The return of Russian nationalism

As Putin’s embrace of far-right politics extends deep into the west, Kremlin ideology remains riven with contradictions

By Charles Clover

Russian ultra-nationalists march through Moscow in 2014 © EPA

Wearing button-down Oxford shirts and carrying tiki torches, about 50 white supremacists led by alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer marched into Charlottesville, Virginia, again last weekend, chanting “Russia is our friend” and “You will not replace us”. It was the latest display of an unlikely kinship that has unsettled politics in many democracies over the past year, from the streets of the Old South to European capitals where neo-fascist parties have found a new friend in the Kremlin.

For most western observers, the problem posed by Russia’s relationship with the far right only became truly pressing when it showed up on their doorstep. But the Kremlin’s turn towards nationalism was nothing new for Russians: it had come storming back into political discourse in 2012, when Vladimir Putin returned to the executive branch of power for a third term.

The journalist Masha Gessen sees the rise of official nationalism as an intensely worrying sign for Russia’s future, raising the question of whether Putin’s regime now ticks the boxes of a “totalitarian” regime. Political violence? Check. Militarisation of the economy and political sphere? Check. Fusion of state and party? Check.

In The Future is History, Gessen argues that nationalism and reactionary ideology arrived through the backdoor of a Soviet system that had never really collapsed. “Maybe this was how it worked when a totalitarian society was reconstituting itself rather than being shaped by a totalitarian regime: the ideology congealed last,” she writes.

Gessen chronicles the political crackdown that began after Putin’s return for a third term as president through the lives of four people who were among the first victims, their lives drastically changed for the worse. One is the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, the liberal opposition leader assassinated just steps away from the Kremlin in 2015; another a gay academic who was forced to emigrate. Also profiled are the depression-afflicted grandson of the liberal politician Alexander Yakovlev, and an opposition activist and journalist caught in a legal vice following a protest crackdown.

All children of the 1980s, these are people who grew up not knowing the Soviet system and spent their entire adult lives with Putin as president. Gessen says choosing her subjects in this way allowed her “to tell what it was to grow up in a country that was opening up and to come of age in a society shutting down”, and the book flits vertiginously, almost manically, between their stories. This nevertheless works, the way a Russian novel weaves history through the lives of its characters.

Her cast are not an altogether representative sample of Russians, skewed towards privileged, intelligentsia backgrounds and carriers of liberal views. Even before 2012, they were either members of anti-Putin political movements or profoundly disaffected with Putin, and it is perhaps not too surprising they were the first ones to suffer the consequences of his return to the presidency. But their stories are nonetheless compelling: they are canaries in the coal mine of what Gessen presents as an inexorable march back to totalitarianism.

The use of this word in reference to Putin’s Kremlin — which is Gessen’s central argument — is bound to be controversial. As the author of many a journalistic sentence using the word “authoritarian” to describe today’s regime, I am a little resistant to the idea that Putin can be classed with Mao, Stalin and Hitler. In terms of the scale of the project and the pervasiveness of political control, not to mention the body count, the Russian president seems to belong in the milder “authoritarian” category alongside Marcos, Mubarak, Pinochet and other tin-pot dictators of the postwar world. But Gessen makes a powerful case, arguing that Putin reconstituted the political and terror apparatus of the Soviet state and that ideology was the last block to fall into place.

The new conservative climate was propagated in part by one of Gessen’s supporting actors, Alexander Dugin — a writer and activist who throughout the 1980s and 1990s had mixed conspiracy theories, postmodernism and Russian nationalism into a cocktail eagerly drunk in official circles. His views were seen as lunacy in the 1990s but invaded mainstream politics under Putin.

Given Russia’s 20th century history, it might seem odd that ultranationalism would find adherents in the country — particularly as Putin has often accused opponents of fascism, all the while draping himself in the flag and speaking in vaguely imperial terms of Russia’s destiny. But Gessen argues that the contradiction in official ideology doesn’t matter; and, indeed, that the content of the ideology is unimportant. Whether Dugin, Putin or any Russians actually believe it is secondary: “The ideology served simply as the key to unity, as the collective’s shared language . . . Soviet citizens lived inside the ideology — it was their home, and it felt ordinary.”

Facing a concerted protest movement of urban liberals in 2011 and 2012, Putin sought to paint himself as the scourge of liberal values that were sapping Russia’s native vitality. Laws against “gay propaganda” were among the first blows to land in a crackdown that eventually forced Gessen herself to leave Russia. The persecution of sexual minorities has been largely forgotten as other tragedies have unfolded in Ukraine. But it is worth remembering, and Gessen reminds us, that a witch hunt against “paedophilia”, directed against gay Russians, was part of the resurgence of virulent nationalism that accompanied Putin’s return to the Kremlin. What began as repression of LGBT activists spread and later spilled into Crimea and Donbass.

In Gessen’s view, history is the future — an oxymoron that means both that Russia is doomed to return to its Soviet past and that “history” is subject to manipulation by those in power. Much of the book focuses on the decline of social sciences and the corruption of higher learning amid political projects such as the effort to normalise Stalin or Dugin’s own writings, which see Russia as the seed of a “Eurasian” empire. History is something, in other words, that radiates out of the present.

Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian studies at Harvard University, sees history through the more conventional end of the telescope. His latest book, Lost Kingdom, tells the story of how the history of Russia was being written when that history was being made. What emerges is a singularly fascinating account of Russian nationalism through the ages. Beginning in 1472, Plokhy’s account of “the invention of Russia” encompasses debates among 17th-century Kievan monks about the idea of a common “Slavo-Rossian” nationhood, the fraught salons of Slavophile writers in the 19th century, Soviet debates over ethnography and contemporary scholarly arguments over civic versus ethnic nationalism.

Plokhy focuses on Russia’s western frontier as both a psychological and geographical boundary that has always been a critical determinant of Russian national identity. “The question of where Russia begins and ends, and who constitutes the Russian people”, as Plokhy puts it, is the central theme of the book.

The Kremlin’s present-day covert war in Ukraine is just the latest stage in centuries of conflict along this all-important western boundary line. But Plokhy also shows that the intellectual outcomes of the way nationalism was discussed mattered as much or more than the physical events on the ground. For the Kremlin, the simple fact of Ukrainian independence represents an existential challenge that it is yet to come to terms with. “Ukraine today is at the very centre of the new ‘Russian question’,” writes Plokhy.

Currently, the Kremlin appears to be trying to resolve this vexing question of identity by shifting the physical boundaries of Russia westwards. “It remains to be seen whether the annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Donbass are the final episodes in the disintegration of the USSR or a new and terrible stage in the reshaping of European borders and populations,” he concludes.

Meanwhile, as demonstrated by Putin’s numerous photo-opportunities with the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini of the Italian Northern League, Russia has not been content to stir up nationalism at home. Its support for the European and American far right is a very deep rabbit hole indeed.

Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political scientist currently based at the Austrian Institute for Human Sciences, tackles this subject in his impressive Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir. He argues that overtures by Russia to far-right parties, and the eagerness of the latter to be co-opted, has been driven by — of all things — a mutual search for recognition and legitimacy.

The far right in Europe, fervently anticommunist during the cold war, came to regard US domination as the greater of two evils and now seek recognition by Russia as a counterweight to political isolation. Putin’s anti-gay policies, anti-multiculturalist rhetoric and conspiracy theories endear him to continental conservatives.

Meanwhile, Shekhovtsov argues, Russia’s seeking out of support from foreign far-right groups stems not from ideological sympathy or some inherently fascistic or imperial tendencies in Moscow, but rather the desire to buttress the legitimacy of a regime that he describes as an “authoritarian kleptocracy” trapped in a downward spiral of repression and international isolation, which has forced it to cast an ever wider net in search of allies. “Since Putin’s second term, Moscow increasingly positioned itself as a power whose legitimacy derived from alternative, illiberal political ideas, some of which clearly originate from the far right,” he writes.

For Shekhovtsov, this has deep roots. Ignoring ideological contradictions, Soviet intelligence services did have contacts with European fascists before the fall of the USSR. But it was the collapse of communism that created new opportunities for the European right, which eagerly sought contacts in Russia. The opening up of the 1990s begat what the German scholar Andreas Umland playfully calls the era of “uncivil society”, in which intellectual entrepreneurs such as Dugin, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Sergei Glazyev began to import European fascism to Russia and set about creating like-minded movements.

But it was only after the 2003-05 “colour revolutions”, and the 2008 war in Georgia, that the Russian government began to wake up to the power of anti-establishment movements in Europe. The war in Georgia “became a trigger for the launch of the first far-right pro-Russian activities in Austria and France”, Shekhovtsov argues — with several pages devoted to France’s Front National and Austria’s Freedom party.

Shekhovtsov’s command of the detail is stunning, and he paints a troubling picture of a number of political structures in each country acting as fronts and conduits for Russian influence. He cautions against the temptation to see Russia through the lens of the Soviet Union, manipulating politics via a new far-right version of the Comintern; in his telling, the Kremlin is a partner rather than a puppeteer. Nonetheless, one thing is clear: Putin’s flirtation with a new ideology is not confined to Russia any more.

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen, Granta, RRP£20/Riverhead, RRP$28, 528 pages

Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin, by Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Basic Books, RRP$32, 432 pages

Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir, by Anton Shekhovtsov, Routledge, RRP£21.99/$35.99, 294 pages

First published in The Financial Times