As I finished this blog, I was struck by a video on Twitter showing the building of the Faculty of Sociology of Karazin National University in Kharkiv on fire, symbolically and literally documenting the burning of learning and knowledge.
Such scenes from this new war in Europe raise many questions, not least about how the fascist past is being used to understand the present day. As a historian of fascism, I do think aspects of ‘fascism studies’ has some relevance to these debates, and I also worry about how memories of fascism are being used and abused to ‘make sense’ of this unfolding war.
For example, Vladimir Putin argues Ukraine’s political system is ‘neo-Nazi’ and presents his ‘special military operation’ as the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. Shortly before I wrote this blog, Russian military fire hit the Holocaust memorial for the Babi Yar massacre, which in September 1941 saw over 33,000 Jewish people shot by Nazis in a few days and probably around 100,000 people killed there from a range of ethnicities and backgrounds over the course of the Second World War. While attacking memorials remembering Nazi genocide, at the same time Russia’s official justification for starting a war is that it is preventing a genocide. (And to be clear, there is no actual genocide going on justifying this war.)
Such stark, awful juxtapositions say a lot about the ways disinformation, and alternate narratives, are being developed by the Russian state under Putin. When teaching my history of communism module, a course that has suddenly become very timely for all the wrong reasons, we talked about some of the historical contexts at play, and reflected on the views of the author of books such as Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum, and her arguments on the illegitimacy of Putin’s claims that Ukraine is simply part of Russian territory lost in the breakup of the USSR.
We also discussed the ambiguities in how to classify the Russian system led by Putin, nothing seems to quite ‘fit’. Certainly, there are analogies to be drawn between Russia’s current President and the charismatic dictators of the past, in both communist and fascist contexts. But there are also contrast, and Putin’s style of rule seems to be distinct from easy historical reference points.
There are many analysts in my sphere of ‘fascism studies’ who have some interesting points to make on how to classify Putin. Indeed, some see him as a modern incarnation of fascism, but many do not.
The philosopher Jason Stanley has developed an approach to understanding fascism in books such as How Fascism Works that also include as ‘fascist’ people such as Donald Trump, so he has a quite broad way of applying the term to contemporary cases. In a powerful article for the Guardian, Stanley explained how Putin resembled fascist leaders of the past in terms of subversion of individualism and political freedoms, attacking minorities such as LGBTQ+ communities, undermining democracy, and also galvanising people around a powerful and aggrieved male leader figure who promises a restoration of their power.
Importantly here, Stanley draws out the way Putin’s narrative for war is deeply antisemitic in nature. The official position of the Russian state not only promotes baseless accusations of genocide in Ukraine today but also evokes a particular and emotive memory of the past to frame Ukraine’s political leadership as ‘Nazi’, ridiculous as Volodymyr Zelensky is from a Jewish background and had family members killed in the Holocaust. Tellingly this Russian narrative manipulates the memory of the Holocaust and Nazism to recast the Nazi genocide as an attack primarily on Christian Russians, not Jewish people from across Europe.
Other analysts from fascism studies have been exploring the dynamics of Putin for some time. One of the most considered is Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on topics such as Russia’s relationship with the European far right, set out in great detail in his masterful book Tango Noir. Here, Shekhovtsov describes how fascist regimes of the past sought to create a new world and a new man – think about the 1,000-year Reich project of the Nazi regime. Yet Putin’s approach to political rule is less reliant on a single a guiding ideology and is more manipulative than visionary. For Shekhovtsov, Putin’s Russia uses ideology selectively and creatively, sometimes even in contradictory ways, to secure power through confusion and social discord.
Shekhovtsov also argues Putin’s regime is best described as an ‘autocratic kleptocracy’, so anti-democratic, deeply corrupt and driven by powerful men holding on to power. It is also certainly a political system influenced by contemporary fascist ideologues such as Aleksandr Dugin, and is a regime happy to develop instrumental relationships with far-right figures aboard to help sow disinformation and discord in other countries. This is part of Putin’s wider approach to developing ‘malign influence’ that Shekhovtsov also discusses in an insightful report for Free Russia. This short commentary sets out a useful wider language for describing aspects of Putin’s unique regime.
Another leading figure in fascism studies, Roger Griffin, has also explored how aspects of his understanding of fascism might be used to consider Putin’s regime. Again, he sees differences between fascism and Putin’s style of rule, but also identifies some important crossovers. In a lecture and discussion for the Centre for Democratic Integrity, Griffin explains how Putin’s style of rule is based on a sense of what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called ‘Ressentiment’, recast by Griffin as ‘resentment politics’.
As a style of domination, for Griffin resentment politics is mythic and emotive and purposefully promotes, through official and unofficial channels, a sense of instability and disorder with the aim of making ordinary people feel they face a grave, existential threat. In Russia’s case it has also evolved to promote a narrative that Putin is uniquely placed to resolve all such crises facing the nation. To do this, Russian politics in the past few years has focused on themes such as shame following the breakup of the USSR and a sense of international humiliation by being confronted by NATO and the West. Overturning such humiliations agressively is a logical consequence to this, but for Putin this has been established in more nuanced and unsettling ways than in, say, the propaganda created by fascist leaders of the past.
Whatever else we can take from voices such as Applebaum, Stanley, Shekhovtsov and Griffin, one thing is clear. To even start to think about Putin’s politics, and its style of power, it is important to consider its emotive as well as its rational qualities. Indeed, an emotional logic may well be central to considering Putin’s style of rule and its framing of warfare as legitimate, as well as how to effectively challenge it.
What is also clear is that, however we might come to classify Putin and the Russia that he leads in the months and years to come, all historians of fascism can only condemn Russia’s unprovoked attack on an independent and sovereign liberal democracy.