Vladimir Putin’s Russia meets the classical definition of fascist state, says Maria Snegovaya, except for one factor-the Kremlin can’t yet unite the public around a clearly articulated nationalist ideology. This missing piece constrains the aggressiveness of the state. Without it, the Russian people will not accept fighting foreign wars indefinitely.
The word “fascist” gets casually bandied about. After falling into relative disuse, it has once again become a go-to term to dismiss a person or government as irredeemably intolerant and totalitarian, and few hurl the F-bomb as liberally as the Kremlin. Following Russia’s invasion into eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian nationalists called the democratic movement in Ukraine “fascist,” referencing the collaboration of Ukrainian independence leader Stepan Bandera with Nazi Germany. One of Russia’s most popular TV propagandists, Dmitry Kiselev, spent five minutes on air explaining how all 14 features of the Italian scholar Umberto Eco’s definition of fascism applied perfectly to Ukraine.
Nonetheless, more and more analysts see this rhetoric as projection; it’s the Russian state—not the Ukrainian one—that’s fascist. Russia expert Vladislav Inozemtsev, for instance, has argued that with the establishment of state corporations, Russia “can no longer be accurately described as an ‘illiberal democracy,’ something on the order of what the Polish or Hungarian governments have become in recent months and now years. It is becoming a fascist state—a moderate one so far, perhaps, but fascist all the same.”
Alexander Motyl, a political science professor at Rutgers University, agrees, but for a different reason: “Fascism may be defined as a popular fully authoritarian political system with a personalistic dictator and a cult of the leader—a definition that makes sense conceptually as well as empirically, with respect to Putin’s Russia and related fascist systems.”
The ambiguity of the term complicates a precise application, but determining whether or not Vladimir Putin’s ruling ideology constitutes fascism is useful. Classifying the key characteristics of a regime allows one to more accurately predict its future actions. In particular, Russia’s belligerence and revanchism can be more clearly understood if interpreted through fascist categories.
The problem of defining fascism goes back to 1944, when George Orwell complained about the tendency to “recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction.” Recently Motyl cited at least 10 different definitions of the word. Yet scholars’ interpretations tend to cluster around a set of traits, which, taken together, create a coherent system. These academic definitions of fascism usually refer to a state that worships masculinity, commits acts of violence (supposedly on behalf of “the people”), has a charismatic and authoritarian leader, controls all political and economic structures, and mobilizes its citizenry with an ultranationalist ideology of national rebirth.
Until the recent resurgence of far-right movements in Europe, scholars had largely lost interest in fascism. The number of academic publications on the topic had declined sharply after the mid-1970s. Any attempt to affix this historical concept to a modern state should therefore be done cautiously. But Putin’s Russia meets the classical definition, except for one factor—the Kremlin can’t yet unite the Russian people around a clearly articulated nationalist ideology, though this isn’t for lack of trying on Putin’s part. The absence of a mobilizing philosophy constrains the aggressiveness of the Russian state, as without it, the Russian people will not accept fighting foreign battles indefinitely.
Similar social preconditions tend to induce similar political responses, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Putin emerged out of a set of circumstances analogous to those in Europe after World War I. In the early 20th century, fascist regimes began to take power in Europe as a response to the failures of liberal democratic governments. In his book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, Columbia history professor Mark Mazower explains how the roots of post-World War I dictatorships lie in parliamentary crises. In Italy, Benito Mussolini followed the disappointments of the liberal government of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, who was widely perceived as corrupt. In Germany, the Nazis benefited from the left- and right-wing uprisings that confronted the Weimar Republic, when it was unable to grapple with unemployment, declining wages, and imperial nostalgia.
In Foreign Affairs, Sheri Berman argues fascism tends to establish itself when people feel torn from their familiar social order. “Capitalism dramatically reshaped Western societies,” she writes, adding, “these changes frightened and angered people, creating fertile ground for new politicians who claimed to have the answers.”
Hannah Arendt notes in her 1951 text The Origins of Totalitarianism that German society during the Weimar Republic was characterized by “social atomization and extreme individualization.” The chief characteristic of the individual in Weimar, she argues, was “not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.” For Arendt and many others, it was the estranged civilian who was most susceptible to the appeals of nationalism and demagoguery.
Similar to Arendt and Berman, the Romanian political scientist Zevedei Barbu holds that Nazism was comprised of people who failed to integrate themselves into the new post-World War I social structures. To Barbu, a sense of fear, humiliation, and insecurity gripped German society when the old institutions of empire collapsed. World War I may have brought newfound freedoms to many European countries, but it also produced alienated citizens and conditions that allowed fascism to grow. Barbu explains: “The creation of a flexible and individualized social structure, the weakening of tradition, the decreasing importance of prejudice and emotionality in the social life of contemporary man, the confidence in reason have all led directly or indirectly to the creation of a totalitarian way of life.”
This situation is not dissimilar to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the decline of authoritarian rule, feelings of abandonment and isolation were widespread. In the early 1990s, the majority of the Russian population reported that it hoped to adopt the Western development model. But by the late 1990s, a wistfulness for the “great past” had entered the political agenda. By 2000, nine years after the fall of the USSR, Russia restored both imperial and Soviet state symbols such as the double-headed eagle and the Soviet anthem. Russian economist Yegor Gaidar pointed out in 2006 that it took Germany about the same amount of time—eight years—after the collapse of empire in 1918 to reinstate its symbols of imperialism. By the turn of the century, as noted by historian Oleg Gorbachev, “the lack of social stability, the Chechen War, and the financial default of 1998 sparked escapist moods, such that the recent Soviet past started evoking utopian nostalgic sentiment.”
In 2000, approximately 75 percent of Russians had favorable opinions of the USSR. Putin has consistently exploited this longing for the stability of the Soviet era. In 2005, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, he described the collapse of the USSR as the “biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Another way that fascism between the world wars resembles Putin’s Russia is the embrace of a hypermasculine authority. Adolf Hitler offered white Christian Germans a simple way to come to terms with feelings of isolation, loss, and precarity: He blamed an outside enemy—the Jews. Hitler defined a strong, virile Aryan race in opposition to the Jews, who he deemed physically weaker and inherently deceitful. He then emphasized the need to maintain order in the face of such a treacherous foe. In this sense, according to the theorist Erich Fromm, fascism was a phenomenon of individuals fleeing toward a powerful figure who could solve all their problems and unite “the people”—which does not, of course, include all the people. Fromm explains the appeal in his 1941 book Escape from Freedom:
By becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory. One surrenders one’s own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one’s integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and a new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges. . . . The meaning of . . . life and the identity of . . . self are determined by the greater whole into which the self has submerged.
Since, according to Fromm, the escape from freedom is only possible through submission to some kind of authority, fascist regimes emphasize harmony, authority, and personalistic dictatorship. Motyl defines a “fascist group” as a movement, party, or organization aspiring to construct a popular, fully authoritarian political system with a cult of personality surrounding the leader. Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy, Ante Pavelić’s Ustaše in Croatia, and Corneliu Codreanu’s Iron Guard in Moldova clearly fit the criteria. Historian Sandro Bellassai argues that the masculinity in each of these fascist systems serves to counter the destruction of what’s seen as traditional family and gender roles. Fascism wasn’t just about national renewal; it promised to arrest the decay of virility caused by bourgeois civilization.
When it comes to contemporary Russia, there is little disagreement that the regime is authoritarian. Freedom House has classified the country as “non-free” every year since 2004. In terms of meeting fascism’s additional requirements, Putin’s personality cult and focus on his own masculinity fit the bill—one need only view the image of Putin riding bare-chested in Siberia for confirmation. The Kremlin deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, said at the 2014 Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” The evolution of Putin as sole sovereign developed slowly. But Putin’s portrait now appears in homes across Russia; his busts line department store shelves; and photos, T-shirts, and mugs with his image fill Russia’s souvenir shops.
Many Russia scholars see Putin’s macho aura operating as a “proto-ideology,” a set of ideas that is beginning to coalesce into a political philosophy but is not yet fully coherent. An all-embracing ideology, like communism, penetrates all spheres of society, organizing everything around key principles. Instead, in Russia, Putin’s hypermasculinity serves as an instrument that can unite the citizens around the leader and his decisions, but is not a set of beliefs in itself. Putin is widely perceived as a strong, masculine figure who will successfully defend the country. The government works to portray him as standing up to the West, the U.S., and NATO—all of which are ostensibly trying to weaken Russia. Putin’s masculinity is contrasted with the democratic leaders of the Western world, who are depicted as weak and impotent. The “traditional” values he claims to represent are supposed to be a “healthy” alternative to the sexual “deviants” of a “degenerate” West. Valerie Sperling, a political science professor at Clark University, writes that to the extent that Putin’s Russia has a “personality cult, the personality at the center is defined in strongly emphasized gendered terms, which shapes the tenor of both domestic and foreign policy.”
Putin’s macho image, along with his legislative, and propaganda emphasis on traditional values is strategic—it helps galvanize Russians who feel nostalgic for their supposedly glorious past. The importance Putin places on hierarchy (in gender as well as social relations) is also a rejection of democracy; Putin, as the alpha male, is best positioned to steer the country.
Putin regularly makes degrading comments about women in which he asserts male power and equates masculinity with dominance over women. For example, in 2006, Putin was overheard commenting on former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who has been accused of multiple sexual assaults: “What a mighty man [Katsav] turns out to be! He raped 10 women. We all envy him.”
“Nothing Outside the State”
Yet perhaps the key characteristic of a fascist structure that differentiates it from other illiberal systems is the state’s domination of all areas of society. Mussolini said in 1932 that the “Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian . . . everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the State.”
In a similar vein, the economist Friedrich Hayek emphasizes that, in fascist states, economic forces serve the state rather than the reverse. In his 1944 book Road to Serfdom, Hayek writes: “The rise of fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.” In his view, the failed socialist plans created the opportunity for politicians to claim to be anti-socialist. Yet instead of improving governmental efficiencies as they’d promised, the fascists engaged the lowest political instincts of anti-liberalism and racism.
Putin’s Russia also has this attribute of a fascist regime. In line with Hayek, the current government is an offspring of the preceding failed statist structures. Due to political pressure from the former communist elites, the Soviet system was not fully reformed in the 1990s. Over the next 17 years, Putin subordinated various independent structures to the state, gradually concentrating resources in state-owned banks and labeling the biggest oil and natural gas companies “national treasures.”
The state slowly eliminated oligarchs and financial groups that could act as political counterweights to its authority. It’s no coincidence that the shift toward state expansion began with the arrest of the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October 2003 and the nationalization of his oil-manufacturing company Yukos. Later, the Kremlin nationalized other companies in strategic sectors like oil, aviation, construction, power generation equipment, machinery, and finance. By mid-2015, the state controlled over 55 percent of the Russian economy and directly employed 20 million workers, or 28 percent of the workforce. In 2016, up to 70 percent of Russia’s GDP was produced in the public sector, the highest share in 20 years.
Scholars debate what constituted a coherent ideology in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, but most agree that Russia lacks one today. Italian fascism called for complete devotion to the nation and asserted the primacy of the collective over the individual. Mussolini’s proclamation in 1932 made clear that to become a global empire again, individuals had to subsume their identities and think of themselves as a singular “Italy”: “The 20th century will be the century of fascism, will be the century of Italian power, will be the century during which Italy will return for the third time as the director of human civilization.”
Obviously, Russia’s focus on patriotism shares many characteristics with fascist Italy. Yet Putin’s Russia is missing one important dimension: Putin has not been able to mobilize the country around a narrative of national rebirth. Mussolini could rally a nation, but Putin’s machismo and patriotic fervor are not enough to convince Russians to die for empire.
Andreas Umland, a German political scientist and historian of Russia, responded to a series of articles by Motyl that described Putin’s Russia as fascist. Umland objected to the characterization, explaining, “While the Kremlin’s current rhetoric is imperialistic, bellicose, and nationalistic, this is still far from amounting to an ideology of revolutionary ultranationalism . . . Without [a] doubt, Russian fascism, represented by such figures as Vladimir Zhirinovskii or Alexander Dugin, reaches deeply into the mainstream of Russian high politics and public discourse. Yet, neither Zhirinovskii nor Dugin are members of the Russian presidential administration and government. While it cannot be excluded that a person like them might one day enter Moscow’s Kremlin or White House, this has not yet happened.”
As illustrated in the writings of the aforementioned political theorists Dugin and Zhirinovskii, Russia’s version of fascist ideology could be based on imperialistic expansionist slogans, which stress Russian empire and a need to bring other cultures under Russian rule. The foundation of such an ideology of national rebirth is in place. In fact, during the 2014 incursion in Ukraine, the Kremlin attempted to use it to counter the democratic appeals of the Russian opposition, constructing an ideology known as Russkiy Mir, or Russian World. The concept of Russkiy Mir was evident in Putin’s Crimea speech when he spoke of Russians as living in a “divided nation” and stressed the “aspiration of the Russian world, of historic Russia, for the restoration of unity.” He also called attention to a “broad Russian civilization”—a sphere of Russian interests constantly under attack from the West.
While the speech and the Russkiy Mir ideology served to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the experiment failed to drum up lasting support for the war. The philosophies of Dugin and Zhirinovskii had not yet taken root. Despite the propaganda delivered by state-controlled media, most Russians did not approve of Russian military engagement as the conflict dragged on. According to Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov, in April–May 2014, the number of Russians who endorsed direct intervention of the Russian army in eastern Ukraine reached its peak—74 percent, a result of unprecedented use of state propaganda. Yet even then, only about 5 percent of Russians voiced any willingness to fight themselves or have their family members do so. By January 2016, support of Russia’s invasion dropped to just over 20 percent. Russians remained largely reluctant to back up their belief in the state narrative. Until Russia can call its population to action, the regime will fall just short of fascism.
Why has the state failed to come up with a mobilizing ideology? There are different explanations, including the overall weakness of civil society, which blocks any organizing, even in defense of the state. A populist can potentially marshal a strong civil society, but a passive population will remain indifferent to the bracing slogans of a demagogue. The deep social divisions within Russia also create obstacles to unifying the population. Liberals from larger cities, for instance, have little in common with conservatives from smaller towns.
Despite the challenges, Putin is trying to stir up the citizenry to support his policies and is increasingly using state-linked militias to silence the opposition. These groups have historical parallels with the Blackshirts in Fascist Italy and the Nazi paramilitary forces in Germany. Yet the widespread societal fatigue and weakness of civic structures make it unlikely that Putin can generate a positive vision of the future that could rally Russians to endorse his dreams of imperial expansion. Until then, Putin can only accuse others of being what he apparently desires to be, a fascist.
About the Author
Maria Snegovaya is a columnist at the Russian business daily Vedomosti, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, and a fellow at Foreign Policy Interrupted.