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Review of Marlene Laruelle's 'Is Russia Fascist? Unraveling Propaganda East and West'

August 19, 2021
Arthur Martirosyan

Marlène Laruelle, a French historiansociologist, and political scientist who specializes in Eurasia and Europe,​ is one of the most prolific and insightful Western students of issues related to Russian nationalism and memory politics. Her recent 170-page text is a tour de force of social science enterprise to answer the question posed by the book’s title “Is Russia Fascist?” Her main proposition is that the stark labelling of Russia as fascist is loaded with such level of negativism that renders any effort at a more subtle understanding of regime’s raison d’etre untenable. Without quality understanding of motivations and inner mechanisms, it is impossible to craft policy that can produce the desired results. Laruelle’s approach is solid–any strategist’s fundamental principle, be it in the realm of military, chess, or international affairs, is “know thy opponent”. This is not her first scholarly attempt in the capacity of Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (​IERES), at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs to provide an answer to this question. In recent years Laruelle has penned several monographs and articles which have provided partial answers to the question from various angles. The new monograph on this subject must have been justified by the need to assemble all arguments in one place, add more nuanced analysis, and identify areas that will require additional research.

Her thesis is that Russia is not fascist, but that it has what she describes as a “para-fascist” movement, defined as culturally adapted “doctrines that may share some conceptual features related to fascism” (p.157). The ab ovo of her book is a review of the decades long terminological debate on fascism. Reasonably unsatisfied with a multitude of social science definitions of what constitutes a fascist regime and its boundaries, she turns to Roger Griffin’s minimalist definition from his seminal text International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus (1998) where the author defines fascism as “an ideological construct of an utopian ultranationalist state.” She also borrows the late Italian scholar of semiotics and celebrated novelist Umberto Eco’s notion of “Ur-Fascism” in his seminal 1995 essay, the generic fascism with common attributes “such as a cult of tradition, rejection of modernism, fear of difference, obsession with plot, denunciation of pacifism, contempt for the weak, education of all to become heroes, popular elitism, selective populism, machismo, and newspeak.” (p.13) The choice of Eco’s attributes is justified if only because he grew up in Mussolini’s Italy and he had given much thought to the origins of Italian fascism, its evolution and implications. In doing so Laruelle poses an important question, do regimes need to manifest all these attributes to be defined as fascist? If just a few such attributes can suffice, then some of the attributes can be also found in Western democracies.

Laruelle's selection of definitions predetermined the structure of the text which at times leaves the impression of a compilation of arguments from her earlier publications and as a consequence their unavoidable repetitions. However, “Is Russia Fascist?” adds value by offering a wealth of new details to her arguments. Thus, in the chapter on equating German Nazism with Stalinism she reveals how the accession of the former Soviet-bloc Eastern European countries and the Baltic states to the EU has revitalized this discourse in an attempt to keep Russia out of Europe.

In her study Russia exhibits only two of Eco’s 14 features of fascism – the existence of machismo and the para-military militias – and these can be found in some democracies (p.159). Laruelle deserves credit for her scholarly integrity in leaving no stone unturned to examine the presence of all other features under the microscope of her meticulously evidenced investigation that takes the reader on an intellectual journey from the rise of Russian nationalism during Khrushchev’s thaw and the emergence of marginal dissident groups running the gamut from fascist-leaning to anti-fascist as social consensus in modern Russia; from Putin regime’s adaptability and ideological plurality to the current Russian fringe fascist thinkers and activists and to Russia’s “honeymoon” with the European and American Far Right parties and groups.

The chapter of the book dedicated to the Soviet legacy on thinking about fascism provides an in-depth analysis of various aspects of the memory and public narratives and activities dedicated to the Great Patriotic War, “the watershed event in Russia’s history”. It also contains a rather controversial claim that “the understudied phenomenon of attraction to some elements of Nazi culture, mostly its aesthetic, also circulated among certain segments of Soviet society.” (p.28) While it is undeniable that some fringe sub-cultures in the Soviet Union, particularly criminal and radical protest, nurtured Nazi symbolism, the assertion that the Soviet cinema contributed to the “cryptic fascination with Nazi Germany” is hardly sustainable. To support her argument Laruelle turns to the iconic Soviet TV series of director Tatyana Lioznova “Seventeen Moments of the Spring”. The series was planned to be shown on Victory Day of 1973, but was delayed until August 11 (not “the summer of 1972” per Laruelle , p.37), due to Leonid Brezhnev’s state visit to FRG on May 18 and negotiations with Chancellor Willy Brandt in the context of the détente with the West. Laruelle is correct about the popularity of the series. Indeed, since 2001, it has been shown upwards of 30 times on various Russian TV channels. She also insightfully notes the fictitious Soviet spy Max Otto von Stierlitz of the series (in fact, the Soviet intelligence didn’t have a spy that high in the top echelons of the Nazi hierarchy during the war) was ranked number four in VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) 1999 survey on the most popular fictional and historical figures the Russian public would vote for in the next presidential election. And yet her contention about the series “portrayal of Nazi Germany in quite an attractive way” (p.37) is far-fetched. To begin with, the history of the post-war positive characterization of certain aspects of the German behavioral culture (self-discipline, organization, efficiency) can be traced back to the first soccer game between national teams of the USSR and West Germany in 1955, at the invitation of the Soviet Football Federation, three weeks before Konrad Adenauer’s official visit to Moscow. The attitudes of the fans, mostly war veterans, in the packed Dynamo stadium were described in a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko who was at the game. Respect for the culture is not tantamount to “the seductive and romanticized version of Nazism” (p.37), after all in 1978 Yulian Semyonov, the author of the novel “Seventeen Moments of Spring” and the series script was awarded the inaugural KGB prize in literature and arts.

Having examined the Ecoesque attributes of the fascist regimes, Laruelle provides not only series of snapshots of the major forms of Russian militia–Cossacks; the Orthodox Church militia of “Sorok sorokov”; the far-right militia employed by the private sector security firms and using mixed-martial arts sport communities as a pool for recruitment – but using data from open sources describes in as much as possible detail their numbers and state mechanisms for their control. Although Laruelle argues that militias currently are tightly controlled, it would be useful to have an outline of scenarios in which a chemistry and evolution of these variables might increase the probability of para-fascism to evolve into fascism mainstream in the Russian politics, assuming that development could not be ruled out entirely?

Laruelle also makes more sophisticated arguments in deconstructing positions of the Yale historian Timothy Snyder and Rutgers University political scientist Alexander Motyl, the primary champions of labeling Russia as a fascist state. Although she dissected Snyder’s quasi-historical parallel between Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany in her earlier articles, in this text she addresses his claim that the annexation of Crimea was similar to the Anschluss of Austria by a counter-argument advanced by President Putin himself resembling the Crimea case to that of the reunification of GDR and FRG. She does not justify Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine, she only highlights the futility of the blame game leading the sides to the impasse of name-calling.

Motyl on the other hand based his labeling of Putin as a dictator on the Freedom House’s scores putting Russia in the category of “not free states”. This ranking is not granular enough to capture the Russian political regime’s nature and Laruelle gives a preference to the regime topology presented by the “Polity IV” project where on the spectrum from the fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed ‘anocracies’) to fully institutionalized democracies” (p.143), Russia falls in the category of an “open anocracy”. However, Laruelle’s choice of the “Polity IV” lends itself to criticism on methodological grounds since its data sets reduce the multidimensional concept of democracy to a uni-dimensional scale. The choice of one index over the other becomes a matter of ideological preferences and biases. (See Seva Gunitsky’s article “How do you measure democracy?” in Washington Post, June 23, 2015) I found more convincing Laruelle’s introduction of the concept of illiberalism as a more heuristic tool for understanding the regime type in Russia as illiberalism is “the only ideology supported by Presidential Administration and the government”. (p.26) With this concept Laruelle provides compelling explanations why Putin’s regime has been religiously pursuing and nurturing ties with the European Far Right. Positioning Russia as a bastion of conservative values and a self-styled defender of Europe’s Christian heritage serves the purpose of the regime survival and breaking the walls of exclusion. Russia does not export illiberalism to Europe, it has existed on the European political fringes for several decades, cornered and isolated by Western mainstream, Putin’s Russia seeks allies among anti-establishment forces in the West, irrespective of their ideological underpinnings as long as they either have overlapping values or can serve as conduits for Russia’s positions on various contentious issues. This positioning is determined by the survival instincts of the regime rather than its rooting in any particular ideology.

To summarize, Laruelle convincingly depicts the perils of the poisonous potential of the memory wars and frivolous accusations in fascism to eliminate prospects for a negotiated modus vivendi on the European continent and driving the game to a set of zero-sum encounters depriving the sides from the meaningful engagement on many issues presenting common interests. One could only wish that she continued her research promoting mutual understanding, not necessarily agreement on everything, as the necessary but insufficient condition for building a new inclusive security architecture in Europe. 


Arthur Martirosyan

Arthur Martirosyan is the Program Director at The Bridgeway Group.