The left needs to have a deep and complete understanding of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s aspirations in the current crisis. Some statements made by the U.S. left regarding the invasion of Ukraine have caused us concern. It seems when confronted with a complex array of contradictions, too many have lost an ability to sort out and grasp the principal contradiction: the Putin regime’s effort to subjugate Ukraine, end its sovereignty and deny its right to exist independently.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia. This process began immediately after the revolution of 1917,” Putin said in a televised address in February. “As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He is its author and architect. This is fully confirmed by archive documents…. And now, Lenin’s monuments have been demolished in Ukraine by his descendants. This is what they call decommunization. Do you want to decommunize? That suits us perfectly. However, it is not necessary to stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”
Putin here is clear enough: “Ukraine has no national rights that Russians are bound to respect. Prepare for reunification, reabsorption, or some other euphemism for subaltern status with Mother Russia.”
However, the difficulties faced by our left are still understandable due to other major contradictions. NATO’s expansion and press toward Russia’s border is a prominent one. Another issue is the tension between the U.S.A. and the European Union over military expenditures in their respective budgets. Another factor is the rise in pro-Putin right wing populist parties throughout most European countries. This echo can also be heard in the U.S. right. The EU’s conflict with the Global South, both in military campaigns and refugee crises, also come into play. And in Ukraine, there are also the actual fascists of the Svoboda party and its armed militia — though their influence was sharply reduced by the recent election of Zelenskyy. Both in Russia and Ukraine there are class and democratic disputes with corrupt oligarchs within the ruling elites.
Getting clear for the sake of both strategy and tactics will require a deep examination of Putin’s Russia and its political character and direction.
It is well-known that Putin was a KGB officer who entered the Russian elite circles. We are less familiar with his rise. House of Trump, House of Putin, by Craig Unger tells the story: As a working-class youth in the old USSR, Putin’s sole ambition was to be an intelligence officer. He was advised by the KGB that he should first attend law school. He did well. After his KGB training, the KGB sent him to East Germany to take up a position at the mid-level. When “the wall” came down and the USSR broke up, he was out in the cold. He returned to St. Petersburg and took a taxi to get back to his home. He also stayed in martial arts gyms because he was good at judo. In addition to sport and social solidarity the gym crews also ran lucrative drug trades, including selling heroin from Afghanistan. Putin used his money and connections politically, getting connected, first, to the city’s mayor, and later, to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He brought his judo friends along to every step. They served as a “security” force and were rewarded with escalating levels of corruption in taking over the country’s wealth via trade and buyout deals. They are still with Putin today as the core oligarchs of his inner circle. It is said that Putin’s political rule is a three-legged stool — his loyal gangsters, the new intelligence operatives and state bureaucrats.
The new Russian Federation was in great turmoil under Yeltsin. U.S. neoliberal think tanks held sway for a time with a “privatize everything” policy that soon produced the ruling order accurately named a “kleptocracy.” It caused living standards to fall, along with life expectancy. Chechnyan fighters were causing havoc. On his way out, Yeltsin put Putin in charge, and to Putin’s credit, he got an economy functioning via central control of Russia’s immense oil and natural gas wealth. He also crushed the Chechnya revolt. Putin won a popular majority for his own self, if not for his semi-gangster crew.
After the Yeltsin years, the Russian Federation settled into a “Presidential Parliamentary” system, wherein the elected president picks the prime minister and cabinet. He can remove both, but only the prime minister can be dismissed by parliament. This shifts the primary power to Putin, who has made good use of it. After being elected independent, he oversaw formation of the United Russia Party. It has always won solid majority support, partly due to serious opponents being imprisoned, or otherwise prohibited from running. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, (CPRF), is a significant but still loyal opposition to United Russia. While the Liberal Democratic Party of the Russian Federation(LDP) serves to provide a more secure backup for the dominant United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of the Russian Federation serves as a stronger support. The LDP, as many wryly note, is neither liberal nor democratic — nor is it much of a party. Its politics mix right-wing populism, a monarchism linked with the Russian Orthodox church, and a mixture of both.
Putin is closely aligned to the church and embraces the right-wing populism that the LDP offers. But his “conservative” politics have deeper roots. One might think that Putin may have some underlying loyalty to Marxism, having been both a KGB operative as well as trained through a USSR legal school. They would be mistaken if they did.How could this be? Putin was a KGB officer and had a deep understanding of how the USSR worked. During the Yeltsin era he observed the sweeping theft of vast amounts of state resources by the top members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, CPSU elites, and their criminal hangers. He quickly lost any illusions.
Putin assumed control in 2000. He visited the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow in 2006, just a few years after he took over. He placed flowers on three of the graves of prominent Russians he had reinterred: Gen. Anton Denikin (philosopher Ivan Ilyin) and Ivan Shmelev (writer). Many leftists will recognize the name Denikin, a military leader of the counter-revolutionary “whites” who tried to overthrow Lenin and restore reactionary rule. Shmelev is a lesser-known individual to us, but he was a popular Russian writer who joined the “whites.” (“Whites” was the term used during the Russian Civil War to denote the myriad counter-revolutionary forces. The “Reds,” of course, were the Communists.)
Ivan Ilyin, the most important and obscure of all today, is Ivan Ilyin. Ilyin was a Russian nationalist philosopher in Lenin’s time who turned fascist, even moving his work to Germany under the Nazis in the 1930s. Putin now has his officers studying Ilyin, along with Ilyin’s follower today, Alexander Dugin, a modern Russian fascist and favorite of Steve Bannon, formerly of team Trump. Both Ilyin and Dugin are theorists and advocates of “Eurasianism,” a worldview asserting that dominance of the central land mass “homeland” of both Europe and Asia is the key to world hegemony.
The point? Far from wanting to be a “new Stalin,” Putin’s dreams are more in tune with wanting to be a new Tsar of the Eurasian ”Third Rome.” The first “Rome,” naturally, was Rome (i.e., the Roman Empire), and the second was Constantinople (i.e., the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church). When that center of the Byzantine Orthodox world fell to Islam, the Orthodox church moved north and eventually settled in the Moscow of the Tsars, thus the “Third Rome” to save the Orthodox church and all Christendom. Today’s Russian Orthodoxy, as well as Putin, see the main challenge to the church in the values of Western liberalism and the corrupting ideas of the Enlightenment, especially notions of equality that extend to the defense of LGBTQ+ people, the right to abortion and related causes. Putin’s jailing of the feminist rock group Pussy Riot is a case in point. A good number of U.S. Christian nationalists also look to this side of Putin as today’s anti-liberal chief defender of Christendom worldwide.
Putin claimed these departed anti-Lenin and anti-Soviet “whites” were “true proponents of a strong Russian state” despite all the hardships they had to face. He stated, “Their main trait was deep devotion to their homeland, Russia; they were true patriots” and “they were heroes during tragic times.” He also placed red roses on the grave of the prominent Russian monarchist, writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was also laid to rest there.
“Eurasianism,” as the term suggests, stretches from the Great Wall of China to the coasts of the United Kingdom. To unite “the homeland,” then, requires purging all of Europe, especially the West, from the “Atlanticist” influence of the U.S. and the U.K.
“Proponents of this idea,” write Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn in Foreign Affairs, “posited that Russia’s Westernizers and Bolsheviks were both wrong: Westernizers for believing that Russia was a (lagging) part of European civilization and calling for democratic development; Bolsheviks for presuming that the whole country needed restructuring through class confrontation and a global revolution of the working class. Eurasianists emphasized that Russia was a unique civilization with its historical mission and center of power. They wanted to create a culture and center of power that was neither European nor Asian but had traits of both. Eurasianists believed in the eventual downfall of the West and that it was Russia’s time to be the world’s prime exemplar.”
The task of purging Europe of Atlanticism — its various forms of liberalism, socialism and social democracy — requires Putin allies within each country concerned. Hence over the past decade or so, we have watched Putin’s growing support, both financial and political, for a variety of right-wing populist parties and politicians. The 2017 Pew Research Center publication was studyExamining the trend of Europeans who prefer right-wing populist party being significantly more likely than others to express confidence Putin. “The largest increases in confidence were in Germany and Italy, where 31% of the public in each country expressed confidence in Putin in 2016 compared with 22% of Germans and 17% of Italians in 2012,” the study says. “Notably, the survey was fielded before revelations of Russian hacking in the U.S. presidential election and the subsequent increase in anxiety ahead of European elections.”
It goes on:
Within these countries, those who hold favorable views of right-wing populist parties — like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) or Italy’s Northern League — are more likely to express confidence in Putin than those who hold unfavorable views of those parties. Only half of those who rate the AfD positively and 46% who support the Northern League are confident that Putin will do the right things regarding world affairs.
In France, those partial to the right-wing National Front (FN) are about twice as likely as those with negative views of the FN to say they are confident in Putin’s leadership (31% vs. 16%). And those who view Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom favorably are nearly three times as likely as the party’s detractors to express confidence in Putin (26% vs. 10%).
Putin may have underestimated the impact of his invasion in Ukraine. This is not only because he underestimated Ukrainian resistance but also because of the response of forces from the political right across the globe. Putin appears to have underestimated how powerful national identity is among those who are trying to assert their national identities and sovereignties that they see being challenged. This has always been a problem for the far right internationally. How can one be an internationalist while being a passionate right-wing nationalist. Jason Horowitz writes in The New York Times:
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party — which received a loan from a Russian bank — declared Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not illegal and visited Mr. Putin in Moscow before the last presidential elections in 2017. Ms. Le Pen denounced Mr. Putin’s military aggression on Friday, saying, “I think that what he has done is completely reprehensible. It changes, in part, the opinion I had of him.”
Her far-right rival in the presidential campaign, Éric Zemmour, has in the past called the prospect of a French equivalent of Mr. Putin a “dream” and admired the Russian’s efforts to restore “an empire in decline.
Like many other Putin enthusiasts, Zemmour doubted an invasion was in the cards and blamed the United States for spreading what he called “propaganda.” Horowitz runs through a number of other European countries and their rightist leaders with similar results.
At least one voice from the U.S. Right is standing firm. Pat Buchanan has written a string of columns backing both Putin’s nationalist and religious “traditionalism.” Even with the invasion unfolding, he explains, “Putin is a Russian nationalist, patriot, traditionalist and a cold and ruthless realist looking out to preserve Russia as the great and respected power it once was and he believes it can be again.” He favorably compares Russia’s takeover of Ukraine to Teddy Roosevelt and Panama. (Roosevelt’s administration orchestrated the secession of Panama from Colombia and blocked Colombian troops from putting down the rebellion.)
Tucker Carlson Fox NewsHe has been continuing in a similar fashion with more half baked ideas. Carlson, who has been accused of being “one of the biggest cheerleaders for Russia” during the conflict, asked viewers whether Putin had called him a racist or promoted “racial discrimination” in schools, made fentanyl, attempted “to snuff out Christianity” or eaten dogs. “These are fair questions,” claimed Tucker, “and the answer to all of them is ‘no.’ Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that, so why does permanent Washington hate him so much?”
What does this mean?
For much of the left, exclusive opposition to U.S. imperialism is equivalent to being on the “right side” of history. This is often expressed as the belief that U.S. imperialism must be opposed as the top priority for the U.S. Left.
This ignores two things: first, it doesn’t acknowledge that the U.S. isn’t the only source of global violence, oppression, and secondly, that there have been times where the U.S. left had to focus elsewhere. This reality coexists alongside the fact the U.S. was still an imperialist.
What our examination should remind us is that Putin is part of a global right-wing authoritarian movement that seeks to “overthrow” the 20th century. In Putin’s specific case, we are looking at a complete repudiation of the founding principles of the USSR, most particularly, the notion of the right to national self-determination. However, the positioning of Putin-led Russia in the global right is also underway. Yes, there is opposition both to socialism and to constitutional law in general.
In the 1930s and 1940s, many anti-imperialists made the mistake of seeing in Imperial Japan as a savior against Western colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. It is to the credit of communists such as those of the Viet Minh in Vietnam, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Communist Party of China that they could see through the alleged anti-imperialism of Japan and recognize that what was being introduced through the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was not “co-prosperity” but capitalist domination under Japan and a racial subordination of entire populations.
We should ponder this history as we reflect on Putin’s obsession with Eurasia and the white supremacist, homophobic, sexist, religious intolerant politics that rest behind that one term.