Putinism as fascism, by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Kyiv, Mohyla Academy, The 16 of May 2017)


This is below the text of the public lecture delivered by Bernard-Henri Lévy to the Mohyla Academy fo Kyiv, the 16 of May 2014.

“Leon Wieseltier, friends, I chose to entitle this address “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Putin,” in allusion, of course, to Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 masterpiece, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” wherein Arturo is both Adolf Hitler and a petty gangster who controls the Chicago cauliflower racket. He is as ridiculous as he is terrifying, as terrifying as he is ridiculous. My intention, in other words, is to paint a portrait of Vladimir Putin. To do this, I intend, via Brecht, to assume the reductio ad hitlerum (forgive the Latinism, but Constantin Sigov was reminding me just now that Latin was spoken at this university until quite recently, so let’s go for the reductio!) against the use of which Leo Strauss sternly warned us, as you are aware, though in recent months individuals as varied as Gary Kasparov, Karel Schwartzenberg (the former foreign minister of the Czech Republic), and Hillary Clinton have used it—rightly, in my view.

I understand the danger, of course. I would be the first to say that Nazism was a singular, unique phenomenon with neither precedent nor sequel and that there is always a risk in “reducing” this or that to it. Still, being careful to make appropriate distinctions, being careful not to mix everything up and to keep in mind what was absolutely unique about Hitlerism, the fact remains that there are not a huge number of political models available to us whereas there are, between the personalities of Putin and Hitler, and between their strategies, real commonalities about which it would be absurd not to speak.

The Arturo angle is obvious enough. Hitler was a gangster—Brecht settled that question. But Putin no less so! And this is easily demonstrated. Take the case of Anna Politkovskaya and her five colleagues from the Novaya Gazeta, the only real opposition newspaper in Russia. All were assassinated under murky circumstances. Take the case of Sergei Magnitski, the courageous lawyer who made it his mission to denounce the corruption of the system that was emerging when Putin was premier and who was arrested, thrown in prison, and tortured to death in 2009 right in Moscow—truly tortured to death, tortured until he died, tortured because it was the only way of cramming down his throat the secrets that he was uncovering. Take the oligarchs who were eliminated one by one, some exiled, some assassinated by polonium or other means, the night of the long knives, a night pregnant and long indeed, spread out over years: the Guzinskis, Berezovskis, and Khodorkovskis. All that reeks of gangsterism—it’s Arturo Ui to a T! Take Pavel Yurov the artist who has not been heard from for some time, who has probably been kidnapped or is being held incommunicado and whose name appears on the little signs being held up in the back of the room here by the students from the university. Take Yanyukovych, the former president of Ukraine who fled the country and who had a mafia-like background, who governed by mafia methods, and who took off as mafiosi do when they’re unmasked. Or take the way in which thugs, faces masked, carrying no identification, slip into the cities of eastern Ukraine to bash heads, push people around, sow terror, and, they hope, prevent people from voting. Is that not, in every case, pure hooliganism? Are we not closer here to gangland Chicago and its base ways than to the accepted methods of ordinary politics and normal international relations? Even this idea of a “civil war” in Ukraine, I don’t buy it: The cauliflower gang is not civil war!  Vote killers lurking like executioners around polling stations have nothing to do with civil war! And, this time, we don’t need Brecht or anybody else to point it out to us; the evidence is obvious. Putin’s methodical gangsterism assaults the eyes and ears of anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. That’s the first part of my argument, the first and simplest piece of the puzzle.

I turn now to the foreign strategy implemented by the former KGB man turned head of state, for whom Ukraine is today the stage of choice, unfortunately for Ukraine. In fact, the current sequence began in Georgia in 2008, before the Ukraine crisis, with the occupation of South Ossetia on the grounds that an alleged offensive by Saakashvili’s army was threatening the people of the province. This was followed by Crimea with the same type of argument, slightly refined—or, what amounts to the same thing, grossly inflated—since this time the Russian intervention was supposedly to prevent a “massacre,” if not a “genocide,” orchestrated by the “junta in Kiev.”  And now you have the cities in the east of the country where Putin is claiming, once again, to be rescuing Russian-speaking minorities imperiled by the terrible fascist assassins  in power in the Maidan. Let’s overlook for the moment that the threat in Ossetia was entirely imaginary. Let’s not dwell on the scandal of comparing what Putin and his henchmen did in Crimea with what the West did in Kosovo: The Kosovars were in fact the victims of ethnic cleansing. Among the “Albanian” Muslims of Kosovo there were daily deaths. To my knowledge the government of Mr Yatsenyuk, the democratic caretaker government in place since the ignominious departure of Yanyukovych, has never threatened anyone. What I find interesting is that this chain of events readily suggests another—that extending from the remilitarization of the Rhineland to the Anschluss, followed by the Sudetenland and the annexation of Klaipėda in western Lithuania. There is the rationale of the menace supposedly faced by the German-speaking population then, and of the Russian speakers now. The same twisting, back then of the right of a people to decide its own fate, and today of the right to protect civilians, of the duty and responsibility to protect. Pretty soon Putin (who has no shame) will be lecturing us about the right and the duty to intervene! We have the same phony referendums legitimizing the coup that gave Arturo Putin the same North Korean vote tallies as the 99 percent that Hitler awarded himself after the Anschluss. We have the same reflex, after each of these armed coups, of putting hand to heart and swearing, “OK, that’s it; that was the last one; the last of the last, so to speak; I’m sated; I’m appeased; I don’t want Ukraine; I don’t want anything else; all I want from now on is peace and more peace, now and forever.” And the same tendency of the West to buy the story with a hasty credulity that is either comic or terrifying—you choose. Remember Chamberlain’s “Hitler is a gentleman”? Well, that phrase is spookily echoed in the unintentionally hilarious comment by Steinmaier, Merkel’s minister of foreign affairs, who said, with a straight face, right in the middle of the Crimea crisis, while Putin was advancing his pawns icily, insolently, and violently (which says a lot about the impunity he thinks he enjoys): “Let’s not allow Putin to become an adversary.” He really said that: to become our adversary. The man who staged the coup in Crimea, followed by Donetsk and Odessa, is not yet our adversary but there is a risk that he become one. People always say that Putin is an avid chess player. In fact, this business about his being a good chess player is perhaps the first cliché people trot out when his name comes up. I have even heard self-appointed experts who obviously know nothing about chess or Putin drone on about the talent with which he supposedly applies the principles of Alekhine’s defense, the strategy, well known to real chess players, in which a player sacrifices a piece to draw the other player onto his side of the board and, once his defenses are thinned out, to sneak up and mow him down. This particular cliché is an insult to the game of chess in general and to Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine in particular. I don’t know how familiar you are with Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine, but he was a giant. This man, who died around the time Brecht wrote Arturo Ui, was a sort of Vitaly Klitschko, a super champion, of chess. And chess lovers know the famous match that he won against another formidable player by the name of Leon Trotsky. So this insult to Alekhine, this habit of clouding the issue by comparing Putin the bad strategist to the great, legendary Alekhine, this silly fascination, can have just one goal: to disguise the disturbing analogy between the two triptychs: Rhineland-Anschluss-Sudetenland and Ossetia-Crimea-Donbass.

Let’s move on to ideology. Or, more precisely, to that collection of reflexes, poses, and attitudes that, in politicians, passes for ideology. Before coming here I was looking at the ludicrous images of the master of the Kremlin showing off his muscles, his torso, his virility, in every imaginable situation: the ripped Popeye at the controls of a firefighting tanker aircraft, shirtless on horseback, in the taiga, or flexing on a judo mat. Looking through these rather comical images, I couldn’t help thinking of photos of Mussolini in his heyday. I mused about Mussolini’s cult of strength elevated to the golden rule of international relations: “I do whatever I can do; I go as far as I can; as long as no one tells me to stop I am strength in motion, and I move forward.” I also listened again to the very, very strange statement at the very end of Putin’s televised interview of April 17, a state,emt that might have come from the lips of a Nazi kamikaze fighter or, today, from a jihadist: “Is death horrible? Not at all, it can be beautiful: to die for one’s friends, for one’s people, or for one’s country can be beautiful.” Yes! Death, beautiful! ¡Viva la muerte! Did it not occur to anyone that “rational” Putin, hypercalculating Putin, who is supposed to be emulating Alekhine, speaks like a messenger of political martyrdom and, I repeat, an heir to the fascist tradition? And what about the anti-gay laws passed last year in Russia, the meaning of which I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated. Because, basically, Putin doesn’t care that much about gays. What’s important to him and what he’s thinking about when he goes after the gays is the feminization and decadence of society, a process of which the gays are supposedly the agents. It is this crumbling of manly values, an erosion supposedly exemplified by the West and to which Russia could fall victim by process of contamination that he’s worried about, the abandonment of traditional values and of the principles embodied in the great religions, the rejection of “moral principles” and “traditional identity, whether national, cultural, religious, or sexual,” the placing “on an equal footing” of “large families” and “homoparental families,” of “faith in God” and “faith in Satan,” all of which he described in September 2013 in Valday, near Novgorod in northern Russia before a court of 250 pseudo-intellectuals who had come to discuss “how to strengthen the unity of society, the state, and the nation.” And that, too, was fascism in its purest form. Likewise the effort to root the rediscovered soul of the people in an imaginary saintliness, itself the product of soil, blood, and memory: That is the very definition of the German volkisch. Barely concealed is the old German question of what is volkisch and what is not. This is the old obsession of the soul of the Volk, a human and national community that had been corrupted, degenerated, and undermined by the dark, feminine forces in power. Putin does not say Volk. But he says holy Russia. He talks about the Russian soul, the hallmark of which is “the very highest moral distinction.” These are obviously the same thing. In the kindest possible terms, they are the great themes of a conservative revolution translated from German into Russian. Does that sound simplistic to you? Crude? Dumb? Maybe. But a policy does not have to be intelligent or elegant in order to work. And this one is working pretty well at the moment, despite its inelegance and stupidity—or maybe because of them.

I was wrong to use the word “reflexes.” Or more precisely I would be wrong not to go beyond those “reflexes” drawn from the Arturo Ui era. Because in fact there is a modern Putinist ideology—a real, structured one. It has not been fully articulated. Or, when it has been articulated, it has not always been recognized for what it is. But it exists. It inspires many of the Russian president’s advisers. And that ideology is Eurasianism. I will explain Eurasianism briefly. It was Timothy Snyder who drew our attention (or mine, anyway) to the concept of Eurasianism and to Professor Alexander Dugin, who inspired it. It all begin in 1993 with the creation of the National Bolshevik Party, which was founded, as I say, in 1993 [[1992, no?]] by a sinister character whom you know very well and whom we, too, know fairly well since a good French writer—Eduard Limonov—turned him into a character in a novel. Several years later, Professor Dugin, Limonov’s friend and ally, broke with him in colorful screeds in which he wrote that “the National Bolshevik Party must be dissolved because its leader is a vampire” and that the same party leader was spotted washing himself in “the blood of virgins,” which he had found to be the secret of eternal youth. In the early 2000s, Dugin refounded the National Bolshevik Party along the more serious lines that it still has today, which are based on two books that he later published in quick succession and that outline the party’s program. The first was entitled “The Fourth Political Theory: Russia and Political Ideas in the 20th Century,” which appeared in France in 2012. The second, which came out the following year, was called “Eurasia’s Call.” The thrust of both is to set against the geopolitical entity of the European Union a Eurasian geopolitical entity consisting of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine, perhaps supplemented by other lands one day. Do you remember Putin’s famous phrase about the end of the USSR being “the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century”? Well, Dugin is the answer to that. It is the solution to the catastrophe. It is the ideological map of retaliation against Europe and the United States for having caused the dissolution of the USSR. Putin was not always anti-Europe. At the outset, when he succeeded Yeltsin, he even favored a rapprochement with the European Union and NATO. Dugin has moved past that, and Putinism has evolved into Duginism. I believe that the ultimate goal of Putinism is to get even—that is, to destabilize and even to cause the dissolution of the European Union, which he holds largely responsible for the dissolution of the USSR. The first country threatened is Poland, followed by the Baltic states. But after them, make no mistake, it is the entire European project that is in the crosshairs of Dugin-Putinism, which posits Eurasianism against Europeanism. A few weeks ago I read something by Dugin in which he justified the coup in Crimea by mentioning, in passing, the “Walloon minority” that was supposedly in danger of “deportation” and “genocide” at the hands of the Flemish and demanding that Europe come to their rescue. Instead of the Walloons he could have cited the French Catalans, the Transylvanians of Romania, or Switzerland and its linguistic groups, all three of which no doubt have their apologists urging integration with France, Germany, or Italy. He could have cited—maybe he has, somewhere—any of the many minorities that straddle two or three European countries. The model exists. The scenario has been written. And the threat, scarcely veiled, has been made.

Am I exaggerating the importance of Duginism? I don’t believe so. I have examined the two books closely. And, I regret to say, they are not easily dismissed. Not at all. I even believe that they can be understood only if one reads them as a significant and robust contribution to the great debate that has framed intellectual discussion in the United States in recent years, which is the debate between Francis Fukuyama (“History has ended, nothing very decisive is going to happen from now on; the confrontations we’re observing are superficial phenomena, illusions, nothing capable of disrupting the basic consensus of market economies and democratic regimes”) and Samuel Huntington (“Wrong! History never ends! New events, real ones, appear before our eyes if we take the trouble to see them coming! And history is even in the process, right under our nose, with the appearance and growth of radical Islam, of taking a new and energetic departure.”) Professor Dugin falls in the juncture between the two. He believes that Fukuyama is mistaken and that history is an endless process. But he also thinks that Huntington is just as wrong when he identifies radical Islam as the new alternative to liberal capitalism. His idea is that there is another alternative, the true one, his own, which is the alternative he calls Eurasianism. Is this a third Rome? A third empire ? Or just a third or fourth “formula”? What is certain is that what we have here is a serious hypothesis about civilization that takes exception to liberal democracy and its pretension to extend over most of the inhabited world. In Dugin you have a reflection on languages that borrows from the great thinkers of the Prague Linguistic Circle. You have a meditation on the “first people,” who are supposedly the holy Russian people. You have a whole set of oppositions such as organicism versus democracy and naturalism versus liberalism that are very clearly drawn and that make up a real philosophical schema. That, then, is the foundation of Putinism. There is Putin’s nostalgia for Leninism, of course; his nostalgia for Stalinism. There is his famous grandfather Spiridon, his favorite grandfather, who was Lenin’s bodyguard and Stalin’s taster, for whom he has several times expressed his attachment. In other words, Putin is familiar with the Soviet Kool-Aid because his grandfather drank it and passed on his taste for it. Then there is his nostalgia for czarism. But wait! Not just any old czarism! Let me remind you that in his office, above his head, there hangs the portrait of one particular czar, Nicholas I, the one who massacred the Decembrists, an unscrupulous and abominable despot. Russia has had plenty of more palatable czars. There were czars who were more akin to Voltaire, Diderot, and the Enlightenment. But no, the czar that Putin has chosen, the one whose portrait hangs over his head, is the worst of them all, the most brutal, the most anti-intellectual. That is a fact. Anyway, all of that is to be found in Putinism. All of those nasty bits are floating in the Putinist stew. In addition to which, and above all, there is Dugin, Alexander Dugin, who gives it gives it all a structure, who provides the framework for all these seemingly miscellaneous references. Putinism is a form of Duginism and therefore a form of fascism—in a strict sense. In saying this I am not engaging in polemics. This is not a pat formula or a slogan. It is the history of ideas. In the cold, hard history of ideas, Putinism is Duginism and therefore fascism.

Of this there is one unmistakable sign. I read the two books by Dugin that I just cited not in Russian but in French. Now I am going to tell you something that may surprise you. To write the preface for the French edition of the first work, the more theoretical one, the one that contains in its entirety the Duginist (and thus Putinist) vision of the world, Dugin chose a man by the name of Alain Soral, with whom you are probably unfamiliar (happily for you) but who is well known in France as our current Nazi ideologue par excellence. The second book, which is the more interesting politically if the more anecdotal, is a book of interviews. Interviews with whom, you ask? Who was chosen to lob the ball to Dugin and make him look good? Another Frenchman named Alain de Benoist whose name, I imagine, doesn’t mean any more to you than Soral’s but who, for 30 years, has been one of the most outspoken ideologues of the extreme right in France. There you have it. The man who inspired Putin chose two French fascists to be his godfathers. What’s more he did not do it solely with France in mind, since Benoist is the interviewer for all language editions of the book. And if anyone is surprised by this, I would like to recommend that they take a good look at the current above-ground political scene, that they consider the major alliances and links between parties. The only major political figure in France who supports Putin and who misses no opportunity to express her admiration for him is none other than Marine Le Pen. The same is true in Hungary with the leaders of the neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic Jobbik and, to a lesser degree, the ultranationalist Viktor Orban. In Bulgaria, it is Ataka that sees itself as the face of Putinism. In France we even have a pro-Putin propaganda station, Pro Russia TV, whose editor in chief is a former regional leader of the National Front and whose technical facilities are provided by Agence2Presse, the station of the nativist movement. Conversely, when Putin was asked, in the television interview I cited earlier, what he thought of the unsavory characters who spend their time adjusting his crown, he said that he saw in their growing influence a “return to respect for values in the countries of Europe.” In other words, he returns the compliment and pays them tribute in his turn. And if you look at who were the 135 so-called observers, “from 23 countries” and “including international legal experts and human rights activists” whom Putin asked to monitor the referendum in Crimea, you find once again allies of the French National Front and the Austrian FPÖ; an adviser to Marine Le Pen on international matters; people from Jobbik; and others affiliated with a very dubious Belgian NGO called the European Observatory for Democracy and Elections, the president of which is a former French neo-Nazi. In short, a nebula of nativists, ultranationalists, and neo-fascists that chills the blood. There is a book by a former Pravda correspondent named Vladimir Bolshakov entitled Marine Le Pen: Why Russia Needs Her, which I highly recommend. It lays out in detail, in the French context, the story I’m telling you here. Bolshakov describes the “new guise” of fascism that, to echo Paul Berman, Vladimir Putin has assumed. There is a Putinist international, and it is a fascist international. When I think that scoundrels like Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, compare the Maidan to a brown revolution! The truth—and you know this better than I—is that it was Arturo Ui the Lesser, that is, Yanyukovych, who stoked the upswing of Svoboda. And it was he who said, at the height of the Maidan uprising, when he ordered the riot police to charge, that the Maidan was in the hands of the Jews and for that reason needed to be cleaned out.

At the same time, like Brecht, I believe that this rise is resistible. Not irresistible: resistible. I believe this for two reasons. The first is that Putin is weak. And the second is that the West is strong. Putin, weak? How so? Well, his demographics are on the decline. His economy is wobbly. For three months he has presidided over a flight of capital that has begun to worry even the observers most favorable to him. His armed forces are much less effective than western Dugin-Putinists would have us believe. You can’t rebuild an army overnight. You can’t cure with a snap of the fingers a disaster on the scale of sovietism. And, pitting experts against experts, most military experts estimate that no more than 17 percent of the Russian armed forces are presently at their full offensive capacity. That is not very impressive—certainly not enough to instill terror in NATO strategists. And certainly not enough to justify letting the supposedly irresistible and implacable chess master get his way once more. No, Putin really is weak. And he is weak in the way all fascists have always been. Do you recall the portrait of Himmler in Malaparte’s Kaput? Himmler is naked in the sauna. And Malaparte, observing him, suddenly understands something, seemingly a small thing but one that surprises and delights him: Himmler is afraid; Himmler is weak; Himmler is mean precisely because he’s weak and afraid! And so, all things considered, is Vladimir Putin. And Vladimir Putin, in the manner of all dictators who hide within them this basic weakness, like Napoleon and Hitler in Russia, like the Argentine generals in the Falklands, like so many others, will end up overplaying their hand and will fail. Wait and see. All right, so Putin is weak, but are we strong? Yes. Putin is weaker than he thinks he is, whereas we are much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Here is an example. Our arms contracts, particularly those relating to the two French Mistrals: Why not put them on hold? Why not use a weapon we have ready to hand, a strong one? Another example. The 2018 World Cup, on which, you can be sure of it, Putin places just as much importance as he did on the Sochi Olympics. If nothing changes in Ukraine and if Putin persists in his plan to integrate it into his fascist Eurasian superpower, will we, as we did in Sochi, go along with this masquerade? Why not float—right now!—the threat of a possible boycott? Still another. Our much-discussed energy dependence on Moscow. Here again, what if we were to combine our forces? “We” being European consumers of Russian gas. What if we were to group our supply contracts together, form a negotiating consortium, diversify our individual sources of supply, and, acting in unison, commence a joint diversification program that, even if it would not yield any practical effects for 10 years, would at least have the advantage of sending a clear signal to the new leader of the cauliflower gang—that is, to the blackmailer who is trying to hold us hostage? And still another. Mario Draghi. What if Mario Draghi were to rediscover a quarter, or even a tenth or less, of the imagination that he showed when he had to find €800 billion to rescue the European banking system? Saving the European banking system was a good thing. Unarguably, it was an absolute emergency. But no less incontestable is the need to help Ukraine break the chokehold of Dugin-Putinism and, in so doing, destabilize the plan to destabilize Europe, a plan of which the attack on Ukraine is just the first step. Helping Ukraine, they tell us, would cost €20–25 billion, a small fraction of the cost of saving our financial system. Do you really believe that doing this is beyond our capacity? Do you really believe that Europe lacks the means to stand up to Putin to defend the values of law, democracy, and freedom of which the Ukrainians are presently the sentinels? No. We have the means. We are as strong as Putin is weak. Reminding us of that fact is the central theme of this gathering, of this important conference. Thank you, Leon Wieseltier and Timothy Snyder, thank you Constantin Sigov, my friend, for having taken this initiative: It’s only a beginning—the fight goes on.”

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy

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