Russia: Conflict & Democracy - Issue #6

After a short summer break, welcome to Issue #6 of Conflict & Democracy. In the UK we’re heavily focused on energy security and the inflation crisis - see article links below. In this issue, following the assassination of Darya Dugina, I explore the relationship of Putin’s project to that of the genocidal mysticism of the Russian far right, arguing - as a generation of Western historians did - that we must always take fascists at their word.


Why do we care what fascists think? Killing throws light on Putin’s war dilemma

The image of Aleksandr Dugin, clutching his head in disbelief, as the remains of his daughter’s car burned, may signal a turning point in Russia’s war against Ukraine. There has been no shortage of theories as to the perpetrators.

Russia’s FSB blamed Ukraine, naming a Ukrainian woman allegedly operating out of Estonia as responsible for the bombing (and producing an identity card that has clearly been faked).

Meanwhile, Kyiv-based Russian oppositionist Ilya Ponomarev claimed the bombing was the work of the “National Republican Army”. And the internet has been abuzz with theories that Dugin - a longtime advocate of elite blood sacrifice for the good of the tribe - ordered the hit himself.

The most logical explanation, however, is that the killing was the work of the FSB itself, or a faction within it. It is already being used to whip up a frenzy of anti-Ukrainian hatred in advance of tomorrow’s Ukrainian National Day.

Darya Dugina, like her father Aleksandr, advocated the destruction of Ukraine as an entity and denied the validity of Ukrainian national identity. She called the defenders of Mariupol “subhuman”. She ridiculed claims of atrocities in Bucha. Along with other far right voices, however, she was critical of Putin’s prosecution of the war and of the Russian elite’s alleged softness on their Western adversaries.

For her, any outcome to the war short of the annexation of the whole territory, the murder of its people and the destruction of their language and culture would have been a defeat.

Yet Putin is facing a defeat of a different kind. After the remains of his invasion army exhausted themselves retaking Sievierodonetsk, the front lines in south-east Ukraine have barely moved for three months.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have begun to seriously deplete Russia’s ammunition supplies using US-supplied HIMARS rockets. And a series of strikes on facilities way beyond the range of HIMARS - most notably the attack on the Saky airbase in Crimea - suggest Ukraine is using a mixture of capabilities (special forces, drones and/or unacknowledged missile technologies) that Russian air defences cannot handle.

There were reports last week, again originating with Ponomarev, that figures close to Putin were in a “panic” and seeking backchannel negotiations to end the war. Panic certainly gripped Russian holidaymakers in Crimea, as they fled beaches in sight of the Saki attack.

The bottom line is this: whatever else they’re going to get out of their adventure in Ukraine, the Russian elite is not going to achieve the fantasy of the Eurasian Empire. Nor, despite nightly threats to nuke London, are they going to start the war that ends humanity.

Having played up the Duginist fantasy agenda to the wider population, Putin is now going to need a narrative that explains stasis and geopolitical isolation.

Just as Ernst Röhm and his brownshirts became superfluous to Hitler’s project, and were killed en masse in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, so the Dugin family brand of fascism has likely become an embarassment to the more practical elements within the security elite.

Doomed imperial project

Yet it’s important to understand Aleksandr Dugin’s ideas. Because Putin’s inevitable attempt to freeze the conflict, and normalise relationships with the West, will not be the last act in the Russian tragedy.

What we’re seeing is the implosion of a kind of imperialism that is not long-term sustainable. The new capitalist elite that emerged out of a collapsed, bureaucratic planned economy, but rejected the role of Western comprador bourgeoisie in the late 1990s, had only one source of superprofits left to exploit: fossil fuels.

Under Putin, Russia has become a unique form of rentier state capitalism: its elite, and thus its fiscal stability and the wealth of its middle classes, are entirely reliant on rents from gas and oil. The Tsars had serfs; the Soviet bureaucracy had workers; Putin has carbon.

But carbon will be over by the mid 21st century. As the world weans itself off coal, oil and gas to combat climate change, the primary source of Russian wealth will disappear. Putin’s project - to destroy the rules-based international order before the carbon era ends, creating a three-power world system in which Russia stands co-equal to China and the USA - follows logically from that.

For Russia-watchers, the unanswered question about this regime has always been: are we dealing with a rational agent? Even as late as 22 February 2022 I believed there was a chance that Putin was pursuing a purely rational geopolitical strategy.

Sure, his July 2021 essay contained some bizarre and incoherent claims about the history of Ukraine. Sure, the December 2021 Draft Treaties, presented to the USA and NATO, made outrageous claims for influence in Eastern Europe.

But you could (even if you opposed it) see the logic of the strategy, and its intended outcome - a new security order in Europe, with Russia and America presiding over the rollback of NATO expansion, and the removal of all geo-strategic autonomy from the EU and its Eastern member states. It was even championed as such a rational project by Putin’s sympathisers in the Western left, who denied until the last moment any intent to wage war.

Then came the annexation of Donbas, and Putin’s rambling speech, in which he claimed Ukraine was a “creation” of Bolshevism; that all expressions of Ukrainian national identity were necessarily Russophobic and imbued with Nazism. Since then, throughout the war, ethno-nationalism tinged with genocidal intent has been the guiding state ideology of the Russian Federation.

Watching that speech in Kyiv, with other journalists, it became clear to me that Putin had become radicalised in office, especially during the lockdown period. Like Trump, who moved closer to American fascism as the contradictions of his project matured, Putin put aside realpolitik for deranged ethnonationalism.

As the tanks lined up in the Ukrainian border, it must have seemed like a no-lose strategy: he could discard the most extreme elements of the Eurasian empire fantasy once victory was assured. But victory proved elusive.

What does Dugin think?

Duginism was always about something more extreme than Russian nationalism or territorial adventurism. Dugin not only wants to roll European politics back to 1994, as Putin demands in the Draft Treaties: he wants to reverse historical time, cancelling the whole of human development since the Enlightenment.

Dugin’s “Fourth Political Theory” was born out of a mixture of Great Russian chauvinism and post-Soviet Stalin worship. Its function, during the 1990s, when Dugin was invited to teach the highest echelons of Russia’s emerging military and intelligence elite, was as a synthetic replacement for Soviet nationalism: a belief system to hold together an essentially unstable and doomed project.

Dugin condemns not only liberalism and communism as products of modernity but also Nazism, because the latter was neither mystical enough nor ambitious enough. Goebbels may have claimed the Nazis “wiped the year 1789 from history” but, says Dugin, the Nazis were still “Hegelians”: they believed in historical progress. His project, by contrast, is founded on a belief in the reversibility of history.

“The Fourth Political Theory,” he writes:

“completely discards the idea of the irreversibility of history….People in the Soviet Union were sure that socialism would proceed from capitalism, not vice versa. But in the 1990s they saw the opposite: capitalism following socialism. It is quite possible that Russia could yet see feudalism, or even a slave-owning society, or perhaps a Communist or primordial society emerge after that. Those who laugh at this are the captives of the modern and its hypnosis.”

This is not metaphor. To destroy modernity is, for Dugin, literally Russia’s unique task.

He wants to return “Eurasia”, under Russian leadership, to a pre-capitalist, pre-rational, pre-modern lifestyle. Once that is achieved he wants us to use the knowledge we have gained of modernity and its dangers during these past 400 years to freeze historical time at a pre-capitalist moment so that the Englightenment, the scientific method and capitalist economic rationality can never emerge again.

Intellectually, Dugin’s is the purest and most mystical variant of the new ideology that guides modern fascism. But he has been absolutely clear, from the start, what resisting globalisation, liberalism and modernity means for Russia: victory or death:

“If Russia chooses ‘to be’, then it will automatically bring about the creation of a Fourth Political Theory. Otherwise, for Russia there remains only the choice ‘not to be’, which will mean to quietly leave the historical and world stage, dissolving into a global order which is not created or governed by us”.

Dugin borrows the term Ereignis from the philosopher and Nazi party member Martin Heidegger. For Heidegger Ereignis meant a one-off event that would fuse being and time and resolve all the problems of human history at the very moment things look bleakest.

For Dugin it has morphed into an idea that all students of modern fascism will be familiar with: “Day X” or the deluge - the moment modernity ends in a cataclysmic, global, ethnic civil war. He writes:

“The Russian version of the Fourth Political Theory, based on the rejection of the status quo in its practical and theoretical dimensions, will focus on the ‘Russian Ereignis’. This will be that very ‘Event’, unique and extraordinary, for which many generations of Russian people have lived and waited, from the birth of our nation to the coming arrival of the End of Days” (emphasis added).

[By the way, as you can gather from this drivel, Dugin is as much a “philosopher” as his daughter was a “journalist”. But his ideas remain important…]

For Dugin Russia’s role is either to reverse historical time or destroy humanity in the process. That is the Ereignis. Since Putin turned decisively towards imperialist expansionism, Dugin’s philosophy moulded itself successfully onto the aspirations of the Russian deep state and security elite: because even someone living in a blizzard of cocaine and diamonds can understand the fossil fuel is about to end, leaving the post-1991 economic model of the Russian Federation pointless.

It does not matter that, as many commentators have pointed out, Dugin is “not a Kremlin insider”, and that Darya Dugina was not among the front rank Kremlin spokespeople keeping the war fantasy alive on Rossiya 1. What matters is the power of their ideas.

Although the Russian state is full of practical and technologically competent people, who only want the “greatness” of their nation and culture to be appreciated, we know from history how such people can become radicalised during wartime towards the projects of both genocide and self-destruction.

This was exactly the trajectory of German nationalist bourgeoisie followed between 1932 and 1941. They tried autarky, then lebensraum, then genocide; finally they tried cyanide.

Take fascists at their word

After the war it was common for political scientists to dismiss the ideologies of fascism as irrelevant: Hitler and Mussolini’s writings were seen as a hodge-podge of borrowed ideas with no internal consistency; “trite restatemetns of certain traditional ideas arranged in an incoherent way that makes them highly exciting to weak minds” as Friedrich and Brzezinski put it in Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956).

The great achievement of historians and sociologists since the 1970s (Mosse, Sternhell, Gentile etc) has been to convince us to take fascists at their word: to study their ideologies as if their stated objectives were real, not metaphorical. To understand, as the conservative historian Ernst Nolte put it, their “staggering logical consistency”.

For certain, all fascism originates in the crisis of an imperial project, and seizes its moments during an economic meltdown. But fascism as a phenomenon is deeply rooted. As I argue in How To Stop Fascism, inspired by Fromm and Reich, fascism is the fear of freedom triggered by a glimpse of freedom.

The Russian masses have, during the past decade, been given four glimpses of freedom. First, the certainty that the world will be free of fossil capitalism by mid-century; second, the spread of what Putin’s ideologists call “LGBT Capitalism” - that is widespread social liberalism; third, the attempted colour revolutions in Russia and Belarus; fourth, the experience of Ukrainian democratisation, which has creating a living “anti-Russia” in the imagination of Russian ethnonationalism.

In response, what we saw between 2014 and 2022 was the slow fusion of Putin’s project of Great Power politics and military conquest with Dugin’s vision of Russia as a nihilist agent of history. After 24 February these ideas assumed a virulent, mass form in Russia - through prime-time incitement by figures like Dugina and thousands of echo chambers on social media.

Now, however, reality is going to bite. One section of the Russian elite will likely seek to de-escalate the conflict, reverting to diplomatic language, incremental territorial claims etc. Another will seek total victory or total oblivion. The question is, of course, where will the masses go?

Which way will the masses go?

Nothing in history allows us to predict the answer easily. Hitler only lost once, and forever. That moment was accompanied by suicidal urges among the Nazi elite, well described by Arendt when she said they not only dehumanised their victims but “did not care whether they, themselves lived or died, or indeed if they had ever lived”. By  then the masses were too shell-shocked by war to do much more than dig through the rubble.

The problem for Putin is that, unless he dramatically escalates the war, the Russian people will get to live through something that, if it does not resemble military defeat, will clearly represent failure - especially if Ukraine can mount a conventional counter-offensive that retakes territory (either in Kherson or elsewhere).

At some point Simonyan, Solovyov and all the other self-dramatising warmongers on Russian TV will have to explain why the entire project is failing - the kind of bad day at the office that a figure like Goebbels never had to endure. At that point, no matter how total Putin’s control is over the internet, TV and the streets, people will look for answers. Radical democratisation will be one; Duginism will be another; the “loyal but critical” militarist populism of a figure like Igor Girkin will be a third.

In the short term it looks likely that Putin will use Dugina’s assassination as the excuse for the strikes on Ukrainian civilians he was planning to stage anyway, coincident with the country’s national day, tomorrow, 24 August. He may use it to up the ante with Estonia, whose digital infrastructure came under sustained attack in the past week after the removal of an iconic Soviet era monument.

But in the medium term his problem remains: he has survived the West’s sanctions regime; he holds a whip hand over Europe this winter in the form of gas supplies; but Russia’s military machine is exhausted, and the narrative that once sustained it is broken.

Absent any prospect of victory, the Russian elite face a forever war in which their globalist lifestyles are permanently disrupted, their businesses increasingly nationalised, and a regime of scarcity normalised.

Arms, money and solidarity

As we approach the six month anniversary of the invasion let’s remember what’s placed the Russian elite into this blind alley. Despite their own venal instincts, and the best efforts of the far right and much of the Stalinist left, Western democratic governments have armed, funded and sustained Ukraine.

And Ukraine has survived because its people have something more inspiring to fight for than the lurid mythology of Dugininsm: namely democracy and inclusion in a rules-based order that remains - though damaged - distinctly functional.

We need to go on arming Ukraine; cancelling its debts; sending aid and solidarity to its people - both through our governments and direct, as British miners did last month with the gift of an SUV direct to their Ukrainian counterparts on the front line.

At the same time we need to arm ourselves, morally and intellectually, against the global fascist ideology that Duginism forms part of. The man himself has been hard at work for decades building far right networks inside Western democratic countries. They’ll be mourning Dugina this week, and echoing the disinformation that was her stock-in-trade.

The only response, as the bombs go on falling, is to go on standing with Ukraine.