When the heavy-hanging chains fall and the smoke clears, an opportunity will present itself to approach the unfolding catastrophe from a historical perspective in a level-headed, scholarly manner. At that point, the portrayal of the current Russian political regime (which needs no introduction) will give way to the quest for an answer to the question: how did it come to be? How did the letter “Z” become its emblem – and a fitting one at that? Providing an answer will require a retrospect to a rather distant past. We would need to recall both Bolshevism and Russian fascism.
The latter emerged simultaneously with Bolshevism or even preceded it. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a fabricated document traced back to Black-Hundredist and secret police sources saw the light of day as early as the 1890s. Decades later, ultra-right, anti-Semitic Russian emigrants delivered it into the hands of Hitler through Alfred Rosenberg, and the former was captivated.
Moreover, speeches and essays by Vladimir Purishkevich, head of the Union of the Archangel Michael, or Nikolai Markov, leader of the Union of the Russian People, could be a welcome addition to Völkischer Beobachter <The Insider’s note: a German newspaper acquired by the Nazi Party in 1920> – a treat for the reader with a warm introduction by Dr. Goebbels.
Anti-Semitism had no place among early Bolsheviks. However, while being its most conspicuous and outrageous feature, anti-Semitism was also not the sole characteristic of German Nazism – and even less so of Italian fascism, which was more indifferent to the Jewish problem. Here is what Benito Mussolini, the ‘father of fascism’, said to his communist peers in the Italian parliament in 1921:
“Between us and the communists, there are no political affinities but there are intellectual affinities. We, like you, consider necessary a centralized and unitary state which imposes iron discipline on all individuals, with this difference that you arrive at this conclusion via the concept of class, and we arrive there via the concept of nation.”
Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler
Georgy Fedotov, an outstanding Russian philosopher in emigration, wrote in the late 1930s:
“Bolshevism is a culture of totalitarian malice. Russia is the most consistently fascist country. It is worth remembering that Lenin was the one who invented this form of the state, for it to be later borrowed by Hitler and Mussolini. And that the social essence of Muscovite fascism is no different from its German variety.”
Russian philosopher and intellectual powerhouse Nikolai Berdyaev echoes him:
“Stalinism, or, in other words, communism in the process of building, is evolving into a Russian fascism of sorts. It features all characteristics of fascism: a totalitarian regime, state capitalism, nationalism, a cult of the leader, and, as its basis, militarized youth.”
Stalinism is evolving into a Russian fascism of sorts
Notably, these observations were made before World War II – at a time when Hitler’s gas chambers were yet to appear and the authors had very limited knowledge of the scope of Stalin’s repressions. Meanwhile, it is the unprecedented scale of state terror that puts the two regimes on an equal footing, even though its targets were somewhat different. The similarity between them is apparent.
It was no coincidence that Foreign Minister Ribbentrop wrote, after attending a party in Moscow to celebrate the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact, that being in the company of Soviet leaders felt like being around his old-time fellow party members. His instincts were spot-on: the two elites shared a rigid caste structure, partisan sectarianism, and obsession with rank.
A banquet in Moscow following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. 1939
Admittedly, there were a few stylistic differences. The mass propaganda of Nazi Germany was outspokenly, unabashedly cannibalistic. By contrast, Soviet propaganda was more duplicitous, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pointed out, hiding its true nature behind lofty slogans about equality and fairness.
Another difference had to do with foreign policy. Hitler’s regime was more go-getting and reckless, with a tendency for all-or-nothing bets. Stalin's was more cautious and unhurried – quite likely because of a false premonition of its inevitable victory in the long term.
These stylistic nuances, however minor, still present interest. It’s also worth mentioning that post-war Stalinism picked up the torch of state anti-Semitism from its defeated adversary. Soviet trials of the late 1940s – early 1950s had a strong anti-Semitic flavor, which kept intensifying until Joseph Stalin's death. The USSR retained visible, albeit less glaring, signs of state anti-Semitism until its very dissolution.
Bolshevism, our home-grown variety of totalitarianism, is a severe hereditary disease, exacerbated by the lack of treatment and reluctance to undergo rehabilitation.
Admittedly, anti-Semitism is not an issue today. However, all of the remaining characteristics listed by Nikolai Berdyaev are present, with the addition of monopolistic, all-permeating propaganda and repressions, which are gradually becoming less targeted and moderate and are more similar to the trials of the 1930s-1950s in court rulings and the sentences passed.
And now there’s also war. Technically, Russia is at war with Ukraine; ideologically, with the West. The sentiment of hatred for the West and total, civilizational and cultural, opposition to it deserves a separate conversation. It was characteristic of both Hitler’s Nazism, which viewed the West as a stronghold of the darkest Jewish evil, and Bolshevism, which perceived the West as a class enemy, a capitalistic society doomed for eventual defeat. Both regimes had the ambition of transforming the world in their own image and likeness. Both were messianic and predatory. Both banked on territorial expansion.
Besides, Bolshevism did not pioneer this approach, which is well-rooted in Russian history. Russian Orthodox messianism dates back to the reign of Ivan III (15th century), becomes firmly entrenched under Ivan the Terrible's rule (16th century), and evolves into an elaborate ideology consistent with Sergey Uvarov’s formula «Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” during Nicholas I’s reign (1825–1855). Finally, there was Alexander III, the reactionary emperor who is now in high regard. These were the apostles of Russian anti-Westernism.
Why has the current Russian regime chosen to favor this particular element of the nation's history? Anti-Westernism is based on the primacy of the state over the individual, an irremovable, unaccountable government, and the fusion of power and property. As a bonus, the population gets to be irresponsible and comfortably negligent of the law, which is either ignored or applied selectively. In a nutshell, this sums up the social contract: we approve of whatever it is you do, but we take no responsibility.
Anti-Westernism is based on the primacy of the state over the individual and an irremovable, unaccountable government
For a fuller picture, another common trait of serfdom-era Russia and the 1930s’ Bolsheviks and Nazis was a consistent crackdown on intellectuals and the promotion of a simplified worldview. As Russian historian Sergey Solovyov wrote about Nicholas I's reign, enlightenment became a crime against the government. Similarly, high-ranking Communist Party official Sergey Trapeznikov said in the early 1960s that every thought is ultimately anti-Soviet in nature. One would struggle to prove him wrong: totalitarian leaders do tend to instill primitive ideas that incite primeval sentiments that work on the subconscious level. One such sentiment is the motive of revenge.
The horrible, crucial role revanchism played in the NSDAP’s ascent to power in Germany is widely known. Back in the day, a thirst for revenge stemmed from the nation's defeat in the First World War – started by none other but Germany itself.
The event looming over Russia’s most recent history is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although it collapsed on its own, its dissolution provided fertile ground for many things. One such thing was the desire to exact revenge on the West – revenge in its most elemental, archaic, and vivid form: war.
However, when a totalitarian state where institutes and the Constitution are purely ornamental and where free speech and independent press are outlawed launches a special military operation in a neighboring state, as its own population cheers enthusiastically, historical associations are hard-hitting and highly specific. All that is missing, from the aesthetic perspective, is an emblem. And it appears, in the natural course of events, only to elicit the exact same associations.
Its authors deserve some credit for their sense of style: the sharp, Gothic angles and the macho vibe fit the bill perfectly. The Z symbol alone provides sufficient grounds for a historical parallel. The last letter of the Latin alphabet, Z stands for finality – meaning the finality of choices. In this case, the choice of a solution to the Ukrainian problem.
The Z symbol combines sharp, Gothic angles and a macho vibe
Returning to the last century's brutal regimes, their most prominent feature was not the leaders’ bloodthirsty despotism but the gleeful mass obsession with militarism. Rapturous, euphoric support of violence against the enemy and their own kind, seeing rudeness as strength and empathy as weakness, and a blisteringly fast degradation and dehumanization of the masses: all of these are a social diagnosis and an omen of an impending catastrophe. We are the makers of our own history.