(Guest post by by Greg Afinogenov.
Greg Afinogenov is a PhD candidate in Russian history at Harvard University. He is currently working on his dissertation on intelligence and Russo-Qing relations in the eighteenth century. His essays have appeared in the London Review of Books, and online in n+1, Bookforum, and other venues.
“Fascism” is a word that’s getting thrown around a lot in the postcommunist world these days. Moscow accuses the Maidan protesters of being fascists, and many of them certainly are. Tim Snyder accuses Moscow of being fascist, and in many ways it certainly looks that way. Fascists are on Russian YouTube torturing gay people and in the Hungarian government defending the Nazis. The challenge of the far right is shaping up to be one of Eastern Europe’s defining twenty-first century struggles (for a change).
But I don’t want this post to be about fascism. The word summons up a lot of things, many of them superficial—the black-red flags in the streets of Kyiv—and many of them quaint historical anachronisms, like admiration for Hitler and Hugo Boss uniforms. In Russia, the reality is that the organized far right is a sideshow to what is really going on, and it’s impossible to think about it properly as long as we keep thinking of politics as a slippery slope that may or may not lead to an approximation of a concrete regime that existed in mid-20th century Germany. After all, Russian neo-Nazis have always seemed to be a losing proposition as a mass-political phenomenon: by crudely using the symbolism and trappings of a regime that almost all Russians think their country heroic for having destroyed, they’ve forgone the support of their core target population.
In its latest political swing, the regime in Russia has not made this mistake. The Great Patriotic War is more important as an ideological keystone now than it has been in decades, and its categories—fascist, collaborator, patriot—are a means of understanding politics as well as justifying repression. This is why the Maidan’s far right wing is such an ideally-positioned target for the Kremlin’s fascist antifascism. Who better to demonstrate the link between United States foreign policy, liberal protest politics, and the supposed resurgence of Nazis and “pogromists” in Europe?
The best way to understand what this turn means, and how dark its consequences might well be, is to watch the first 16½ minutes of this profoundly disturbing video. Here, I’ll try to walk you through them. They are an important 16½ minutes, because they encapsulate almost everything that the Putin regime has decided is worth promoting and defending in the realm of ideology after the events in Ukraine. They’re also important to understand as a whole rather than in terms of one quote or snippet: the sheer density of semantic content in these scant minutes needs to be appreciated on its own terms.
First, a little context. On January 27, the anniversary of the lifting of the WWII Blockade of Leningrad, the TV channel Dozhd’ was incautious enough to ask its viewers whether it might not have been better to (theoretically) save lives by surrendering the city. As a result, the channel—which had been just the teensiest bit more liberal than the state channels—was dropped by Russia’s cable providers in what now looks to have been an obviously pre-orchestrated Kremlin maneuver. On February 10, the well-known liberal media personality Viktor Shenderovich published an (awful) online article in which he confessed his discomfort at rooting for Russia’s Olympic champions, including the 15-year-old skater Iuliia Lipnitskaia, because of the dividends her success would bring to Putin’s popularity, much as German Olympics fans’ admiration for shot-put champion Hans Woellke had done for Hitler. On February 18, the general director of the liberal-oasis radio station Ekho Moskvy, where Shenderovich works, was replaced with a woman with strong state-media ties. This episode of Vesti nedeli aired on February 16.
Just remember: the host is Dmitrii Kiselev, the head of Russia Today, which as of late last year is the Russian state media agency. The show is Vesti nedeli, News of the Week, the “TV newsmagazine” version of post-Soviet Russia’s oldest and stodgiest news program. In other words: this is not Bill O’Reilly ranting for a select audience on a channel known to be ideological. This is, for all intents and purposes, the official view of the Russian state.
0:00 – 1:30. In this episode: the standard array of indictments of liberals, Maidan protesters, and Europeans.
1:39 – 4:00: Kiselev jumps right in, with “Scumbag?” next to Shenderovich’s picture. The line of attack is simple. Shenderovich proves Putin’s true liberalism, because Putin allows this grotesque abuse of free speech to stand. And to some extent it’s true: the liberals at Ekho have become complacent, because the regime has for so long failed to shut them up, or down. The times, they are a-changin’. As Kiselev makes clear, the official line now is that “our liberalism is fighting against our country,” and Shenderovich’s supposed attack on Lipnitskaia is a “provocation bordering on sabotage.”
4:01 – 5:11: Kiselev takes on his next target, the poet and Shenderovich ally Igor Irten’ev. For a while he digresses on a throwaway line about how the only substantial difference between the 1936 and 2014 Olympics is the Third Reich’s superior quality of life. He shows archival footage, quotes Brecht, and strains to prove the real poverty of 1930s Germans. This seems to be a bizarre choice for this kind of show. Why would anyone care?
5:12 – 5:32: Now we know why. All along this has been leading to the revelation that Irten’ev’s real name is Rabinovich, instantly recognizable as Jewish. In Nazi Germany, Kiselev intones darkly, both liberals would have been sent to concentration camps.
This is worth dwelling on. The invocation of the Jewishness of both writers serves to activate a whole series of dog whistles embedded in this segment, dog whistles which are rooted in the pathologies of post-World War II Russia. The stereotype is that Jews are rootless cosmopolitans without any real devotion to their country, willing to betray it whenever it’s convenient; they are weak cowards who shirked fighting in the war, when real Russians died for them, but who love playing the victim; above all, they are tightly linked to the supposedly liberal era of the 1990s, when Russian politics was dominated by mainly Jewish oligarchs. All of these associations are instantly recognizable to the Russian viewer, who is well aware of these narratives even if she is not herself an antisemite.
5:33 – 7:56: Kiselev portrays the liberal opposition as being deliberately provocative in an attempt to invite persecution, thus providing the justification for loud complaints. But now that it has failed to bring persecution about, it has begun to “overstep all bounds.” A series of personal attacks follow, in which Shenderovich is accused of not loving anyone or anything (it’s very clear what “thing” he’s supposed to love) and therefore not being loved in return. Kiselev brings in a quote from August Strindberg, who says that not being loved leads to a loss of valor (in Russian, the word is literally “manliness”). This then leads into a general indictment of Ekho, with a bewildering analogy to German emperor Henry II’s asking forgiveness from the Pope at Canossa worked in. (This mixture of erudition and political bile is Kiselev’s trademark.)
7:57 – 8:14: Kiselev introduces the segment’s second portion, an extract from a new TV documentary called The Biochemistry of Treason. From here on out, things get a whole lot less subtle, and a whole lot more chilling.
8:15 – 10:57: The documentary begins with a discussion of how rare treason was in World War II. Most people would never betray their homeland, but some small number would. “And how many would there be today?” the narrator asks. The answer, apparently, is a few, and they belong to a few key groups, represented by a dumpy blogger and a scrawny “political refugee.” “This,” the narrator says, “is the voice of a new generation: hipsters, bloggers, expats, ‘creatives.’” The field of targets here is broader that Ekho and its liberal contributors. It’s everybody who does not fit the Kremlin’s populist-reactionary vision of Russian political life. “Do these traitors have a common agenda?” Yes: they believe flags are just pieces of cloth. Finally the fundamental question: what connects the traitors of the present, who invariably ask for asylum in the United States, with the traitors of the past? After all, says an interviewee, treason applies to fighting with pen or microphone in hand just as much as it applies to fighting with rifles.
10:58 – 12:10: The video takes us to the roots of the term “fifth column,” tracing its origins in the Spanish Civil War. It makes the connection to Stalin’s purges, which historians have linked to the Spanish experience. “The scythe of repression cut down the innocent and the guilty,” the narrator declares. “Yes, and the guilty as well. For many this was clear at the time.” What comes next is a surprise: scenes from the 1942 American movie Mission to Moscow, which attempted to justify the new US ally’s homicidal behavior to wartime viewers.
12:11 – 14:50: The historical excursus continues, with a discussion of the fate of Vlasov—one of Russia’s most reviled traitors, a Soviet general who fought for Hitler during the war. The United States, it is made clear, sheltered the survivors of his army after the war, intending to put them to nefarious Cold War ends. The interviewees here area series of left-wing American writers who proclaim as much, especially American University historian Christopher Simpson, author of Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and its Effect on the Cold War. (According to Simpson, whom I contacted, the documentarian—the notorious Konstantin Semin—represented himself as making a film exposing the dangers of far-right youth gangs, the very people this segment is in fact meant to stir into action.) The point about the American connection to Russian traitors is made again and again. Finally, the filmmaker travels to a monument to Vlasov near New York City, where he points meaningfully to the Stars and Stripes that “protect it from storms, dangers, and the fury of the victims of Nazism.”
14:51 – 16:22: The extract returns to a present-day Vlasov sympathizer, and counterposes him to a retired KGB general who accuses all sympathizers with Judas of being Judases themselves. The point is then driven home: it was right to “hang and shoot” all those people who would have applauded the entry of Nazis into Moscow, because “the survival of the nation depends on the proper behavior of the state.” And then, at last, the verdict. People who believe that the world is “complex” and consists “not solely of black and white” and thus “every opinion has a right to exist” are, it is implied, deluded fools at best and traitors at worst. There is no room for ambiguity here.
It goes without saying that Kiselev’s show is disturbing for many reasons, in part because Western viewers have been accustomed for so long to a euphemistic style of politics that Russia now seems to be abandoning—gleefully, almost absurdly so, if the documentary’s end is any indication. In the United States, as Lee Atwater famously summed it up in 1981, “you can’t say ‘nigger’— that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.” Until recently, this has held true for Russia as well. Even in the wake of the bill against “gay propaganda,” the coyly disingenuous official line has been that Russia has nothing against gay people as long as they “don’t touch the children.” Repression, in this view, is what has to be done behind closed doors or by people with no official standing so that the façade of liberal modernity can preserve its skyscraper polish.
I said above that these 16½ minutes encapsulate the new Putinist ideology, and they do, more explicitly than has hitherto seemed possible. What you see here are not just the familiar totalitarian tropes—the threat of the external enemy, the fifth column, the association between liberalism and spinelessness, Jewishness, effeminacy, cowardice. They also openly present to us the spectrum of targets the regime sees as fair game. These have been sketched out in all sorts of arenas ever since the Bolotnaia election protests, when the regime abandoned its temporary alliance with the emerging urban middle class, but rarely have the characterizations been so lurid or so extreme. It was easy to anticipate that LGBT people would not be the last targets of the rightward lurch; the new propaganda push makes it harder to predict who will be.