Is Putin's Russia Fascist?

Is Putin's Russia Fascist?

Analyzing the nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime yields some valuable insights into the past, present and future of Russia.

Just what sort of political system has Vladimir Putin constructed in Russia? The Kremlin likes to speak of something called "managed democracy"; many observers prefer to call it "authoritarian." A few brave souls have even suggested that fascism might be an appropriate designation.

The correct term matters. First of all, it's important to call things by their real names and not engage in unnecessary obfuscation. Second, calling systems by their real names enables us to draw policy-relevant conclusions. If Russia really is democratic, then the current deterioration of Russia's relations with the West is likely to pass, as common values and common perspectives assert themselves over time. If, alternatively, Russia really is authoritarian-or even fascist-then the world may want to prepare for a further worsening of relations with an increasingly truculent Russia. Third, knowing just what Russia is now is especially important in light of Putin's imminent departure from the Russian presidency. If he's actually constructed a coherent political system, then that system will likely survive his withdrawal into the shadowy parts of the corridors of power. If, on the other hand, that system is only transitional, then Putin's leave-taking may provoke a crisis and, conceivably, a return to greater democracy.

One last introductory point. It's a mistake to think that calling Russia fascist necessarily means pursuing a policy of confrontation. There is no reason whatsoever why one cannot engage a fascist Russia; indeed, one could argue that engagement might be imperative precisely because Russia is fascist. It's no less a mistake to believe that calling Russia democratic necessarily means pursuing a policy of engagement. It's obvious that democratic states can be aggressive and act contrary to one's interests. And, although it may be true that, in the final analysis, "democracies do not fight", it is no less true that, in the lengthy run-up to that famed final analysis, they do not necessarily cooperate.


What Is Fascism?

Fascism is often used as an epithet, especially by the left, but it actually is a perfectly respectable social science term that refers to a particular type of political system. Everyone can agree that fascist states are authoritarian-that is, they lack the fundamental attributes of both democracy and totalitarianism. Unlike democracies, fascist systems lack meaningful parliaments, judiciaries, parties, political contestation, and elections. The key word here is meaningful: in fascist systems, as in all authoritarian systems, parliaments are rubber-stamp institutions, judiciaries do what the leader tells them, opposition parties are marginal, and electoral outcomes are preordained. Unlike totalitarian states, fascist states do not penetrate into every aspect of a country's political, economic, social, and cultural life; fascist states do not propound all-embracing ideologies that purport to answer all of life's questions. Instead, like all authoritarian states, fascist states attempt only to influence and control these dimensions of life and they prefer to espouse limited worldviews.

Like authoritarian states, fascist states are highly centralized and hierarchical, they give pride of place within the authority structure to soldiers and policemen, usually secret policemen, and they always have a supreme leader. Indeed, there can be no fascist state without a supreme leader. Like authoritarian states, fascist states limit freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Like authoritarian states, fascist states also reject socialism and embrace capitalism-which means that they tacitly acknowledge private property and the autonomy of capitalists. And like authoritarian states, fascist states generally espouse some form of hypernationalism glorifying their nation and its fabulous past, present and future. But fascist states also go further than authoritarian states in fetishizing the state and its glory and power.

But fascist states are not just run-of-the-mill authoritarian states. The latter typically connote images of dour old men ruling a sullen population.  Fascist states, in contrast, exude youth and vigor and they always implicate the population in its own repression. Fascist leaders strut; they want to appear youthful, manly and active. They also appeal to those qualities in the population, usually coopting the young into their movements or parties. No less important, fascist states are popular: They incorporate the population into the system of rule, promising it a grand and glorious future in exchange for its enthusiasm and support. Fascist leaders are especially popular, presenting themselves as the embodiments of a nation's best qualities and as the only hopes for its future.

Not surprisingly, fascist states tend to be aggressive-sounding and oftentimes aggressive states. The soldiers and policemen that run fascist states have a natural proclivity to toughness and weaponry. The hypernationalism, state fetishes, and cult of vigor of fascist states incline them to see enemies everywhere. The cult-like status of leaders encourages them to pound their chests with abandon. And the population's implication in its own repression leads it to balance its self-humiliation with attempts to humiliate others.

In sum, fascist states are authoritarian states with a few special characteristics thrown in: strong and vigorous leaders, cults of strong and vigorous leaders, and supine populations that willingly accept strong and vigorous leadership and thereby actively engage in their own self-repression. Fascist states are thus authoritarian states that glorify strength and vigor in the ruling elites and whose subject populations also glorify strength and vigor in the ruling elites.


Is Russia Fascist?

Seen in this light, Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile, and the Greece of the colonels were really just your average authoritarian states. So, too, is today's China. In contrast, Mussolini's Italy was clearly fascist, as was Hitler's Germany (even though it also had totalitarian aspirations). So, too, might Chavez's Venezuela, but only if he stops short of instituting genuine socialism. What of Putin's Russia?

  • Its democratic institutions are at best moribund, having been transformed into pliant tools of the Kremlin;
  • civil society and the press have been severely circumscribed, in a manner that approximates Hitler's Gleichschaltung (or coordination) of society in 1933-1934;
  • representatives of the military and secret police-the siloviki-dominate all ruling elites and suffuse them with their antidemocratic ethos;
  • the state promotes capitalism while making sure to control its strategic heights by means of controlling key industries, especially in energy, defense, mining, and manufacturing;
  • the Russian state is unabashedly glorified to the point of representing a genuine fetish;
  • Vladimir Putin is the undisputed leader, and his image exudes vigor, youth, and manliness;
  • a variety of rabidly pro-Putin youth groups act as the vanguard of the state;
  • the population overwhelmingly supports Putin, and has done so since he assumed the presidency;
  • hypernationalism, a growing mistrust of both internal and external foreigners, and a corresponding glorification of Russia's past (including its criminal Stalinist period) and present are the official worldview;
  • Russia has taken to asserting its "rightful" place in the sun by engaging in energy blackmail vis-à-vis Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states, cyber-wars against Estonia, provocations against Georgia, Polar land grabs, and other forms of aggressive behavior.

Of all these factors, Putin's projected vigor and the population's willing self-abnegation are central. Like Mussolini, Putin favors stylish black clothing that connotes toughness and seriousness. Like Mussolini, Putin likes being photographed in the presence of weapons and other instruments of war. And like Mussolini, Putin likes to show off his presumed physical prowess. Russians, meanwhile, have consistently supported Putin to the tune of 70-plus percent. The standard explanation for such enthusiasm is that, although Putin may have actually done little to improve their lives materially, they are grateful to him for having restored their sense of pride, in themselves and in their formerly humiliated country. Just this same sense of pride was at the core of Germans' support of Hitler.

Indeed, it is striking just how similar post-Soviet Russia's developmental path resembles that of post-World War I Germany. Both countries underwent strategic defeats, lost empires, and experienced intense national humiliation. Both countries then experienced extreme economic hardship under the stewardship of weak and corrupt democratic regimes. Both countries blamed democracy and its internal and external supporters for their ills. Both countries turned to hypernationalism, state fetishization and strong-man rule. In both countries strong men seized power-by legitimate means, by the way-and exploited popular willingness to submit to domination to establish their authoritarian regimes.

Although Putin's Russia possesses the defining characteristics of fascism, they have not yet assumed the form of a consolidated, coherent and hence fully-stable political system. These characteristics have emerged haphazardly only in the last few years, and although they may now all be in place, it is not yet clear that they are here to stay. In that sense, Russia today resembles Germany in 1933 or Italy in the mid-1920s. Russia could follow in their footsteps, or it could falter and find its way back to some form of democracy. In particular, Putin's announced departure in 2008 will be a test of just how stable this system is. Russia may therefore be best termed an unconsolidated fascist state. If the system remains as is, or even hardens after Putin leaves the presidency, then one will be able to say that the transition has ended in full-fledged fascism. If the system breaks down, or undergoes significant change in the direction of democracy, then the transition will have proven unsuccessful.