A few years ago, during a panel discussion on the politics of memory at a university in a German-speaking country, I called Russian President Vladimir Putin “the most powerful fascist politician in the world.” Afterwards, the organizers shyly told me that while the event had gone well, the label I applied to the Kremlin leader was “too much” – even though Russia had by that time already occupied Crimea and started a war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. I was surprised not so much by the organizers’ comment as by the way they made it. They seemed genuinely embarrassed, as if I had said something obscene.
The first Russian bombs that fell on Ukraine on February 24 vindicated my apparent vulgarity. Unfortunately, Putin’s fascism had become so accepted by Western financial and political elites that they were uncomfortable publicly denouncing earlier: It was “too much” until it was “too late.” Even as the obvious and incontrovertible evidence piles up, many still have not abandoned their reluctance to call a spade a spade.
Putin not only denies Ukrainians’ right to exist, but also controls a propaganda machine that has issued a manifesto proclaiming his genocidal aim to eliminate Ukrainians as such. Moreover, he has at his disposal a state that is ready to execute his genocidal fantasies and exterminate Ukrainians because he thinks they should not exist.
The West’s embarrassment about calling Putin’s Russia fascist is rooted in its psycho-historical background. To use this term is to encroach on the untouchable place reserved for the ultimate evil in the collective memory of post-World War II Europe, whose political unification is based on common responsibility for the legacy of the Holocaust.
The level of suffering caused by Nazism across the continent was incomprehensible and difficult to explain in purely rational terms. In the public imagination, Nazism has been perceived as a metaphysical evil rather than a political project. Hannah Arendt’s lesson has not been learned: building the machinery of mass murder also can be an ordinary everyday job. That is exactly why Europe’s “never again” didn’t work out, leaving only the “again” remaining today.
It is not by accident that the Kremlin chose to use “denazification” and “demilitarization” to justify its war against Ukraine. By presenting itself as the main victor over Nazi Germany and neglecting the crucial role played by other former Soviet states, foremost among them Ukraine and Belarus, Russia is trying to compensate for its defeat in the Cold War. The Kremlin’s main ideological distortion is to repurpose the lexicon referring to Nazism’s defeat in order to legitimize its own fascist dictatorship.
Putin’s Russia has been a partner and point of reference for forces across the Western political spectrum. For right-wing populists and authoritarian governments, from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France to the Alternative for Germany to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Putin’s regime has always been a natural ideological ally and a convenient money pot. Such leaders formally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and opportunistically agreed to accept Ukrainian refugees while maintaining their anti-immigrant stance, but have opposed economic sanctions or a boycott of Russian energy.
Meanwhile, the Western left, for which anti-fascism should be automatic, fell victim to its own narcissism and dogmatic fetishism. Challenged by Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression, many on the left have embraced a “both sides are guilty” à la Donald Trump argument, accusing NATO and the United States of triggering the conflict. In a classic example of “Westsplaining,” they have been so obsessed with their usual set of hateful idols that they could not even entertain the possibility that there might be a much worse imperial villain.
But it was not the West’s far right or far left that helped to bolster Russia’s fascist regime. It was liberal democracies’ political centrists and financial elites who pumped assets into the Kremlin’s mafia-capitalist system – and became corrupted by it. Even as Putin turned Russian politics into a “special operation” and authorized political assassinations, state censorship, electoral manipulation, systematic repression, and military invasions of other countries, the Western liberal establishment, despite the “values” it claims to uphold, normalized him.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine suggests why the body of Lenin, whom Putin blames for creating modern Ukraine, still lies in the Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. Revolution has always been the Putin regime’s worst nightmare, and the October Revolution’s unburied leader bears witness to the unfinished task of overthrowing the Russian empire. If the current war eventually severs Russia from its centuries-long imperialist tradition, then Lenin, nearly a century after his death, would at last be able to have perpetual peace.
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