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Interview on Russia’s Anti-Western Ideologies “Imperial thinking is important”

The Kremlin in Moscow: centre of a longed-for empire? (Quelle: Pavel Kazachkov/CC BY 2.0)

This interview was originally published in German.

Belltower.News: Ms Bluhm, after eight years of surging conflict, Russia has invaded Ukraine. It seems to have validated the worldview of radical right-wing ideologue Alexander Dugin: he has long considered war an overdue necessity. What influence do people like Dugin have on Russian foreign policy?
Katharina Bluhm: Dugin’s influence on Putin is exaggerated in the West. He has not played a significant role in a long time. We have to expand our view. Dugin is part of the Izborsk Club, a right-wing think tank led by the writer Alexander Prokhanov whose members were very active in Ukraine in 2014. Back then, when Putin decided against escalating the Donbas conflict further, the Izborsk Club was again pushed further toward the margins. Right now the prevailing feeling among them is “Actually, we were right. Yes, more military force should have been applied back then”. But there is also a broader scene that shares that assessment.

So is it just simplistic to assume that far-right forces have direct influence on Putin?
It’s a complicated progression. It’s not just a matter of whether think tanks have direct influence on foreign-policy doctrine or whether far-right radicals like Dugin have access to powerful elites. The extreme right is somewhat marginalised in Russia today. That doesn’t mean that anti-Western and anti-liberal thinking are receding. In fact the opposite is true. These ideas have gradually made their way into the mainstream over the last 20 years.

Has rejection of the West taken hold as official policy?
Medvedev’s presidency was very much influenced by “conservative modernisation”. Behind that is the notion of integrating Russia into the Western-dominated global economic system. The Kremlin’s concept of “sovereign democracy” from 2006 also followed that assumption. Even then, it wasn’t just people like Dugin who rejected it. It was also contested by “patriots” who can’t really be classified as part of the radical right-wing fringe. They also wanted their own “Russian path” toward development and to disconnect from the West. After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, that rejection became an increasingly important part of official policy. Annexing Crimea accelerated that dynamic and today that thinking is present even in academic institutions.

Can you name an example?
Look at Russkaya Narodnaya Liniya, for example. It’s a monarchist-Christian news agency. On 26 February 2022, it published an article by economist Oleg Sukharev on its web portal. Sukharev was born in 1972, so he’s ten years younger than Dugin. He works at an economics institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He writes that he also supported a military solution in Ukraine in 2014 and compares the current Western sanctions with European wars against Russia during the pre-Soviet era as well as World War II and the Cold War. For him, the West is engaged in a war of annihilation against Russia.

Where does that idea come from?
This anti-Western outlook isn’t just about zones of political influence or searching for a distinct Russian identity. These kinds of ideas also have a geo-economic dimension. The Russian elite and “patriotic” circles are competing with China and India while the US is losing influence and China is rising. Where is Russia’s place in all of that? They want to build their own world centre not only in military terms, but also economically, which the West will not tolerate. In order to achieve that, they regard Ukraine and Belarus’s industrial potential, skilled labour force, and consumers as indispensable. That view also feeds on the traumatic experiences of the 1990s: not just the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but also the economic decline.

One core element of that ideology seems to be a focus on the space between Europe and Asia. Most Western observers associate the “Eurasianism” in it with Alexander Dugin.
Dugin certainly had his heyday in the late 1990s. Even in the early 2000s, he was still a guest in parliamentary committees and military advisory bodies. But the desire for Russia to be its own geopolitical pole in a multipolar world is very widespread. Dugin did not cause that. It’s not his thinking alone that shaped the Russian elite. Nor does Dugin even represent classical Eurasianism, which is more oriented toward the East. By bringing German and British thought from the interwar period into the equation, Dugin shaped his own brand. Initially, his idea was that Russia could form a geopolitical axis with the reunited Germany and Japan. That is German geopolitical thinking from the 1930s.

So Dugin is oriented toward Europe…
In the late 1980s, Dugin set out to study the French New Right and Italian fascism. He connected with the European right through a shared rejection of an alliance with the US and a rejection of the European Union. To this day, he believes that Europe needs an alliance with Russia against transatlanticism. However, in his disappointment that Germany and Europe didn’t separate from the US, Dugin has undertaken a typical turn toward the East – toward China, but also toward Iran. Dugin maintains very active relations with Tehran, which he sees as embodying “traditional Islam”. At the moment, that is where his vision of society and statehood lies and it doesn’t have many supporters in Russia.

Dugin isn’t the only radical right-wing ideologue. But can everything be ascribed to Eurasianism?
Let’s stay with the Izborsk Club. It brings monarchists, neo-Stalinists, and Russian Orthodox conservatives together. There is only one woman in their fraternity. All of these “patriots” want Russia to assert itself as an independent power in Eurasia, but they justify it in different ways. Eurasianism thinks in terms of geographic spaces, which makes Russian identity appear as a symbiosis of West and East. It includes the influence of peoples from Mongolia. But the club also includes people like Tikhon, a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church. He is considered Putin’s confessor and has written books and directed movies.

People like Tikhon use religion in their arguments?
Orthodox conservatives and monarchists emphasize Russian Orthodox culture above all. For them, it is the church that gives Russia an identity. They point to Greek Orthodox Byzantium and see themselves in the tradition of Dostoevsky, who called Moscow a “Third Rome”. That has little to do with Asia or Turkic peoples in Eurasia.

Is Russian nationalism the lowest common denominator for these various groups?
I’ve been working on the question of Russian nationalism for a long time. From our European perspective, we are too quick to use that word. We associate nationalism with the existence of a nation state and think of a nation as an imagined community that is often, but not always, linked with the creation of a homogeneous ethno-cultural foundation. That kind of nationalism does exist in Russia as well, mostly directed against people from the Caucasus or Central Asia. It is often antisemitic. But full-throated ethno-nationalism is relatively marginalised and has been actively suppressed since 2006. Far more important is imperial thinking. That is distinct from ethnic nationalism insofar as it has to be more inclusive. Without that distinction, we cannot understand why the Kremlin emphasises Russian claims to great power status in unison with the conservative right while also condemning nationalism in the Baltic states and Ukraine as chauvinistic.

Even still, that “imperial thinking” seems to be connected to the demand for a leading role for Russia in the Slavic world. Do you not see chauvinistic nationalism in that?
Nationalism is bound up with the nation state. Yet Putin has emphasized for a long time that the idea of the nation state is incongruous with Russia. According to him, Russia is a multiethnic state, a civilisation, or even an empire. And empires don’t have fixed borders the way nation states do. By contrast, Greater Russian nationalism fits quite well with imperial thinking. Both are chauvinistic or hegemonic in their way, given that they both regard Russian culture and the Russian nation as superior to others. Greater Russian nationalism, which contributed to the attack on Ukraine, considers Belarus and Ukraine to be essential components of the Russian people. Strictly speaking, it is different from Eurasianism, which primarily focuses on the space between Europe and Asia. The suppression of the protest movement in Belarus and the attack on the Western-oriented Ukraine ultimately threaten the Eurasian integration project. A long-term alliance cannot be built by force.

The Eurasian Alexander Dugin is actively involved with the radical right-wing think tank Katehon, which was founded by former investment banker and well known monarchist Konstantin Malofeev. Andrey Klimov is also a member of the supervisory board. Klimov is a member of the ruling United Russia party and has a seat in the parliamentary Federation Council.
You can see that it’s been a long time since neo-imperial thinking was a fringe phenomenon. Its various incarnations share a common language and a common geo-economic agenda. Nonetheless, we have to distinguish between them for research purposes, even if they often overlap. The official discourse also differs between the various conceptions due to the fact that Russian national identity is unstable. The country is searching for it. And given that it has decided against Western integration under the current leadership, desirable “traditional values” are being conceived precisely to distinguish it from today’s “West”.

The featured image was published under the Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

Translated by Joseph Keady.



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