‘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.