How can Putin carry out obviously fascist policies, such as a genocidal war of destruction in Ukraine, while claiming the mantle of anti-fascism? As we saw again today in his Victory Day speech, Putin identifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The past becomes a way for the aggressor to claim victimhood, as well as the right to commit any crime. How does that work?
In a number of writings since 24 February 2022 (and indeed since 24 February 2014, the date of the prior Russian invasion), I have tried to explain how Putin’s interpretation of the Soviet inheritance tends toward fascism, and thus how he justifies (at least to himself) invading Ukraine by reference to the the Second World War. Putin’s celebration of Russia’s ostensible innocence today provides the occasion for a summary of these arguments.
Soviet usage lacked a clear notion of what fascism is. In the 1930s, Stalinism went back and forth on whether or not fascism was a bad thing. As a result, fascism in Soviet usage never had any very clear content. This was especially apparent after 1939, when Soviet newspapers reprinted speeches by Nazi leaders. In 1939, Stalin sealed a de facto alliance with Hitler, which meant that fascism became praiseworthy in the official Soviet public sphere. This act of collaboration was the most important of the Second World War, since it allowed it to begin. (Speaking of any of this in Russia today is a criminal act.) In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and so fascism became the enemy of the Soviet Union. But what was chiefly wrong with fascism was the invasion itself. Fascism was never really defined. It was simply the creed of the outsider.
Another issue is the Soviet tradition of treating Russia as innocent and Ukrainians as guilty. Stalin, whose act of collaboration with Hitler was by far the most important of the war, claimed for himself the right to define collaboration. At the end of the Second World War, whole Soviet national minorities (such as the Crimean Tatars) were deported as collaborators, and Ukrainians were stigmatized. Stalin treated the Russians as the main victors. In fact, most of the territory of the Russian republic of the USSR was spared from war, and when they were occupied Russians were no less likely to collaborate with Nazis than anyone else. But Stalin and his then-favorite Zhdanov to present the Russians as the morally dominant nation. Other nations could be stigmatized as fascist when necessary.
For decades under Stalin and his successors, the word “fascism” was deployed outward, and very flexibly. After the Second World War, a “fascist” was someone who had invaded the Soviet Union; or, by extension, threatened the Soviet Union; or, in practice, did something that the Soviet leadership did not like. As time passed, this became ever more vague. In the cold war, the Americans and the British could be assimilated to wartime Germans as “fascists.” In time, so could Israelis. “Fascist” just meant “enemy.”
In the 1970s, Soviet suffering under German occupation became a political resource to legitimate the status quo. Under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, a generation or so after the end of the war, a cult was created around victory, with marches on 9 May. Brezhnev offered Soviet citizens nostalgia for the past rather than a vision of the future. The “fascist” became the generic enemy, without no fixed identity. Whoever challenges the Soviet legacy is the “fascist.”
Such Soviet nostalgia was ideology, in the negative sense meant by Marx when he used the word. Actual Marxists would have remembered that Soviet victory of 1945 depended upon American economic power, for example in the form of lend-lease aid to the USSR. But Soviet leaders preferred to forget that. It goes unmentioned today in Russian history textbooks, and practically no one in Russia talks about it. And this of course is a great difference between the Second World War and the current Russian invasion: US economic power in 1942-1945 was very much on the Soviet side, but it is today arrayed (if on a smaller scale) against one post-Soviet state (Russia) on behalf of another post-Soviet state (Ukraine). Russian ideology today focuses entirely on the will of Russians as the source of Soviet victory in 1945, rather than on such structural factors. National will is of course the central category of fascism.
This Soviet heritage is a starting point for current Russian leaders. Putin inherited certain ideas from the 1970s, when he was a young man: Russia is always the victor; the enemy was always the fascists; power is to be legitimated by a nostalgia about primacy and innocence. In power, Putin has appropriated these ideas for Russia and pushed them to the extreme. That it was the USSR (and not Russia) that won the war is forgotten. That Hitler’s chief war aim was the colonization of Ukraine is unsayable. That the war was fought largely for and in Ukraine goes unmentioned. That Ukrainian civilians suffered more than Russian civilians, or that Ukrainian soldiers fought alongside Russian ones, becomes unthinkable. This recalls another important difference between the Second World War and the current Russian invasion: Ukrainians and Russians are not on same side. Interestingly, in Ukraine itself the memory of the Second World War has not taken the same turn as in Russia. It remains a powerful touchstone of memory, but is not attached to a cult of a leader or a cult of the dead. In Ukrainian political thought today, the future is more important than the past.
Within the late Soviet cult of victory lay the potential for fascist interpretation. Although nostalgia for victory and worship of military power had their source in the Soviet Union, such ideas could very easily be steered to the extreme right, as they have been in Putin’s Russia. A notion of politics as military victory can be fascist (think of “Sieg Heil”); the belief that politics begins from choosing an enemy is certainly fascist (this follows the Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt and Putin’s fascist teacher Ivan Ilyin); a notion of a golden age of innocence to be restored by healing violence lies squarely in fascist traditions. In today’s Russia, 1945 has become such a moment. Blood must be shed in the name of a sort of time travel back to Stalinist Eden, when Russians were innocent and all was right with the world.
All of this means that Russian fascism will claim to be anti-fascist. Russia can be a fascist regime even if its leader speaks of opposing “fascism” or “Nazism.” Indeed, the deep self-absorption and grotesque contradiction of Putin’s position confirm that what we have before us is precisely Russian fascism. Fascists celebrate national willfulness and oppose logic. As Ilyin put it, “fascism is a redemptive excess of patriotic arbitrariness.” Arbitrariness is the essential element of Russia’s war. A fascist who calls someone else a “fascist” is no less of a fascist for doing so. He is more of a fascist. He is pursuing fascism’s priority of will over reason to its extreme.
The automatically self-exonerating character of the words “fascism” and “Nazism” enable aggressive war and crimes against humanity. Under Putin, the word “fascist” (or “Nazi”) just means “my chosen enemy, who is to be eliminated.” These terms in official Russian usage today are simply hate speech enabling war crimes. We know this from the speech acts of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, who legitimate the murder and rape of civilians by reference to “Nazis.” As the Kremlin has made clear, “denazification” means “deukrainization,” which is nothing other than the aspiration to genocide.
Russian propaganda about 1945 and 2022 is summarized in the popular slogan: “We can repeat!” But history, of course, does not repeat. And we cannot make it do so. The whole idea of repetition involves choosing a particular point in the past, idealizing it, ignoring all the context and everything that followed, and then imagining that it can be relived. Whoever performs this exercise eliminates any sense of responsibility: we were right back then, therefore we are right now, and we will always be right — no matter what we do. And so fascism’s “redemptive excess” of “patriotic arbitrariness” is attained.