UNDER COVER OF WAR:
THE KREMLIN'S FASCIST PROJECT
BY NANCY RIES
“Our Russian fascists.” “Our fascist regime.” “Fascist Putin.” Russian citizens opposed to Putin have long characterized their state this way in blogs, social media, and everyday talk. Russia’s all-out escalation of its war on Ukraine pushed this discourse to another level of frequency and vitriol. In a recent conversation, I asked an academic friend in Russia whether they and their like-minded acquaintances posting on Telegram used this term as a throwaway, as lexical flashes of a common global vernacular, or as carefully chosen nomenclature. “The latter,” my friend said, emphatically. “There is no question about the fascist nature of our regime.” Ukrainians under relentless Russian military attack readily agree and use this term liberally, often with obscenities attached, or use the widespread neologism “rashism” – uniting three words Russia, racism, and fascism into one cathartic epithet.
Global scholars of Russia have debated the character of Putin’s regime from its inception in 2000, and many have argued strongly against using the fascist label, preferring gentler terms like “bureaucratic authoritarianism,” “soft authoritarianism,” “managed democracy," “autocracy,” “populist dictatorship,” "right-wing authoritarian kleptocracy,” and so on. More nuanced classifications such as “illiberal democracy” highlight the dynamics of state-led campaigns, applied especially to the Russian targeting of LGBTQ movements as a tool of ideological domination. To label Russia “fascist,” as leading scholar Marlene Laruelle has argued, is an overly polemical charge, based on simplistic, facile historical analogy.
"The war is a profound turning point, ending any pretense of “soft” authoritarianism with its modicum of space for resistance. The Kremlin’s fascist project may not succeed in the end, but it is crucial to see its effects within Russia as a fundamental component of the 2022 attack on Ukraine."
Yet the 2022 Ukraine War accelerated and clarified what might constructively be termed the Kremlin’s fascist project. Most analysts of Putin’s regime proved unimaginative when it came to measuring its capacity to swiftly unfold into fascist rule under the guise of a “special military operation.” Since February 24, the all-out war in Ukraine has provided the necessary condition for radical reformation of Russian society and ideology. Putin’s project, had its beginnings at the start of his regime and unrolled slowly, with a great deal of opposition, over two decades. The war is a profound turning point, ending any pretense of “soft” authoritarianism with its modicum of space for resistance. The Kremlin’s fascist project may not succeed in the end, but it is crucial to see its effects within Russia as a fundamental component of the 2022 attack on Ukraine.
Under cover of war, the Kremlin swiftly activated countless practices of totalizing control beginning with Putin’s long-desired project of “liquidating” the civil society which had its roots during Gorbachev’s Perestroika. That project was evident from the start of Putin’s regime. It escalated dramatically in 2012 with the Kremlin’s violent repression of Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square protests and the harassment, prosecution, and assassination political opponents like Boris Nemtsov in the Bolotnya protests’ aftermath. 2012 saw the first iteration of the law on “foreign agents.” The application of that law escalated considerably in 2021, and Russia’s war on Ukraine has been used to justify the complete criminalization and shuttering of remaining NGOs. The few independent press and media organizations, such as TV Dozhd, Echo Moskvy, and Novaya Gazeta that hung on in Russia through the past decade of intense harassment have finally been silenced and shut down. Some reopened in other countries. Long-harassed opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza have been imprisoned or had their sentences extended; many other public figures are in detention, under house arrest, or have fled the country. Even the smallest anti-war protests or actions have been met with violence and harsh reprisals. Citizens, journalists, and officials expressing anti-war views are surveilled, threatened, and harassed. Arrests are patterned and targeted; sentences for critics or truthtellers about the war are severe and some are subjected to psychiatric incarceration.
Campaigns to secure ideological and regime loyalty were launched across all sectors of society at the start of the war; in the academic and artistic realms, leaders signed pro-war statements and those who refused or who signed anti-war petitions have found themselves targeted, fired, even arrested. Opportunities for citizens to denounce non-conformists have appeared and harassment and shaming of those people is encouraged.
Rituals of regime loyalty and pro-war sentiment have been held on key dates in public, in schools and in workplaces. The infamous “Z” sign appeared on public billboards, bus-stop placards, banners on buildings, and many other places. Leaders speak and write about the revolutionary reimagining of Russian society over the next decade. They make it clear that the “special military operation” provides the necessary conditions of totalization (societal closure, relative global isolation, and loyalty requirements) to produce a “deep perestroika” as a former spy and professor of foreign relations characterized it in a June interview. The indoctrination of youth and retraining of adults to create a new kind of person more suited to the crafted regime has been rolling forth with both state guidance and popular enthusiasm and creativity. This social reformulation – framed through narratives of national victimization, humiliation, and ultimate triumph – seems to show both advance planning and spontaneous leveraging of dynamic opportunity.
The Ukraine war necessitated a change in Russian language itself, specifically in the form of a perverse new lexicon. Reporting honestly on the war, even calling it a war, became a criminal offence under the Law on “Fake News.” Russian TV pundits have parroted the phrase “special military operation,” as a replacement for “war,” and seamlessly discuss the “denazification” of Ukraine, a phrase discretely signifying mass murder. This term has been repeated thousands of times since the war began, and has lost whatever shred of (absurd) meaning it once had. It has accrued a sadistic veneer of murderous wickedness. Linguistic, conceptual, and moral disorientation have proved crucial to the unfolding of fascism at home and the legitimation of atrocity in Ukraine. Many people in or from Russia describe months of head-spinning uncertainty and horror, where every thought is about war, where all social meanings are despoiled, and where even the simplest utterance can be understood as political.
The Kremlin initiatives that have produced such an extreme condition are best described as “sadocratic,” a term coined by writer China Miéville in a 2015 essay. Miéville details the practical and aesthetic deployment of spite, viciousness, vengeance, and pointed cruelty in both governance and war. That Russia’s war on Ukraine combines all forms of modern military atrocity is part of the sadocratic element of Putin’s fascist project. The war seems organized to produce the widest range of atrocity: from most intimate assaults on persons or through full-scale urbicidal destruction, agricultural calamity, and vast ecological destruction. The Kremlin structures its war making machine in ways that deliberately produce atrocity, to recall Robert J. Lifton’s conceptualization of extreme violence in the Holocaust and Vietnam War. There are indications that the Kremlin is intent on replaying the worst excesses of fascist militarism, such as mass deportation from occupied regions, the forcible transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia, and nationalist reeducation in occupied Ukrainian cities. Does the Putin regime do this to show that it can? To show that it is capable of the most profound excesses of atrocity the past century has modeled? Russian atrocities in Ukraine are deliberately amplified by official Russian discourse: from the moment Russia launched the war there has been a campaign of official “celebration” of the Russian military’s capacity to injure, traumatize, and destroy. Russian governmental elites and public figures compete to express themselves with the most noticeable aggression towards Ukraine, the NATO countries, and Russia’s domestic “traitors.” Their verbal assaults in all kinds of media have unfolded with more and more hate speech, genocidal rhetoric, and exterminist excess. Catalogues are available of eliminationist utterances.
"The war seems organized to produce the widest range of atrocity: from most intimate assaults on persons or through full-scale urbicidal destruction, agricultural calamity, and vast ecological destruction. The Kremlin structures its war making machine in ways that deliberately produce atrocity."
Russian officials present themselves on television each night as gleeful and smug participants in the Kremlin’s mass murder and destruction. Two female leaders stand out for their non-stop appreciations of Russia’s military atrocity and for their eliminationist rhetoric towards Ukraine and the world: Margarita Simonyan, Editor-in-Chief of RT and Sputnik, and Maria Zakharova, Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2022, Simonyan told a sneering joke about the only hope for Russia being the world hunger from grain shortage. In a video she released in early July 2022, Zakharova shows herself sexually licking and eating strawberries from her garden, to the tune of a Russian folk song. The video seems designed to convey that Russian women are happy in their home gardens in summer while Ukrainians are homeless, bombed out, or dead. These performances are not incidental; they appear to be part of an organized campaign, a “pedagogy” of exterminist consciousness and practice, a key tool of the fascist project unfolding within and beyond Russia.
In a June, 2022 essay, sociologist Svetlana Stephenson draws from Achille Mbembe to argue that “the war was the result of a lengthy process of replacing the logic of development and life with the logic of destruction and death, the logic of necropolitics.” Russia is now committed to an all-out death project. Its leaders use violent, legalistic, ideological and symbolic measures of all kinds to suck the population into a world-destructive “necro-project.” Is this a massive, collective exercise of “deep play,” a project deliberately out of normal bounds of rationality and security? Did the Kremlin intend through this war to explore the limits of destruction, with even planetary stakes, since nuclear saber-rattling is one of the key “games” the Putin circle are playing? The war in Ukraine is the regime’s chosen project, an unfathomably costly, destructive, injurious experiment. It seems correct to follow the vernacular of Russians and Ukrainians alike and regard it as a fascist project in an advanced stage of realization.
Russia’s fascist project could yet collapse; the stakes are high and real. The huge challenge entailed in mobilizing the Russian population to invest in death may be the only thing that can constrain the Kremlin’s fascism. The Russian military needs cannon fodder for the war. Stealth mobilization campaigns have been launched, especially targeting factory workers in industries slowed by sanctions, older veterans, security professionals, and even prisoners: i.e. men with skills applicable to the war who might have reason to sign contracts. The question of whether sufficient numbers of Russian men (and their families) will agree to the embrace of death. Are enough men in the Russian Federation willing to risk both the physical damage and the moral injury of participating in a war of atrocity? Will they risk their lives to join the Putin state’s orgy of hatred and destruction in Ukraine? Will Putin’s fascist spin-handlers and fellow genocidaires be able to inspire a mobilization at the scale the ongoing war requires? Will many civilian men, especially those with the skills and experience required, join this vast and savage war which seems to have no rational point? These are not just theoretical or rhetorical questions. The shape and success of Russian military mobilization will determine the outcome of the war. Whether mobilization for the war in Ukraine succeeds or fails, and in what ways, will provide vital evidence of the nature, capacity, and coherence of the Russian state fascist project.
Nancy Ries is Professor of Anthropology and Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University. She has done ethnographic fieldwork in Russia since the 1980s specializing on Russian political discourse and practice. She has published extensively on Russia, including work on Russian organized crime and "thugocratic" rule. Her 2009 article “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” won the Cultural Horizons Prize from the journal Cultural Anthropology.