POLITICS

An autocracy tightening the screws

June 1, 2022
Alexander Kynev
Political scientist
Alexander Kynev disagrees with the characterization of Russia as a fascist state, pointing to the absence of a distinct ideology, a totalitarian party or a youth organization geared toward mobilization.
As the invasion of Ukraine began with the Russian leadership officially accusing the Ukrainian government of “Nazism,” one persistent feature of the Ukraine war has been squabbling between the sides about who is “fascist.” This has turned into a finger-pointing exercise, and the participation of scholars in this cycle of back-and-forth insults, acting as campaigners and propagandists for one side, looks inappropriate.

There is nothing good about an authoritarian regime that is evolving from electoral authoritarianism into a full-fledged dictatorship. And no one would think of trying to justify this unjust and crazy war, the death of people and the fates of millions being crushed. Still, that is not reason to, in a propaganda frenzy, attach unjustified labels to a certain political regime.
Vladimir Putin performing at the Luzhniki Stadium on the anniversary of Crimea annexation, 2022. Source: Facebook
Recall that accusing your opponent of “fascism” has for a rather long time been common practice in Russia (and elsewhere), and the word itself has evolved into an everyday slur and an integral part of insulting opponents in almost every political campaign. From 1993 just about until his death, liberals called the national-populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky a “fascist,” as communists did liberals (especially Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais), human rights activists did nationalists and so on. As the word entered mass, everyday use, people are less and less inclined to think about its real meaning and significance.

Some signs of “fascism” are sometimes dug up on the internet and chosen to fit a target. The fact that almost any dictatorship has these features usually does not bother anyone.

In a sense, those who use the terms “fascist” or “Nazi” loosely can do so because political science is a multiple paradigm science – there is no standard definition for almost any concept. And that being the case, it might seem like you can just come up with any definition. Nevertheless, both “fascism” and “Nazism” have absolutely indisputable features, which cannot be mistaken and which are absent today in the Russian political regime and any other across the world. Simply put, neither fascist nor Nazi regimes exist in the world today. There are many dictatorships – right, left and everything in between – but no fascist ones.
"Neither fascist nor Nazi regimes exist in the world today. There are many dictatorships – right, left and everything in between – but no fascist ones."
An important point: arguments about “fascism” are always accompanied by references to Nazi Germany, often to the speeches of Hitler and Goebbels, though any historian will tell you that in Germany there was National Socialism (NSDAP was the official name of the Nazi Party and its ideology) and in Italy there was fascism. And they were very different.

National Socialism had certain ideological characteristics, just as there were certain characteristics of the related political regime.

The core of National Socialist ideology is absent in Russia and any other country:

  • Social Darwinism and references to natural selection (not in Russia or anywhere else in any form);

  • Xenophobia (not only is it absent, but on the contrary demonstrative multi-ethnicity is officially proclaimed in Russia – and not without reason – while interethnic hostility is severely suppressed; of course, there may be cases of everyday nationalism – and in what country are there none! – but this does not make Russia Nazi);

  • Personality cult and widespread loyalty to the leader: Personalization of power does not mean a cult of personality. In Russia, you’d be hard-pressed to find portraits of Putin outside official offices, no one takes an oath of allegiance to the leader and insults toward Putin are frequent and common in everyday life. There was a brief period of “Putiniana” in art in the early 2000s, but it was ridiculed and faded away a long time ago;

  • Geopolitics and Lebensraum (directly borrowed by the Nazis from Karl Haushofer, whose student was Rudolf Hess): These were the leading official motive for war in Nazi Germany, but they are absent in today’s Russia. Moreover, Russia has no problem with “living space.” Meanwhile, geopolitics has many advocates among the Russian elite and certain patriotic clubs, but it is not so widely represented in the public discourse. Another issue is that part of the elite considers Ukraine an artificial construction, though this is driven by imperial complexes rather than geopolitics;

  • Revolutionary reorganization of society: Today’s Russia, on the contrary, is based on conservatism and traditional values.
A Nashi group at "Nasha Victory" – a commemoration of the end of the Great Patriotic War at Moscow in May 2010. Source: Wiki Commons
Moreover, the political regime in Russia completely lacks a clearly formulated and codified ideology. There is a general trend by which the influence of the security services over politics and the economy is constantly increasing, but no vision of the future has been clearly laid out by anyone.

Besides the obvious ideological differences versus Nazi Germany, the Russian political regime has radically different features than that of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy:

  • There is no totalitarian party implementing revolutionary ideas and monitoring conformity. Instead, officially there is a multi-party system, while United Russia is a rather faceless and amorphous organization without a clear ideology, more like a union of civil servants. Most bureaucrats, including members of the government, do not belong to a party;
"There is no single youth organization.There are various quasi-public organizations, but they exist mostly on paper and are mainly used to siphon off funds from the budget."
What is there then? There are entirely typical features for dictatorships: the complete destruction of opposition media, censorship, harsh suppression of all opposition parties and public organizations, bans on and suppression of mass protests, rising repression, kleptocracy, clientelism and the state swallowing up the economy. However, repression is still selective and done for demonstrative purposes – it is not broad-based – while the regime is extremely afraid of falling ratings and dependent on propaganda. It is fear of persecution that mostly keeps people from taking part in protests, though people by and large aren’t afraid to write on social media and even in person express opposition slogans and criticize the power of bureaucrats. Opposition deputies still have seats in many local and regional representative bodies of government, some of whom have outright condemned the “special military operation.”

Overall, we see an autocracy constantly tightening the screws, but not any fascist or Nazi state. Foreign military adventures for such regimes are often a way to strengthen themselves internally and pave the way for internal political mobilization (for example, Argentina in the 1980s and Serbia in the 1990s) – this merely indicates that the regimes are experiencing major internal problems and have been forced to resort to extreme measures to preserve their power, even at the cost of an obvious adventure.
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