“If we want to understand the far right in the 21st century, we have to look at Russia”

The beginning of the invasion of Ukraine was not only a matter of foreign policy but also a way of disciplining Russian society. And when you look back at the first months of this invasion, you realise how internally the rules of the game have completely changed in Russia. Interview with Ilya Budraitskis.

The cradle of the greatest socialist revolution in history, Russia underwent intense social, economic and political transformations throughout the 20th century. From the rise of Stalin to the current Putin regime, little remains of the organisational experience of the soviets and the socialist legacy that characterised the early years of the 1917 Revolution. Ilya Budraitskis, a Russian socialist activist, is adamant that Putin’s current regime bears all the hallmarks of what could be characterised as 21stcentury fascism.

Ilya Budraitskis is a political activist and theorist. He lived in Moscow for many years, where he consolidated his activism, and is the author of several texts on Russian politics, culture and intellectual history. He has published articles in academic journals such as Radical Philosophy, New Left Review, Slavic Review and South Atlantic Quarterly, as well as on important critical media portals such as Jacobin, London Review of Books, E-Flux, Le Monde Diplomatique, Inprecor and Open Democracy. His collection of essays Dissidents among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia was published by Verso in 2022. He is also a member of the editorial board of the Russian socialist anti-war website Posle.media.

During his visit to Brazil, Budraitskis spoke to Radar Internacional about the process of depoliticisation of post-USSR Russian society, the impacts of neoliberalism, the characteristics of the Putin regime and its strategies for rapprochement with the Global South. Finally, he commented on the possibilities for organising the Russian left today.

We’d like to start by asking you how you characterise Putin’s regime: is it a nationalist regime? Fascist? Can you say a bit more about that?

Yes, I would say that this regime has existed for more than 20 years, and throughout this period it has undergone a serious transformation. It started out as a neoliberal Bonapartist regime and turned into a kind of open fascist dictatorship. And I believe that this transformation into a fascist regime began after the invasion of Ukraine began. I can present a more extensive analysis of how this transformation took place over these years.

It happened because of two parallel trends within Russian society, especially during the last decade. Because if we look at the transformation of Putin’s regime, we can say that the first period of its existence, i.e. the 2000s, was characterised by economic growth, the implementation of neoliberal reforms and a deep process of depoliticisation of Russian society, which resulted in the disarticulation and alienation of most forms of political self-organisation.

But in 2011 and 2012, something important happened. After the economic crisis of 2009, the Russian economy had not yet recovered, economic growth had not yet resumed and the Russian economy was stagnating. In the same period, depoliticisation gave way to a new protest movement that began at the end of 2011 mainly in Moscow, but which also had repercussions in many large Russian cities. It was a movement against the regime, whose demands were mostly political rather than social, but which I believe also reflected growing discontent about the economic and social situation.

This movement emerged just as Putin decided to return to the presidency and stand in the 2012 presidential elections, running for his third term. Unlike his campaigns in the 2000s, this one was not marked by a depoliticised process, but by a conservative and anti-revolutionary offensive. So from this moment on, it’s possible to say that a conservative turn began in Putin’s regime. The discourse he presented was that the demonstrations were not an internal opposition movement but a group of external agents, national traitors, people who want to destroy the traditional family, traditional Russian values and so on. So from that moment on, extremely conservative rhetoric was adopted into the ideology of this regime.

In 2014, Russia began its military involvement in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea. For Putin, this was not just a question of foreign policy, of regaining Russia’s imperial influence in the post-Soviet space, but also a question of domestic policy. It was about creating a patriotic unity of Russian society around its president. You can see how quickly Putin regained his popularity in Russian society after the annexation of Crimea.

But the Crimean effect, the effect of the rally round the flag, didn’t last long. Three years after what became known as the “reunification of Crimea”, Putin’s popularity began to wane and a new wave of demonstrations began in Russia. From 2017 onwards, a new movement began to emerge against corruption, against the regime’s authoritarianism and, ultimately, against the deep social inequality that exists in Russian society. These demonstrations became closely associated with the figure of Alexei Navalny, but in reality it wasn’t just a movement of his personal supporters. From the regime’s side, all this was articulated as the fight against a “colour revolution”.

So what was the biggest problem in Ukraine? According to Putin it was Maidan, it was the illegal overthrow of the government by the people and this was absolutely unacceptable. So it was necessary to prevent this from happening in Ukraine and in Russia. Putin then adopted a stance against this possible revolution because, for him, all the revolutions that took place in Russia, including that of 1917, came as a product of the activity of external enemies. According to him, all revolutions are a conspiracy, they are processes that come from outside to destabilise the Russian state. And, in fact, this anti-revolutionary thinking is very present in the official version of Russian history, in school textbooks, in major historiographical expositions, in which not only 1917 is presented as a kind of anti-Russian riot organised by the West but even the popular uprisings of the 18th century, such as Pugachev’s, were presented as a conspiracy from outside.

In this sense, it is possible to see how the beginning of the invasion was not only a matter of foreign policy but also a way of disciplining Russian society. And when you look at the first few months of this invasion, you realise how internally the rules of the game have completely changed in Russia. Since the beginning of the invasion, it has not been possible to criticise the war in any way. It’s not even allowed to talk about this event as a war. Using the word “war” is a criminal act under Russian law, because officially it is not a war but a “special military operation”. This is the term that should be used to describe this event.

All the independent media that had remained in the country up to that point were expelled a week after the invasion, and today you can see this repressive trend in the recovery of Russia’s total unity, as Putin presents it. For him, we as a Russian society are consolidated around the idea of fighting against the West, against any kind of internal or external enemy, and no kind of criticism is still allowed in the country. For example, you may have seen that last week Boris Kagarlitsky was arrested in Moscow. This happened as part of a growing campaign of repression of demonstrations that has already left a toll of many political prisoners. And when Putin was asked at a press conference about Kagarlitsky, of course he said it was the first time he had heard that name, as he always does, but he also said: “we are now in a military conflict with our neighbour. That’s why anything done against our national unity must be eliminated. This is the reason for all these cases.”

I think that if we talk about the fascist movement today, about what fascism looks like in the 21st century, we should look at what is already happening in Russia. Because we’re in a context where a mass movement from below is no longer necessary, it could be a fascist turn from above. If you look, classical fascism, which emerged in the 20th century, was always the combination of mass movements with the ruling class, which used the mass movement to transform the political regime. Today, for societies that have already been greatly destroyed by neoliberalism, with the destruction of any tradition of organisation, solidarity etc., a fascist mass movement is no longer necessary in these societies. That’s why I think it’s important to talk about the fascist transformation of the Russian state, and I think that in this sense the Russian case is not unique. It’s not an exception to the global trend, but an image of it. If we want to understand how these far-right movements can transform society, we should take Russia as an example.

Now talking a little more about Putin’s foreign policy, he has been getting closer to the African continent and the Global South in general. Could you say a bit more about that? How should we in the Global South view this rapprochement with Putin and the war?

That’s a very interesting question, because Putin is definitely trying to exploit this anti-Western, anti-US, anti-colonial sentiment and is proposing, in place of the current world order, another kind of model, which is called the multipolar world. And what is a multipolar world? It is the existence of particular civilisations or particular civilisation-states. “State-civilisations” are an important term already used in the new version of the Russian foreign policy doctrine adopted earlier this year. State-civilisation does not mean the same as nation-state, but rather that real sovereign states exist as a kind of civilisation - like the United States, China and Russia. For example, let’s say that Brazil is a key country for South American civilisation. Basically, this means that it must control the entire continent in order to restore Brazil’s true sovereignty and to control the organic domination of its national interests as a civilisation-state. The same is true for Russia, of course, because the Russian civilisation-state is something much bigger than the current borders of the Russian state. So, for example, Ukraine organically and historically belonged to the Russian civilisation-state. The same is probably true for China, to recover its own civilisation-state.

Basically, if you want to find the roots of this concept, you can read Samuel Huntington’s book, “The Clash of Civilisations”, where he proposes almost the same thing. Huntington’s idea was that the West, the United States, should not claim to propose any world order, but should only be responsible for its own civilisation. So Western civilisations such as the United States and Western Europe would be part of the same civilisation and the United States would be the leading state in it. This means that the West shouldn’t be too ambitious about its influence and should focus on its own values, its own religion, its own traditions and so on, giving the possibility for other civilisations to have their own traditions. For example, you have your Brazilian traditions, you have the traditional Brazilian type of political regime, which is probably the military dictatorship, because it is the best regime to serve the interests of your civilisation-state, and you have the traditional values that are particular to your civilisation and that should be preserved. This is basically the concept of a multipolar world. It’s a world without any sense of universalism, without any sense of national self-determination, because it’s not about nations, it’s about civilisations, and it’s definitely not a fairer or more equal world than the one we live in, perhaps even worse.

For example, if we look at Africa and all the speculation about what Russia has said about Africa and what it has actually done there, it is the Wagner group that is the key to understanding Russian foreign policy on the African continent. You will see absolutely the same kind of colonial method, because Russia is currently almost the main arms supplier on the African continent and is a country that is trying to exploit and extract natural resources in the same way as the colonial and imperialist Western powers. If you look at what the Wagner group is doing in the Central African Republic, where they basically control the main gold mines and extract it in exchange for military support for the current government, this is the typical neo-colonial way of doing politics - providing military support for a ruling elite in exchange for a monopoly on the extraction of natural resources from that country. I don’t see any difference between this policy and that of France or the UK. The only difference is that the Wagner group represents another “civilisation-state”. In the Central African Republic, for example, they have actively promoted the Orthodox religion. They have organised Orthodox missions, trained local priests, etc.

Towards the end of the interview, I’d like to ask you about the possibilities for organising the left within Russia. How does the left react to the Putin government? What are the possibilities for action within the Communist Party? What is the organisation of resistance like in Russia?

The question of the left in Russia is quite complicated, because I don’t believe that groups and parties that support the invasion of Ukraine can be considered left-wing or socialist. We can see that the leadership of the Communist Party and a large number of Stalinist groups close to the Communist Party fully support the invasion of Ukraine, which means that they remain integrated into Putin’s political system. This system has been built and developed over the 20 years of the Putin regime and, within this system, the leadership of the Communist Party has no capacity for political agency. It is completely guided by the Kremlin.

The Russian Communist Party and Stalinism in general in Russia are very much linked to the imperialist legacy of the late Stalinist period. During the last years of the Second World War and immediately afterwards, Stalin very much exploited the legacy of Russian nationalism. I think the Stalinist tradition in Russia has this element of Russian chauvinism and the continuity of this was certainly very present in the positions of the Russian Communist Party and other Stalinist groups after the invasion began.

But of course there is another left in Russia, the left that was in opposition to the imperialist ambitions of its own government, made up of socialist, Trotskyist and anarchist groups. And as I’ve already explained, it’s currently not possible to openly express criticism of the war, which is the main political issue in the country. That’s why it’s not possible for the Russian anti-war left to operate legally in the country at the moment. Many key activists who were already known for their anti-war and anti-Putin positions have left the country. In my organisation, the Russian Socialist Movement, most of the leadership has already left the country. Kagarlitsky was arrested precisely because he continued to criticise the war while still in the country. That’s why he was arrested.

There are still some members of the anti-war groups who are trying to do something in Russia, but in a semi-clandestine way, such as closed political discussions, propaganda events with personal invitations, spreading information via Telegram or Youtube. But those who are in Russia have to follow current Russian legislation, which means they can’t make any comments about the war. Not only about the name of the war, which is not a war but a special military operation, but also about the actions of the Russian army in general. Because there is now a law in Russia that criminalises all fake news about the Russian army and the definition of fake news is very simple: any use other than the official statements of the Russian Ministry of Defence. So, for example, if you say that the Russian army has committed war crimes, you can be arrested immediately and serve a sentence of generally five years.

Is it possible to be arrested even for posting on social networks such as Facebook or Instagram?

Yes, it is. And it’s not just a possibility, there are several such cases. Hundreds of people have been arrested or fined for posting on social media. But as far as Instagram and Facebook are concerned, these social networks have already been banned on Russian territory, so you’re not allowed to use them. Youtube and Telegram are still allowed, but we don’t know for how long. There are rumours that the Russian authorities will probably block Youtube until the end of this year. An alternative has already been proposed, a kind of Russian platform completely controlled by the government to replace Youtube, which is very popular in Russia.

Published by. Esquerda.net

Ilya Budraitskis