The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has searched fruitlessly for a new grand strategy -- something to define who Russians are and where they are going. “In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods -- monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika, and finally, a democratic path of development,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Each stage has its own ideology,” he continued, but now “we have none.”
To fill that hole, in 1996 Yeltsin designated a team of scholars to work together to find what Russians call the Russkaya ideya (“Russian idea”), but they came up empty-handed. Around the same time, various other groups also took up the task, including a collection of conservative Russian politicians and thinkers who called themselves Soglasiye vo imya Rossiya (“Accord in the Name of Russia”). Along with many other Russian intellectuals of the day, they were deeply disturbed by the weakness of the Russian state, something that they believed needed to be fixed for Russia to return to its rightful glory. And for them, that entailed return to the Russian tradition of a powerful central government. How that could be accomplished was a question for another day.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom many of the Soglasiye still have ties, happened to agree with their ideals and overall goals. He came to power in 1999 with a nationwide mandate to stabilize the Russian economy and political system. Thanks to rising world energy prices, he quickly achieved that goal. By the late 2000s, he had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilization of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West -- such as the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism -- were popular in Russia.
True to Putin’s insistence that Russia cannot be judged in Western terms, Putin’s new conservatism does not fit U.S. and European definitions. In fact, the main trait they share is opposition to liberalism. Whereas conservatives in those parts of the world are fearful of big government and put the individual first, Russian conservatives advocate for state power and see individuals as serving that state. They draw on a long tradition of Russian imperial conservatism and, in particular, Eurasianism. That strain is authoritarian in essence, traditional, anti-American, and anti-European; it values religion and public submission. And more significant to today’s headlines, it is expansionist.
The roots of Eurasianism lie in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, although many of the ideas that it contains have much longer histories in Russia. After the 1917 October Revolution and the civil war that followed, two million anti-Bolshevik Russians fled the country. From Sofia to Berlin and then Paris, some of these exiled Russian intellectuals worked to create an alternative to the Bolshevik project. One of those alternatives eventually became the Eurasianist ideology. Proponents of this idea posited that Russia’s Westernizers and Bolsheviks were both wrong: Westernizers for believing that Russia was a (lagging) part of European civilization and calling for democratic development; Bolsheviks for presuming that the whole country needed restructuring through class confrontation and a global revolution of the working class. Rather, Eurasianists stressed, Russia was a unique civilization with its own path and historical mission: To create a different center of power and culture that would be neither European nor Asian but have traits of both. Eurasianists believed in the eventual downfall of the West and that it was Russia’s time to be the world’s prime exemplar.
In 1921, the exiled thinkers Georges Florovsky, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Petr Savitskii, and Petr Suvchinsky published a collection of articles titled Exodus to the East, which marked the official birth of the Eurasianist ideology. The book was centered on the idea that Russia’s geography is its fate and that there is nothing any ruler can do to unbind himself from the necessities of securing his lands. Given Russia’s vastness, they believed, its leaders must think imperially, consuming and assimilating dangerous populations on every border. Meanwhile, they regarded any form of democracy, open economy, local governance, or secular freedom as highly dangerous and unacceptable.
In that sense, Eurasianists considered Peter the Great -- who tried to Europeanize Russia in the eighteenth century -- an enemy and a traitor. Instead, they looked with favor on Tatar-Mongol rule, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Genghis Khan’s empire had taught Russians crucial lessons about building a strong, centralized state and pyramid-like system of submission and control.
Eurasianist beliefs gained a strong following within the politically active part of the emigrant community, or White Russians, who were eager to promote any alternative to Bolshevism. However, the philosophy was utterly ignored, and even suppressed in the Soviet Union, and it practically died with its creators. That is, until the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia’s ideological slate was wiped clean.
THE EVOLUTION OF A REVOLUTIONARY
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ultranationalist ideologies were decidedly out of vogue. Rather, most Russians looked forward to Russia’s democratization and reintegration with the world. Still, a few hard-core patriotic elements remained that opposed de-Sovietization and believed -- as Putin does today -- that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. Among them was the ideologist Alexander Dugin, who was a regular contributor to the ultranationalist analytic center and newspaper Den’ (later known as Zavtra). His earliest claim to fame was a 1991 pamphlet, “The War of the Continents,” in which he described an ongoing geopolitical struggle between the two types of global powers: land powers, or “Eternal Rome,” which are based on the principles of statehood, communality, idealism, and the superiority of the common good, and civilizations of the sea, or “Eternal Carthage,” which are based on individualism, trade, and materialism. In Dugin’s understanding, “Eternal Carthage,” was historically embodied by Athenian democracy and the Dutch and British Empires. Now, it is represented by the United States. “Eternal Rome” is embodied by Russia. For Dugin, the conflict between the two will last until one is destroyed completely -- no type of political regime and no amount of trade can stop that. In order for the “good” (Russia) to eventually defeat the “bad” (United States), he wrote, a conservative revolution must take place.
His ideas of conservative revolution are adapted from German interwar thinkers who promoted the destruction of the individualistic liberal order and the commercial culture of industrial and urban civilization in favor of a new order based on conservative values such as the submission of individual needs and desires to the needs of the many, a state-organized economy, and traditional values for society based on a quasi-religious view of the world. For Dugin, the prime example of a conservative revolution was the radical, Nazi-sponsored north Italian Social Republic of Salò (1943–45). Indeed, Dugin continuously returned to what he saw as the virtues of Nazi practices and voiced appreciation for the SS and Herman Wirth’s occult Ahnenerbe group. In particular, Dugin praised the orthodox conservative-revolutionary projects that the SS and Ahnenerbe developed for postwar Europe, in which they envisioned a new, unified Europe regulated by a feudal system of ethnically separated regions that would serve as vassals to the German suzerain. It is worth noting that, among other projects, the Ahnenerbe was responsible for all the experiments on humans in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.
Between 1993 and 1998, Dugin joined the Russian nationalist legend Eduard Limonov in creating the now banned National-Bolshevik Movement (later the National-Bolshevik Party, or NBP), where he became the chief ideologist of a strange synthesis of socialism and ultra-right ideology. By the late 1990s, he was recognized as the intellectual leader of Russia’s entire ultra-right movement. He had his own publishing house, Arktogeya (“Northern Country”), several slick Web sites, a series of newspapers and magazines, and published The Foundation of Geopolitics, an immediate best seller that was particularly popular with the military.
Dugin’s introduction to the political mainstream came in 1999, when he became an adviser to the Russian parliamentarian Gennadii Seleznev, one of Russia’s most conservative politicians, a two-time chairman of the Russian parliament, a member of the Communist Party, and a founder of the Party of Russia’s Rebirth. That same year, with the help of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia’s nationalist and very misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Dugin became the chairman of the geopolitical section of the Duma’s Advisory Council on National Security.
But his inclusion in politics did not necessarily translate to wider appeal among the politics of the elite. For that, Dugin had to transform his ideology into something else -- something uniquely Russian. Namely, he dropped the most outrageous, esoteric, and radical elements of his ideology, including his mysticism, and drew instead on the classical Eurasianism of Trubetzkoy and Savitskii. He set to work creating the International Eurasian Movement, a group that would come to involve academics, politicians, parliamentarians, journalists, and intellectuals from Russia, its neighbors, and the West.
TO EUROPE AND BEYOND
Like the classical Eurasianists of the 1920s and 1930s, Dugin’s ideology is anti-Western, anti-liberal, totalitarian, ideocratic, and socially traditional. Its nationalism is not Slavic-oriented (although Russians have a special mission to unite and lead) but also applies to the other nations of Eurasia. And it labels rationalism as Western and thus promotes a mystical, spiritual, emotional, and messianic worldview.
But Dugin’s neo-Eurasianism differs significantly from previous Eurasianist thought. First, Dugin conceives of Eurasia as being much larger than his predecessors ever did. For example, whereas Savitskii believed that the Russian-Eurasian state should stretch from the Great Wall of China in the east to the Carpathian Mountains to the west, Dugin believes that the Eurasian state must incorporate all of the former Soviet states, members of the socialist block, and perhaps even establish a protectorate over all EU members. In the east, Dugin proposes to go as far as incorporating Manchuria, Xinxiang, Tibet, and Mongolia. He even proposes eventually turning southwest toward the Indian Ocean.
In order to include Europe in Eurasia, Dugin had to rework the enemy. In classical Eurasianist thought, the enemy was the Romano-Germanic Europe. In Dugin’s version, the enemy is the United States. As he writes: “The USA is a chimerical, anti-organic, transplanted culture which does not have sacral state traditions and cultural soil, but, nevertheless, tries to force upon the other continents its anti-ethnic, anti-traditional [and] “babylonic” model.” Classical Eurasianists, by contrast, favored the United States and even considered it to be a model, especially praising its economic nationalism, the Monroe Doctrine, and its non-membership in the League of Nations.
Another crucial point of difference is his attitude toward fascism and Nazi Germany. Even before World War II, classical Eurasianists opposed fascism and stood against racial anti-Semitism. Dugin has lauded the state of Israel for hewing to the principles of conservativism but has also spoken of a connection between Zionism and Nazism and implied that Jews only deserved their statehood because of the Holocaust. He also divides Jews into “bad” and “good.” The good are orthodox and live in Israel; the bad live outside of Israel and try to assimilate. Of course, these days, those are views to which he rarely alludes in public.
Since the early 2000s, Dugin’s ideas have only gained in popularity. Their rise mirrors Putin’s own transition from apparent democrat to authoritarian. In fact, Putin’s conservative turn has given Dugin a perfect chance to “help out” the Russian leader with proper historical, geopolitical, and cultural explanations for his policies. Recognizing how attractive Dugin’s ideas are to some Russians, Putin has seized on some of them to further his own goals.
Although Dugin has criticized Putin from time to time for his economic liberalism and cooperation with the West, he has generally been the president’s steadfast ally. In 2002, he created the Eurasia Party, which was welcomed by many in Putin’s administration. The Kremlin has long tolerated, and even encouraged, the creation of such smaller allied political parties, which give Russian voters the sense that they actually do live in a democracy. Dugin’s party, for example, provides an outlet for those with chauvinistic and nationalist leanings, even as the party remains controlled by the Kremlin. At the same time, Dugin built strong ties with Sergei Glazyev, who is a co-leader of the patriotic political bloc Rodina and currently Putin’s adviser on Eurasian integration. In 2003, Dugin tried to become a parliamentary deputy along with the Rodina bloc but failed.
Although his electoral foray was a bust, some voters’ positive reception to his anti-Western projects encouraged Dugin to forge ahead with the Eurasianist movement. After the shock of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, he created the Eurasianist Youth Union, which promotes patriotic and anti-Western education. It has 47 coordination offices throughout Russia and nine in countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Poland, and Turkey. Its reach far exceeds that of any existing democratic-oriented movement.
In 2008, Dugin was made a professor at Russia’s top university, Moscow State University, and the head of the national sociological organization Center for Conservative Studies. He also appears regularly on all of Russia’s leading TV channels, commenting on both domestic and foreign issues. His profile has only increased since the pro-democracy protests of the winter of 2011–12 and Putin’s move around the same time to build a Eurasian Union. His outsized presence in Russian public life is a sign of Putin’s approval; Russian media, particularly television, is controlled almost entirely by the Kremlin. If the Kremlin disapproves of (or not longer has a use for) a particular personality, it will remove him or her from the airwaves.
Dugin and other like-minded thinkers have wholeheartedly endorsed the Russian government’s action in Ukraine, calling on him to go further and take the east and south of Ukraine, which, he writes, “welcomes Russia, waits for it, pleads for Russia to come.” The Russian people agree. Putin’s approval ratings have climbed over the past month, and 65 percent of Russians believe that Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine are “essentially Russian territory” and that “Russia is right to use military force for the defense of the population.” Dugin, then, has proven to be a great asset to Putin. He has popularized the president’s position on such issues as limits on personal freedom, a traditional understanding of family, intolerance of homosexuality, and the centrality of Orthodox Christianity to Russia’s rebirth as a great power. But his greatest creation is neo-Eurasianism.
Dugin’s ideology has influenced a whole generation of conservative and radical activists and politicians, who, if given the chance, would fight to adapt its core principles as state policy. Considering the shabby state of Russian democracy, and the country’s continued move away from Western ideas and ideals, one might argue that the chances of seeing neo-Eurasianism conquer new ground are increasing. Although Dugin’s form of it is highly theoretical and deeply mystical, it is proving to be a strong contender for the role of Russia’s chief ideology. Whether Putin can control it as he has controlled so many others is a question that may determine his longevity.