New York-born author Dr. Alexander Motil is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark University. He is a specialist in Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR; on nationalism, revolutions, and empires.
His comment is from the science promotion platform The Conversation. When Vladimir Putin unleashed his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Ukrainian media, the public and politicians almost unanimously began calling the Russian president and the country he led a “racist.” The term is a hybrid derogatory nickname for Russia – “rasha” – and “fascist”.
The Ukrainians did it for two reasons. First, they opposed Putin’s absurd insistence that Ukrainian authorities – including Ukraine’s Jewish President Vladimir Zelensky – were Nazis and that Ukraine should be “denazified.” With the small number of right-wing extremists in Ukraine as influential as the Proud Boys in the United States, what Putin meant were Ukrainians with a clear Ukrainian identity. Thus, denazification meant de-Ukrainization.
Second, the Ukrainians thus drew attention to those characteristics of Putin’s Russia that show that it is fascist and therefore needs “denazification.” Putin’s Russia was aggressive, anti-democratic, and in love with Putin himself. Not surprisingly, the resemblance of his Russia to the regimes built by Mussolini and Hitler has not gone unnoticed by Russian and Western analysts over the past decade.
However, few politicians, scholars, and journalists listened to what they were being told, as the term fascism seemed to many too vague, too political, or too burdensome to serve as an accurate description of any repressive regime. I wrote about Putin’s Russia as a quasi- or proto-fascist state in the middle of the first decade of the century, and I know from personal experience that few took my claims seriously, often making tautological arguments that Putin built a “Putinist” system.
But as a political scientist who studies Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR empirically, theoretically, and conceptually, I believe that Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine suggests that it is right to reconsider the applicability of the term to Russia.
First, however, a brief overview of the classification schemes that social scientists like to use, and most people find incomprehensible.
Classifications are essential for good social science because they allow scientists to group political systems according to their common characteristics and to study what makes them function. Aristotle was one of the first to divide systems into those governed by one, by a few, and by many.
Modern scholars usually classify countries as democratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian, with each category having different subtypes.
Democracies have parliaments, the judiciary, parties, political competition, civil society, freedom of speech and assembly, and elections.
Authoritarian states are based on state bureaucracy, the military, and the secret police; they usually limit most of the characteristics of democracies; and are usually run by juntas, generals, or politicians who avoid the spotlight.
Totalitarian states abolish all the characteristics of democracy, empower their bureaucracies, military, and secret police to control the entire public and private space, impose comprehensive ideologies, and always have a supreme leader.
Fascist countries share all the features of authoritarianism and may share the features of totalitarianism, but with two key differences. Fascist leaders have a real charisma – this ephemeral quality that arouses popular admiration – and they promote that charisma and the image that goes with it in the cult of personality. People sincerely love fascist leaders, and leaders, in turn, present themselves as the embodiment of the state, the nation, and the people.
The fundamental definition of a fascist state is this: it is an authoritarian state ruled by a charismatic leader who enjoys a cult of personality.
Viewed in this light, Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, and the colonel’s Greece were indeed average authoritarian states. In contrast, Mussolini’s Italy and Xi Jinping’s China were fascist, as were Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. Thus, fascist states can be left and right.
Putin’s Russia also meets that definition. The political system is undeniably authoritarian – some would say totalitarian.
Putin has completely dismantled all of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions. Elections are neither free nor fair. United Russia, Putin’s party, always wins, and oppositionists are routinely harassed or killed.
The media is limited; freedom of speech and assembly no longer exists, and draconian punishments are applied to the slightest criticism of the regime.
A hyper-nationalist, imperialist, and supreme ideology that glorifies everything Russian and legitimizes expansion as a right and obligation of Russia was simultaneously imposed and readily accepted by the population.
The war is idolized and justified by the state’s propaganda machine that spews lies. As the brutal invasion of Ukraine shows, war is also practiced, especially if it is directed against a people whose existence Putin sees as a threat to himself and Russia.
Finally, the secret police and military elites, along with corrupt bureaucracies, form the core of a political system led by the infallible Putin, the undisputed charismatic leader glorified as the personification of Russia. One of Putin’s servants once remarked that “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia!” There are striking similarities between the statement of the French King Louis XIV L’état, c’est moi (“The State is Me”) and Hitler’s statement “One people, one empire, one Fuhrer”.
Fascist countries are unstable. Personality cults disintegrate as leaders age. Today’s Putin with his swollen face is not the energetic Putin of 20 years ago.
Fascist regimes are over-centralized and the information that reaches the supreme leader is often candied. Putin’s disastrous decision to invade Ukraine may be due in part to a lack of accurate information about the state of the Ukrainian and Russian armies.
Finally, fascist states are prone to war, as members of the secret police and generals for whom violence is the purpose and meaning of existence are overrepresented in the ruling elite. In addition, ideology glorifies war and violence, and militaristic fervor helps legitimize the supreme leader and strengthen his charisma.
Fascist states usually prosper in the beginning; then, intoxicated by victory, they make mistakes and begin to lose. Putin has won decisively in the wars in Chechnya and Georgia and appears to be heading for defeat in Ukraine.
I believe that Putin’s fascist Russia faces a serious risk of collapse shortly. All that is missing is a spark that will anger the people and the elites and motivate them to take action. This could be an increase in fuel prices, a project that led to a riot of citizens in Kazakhstan earlier this year; blatantly rigged elections, such as those that led to riots in autocratic Belarus in 2020; or thousands of sacks of corpses returning to Russia from the war in Ukraine.
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