New Fascism Syllabus: Russia’s irrational violence

15 03 2022

The collaborative New Fascism Syllabus, which provides scholarly perspectives on 20th and 21st century fascism, authoritarianism, and populism, has been publishing analyses relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine since that invasion began on February 24.

The articles variously discuss the weaponization of historical memory including the rhetorics of fascism and “denazification,” the new martial masculinities in evidence on both sides of the war, the recent blossoming of Holocaust scholarship in Ukraine (and worries over its fate), moral complicity in Russia’s political censorship, and Western strategies and perspectives on the invasion.

Omer Bartov’s bittersweet reminiscence of the beauty of Ukraine, its deeply troubled history (he is a historian of the Holocaust), and its recent “heroic efforts to reforge itself,” entitled “My Ukraine is Not Yet Lost,” is particularly moving. Bartov writes:

The war, the genocide of the Jews, the ethnic cleansing of the Poles, and the imposition of an oppressive and vengeful Soviet regime, seemed to have put an end to the world of the borderlands that lasted for centuries and, despite its many warps, prejudices, vast inequality, grinding poverty, and occasional bursts of horrific violence, was also the birthplace of much beauty and creativity, precisely because of its mix of cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

Like several of the authors, Bartov worries that all of the progress made in recent years will be undone by Russia’s violent attempt to turn back the clock to a world ruled by imperial fiat.

Two of the articles dwell on the “irrationality” of the invasion. In Andrea Chandler’s case, it is Putin’s irrationality, which she sees in full evidence in the recent events, despite her best efforts to find reason.

The only way that I can make any sense of Putin’s actions in Ukraine is to imagine a secret-police frame of decision-making in which the strategic value of territory is detached from its inhabitants. This frame exaggerates the threat that a self-reliant Ukraine poses to Russian sovereignty: if we “lose” Ukraine, we lose our “krai” – so where will our new “krai” be? 

In Russian, krai (край) suggests “borderland” or “edge” (окраина), while in Ukrainian it is commonly understood as “our country,” “our land,” “in-land,” or “within-land” (україна).

In Alexander Reid Ross and Shane Burley’s “Into the Irrational Core of Pure Violence,” the irrationality is found in the “convergence” between Aleksandr Dugin‘s “neo-Eurasianism” and the war being waged by the Kremlin. While there is debate around the level of continuing influence Dugin’s neo-fascist geopolitics has on Putin’s own thinking, and so the authors may err slightly in overemphasizing it, there is no doubt that Putinism has been shaped by a broad swath of Russian ultranationalist, neo-imperialist (to the point of being messianic), Orthodox theocratic, and other far-right ideologists including Dugin, Ivan Ilyin, Lev Gumilev, Konstantin Leontiev, and cronies in the Russian media-political sphere such as Kiselyov, Malofeev, Prokhanov, and others.

The authors write:

the hypocrisy of the supposed “de-Nazification” of Ukraine can be found in the fact that the invasion has been, since 2014, the project of fascists, Orthodox ultranationalists, and Dugin’s own network of self-described “neo-Eurasianists.” From the start, the aggression against Ukraine was bankrolled by Dugin’s patron, Russia’s “Orthodox Oligarch,” Konstantin Malofeev. During the first years, on-the-ground efforts were led by Malofeev’s associates Alexander Borodai and Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist who participated in the Bosnian Genocide before becoming Malofeev’s security chief. Girkin and Dugin are listed together as among Russia’s “authentic high-principled Hitlerites, true Aryans” in a mordant article by Russian dissident Andrey Piontkovsky.

An influential figure amongst the alt-right and Europe’s fascist “identitarian” movement. Dugin’s ideology is somewhat more syncretic and convoluted than traditional Nazism: he believes in the total destruction of the modern world and the liberalism he feels it represents. This radical upheaval of the world would be followed by the rebirth of patriarchal blood-and-soil communities distinguished by a caste system ruled by warrior-priests, which he calls “political soldiers.” Dugin desires to see Moscow presiding over a Eurasian empire stretching from Dublin to Vladivostok in which Istanbul will return to Constantinople (or “Tsargrad”). For Dugin, the invasion of Ukraine represents merely the first step in this “Great Slavic Reconquista.”

With its apocalyptic struggle and “palingenetic” rebirth, Dugin’s program clearly falls into the “consensus” definition of fascism that historians like Roger Griffin have established. In 2015, Griffin himself demured from describing Putin as a fascist, and just last year referred to Putinism as a form of “resentment politics.” But seven years later, with the military invasion and the reasoning that led to it (and justifications provided for it), most of Griffin’s reservations no longer appear to hold.

Dugin’s projected alignment between Russia, Iran, India, and China appears to be incipient as Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine solidifies its own alienation from the “liberal-globalist” West.

The authors conclude:

Here, we have the irrational core of pure violence: the anti-European Europe, the anti-imperialist empire, the antifascist fascism, the anti-nationalist ultranationalism, and the defense against genocide through the obliteration of a nation’s existence and concomitant shelling of civilian targets. Without recourse to reason, Russia must resort to raw coercion, power politics, to exert its sovereignty, all while presenting its alternative to the unipolarity of the U.S. empire as the de facto liberatory choice. By offering itself as an enemy of the U.S., it hopes to court a new class of friends. Russian nationalism acts as part of the vanguard of far-right movements, helping to re-align geopolitics away from cooperation and toward a binary, illiberal opposition. 

Reid Ross and Burley see the Ukrainian resistance as a struggle against imperialism that “must be universalized on the level of a struggle for freedom and equality everywhere.”


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