Another round of toughening Russia’s political regime produced a new wave of comparisons of Putin's dictatorship with the Nazi and fascist regimes of the 20th century. Doctor of political sciences Grigory Golosov explains how Putin's personalist dictatorship, lacking mass support, ideology and a powerful party structure, is fundamentally different from classical fascism.
The discussion about the «Russian fascism,» prompted by Timothy Snyder's article in The New York Times, «We Should Say It: Russia Is Fascist,» has little to do with the statement of the famous historian himself. The statement was made in a purely American domestic political context. In my view, Snyder was trying to offer his countrymen - and above all the establishment - a view of contemporary Russia that would justify a hard line against the Russian authorities. But a much stronger argument, it seems, would be that a nuclear-armed 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 to the United States (as well as the rest of the world). This is quite enough to justify both the sanctions policy and the provision of military assistance to Ukraine.
Indeed, U.S. policymakers have so far not been very receptive to Snyder's assessments. Perhaps the Joe Biden administration does not rule out the possibility of settling relations with the current Russian authorities (which the U.S., as Biden has repeatedly emphasized, is not seeking to remove) after the active phase of hostilities in Ukraine is over. In a broader sense, Snyder's position is at odds with the U.S. administration's general policy of opposing autocratic tendencies in the world today, not just in Russia. After all, while the Russian autocracy stands out from other authoritarian regimes as uniquely corrupt and fascist (or, as conservative author Lee Edwards has suggested, Marxist-Leninist), other autocracies can be treated much more mildly. Strictly speaking, this is exactly what the U.S. does in practice, but it is unlikely that the Biden administration is interested in giving such «realpolitik» an ideological justification.
As Biden has repeatedly emphasized, the U.S. is not seeking to overthrow Russia's current government
The wide response to Snyder's article in the Russian independent media (there is a reservation here: those media outlets are largely based abroad) and on social media was due to the fact that it offered a simple and apparently psychologically comforting way to conceptualize the feelings of frustration and bewilderment that, after February 24th, overwhelmed a significant part of Russian citizens, who had previously held a critical view of the authorities' policies. The historical memory in our country is such that the word «fascism» (as well as the word «Nazism,» often used synonymously) evokes extremely negative associations. It 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 was spoken, it was inevitable that there would be attempts to rationally, from a scientific standpoint, comprehend the characterization of the Russian regime as fascist. A detailed overview of the discussion can be found in an article by Yaroslav Shimov. A whole collection of concise opinions by Russian authors well known in the oppositional milieu is also available online. I too have already commented on the topic. Almost all of the participants of the discussion, in more or less categorical form rejected Snyder's characterization of the Russian regime, although some acknowledged its significant potential for evolution in this particular direction. There is no need to recount all the arguments expressed by various authors: the texts are widely available. But it makes sense to dwell on one line of reasoning because it seems to lead us closest to the goal that makes such debates worthwhile: a better understanding of the nature of contemporary Russian power.
Lack of political mobilization
This line of argument, if presented it in an extremely compact form, boils down to the fact that fascist regimes are mobilizing regimes, while the Russian regime has no such characteristic. The notion of political mobilization is complex and usually comprises several elements, which 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 chief of state is considered to be the main exponent of the ideology. The ideology is imposed on all of society through the repressive suppression of dissent and total control of the media. But these three elements, each of which a discerning eye can detect in today's Russia, are not enough. The key feature of fascism is that the mass consciousness is indeed completely imbued with ideology, and it allows the regime not only to keep the population subjugated, but also to generate active support and to create a deep ideological connection between the authorities and the masses.
In fact, it is precisely this element that is missing in today's Russia, according to some of the discussants. I have no doubts about the factual validity of this opinion, but it is by no means obvious. At this point, the discussion of «fascist Russia» directly connects to 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 government in general and for its foreign policy in particular. 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).
Let me briefly note that autocracies, even those of them which are detached from the masses the most, far from being fascist in character, are usually able to achieve mass support recorded by surveys. They achieve this mainly by depriving the population of information about possible alternatives. Of course, in an international conflict described by the publicly available media outlets as a just war and even a liberation war, the usual «rally-around-the-flag» effect is superimposed on such deprivation. The distance between such support and genuine political mobilization is enormous.
I should note, however, that this line of reasoning, which broadly traces back to Hannah Arendt and some other authors of the Frankfurt School, does not seem sufficient to me as a whole. Political regimes are distinguished not by ideological but by structural characteristics. Consequently, the presence or absence of political mobilization, which is indeed inherent in fascist regimes, should not be determined based on the ideological preferences of the masses, but rather on those organizational mechanisms, which, in fact, serve as the channels of their political activity.
Absence of mass movements and close ties between leader and party
From this point of view, it is even surprising that, having devoted so much attention to ideology, the discussion of «fascist Russia» has completely ignored such a generally recognized element of past fascist regimes as corporatism, which was one of the basic elements of self-identification for historical fascism, Italian fascism. We are not talking about mechanisms for shaping economic policy, but about the role played by the mass organizations created by the regime as channels for active inclusion of certain segments of society - youth, workers, women, small entrepreneurs - in political activity. Such organizations existed in Italy, but German Nazism, which differed from Italian Nazism by its consistency, honed them to near perfection.
In Fascist Italy, the mass organizations created by the regime played an important role
In contemporary Russia such channels of political mobilization are completely absent. There is constant talk of creating them. There is much talk today of the Bolshaya Peremena children's movement and there was much clamor a while ago about the Nashi movement and the Young Guard of United Russia and so on, but usually no further action is taken except talk and large-scale appropriation of budgetary funds. There is no mass political mobilization in Russia simply because there are no organizational resources for it. Rallies that are held with considerable, but sporadic effort and at considerable cost do not count: political mobilization cannot be carried out using purely administrative methods. It would require a real, grassroots, organized political activism.
This brings us to the main structural characteristic that distinguishes the Russian regime from Fascism in its classical Italian and German manifestations. Like the current Russian regime, previous fascist regimes were regimes of personal power. The inviolable position of the leaders at the head of those states was institutionalized, the most consistent expression whereof was the «Führer-Principle» in Germany. But - and this is the difference - this very formalization of personal power was justified by close ideological and organizational ties between the leaders and their parties, the NSDAP in Germany and the National Fascist Party in Italy. Both those parties themselves and the mass movements under their direct leadership served as the channels for the political mobilization of the masses. Simply put, fascist regimes were personalist dictatorships institutionalized as party regimes.
The category of party regimes is quite broad. In addition to historical cases of fascism, it includes communist regimes, so that these two varieties are sometimes lumped together under the general heading of «totalitarianism.” However, not all party autocracies fall under this descriptive, rather than analytically useful, term. In developing countries, especially in Africa, party regimes were predominant at some point (in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s). Many of those regimes were imitative, serving as a screen for primitive personal dictatorships - for example, in Guinea, where by the end of the regime the entire population was simply enrolled in the party. But not necessarily: for example, Robert Mugabe's rule in Zimbabwe was indeed based on the party and its mass organizations. On the other hand, party regimes are not always regimes of personal power. The longest-lasting non-communist party dictatorship was the regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico, in which the personal component was virtually non-existent. Almost the same can be said of the current communist regime in Vietnam.
In Guinea, near the end of the regime, the entire population was enrolled in the Party
The fact that Vladimir Putin's power in Russia is inherently personal is quite obvious and is becoming more and more evident every day. It is equally obvious that the regime can only be considered a party regime with an enormous stretch. The United Russia party exists primarily as a faction in the State Duma and other representative bodies, and also as a mechanism for forming those factions, since it structures voting in elections. United Russia does not have its own political weight. I think that if Putin were to order its dismissal tomorrow, almost no one would notice, except for a few dozen functionaries from its central apparatus. And it would be easy for them to find other jobs. In the regions, where United Russia functions simply as an administrative subdivision, the consequences would be even less perceptible.
If Putin were to disband United Russia tomorrow, almost no one would notice
Not party ideology, but personalist dictatorship
Today's regime in Russia is not institutionalized in a party form, but in an electoral form. Like other electoral authoritarian regimes, it regards elections as its main source of power, not a party with the one true ideology (United Russia has none at all) and a system of mass political participation (which also does not exist). Those elections, as they should be in an authoritarian system, are designed so that neither Putin nor United Russia can lose them. That is why if we compare them to democratic electoral processes, we should note that those elections are fictitious, imitative.
The elections, as they should be under authoritarianism, are organized in such a way that neither Putin nor United Russia can lose them
But from the viewpoint of the internal dynamics of the regime, elections are an indispensable tool, because only in this way can the right of the current leader to power be justified and other possible contenders within the system neutralized. They also perform a number of other useful functions for autocracies, but this is the main one. This explains why, although elections are fraught with certain risks for electoral authoritarian regimes and open windows of opportunity for the opposition (sometimes quite intricate ones, like «smart voting»), they cannot be abolished. Those elections are fictitious, but not to the extent that they were, say, in Nazi Germany.
Back to Snyder's article. He sees the ill-conceived, to put it mildly, decision made by the Russian leader in February as evidence of his adherence to the fascist notion of the «priority of the will over the intellect.” In my opinion, it was simpler than that. We remember that the Crimean operation dramatically raised Putin's approval level and largely restored the positions of the authorities seriously undermined after the events of 2011. In addition, the Western sanctions after Crimea were completely toothless and could not have caused discontent inside the country.
If that had been reinforced by the economic successes and the rise of the welfare of the masses, there would have been no reason to expect a new wave of mass unrest in the run-up to Putin's crucial election of 2024. But that is not how it turned out, and it was decided to simply repeat the trick. It is fairly obvious that the February operation was conceived as a large-scale repetition of Crimea, an almost bloodless blitzkrieg. The fact that the events followed a completely different scenario was the product of a misunderstanding of military prospects and low-quality strategic planning due to an inadequate understanding of the internal political situation in Ukraine.
The February operation was conceived as a repetition of Crimea, an almost bloodless blitzkrieg
I am willing to assume that the development of the situation may lead to the replacement of the current regime by another, and it may differ from the current one only in structural terms, and Putin or one of his closest allies will still remain in power. However, one should judge the Russian power not by what it may become, but by what it is. The nature of the Russian regime was already defined in the mid-2000s. It reached consolidation in its present form around the middle of the last decade. It is a regime of personal power (a personalist dictatorship) with the structural characteristics of electoral authoritarianism. For the time being this definition is sufficient to explain the current processes, and when it becomes obsolete, time will come for a different terminology. Evolution to fascism is possible, albeit not very probable. However, we should not get ahead of ourselves. Birds are known to have evolved from dinosaurs, but we are unlikely to understand dinosaurs better if we view them as birds.