“They Also Used to Laugh at Hitler”

The second article in the “Unordinary Fascism” series — Andreas Umland dwells about the right-wing tendencies and explains to Dmitry Okrest why the Russian special military operation is fascist and how Dugin is overrated


Source >> Posle

— Why did you become interested in extremist tendencies and fascism in Russia?

— I began my research in the early 1990s because it seemed to me that Russia started to show some features resembling interwar Germany. I refer to the Weimar syndrome in Germany after the First World War. Right-wing radical movements have been emerging in Russia since the late 1980s, first, Pamyat (Memory) group, then the National Salvation Front and Russian National Unity [which was established by the former leader of Pamyat, Alexander Barkashov].

During that time, the phenomenon of LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky seemed threatening to me. Yes, people made fun of him, and he indeed was a joker and a ridiculous character. But people also used to laugh at Hitler and considered him a joke and a clown. Zhirinovsky then did well in the first elections after the USSR’s collapse. Then it became clear that the ideologies of far-right radicals like Dugin and Zhirinovsky had after all become mainstream. 

— But in Europe he is considered to be almost a secret puppet master. What did you see when you started studying Dugin and neo-Eurasianism?

— There is some similarity between what Dugin wrote even in the 1990s and what the Russian authorities are doing. Dugin was among those who disputed Ukraine’s existence, stating that Ukraine — was the “outskirts” (imperialist Russians insist that Ukraine and okraina or periphery have the same etymology). Already then, he said that Russia should control the whole southern coast of Ukraine. 

Dugin speaks multiple languages, and he had contacts with Western Europe. He read a lot of western right-wing intellectuals (e. g. Alain de Benoist) and translated them for Russian readers. Back then it seemed that he had his own language and original thoughts. But usually these were just ideas borrowed from “conservative revolution” theorists, the New Right, Italian Fascism and German Nazism. He simply named it “Eurasianism,” although he was a traditionalist at the start and was looking for a term to mask the western sources [of his conceptual constructions]. ​​Stefan Wiederkehr points out that Dugin confused authors’ names and surnames in his earlier discussions on Eurasianism. He needed to Russify western ideas. But if you have read about the “conservative revolution” or the New Right before, then reading Dugin won’t be interesting. It is just a paraphrase of the Western authors, no matter how paradoxical that seems.

The importance of Dugin is overestimated. I’m against stating that Dugin has some direct influence [on Putin’s regime] or is a gray eminence. He was just a part of a group of mad publicists who paved the way for this war. This is very reminiscent of interwar Germany where revanchist intellectuals played that role. They weren’t Nazis themselves, but they prepared the way for the rising of Nazism and the start of the Second World War. Nevertheless, Dugin played his role in the radical right environment, gave others many ideas, published in Zavtra newspaper, and then became adviser to Gennady Seleznev when the latter was speaker of the State Duma.

— When you taught at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, did the far-right in Ukraine also interest you?

— I came to live in Ukraine in 2002. At first, it appeared to me that there was not that much material to study, and that those [right] groups were rather marginal. Still, I’m a political scientist — I’m interested in something politically important and in people that make significant decisions. Then I started to read about historical Ukrainian radical nationalism, about OUN [Organization of Ukrainian nationalists] in particular.

Later I observed the rise of the Svoboda party happened, which gained 10% in 2012 elections. I had become interested in it, but then the party lost its support. There is right-wing radicalism in Ukraine, there are different parties, Right Sector  and National Corps which was created by the veterans of the Azov Battalion. Yes, it must be talked about, everything must be compared and evaluated to understand the connections between Azov and the far-right, just as other groups throughout the world are evaluated. You can do similar research on Germany, Russia, France, or Italy. If you read about it a lot, then it might appear to be something super important. The same, by the way, goes for selective historical memory. Yes, the cult of Stepan Bandera is problematic, but the cult of a number of figures in other countries is also problematic. Regarding Azov the mistake was made: its original symbols were left in place. Now it’s changing.

— How do people in Germany feel about that national-socialist style of Azov?

— They felt badly because they saw a connection to right-wing radicalism. Azov’s insignia featured SS symbols— the Wolfsangel and the Black Sun . Another thing is that in Ukrainian context it no longer mattered, and many people didn’t associate those symbols with the Third Reich.

“In Germany, for instance, the Wolfsangel is depicted in the coats of arms of many old cities because it’s an old pagan symbol.”

But it is not the same Wolfangel that the Das Reich division had.

— You have studied Nazi movement in Russia too, is it in some way similar to the one in Ukraine?

— In Russia [as in Ukraine] it is also more a social than a political phenomenon. Yes, there were people who wore swastikas, in particular Russian National Unity or Nazi skinheads. Yes, they could kill up to 100 people a year, but similar to other countries, organized neo-Nazis didn’t play a major role in national politics. I was more interested in how right radicals influence society and politics, but not in the street Nazis themselves. In Russia, they, of course, are stuck in a dead end and will never be able to enter big politics.

— How much do the far-right around the world admires Russia’s actions now?

— I think that it was pretty clear before: [as we remember] all those remarks by Andreas Breivik to Trump where they expressed their admiration for Putin. Lots of right radicals did this. Besides, of course, Central and Eastern Europe — Poles or Lithuanians have always treated Putin cautiously. With that exception, the far-right has always been enchanted by Putin. However, after 2014 it became more complex. There appeared a split between parties that supported either Russia or Ukraine.

After February 2022, supporting Russia was no longer acceptable. Brothers of Italy [Fratelli d’Italia] took a univocal pro-Ukrainian position. Russia has lost most of its soft power since the invasion. Another telling example is Sweden Democrats: they used to play footsie with Russia, but when Ukrainian refugees came to Sweden, such a position became untenable. Nonetheless, they would still like to build something similar to Putin’s Russia at their home. 

— After the concentration camps and other horrors of the Nazi regime, the accusations of fascism seem very serious. But how does the past of fascism really help to explain what is happening, especially now, against the background of Russian military aggression?

— The most famous scholar that started calling Russia fascist after 24 of February 2022 is Timothy Snyder. He just lists the characteristics that he considers fascist. And because Russia corresponds to those features on every point, then it can be classified as fascist. 

Other people have other definitions for fascism, which is why they are led to other conclusions. But for me, it’s more of a question of how it might be useful for understanding [today’s] situation. There is one moment, where I think this comparison might be useful: it is the so-called special operation. Many in the West don’t know what analytical categories that are used for describing what is happening between Ukraine and Russia are objectively correct. Colonialism, occupation, aggression, war, imperialism — these are all good analytical terms. 

Putin and Nikolai Patrushev [former head of the Federal Security Service, currently the Secretary of the Russian Security Council] think that Ukraine is a part of Russia that fell prey to Western influence. So it is poisoned, it has become degraded and must be “cleansed.” In their opinion, Ukrainians are Russians. Hence, how can it be that the Russian land is occupied? This is a paradox and an absurdity. And the ideas of ultranationalism and the nation as once being born are very close to it. Only here the nation is not born anew, but the Ukrainian province of Russia is being reborn, which had to be liberated and cleansed. It is already at least on the brink of fascism. 

— Slavoj Zizek said: “I doubt that we can use the word fascism with regard to modern Russia, because the term got blurred due to the Left’s laziness — when they don’t like something, they instantly call it fascist.” Why have the accusations of fascism become ubiquitous?

— In the structure of the Russian regime more similarities appear. Still, there is a leader, there is terror (although still pretty localized) and almost a single-party system. If you use fascism just as the name for modern authoritarian, maybe it is already totalitarian government, as some analysts argue. Then you’ll get a very wide definition of fascism. It would include not only German Nazism and Italian fascism, but also the regimes of Franco in Spain, Ataturk in Turkey, and recent history of China. Even in Russia this term is used for everything in the world — both Ukraine and the West are fascist. In Russia, it’s just a repeat of the USSR’s rhetoric of the 1940s.

If you rely on such a wide definition, then it will turn out that most of history is fascist: the definition would fit both the Egyptian Pharoahs and the nobles of Medieval times. And if you agree to such a wide definition, then, possibly, Russia is fascist too. Although, I’d repeat that for the description of the situation and better understanding of Russia — not the “special military operation,” but the current political system — I think that fascism is not suitable.

Notwithstanding, by the Autumn of 2022 it became evident, more symptoms have appeared, that actions [of Russia] are directed not just against the Ukrainian army, but against the Ukrainian population as a whole, because Russia deliberately attacked civil infrastructure. In addition, the Russian propaganda constantly stresses that that there is no Ukraine, no Ukrainian nation, and that Ukraine for Russia is like Bavaria for Germany. As if all the trouble with Bavaria is that Western values got into it: LGBT and fascism, cosmopolitanism and European values. It turns out that everything Western should be thrown out, and people that preach so-called Western values should be killed or deported.

This is of course not Auschwitz with its gas chambers. But the German regime was Nazi long ago before the start of the Holocaust. The process of “purifying the nation” had begun much earlier than summer of 1941, when the first mass shootings of Jews started in Ukraine. At the beginning of these shootings, the Hitler’s regime had already been in place for 8 years.

— In an attempt to explain the necessity of military actions, Russia is actively using anti-fascist rhetoric which is based on the memory of the Great Patriotic war [the Russian name for World War II]. Did you find something for yourself during studying the semiotics of this conflict?

— Joseph Stalin used the label “social-fascism” for the Social Democrats due to their  ideological disagreements, the latter were massively persecuted by the Nazis. I grew up in Eastern Germany myself and lived the first 22 years of my life behind the “anti-fascist fence.” It was declared that the “fence” stood there for the protection of our regime and the whole Soviet Bloc from the fascism of the West.

To accuse Ukraine of fascism is totally absurd — this country chose (by a large margin) a Russian-speaking Jew to be their president. I am, of course, impressed that such an accusation didn’t cause Homeric laughter. And it somewhat surprised me, how many Russians gave in to this narrative, even though they know Ukraine, have been to that country, and have friends and family there.

“Maybe it is not so much political scientists, but psychologists who could answer this question. Why is it all happening? Why does it resonate with people?”

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