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Russia's Radical Right

Russia's Radical Right

On Ukraine, Russian hardliners are challenging Putin to take even more extreme measures. Can the Kremlin afford to ignore its radical right?

Charles Fairbanks

In 2016 Vladimir Putin asked, in Stalin’s favorite form of a catechism, “Where does the Russian border end?” He answered, “Russia’s border ends nowhere.”

It’s a concept that has deep roots in today’s Russia, particularly with ardent supporters such as Aleksandr Dugin. One of Putin’s ideologists, Dugin is a Russian concept-spinner, conservative in sympathies but very radical in his fears, ambitions, and hopes. Years ago we talked at length. He showed himself highly intelligent, but not clear, and eager for an American audience. Now he has become a towering figure among the Russian nationalist writers who carry on the only permitted criticism of the way the Ukraine war has been waged.

Putin is “the Power.” That’s what Dugin calls him in an online response to the surrender of Kherson that deserves further probing:

The Power [ruler]—he bears responsibility for this.  The concept of autocracy, the way we really have it, consists of what? We give the Ruler absolute fullness of power, and in the critical moment he saves us and everything: the People, the State, folks. If, for this, he surrounds himself with filth or doesn’t give a damn about social justice, it is unpleasant, but at least he saves us. But if he doesn’t save us? Then—he awaits the fate of the King [Czar] of the Rain (look at Frazer). Autocracy has a reverse side. Fullness of power in success, but also fullness of responsibility for failure.

Dugin admits, interestingly, that Russia is an autocracy and not a democracy, the official image. He goes on to admit that Putin’s regime is unjust to ordinary people. “At least he saves us:” Dugin obviously is thinking of Stalin, Putin’s role model. Stalin, just after killing millions of innocents in the Great Terror, still defeated Hitler. Stalin really did save the Russian people, and a few others, from serfdom to a master race, as Hitler planned for the Slavs. But if the autocrat should fail to save, he “awaits the fate of the King of the Rain,” revealed to us by James G. Frazer. Frazer, who popularized understanding the classics through anthropology, wrote about several peoples along the upper Nile whose kings have the duty of bringing rain by magic. As he explains in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, (1922):

If no shower falls, the people assemble and demand that the king shall give them rain; and if the sky still continues cloudless, they rip up his belly. [emphasis added]

How are we to take this reference? Dugin has enough in his brain to communicate, under autocracy, in the Russian and Soviet tradition of “Aesopian” writing, where every statement conveys an amplified meaning. Under czarist and Soviet censorship, many things could not be said openly, so they were understated. Applied here, the obvious implication is that Putin must wage war better or be replaced. Read literally, the Frazer reference would call for a revolutionary movement that will kill Putin, and the point is made more than once. “The ruler surrendered Kherson . . . altogether. No complaints about [the new Russian commander] Surovikin. . . . You understand on whom the assault must be.”

The discontent with Putin’s leadership is far bolder than our media has conveyed.

Dugin’s short article culminates in a call for the restoration of ideology, his own “Russian Idea,” and for a “People’s war.” “And really the state ought to become a People’s state—a Russian state! And not like it is now.” So Dugin’s call for change includes a call for a change of regime of some kind.

But does it matter what words Dugin throws in the air? He has no guns. Nevertheless, the convulsive changes of 1861, 1905, 1917, and 1987 all began with equally impotent intellectuals and courtiers. Dugin, still on the air and in print, has protectors. The short-term effects of defiance like Dugin’s will be to increase the range of opinions that can be voiced—this is already happening—and thereby make Putin’s governance and his conduct of the war more difficult. Ambitious people can make moves to increase their authority and visibility without a coup, as Yevgeny Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov have already done. Those moves in turn hem Putin in more.

All the discontent allowed to surface has come from the imperialists, but Putin may be moved to mobilize the quasi-liberals to balance them. The disasters in which Putin has mired Russia are already beginning to produce the effects of earlier Russian military disasters. Those ranged from calls for drastic reform, to the ouster of autocrats, to revolution. At some point someone may move against Putin himself.

Putin, like Hitler, wants to erase countries from the map, deport their populations, resettle and rename vast tracts of Europe, and capture blond children who can be made into little Aryans—or, now, little Russians. He has liberated the same instincts in a sizable slice of the Russian population; wars usually make war aims more extreme. Many members of the Russian elite, at least, are panting for revenge against Americans as Germans were against their neighbors in 1933—this is the factor in the situation most ignored in current commentary. Many of the hardliners are more openly vicious than Putin; a TV roundtable can suddenly veer toward drowning Ukrainian children. Anyone who doubts these brutal inclinations should read Putin propagandist Timofey Sergeytsev’s “What to Do about Ukraine” (read an English translation here).

Is this the moment to freeze the whole process by negotiations, as U.S. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is advocating? Tremendous opportunities are opening up, as well as serious dangers. A good general knows the need to pursue a fleeing enemy, not to sit down and pitch tents. Milley has the glitter of a Christmas tree on his chest, but he has lost the taste for victory.

Western critics of Putin’s attempt to extinguish the Ukrainian people usually talk as though it is a movement backward, a return from the peace and harmony of contemporary world relationships to the old world of realist national expansion. Actually it is something much stranger.

In that old-fashioned realist world, it was taken for granted that expanding powers sometimes gain, sometimes lose. National heroes were often those who slowly gained, like Louis XIV and the Prussian kings. Take the French attempt to seize Lorraine on its eastern frontier, an independent duchy. Lorraine was first occupied by France in 1634 but given up again in 1659 under the Treaty of the Pyrenees. In 1661 a piece was ceded to France. From 1670 to 1697 France occupied Lorraine again, but the League of Augsburg halted Louis XIV’s annexations, so Lorraine had to be given up, again. In 1735 it was exchanged for Tuscany by the Duke François Étienne, but given temporarily to a French ally, former King Stanislas of Poland, with the proviso that it was finally to pass to France on his death. It remained French until 1871, when part had to be ceded to unified Germany, a part recovered by France in 1918, lost in 1940, and recovered again in 1944. Not abnormal, it would seem, for a frontier area.

For Dugin, however, abandoning Kherson, annexed in September 2022, is akin to surrendering “the capital of a Russian province, just like Belgorod or Kursk,” parts of Russia for centuries. And no more Russian conquests in Ukraine can be given up. “The Power [ruler] in Russia can’t surrender anything more. The limit is reached.” It is the essence of Russia to gain territory, never to lose it.

This is something different than the centuries of European realpolitik. Usually peoples who face superior powers eventually give up; the Italians and Yugoslavs no longer bicker over Trieste. From this perspective, in our age it is the Palestinians who stand out by their stubborn refusal to accept their loss of territory to a more powerful foe. Perhaps this striking fact is explained by a postulate of Islamic law, often evaded in practice: Because Muhammad is “the seal of all the prophets,” Islam the final religion, its conquests can’t be given up. When the Ottoman Empire ceded Libya to Italy in 1912, there was no transfer of territory in the treaty; the Sultan agreed to let his Muslim subjects there govern themselves.

This was also a Soviet position. Brezhnev got into a mess by invading Afghanistan because it already had a communist government that was about to fall. Such mistakes went back to a belief that socialism and then the final stage called communism were the inevitable result of the march of world history. For a time in 1918 and 1919 Lenin believed that the revolution would be victorious everywhere in the near future. On April 11, 1919, Lenin told his Congress of Trade Unions that “in a few months we shall be victorious throughout the whole world.” It did not happen, and Soviet communism adjusted, but not by abandoning the determinist interpretation of world history that was a fundamental pillar of Marxism.

Stalin famously replaced the efforts to support world revolutions by a doctrine of “socialism in one country,” but it did not prevent him from organizing the Comintern precisely to support those revolutions, from revolutionizing Outer Mongolia, or from attempting revolutionary overturns in China and Germany. When opportunities presented themselves after 1945, new communist regimes were established or sought until the middle years of Gorbachev.

Now, thirty years after the collapse of Soviet communism, we find Aleksandr Dugin, a man of the right, driven by a similar assumption that Russia must expand and never retreat. Putin, who now presents himself as a conservative, seems to have the same feeling. In the background of realist visions of foreign policy is a sense that every country can begin again at any moment. The Ukraine war, however, has cast to the surface many of the long-dead realities of the mid-20th century, both communist and fascist. Putin’s Russia has not seen beyond the Bolshevik horizon.

Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., is professor of Political Science at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. Besides American teaching roles including Yale and SAIS, he was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and a deputy assistant Secretary of State.

Image: Radio Slobodna Evropa (RFE/RL)

Eastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy