Nedoreikh. Grigory Golosov on how the political regime in Russia differs from the fascist ones

The discussion about “Russian fascism”, which was prompted by Timothy Snyder’s article “We must say this: Russia is a fascist country” published in The New York Times, has an indirect relation to the very statement of the famous historian. The statement was made in a purely American domestic political context. In my opinion, Snyder tried to offer his compatriots - and above all the ruling circles - a view of modern Russia that would justify a hard line towards the Russian authorities. But it seems to me that another argument would be much stronger: a nuclear power with a foreign policy directed against a number of countries with which the United States is bound by treaty obligations of mutual military assistance poses an existential threat for the United States (as well as for the whole world). This fully justifies both the sanctions policy and the provision of military assistance to Ukraine.

Indeed, American politicians are not yet very heedful of Snyder's assessments. Perhaps the Joe Biden administration does not exclude the possibility of resolving relations with the current Russian authorities (which the United States, as Biden has repeatedly stressed, do not seek to remove) after the end of the active phase of hostilities in Ukraine. In a broader sense, Snyder's position is at odds with the general attitude of the US administration to oppose the autocratic tendencies that are observed in the modern world, and by no means only in Russia. For if the Russian autocracy stands out from a number of other authoritarian regimes as uniquely vicious, fascist (or, as the conservative author Lee Edwards has suggested , Marxist-Leninist), then other autocracies can be dealt with much more leniently. Strictly speaking, this is exactly what the United States does in practice, but the Biden administration is hardly interested in providing an ideological justification for such “realpolitik”.

As Biden has repeatedly emphasized, the United States does not seek to remove the current Russian authorities.

The wide response that Snyder's article evoked in the Russian independent media (I will clarify: conditionally Russian, since they are based mainly abroad) and social networks is due to the fact that it offered a simple and, apparently, psychologically comforting way to comprehend feelings of frustration and bewilderment, after February 24, covering a significant part of those citizens of Russia who had previously held a critical view of the policy of the authorities. The historical memory in our country is such that the word "fascism" (as well as the word "Nazism", often used as a synonym for it) evokes extremely negative associations. This is also actively exploited by Russian propaganda, with its emphasis on “denazification” as one of the main goals of the military campaign in Ukraine.

However, once the word has been said, attempts have become inevitable to rationally, from scientific positions, comprehend the characterization of the Russian regime as fascist. A detailed overview of the discussion can be found in the article by Yaroslav Shimov. A whole collection of brief judgments by several well-known Russian authors in the opposition-minded environment is also available on the network. I also had a chance to speak on the topic. Almost all participants in the discussion - more or less categorically - rejected Snyder's characterization of the Russian regime, although some recognize that it has significant potential for evolution in this direction. There is no need to retell all the arguments made by different authors: the texts are widely available. However, it makes sense to dwell on one line of argument for the reason that, in my opinion, it brings us closest to the goal for which such discussions are worth conducting: a better understanding of the nature of modern Russian power.

Lack of political mobilization

This line of argument, if presented in an extremely compact form, boils down to the fact that fascist regimes are mobilization, while the Russian regime does not have this property. The concept of political mobilization is complex and usually includes several elements that can be presented in the form of the following narrative. The fascist regime has an ideology based on ideas of national superiority and justifies an aggressive foreign policy. The leader of the state is considered to be the main exponent of the ideology. The ideology is imposed on the entire society through the repressive suppression of dissent and total control over the media. But these three elements, each of which a discerning eye can detect in modern Russia, are not enough. The key feature of fascism is that the mass consciousness is indeed completely saturated with ideology and allows the regime not only to keep the population in subjection, but also to arouse active, active support, to create a deep ideological connection between the authorities and the masses.

In fact, it is precisely this element that is absent, according to some participants in the discussion, in modern Russia. I have no doubts about the factual reliability of this opinion, but it is by no means obvious. At this point, the discussion about "fascist Russia" is directly connected with another topic that is widely discussed by the opposition-minded public. Opinion polls conducted in Russia usually show a very high level of support for the authorities in general and in particular for their foreign policy. A detailed discussion of this phenomenon would take me too far from the main topic. I can recommend the texts of Maxim Alyukov (for example, this one ).

In short, even the most out-of-the-mass and by no means fascist in nature autocracies are usually able to win polled popular support. They achieve this mainly by depriving the population of information about possible alternatives. Of course, in the context of an international conflict, which the mainstream media describes as a just and even liberation war, the usual “rally around the flag” effect is superimposed on this. The distance between such support and genuine political mobilization is enormous.

However, I must say that on the whole this line of argument, which in a broad sense goes back to Hannah Arendt and some other authors of the Frankfurt School, does not seem to me sufficient. Political regimes are distinguished not by ideological, but by structural characteristics. Consequently, the presence or absence of political mobilization, which is really inherent in fascist regimes, must be recorded not by the ideological preferences of the masses, but by those organizational mechanisms that, in fact, are the channels of their political activity.

Lack of mass movements and close ties between the leader and the party

From this point of view, it is even surprising that, paying increased attention to ideology, the discussion about “fascist Russia” completely ignored such a generally recognized element of the fascist regimes observed in the past as corporatism, which for the historically primary fascism - Italian - was one of the basic elements of self-identification. This is not about the mechanisms for the formation of economic policy, but about the role played by the mass organizations created by the regime as channels for actively attracting certain segments of society - youth, workers, women, small entrepreneurs - to political participation. Such organizations existed in Italy, but German Nazism, which generally differed from the Italian in the sequence of actions, brought them almost to perfection.

In fascist Italy, the mass organizations created by the regime played an important role.

In modern Russia, such channels of political mobilization are completely absent. They are constantly being talked about. Today they talk a lot about the children's movement "Big Change", and at one time they made a fuss about "Nashi", "Young Guard of United Russia" and so on, but things usually do not go beyond talk and large-scale development of budget funds. There is no mass political mobilization in Russia simply because there are no organizational means to carry it out. Rallies that can be carried out through significant, but episodic efforts and serious expenses, do not count: political mobilization is not carried out by purely administrative methods. This requires a real political asset organized at the grassroots level.

This brings us to the main structural characteristic that distinguishes the Russian regime from fascism in its classic Italian and German manifestations. Like the current Russian, the former fascist regimes were regimes of personal power. The unshakable position of the leaders at the head of these states was institutionalized, the most consistent expression of which was the "Fuhrer-principle" in Germany. But—and this is the difference—this very formation of personal power was justified by the close ideological and organizational ties between the leaders and their parties, the NSDAP in Germany and the National Fascist Party in Italy. Both these parties themselves and the mass movements that acted under their direct leadership served as channels for the political mobilization of the masses. In the most concise definition, fascist regimes were personal dictatorships institutionalized as party regimes.

The category of party regimes is quite broad. In addition to the historical cases of fascism, it includes communist regimes, so that the two varieties are sometimes lumped together under the heading "totalitarianism." However, not all party autocracies fall under this more descriptive than analytically useful term. In developing countries, especially in Africa, party regimes at some point (in the 1970s and early 1980s) were numerically dominant. Many of these regimes were imitative in nature, serving as a front for primitive personal dictatorships - for example, in Guinea, where at the end of the existence of the regime, the entire population was simply enrolled in the party. But not necessarily: say, Robert Mugabe's power in Zimbabwe really relied on the party and its mass organizations. On the other hand, party regimes are not always regimes of personal power. The regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico lasted longer than all non-communist party dictatorships, in which the personal component was practically absent. Almost the same can be said about the current communist regime in Vietnam.

In Guinea, at the end of the existence of the regime, the entire population was recorded in the party

The fact that Vladimir Putin's power in Russia is purely personal is pretty obvious and is becoming more obvious every day. It is equally obvious that this regime can be recognized as a party regime only with a colossal stretch. The United Russia party exists primarily as a faction in the State Duma and other representative bodies, as well as a mechanism for the formation of these factions, since it structures voting in elections. United Russia has no political weight of its own. I think that if Putin ordered to dissolve it tomorrow, almost no one would have noticed this, except for a few dozen functionaries of its central apparatus. Yes, and they could easily pick up another job. In regions where United Russia functions simply as an administrative unit, the consequences would be even more subtle.

If Putin had ordered the dissolution of United Russia tomorrow, almost no one would have noticed

Not a party ideology, but a personalist dictatorship

The modern Russian regime is institutionalized not in a party, but in an electoral form. Like other electoral authoritarian regimes, he considers as the main source of power not the party with its only correct ideology (United Russia generally does not have any ideology) and the system of mass political participation (which also does not exist), but elections. These elections, as it should be under authoritarianism, are arranged in such a way that neither Putin himself nor United Russia can lose them. Therefore, comparing them with democratic electoral processes, it should be stated that these elections are fictitious, imitation.

Elections, as it should be under authoritarianism, are arranged in such a way that neither Putin nor United Russia can lose them.

However, from the point of view of the internal dynamics of the regime, they are an indispensable tool, since only in this way can one justify the right of the current leader to power and neutralize other possible contenders within the system. They perform a number of other functions useful for autocracies, but this is the main one. This explains why, although elections are fraught with some risks for electoral authoritarian regimes and open windows of opportunity for the opposition (sometimes intricate, like “smart voting”), they cannot be abandoned. And although these elections are fictitious, but not to such an extent as it was, say, in Nazi Germany.

Let's go back to Snyder's article. He sees the not-so-thought-out, to put it mildly, decision made by the Russian leader in February as evidence of his adherence to fascist notions of "the priority of will over reason." In my opinion, things were easier. We remember that the Crimean operation sharply raised the level of Putin's approval and in many ways restored the positions of power that had been seriously undermined after the events of 2011. In addition, Western sanctions after the Crimea were completely toothless and could not serve as a cause of discontent within the country.

If this were reinforced by economic success and the rise in the well-being of the masses, then there would be no need to talk about a repetition of mass unrest on the eve of the critically important elections for Putin in 2024. But it turned out differently, and it was decided to simply repeat the trick. It is quite obvious that the February operation was conceived as a large-scale repetition of the Crimea, as an almost bloodless blitzkrieg. The fact that a completely different scenario was realized was the product of a misunderstanding of the military prospects and poor-quality strategic planning, due to an inadequate understanding of the internal political situation in Ukraine.

The February operation was conceived as a repetition of the Crimea, an almost bloodless blitzkrieg

I am ready to admit that the development of the situation may lead to the replacement of the current regime by another one, and it may turn out to be different only in structural terms, while Putin or one of his closest allies will still remain in power. However, one should still judge the Russian government not by what it can become, but by what it is. The nature of the Russian regime was already determined in the mid-2000s. Around the middle of the last decade, it achieved consolidation in its current form. It is a regime of personal power (personalist dictatorship) with the structural characteristics of electoral authoritarianism. To explain current processes, such a definition is sufficient for the time being, and when it becomes obsolete, the time will come for a different terminology. Albeit not with too high a degree of probability, but fascism is not excluded as an option. However, do not get ahead of yourself. Birds are known to have evolved from dinosaurs, but it is unlikely that we will understand dinosaurs better if we consider them as birds.

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