14 November 2022
by Oleg Orlov, co-chair of the board of the Human Rights Defence Centre Memorial
The bloody war unleashed by the Putin regime in Ukraine isn’t just the mass murder of the Ukrainian people and the destruction of the infrastructure, economy, and cultural property of this wonderful country. It isn’t just about the destruction of the principles of international law. The war also deals a very heavy blow to Russia’s future.
The darkest forces in my country – those who have been dreaming of total revenge for the collapse of the Soviet empire, who gradually became the masters of the country, and for whom the continuous stifling of free speech, suppression of civil society, and near-elimination of the independent judiciary did not go far enough – have all been celebrating their victory in recent months.
“What victory do you mean?” you might ask. After all, Russian forces at the front in Ukraine haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. That’s true, but they have been celebrating a decisive victory in Russia.
This war delivered the country entirely into their hands. They have long wanted to cut any ties that were holding them back. They did not wish to return to a Communist system (although there are some among them who call themselves Communists). They like the chimerical system that developed in Russia over the past two decades: half feudalism, half state capitalism, and absolutely rife with corruption. But there was still something missing…
What was missing was a sense of completion of the system. Now it is complete. Now they can declare openly, without hesitation: “One people, one Empire, one leader!” All shame is cast aside.
They wanted fascism, they got it.
The country that left behind communist totalitarianism thirty years ago has slipped back into totalitarianism, only now of the fascist variety.
‘What fascism are you on about?’ I’m often challenged. ‘Where’s this all-powerful mass party that transcends the state? Does the bunch of state officials that is United Russia really resemble such a party? And where are the grassroots youth organisations all young people have to go through?’
Well, firstly, work on the zombification of the youth through the creation of organisations just like those is already in full swing. What’s more, fascism isn’t just about Italy under Mussolini or Nazi Germany (in Russia these days, good fascism is commonly contrasted with the bad), but also Austria before the Anschluss, Spain under Franco, and Portugal under Salazar. All these fascist regimes had their differences and particular characteristics. And now Russia under the latter stages of Putin’s rule will be listed among them.
There are many different definitions of fascism as a phenomenon. In 1995, on instructions from President Yeltsin, the Russian Academy of Sciences developed the following one: ‘Fascism is an ideology and practice that affirms the superiority and exceptionalism of a particular nation or race and which seeks to foment ethnic intolerance, justify discrimination against members of other peoples, negate democracy, establish a cult of the leader, use violence and terror to suppress political opponents and all forms of dissent, and justify war as a means of resolving problems between states.’
In my view, what is happening in Russia is fully consistent with this definition. Setting the Russia of today, the past and the future against its surrounding states (especially European ones); affirming the superiority of indigenous Russian culture (not in the strictly ethnic, but imperial sense); denying the very existence of the Ukrainian people, language, and culture – all of this has come to form the basis of current state propaganda. As for the denial of democracy, cult of the leader, and suppression of dissent, well, all these are quite obvious to everybody.
Who is to blame for Russia going fascist? The simplest answer is Putin. He is to blame, of course. But aside from him, a host of other people led to this, even if they were not necessarily consciously heading in this direction.
A great many people are nostalgic for the Empire, for the ‘strong hand,’ for a Stalin who only existed in myth. Such people were both ‘at the top’ of society – among the ‘ruling elite’ – officials, those in law enforcement and state security, deputies, heads of state enterprises, ‘oligarchs’ – and ‘at the bottom’ – among the poorest people. Some had Maybach cars, mansions, and yachts, others didn’t even have a warm inside toilet. But they are all lack rights in Putin’s autocratic system.
It was not in the interests of the former to fight against their disenfranchisement: under any other system of power, they would have never received the material benefits they had. But they somehow wanted to compensate for their sad lack of rights. They needed a feeling of absolute power over their ‘serfs,’ of being under nobody’s thumb except that of the chief at the very top. They needed to consider themselves a class of new nobles, chosen by History and Providence to rule this country. But standing in their way were the rudimentary remnants of freedom of speech, all kinds of investigative journalists, human rights activists, and troublemakers who from time to time led people out into the streets. And then there were their competitors from among the ‘elite’ – those who still wanted to maintain some liberal ‘rules of decorum’ in governing the country.
The latter – those ‘at the bottom’ of society – simply did not believe in the possibility of success in such a struggle – all their hard life, as well as the experience of their parents and grandparents, had shown them this. Those of them who had caught the brief outburst of relative democracy in the 1990s had been simply frightened by these developments – everything was changing around them and they had to make choices for themselves in difficult circumstances. It was something that was scary and to which they were unaccustomed. This fear they passed on to their children – ‘changes are always for the worse.’ You have to rely on authority, on the bosses. The most you can do is write petitions and complaints to your bosses. Russian civil society proved to be unable to show, to explain, to these people (who make up a significant segment of the population, if not the majority) that it was in fact possible to struggle for their rights. Moreover, at times human rights defenders themselves reinforced these paternalistic attitudes. Instead of making people who turned to us for help our partners in a common struggle, we treated them as clients, we strove to help them, but we did not consider it important to explain the ultimate goals of the struggle. As a result, our clients, having received gratuitous assistance, would go back to their former lives, they would again vote in elections for whoever their bosses told them to. And to compensate for their destitution and lack of rights, they wanted to feel a sense of belonging to something great, to feel that they were a part – even the smallest cog – in the great machine of an empire being reborn.
The Putin regime met some of these needs, but clearly not enough for quite a long time.
And now war has been proclaimed as the great unifying goal: ‘Everything for the front, everything for victory!’ The opposition is completely crushed, the remnants of any freedoms are liquidated, it is dangerous to utter the words ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy without adding a swear word. Those ‘at the top’ and those ‘at the bottom’ have merged in an ecstasy of ‘patriotism’ and hatred of independent Ukraine.
Of course, this ecstasy does not affect even a majority of the people in Russia, but still a great many. And, until recently, the majority, out of a sense of self-preservation, preferred to turn a blind eye to what was happening. They considered it dangerous to protest and that nothing would change in any case. That useless discussions of crimes committed by our troops in Ukraine would only lead to insomnia and nervous collapse. Better to pretend you believe what is being said on television, and even try to convince yourself of it.
Moreover, in any fascist regime this is probably the way most people behave.
It is only a very small minority that tries to fight back. There is an anti-war movement in the country, which has its own political prisoners, its own heroes.
Human rights defenders continue to work practically underground – they help people legally avoid mobilization and conscription, compile lists of political prisoners, provide lawyers, give legal and humanitarian aid to refugees from Ukraine and try to make it possible for them to leave for Europe. However, when law is no longer functioning in a country, human rights work inevitably undergoes a radical transformation. Today’s Russian human rights defenders find themselves in the position of dissidents, their predecessors in Soviet times. The identification of human rights violations and bringing them to the attention of Russian and foreign public opinion is increasingly becoming the main form of human rights work. The favourite thesis of the great Russian human rights defender Sergei Kovalev has never been so apposite: ‘Do what you must do and let be what will be.’
How long will it all last in Russia?
The future of our country is being decided in the fields of Ukraine. The victory of Russian troops there will preserve fascism in Russia for a long time to come. And vice versa…
In the last month, the ‘ecstasy’ I wrote about above has begun to slowly dissolve into general bewilderment – ‘How is it possible that our great and invincible army is unsuccessful?’
A hangover is setting in. It might be a severe one.
And in these circumstances much depends on the countries of Central and Western Europe. The striving for peace instead of war is only natural for any sane person. But peace at any price? Europe has already tried once to achieve peace by appeasing the aggressor. The catastrophic result of those attempts is known to everybody.
And now a fascist Russia, if victorious, will inevitably become a serious threat not only to the security of its neighbours, but to all Europe.