By standard scholarly definition, Russia today is not an illiberal democracy: It is an early-stage fascist state.
On June 24, 2016, the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament), in its final session before the September elections, endorsed a highly controversial bill drastically expanding the capacity of the secret services to intervene in citizens’ private lives and introducing extrajudicial persecution of “extremist” acts. Even Edward Snowden, the famous U.S. leaker hiding in Russia, publicly urged President Putin not to sign it into the law, saying the “bill will take money and liberty from every Russian without improving safety.”
The bill was then approved by the Federation Council (parliament’s upper house) on June 30 and signed by President Putin on July 7. There was no doubt about the outcome of the process; the legislature would not have even debated such a law if an order to do so had not come from the Kremlin administration. Russia’s parliament lacks any power of the purse; it is therefore not remotely comparable in power or function to legislative branches in democracies. It is, please excuse the overused but in this case still perfect metaphor, a Potemkin Village parliament.
Each fleck of news like this adjures us to speak openly about the nature of Putin’s regime. It can no longer be accurately described as an “illiberal democracy,” something on the order of what the Polish or Hungarian governments have become in recent months and now years. It is becoming a fascist state—a moderate one so far, perhaps, but fascist all the same.
Let me immediately parse the term, for it is a bomb that the Russian regime hurls far and wide. In Russia, as far as some other counrty’s regime is concerned, most if not all adversaries and enemies are called fascist, a term whose emotional resonance lies in the constantly recycled mythology of World War II. The term is certainly applied to any streak of Ukrainian politics the Kremlin doesn’t like and to many political moves initiated in the Baltic states, but not to politics and politicians in Hungary, Slovakia, Poland lately, and even the Czech Republic, where far more fascist-like types get on well with Mr. Putin. No, when I and other scholars use the term, we mean a particular regime type as regards three key relationships: the structure of the political economy; the idealized relationship between society, the state, and moral authority; and the posture of the state in regard to other states.
It is true that historians and political scientists still debate the precise nature of fascism. But there is a workable consensus at least for most practical purposes. And one can see this consensus applied to Russia today by Western scholars—tellingly, most often by those with Soviet or Russian roots, like Mikhail Iampolski of New York University or Alexander J. Motyl of Rutgers. They and others have characterized the current Russian state as a fascist one, but a wider range of political scholars does not yet accept this definition. At the same time, in Russia itself this analysis is becoming more widespread, being supported not only by many political activists, such as Yevgeny Ikhlov and several independent commentators and opinion journalists, such as Alexander Sotnik, but by some renowned scholars, like Anton Oleynik, as well. I have also made this case several times, and, as the events unfold, I believe the topic deserves a new exploration sine ira et studio.
The starting point for most observers comes from a striking similarity between current Russian political realities and the most common definitions of fascism. Take the standard and well-respected approach of Robert Paxton: Fascism is
. . . a form of political behavior marked by an obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.1
Or consider Umberto Eco’s adumbrations about “the cult of tradition”, and the judgment that “disagreement is treason.” There is a constant search for a “fifth column” consisting of “foreign agents” and perhaps, above all, the “fear of difference” posing as praise for “stability”; there is an “obsession with a plot” with everything nefarious attributed to “outside detractors.” No one who saw the two-hour-plus manifesto-style documentary called Myroporyadok (“World Order”) that ran on Russian state television in December 2015 can possibly miss the point.
Eco added that the fascist subculture relies on “anti-intellectualism and irrationalism,” which echoes uncannily with a religious “revival” in Russia that is hard to distinguish from a promiscuous flirtation with varieties of pseudo-science. Eco also refers to “selective populism” as a means of seducing the population with “newspeak,” which amounts less to outright lying (though in Russia there is that, too) than to a mountainous proliferation of distracting and diluting non-truths that deliberately create enough noise to make it impossible for ordinary people to figure out what is going on either inside the country or out.2
And finally, note Peter Drucker’s point, made almost eighty years ago, that “Fascism is the stage reached after Communism has proven an illusion.”3 If you cannot find a resemblance to Russia over the past quarter century in these descriptions by Paxton, Eco, and Drucker, you aren’t looking very hard.
Nonetheless, many observers both inside Russia and outside of it still resist the conclusion. In Russia this resistance owes much to the historical memory that emotionally prevents people from attributing fascist notions to the country that defeated Nazi Germany at the cost of up to forty million lives. The foundation for such a feeling was cemented by the Soviet insistence on calling Nazi Germany “Fascist Germany” so that the term “fascism” became synonymous with Hitlerism—and therefore cannot apply as a general rubric to Mussolini’s Italy or to Imperial Japan or, of course, to Russia in any way whatsoever. Outside Russia the reluctance to call the Putin regime fascist is partly attributable to political correctness, partly to almost willful ignorance, and partly to a third reason, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Obviously, by describing the Russian regime as fascist there is no need or intent to ape Soviet propaganda and call it Hitlerian. You don’t need to argue that Putin is in any sense comparable with Hitler—even though there are those who believe he may be, including, oddly enough, some of the Kremlin’s own spin-doctors.4
Rather, Russia is coming ever closer to the “classical” fascist state characterized more by its state corporatism than by its anti-liberal nationalism. Russia therefore resembles Mussolini’s Italy or Franco’s Spain more than it does the Third Reich, particularly the Third Reich during wartime when mobilization closed the gap between private enterprise’s elbow room and state direction, if not full command, of the economy. If one starts with a four-part definition anchored in a political economy description, the term “fascist” applies without hesitation even before adding in the aspects of anti-liberal nationalism that cause the regime to resemble the European fascists of the 1920s and early 1930s.
The ongoing étatization of the Russian national economy is accelerating. Long ago Benito Mussolini proclaimed that
. . . the Fascist State lays claim to rule in the economic field no less than in others; it makes its action felt throughout the length and breadth of the country by means of its corporative institutions, [with] all the economic forces of the nation, organized in their respective associations, circulating within the State.5
As Emilio Gentile argued, one of the most important features of Fascism is the “corporative organization of the economy that suppresses trade union liberty, broadens the sphere of state intervention, and seeks to achieve, by technocracy and solidarity, the collaboration of the ‘productive sectors’ under control of the regime, to achieve its goals of power, yet preserving private property and class divisions.”6
This is exactly what Mr. Putin wants to achieve through the establishment of “state corporations” and rejuvenating the “budgetary (kazennye) enterprises.” He is concentrating resources in the state-owned banks and labeling the biggest oil and natural gas companies as “national treasures.” The state’s share in the national economy now exceeds 60 percent, the trade unions are almost invisible, and the oligarchs declare that they are ready to render their property to the state whenever it may need it—as if they really had a choice, hence the anticipatory deference. They know perfectly well that this is a regime that once privatized an oil company, then nationalized it without significant compensation, and now, in an economic pinch, is trying once again to sell the same company to private buyers.
All this, too, accounts for the ongoing pressure on the small- and mid-sized businesses that are believed not to be integral parts of the economy’s engine but rather sources of bribes that profit both bureaucrats and police. With the state securing around 52 percent of all the workplaces in the Russian economy and “feeding” around 35.5 million retirees through a centralized Pension Fund, one can see an étatized economy where market rules, still not really codified by law, only camouflage highly centralized redistribution of all crucial resources. Even formally privately owned businesses of significant size cannot these days exercise any judgment about investments or marketing, or strike deals (especially with foreigners), without approval by bureaucrats on different levels of the hierarchy.
This observation leads us, second, to the recognition that Russia is quickly becoming a country not so much of the “bureaucracy” but of the “enforcement agencies”—and the latter should be studied with greatest possible concern. What we have seen in recent years looks like the increasing restructuring of these agencies in a way that gives the new Duce (or Caudillo, or prewar Führer) near absolute power over the use of violence. Of course this is not abnormal in theory; a sovereign state is defined by its possession of a monopoly on violence. But consider the difference between a modern Weberian state with actual rule of law and one without those characteristics. In a modern state, if a large corporation goes rogue in one way or another, the state bureaucracy can set the law on it. But in Russia, where there is still no real rule of law, the bureaucracy can only act effectively on behalf of the state through the threat of coercion.That is why it matters that, in addition to the Army, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Federal Security Service (FSB), a 30,000-plus strong Federal Guard Service of the Russian Federation was set up in 2002, and the 400,000-plus strong National Guard was added in 2016. Both of these new paramilitary organizations are headed by Mr. Putin’s most loyal companions, and the latter is subjected directly and exclusively to the President.
Meanwhile, the Prosecutor-General’s office (although headed by Mr. Chaika, absolutely loyal to Mr. Putin) was reformed in 2007 through the creation of the Investigative Committee; that Committee is managed by the Deputy Prosecutor General, a long-time Putin friend named Alexander I. Bastrykin. In 2011, the more than 20,000-strong Investigative Committee was made an independent structure, directly subordinated to the President.
In all of this one can see the reproduction of the practices all the authoritarian fascist regimes of the 1920s and 1930s introduced in their countries. First the leader degrades the importance of the former military and paramilitary structures and creates new ones that first shadow and then displace politically the former. In classical cases a revolutionary fascist party created parallel structures to the government, and then once in power the parallel structure “eats” or absorbs its “host”—the Nazi practice of such tactics is of course paradigmatic. But in the Russian case there is no outside revolutionary party; the regime’s highly personalistic character is eating post-Soviet state institutions, such as they are, from within.
Of course these new institutions are plainly unconstitutional. For example, Article 129 of the Russian Constitution defines explicitly the powers of the Office of the Prosecutor General, but the Basic Law says not one word about any Investigative Committee or National Guard that in effect sits above the Office of the Prosecutor General. Again, the parallels with either Sturmabteilungen or Schutzstaffel in Germany are not precise but are disturbing all the same. Imagine a new American administration creating a judicial oversight mechanism with more political clout than the Supreme Court, and the Court being then unable to declare the new entity unconstitutional.
Given the absence of effective rule of law in Russia, and the continuing usurpation of authority backed by coercive apparatus, it is no wonder that other concentrations of wealth and power in society are responding in kind. There is now a proliferation of “private armies” of state corporations as well as “ethnic guards” like those in Kadyrov’s Chechnya, estimated to number about 30,000 armed professionals.7 Such groups are reportedly responsible for assaults on and even killings of dissidents and opposition-minded politicians.
In such an environment, it is not terribly surprising that, third, we see an all-permeating praise for irredentism and militarization. Putin masterfully uses three devices that deeply touch the feelings of his fellow Russian citizens. One is the memory of the country’s military greatness. Therefore Victory Day celebrations nowadays exceed all the excesses of the Soviet period, and these were not small productions. Just to give a feel for how bizarre this has become, some loyalists have proposed granting to the living relatives of those killed in action during the World War II a right to vote in the name of those deceased in the country’s upcoming elections. This cult of the glorious past makes the best excuse for promoting the military rebuilding (the allocations for defense already make around 5.4 percent of country’s GDP, up from 2.8 percent in early 2000s).
Device number two is nurtured anti-Westernism fueled by the ongoing depiction of the end of the Cold War as a result of both plot and treason that led to the Soviet Union’s defeat and demise. These days, Mr. Putin and his team claim that the United States is willing to destroy and dismantle the Russian Federation itself, so the country should stay militarily strong and ready to withstand its enemies not only alongside its borders but in the whole space identified as the “sphere of Russia’s interests.”Device number three is the claim that parts of “historical Russia” were taken away unlawfully; hence the need to cause the “return” of Crimea. Putin does not openly propose to resurrect the borders of the Soviet Union, even though he likes to say that the USSR was “nothing else, as the same Russia, just called by a different name.” This suggests that Putin’s tendency to identify Russian boundaries as encompassing anywhere large numbers of ethnic Russians live is the operating assumption (and here the parallel to prewar Nazi thinking about Germans living outside the Reich is fairly eerie). Russia will try to further “re-collect” its lands, but the effort is likely to resemble Italy’s efforts in Slovenia, not Germany’s attempts to conquer Europe. Russia’s militaristic hysteria, backed up by micromilitarisme thèâtrale, is used mostly for internal purposes, but the emergence of a unpredictable and surgically aggressive Russia is an obvious new reality that the West must take into account.
The fourth element of Russia’s definition as “moderate” fascist concerns the intermingling of symbolism and propaganda, which have been essential to all fascist regimes. In today’s Russia one can see everything typical of other fascist regimes in this regard: the “rightful” re-codification of history as well as attempts to prosecute alternative readings; the arbitrary definition of “extremism” and limitation of political activity; the establishment of the state control over all the major mass media (and attempts to control the internet); approving of highly symbolic but in fact unusable laws and norms. The propaganda machine is the most profound achievement of the Russian regime today. It helps a government that has been unable for close to twenty years to construct even one modern highway between its country’s two capitals—Moscow and St. Petersburg—still claim that it is successfully modernizing the country and putting it on par with the leading global powers. The glorification of the state works; fantasy reigns. Public opinion is reportedly more than 80 percent favorable to Putin, but of course that could be just propaganda. No one really knows, which is why fantasy is actually the right word here.And it’s getting worse.
The populist rhetoric of “national renaissance”, “strong country,” “showdown with the enemies,” and many similar topics is growing stronger from one year to the next. One Russian law-enforcement agency got a new coat of arms recently that features a bunch of the very same fascii from the emblem of the Italian Fascist Party, now proudly held in the clutch of a double-headed eagle.
Vladimir Putin’s experience and career inclined him to become an authoritarian leader, but his capacity to translate an inclination into the regime we see now has depended on the peculiarities of new and weak government organization in post-Soviet Russia. Here another parallel to Germany suggests itself, but one that has nothing to do with Hitler.
The Weimar Republic, following in the wake of the Hohenzollern imperial collapse in 1919, struggled to obey a constitution that was too idealistic and too weak to prevent radical forces from coming to power. But even in this case it took a smidgen of time to formalize Nazi rule through the Ermächtigungsgesetz of March 1933—the “enabling act” that constituted the Nazi “eating” of the Weimar constitution.
In Russia, however, the rise of an authoritarian leader was presupposed by the Constitution of 1993, in which the position of the President as well as his powers perfectly match the status of a Duce, enabling him to appoint ministers to a cabinet he does not formally head, to create new administrative structures, dissolve the Parliament, and so on without constraint from any quarter. Hitler came from outside the Weimar system; Putin was always inside. The current Russian system, it must be admitted, was engineered during the 1990s by the most “democratic” and “liberal” minds Russia could summon—with no small degree of complicity from supposed Western experts and advisers.
But there is another difficult question, foreshadowed above, that needs to be addressed, and it concerns the fascist preoccupation with nationalism. As Roger Griffin pointed out, “Fascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social, and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values.”8 The history of Europe in the 20th century was overshadowed by the horrors of the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis and their non-German fascist associates, as well as by other sorts of cleansings directed against “inferior” people like the Roma. The Holocaust, caused by the most radical of all the totalitarian regimes, was so profound an historical shock that it seems unthinkable not to link fascism to extreme forms of nationalism—and here we come back to third reason that Western scholars chafe at the idea of the contemporary Russian state as Fascist.
These days the Russian corporatist state by no means promotes any notion of ethno-national superiority. It does not oppress any ethnic group as such. The Chechen fighters that reportedly were stationed in Moscow in 2011–12 when the Kremlin was frightened of a democratic upheaval in the capital is as inconsistent with fascist racial chauvinism as would be Abyssinian police officers in the streets of Rome in mid-1930s, or a Gypsy battalion safeguarding the Reich Chancellery in Wilhelmstrasse during World War II.
But the peculiarity of Russia in this regard consists of a rather obvious fact that differentiates it from all previous fascist regimes: For at least the three preceding centuries, maybe longer, Russia wasn’t actually a nation-state in the Western sense. It was an empire of the older sort that had never first gone through the modern state-building process. Moreover, it was an empire populated and militarily controlled by ethnic Russians settlers, in the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East, where indigenous people (in the Caucasus and in Central Asia) were neither expelled nor killed but were incorporated into one absolutist state.
As a result of this history, both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were critically dependent on peaceful (if not necessarily friendly) relations among all the ethnicities inhabiting the vast country. Although World War II was followed by several ethnic purges and a rise in anti-Semitism, neither phenomena ever constituted a main line of government policies. Therefore Russia was unable to develop a “Nazi” ethnic or racial version of fascism, and it will never do so. This explains quite powerfully that today’s Russia is not nationalistic so much as imperialist. Russia is therefore a unique case of a fascist regime essentially free from the racialist elements of Nazism, and this fact perplexes many who try to reflect on its political nature.
That is why, despite the huge attention to the idea of the “Russian world,” noted above, this is not racialist but cultural. It is about language, not blood. Putin’s own way of talking about this proves the point. He has said that he “finds it hard to accept the position that the people as a community do not have specific features” and believes that in the Russian case that involves not only “our common cultural code but also a very powerful genetic code, because genes have been exchanged during all these centuries and even millennia as the result of mixed marriages [and in fact] that this genetic code of ours is probably, and in fact almost certainly, one of our main competitive advantages in today’s world.”9
So it’s not racial purity, but the reverse, that defines what Russians are supposedly about genetically. For Putin and many Russians, the concept of “Russianness” is an open and inclusive one. Of course, the Ukrainians may not accept this approach, for they tend to get corralled into this open-endedness without anyone having asked their view. Nevertheless, on balance the contemporary Russian state manages to be increasingly fascist without being prejudicially nationalistic. So obviously, if Western scholars define this combination a priori as being incompatible with their definition of fascism, then Russia cannot be fascist. The problem here is with their definition.
This becomes clearer when we consider the cult of the leader, the last of the symbolic aspects of fascism we need to parse. The fascist type of state presupposes all forms of adoration of the Ens Supremum, the nation’s Leader. Putin’s cult has not yet reached the tragicomic extremes of Mussolini’s or Hitler’s, but there are similarities. Putin is the leader of the ruling party without claiming personal membership in it; he ever more often makes speeches not in congress halls but in large arenas or squares. His every wish—whether a new resort palace built or a new law approved by the parliament—just happens in a way that shows his power vertical (a term borrowed from Fascist Italy, by the way) is complete. The former Chairman of the State Election Committee said in 2007 that he cannot even imagine Mr. Putin being wrong on anything, and the deputy Chief of his Administration proclaimed in 2014 that “any attack on Putin is an attack on Russia” and, moreover, “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” Many Russian analysts denounced all these formulas but these words are in many senses right, and they serve a purpose: the display of optimistic assumptions even when, or because, reality does not warrant them.
Historically, all earlier fascist regimes either were defeated and dismantled in a course of a military conflict (Germany, Italy, and Hungary), or peacefully diminished after they became profoundly outdated (Spain and Portugal). Although the differences between these two outcomes are profound, there is a striking similarity among them: There is no known case of an organized and orderly transition of power from one Führer to another in any fascist state. This fact distinguishes fascist and communist regimes, even though they may be similar in other respects: communist regimes could be institutionalized in part because they possessed a formal ideology, but fascist ones have never been, thanks to the cult of the leader, which seems to displace the sway of formal ideology.
The nature of fascism presupposes the prevalence of personal cult of the ruler over every possible kind of ideology; Emilio Gentile once mentioned “an ‘anti-ideological’ and pragmatic ideology” as a feature of Fascism. That fits today’s Russia: Putin once famously stated that he cannot name any ideology that might be appropriate for Russia, except “patriotism.” So the disappearance of the leader terminates the normal life of a fascist regime and causes its demise. So Mr. Volodin, who insists that, “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin,” is right. Putin correctly understands that the present system cannot survive him. So as long as he does not blunder into a major war he cannot win, the end of Russia’s fascist regime will resemble that of the Franco’s or Salazar’s, not Mussolini’s.
This is not terrible news. In the 1920s and 1930s the world more easily tolerated violent acts, military struggle, death, and hardship; there were not yet any nuclear weapons, and most people expected nothing much better. Fascist movements were on the rise in many countries, with the forceful popular grassroots movements propelling them to power “from below.” The Fascist governments were able to form worldwide alliances. Nothing of the kind is present today. Putin’s Russia looks like a belch of communism and imperialism in a world lukewarm to both; it’s something built “from the top” that is passively supported by the people rather than pushed forward by them. So the main task of the Western powers consists not in trying to undermine or destroy the current Russian regime, but simply to outlive it. As depleted as the power of many Western states today may be, that, at least, ought to be doable.
1Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (Vintage Books, 2005), p. 35.
2Eco, “Ur-Fascism,” New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995.
3Drucker, The End of Economic Man (John Day, 1939), pp. 230-1.
4Here the case of Andranik Migranyan, a staunch Putin’s loyalist and the longtime Director of New York-based branch of the Kremlin-funded Institute of Democracy and Cooperation should be noted; immediately after the Russian annexation of Crimea he responded to those who compared Putin to Hitler, arguing that there have been “two Hitlers”: one who ruled the prosperous and peacefully expanding Germany before September 1, 1939, and the other who made all the “historical mistakes” after this date. Mirganyan has insisted that there’s nothing insulting in looking for some similarities between Putin and “Hitler No 1.”
5Mussolini, Fascismo: Dottrina e Istituzioni (Ardita edizioni, 1935), p. 27.
6Gentile, “Fascism: A Working Definition,” in Stanley Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), p. 6.
7Ilya Yashin, Kadyrov: The Threat to the National Security (Free Russia Foundation, 2016), p. 27.
8Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), p. xi.
9Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, December 1, 2016.