‘Fascistic’? Russia’s foreign policy in the Putin era


The worldview of Russia’s ruling elite can be understood within a “fascist framework” for geopolitics, argues Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, who asserts that fascism is a framework which is comfortable with the state not being the center of analysis, and comfortable with political interests being intangible or irrational. It also accepts disorder as a goal of foreign policy.

In the context of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, none of the parties involved are full-fledged states, he told a recent conference. For example, Ukrainians found their state to be inadequate and called on Europe for help in late 2013. The EU is also not a coherent state in the conventional sense. Likewise, Russia is unstable as a state because, as the disorder following the 2011 elections revealed, it has no clear principle of leadership succession.

In addition, Snyder showed that in response to the basic problem of succession within the Russian state, elites have been picking up on ideas from older fascist thinkers since at least the 1990s. Thus, fascism as an intellectual current is still developing inside of Russia. In particular, Snyder detailed the influence of philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) on Putin and the Russian elite in general. Putin has shown great interest in Ilyin, for example, by having him reburied in 2005. Ilyin’s archive, previously in the United States, was returned to Russia in 2006. Finally, at key moments during the 2011 elections and the annexation of Crimea, Putin cited Ilyin’s works as part of the defense for his actions.

Snyder (right) detailed the major elements of Ilyin’s philosophy, including his absolute opposition to bolshevism, his support for Hitler and Mussolini, and his anti-Semitism. Most importantly, Ilyin developed the outlines for a specifically Russian form of fascism. First, he insisted on Russia’s “total historical innocence” and purely Slavic origins, with every military engagement in Russia’s history interpreted as self-defense against encirclement by Europe. Second, he portrayed Russia as an organism, a unified body defined by its Orthodox culture and “special arrangement of the soul,” in sharp contrast to Europe. He envisioned Russia’s ideal political system as one with no political parties or civil society and headed by an all-encompassing Leader or “national dictator.”

Snyder explained that Ilyin’s era was important as the source of contemporary Eurasianist ideology, though Ilyin believed he was seeking truth and contemporary Eurasianism accepts deceit and illusion as part of the political game. It is possible to see the marks of Ilyin’s line of thought throughout Russia’s policy between 2011-2015. Snyder outlined important features of Russia’s policy in this period: 1) It is working towards the disintegration of the European Union, and in Ilyin’s thought European nations should be separate, each with their own national form of fascism. Russian diplomats today learn to view the EU as a temporary feature while nation-states are the basic pattern of order 2) The war in Ukraine is characterized as being entirely defensive against European encirclement—no matter what Russia’s actual role may be. Putin has also cited Ilyin calling Crimea Russia’s “Jerusalem.”

This extract is taken from a presentation – summarized by Alexandra Wiktorek Sarloto a recent conference organized by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, the Penn-Temple European Studies Colloquium, and the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center as part of the Penn Slavic Department’s annual Slavic Symposium entitled “Russian Foreign Policy in the Putin Era.” Hosted by  International House Philadelphia, the conference brought together an impressive array of leading scholars on Russian foreign policy to discuss  Putin’s grand strategy and objectives, Russo-European relations, Russia’s oil and gas politics, and ways in which the West can work to counter Russia’s aggressive policies in its near abroad and beyond.


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