What is Russia, actually? And why does it matter?

June 16, 2022
  • Evgeny Roshchin

    Former Head of School of International Relations and Politics at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA, Saint Petersburg), currently a nonresident fellow at GW's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies

Evgeny Roshchin on why the institutional and non-institutional features of the current Russian regime may resemble the Nazi or Fascist regimes of the past, but are still not yet the same, and will probably never be.
Blackshirts with Benito Mussolini during the March on Rome, 28 October 1922. Source: Wiki Commons
Yale historian Tymothy Snyder recently published a piece in the New York Times in which he defined Russia as fascist. Snyder is not the only scholar to make this argument. A number of Russian scholars engaged in this discussion since the start of the Russia’s war in Ukraine have tried to make a case for the definition of Russia as an emerging or a mature fascist regime (see Greg Yudin, Alexander Kynev, Grigori Golosov, and Ilya Budraitskis).

I agree with some commentators that the term “fascist” in application to the Russian regime may obfuscate more than it clarifies. Classifications of regimes are important not for the purpose of analytical clarity alone but as the ground for a moral judgement and any possible subsequent political action. This is particularly important in cases such as the one unfolding in front of us in real time, when many people fall prey to an ill-defined political ambition, which in turn has been made possible by the nature of the regime itself.

In what follows, I break down a composite concept of the fascist regime into its subsidiary elements and discuss to what extent they apply to the political reality in Russia. For the purpose of expedience, I will not seek to draw a fine line between the Fascist regime in Italy under Mussolini and the Nazi regime in Germany under Hitler. I will use the terms interchangeably with the understanding that both refer to a type of totalitarian state with imperial ambitions.

Institutional elements of the Russian political regime under Vladimir Putin:

1. The ruling party. There is no ruling party in Russia in the sense of the Communist Party of the USSR or Nazi Party in Germany. The United Russia party is definitely the dominant party in the Russian party system. But this party enjoys virtually no reputation among the people. Some time ago it was effectively labeled by Alexey Navalny as the party of “crooks and thieves.” For some it remains as such; for others this is a nomenklatura party without clear ideological commitments and little interest in real reforms. Other parties represented in the State Duma are not in opposition to President. These parties are only needed to imitate political competition, neutralize political protest by way of distracting and co-opting, and legitimize the regime overall. The system qualifies as an electoral autocracy. Yet, it is one step short of becoming a ruling party as all the parties in the State Duma look like different departments of the same. But there is no clear expediency for it evolving into a one-party system with attendant ideological specification and unification. So far, the competition between fully controlled political parties has proven efficient in maintaining the autocratic regime.

2. Opposition. The federal-level opposition has been annihilated and pushed out of the country almost in its entirety. Yet, there are a few opposition politicians who are even represented in regional legislatures. Their representation in these bodies is so small that it has no impact on the legislative process, but it helps the local opposition voice to be heard. In general, further down on the political totem pole, one finds a greater number of opposition activists and politicians. This would be impossible to imagine in a fascist (or communist, for that matter) totalitarian state.

3. Corporatism. Corporatism features saliently in the Russian political system. State control is pervasive. Civil society is largely under control of the state. Loyalist Public chamber and NGOs are examples of such control. The influence of state bodies and corporations on the public is hard to underestimate. The heads of these corporations demonstrate absolute loyalty to the national leader and seek to maintain their loyal image within these organizations. One could recall the leadership of such corporations addressing their employees after February 24, or an interview with a runaway Gazprom Bank manager, or public statements in support of the war by university presidents and councils: all of these aim to imitate corporations’ support for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Inside the corporations, one frequently encounters the rhetoric of “belonging to one family,” which is why the members should stick together and just perform their respective work duties. This element brings the regime closer to being a fascist type on the authoritarian scale.

4. Terror. Mass terror on the scale of Nazi Germany, or the Stalinist purges, is not in evidence. However, a targeted persecution is being employed to the full. Repressions are targeted at anti-war protesters and dissenters, at those Russian citizens who protest in the streets or online. Many of these cases are reported in the news, thus producing a demoralizing effect on society at large. In this sense the regime remains dictatorial rather than fascist; the latter would aim at purging itself of all alien elements by means of total terror.
Meeting of the Finnish nazi party SKJ "Liberate the working man from the lie of Judeo-Marxism", 1932. Source: Wiki Commons
5. Censorship and independent media. With the start of the war, Russia adopted new legislation penalizing what it calls “the discrediting of the Russian military.” This legislation has been used as a tool to close down the last of the independent media outlets. The remaining quasi-independent media have to use the language of the Ministry of Defense in their coverage of “the special military operation.” Russian universities are also supplied with the right accounts of what Russia does in Ukraine in the form of ready-made lecture notes and slides. This element would be typical of authoritarian regimes, and, in fact, of Russia’s own pre-revolutionary history. As under any authoritarian regime, the “whispering” of truth or the Aesop language are still possible. The degree of such liberty is somewhat greater than under the totalitarian regimes but it requires certain skills and pliable morals.

6. Security apparatus’ involvement in politics. The Russian security apparatus is deeply involved in the public life and government of the country. This is one of the distinct features of the Russian political regime. Historical fascist regimes formed as a result of fascist movements, including paramilitary organizations, seizing power and the security apparatus and reconfiguring these to their ideological ends. The Putin movement in Russia sprang from within the security apparatus. Putin himself is a prime example of this movement. Some of his key associates (Alexander Bortnikov, Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev, Sergei Naryshkin) also come from a security background. Nowadays, the FSB tries to control most significant economic and public activities. We hear constant reports of siloviki (security and other law enforcement officers) seeking rent from lucrative businesses. What is more important, however, is the presence of the security officers (sometimes formally retired) in all more or less significant organizations as deputies to presidents, university presidents, directors, or simply as officers monitoring international students. The security apparatus is probably one of the key transmitters of the ideological images and esthetics of Russia’s military past and imperial might. It is safe to assume that this apparatus is an active consumer of the far-right discourses produced by Alexander Dugin, Alexander Prokhanov, the Izborsk club and the like. This would be a central element in the Russian variant of a fascist regime. Many representatives of this security apparatus are not just cogs in the machinery of secret police, they are ideologues dreaming of a great Russian empire and espousing nationalist chauvinism.

7. Youth organizations. The Kremlin has been sponsoring so-called patriotic youth organizations since the early years of Putin’s presidency. Most recently, they decided to resurrect one for adolescents, the Pioneer organization, which used to be the primary organization in the USSR for young students, forming a middle layer in the youth organizations hierarchy: Oktyabryata (1st–3rd graders), Pioneers, and the Komsomol. Yet, this initiative remains far from being institutionalized. In the 2000s, these youth movements were used to harass writers and activists. These days, Kremlin-sponsored youth events are attended by young opportunists seeking entrance to the new nomenklatura. The movement overall lacks popularity and cannot be seriously compared to the Hitler Youth.
Non-institutional elements:

8. The cult of personality. This began with the early efforts to introduce Putin to the Russian people before his first election, and it has never stopped. A notoriously famous popular song, “I Want Someone Like Putin,” was just the beginning of the process that recently ended with the parliament speaker Volodin saying, “There is no Russia without Putin.” Yet, if one compares this to the personality cults from the 1930s, it is still mild. Putin is not a big fan of the rallies that Hitler or Mussolini liked to organize. His rare rally appearances would be connected to election night results or the invasion of Ukraine. Putin is more comfortable with carefully-orchestrated endless press conferences or “direct lines” (Q&A sessions) with the people. One can find Putin’s portraits hanging in many public spaces, but people can still get away without having Putin’s face in their offices.

9. Unity of the nation and rallying round the flag. Normally, one would expect to rely on public opinion data in assessing the degree of public support for a certain idea or a political figure. However, the data collected by Russian pollsters does not seem reliable. If one were to walk the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg now, one would see nothing comparable to the Nuremberg and Munich of the 1930s. Only a few private cars display the Z-sign. Municipal info boards that contain Z-propaganda quickly get painted over by civil resistance groups. Authorities have to mobilize civil servants or other employees dependent on state institutions or public contractors to fake pro-war rallies. Pro-war performances of all kinds (Z-lightshows in dormitories or administrative buildings, or Z-arranged photos of kids in school courtyards) are all organized by administrators of all sorts either by request from a regional administration or proactively to score points and secure their own positions. All of this conveys a sad spirit of disingenuousness. Most people in the populous urban conglomerations show little enthusiasm for the war. Yet, this can be deceiving. There is a significant share of the population, especially outside of the major cities and in the older cohorts of the population, who cheer on the Russian military campaign. They are prepared to justify any brutality and demand a total conquest of Ukraine, with further restoration of something akin to the Soviet empire. These people can quickly form a critical mass that would take over the whole country. One need only remember how quickly the Nazi electoral results rose from a few percent to a little over 40%, which happened to be sufficient to throw the whole country into hell. Russia is not yet there, but it has the potential for drifting in the wrong direction despite the wavering urban population.

10. Propaganda. The Russian propaganda machine is now absolute. The last remaining fully independent media were closed or banned with the help of the new censorship laws. State-owned media wage a total ideological war. The education system is more overtly than ever embedded into this machinery. The security forces’ crackdown on higher education had started even before the war. They found particularly threatening the liberal arts programs, which are now in disarray and face “reorganization.” After the start of war, we saw attempts to organize national patriotic lessons for students in vocational schools. The universities were advised to arrange propaganda classes for students explaining the context of the conflict, Russia’s global role and ambition, as well as threats the country perceived. This propaganda machine is so strong that it does confuse and deceive many people, but at the same time its purpose to deceive is so obvious, and the manner in which it operates so aggressive, that many people refuse to buy into it. The students in my university simply mocked the propaganda materials because of their nonsensical nature. On the symbolic scale of regime measurement, this element would fall toward the fascist end of the spectrum.

11. The cult of tradition. The “conservative turn” has been prominent in Russian mainstream politics for a few years now. It’s been on the agenda of high-profile Putin loyalists, state media, and right-wing intellectuals. The cult of traditional values helps to sustain the practices of male chauvinism, gender expectations, gender inequality in everyday life and in professional environments, and homophobia—although its levels tend to decline despite the discourse. Noteworthily,
"The Russian cult of tradition contains no vision of the future. It has nothing to offer to generations born during and after Perestroika."
Therefore, it has no purchase among younger Russians. As such, it is still an empty shot in the direction of fascism, but it is the one that authorities will work desperately to impose universally.

12. Russia’s vision for the world. Russia shows itself to be a country driven by revanchism and ressentiment. It more closely resembles the Germany of the early 1920s trying to grapple with the terms of the Versailles settlement, and the Germany of the 1930s under Nazi rule, than it does the revolutionary project of the Bolsheviks. This is yet another element that Russia would share with the historic fascist regimes.

13. Ethnic alterity. For the fascist and Nazi regimes of the past the ideas of national purity were essential. The Holocaust and the extermination of the Roma and Slavs are all scars on the body of humanity that will take a long time to heal. All of these involved dehumanizing the representatives of the respective groups. Snyder is right in pointing out the same practice in Russian propaganda regarding the Ukrainians. Russian propaganda began picking up on this theme following the Euro-Maidan Revolution of 2014. This was “peacetime” propaganda seeking to develop the overall negative attitude of the Russian people towards Ukraine as a whole and towards certain political factions within Ukraine in particular. Wartime propaganda has shifted to the blatant dehumanization of Ukrainians, going as far as calling all of them “Nazis,” and publishing op-eds on leading news platforms that could qualify as genocide handbooks. Despite all this, one cannot help but notice that this propaganda reached its limits in terms of the number of people willing to consume it. Large swaths of society, especially those residing in the major urban centers, have not been consuming televised propaganda for a long time. This toxicity is amplified by the lack of trust in the state media among many Russians.

14. Antisemitism. Although we often hear antisemitic statements from the Russian leadership, like the scandalous comments on Hitler’s supposed Jewish roots made by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the role of antisemitism in Russian ideology is nowhere near to what we saw, for instance, in Nazi Germany. Putin himself would always pull back on those statements, emphasizing their inadmissibility.

15. Racial/national superiority. This central element of Nazi ideology is missing from the Russian propaganda. It is even hard to imagine against the backdrop of the reports about casualties suffered by ethnic Buryat soldiers or in the context where the Chechen military overlord Ramzan Kadyrov tries to be an alternative news maker on the frontlines. This is not to say that Russian state propaganda and ethnically Russian top officials are not chauvinist. But this has not been part of the official narrative, nor it can be in a multiethnic state. This chauvinism is likely to remain in covert forms and mundane practices. What I described in points 12–14 are important obstacles to the Russian political regime’s evolving into the kind of totalitarian regimes seen in the 1930s and ’40s, which were based on ideas of national purity.
Poster of musical-patriotic marathon “Za Russia”, 2022. Source: VK
16. Societal transformation and surveillance. The totalitarian regimes of the past were premised on society’s mobilization and its transformation into a self-surveilling mechanism. That is the most effective way to ensure total control over the citizenry. The Stalinist regime was notorious for citizens informing on each other. Millions of such reports were received by the secret police and later were used in persecutions. Contemporary Russia is not yet near that tipping point. Yet, there are cases of conflicts in grocery stores over attitudes towards the war in Ukraine; there are cases of “vigilant” parents of schoolchildren who report to other parents on “the pro-Nazi” stand of their respective kids. My own Facebook anti-war posts were screenshotted and sent to my superiors at work. But these anecdotal cases do not yet form a critical mass that could compare to the Soviet regime. However, with modern technology we might not see this dimension of societal transformation ever again. Surveillance technologies, including CCTV coverage, data transmission control, phone interception, and such, are all in place and available to the security apparatus. The new oppressive regimes would encourage vigilant citizens, but would also be able to substitute for them with technology.

17. Fear. The atmosphere of fear is widespread and growing. The oppressive apparatus is working hard to feed into fearmongering. It brings charges against those who joined anti-war demonstrations, protested with anti-war slogans, or spoke out against the war on social media or in public places. The new censorship laws made the situation dramatically more severe. Today any public statement may cost one a job at best, a 15-year term in jail at worst. Senior officials in the big corporations and even universities have to watch their employees’ comments on social media. Despite this atmosphere of fear, there is a strong partisan-like anti-war movement. The “no to war” inscriptions on the houses and pavements and green ribbons (a symbol of anti-war protest) on street fences may even outnumber the official Z-symbols put up by the authorities. One can see more and more young people openly stating their anti-war attitudes on camera for independent reporters. In this sense, this would still be an oppressive dictatorial regime, but not yet one crossing the fascist threshold.

18. The attitude towards dissent. Given the atmosphere of fear in the country, the attitude towards those who hold a different opinion on the war is either that of condescension (people would react by saying, “It’s not all black and white”) or sheer aggression (holding opposing views can get one labelled a “traitor,” sometimes even within one’s own family circle). These reactions are likely when an opinion is voiced in a public space or in encounters with alternative ideological “bubbles.” Yet, within these bubbles, the discussions are galvanizing. The propaganda apparatus has worked hard to atomize people and debates, but the spaces and networks for expressing an alternative opinion are already there. This could resemble kitchen-like conversations from the Soviet times. But the culture of going out and meeting people in clubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, etc., developed in the last 30 years (that is, a classical public sphere akin to today’s VPN access to banned media), will not disappear any time soon, and as such will also be an important space for dissenting voices. This is, again, a feature more likely to be found among authoritarian regimes.

19. Conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are pervasive. The lack of transparency in decision-making, the distrust of official propaganda, and the disdain for critical thinking all create an incredibly fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Even high-ranking officials buy into conspiracy content by desperately looking for what they take for the signs of geopolitical anti-Russian plots or secret deals between Moscow and Washington. Conspiracy theories are the only way to rationalize the war for many Russian people of varying ranks. For otherwise, it all sounds like nonsense. Together with the powerful propaganda machine, this forms a clear-cut element of a fascist regime.

20. The glorification of military sacrifice. Russian propaganda seeks to militarize Russian society, but it does not seem to be very successful. The cult of the war heroes is still limited to Victory Day (May 9), which is celebrated throughout Russia. The cult of those who have been fighting in Donbas is still missing, and is likely to fail to emerge because the idea that Russia is fighting on the side of right is unlikely to be accepted universally. This fascist element the authorities would really like to see picked up by the people, but they only succeed in pushing it forward by command methods.
“The institutional and non-institutional features of the current Russian political regime may resemble the Nazi or Fascist regimes of the past, but they are not yet the same, and will probably never be the same. Technology, history, experience, and simply the different way of life in the 21st century may all prevent the reconstruction of the Fascist or Nazi regimes in modern Russia."
Do I think that this makes Russia less dangerous than the fascist regimes of the past? Definitely not. Does it mean this regime is incapable of producing egregious atrocities? Definitely not. Russia has already demonstrated that it can be as dangerous as it gets by starting a full-fledged inter-state conflict. But it can be even more dangerous since it has the capability of scaling up the conflict. Calling Russia fascist may help to mobilize political elites across the world to expedite the provision of aid to Ukraine. This kind of help we must seek by all available means. Yet, I am inclined to think that the Putin political regime needs its own term. And this is not a matter of definitions. In rhetoric, it matters how concepts are used to achieve certain goals. For containment strategies to be smart and effective, we may need to find a way to describe Putin’s system better. Calling this regime fascist may carry a handful of anachronistic and irrelevant images, which may just fuel a rally-’round-the-flag effect inside the country with deadly implications of its own.

See Russia.Post other contributions to the debate here.
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