It seems a lot of Russia watchers are scratching their heads in wonder about St. Petersburg’s recent international fascist shindig. Their puzzled questions usually run along the lines of: “How is it that a nation which suffered so much at the hands of fascism became such a haven for right-wing extremists?” Or: “Why do they constantly scream about fascism in Ukraine when their government tolerates and encourages ties to open fascist parties in Europe?”
Sure, those questions are valid. Sadly, answering them, and particularly the former, is a massive task which could fill volumes. What is more, some people might not be too happy with the answers. As for the second question, the answer is similarly complicated, but manageable. The short answer is that people high up in the Russian government think that promoting these parties, who tend to be very anti-EU and anti-NATO, will somehow benefit Russia. The idea isn’t to turn EU nations into Russian allies, but rather to create enough dissent and discord within the union and NATO so as to weaken any attempt at collective action against Russia’s geopolitical goals. That’s just a fancy way of saying they want to keep Europe and the US divided so as to preserve what my friend at Russian Avos called their “rot,” a situation more like the mid-2000’s when Russia’s oligarchs squirreled their money away in London and bought real estate in the south of France, and all the while nobody investigated where it came from or raised much of a fuss about Russia’s human rights record. Russia’s leaders say that Russia just wants to be “left alone,” but in reality what they mean is they want to be left alone so they can continue stealing from their people and enjoying their luxurious lifestyle at their expense. That was the short answer.
Personally I think the reason most Russia-watchers are so floored by these contradictions is due to the fact that while they possess a great deal of knowledge about Russia and in some cases Eastern Europe, they know very little about fascism as a political ideology and the obscure history of Eastern Europe’s fascist movements. Thanks to concepts such as “totalitarianism” and the Snyder-esque revision of history, many people don’t understand where fascism came from, why it existed, what it might look like today, and how fascists got on in Europe back in the 30’s and 40’s. This is largely due to the need of liberal capitalist governments to conceal the link between capitalism and fascism by associating it instead with Communism, but that’s another article entirely. As someone with tons of background knowledge in obscure right-wing movements of the past and present, I figure the least I can do is help some of my fellow Russia-watchers understand some of these contradictions they see when it comes to Russia and fascism.
Meet Engelbert Dollfuss, the dictator with the least intimidating name ever.
Dollfuss was the right-wing dictator of interwar Austria, prior to its annexation by Germany. He was the representative of what some called Austrofascism, which some people might confuse with Australofascism. Being the dictator of his own country, he wasn’t too keen on giving it up to his northern neighbor, Adolf Hitler. Thus he banned the Austrian Nazi party.
Wait? What? A fascist banned a Nazi party? Oh yes, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dollfuss got a guarantee of independence from fascist Italy. Yes, that’s right, fascist Italy was guaranteeing fascist Austria’s independence from Nazi Germany. Italy still had bad blood between them and the Austrians, but Mussolini and his crew understood that it was better to deal with a small, independent Austria instead of a huge Greater German Reich on its borders.
Nazis being Nazis, Austria’s Hitler fans weren’t too happy about their party being banned. In July of 1934, a group of pro-Nazi agents made their discontent known by shooting Dollfuss and attempting to start a coup. The coup failed, but Dollfuss was dead nonetheless. One factor contributing to the government’s ability to avert the coup was the personal support of Mussolini. The Italian dictator openly blamed Germany for the assassination, and part of the Italian army was mobilized and deployed along the border in case of a German invasion of Austria. Only later did Italy begin to align with Germany via measures such as the Anti-Comintern pact.
Of course this is hardly the only example of inter-fascist rivalry. For example, three of Germany’s allies were Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. Hungary had a beef with both of those countries. This came to a head in August of 1944 when Prince Michael of Romania overthrew its pro-Axis government. The pro-allied Romanian army then went into action against the Hungarians to reconquer that part of Transylvania which had been awarded to that country in 1940.
What we learn from this is that close cooperation between radical nationalists from different countries is prone to break down due to irreconcilable contradictions. As radically different as the United States, British Empire, and Soviet Union were from each other, they were able to find common cause and compromise. Fascists cannot deal with ambiguity and compromise. The hero of one fascist country or organization is another’s villain. When they ally, it’s usually a matter of political convenience, but it always breaks down due to the compounding contradictions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Russia and its right-wing fans today. Ideologically, the European and American right-wingers ought to side with Ukraine’s fascists, i.e. Praviy Sektor and the Svoboda party. These are hardcore anti-Communists who smash Lenin statues and burn Soviet flags. They promote “Christian values” and European supremacy. They often contrast “European” Ukraine with “Asiatic” Russia, as the latter is a multi-ethnic country with a large indigenous Muslim population combined with immigrants from Central Asia. Almost without exception, European right-wing organizations and parties are unequivocally anti-Muslim. For them, controversies over cartoon mockery of the prophet Mohammed and the Charlie Hebdo massacre are rallying points. By contrast, Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor issued a blanket warning against publishing any caricatures of Mohammed after the massacre, reminding all media outlets that this was a violation of Russian laws against “extremism” and that publications had been sanctioned in the past for such offenses. Shortly thereafter, Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov had a massive rally in defense of Mohammed in Grozny, at the expense of the state. To date, no Russian leader or major government figure has put forth any strong statement in defense of free speech when it comes to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
For many European nationalists, Russia’s cult of the Second World War is an anathema. How can a “patriotic” Hungarian with heroes like Ferenc Szálasi ever acquiesce to friendship with a nation that glorifies the destruction of the fascist Hungarian state, and whose leader lays a wreath at the memorial of Soviet soldiers who died in suppressing the Hungarian uprising of 1956? How can they claim to be defending Europe from Muslim hordes, when their “ally” Russia relies heavily on Chechen and other Caucasian Muslim forces to conquer territory in Ukraine? Everything dictates that they ought to be on the side of Ukraine’s true Bandera fans, yet they aren’t.
The answer lies in a combination of the Ukrainian nationalist historical narrative and their alignment. Ukraine’s nationalists decided to align themselves with the pro-EU Euromaidan movement, seeing the EU as being the polar opposite of Russia and its proposed Customs and Eurasian Unions. In this sense, the nationalists’ thinking was identical to that of pretty much everyone else in Eastern Europe: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Who needs critical thinking?” Of course not only was Euromaidan pro-EU, but the EU and US were both pro-Euromaidan. Most European and American far-rightists see their countries as under occupation by corrupt governments doing the bidding of mysterious cabals of conspirators. Therefore whatever their government and “mainstream” media appears to be supporting should be opposed from their point of view. This is what leads them to listen to Russia’s propaganda in the first place. They have been duped into believing that Russia is preserving those views and ideals which they believe their own countries have forgotten. As such, victory for the EU and US in Ukraine had to be opposed at all costs, no matter how many Lenin statues got toppled.
One can see a similar parallel situation on the lazy left. Many leftists looked at what side the US was supporting, and then without having any background knowledge about Ukraine or Russia, they spun a tale about how Yanukovych was overthrown because he stood up to NATO, the EU, the IMF, neo-liberal privatization schemes, and yes, even Monsanto. Leftists in Ukraine who oppose Russia and its schemes were and still are totally ignored. To the far right, Yanukovych, like Russia, is standing up to the Zionists, the international bankers, and the liberals. Those nationalists who supported Euromaidan are either ignored, or they are written off as being useful dupes of the grand conspirators.
Of course ideology is only one factor driving the right’s flock toward Russia. The other side of the equation is material. Russia has money to sponsor think tanks, media outlets, and conferences like the one in St. Petersburg, which was by no means the first of its kind. Russia funds press junkets and even lets the neo-fascists pretend they are important by using them as “election observers” in the Crimea and Donbas. Ukraine’s nationalists, while certainly well-funded and organized compared to other groups, simply do not have this capability. At best, Ukrainian nationalists could probably count on support from far-rightists in the Baltic countries, Croatia, possibly Romania and Poland. This list is based on historical hatreds and/or current disputes with Russia. The love affair between Hungary’s fascists and the Russian government tells us we can no longer rely on historical rivalries, however. All in all, what we see in Ukraine is a situation where European and American neo-fascists chose to bet on the bigger dog, i.e. Russia, even if doing so means holding their nose and ignoring some inconvenient facts about their new ally.
At first glance, this might seem like a grim outlook, as it posits the idea that fascists from around the developed world are putting aside their differences and teaming up with Russia. While I won’t say there is no cause for alarm, there is a silver lining here. True, the far right is getting better at networking, but they also may be turning to Russia out of desperation as well. What is more, their propaganda and that of the Russian state are not compatible. Russia’s domestic propaganda organs cannot lash out at Muslims thanks to the state’s subservience to Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny. At the same time, European nationalists cannot embrace Muslims in their own countries; this would be surrender.
Far more importantly, Russia’s image as a bastion of traditional values and hope for the West is nothing but a sham. In fact it’s a laughable sham. Much of Russia exists in near-third world if not actual third world conditions. It’s very hard for a believer in European supremacy to look at Russian society and decide that this is not only European, but actually the embodiment of “true,” unspoiled European values. Indeed the more one gets to know Russia, the more such fantasies fade.
Now this of course doesn’t necessarily mean that nationalist parties will abandon Russia, per se. Years of study and experience have taught me that virtually all far-right organizations are run by con men at worst, and highly dishonest individuals at best. They will work with Russia because it’s convenient, and they get to feel big and important. But over time they will get infected by Russia’s cynicism disease. Their idealistic young followers will become disillusioned as their leaders “sell-out” to that corrupt, “Asiatic” nation. Those that are not disillusioned and see the error of their ways will most likely become burnt out, essentially removing them from the board just the same.
It’s not that people shouldn’t be concerned with Russia’s fascist internationale; we certainly should do what we can to fight it. In fact much of that work means confronting our own governments and media for creating the conditions in which fascist ideas germinate. That being said, we don’t need to worry about Russia welding these disparate groups together into some kind of new Axis that will cover the world in darkness for ages to come. The nationalists have drunk from Russia’s chalice, not realizing that it is tainted with the very same poison that is killing Russia. However morally wrong they may be, fascists and their fellow travelers on the far right are people who deeply want to believe in something. Now they are in a marriage with the government that believes in nothing. It won’t last.