Here’s another post I wrote for the World Policy Journal’s blog:
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has thrown the term “fascist” around a lot lately, especially against pro-Western Ukrainians. To him, Kiev’s government is a “fascist junta,” and Russian (state) TV likes to show them alongside footage of Nazi war criminals.
Needless to say, Putin is using the term more as a swear word than as an accurate description of a political ideology. Ukrainians supporting democracy and European integration are as far away from fascism as you can get.
But let’s remember for a second that fascism isn’t just a swearword, but an actual political movement. A brief look at the core features of fascism shows that Putin shares all of them.
It may be time to start calling Putin a fascist. Doing so would help people around the world understand what kind of a threat they are dealing with.
Fascism started off as a political movement in Italy during World War I and spread across Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Spain’s Franco are all considered parts of the fascist movement.
At its core, fascism was a reaction to the spread of Western liberal democracy and its values. While Western democracies in France, Britain or the U.S. were based on individual freedom and small government, fascists emphasized the national collective.
They sought a strong state with a powerful army, headed by a dictator who controlled most aspects of life, including press, arts, and sports. Their nationalist myth was rooted in history. Mussolini saw himself as successor to the Roman emperors, and Hitler to the Germanic leaders and medieval German emperors.
Fascists despised what they perceived as decadent Western values, including everything from democracy, press freedom over expressionist art to homosexuality. Among Hitler’s most forgotten victims are homosexuals, who were murdered in concentration camps by the thousands.
Following World War II and the mass murders by Hitler and his allies, politicians mostly stopped calling themselves fascists. But that doesn’t mean fascism as an ideology disappeared. In fact, we are currently seeing its resurrection in Putin’s Russia.
Like Hitler and Mussolini, Putin views a strong state headed by a charismatic leader controlling the press and most aspects of social life as superior to Western democracy. Since assuming power in 2000 Putin has rigged elections, bullied NGOs, expanded state-led social organizations, taken control of media and increased the powers of the President to the point where he appoints governors and virtually nothing can be done in Russia without his consent.
Like the fascists of the 1930s, Putin believes in the importance of a strong military and is currently overseeing the largest investments in the Russian army since the fall of the Soviet Union.
He also shares the fascists’ historical myth-making by implicitly putting himself in a line with past rulers like Peter the Great and Stalin, of whom he speaks admiringly. Putin’s nationalism is well documented, and it has recently taken an expansionist turn similar to Hitler’s.
Much like Hitler justified his invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia with the argument that both regions were once part of the German empire and thus historically German, Putin has employed history to justify his actions in Ukraine. In his May 9th speech on Crimea, he argued that his invasion had “righted a historical wrong,” and he has repeatedly pointed out that large parts of Ukraine were historically part of Russia. His apparent desire to unite all ethnic Russians in the Russian state is equally reminiscent of Hitler’s attitude towards German minority groups in Eastern Europe.
Perhaps the greatest similarity between Putin and the fascists of the 1930s is his hostility towards what he perceives as decadent Western values. His crusade against homosexuals and artists, including Pussy Riot and Pyotr Pavlenski, as well as his touting of “Russian values” as superior to Western ones exhibit a fundamental tenet of fascism: the belief that a strong leader is needed to keep the nation pure and save it from the harmful influence of Western culture.
If Putin shares all major features of fascist ideology, it is about time to start calling him one. He may not refer to himself as a fascist, but neither did Hitler. He may admire the Soviet Union, but he only admires it for its strong state and its fostering of Russian greatness. Whether he would admit it or not, Vladimir Putin is a fascist.
Acknowledging this can help us better understand his appeal. Many separatists in Ukraine don’t merely want to join Russia, they want to join Putin’s Russia with its autocratic state and anti-gay laws. A surprising number of separatists interviewed by Western media have ranted against the “Euro-gays” in Kiev. This indicated that their separatism isn’t just about nationality, but also about ideology and culture. As in the 1930s, fascism as an explicit alternative to Western values appeals to many.
More importantly, calling Putin a fascist could help dispel the myth that Putin’s ideology is offering something new. A number of Western commentators, including the influential German columnist Georg Diez, have argued that Putin’s Russia is part of a new wave of state-sponsored capitalism spearheaded by China. But while China’s model of authoritarian capitalism under a communist guise is genuinely novel, Putin is merely recycling ideas from the 1930s.
If people understand that Putin is promoting an ideology that has been tried before and led to disaster, they may be less likely to view him as a hero.
I propose that when Western politicians talk about the threat Putin is posing to the West, they should call that threat by its name: fascism. Independent media should start referring to Putin as a fascist much like they refer to David Cameron as a conservative. Unlike Putin’s use of the term, it wouldn’t be mere name-calling. It would simply be a recognition of the facts.