What does it mean when the Kremlin calls you a "fascist"?
One of the characteristics of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ in Ukraine is the fact that Moscow justifies its acts of aggression by referring to the presence of a “fascist junta” in Kyiv. This junta is accused of having ousted the legal president, Viktor Yanukovych, by an illegal putsch. The annexation of Crimea, so it is said, was necessary to “defend” the Russian and Russian-speaking population of Crimea against this fascist take-over. Even after the election of a new Verkhovna Rada and the election of President Petro Poroshenko the Kremlin continued to refer to the government in Kyiv in terms of a “fascist junta” which would lack any legitimacy. Some people in the West have taken these qualifications at face value, because, as is the case in most European countries, there are fascists in Ukraine. In Ukraine one can find them in Pravy Sektor (the Right Sector) and in the Svoboda party. However, in the parliamentary elections of 26 October 2014 these parties received respectively only 1.8 and 4.7 percent of the votes – a result of which many old and well-established democracies in Europe could be jealous. Nevertheless almost every evening Pervyy Kanal (First Channel), the most popular Russian TV station, continues to denounce Ukrainian “fascism”.
It is therefore time to analyze more in detail the specific Russian meaning of this term. Because the use of the word “fascism” by the Russian media is not just a simple question of information warfare, as we in the West tend to think. The reason why the majority of the Russian population sincerely believes that the government of Ukraine consists of a fascist junta has also to do with the specific Russian connotation of this concept, which must be understood in the historical context in which, in Soviet times, the term “fascism” emerged. In Russia, this connotation is completely different from the West. In the West, the word “fascism” refers in the first place to the political system which was established in Italy by Benito Mussolini after his Partito Nazionale Fascista had seized power. Later “fascism” became the common denominator of a group of political systems, which included also German Nazism. In the West, “fascism” has the connotation of an ideology and a political system which are the complete antithesis of Western democratic societies. It is associated with dictatorship, the suppression of parliamentary democracy, and the arbitrary exercise of power. In the West, fascist regimes are regarded as synonymous with the systematic violation of human rights, the suppression of individual freedoms, the propagation of ultra-nationalism, with wars of aggression, genocides, and the violation of international law. Fascism is, therefore, the absolute counter-model of Western liberal democracies. It is for these reasons that liberal democracies declare themselves to be anti-fascist.
But what about Russia? Leaders in the Kremlin also declare themselves to be “anti-fascist.” Western observers might be inclined to suspect that behind this claim one can only find the naked cynicism of the Kremlin’s “polit-technologists.” But things are less simple. The concept of “Russian anti-fascism” has deep roots in the last 75 years of Russian history and it has to a large degree contributed to the construction of Russia’s self-image. It is important to note that the Russian word “anti-fascism” was coined by Joseph Stalin. In the 1930s, the term “fascist” was indiscriminately used to indicate enemies of the Soviet Union. Stalin had no interest in differentiating between democrats and fascists. He even went so far as to refer to Western social democrats – with whom the communists shared a common ideological background – as “social fascists” with whom he forbade the communist parties in the West to cooperate. It is clear that for Stalin, a dictator who had installed a totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union and who was responsible for the Holodomor - the hunger genocide in Ukraine - as well as for the murder of millions of Soviet citizens in the Gulag and the purges in the army and the party, “fascism” did not have the same connotation as in the West.
Stalin could not denounce fascist regimes for being dictatorships which murdered and persecuted their political opponents. Neither could he criticize these regimes for their racism, genocides, and imperialist belligerence – crimes for which he himself was responsible. It was therefore excluded that Stalin would interpret the term “fascism” in the same way as the West. And it was equally excluded that Stalin would interpret “anti-fascism” as the equivalent of a Western-style democracy. Stalin also did not use the word “fascism” as a generic term for a group of regimes which included Italian Fascism and German Nazism. “Fascism” became just another word for the enemy. In the 1930s the enemy was the non-communist, capitalist world, which included democratic, as well as authoritarian and fascist regimes. To these enemies belonged also the “social fascists”: the social democrats, who, in Germany, were Hitler’s opponents. On 22 June 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, this enemy became Germany. During the ‘Great Patriotic War’ “fascism” became the equivalent of Germany. By the same token anyone who fought against the Germans was an “anti-fascist.” Soviet Russia considered itself as the vanguard of the heroic struggle against fascist Germany. In this way, just as “fascism” became synonymous with Germany, “anti-fascism” became synonymous with Soviet Russia.
However, Stalin’s “anti-fascism” was just a label given to the defense of one totalitarian system against another. It was mirrored in the way Nazi Germany presented its attack on the Soviet Union as “a struggle against Asiatic Bolshevism.” It is this tradition which is still alive in present-day Russia. Russians consider themselves to be the only real historical “anti-fascists.” Was it not the Russian people, who won the ‘Great Patriotic War’ against Nazi Germany? And are today’s Russians not the children and grandchildren of the heroes who fought German fascism? Anti-fascism is, therefore, considered by them to be a part of their genetic makeup. For the same reason Russians, the victors of 1945, consider themselves more able than any other people to recognize the germs of a newly emerging fascism abroad. This self-image of being an “anti-fascist” nation is still vivid today. The Kremlin’s youth movement “The Nashi”, for instance, presented itself as an anti-fascist movement. It even had an “Anti-Fa” (anti-fascism) section. The main task of this section was not to fight for a genuine democracy in Russia, or to defend migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia against racist and xenophobic attacks by skinheads. Their task was to defend the Kremlin’s official version of the history of the Great Patriotic War and to honor the war veterans. These “Anti-Fa” Nashi had no problems in defending Putin’s “sovereign democracy,” a semi-dictatorial system which has replaced the fragile Russian democracy of the 1990s.
In contemporary Russia, a historical narrative has been constructed in which “anti-fascism”, “Great Patriotic War”, and national self-celebration have become increasingly blended. This national self-celebration finds its logical conclusion in the present mood of chauvinism and ultra-nationalism. Chauvinist ultra-nationalism, however, is one of the main ingredients of fascism, together with the expansionism and military aggression against other states which characterizes the Putin regime. In a kind of Marxian dialectic, Russian “anti-fascism” has changed into its opposite. It is therefore no surprise that in Russia, members of the democratic opposition, the real anti-fascists, are called “demofascists.” It mirrors – 80 years later – Stalin’s attacks on the “social fascists.” In June 2010 the pro-Putin oligarch Boris Shpigel founded in Kyiv an international movement called “World Without Nazism” (Mir bez Natsizma). According to a report of the Estonian Security Police, “Radical nationalists … who promote Russian chauvinism, represent Estonia in the World Without Nazism’s management board.”
In recent years, the Kremlin’s “anti-fascist” Russia has become an active promotor of radical right parties, such as the French Front National, which received in 2015 a 9 million euros (according to Mediapart 40 million euros!) loan from the Kremlin-related First Czech-Russian Bank. The new honeymoon with right-wing extremists can also be observed in the editorial policy of RT, the Kremlin’s propaganda tool. Manuel Ochsenreiter, presented as an “expert on German affairs” on RT’s English-language channel, is actually the editor of the neo-Nazi magazine Zuerst!, a monthly radical-right magazine that pledges “to serve German – not foreign – interests” and speaks out against “de-nazification.” In March 2015 the pro-Kremlin Rodina party, founded by Dmitry Rogozin, organized the first International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg, in which participated members of hardcore neo-fascist organizations, such as the NPD from Germany, Golden Dawn from Greece, and Forza Nuova from Italy. In tune with the Kremlin’s official narrative, these admirers of Adolf Hitler attacked “fascism” in Ukraine and did not refrain from calling US President Obama a “Nazi”…
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