How Putin has embraced Russia’s
very own ultra-nationalism
By Paul Feldman
A country’s history is strapped to its back in so many ways, making apparently surprise reappearances from time to time. Take Russia. Moscow’s determination to crush Ukrainian aspirations for democracy is fashioned by the weight of both Czarism and Stalinism, as well as a neo-nationalism.
How right Karl Marx was when he wrote that, while people make their own history, “they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."
Vladimir Putin may not be a czar but he has visions of rebuilding its old empire. The Russian Federation’s double eagle coat of arms derives from an earlier czarist emblem abolished after the Russian Revolution of 1917. His recent reference to “Novorossiya” [New Russia] to describe Eastern Ukraine harks back to the 18th century when the territory was conquered in a war with the Ottoman empire.
“It's new Russia," Putin told the audience during his nearly four-hour long televised Q&A. "Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows." Actually, they became part of the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic, which was finally achieved after three years of revolution and civil war.
Surely Putin, former senior KGB officer and ex-member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union must know that. But then, like nationalists everywhere, he has a selective memory. Borders were less important to the Bosheviks who led the 1917 revolution. V.I. Lenin, in particular, bent over backwards to champion self-determination within the old czarist empire, which he termed a “prison of nations”.
Attitudes within his party were also shaped by the repressive outlook of the czarist empire. At the end of 1922, as he neared a tragic, premature death, Lenin attacked Stalin and others who were indifferent to the fate of the different nationalities within the newly-formed Soviet Union.
In some of his last writings, Lenin bemoaned the presence of what he termed “Great-Russian chauvinism” in the party as a carry-over from czarist times. “It is sufficient to recall my Volga reminiscences of how non-Russians are treated; how the Poles are not called by any other name than Polyachiska, how the Tatar is nicknamed Prince, how the Ukrainians are always Khokhols and the Georgians and other Caucasian nationals always Kapkasians.”
A row broke out over the “Georgian question”, during which Lenin accused Stalin of “haste … infatuation with pure administration” and “spite” in his attitude towards national rights and culture. He asks: “Were we careful enough to take measures to provide the non-Russians with a real safeguard against the truly Russian bully? I do not think we took such measures although we could and should have done so.”
Lenin passed on a few months later and the expedient administrator in the shape of Stalin assumed power after a tumultuous inner-party struggle. The right to secede enshrined in the formation of the Soviet Union became worthless. Ukrainian culture and language which flourished in the early 1920s was later repressed. Great-Russian chauvinism triumphed as the country went back to the future.
In the 1930s, forced collectivisation pushed Ukraine into famine. Some three million people perished. Stalin’s ruthless policy of requisitioning grain while Ukrainians starved is now officially designated an act of genocide. “Stalin claimed, absurdly but effectively, that Ukrainians were deliberately starving themselves on orders from Warsaw. Later, Soviet propaganda maintained that anyone who mentioned the famine must be an agent of Nazi Germany,” writes the historian Timothy Snyder in an illuminating history of Ukraine-Russia relations.
Following the abortive coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, the Soviet Union rapidly disintegrated. Boris Yeltsin began the collapse by taking Russia out of the USSR and banning the Communist Party, of which he had been a leading member. Soon, all 15 republics were independent. In Ukraine, 90% voted in favour of independence, including a majority in Russian-speaking areas of the country. Capitalism was restored throughout the former USSR and new state institutions were formed.
Which brings us back to Putin and the Kremlin clique that includes career diplomat Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister who sees a conspiracy of the West behind every event. Both men served the Stalinist bureaucracy faithfully and thus inherited in their social DNA the naked chauvinism that Lenin had warned about. No one else was leaving Russia any time soon. First Yeltsin and then Putin waged merciless wars against the Chechens, who wanted independence. Over 50,000 died in the second war under Putin. Georgia was attacked in a dispute over South Ossetia in 2008.
Russia’s economy, now privatised and handed over to a group of oligarchs, produced mass destitution and poverty through the 1990s. In 1998, the rouble collapsed and Russia defaulted on its debts. A year later, Putin was made prime minister. Russia eventually took advantage of the global economic boom to export its natural resources to Western Europe and sell its oil on international markets. Although it was boom time for a minority, inequality grew, life-expectancy continues to fall for the majority and the death rate outstrips the birth rate.
The Russian economy was vulnerable to the global recession that followed the financial melt-down of 2007-8. The government’s popularity fell and a new generation felt confident enough to take to the streets in large numbers in December 2011 and again in March 2012. They were protesting against what many saw as rigged parliamentary and presidential elections respectively. Putin’s tirades against the United States increased, accusing Washington of wanting to destroy Russia, something he was making a pretty good job of himself.
In a bid to shield Russia from such impacts, Putin has promoted a Eurasian customs union. If successful, it would be a major step towards rebuilding the empire, Moscow calculates, while undermining West European capitalism. That is why Moscow has stepped up rhetoric against the European Union, particularly over its support for Ukraine, as Snyder explains:
By 2013, however, Moscow no longer represented simply a Russian state with more or less calculable interests, but rather a much grander project of Eurasian integration. The Eurasian project had two parts: the creation of a free trade bloc of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; and the destruction of the European Union through the support of the European far right. Imperial social conservatism provided the ideological cover for a goal that was eminently simple.
Europe’s far-right parties like the National Front in France, Ukip in Britain, Golden Dawn Greece embrace Putin’s nationalism, his homophobia, his fear of Islam and the promotion of what they see as traditional values. Just as in the late 1930s, when Stalin made a devil’s pact with Hitler, anti-fascist rhetoric is just that – rhetoric. It certainly does not prevent Moscow from having real fascists as allies if they are seen to serve a strategic purpose.
The “international observers” Moscow invited to the stage-managed referendum in Crimea included Belgian neo-Nazi Luc Michel and former Polish MP Mateusz Piskorski whose magazine Odala openly praised Nazi Germany. While castigating the “fascists” in Kiev, Putin himself calls anti-war opponents not only a “fifth column” but “national traitors”. Anti-Semitism is rife on the airwaves. In one exchange, TV pundit Alexander Prokhanov suggested Ukraine’s Jews who backed the uprising could be “bringing on a second Holocaust” – to which host Evelina Zakamskaya replied, “They brought on the first one, too.”
The man who raised the Russian flag in Donetsk is said to be a member of a neo-Nazi party while Hitler himself is rehabilitated in the columns of Izvestia by Andranik Migranyan. He is director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York and also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow. A former member of the Russian Presidential Council, he is close to Putin’s circle.
He wrote: "One must distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939. The thing is that Hitler collected [German] lands. If he had become famous only for uniting without a drop of blood Germany with Austria, Sudetenland and Memel, in fact completing what Bismarck failed to do, and if he had stopped there, then he would have remained a politician of the highest class.” Surely Migranyan is not suggesting that Putin’s policies of gathering Russians are just as legitimate? You can answer that one yourself.
Ukraine’s leaders have played fast and loose with Russia since independence, taking Moscow’s gas and loans while looking West at the same time. Ukraine’s oligarchs fear that integration into the Russian economy would leave them losers when the dust settles. Successive Kiev governments at the same time failed to create an appeal to all sections of Ukrainian society, playing Ukrainian and Russian speakers off against each other in order to assume power. The state has been in perpetual crisis as a result, exemplified by the behaviour of the now deposed Viktor Yanukovych and his family. State coffers were ransacked for personal gain, nepotism was rife and the rule of law was largely disregarded in favour of political objectives.
A bankrupt Ukraine seemed ripe for the picking, Moscow calculated. Towards the end of 2013, Putin dissuaded Yanukovych from signing a trade deal with the EU as a first step towards bringing Ukraine into the Eurasian customs union. Mass protests – a feature of Ukrainian politics ever since independence – erupted. So Putin tried bribes – cheap gas and loans in return for crushing the rallies. New laws banning protests were rushed through – inspiring more people to come on to the streets.
An uprising for democracy and the rule of law emerged. Ukrainians were acting not for Brussels or Moscow but for themselves. Russia held back on the offer, waiting for the dispersal of the crowds. Shortly afterwards, snipers killed dozens of unarmed protesters and Yanukovych was overthrown in the aftermath and an interim government took over which immediately turned to the EU for financial support. Parliamentary rule was restored and elections called for May. Putin has to stop or disrupt these elections because they represent a threat to his own unbridled power.
Every state needs a defining view of its place in the world that it can transmit to its population through the media, the education and political systems. This is crucial if the state is to maintain and sustain legitimacy in the eyes of the people it rules over. The Russian state is no exception, although the circumstances it finds itself are obviously unique.
The British capitalist state system has evolved in a centuries-long conflict between different sections of the ruling class and the struggle of ordinary people for democracy. Its social revolution was in the mid-17th century. By contrast, the Russian state has a much more volatile recent history. There were three revolutions between 1905 and October 1917 alone. The last one consolidated the overthrow of the czar and its autocracy and created the framework for the world’s first socialist state.
The degeneration of the October Revolution into a Stalinist dictatorship by the early 1930s was alongside the building of an all-powerful, centralised police state machine. Party bureaucrats duplicated the work of the state, holding parallel positions. Honest, transparent decision-making was all but impossible. In ideological terms, the state was promoted and decisions justified through constant references to the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. This dogmatised, canonised “Marxism” was actually a new religion, a Stalinist version of orthodox Catholicism.
Heretics, real or imagined, were persecuted, put on trial and executed in numbers so vast they almost defy comprehension. Hardly any of the Old Bolsheviks who had led the 1917 revolution survived. The Red Army’s leadership was destroyed, accused of being agents of Nazi Germany. Abrupt policy turns destabilised the regime and its supporters.
Top of the list was the infamous Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 with its secret protocols. Poland was destroyed as an independent state and its territory carved up between the Nazis and Moscow and the Baltic States occupied. When Germany turned on its ally and invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Stalinists abandoned a pretence to Marxism and turned the conflict into an openly nationalist “Great Patriotic War” to save the nation.
In the post-war period, despite Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalinist crimes at the 20th party congress in 1956, Marxism as dogma continued to dominate the state’s ideology. Opposition and dissent were not tolerated until the period of perestroika and glasnost ushered in by Gorbachev’s attempt to democratise Soviet society in the late 1980s. The Stalinists struck back with an abortive coup in August 1991 and by the end of the year, the Soviet Union was no more. All 15 former republics opted for independence. The vote in Ukraine was 90% in favour.
With the end of the Soviet Union, state property was distributed through fraudulent means to oligarchs who became billionaires overnight. Capitalism with a Russian face was restored and market economies introduced to devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. Naturally, the emerging state abandoned all references to Marxism, reinstated the Russian Orthodox church and promoted its influence. It was inadequate, however, to serve as a state ideology.
Step forward the theory and practice of the outlook known as Eurasianism, which had briefly flourished when it was first put forward by Russian émigrés in Paris, and which is now back in vogue. Its original proponents wanted an alternative to czarism and communism in politics which emphasised what they considered the special nature of Russia, its culture and its people. As a recent analysis, explains: “Given Russia’s vastness, they believed, its leaders must think imperially, consuming and assimilating dangerous populations on every border. Meanwhile, they regarded any form of democracy, open economy, local governance, or secular freedom as highly dangerous and unacceptable.” They interacted with fascist thinkers in France and Germany before dying out as a force.
The dissolution of the USSR created new opportunities for a revival of their ideas. Neo-Eurasianism’s chief theoretician is one Aleksandr Dugin, whose political background is, not to mince words, fascism. He was a founder and chief ideologue of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) in 1994, a neo-Nazi group. His 1992 article Conservative Revolution heaped praise on the Nazi-killing machine the Waffen-SS and especially its pseudo-scientific section, Ahnenerbe, describing it as "an intellectual oasis in the framework of the National Socialist regime".
Ahnenerbe researched the archaeological and cultural history of the so-called Aryan race and later conducted experiments and launched expeditions in an attempt to prove that mythological Nordic populations had once ruled the world. The unit was responsible for all the experiments on humans in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. In his 1997 article Fascism – Borderless and Red, Dugin wrote of the arrival of a “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism” in Russia.
With Putin’s arrival in power in 1999, Dugin decided that he would be better off influencing Russia’s leaders with his ideas rather than building his own organisation. In Putin, he found just the man he needed. As Anton Arbashin and Hannah Thobur explain in their perceptive analysis:
By the late 2000s, he [Putin] had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilisation of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West – such as the criminalization of ‘homosexual propaganda’ and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism – were popular in Russia.
True to Putin’s insistence that Russia cannot be judged in Western terms, Putin’s new conservatism does not fit US and European definitions. In fact, the main trait they share is opposition to liberalism. Whereas conservatives in those parts of the world are fearful of big government and put the individual first, Russian conservatives advocate for state power and see individuals as serving that state. They draw on a long tradition of Russian imperial conservatism and, in particular, Eurasianism. That strain is authoritarian in essence, traditional, anti-American, and anti-European; it values religion and public submission. And more significant to today’s headlines, it is expansionist.
After abandoning formal political involvement, Dugin’s star rose. He is now a professor at Moscow State University, where he established the Centre of Conservative Researches. This is the venue for seminars attended by leading members of Europe’s far right, especially from France. His International Eurasian Movement involves academics, politicians, parliamentarians, journalists, and intellectuals from Russia and the West.
In 2009, the International Eurasian Movement counted among its board members Alexander Torshin, Duma vice-speaker and a leading figure in the ruling United Russia party, and Nikolai Yefimov, editor-in-chief of the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Dugin was cited as an intellectual guru by Ivan Demidov, who headed United Russia’s ideology section in 2008, and currently serves as an adviser to the chairman of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin. Like the Kremlin, Dugin rejects Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state and instead should be brought into the Eurasian project by force. He views Georgia in the same way. During Russia’s 2008 attack on the country, he called for “tanks to Tbilisi – this is the voice of our national history”. On this occasion, Putin did not press on to the Georgian capital.
Dugin, who is an incredible self-publicist, frequently appearing on TV panels, writing articles and promoting his websites, has developed a new “Fourth Political Theory” in which he calls for a “a global crusade against the US, the West, globalisation, and their political-ideological expression, liberalism”. After Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, Dugin created the Eurasianist Youth Union, which promotes patriotic and anti-Western education. It has 47 coordination offices throughout Russia and nine in countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Poland, and Turkey.
Anton Arbashin and Hannah Thobur believe that Dugin, then, has proven to be a “great asset to Putin”. They explain: “He has popularised the president’s position on such issues as limits on personal freedom, a traditional understanding of family, intolerance of homosexuality, and the centrality of Orthodox Christianity to Russia’s rebirth as a great power. But his greatest creation is neo-Eurasianism. Dugin’s ideology has influenced a whole generation of conservative and radical activists and politicians, who, if given the chance, would fight to adapt its core principles as state policy… it is proving to be a strong contender for the role of Russia’s chief ideology.”
Neo-Eurasianism at home is about a crackdown on free speech, activists and campaigners for human rights. Step-by-step the authorities are making it a criminal offence to speak out in public. Recently, a group of protesters near the Kremlin held up a hand as if carrying a placard. They wanted to let passers-by know that other protesters who attended an authorised rally a couple of years ago are still paying the price.
One of those is Mikhail Kosenko, now locked in a psychiatric unit. In March, Moscow courts upheld a decision to detain Kosenko in a psychiatric unit for “treatment”. Needless to say, the protest without placards ended with all the participants being arrested. Existing restrictions on protests are not considered adequate, however, and there are proposals for the “improvements to the legislation on public gatherings” that will see those found guilty of attending multiple unauthorised protests classed and punished as criminals.
In April, the Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial, which defended victims of racism and xenophobia, was forced to close down following a St Petersburg court ruling. It was the latest victim of Putin's 2012 “Foreign Agents Law” which requires non-governmental organisations to register as foreign agents and undergo surveillance that limits their work, or face large fines and closure. The group refused to comply and so had to end its work.
“The court had two options, and its choice was not in favour of justice and human rights. Its disheartening decision is in line with the prevailing tendency promoted by the Russian government to stamp its authority on any civil society activity. It sets a dangerous precedent which could be used against other NGOs,” said Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office. “The Russian authorities are deliberately depriving Russian society of an alternative voice, of checks and balances to the government’s actions. They attack anybody who dares to criticize them.”
The persecution of ADC Memorial started more than a year ago when the Prosecutor’s Office referred to its report, Roma, migrants and activists: the victims of police abuse, submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in November 2012, as evidence of ADC Memorial being involved in “political activity” and hence, violating Russia’s newly adopted law by failing to register as a “foreign agent”. In March 2014, there were reports that the authorities were searching the offices of hundreds of NGOs, including those of Memorial, one of the country's oldest rights organisations which campaigns for the victims of Stalinism. Dozens of NGOs have been forced to close down over the last year.
As the crisis over Crimea reached a peak, the government shut down numerous websites for criticising Putin. On March 10, the popular Russian website Lenta.ru published an interview with Andrei Tarasenko, a leader of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group. Roskomnadzor, the Russian media authority, took action against the website, issuing a warning that it is spreading "extremist" content. Head editor Galina Timchenko and general director Yulia Minder were dismissed the same day. With Putin now dismissing the Internet as a Western conspiracy, online activists fear the worst. The irony is that while Russians are being gagged, Russian-speakers in Ukraine are free to write and say what they want.
The marginal influence of the ultra-right nationalists and neo-fascists in the Kiev uprising and their lack of popular support – they are polling at around 2% for the scheduled elections next month – makes no difference to Moscow. Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Russian-Jewish journalist and monitor for the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, has estimated that only about 1% of the demonstrators were “radical nationalists.” But over-emphasising their strength is part of the fabricated narrative to justify an invasion of Ukraine itself.
Svoboda, a far-right party, and Right Sector, are peripheral to the new Kiev government which is made up of representatives of the oligarchs who lean towards the European Union. The government includes Jews and is monitored by an array of civil society groups that have sprung up in Ukraine. Svoboda were condemned by parliament for attacking a television editor while the government has disarmed the Right Sector and evicted them from their Kiev HQ. A Svoboda-driven bill that would have effectively made Ukrainian the country’s sole official language was promptly vetoed by interim president Oleksandr Turchynov. As Snyder points out:
The authoritarian far right in Russia is infinitely more dangerous than the authoritarian far right in Ukraine. It is in power, for one thing. It has no meaningful rivals, for another. It does not have to accommodate itself to international expectations, for a third. And it is now pursuing a foreign policy that is based openly upon the ethnicisation of the world. It does not matter who an individual is according to law or his own preferences: The fact that he speaks Russian makes him a Volksgenosse requiring Russian protection, which is to say invasion.
With the Russian economy in a deepening crisis, the Kremlin might find a military adventure into Ukraine the only course. In any case, it needs somehow to block or disrupt the scheduled elections on May 25 which would legitimise the overthrow of Yanukovych. Meanwhile, Putin is trying to limit dependency on foreign funds and technology and wants to end the internationalisation of the country’s businesses. "Russian companies should be registered on the territory of our nation, in our country and have a transparent ownership structure," Putin told heads of Russia's largest companies at a local business conference.
After growing by just 1.3 % in 2013, gross domestic product contracted in the first quarter compared with the previous three months, and the economy is likely to move into recession in the current quarter, the finance ministry admits. The World Bank has warned that capital flight could reach $150 billion in 2014, with $70 billion of that in the first quarter. Russia still imports more than 40% of its food and over half of all medicines consumed in the country. Equally, the country largely relies on foreign supplies of manufactured goods across most industries.
Of course, the “West” meddles in Ukraine, as it does everywhere. As promoters of transnational capital, governments are always seeking access to new markets, sources of low-cost labour, raw materials and the rest. Their plans don’t always work, as the military actions in Libya and the occupation of Iraq demonstrate. Control over oil exports has passed into the hands of the Chinese and the influence of the US is low in these countries. As for Moscow’s attitude to Kiev, at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Putin told a surprised George W. Bush, "You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us."
To see the uprising in Maidan as a conspiracy hatched by Washington and London is grotesque. People are drawn into struggle by real issues, by real conditions of daily life, without knowing the outcome in advance. What ultimately toppled Yanukovych was his breathtaking corruption and the deployment of special forces to kill protesters.
Equally grotesque is defending Russia’s actions in Crimea and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine on the grounds that Moscow is merely responding to provocations by the West. As we have shown, the policy towards Ukraine is driven by a combination of an economic crisis and an ultra-nationalist, empire-building ideology that has swept the Kremlin. If this was a description of the US government, we would be calling it imperialism and heading for the air-raid shelters.
You expect support for Putin from Nigel Farage and his nationalist Ukip. He too wants to save the nation from further dilution by foreigners. But it is also the unthinking line taken by Stephen Cohen of The Nation and Seumas Milne in The Guardian. They are not defending anything at all progressive but a reactionary, authoritarian, homophobic regime that has grand imperial designs not seen in Europe since the 1930s. Moscow’s anti-Americanism, when it comes down to it, is as reactionary as the invasions, occupations and other illegal actions by Washington and London.
In all this, the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future is in danger of being swept aside. No one would suggest that their aspirations can be fulfilled by the present political class and oligarchs that dominate Ukraine. Ukrainians need forms of democracy that transcend the old regime, going beyond a change of personnel. In doing so, they will come to see that neither Moscow, nor Brussels and certainly not Washington has anything but their exploitation in mind. In the meantime, allowing Ukrainians the space to decide on their path means total opposition to the destruction of its statehood by Russia.
29 April 2014
- Defend Ukraine's right to self-determination
- Ukrainians die for themselves, not East or West
- Chechnya – Putins’s dirty war
- Russians revolt against fraud elections
- The Prague Spring – beginning of the end for Stalinism
- Annulment of the Verdicts on Bukharin, Rykov and Rakovsky
- Vasily Grossman: Defying the general coercion