Book Review: Is Russia Fascist?

‘Is Russia fascist?’ asks Marlene Laruelle. Anybody with half a brain knows that the answer is no, so one might wonder why it’s worth spending a whole book on the question. But as Laruelle points out, describing Russia as fascist has become quite popular of late. True, she says, those doing so, such as Timothy Snyder, are ‘figures who do not belong to political science or who present themselves as public intellectuals’, but they ‘have become particularly vocal’ and their accusation needs some deconstruction. Furthermore, it’s not just an academic matter. The attempt to label Russia as fascist serves a political purpose. ‘If Russia is fascist,’ says Laruelle, ‘then Russia is to be excluded from Europe.’ Her book is an effort to refute this political strategy.

To this end, Laruelle sets about defining fascism and then looks first at how fascism is viewed in Russia and second at whether the fascist label fits. This requires an analysis of the ‘Putin regime’ and what Laruelle calls its ‘ideological plurality’.  Laruelle considers the regime ideologically pluralistic and flexible, ‘on a permanent quest to draw inspiration from and co-opt grassroots trends.’ Within it are three mains groups: the Presidential Administration; the military industrial complex; and the Orthodox realm.

The Presidential Administration, says Laruelle, is ‘the least ideologically rigid’ segment of the regime, and is quite ‘eclectic’. ‘It never favors groups that could, one way or another, be identified as fascist’, she writes. The military industrial complex, by contrast, does have some links with what could be called the ‘far right’, such as members of the Izborsky Club and the Rodina party. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has some connections with modern day equivalents of the Tsarist Black Hundreds, although this is a ‘loose network of groups that do not depend on the Patriarchy institutionally but operate in parallel to it.’ Insofar as any of these elements could be deemed ‘fascist’, ‘they are scattered and do not dominate the narrative of any ecosystem.’ The military industrial complex, for instance, is conservative and Soviet-nostalgic, but ‘fascist references remain peripheral’ as they do also in the Orthodox realm.

In short, within the governing system itself, there is very little that could justly be called ‘fascist’.

That leads Laruelle to look outside the system. In Russia, as elsewhere, there are fringe groups that are fascistic or fascist-lite (as Laruelle calls them). Laruelle describes these in great detail. One has to admire the time and effort spent in following the goings-on of all these minor organizations. If you want to know what’s been happening in the Russian far right, this is undoubtedly the book for you.

And so it is that readers get to meet Russian National Unity, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, various bunches of skinheads, Cossacks, the Night Wolves bikers, Sambo martial arts groups, and of course Alexander Dugin. Laruelle notes that for many years, the Russian state’s attitude to such groups was quite ‘lax’, but from 2008 onwards this changed ‘with more systematic use of Article 282 of the Penal Code’ against them. Since then, the authorities ‘have taken serious steps to clamp down on the phenomenon’, to the extent that ‘the Russian far right has largely been dismantled.’ This reflects the fact that ‘the authorities realized that radical nationalism would potentially threaten the status quo and was moving into a plain confrontational posture that had to be eliminated.’

This is quite an important conclusion – the Russian state’s clampdown on certain pro-Western liberal groups and media institutions has received a great deal of coverage in the West, and is often used to justify accusations that the Russian regime is ‘authoritarian’ if not outright ‘dictatorial’. But the authorities have been equally, if not more, zealous in eliminating the far right. This severely undermines the claim that Russia is a fascist state.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Laruelle wraps up with the conclusion that, ‘the Russian regime does not display any features of a scholarly definition of fascism’. The only possible exception is the existence of militia groups, such as the Night Wolves, but that alone isn’t sufficient to justify the fascist label.

Laruelle goes beyond that. ‘Today’s Russia offers no indications that would qualify it as a totalitarian state’, she writes, adding that ‘the qualification of authoritarianism should be deployed with nuance’ as ‘ideological diversity is still available for those who look for it. … Russia thus cannot be labeled totalitarian, nor is it dictatorial; it is even less fascist’. Arguments to the contrary by the likes of Snyder (who Laruelle does an excellent job of destroying) ‘are based on a very segmented and biased interpretation of the regime’s ideological fundamentals.’

According to Laruelle, the Russian state is not just not fascist, it’s not even nationalist: ‘On the contrary, Putin, as well as the main government figures, heavily insist on Russia’s multinational and multiconfessional character. The Russian president has on several occasions denounced nationalism.’ Nor is the Russian state expansionist or irridentist – the Crimean case is unique, says Laruelle. As for wider Russian society, ‘The fascist tree constitutes a very small percentage of Russia’s ideological forest.’

What Russia actually is, Laruelle concludes, is ‘illiberal’, although her definition of this term is not quite what one would imagine. She writes, ‘I see illiberalism not as the opposite of liberalism … but more as a postliberalism, that is, as an ideology that pushes back against liberalism after having experienced it.’ ‘It’s not a reactionary ideology calling for a return to the past’, says Laruelle, ‘but rather a post-modern (and postliberal) conception, attuned to the current worldwide doubts about globalization.’ Moreover this postliberalism isn’t exclusively Russian but is part of a wider European trend.

Indeed, Laruelle argues, this ideology very much preserves Russia’s connection to Europe: it seeks to carve out a role for Russia in Europe, helping to rescue it from the alleged failings of Western liberalism. The fight over political labels is thus very much a fight over Russia’s right to a place in Europe. Those seeking to cast Russia as fascist are looking to expel Russia’s from the European family. By contrast, when Russia chucks the fascist label at the likes of post-Maidan Ukraine, it’s trying to revive its role as the defeater of fascism in 1945 and so claim what it considers its rightful place at the European table.

Overall, Is Russia Fascist? provides excellent insights into the ideological state of play in modern Russia. It also does a thorough job of demolishing the accusations that Russia is a totalitarian state. Unfortunately, I imagine that it won’t get the same circulation as the books of Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and others like them, that claim the opposite. Sadly, that’s how the cookie crumbles nowadays. All we can do is knock slowly away at the crazier constructs of our public intellectuals and hope that one day the wall they’ve built will come crashing down. This book provides a decent hammer to help do the job.

25 thoughts on “Book Review: Is Russia Fascist?”

  1. “By contrast, when Russia chucks the fascist label at the likes of post-Maidan Ukraine, it’s trying to revive its role as the defeater of fascism in 1945 and so claim what it considers its rightful place at the European table.”

    A claim fully justified by the influence groups with those leanings excert over Ukrainian politics.

    https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/neo-nazis-far-right-ukraine/
    “These stories of Ukraine’s dark nationalism aren’t coming out of Moscow; they’re being filed by Western media, including US-funded Radio Free Europe (RFE); Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and watchdogs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House, which issued a joint report warning that Kiev is losing the monopoly on the use of force in the country as far-right gangs operate with impunity.”

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    1. Weisenthal et. al. are striving to play both sides at once.

      Kiev’s monopoly on the use of force was ALWAYS a function of its far-right militias operating with impunity, so there’s nothing for Ukraine to lose, except its self-respect, such as it may have once been.

      And dare I quote Clinton, who once said ‘there are times a country behaves in such a manner that it loses its right to rule over its own people.”

      Enter Ukraine, stage right.

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  2. Uncanny! I was just discussing this privately

    George Orwell – What is Fascism

    https://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/As_I_Please/english/efasc

    A couple of quotes by Orwell:

    “It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.”

    […]

    “But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”

    I hope you will accept my positive comments regarding President Putin – later when I can get time.

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    1. Orwell seems to be quite on a lot of people’s mind for longer now with one or the other quote supposedly supporting their respective take, why are you quoting him here?

      Any special passage in Paul’s review that triggered your associative chain? Your take beyond the topic treated? Globalization?

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  3. In “Understanding the F-Word: American Fascism and the Politics of Illusion” Dave McGowan builds his thesis upon the Webster’s New World Dictionary definition of fascism:
    “A system of government characterised by dictatorship, belligerent nationalism and racism, militarism etc”
    He then proceeds to link anything that is negative or non/anti-globalist to this definition. He fails miserably (despite his brilliant work ‘Wagging the Moondoggie”).

    In “Russian Populist: The Political Thought of Vladimir Putin” Matthew Raphael Johnson summarises President Putin’s political thought.
    Some key points:
    1. Nationalism – eliminate all debt and outlaw the IMF and all oligarchs – most moved along with their money to either the USA, Britain or Israel.
    2. [Traditional] family as the basis of a cohesive, stable and prosperous society. [Putin is not a fan of Elton John – enough said!]
    3. Modernisation to be handled carefully [in balance with agrarianism].
    4. The middle class remains the centre of national regeneration – not the state
    5. Promotion of physical and mental health of the broad population.
    6. Promotion of concept of responsibility – freedom exists only within responsibility and virtue. “Freedom and virtue are two side of the same coin”.
    “Those who advocate war should be held responsible. Those who demanded privatisation of Russia in the 1990 and implemented the practice should be held responsible [think of the likes of Browder, Khodorkovsky] – they have not been.”

    There are many other profound passages but what struck me most is that Putin’s political thinking almost identically mirrors that of Oswald Mosley – a strong sense of self-sufficient nationalism, free of control of foreign owned banking institutions and ‘international capitalism’, built on the concept of “social partnership” where happiness is found in “modesty, simplicity and basic social discipline”.
    Mosley [from “Fascism: 100 Questions Asked and Answered”]
    1. challenged the expert dogma whereby the fabric of international capitalism was considered of more importance than the individual and collective well-being of the workers of Britain.
    2. challenged the corrupt working of the so-called democratic system, whereby party machines with colossal monetary resources were enabled to establish “caucus-regimes” utterly unrepresentative of any of the integral social elements in the country.
    3. challenged the so-called “free press” dominated by millionaire company-promoters who were themselves subordinate to the great financial and advertising interests on whom their revenue depended.
    4. Dared to challenge the covert but all-pervading influence of the Jews on the life of the community. [Think Magnus Hirschfeld et al promoting debauchery and depravity]

    Ergo, Putin is a Fascist (aka anti-globalist – to those who would oppose him) –but I say that as a compliment. Recall Orwell – “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” – “All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”
    No wonder the likes of ‘Antifa’/BLM/ISIS are so derisive of President Putin – ‘Fascism’ is their perfect pejorative.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Fascist” is just a swear word nowadays. Fascist=Bad.

    What about some of the ideas promoted by the western establishment these days? White Fragility, for example, the book that Matt Taibbi describes as “DiAngelo isn’t the first person to make a buck pushing tricked-up pseudo-intellectual horseshit as corporate wisdom, but she might be the first to do it selling Hitlerian race theory.” Does the dominant western ideology amount to a form of Nazism?

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  5. Meanwhile (sorry about off-topic but this is an important development), the 2 Donbass Separatist Republics announced some reforms that will bring about a unified economic space, eliminating mutual tariffs, encoding a common legal system, transforming enterprises to function under the Russian templates, participating in Russian government bids for goods and services, etc.

    End-game, obviously, will be to merge the 2 Sep entities into one, and then start the process of economic integration into the Russian Federation. Things are moving slowly, but seems they are finally moving in that direction!

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    1. There is no turning back for them. Ukraine has made their departure a fait accompli by its own vile behavior in dealing with them.

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      1. Exactly. Even to this day, residents of DPR/LPR live under unexpected artillery bombardments. Ukrainian government made it clear they just want the land back, but not the people. They won’t get either. It’s a done deal.
        By the way, I think I lean to Bavyrin’s Theory #2, namely that the economic union of DPR/LPR is coming from the bottom up rather than top down. I could be wrong (maybe there is a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about), but it always seemed to me like the Russian government was not paying nearly enough attention to these entities. Just trying to palm them off on “Minsk Accords”, which are clearly dead in the water.

        On the bright side: By forcing the issue, the entities themselves will lead the parade, and then perhaps Putin/Lavrov will have to run to catch up with the parade before it gets away!
        🙂

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  6. The very same Timothy Snyder once wrote this in the NY Review of Books:

    “The incoming Ukrainian president will have to turn some attention to history, because the outgoing one has just made a hero of a long-dead Ukrainian fascist. By conferring the highest state honor of “Hero of Ukraine” upon Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) on January 22, Viktor Yushchenko provoked protests from the chief rabbi of Ukraine, the president of Poland, and many of his own citizens. It is no wonder. Bandera aimed to make of Ukraine a one-party fascist dictatorship without national minorities.”

    So, by Snyder’s own rules, Ukraine would have to be excluded from the European community, yet he argues the opposite.

    So why would anyone give a moment’s attention to this historical hack?

    BTW: Of course Crimea was an exceptional case, far more so than the progenitor of ‘exceptional cases’ that was Kosovo, or so it was declared to be by those who would have you think it.

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  7. “‘If Russia is fascist,’ says Laruelle, ‘then Russia is to be excluded from Europe.’”

    On the contrary – there is nothing more European than the fascism and Nazism. One only has to look at the Ukraine and the Baltic limitrophes now, whose gauleiters like to claim to be either “A Heart of Europe” or “The Historical Reunion with the European Civilization”… And then promptly asking for money.

    “Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has some connections with modern day equivalents of the Tsarist Black Hundreds”

    […]

    How come I missed all those pogroms that SURELY had to be happening regularly in Russia… if this claim is true? Also, if true, how come then that the “Ekho of Haifa Moscow” still exists?

    Re: reb Schneider&Co… and oversuse of the term “postmodern”.

    “Arguments to the contrary by the likes of Snyder (who Laruelle does an excellent job of destroying) ‘are based on a very segmented and biased interpretation of the regime’s ideological fundamentals.’”

    and

    “…[T]hose doing so, such as Timothy Snyder, are ‘figures who do not belong to political science or who present themselves as public intellectuals’, but they ‘have become particularly vocal’ and their accusation needs some deconstruction.”

    Ah… Here lies the rub. Ultimately, for the Western consumers of the intellectual commodities, it does not matter. Here I’d like to quote Russian historian A.I. Filyushkin:

    “Under the influence of postmodernists and other new directions of research thought (in particular, microhistory), history is increasingly drawing closer to literature. As Roger Chartier aptly put it, historians have realized that their discourse, whatever its form, is still a narrative, understood, in the Aristotelian spirit, as “revealing the intrigue of the actions represented.” Thus their writings are subject to the fundamental principles of all storytelling, common to both history and fiction. In many respects, the use of literary forms for the presentation of material is much more advantageous for the reader than the dry style of a fundamental historical monograph, which explains the growing popularity of postmodernism. In addition, as noted by Tadeusz Buksinsky, supporters of this trend in their criticism of their predecessors literally pour in aphorisms, ironic statements, beautiful logical paradoxes and even anecdotes, which attracts the reader. Postmodernism gives a sense of control over the world through the fact that the author and the reader, as it were, create the objects of their study, create history, feel themselves as demiurges.

    F. Ankersmit called the growing popularity of postmodernism “the intellectual alcoholism“: in modern historiography, works claiming to be “the last intellectual gulp” became prevailing. They promise to raise us to the heights of knowledge, but in fact lead to a state of chaos, generated by the excessive narrowness of the authors’ specialization and the obvious overproduction of their works…”

    Tl;dr. The West turned its history into an exercise of philology… done not even by specialists in the field, but, by, ah, “frustrated authors” ™ cum “dealers”, providing doses of the narrative. Dear authoress (avtorka?) of this book, is, ultimately, not much different.

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  8. For an academic, this is an especially un-academic excerpt, which nowadays is to be expected –

    “Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has some connections with modern day equivalents of the Tsarist Black Hundreds, although this is a ‘loose network of groups that do not depend on the Patriarchy institutionally but operate in parallel to it’.”

    ****

    No substantiation given. Some whataboutism notes the Vatican connected Rat Line towards the end of WW II, as well as its position on Stepinac. Ditto the Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches which honor the OUN/UPA. Likewise with the continued honoring of WW II era Nazi allied undemocratic elements in some other parts of Europe.

    As for Laruelle, her core point on whether Russia is fascist or not, is nothing extraordinary. Saying that she’s an improvement over Motyl and Snyder should be in the so what category, given how the same can be said of numerous others.

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    1. glad you picked that up too. 😉

      Lytt’s quote:
      “Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has some connections with modern day equivalents of the Tsarist Black Hundreds”

      vs your slightly longer one:
      Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has some connections with modern day equivalents of the Tsarist Black Hundreds, although this is a ‘loose network of groups that do not depend on the Patriarchy institutionally but operate in parallel to it’.

      This may in fact be what may make me move up Marlene Laruelle’s book on my reading list. Not least since someone like Sergei Nilus seems to be very shrouded in mythical tales. The Black Hundred and their publications may be easier to access for scholars. 😉

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    1. That sounds so dumb! Does anyone have a list of titles, of which particular books were burned?
      Burning books sends the wrong message to kids. Instead, people should sponsor readings and debates over particular works that they don’t like, they can explain logically why they think an author’s opinions or beliefs are wrong, etc.

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    2. Interesting: “but the Catholic schools of Ontario appear intent on raising a generation of book burners”

      Some progress. Catholics used to burn people at one point, at least they stopped that and now symbolically ONLY burn books.
      BTW, I am an ex catholic atheist, usually the most strident kind after having read the churches history…..

      And I wonder: what has anything lijke that to do with the big and now totally discredited moniker THE LEFT?
      Left used to mean socialist and being a person of class awareness and the actual capitalist power structure, either of finance capitalism or the real something producing capitalism. What is today called left is something like a doormat everyone can feel welcome and wipe their feet on….

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    3. “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people”

      Book burning is always a potent sign of fascism. The West is descending into the depths as the sun rises higher in the East. I’m enjoying watching the West collapse more every week but being a denizen of those parts the collapse is becoming, at times, a little frightening!

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  9. Russia isn’t fascist, but Putin has since 2018 adopted large parts of the mainstream nationalist platform.

    It’s fair to call it a nationalist regime now.

    I pointed out that in the event of the present system’s breakdown and free elections, the most likely replacement for Putin would be someone like Orban. Well, Putin, being intelligent, decided to front run and become Orban. Good. I’ll be voting for United Russia on Sep 17.

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    1. What about those ‘for truth’ guys? They seem to be more up your alley. I like Prilepin; the populist energy, the talent, and he seems to be striking a reasonable balance. Most of the time anyway, when he doesn’t get carried away.

      Would be interesting to hear your opinion.

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      1. The problem is that I have (1) barely heard of them, and supporting fringe political parties that seem to have been quite transparently set up by the Kremlin is cringe, and (2) I don’t support most leftist economic positions.

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    2. but nowhere near as nationalist as say the US or the UK … Putin is a patriot without doubt but he has shown himself as flexible, less dogmatic and rigidly ideological as all western leaders, definitely one of his strengths. Surely his ‘nationalist’ leanings are tactically expedient for the moment, adopting some of Zhirinovskiis platform in an attempt to widen appeal?

      Like

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