The Strange Rebirth Of Imperial Russia
And why it could be here to stay.
“The huge iceberg Russia, frozen by the Putin regime, cracked after the events in Crimea; it has split from the European world, and sailed off into the unknown,” - Vladimir Sorokin, New York Review of Books, 2017.
The greatest mistake liberals make when assessing reactionaryism is to underestimate it. There is a profound, mesmerizing allure — intensified by disillusion with the shallows of modernity — to the idea of recovering some great meaning from decades or centuries gone by, to resurrect and resuscitate it, to blast away all the incoherence and instability of post-modern life into a new collective, ancient meaning.
Even when it’s based on bullshit. You’d be amazed how vacuous slogans about returning to a mythical past — “Make America Great Again!”, “Take Back Control!” — can move public opinion dramatically in even the most successful modern democracies. That’s one reason it’s self-defeating for liberals to press for maximal change in as many things as possible. National identity, fused often with ethnic heritage, has not disappeared in the human psyche — as so many hoped or predicted. It has been reborn in new and strange forms. Now is the time of monsters, so to speak. Best not to summon up too many.
This, it seems to me, is what many of us have missed about the newly visible monster of post-Communist Russia. It would be hard to conjure up a period of post-modern bewilderment more vividly than Russia in the post-Soviet 1990s. A vast empire collapsed overnight; an entire totalitarian system, long since discredited but still acting as some kind of social glue and cultural meaning, unraveled in chaos and confusion.
Take away a totalitarian ideology in an instant, and a huge vacuum of meaning will open up, to be filled by something else. We once understood this. When Nazi Germany collapsed in total military defeat, the West immediately arrived to reconstruct the society from the bottom up. We de-Nazified West Germany; we created a new constitution; we invested massively with the Marshall Plan, doing more for our previous foe than we did for a devastated ally like Britain. We filled the gap. Ditto post-1945 Japan.
But we left post-1991 Russia flailing, offering it shock therapy for freer markets, insisting that a democratic nation-state could be built — tada! — on the ruins of the Evil Empire. We expected it to be reconstructed even as many of its Soviet functionaries remained in place, and without the searing experience of consciousness-changing national defeat. What followed in Russia was a grasping for coherence, in the midst of national humiliation. It was more like Germany after 1918 than 1945. It is no surprise that this was a near-perfect moment for reactionism to stake its claim.
It came, like all reactionary movements, not from some continuous, existing tradition waiting to be tweaked or deepened, but from intellectuals, making shit up. They created a near-absurd mythology they rescued from the 19th and early 20th centuries — packed with pseudo-science and pseudo-history. Russia was not just a nation-state, they argued; it was a “civilization-state,” a whole way of being, straddling half the globe and wrapping countless other nations and cultures into Mother Russia’s spiritual bosom. Russians were genetically different — infused with what the reactionary theorist Lev Gumilev called “passionarity” — a kind of preternatural energy or will to power. They belonged to a new order — “Eurasia” — which would balance the Atlantic powers of the US and the UK, and help govern the rest of the world.
In his riveting book, “Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism,” British journalist Charles Clover recounts how mystical and often fictional accounts of Russian history pre-1917 endured through suppression in much of the Soviet era only to burst into new life under Vladimir Putin. Clover’s summary:
The [reactionaries] argued that their native Russia, rather than being a branch of the rationalistic West, was the descendant of the Mongol Horde — a legacy that the Bolshevik Revolution, with all its savagery, seemed to confirm. They saw in the Revolution some promise of a future — a shedding of Western conformity and the rebirth of authentic Russianness, a Biblical event, a cataclysm that brings earthly beatitude.
Alrighty then. But a civilization that sees itself as the modern incarnation of the Steppe Mongol tribes who ransacked cities and towns wherever they went is not quite a regular, Westphalian nation-state, is it? Nothing in modernity’s political structures quite captures it — because it is a pre-modern concept: mystical, spiritual, with no border to the north but frozen darkness, and no firm border between its neighbors to the south and west either.
And, of course, in the 1990s and 2000s, this fantastic vision of a new Russia appealed to youngsters, hipsters, gamers, and online freaks, in a similar fashion to alt-righters in the West at the time, and often with the same ironic lulz. A key figure here is Aleksandr Dugin, a guitar-strumming poet who resurrected Gumilev’s theories by writing “The Foundations of Geopolitics.” That book is perhaps the best guide to understanding where Putin is coming from, and what Russia now is.
Dugin has the same post-modern worldview as the woke left and alt right in the US: nothing is true; everything is power; and power must be exercised. For Dugin, “all ideology is mere language games or camouflaged power relations; all politics is simulacrum and spectacle; all ‘discourses’ are equal, as is all truth,” Clover writes. So of course it doesn’t matter if history is invented, lies repeated, myths invoked as facts. For the Russian reactionaries, just as for the critical race theorists, history is a tool to be manipulated and wielded to gain power, not a truth to be discovered and debated.
And when Dugin pontificates about the West’s desire to dismember Russia, or sees the Cold War not as a fight between liberalism and communism, but between “sea people” and “land people,” you’re never quite sure if he’s serious or not. Was the long standoff between the US and USSR really “a planetary conspiracy of two ‘occult’ forces, whose secret confrontations and unwitnessed battle has determined the course of history”? Or is he just out for attention?
But for Putin, it didn’t seem to matter. Dugin’s and Gumilev’s ideas were perfectly attuned to a post-truth dictatorship, crafted by relentless TV propaganda and opinion polling, and gave him a rationale for a post-ideological regime. So from 2009 onwards, Putin started using words like “passionarity” and “civilization-state,” rejecting a Western-style Russian nation-state, in favor of a multi-ethnic empire, in line with “our thousand-year history.” Putin went on in 2011 to propose a “Eurasian Union” to counter the EU. It’s worth noting here that this is not Russian ethnic nationalism: the whole point is that there are many distinct ethnicities in the Russian Empire, all united in the protective motherland. When today, Putin insisted that cultural diversity is Russia’s strength, this is what he meant.
In all this, the contours of Dugin’s thought is pretty obvious: “The Eurasian Empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, the strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.” Putin’s seething resentment of the West, his inferiority complex, his paranoia are all echoed in Dugin’s sometimes hypnotic prose — as Putin’s latest diatribes show. And yes, this is a kind of international culture war, which is why illiberal rightists across the West warm to the thug in the Kremlin — and why Putin just invoked JK Rowling as a fellow victim of cancel culture.
Dugin’s view of Ukraine? “Kill! Kill! Kill! There can be no other discussion. This is my opinion as a professor,” he told a magazine in 2014. A joke or not? As with many of Dugin’s provocations, hard to tell. Putin distanced himself a little afterwards.
Religion is part of this new Russia, as it is in American reactionism. Like America’s religious right, Dugin’s version of Orthodoxy has replaced Christian faith with Christianism — a fusion of politics and religious tradition in defense of a single charismatic leader’s authority — and against cultural liberals and their “gender freedoms.” How earnest is this? About as earnest as Donald Trump’s “faith.” But negative polarization — the consuming hatred of Western liberalism — keeps the show on the road, even in a country where actual belief in God is hard to find.
There is a tendency to talk of Russia as if Putin has hijacked the country, wresting it away from the West, and from being a “normal country.” I wish that were true. Putin is closer to many Russians’ view of the world than we’d like to believe; his popularity soared after the seizure of Crimea; his mastery of modern media manipulation means his war propaganda can work at home — at least for a while.
Most Russians see Ukraine as indelibly Russian, and they certainly don’t support a fully independent nation-state allied with the EU and NATO. This was the view of figures as disparate as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, George Kennan, and Joseph Brodsky in their time. And if you want to grasp the power of nationalism in Russia, remember that Alexei Navalny, Putin’s greatest potential foe, has built his career on it.
All of this, it seems to me, tells us something about this moment: the invasion of Ukraine is part of a now-established narrative of Russia defending its civilization against the liberal West. It is wrapped up in history and religion and a sense that Russia means nothing if it is just another nation-state, what Russophobe John McCain called a “gas station masquerading as a country,” wedged between Europe and China. For years now, Putin has built his legitimacy as a “gatherer of the lands” of his Russian ancestors, buttressed by a near-eugenic understanding of Russian identity: “We are a victorious people! It is in our genes, in our genetic code. It is transferred from generation to generation, and we will have victory!”
That seems preposterous — at least right now, as Russian troops in Ukraine take massive casualties and remain stuck in a stalemate. It proves reactionaryism’s core weakness: its alienation from reality and the present. You can theorize endlessly about Eurasia, the glories of Empire and the legacy of the Mongols, but if your tanks keep getting blown up, your communications don’t work, and your troops are poorly trained, it will all look pretty ridiculous soon.
More to the point, if your nostalgia for imperial nationalism confronts real actual living nationalism among those you’re invading, it will also lose. The crudeness of the invasion, its cruelty and incompetence have all conjured up a far stronger Ukrainian identity — among Russian and Ukrainian speakers — than ever before. And if your worldview is built on esoteric theory from hipster fascists, and you ignore how countries shift in real time in practice, you’ll misunderstand your enemy. What Ukraine has gone through in the past decade has changed it. What it has endured this past month has transformed it. In one terrible mistake, Putin has been more successful at nation-building than the US has been for two decades. He has built a new Ukraine even as he continues to carpet-bomb it.
Which is, of course, the caveat. The invasion of Ukraine is integral to the entire edifice of the Putin era. It is what everything has been leading up to — from Chechnya to Syria. If it ends in manifest failure, Putin is finished. But if it becomes a grinding, hideous war of attrition; if the West loses interest (as we surely will); if exhaustion hits Ukraine itself and Russia is able to pulverize and terrorize it from a distance, I’m not so sure. At the very least, Putin may succeed in the permanent annexation of the Donbas and Crimea, claim he has disarmed the “Nazis” in Ukraine, milk the conflict for a jingoistic boost, and declare victory.
Russia tends to win wars of attrition — whether against Hitler or Napoleon, or in Chechnya and Syria. Russian regimes have little compunction in the mass murder of civilians or brutal destruction of towns and cities where their enemies live. Putin has a narrative into which all of this fits, and the extraordinary sanctions — an economic nuclear bomb — imposed on Moscow will feed into his story of the persecution of Russia and the perfidy and hypocrisy of the West. Putin could become like Assad, his puppet, turning Mariupol into Aleppo, testing chemical weapons, but with a nuclear capacity to turn the planet to dust. Sanctions? Putin will use them, as Saddam did, to further demonize the West, and sing the praises of Russian stoicism and endurance.
I pray he fails. But Putin is not without allies. China, Brazil, India, Israel — they’re all hedging their bets, alongside much of the global South. And the invasion of Iraq and the US abandonment of the Geneva Conventions have greatly undermined any moral authority the West once might have had in the eyes of many in the developing world. This story is not over. Nor is this war. Nor the project Putin has constructed.
It may, in fact, just be beginning.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: an extra post on how the nuanced middle is increasingly lost; a very informative convo with Russia specialist Samuel Ramani; several long dissents over my analysis of Putin’s war and the American right; four quotes from principled conservatives defending Judge Jackson and dissing Donald Trump; five more quotes on the news of the week; 16 recommended links to other Substackers; a beautiful montage of the aurora borealis; two window views showing signs of spring; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge.)
From a happy subscriber:
Your points on Lia Thomas and “Don’t Say Gay” is the Dish at its very best: pointing out how complex these issues are, that there is nuance and cultural change is messy and difficult. I don’t know what the answer is either, and it requires discussion — yet, as you put it, “the radicalism of the critical queer and gender theory left and the moral panic of the religious right precludes it.” This more than anything else is why I read you. When everyone else is screaming, you come in and say, “Now wait a second, neither of those sound right.”
If you haven’t read Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict yet, I recommend it. It’s a quick, high-value read. The Dish is embodying the best of what she sees as the way out of intractable polarization.
New On The Dishcast: Samuel Ramani
Ramani is a tutor in the Department of Political Science at Oxford and a member of the Royal United Services Institute in London. He’s been to Russia and Ukraine many times in the course of getting his DPhil — the Oxford equivalent of a PhD — in International Relations. He has studied Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Syria, and has two books in the works — one on Russia in Africa and another on the current war in Ukraine.
At just 28, Ramani is a bit of a phenom. I wanted a deep dive on the subject of Putin’s Russia, and was not disappointed. I learned a huge amount, and I think you will too.
For two clips of our convo — on how the sanctions against Putin could actually help him, and on how serious the neo-Nazi presence is in Ukraine — head to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a long comprehensive dissent from a reader over my criticism of the American right when it comes to Ukraine, along with a few others.
Also, we also just transcribed another popular episode of the Dishcast — with Yossi Klein Halevi, who debated the history and nature of Zionism with me. Judea Pearl called it “the best discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has ever been aired anywhere.” See if you agree. Here’s a snippet:
Dissents Of The Week: No Minor Incursions Under Trump
Many readers have taken shots at my latest big piece, “Putin’s Challenge To The American Right.” This first dissenter quotes me:
Until as recently as January this year, “62 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents considered Vladimir Putin a stronger leader than Joe Biden.” That’s the primrose path down which the GOP led its supporters — seeing Putin as a more legitimate president than Biden.
Emphasis mine. Your condemnation is all or nothing.
Read the rest of the dissent here, along with my response to that and others. Another reader insists that I “misunderstood the situation” by not providing more context to Trump’s statements about Ukraine. Another dissenter felt it was “very unfair to pile on” Tucker Carlson. See if you agree.
And as always, you can send your own dissent here: email@example.com. We read them all closely, even if we don’t have space to post them all. Thanks so much for keeping the Dish on its toes.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing! The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
Keeping with the Russia/Ukraine theme this week, the following reader makes an impassioned plea:
I am originally from Ukraine (technically USSR at the time), and I am a long-time reader of the Dish. I enjoy your analyses, and as a geography lover, I have a special fondness for the View From Your Window contest. I write to you this time with a special request, related to Russia’s murderous assault on Ukraine. In the past week, and possibly earlier, Russia has started using thermobaric weapons (vacuum bombs). Based on initial evidence, they are using them to target civilian infrastructure, which is obviously a war crime.
Here is where VFYW comes in. In this Twitter post, Eliot Higgins (the founder of Bellingcat) makes the following request: “We have three videos in this thread that appear to show the same TOS-1A near Mariupol, and I believe it could be possible to geolocate the exact launch site, and narrow down exactly what it was firing at.”
Here is a thought: wouldn’t it be amazing if we could use the power of crowdsourcing to help pinpoint the location of the weapons in the video? From what I’ve seen, VFYW sleuths are pretty good at this. So I humbly ask if you could share said request with your readers, and perhaps we could solve the problem together.
The Vanishing Middle
One of the critical dynamics in our current cultural discourse is what Wes Yang has called “negative partisanship.”
(Read the rest of that post here, accessible to subscribers)
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as neo-Nazis in Ukraine, Modi’s illiberal India, and Jihad Rehab. Here are a bunch of new compatriots:
Two friends of the Dishcast recently made the move to Substack: Kathleen Stock and Helena Kerschner. Wes Yang has now expanded to podding. “Heterodox STEM” has launched to combat DEI with MFE — “Merit, Fairness and Equality.” Even Ron Swanson has a ‘stack now.
You can also browse all the Substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
See you next Friday.