Understanding Russia

10 07 2022

Understanding how things got to this point — with a full-scale war waged on a country of 45 million and threats of nuclear escalation toward a possible third world war — requires understanding how Russia got to this point. This post aims to introduce a short set of recent readings that help us understand Russian attitudes today and their deeper history.

State propaganda

Perhaps the best place to start is with a flavor of the state propaganda machine. Julia Davis’s “Putin’s Stooges: He May Nuke Us All, But We Are Ready to Die” (Daily Beast, April 28) captures many of the dominant voices in Russian state media articulating the message the Kremlin intended for its audience of 145 million part-way through the current invasion. A few quotes should be sufficient to give the flavor here (in case the article is paywalled for you):

“World War III, no longer just a special operation, with 40 countries against us. They declared a war.” (Olga Skabeeva, host, 60 Minutes)

“The representatives of those 40 different countries are today’s collective Hitler.” (Mikhail Markelov, 60 Minutes)

“Personally, I think that the most realistic way is the way of World War III, based on knowing us and our leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, knowing how everything works around here, it’s impossible—there is no chance—that we will give up” [. . .] “That everything will end with a nuclear strike, to me, is more probable than the other outcome. This is to my horror, on one hand, but on the other hand, with the understanding that it is what it is.” (RT director Margarita Simonyan, on The Evening with Vladimir Solovyov)

“But we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak.” (Solovyov responding to Simonyan)

“If we decide to strike the U.K., we should rather decide to strike the United States… Final decisions are being made not in London, but in Washington. If we want to hit the real center of the West, then we need to strike Washington.” (Andrey Sidorov, deputy dean of world politics at Moscow State University, same TV program) 

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Is Russia fascist?

8 06 2022

The question of whether or not to call Putinism “fascism” has popped up repeatedly in recent writing. Historian Timothy Snyder recently presented the case in an op-ed for the New York Times, concluding,

A time traveler from the 1930s would have no difficulty identifying the Putin regime as fascist. The symbol Z, the rallies, the propaganda, the war as a cleansing act of violence and the death pits around Ukrainian towns make it all very plain. The war against Ukraine is not only a return to the traditional fascist battleground, but also a return to traditional fascist language and practice. Other people are there to be colonized. Russia is innocent because of its ancient past. The existence of Ukraine is an international conspiracy. War is the answer.

Others — including political scientists (Taras Kuzio, Alexander Motyl), philosophers (Jason Stanley and Eliyahu Stern), economists (Vladislav Inozemtsev), defense secretaries (Ben Wallace), and other commentators (Tomasz Kamusella) — have agreed, while some (cited here) have so far demured from that characterization.

Most recently, Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Center director Vasyl Cherepanin has admonished the West for its unwillingness to see the creeping fascism in Putinism, writing:

But it was not the West’s far right or far left that helped to bolster Russia’s fascist regime. It was liberal democracies’ political centrists and financial elites who pumped assets into the Kremlin’s mafia-capitalist system – and became corrupted by it. Even as Putin turned Russian politics into a “special operation” and authorized political assassinations, state censorship, electoral manipulation, systematic repression, and military invasions of other countries, the Western liberal establishment, despite the “values” it claims to uphold, normalized him.

The question will be taken up by a panel, including at least two of the world’s leading experts on the topic (Roger Griffin and Marlene Laruelle) at an online seminar entitled “Rashism/Ruscism: Is Russia Fascist?” organized by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and the Deutsche-Ukrainische Historikerkommission (DUHK) on June 23. (On the use of the term “Rashism” see here.)

Register for the free event here.


Galeev: 3 scenarios for Russia

2 04 2022

Among the more interesting Twitter analysts these days (as I’ve mentioned before) is Kamil Galeev. In a new series of threads, he examines three possible scenarios for Russia’s future.

The first is a North Korean scenario, in which Putin stays in power and all of Russia effectively becomes Donbass, i.e., a “hypermilitarized kleptocracy.” Galeev notes that “Russia has been lowkey drifting to the Donbass state for years. It’s an oil exporter that is running out of cheap oil and wants to stay highly militarised. Thus it must reduce life standards and personal freedoms.”

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Laruelle on Putin’s ideological pasturelands

16 03 2022

Historian and political scientist Marlene Laruelle is unquestionably one of the leading western experts on Russian political thought. She has authored and edited numerous volumes including Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines and Political Battlefields (2018, and available in open-access), Understanding Russia: The Challenges of Transformation (2018), Entangled Far Rights: A Russian-European Intellectual Romance in the 20th Century (2018), and Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire (2008).

In her new essay for UnHerd, “The brains behind the Russian invasion,” Laruelle takes on what for some is the all-important question, “Who is the President’s Rasputin?” She examines several key candidates for such an ideological whisperer — Ivan Ilyin, Lev Gumilev, Alexander Dugin, Konstantin Malofeev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Bishop Tikhon, the Moscow Patriarchate itself, and Putin’s close friend Yuri Kovalchuk — but argues instead that

The reality is more complex: there are multiple ideological sources who have blended to cause the disastrous invasion, all mediated through his “court” of  trusted people and group of military advisers, and many of whom unite in their vision of Ukraine as a country that needs to be brought back by force into Russia’s orbit.

More complex, then, but in some ways also more banal, in that the sources of Putin’s impulses may be much more broadly cultural:

Like many of his fellow citizens, [Putin is] probably saturated by political talk shows cultivating anti-Ukrainian feelings, as well as by patriotic movies celebrating the Russian Empire’s greatness and its territorial conquests. There may be no need then to look for a doctrinal text that would have inspired him, as the memory of Russia’s empire and the subordinated role of Ukrainians in it permeates so many components of Russian cultural life.

Putin’s worldview has been built up over many years, and is more shaped by his personal resentment toward the West than by any ideological influence. Readings of the classic works of Russian philosophy which insist on Russia’s historical struggle with the West, emphasise the role of Ukraine as a civilizational borderland between both, have simply reinforced his own lived experience. [emphasis added]

Why, then, such a seemingly disastrous decision to invade a country that will fight tooth-and-nail against the invasion? She blames this on “low-level intelligence-gathering.”

And it is here that the President’s mask slips. It becomes clear that Putin is an aging and isolated authoritarian leader surrounded by advisers afraid of bringing him a realistic assessment of the likelihood of victory, thereby accelerating Russia dragging a sovereign Ukraine along with the rest of Europe towards the worst catastrophe since the Second World War.

The entire article is worth reading. It’s accompanied by a video interview with Laruelle carried out by UnHerd‘s Freddie Sayers.

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Edenborg: Homophobia as geopolitics

15 03 2022

Another piece of Putin’s claimed justification for his invasion of Ukraine, at least in terms of his main support base both within Russia and outside of it, is that of the threat posed by “the West” to Russia’s “traditional values.” Writing in the Boston Review, Stockholm University professor Emil Edenborg examines this in detail in “Putin’s Anti-Gay War on Ukraine.”

When Putin entered office for a third presidential term in 2012, in the wake of massive protests and declining popularity, his government wholeheartedly embraced the notion of “traditional values” as official ideology guiding both domestic and foreign policy. While a usefully vague and often undefined concept, “traditional values” are seen as encompassing patriotism, spirituality, rootedness in history, respect for authority, and adherence to heteronormative and patriarchal ideals of family and gender. In the rhetoric of the Kremlin and state-loyal media, LGBT rights, feminism, multiculturalism, and atheism are identified not only as foreign to Russia’s values, but as existential threats to the nation.

This plays into the idea that Putin is “purifying” Ukraine by “denazifying” it, but it only does that if one accepts the hybrid discursive construct that Dugin has proposed of the “liberal-Nazi West,” a place that imperialistically imposes its own “decadent” cultural morés onto the world.

Describing the Kremlin’s position as a form of “homophobia as geopolitics,” Edenborg examines gender stereotypes, state cultural policies, myths of “national rejuvenation and the recovery of collective greatness,” and the complex politics of superiority, inferiority, and resentment:

On the one hand, Russia has pursued an imperial, “civilizing” mission against peoples seen as culturally and racially inferior, for example in the Caucasus and Central Asia. On the other hand, Russia is perceived as historically suffering under Western cultural, economic, military, and epistemological hegemony. 

He concludes:

These are not harmless skirmishes in the “culture wars” of late-stage capitalism: they are grave matters of life and death. Gender norms—tropes of masculine protection, women-and-children in need of saving, and sexual and gender deviance as a threat to the body politic—fuel and perpetuate authoritarianism, militarism, and, as Russia’s war on Ukraine now makes all too plain, state aggression. Without addressing the former, there is little hope of changing the latter.

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.”

The face of 21st century fascism

24 02 2022

Fascism, as defined by those who study it, typically includes three key elements: a perception of deep historical grievance and/or a belief that the modern world is in some way irredeemably decadent; a desire for vengeance and/or national, collective, and/or historical ‘rebirth’ (‘palingenesis’ is the scholarly word for that); and submission of individual will to collective will, often though not always embodied in a cult of the leader or ruler. Modern fascism, as we saw last century, is also industrialized and technological; it mass produces its victims.

The first two elements have become more and more obvious in Putinist Russia. Putin has built on a deep sense of historical grievance, and his desire to rebuild Russia in all its former “glory” has been often articulated, not least in his speeches this past week. Up until yesterday, however, Putin’s fascism (like Trump’s) has been debated, but generally not admitted.

Fascism’s presence, since the end of the second world war, has seemed mostly individual — with lone killers committing mass murder in Oslo, Christchurch, El Paso, and elsewhere — or small-scale and cellular, with neo-Nazis found everywhere, from the US to Germany, France, Ukraine, and beyond, but nowhere near attaining power. (Whether ISIS and its kin in the Muslim world qualify as forms of fascism has also been debated, without clear resolution.)

Putin’s decision to use the second largest military in the world to achieve his palingenetic goals in ways that threaten millions of people has, I believe, changed the landscape of contemporary fascism. Many fascists and ultra-rightists have looked to Putin as a potential savior of the world against liberalism, globalism, and western “decadence.” The war in Ukraine can now be seen as Putin’s decisive response. That he claims he is “denazifying” Ukraine is, of course, completely consistent with fascism’s predilection for the “big lie.”

We now see the face of 21st century fascism: deeply aggrieved, cold and calculating, and starkly technological. This is our new world.

Glass half empty

20 02 2022

David Oks’s “Waiting for the Russians in Ukraine” is, while skewed in its bigger picture, true enough in most of its details. It also happens to be a microcosm of the world at large.

The dominance of personalistic parties, the thriving culture of corruption and retribution, the regional cleavage within Ukraine, and an elite formation process of economic privatization widely viewed as illegitimate have all conspired to cripple each attempt to establish a stable elite hegemony. Regardless of whether the attempts were of a patronal-regionalist character (Yanukovych or Medvedchuk) or liberal-nationalist character (Viktor Yushchenko or Arseniy Yatseniuk), they have resulted in a succession of ineffectual governments, which quickly lose their popularity as they are unable to deliver on much beyond symbolism. No single faction of the oligarch clans has been able to triumph over the others; neither have any of the liberal-democratic reformers managed to subdue the oligarchs as a class.

The repertoire of contention available to opponents of this system is narrow, and it centers on ideologically vague urban uprisings of a national-democratic character, always centered in the Maidan Square. These are the occasional flowerings of “democratic renewal” or “national salvation,” like the Orange Revolution in 2004 or the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, that briefly capture the liberal imagination. But this results only in some elite circulation. Ukraine’s political economy is largely unchanged, and business as usual eventually returns. 

Ukraine is, in all these details, a basketcase. (And all the more so to an economic reductionist.)

But none of these features are unique to Ukraine, and many are more broadly, even globally, systemic. Business as usual is the problem of the world (which is why climate change, for instance, isn’t being solved). The oligarchic class works hard everywhere to retain its privileges, with occasional openings to new elites and new privatizations. (The radical privatization of industry marking the end of the Soviet Union was nothing compared to the privatization of datafied cognition marking the opening of the surveillance capitalism frontier.) Personalistic parties, or party-states, with varying degrees of authoritarian vertykal, rule kleptocratically in their own patronal-regionalist spheres (not always several in a single country, as in Ukraine, but sometimes quite singularly, as in Russia, China, and elsewhere).

The liberal imagination is captured by occasional bursts of democratic energy, and more often than not these defuse soon enough into business as usual. Democracy works mainly to shift the deck chairs around (to circulate elites, as Oks puts it) and to air out some views (and some flatulence), not really to redesign the architecture.

And life goes on: young people go on dates, people joke, drink, discuss Eurovision, muddle through. As Oks asks rhetorically, “what could they do?”

Not every city provides the space and background for life to go on as well as it does in Kyïv.

The piece is nevertheless worth reading, if only to remind ourselves what Ukraine is up against when Russian armies are not on the doorstep.

The danger…

19 02 2022

At the beginning of this past week, I still believed that Putin’s military maneuvering around Ukraine was a form of grandstanding and sowing panic, with the goals of gaining a few more international concessions, asserting a stronger presence on the global stage (in part to reassert his “strength” to a wavering domestic audience), and perhaps biting off a bit more of Donbass. Full-scale war, involving an invasion of Kyïv, seemed to me an incomprehensibly crazy idea, too crazy even (I hoped) for Putin.

(As regards the Biden administration’s announcements of imminent war, they really do appear to be a well considered strategy of “calling Russia out” so as to avert an invasion, rather than egging them into war. That’s a long conversation, for another time.)

My perception has changed over the course of the week. Hearing Putin’s accusation of “genocide” by Ukraine stuck in my craw when I heard them uttered in his meeting with Olaf Scholz. The accusation is ridiculous, and could only be taken as an attempt to create a new narrative pretext for invasion. (Get ready for the social media blitz, especially if you hang out on Telegram, VKontakte, Parler, et al.) But it is not new, and it was at least reassuring to see that western governments cared enough to take note of it. One day we will be analyzing how well Biden/Blinken’s “‘we see what you’re doing’ (even if you know we won’t do much about it)” strategy worked…

By yesterday, though, after listening to Putin’s and Lukashenko’s speeches in their joint press conference, hearing about today’s joint Russian and Belarusan nuclear “exercises” (which include ICBMs and cruise missiles), seeing the beginnings of the DNR/LNR’s announced evacuations of their own “citizens” to Russia, and tuning in to some increasingly hysterical Russian media conversations, I became pretty confident that full-scale war is imminent. Putin has simply judged the likely costs — in lives, and in sanctions — to be inconsequential compared to the perceived gains of becoming a global strongman. The West does not have the belly to be drawn into a global war, and enough people and states around the world (China, among others) are prepared to let him have what he wants. And he relishes that information war that will accompany it all (with the Tucker Carlsons of the world lapping at his feet).

I have many friends who advocate peace and diplomacy. (I do, too.) Today’s Trilateral Contact Group meeting on Ukraine did not happen because the Russian side did not show up. That raises the question: what happens to diplomacy when one side refuses it? Of course, peace requires trying harder. But at some point that can end, too.

If an invasion of Ukraine goes forward, and if, as I suspect, it goes on for a while, the only hope I see is that it will overextend the Putinist state to the point, ultimately, of collapse. (He is, after all, deeply misjudging Ukrainians’ readiness to resist a Russian takeover.)

As Russian sociologist and lawyer Sergei Davidis said in a recent interview with Open Democracy, the hope is that “All this darkness will somehow lead to a collapse…” That, to my mind, would be a moment of great danger, but also a moment of genuine possibility — one in which it will be exceedingly important for global civil society to act to help Russia come together again as a post-Putinist society. (Needless to say, and as happened once before in the early 1990s, there will be others moving in with other agendas…)

At the moment, the Russian anti-war movement is small and inconsequential because of the many factors that limit its expression. That movement will also need our help as this madness unfolds.

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Valentine’s Day

14 02 2022

It took Valentine’s Day for me to get it:

Putin is to Ukraine as Kanye is to Kim Kardashian, with Pete Davidson being the European/western boyfriend.

Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson head to dinner amid Kanye West’s IG rants
Putin’s use of crude language reveals a lot about his worldview
Kanye West wants to meet Vladimir Putin

Do all crazy wars build up around V(alentine’s) Day?

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