To what extent do western far right parties and activists benefit from the support of the Russian state? Do they play a role in legitimising Putin’s democratic autocracy? Is this relationship one to be worried about? For anyone who has asked such questions in the past few years, Anton Shekhovtsov’s new book offers a comprehensive account of the origins, recent history and current dynamics of the “tango noir” between Moscow and western far right parties.
By Paul Jackson
Drawing on new archival material, and demonstrating a clear and authoritative grasp of the dynamics of Putin’s regime in particular, this book should be seen as a major contribution to the study of the transnational far right.
Shekhovtsov starts his account in the interwar years, with the rise of the Soviet Union. He shows how the dynamics between the new Communist state and western extreme right groups were sometimes more complex than might at first be imagined. The curious groups that saw in the USSR an ally of sorts included Germany’s National Bolshevists, driven by a vision of creating a new modernity, according to Shekhovtsov. Nationalist figures such as Ernst Jiinger offered praise for the “total mobilisation” achieved by the new Soviet state, reminiscent of total war conditions. Strasserite Nazis also saw the Soviet Union in more ambiguous terms than Hitler.
After the Second World War, the legacy of the National Bolshevists, along with left-loaning Strasserite Nazis and elements of the Conservative Revolution movement, led some far right figures to view the USSR as a potential bulwark against US global domination. Ideologues including Francis Parker Yockey and Jean Thiriart were central to these arguments, as far right ideologies were recalibrated to new Cold War contexts. However, while the USSR found some common ground with these positions, such as opposing West Germany joining NATO, it was not really until the period of Perestroika in the 1980s that ties between western far right parties and Soviet Russia became more significant.
Shekhovtsov explores in detail how, as the Soviet Union collapsed, opinion shapers such as Alexandr Dugin developed ties with the European New Right movement, led by Alain de Benoist. Shekhovtsov highlights Vladimir Zhirinovsky as another who was crucial to forging ties between the new Russian state of the 1990s and the wider far right milieu in Europe. Zhirinovsky was supportive of the Italian Northern League’s attempt to declare independence for Padania (northern Italy) in 1997. among other developments, and also supported Holocaust deniers such as Ernst Zündel. Jean-Marie Le Pen, then the leader of the Front National in France, was also part of this context, taking a positive view of developments in Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990s. Again, he identified an anti-American quality to the new Russian state that could be beneficial for his own perspectives.
While around a third of the book deals with the longer historical context, Shekhovtsov’s main focus is on how Putin’s Russia has used and manipulated far right parties and figureheads in a variety of ways from 2000 onwards. He presents Putin’s regime as a new type of authoritarian state that uses elements of democratic practice to legitimise its endeavours and rightly resists the polemical trend to characterise Russia as a fascist state.
While Yeltsin’s Russia was dominated by oligarchs, Shekhovtsov shows that Putin’s Russia curtailed their influence while creating this new regime, authoritarian but not intent on pursuing a totalitarian revolutionary vision reminiscent of the Nazis.
For Europe’s far right, Russia’s increased hostility to organisations such as the EU has helped foster common ground. Shekhovtsov contends that European far right activists, especially in the past few years, have been keen to idealise an increasingly anti-Western Russia as a beacon of hope. To explore how these interactions have become closer as Russia has become more overtly anti-Western, Shekhovtsov devotes a chapter of the book to the issue of the Russian state giving far right figures specific roles as election observers. This has often been mutually beneficial, helping shore up Russia’s own pseudo-democratic practices while also allowing a greater international role for far right politicians. For British readers, it is interesting to sec the then British National Party leader Nick Griffin’s activities in 2011 and 2012 analysed in this context.
Revealingly, Shekhovtsov stresses that such extremists are presented as unremarkable, ideologically neutral figures in the Russian national media. In some cases, far right figures have also become more significant players within Russian media, becoming opinion formers. New forms of mass media in Russia have been crucial to this development. Putin’s state has sought to develop its television news channel, Russia Today – founded in 2005 and abbreviated simply to RT in 2009 – as a form of power both nationally and internationally. Shekhovtsov discusses some eyebrow-raising RT commentators with an international profile, such as Richard Spencer of the white supremacist National Policy Institute and FN leader Marine Le Pen. The latter, Shekhovtsov argues, was particularly forceful in supporting Russia’s antagonistic stance towards Ukraine from 2013. Such commentators, now ‘play an allotted role of white European experts’ on the alleged normalcy of the Kremlin’s policies at home and in international relations”, Shekhovtsov concludes.
There is also a chapter devoted to how Moscow uses far right organisations in Europe to develop front groups for its own aims and goals. Pro-Russian narratives are regularly promoted by far right groups, Shekhovtsov argues, focusing in particular on developments in Austria, Italy and France. Such promotion can include statements endorsing homophobic attitudes in Russia, criticising western sanctions against Russia, or legitimising Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
A final chapter develops similar themes of far right actors promoting Russian perspectives through the institutions of the EU.This has not always gone Moscow’s way though. MEPs from parties including the Freedom Party of Austria, Hungary’s Jobbik, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands have been supportive of Russian interests. But Shekhovtsov highlights others, such as the Sweden Democrats and the Danish People’s Party that have not.
The book’s conclusions draw out further interesting nuances. For example, Shekhovtsov explores how Russia’s support for Marine Le Pen was scaled back during the recent French elections, as Moscow began trying to cultivate the centre right Francois Fillon from the end of 2016. When his campaign failed, Moscow’s support for Le Pen returned. The book’s conclusions also rightly highlight the need for more academic research into the dynamics of wider Russian influence on different forms of western far right activity, spanning Russian neo-Nazis helping to run training camps in rural Wales to the nebulous alt-right scene in the US.
But while it presents this analysis on a large canvas, for readers interested in British-Russian dynamics the book sometimes feels limited. Nigel Farage gets only one mention, for example. What has been UKIP’s relationship with Putin’s Russia? Donald ‘frump is also only briefly mentioned. However, such gaps really point to the need for greater scrutiny of the networks of influence that Putin’s regime is cultivating and how impactful they really are.
For those who want to know’ more about these webs of influence, Russia and the Western Far Right is essential reading. It is an important addition to the scholarship on the subject and highly relevant tor anyone interested in the transnational nature of extreme right politics. It raises many questions for the coming years.
First published in Searchlight (Summer 2017), pp. 28-29.