Traditionalism (René Guénon, Julius Evola, Claudio Mutti, etc.), Western geopolitics (Alfred Mahan, Halford Mackinder, Karl Haushofer, and others), the German “conservative revolution” (Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, etc.), and the francophone New Right (Alain de Benoist, Robert Steuckers, Jean Thiriart).
Furthermore, during the 1990s, Dugin repeatedly hinted at his sympathy for selected aspects of Italian Fascism and National Socialism, such as the SS and its Ahnenerbe (“Ancestral Heritage”) Institute, and has described the Third Reich as the most consistent incarnation of the “Third Way” that he advocates. In the chapter “Fascism – Boundless and Red” of the online version of his 1997 book Tampliery Proletariata (The Templar Knights of the Proletariat), he expressed the hope that the inconsistent application of originally correct ideas by Hitler, Mussolini, etc. would, eventually, be followed in post-Soviet Russia by the emergence of a “fascist fascism.” In Dugin’s apocalyptic worldview, global history consists of a centuries-old confrontation between hierarchically organized “Eurasian” continental powers and liberal “Atlantic” naval powers. Today, this confrontation is carried out between Russia and the US as the main representatives of the two antagonistic types of civilization, and its “final battle” is approaching (notably, Dugin uses the German word Endkampf, which has fascist connotations, without a Russian translation).
One might expect Dugin, and other extremely right-wing pundits offering similar pro-fascist statements, to be subjected to the same public stigmatization that neo-Nazi parties and skinhead groups are currently experiencing. However, this has not been the case, so far. On the contrary, Dugin and others of his ilk, such as the well-known editor-in-chief of Russia’s leading ultranationalist weekly Zavtra (“Tomorrow”), Aleksandr Prochanov, are popular guests in prime-time political television shows such as Vremena (“Times”, hosted by Vladimir Pozner), Tem vremenem (“In the Meantime”, hosted by Aleksandr Archangelsky), Voskresni vecher’ (“Sunday Evening”), or K Baryeru (“To the Barricade”, hosted by Vladimir Solovyov), and are even invited to popular talk shows like Pust govoryat (“Let Them Speak”, hosted by Andrei Malakhov).
The Post-Soviet Conception of Fascism
The fact that Dugin has so far been “spared” by the Kremlin-controlled media and his political opponents is not only due to his recent celebrity as a “radical centrist” and fanatical supporter of Putin as well as his ability to win the sympathies of prominent members of the Russian legislative and executive braches. He has also managed to avoid the charge of promoting fascism by adapting his writings and public image to the distorted conception of fascism inherited from Soviet propaganda. In the post-Soviet discourse, the term “fascism” is equated with German National Socialism and its external trappings, such as the swastika or Roman salute. Occasionally, the propagandistic usage of the term “fascism” goes so far as to include all ideas regarded as “anti-Russian.” It then, paradoxically, becomes a rhetorical instrument in xenophobic agitation campaigns of Russian ultra-nationalists.