Detangling Putin’s web in the West

Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir. By: Anton Shekhovtsov. Publisher: Routledge, London and New York, 2018.

A review article by Matthew Kott

Anton Shekhovtsov, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, is already a familiar name to those working on the far right in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He has previously written on Aleksandr Dugin and Russian neo-Eurasianism as well as on white power racist music subcultures. With his recent book, Russia and the Western Far Right, he is reaching out to a much broader audience than the relatively intimate academic world of comparative fascist studies.

The book appeared late in 2017, but was mostly completed long before the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the subsequent rise of the so-called alt-right as a factor in American society and the twists and turns surrounding the official investigation into whether there was any attempt by Russia to skew the election. Nevertheless, it touches on Trump and in passing the run-up to the French presidential election in early 2017. On the one hand, it makes Shekhovtsov’s latest highly topical and indeed groundbreaking. On the other hand, however, that which are the book’s strengths can also be its weaknesses. As with many publications, the risk is that this is a book with an expiration date.

Ambitious agenda

Shekhovtsov’s aim is to shed light upon the various ways in which Russian actors – both official and figures from the far right – have over the decades attempted to foster contacts amongst the far right in European countries in order to gain influence abroad and legitimacy at home. Right from the beginning such an ambitious agenda raises several significant questions in the mind of the reader: What is meant by the vague term “far right”? How is the concept of “western” defined? And what criteria does Shekhovtsov apply in choosing the various cases examined? Given the nebulous and short-lived nature of many of the groupings on the far right, what sources does he rely upon for this extensive study?

The first of these questions is answered directly at the very outset of the book. Recognising fully that this umbrella term is hard to pin down, Shekhovtsov defines “far right” as being “a range of political ideas that imbue a nation (interpreted in various ways) with a value that surpasses human rights and fundamental freedoms” Central to this idea is ultra-nationalism, which allows the category of far right to encompass a spectrum of movements and parties from radical right-wing populists to overt fascists.

The answers to the other questions, however, remain difficult to find. For example, the “western” cases examined focus mainly on Germany, France, Austria and Italy, but also include, to varying degrees, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the United States, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and others. In his analysis of voting patterns in the European Parliament, Shekhovtsov treats “western” as largely synonymous with the European Union, making Bulgaria’s Ataka, Hungary’s Jobbik, and Latvia’s National Alliance representative of the “western” far right – an assumption with which not all scholars of the far right might necessarily agree. The inclusion of a Soviet-backed front organisation from East Germany during the early Cold War period also somewhat blurs the contours of the “western” far right, even if the Soviets sought to use this organisation to make contacts among the West Germany’s unreformed Nazi milieu.

Shekhovtsov opens the book with a historical overview, tracing some of the very early roots of national Bolshevism – a totalitarian ideology combining elements of the far left and the far right, which saw the leading role of Soviet Russia and its successor states as having a Eurasian manifest destiny. Most readers today associate national Bolshevism with the party founded by Dugin and Eduard Limonov in the 1990s before they had a falling out and which spread to various parts of the post-Soviet space before being banned for extremism (even in Russia). As Shekhovtsov rightly points out, this ideological thread owes a great deal to interwar German radicals such as Ernst Niekisch. In this narrative, there is a tradition of non-Russian political activists from Paul Elzbacher to Jean Thiriart who turned to Eurasian pro-Bolshevism as a way of combating the perceived degradation of European nations under the negative influences of Jews, Americans and other forces of globalisation.

Even if this thread was always a minority position within the universe of the far right (where the perception of the Judaeo-Bolshevik threat was more dominant by far), Shekhovtsov argues that it was to this tradition that the young Dugin was exposed while travelling abroad in the dying days of the USSR, before importing it back to his homeland. This account, however, leaves out important aspects of the Russian side of the history of national Bolshevism, with its roots in the defeated White movement in the Russian Civil War. Emigre thinkers like Nikolai Trubetskoi and the Eurasianist circles based in Sofia, Prague, Berlin and Harbin (here again, we encounter the difficulties of defining the “West”) formulated ideas combining elements of Bolshevism and ultra-nationalism that inspired movements like the Mladorossi and the Smenovekhovsty. Scholars of the Russian far right like Walter Laqueur established these Russian networks of Eurasianist, national Bolshevik groupings that had connections both to the Soviet Union and to various far right milieus abroad during the 1920s and 30s as sources of inspiration for post-Soviet national Bolshevism. That Shekhovtsov leaves these actors out of his story is somewhat puzzling as discussing them could actually strengthen his narrative of the long-standing entangled history of Russia and the international far right.

New frontier

When dealing with the Yeltsin years, Shekhovtsov looks at two developments. Firstly, there is the rediscovery (or, in Shekhovtsov’s terms, “opening”) of Russia for the far right in Europe and North America. Having emerged from 70 years of communism and experiencing the throes of a brutal process of privatisation and outright stripping of public assets, this country and society was a new frontier for projecting fantasies of the far right imagination about national revival and radical social reordering. In this chapter, Shekhovtsov focuses mainly on actors not directly related to the Russian government. Dugin and his networks figure prominently here, as does the omnipresent political entrepreneur, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The latter’s rise to deputy chair of the Russian State Duma coincided with Putin’s first presidency. During this time, Shekhovtsov describes how Zhirinovsky, now holding an official state office, cultivated networks with unsavoury groups, first via support for Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, which brought him into contact with European far rightists friendly to Baghdad such as France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. Later, Zhirinovsky would arrange several World Congresses of Patriotic Parties hosted by the Russian parliament. The first of these, in early 2003, was the most successful, including delegates from the Front Nationale and other notable European far right parties; the fourth meeting, held in 2010, however, was completely marginalised, ignored by both Russian and non-Russian political players alike.

One key reason for this, according to Shekhovtsov, was the shifting priorities of the increasingly consolidated Putin regime. In the mid-2000s, the Kremlin had little interest in creating friction with governments in the West by cultivating far right discontents. After relations soured following the “coloured revolutions” and the war in Georgia, however, Russia again sought to activate networks of influence that could affect other countries’ policies, for instance to create public opinion against imposing sanctions on Russia, as was common for the USSR to do during the Cold War. By this time, however, actors from other countries had eclipsed Zhirinovsky’s initiatives, so Russia needed to find new channels and contacts.

Identifying Russian influence

Shekhovtsov identifies three main ways the Putin regime sought to regain some impact on public discourse by using its access to far right parties and activists. Firstly, Russia funded the creation of alternative electoral monitoring organisations based around far right personalities with pro-Russian sympathies. These ostensibly independent and impartial observers were invited to witness the performances of electoral authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia and declare them free and transparent, thus offering a counter-narrative to the critiques and condemnations of both important international observers and from domestic civil society NGOs. With their deceptively legitimate-sounding names, the purpose of these organisations was to contaminate international reporting with misinformation, while providing useful material for Russian state propaganda to domestic audiences.

The second tactic identified by Shekhovtsov was the use of western far right activists as expert commentators in the media, particularly on the Kremlin-owned and operated news channel RT (formerly Russia Today). As RT’s mission evolved from presenting a positive picture of Russia to the world to presenting the US-led West as hostile and hypocritical, the editorial office sought voices representing an alternative to the line presented in mainstream international media. In doing so, all manner of marginal and questionable “experts” were given prominent air time on RT, including commentators from the far right. Often little known in their own countries, these “experts” sometimes enjoyed some name recognition in Russia due to their previous participation in the aforementioned electoral observation organisations.

The third avenue pursued by Russia to exert influence using the far right in other countries, Shekhovtsov explains, is by the creation of various front organisations that seek to nudge public opinion in a pro-Russia direction while also acting as legitimising vehicles for far right parties. These groups can organise conferences on improving relations with Russia; protest against policies unfavourable to Russia; champion the Russian position in public debate; and exploit tragedies such as the war in Donbas to present pro-Kremlin narratives under the guise of charitable actions. The cases of how the FPÖ in Austria and the Front Nationale in France has been able to make use of such front organisations is perhaps some of the most unsettling reading in this book.

Finally, how various far right parties have voted in the European Parliament is analysed as a way of assessing the relative success of the networking policies described earlier. Two specific cases, pertaining to sanctions against Russia and the condemnation of the annexation of Crimea, are examined in detail. This analysis includes many more parties than those looked at in detail elsewhere in the book (e.g. Front Nationale, FPÖ, and Lega Nord), and the results of this analysis are somewhat inconclusive. Why Latvia’s National Alliance votes against Russia in a knee-jerk manner may be explainable by history, but the behaviour of the True Finn MEPs – whose party can be very pro-Russian in areas of language (i.e. anti-Swedish), social (i.e. immigration and family), and economic (i.e. export) policy – is not self-evident. The voting behaviour of Dansk Folkeparti and the Sweden Democrats in the European Parliament vis-a-vis Russia is also not satisfactorily explained.

Incomplete picture

Russia and the Western Far Right is undoubtedly an important and timely study. Shekhovtsov is to be commended on identifying a significant blind spot in our knowledge and trying to begin to address this need. Nevertheless, the result is not entirely successful. A key problem is still that the cases highlighted are not maintained consistently over the entire book. Yes, Germany, France, Austria and Italy are most commonly taken up, but not systematically throughout, so there is no complete picture of any one of the countries. Hence, this raises the question: why did Shekhovtsov choose just these particular cases in each chapter? If the answer is because they best illustrate his arguments in a given case, then this is actually a weakness in how he has constructed his research; selecting empirical data to fit one’s model or hypothesis is not the hallmark of excellent scholarship. If there are other reasons, for example the availability of sources or the researcher’s knowledge of languages, that determine which cases are chosen and which are not, then this should be stated clearly, and problematised.

The source material of the book is also a potential point of concern. For obvious reasons, much of the chapters dealing with the contemporary phenomena are based heavily on internet sources. Over time, websites change their content, move servers, and disappear. This is particularly the case of far right websites, which, not infrequently, are forced to change hosting facilities due to breaches of anti-hate speech legislation (as Shekhovtsov has observed elsewhere – sometimes finding a refuge on Russian servicers). All of this makes it unclear whether it will be possible to go back and check the material Shekhovtsov cites in the future, especially since he does not provide the access dates for the websites to which he refers (thereby facilitating finding the correct version in any internet archiving repository).

Another aspect that was missed in Shekhovtsov’s book is demonstrated by the affinities of violent racists like the Nordic Resistance Movement and Russian National Unity. As Marlene Laruelle has noted, the idea of Russia as a last bastion of the white race, which has supposedly been sullied and corrupted elsewhere in Europe and North America by liberalism and globalisation, has a strong appeal for the most radical western far rightists, whose worldview is shaped by national socialist racial ideology. For these groups, Putin takes on a messianic role as saviour of the white race, allowing them and their Russian allies to formulate a discourse of Reconquista, with Putin resembling El Cid. Ironically, Ukrainian ultra-nationalists in Azov and other national socialist movements portray their own struggle to free Donbas from orientalised Russian-backed separatists also use the language and imagery of Reconquista.

All of this is not to say that Shekhovtsov’s ground-breaking book should not be widely read. The ongoing investigations by the US FBI into whether there was a concerted effort by Russia to help get Donald Trump elected may expose new pathways by which various Russian actors sought to influence the radical populist right, the old style far right, and the newer manifestations of the far right in America. While the victory of Emmanuel Macron in France may have offered a temporary respite, events continue to develop rapidly, potentially rendering some of the book’s discussions dated. Unfortunately, though, the recent return of FPÖ to government in Austria and the election of the pro-Putin, anti-immigrant Milos Zeman as Czech president ensures that the general phenomena, if not the specific techniques, described in Shekhovtsov’s book will remain relevant and threatening to liberal democracy for much longer than one would wish.

First published in New Eastern Europe, No. 2 (2018).