We Just Can’t Shake the F-Word

June 15, 2022
  • Julian G. Waller

    Visiting Scholar at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Illiberalism Studies Program

Julian G. Waller on the motivated misclassification of Russia’s political regime as ‘fascist’ and the need for a more serious scholarly conceptualization.
Timothy D. Snyder, 2017. Source: Wiki Commons
The dramatic onset of the Russo-Ukrainian War has been accompanied by a considerable social mobilization effort from the Russian state to garner domestic support for the conflict. This campaign has introduced a new symbolic repertoire, including the pro-war ‘Putinist Z’ branding, a legitimating emphasis on the “triune unity” of the east Slavic peoples, and a directed effort to rally the Russian population around the flag and the person of Putin himself. This fits well with older rallying cries perfected during the Crimean crisis and the initiation of the Donbas War, which included the castigation of the Ukrainian government as a coup-born “Kyiv junta,” the reframing of Ukrainian sovereignty and statehood as a project of Nazis, nationalists, and anti-Russian Soviet leaders, and the vivid colors of the storied St. George’s Ribbon.

All of this has provided symbolic grist for academics and observers looking to identify long-sought reasons to deploy the loaded f-word – that is, fascism – to describe the Russian regime. These sorts of characterizations are not the fruit of the war, however. Rather, they have indeed been common refrains over the last decade, with serious pushback against the grain finding less purchase in our age of emotionally evocative soundbites. By all rights, the prewar argument should have been settled with nationalism scholar Marlene Laruelle’s recent book, Is Russia Fascist?, which answered in the decided negative. For perfectly understandable reasons, however, longstanding fascism-seekers are once again in the ascendant since the events of this February.

The senior academic Timothy Snyder has been in this camp for many years, and his recent piece in the New York Times is a culmination of sorts for his partially-nuanced declarations about tyranny and quasi-fascism in Russia. The argument sums up to a simple affirmation that the definitional glove of fascism now fully fits the hand of the Putin regime. This is unfortunate, as the definition provided (“the triumph of will over reason” coupled with a cult of personality, a “cult of the dead,” and “myths” about a superior past) is itself overbroad, faulty, and functionally useless as far as it is an exercise in serious scholarly conceptualization. Grigorii Golosov, an esteemed political scientist at the European University at Saint-Petersburg – and hardly a friend of the regime – has penned the easy takedown that should rightly be evident to anyone who cares about such definitional debates. From a more tactical perspective, Andrew Bacevich of the Quincy Institute has done similarly.

Yet it is unavoidable that we will – and do – make comparisons between the Putin regime and prior examples of authoritarian rule.
"The question is only which comparisons hold genuine analytic insight amid a sea of motivated misclassification."
A good-faith effort at getting to the core of Putin’s Russia benefits from two background assertions:

1.That the regime has changed fundamentally between its gently autocratizing origins in the early 2000s, its flowering as ‘High Putinism’ in the late 2000s, its internal challenges in the early 2010s and the successful thwarting of anti-regime energy by 2014, and the increased tempo of personalization, genuine ideological shift, and selective repression that culminated in uncertain experiments in forthright ‘authoritarian constitutionalism’ under a highly patronal system at the start of the current decade.

2.That any regime characterization is going to require dryer academic formulations to maintain rigor (“hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime” or “personalist autocracy” are common currency at the present moment, and I expect “bureaucratic-authoritarianism” to reemerge any day now) or it will fall to ideological terms that will do far better at explaining discourse than explaining regime form or type.
Francisco Franco, 1930. Source: Wiki Commons
Of course, classification and typology are great games for scholars, and when done effectively can tell us something analytically about the political world we study. But we all use shorthands nevertheless, and there remains a danger that technical terms themselves can obscure the world we actually live in, especially for those whose job is not chopping that empirical reality into category buckets for study.

To that end, I suggest when reaching for a comparison or a quick term to describe whatever is going on in Russia today we consult the usable history of actually-existing authoritarianism in the 20th century. Many options in the historical record abound without the need for the f-word. The first, antipolitical decade of Putinism is perhaps comparable with the technocratic style of Antonio Salazar’s Portugal, albeit with the controlled electoral politics of Morsi’s Egypt. The conservative, official multiculturalism under increasingly personalized rule over the course of the 2010s has the feel of 19th century monarchies in some senses. Meanwhile today, with its growing national-irridentism and sharply confined internal decision-making does make Interwar-era comparisons viable. Perhaps we shall see the movement-regime and truly totalitarian impulses of fascism fit as the Russian regime confronts the situation it has made for itself. For now, perhaps it is better for us to cool our typological heels and wait.

See other Russia.Post contributions to this debate.
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