Following the first International Russian Conservative Forum, the overall militarist bent Moscow has taken in the wake of its secret war against Ukraine has brought to the fore a startling fact; many in Russia are scantly aware of what fascism actually means anymore.
Imagine if you will, an authoritarian form of government which borrows heavily from socialism, but believes that the real locus of history is not class conflict, but national and racial strife. Proponents seek private enterprise with a heavy government hand, often with the strong presence of state-run enterprises. They stress the need for autarky, or self-sufficiency, which entails the national interest being protected via interventionist economic politics. The goal, of course, is not necessarily to cut oneself off from the outside world, but to be sure the state can survive with or without international trade or external forms of assistance.
What if adherents to this ideology were, in the words of political scientist and historian Robert Paxton, obsessively preoccupied with “community decline, humiliation, or victimhood?” What if these forces, in a shaky collaboration with traditional elites, jettisoned all democratic principles and used “redemptive violence” for the sake of internal cleansing and external expansion?
What if the ideologically faithful were obsessed with conspiracy theories and the constant need to remain vigilant against internal security threats, which often involved both indirect and overt appeals to xenophobia, and more specifically, anti-semitism?
What if cultural myths were promoted for the sake of fusing the individual and the masses into what Emilio Gentile described as a “mystical unity of the nation as an ethnic and moral community?” What if discriminatory measures were adopted to punish those outside of this community, who are viewed as inferior and dangerous to the integrity of the nation?
What if, in the words of Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, this ideology exhibited in its foreign policy “the most brutal kind of chauvinism”, cultivating what he called “zoological hatred” against other peoples?
What if this policy, “inspired by the myth of national power and greatness,” is predicated on the “goal of imperialist expansion?”
The above list of qualities, if you haven’t already guessed, are all related to scholarly definitions of fascism.
And over the past year, Russians engaged in a war of words (as well as actual war) have clutched two rhetorical grenades called “provocation” and “fascism.” With the former, any social ill can be chalked up to an external enemy or outside plot, deflecting all blame or need to hold the individual or government responsible for the current state of affairs. The latter is used to delegitimize your enemy by associating them with a historical force which negatively impacted most every Soviet family. Both are intended to shut down critical thinking.
But despite the incessant talk of juntas, Banderites and fascists which has filled the Russian airwaves ad nausem, it is in fact Russia which, as a nation, is on a stark, fascist drift.
“What you foreigners don’t get is that those people in Maidan [Kiev], they are fascists,” Alexander, a Simferopol resident, told the Guardian’s Shaun Walker two weeks before Russia officially annexed Crimea last year. ”I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”
To anyone who has not spent much time in Russia, the internal contradictions present in the above statement are glaring. But no matter the level of cognitive dissonance, that very attitude, albeit to different degrees, is widely held throughout Russian society.
Perhaps that is why, despite the rhetoric, observers from far-right European parties, including Béla Kovács from the Hungarian Jobbik Party, one time neo-nazi and modern day “National Bolshevik” Luc Michel, far right Spanish politician Enrique Ravello, and representatives from the Flemish right-wing party Vlaams Belang came to Crimea to legitimize the sham independence referendum, rather than throw in their support behind their supposed fellow ideological travelers in Ukraine. In this strange and managed reality, everything you think you know about the world no longer applies.
For people like Alexander, the far-right European observers in Crimea, and perhaps many in attendance at the International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg on Sunday, a fascist is some type of Anglo-American-Zionist (Jewish) tool who wants to crush traditional values in general and Russia in particular via the vehicle of NATO force and so-called cultural Marxism.
A fascist is not, in contrast, a militant, anti-immigrant white supremacist who talks about Europe’s Christian roots, rallies against homosexuality and other forms of moral degradation, berates the EU and promotes some vague return to a nationally-centered economy, and believes his country to be under the thumb of Israel and other Zionists forces.
Of course, a worldview contingent on such semantic muddying is destined to lead to a few moments of absurdity, as it did on Sunday when participants at the forum actually debated just who could be called a fascist (and whether that was a bad thing at all).
“I don’t find it defamatory to be called a fascist,” said Roberto Fiore, leader of Italy’s far-right party Forza Nuova, who, as Max Seddon pointed out, actually signed an “anti-fascist memorandum” in Crimea last August. “But I do find it defamatory if you call me a Nazi.”
But for Aleksei Zhilov, an organizer for pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, nothing was worse than fascism, that is, if fascism were to be defined by a simple tautology.
“All that is in Donbas—that is antifascism, and everything in Ukraine is fascism,” he said. “There isn’t any other fascism anywhere.”
It is in this bizarro world where Alexander from Simferopol can be a white supremacist who is also opposed to fascism. Julia Ioffe confronted the same type of “mind-melting” cognitive dissonance with Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine this past June.
“As Dmitry and I talked, I noticed a Vostok fighter in fatigue pants, a t-shirt, and a bulletproof vest pacing around with a Kalashnikov. He had a long, scraggly blond beard and was peppered with tattoos: a rune on one elbow, and, on the inside of his right forearm, a swastika, just like the one on the chest of the supposed Right Sector soldier. I asked Dmitry about it, but the man spotted me pointing to my arm.
‘Come here,’ he growled, beckoning angrily.
I remained frozen in place.
‘Don’t you go spreading your lies,’ he barked as he strode toward us. ‘This isn’t a swastika. This is an ancient Slavic symbol. Swa is the god of the sky.’
I stared, silently.
‘It’s our Slavic heritage,’ he said. ‘It’s not a swastika.’ Then he turned and walked away.”
To be fair, this habit of appropriating the swastika as a symbol of slavic heritage is one found on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict.
In July, a volunteer from the Ukrainian National Guard’s First Reserve Battalion told Vice’s Simon Ostrovsky much the same thing the Vostok fighter told Ioffe.
“I don’t consider myself a fascist, a Nazi or [a member of] Right Sector,” he said.
“It’s [referring to a swastika pendant around his neck] an ancient Slavic symbol. It’s always brought good luck.”
Claims, however, that swastikas, kolovrats (spinning wheels) or other neo-pagan symbols have been divorced from neo-nazism within eastern Europe are dubious at best. Sometimes, the meaning of the symbol is contingent on the interlocutor, which is to say, which face you need to present to which audience.
In the case of Alexey Milchakov, a Russian mercenary fighting for the“Donetsk People’s Republic” who was also a guest at Sunday’s forum, there is no prevaricating when it comes to his Nazi allegiances (he first made a name for himself by brutally murdering puppies and posting the images online.)
And yet, somehow, Russia has reached a point where neo-nazis are not only fighting “fascists” in Ukraine, but they are being invited from abroad to throw their support behind the Russian government in a war which is ostensibly being waged against other fascists.
The mind numbing confusion of it all begs the question: how can a country whose main cultural rallying point entails its massive contribution to the defeat of the Nazi menace be both ignorant to fascism and, in the right context, sympathetic (if not outright supportive) to its goals?
Iosif Zisels, the head of Vaad Ukrainy, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, spoke about this strange reality back in November.
Zisels said that Russian neo-nazis (including the group Russian National Unity) are playing an active role in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, though the source of their ideology dates back 20 years. He believes these far right forces were born in 90s and incubated in a cultural climate which Russians themselves have come to describe as a time of national humiliation.
“Russia is infected with the ideas of revanchism, which is very closely connected with fascism,” he said.
Revanchism, a policy of “revenge” centered around reclaiming lost territory, was made evident in Crimea, and rears its ugly head every time Russian President Vladimir Putin criticizes the legitimacy of former Soviet states. And it is this Soviet fall, with “Russia” no longer being viewed as a super power despite a national unwillingness to give up the imperial ghost, that stokes the fires of fascism. That, dashed with red hot resentment due to the wild economic instability of the 1990s, created a pressure cooker society with atomized proto-militarists looking for meaning in something collective and violent.
And in these strange, sometimes angry, post-Soviet times, Russian authorities have begun to lionize the country’s imperial past, aping czarist iconography to bind the people together in some caricature of national identity in lieu of genuine trust or social cohesion.
Of course, many of the reactionary Russian forces battling it out in Eastern Ukraine are reminiscent of the Black Hundreds, early 20th century monarchists known for their russocentrism, blatant xenophobia and penchant for anti-Jewish pogroms.
It is perhaps no surprise that the Black Hundreds rabidly denied the existence of a Ukrainian nation as well, and did everything in their power to stifle Ukrainian culture and heritage.
Those yielding power in the Kremlin are comfortable using such nationalist fervor when it suites their needs despite being global capitalists at heart (their primary goal is to maintain the opulent lifestyles Russia’s resource wealth provides them). So far, they have managed to harness this extreme national force to their own ends. How long they can keep this golem on a leash, however, is anyone’s guess.
But there is one important thing to remember. This is a mutually beneficial relationship. Kremlin funds and Kremlin support for Europe’s far right is a means of driving fringe parties into the mainstream, who in turn will be more amenable to the Kremlin’s politics, “traditional values”, and ultimately corrupt governance.
The Kremlin is, in a sense, encouraging the worst aspects of European society, all so it can preserve the rot in its own.