Rise of the new Russian empire

Influential followers of Putin see his actions in Ukraine as the first step towards the creation of an Orwellian superpower: Eurasia

Matthew Campbell Published: 20 April 2014 Sunday Times and Searchlight Magazine

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Just down the road from the British Museum in London, the Bloomsbury Hotel takes pride in its facilities. Its website boasts of a location “in the shadow of Centre Point, the iconic modernist tower where the vibrant West End meets the burgeoning East”.

It seemed an appropriate venue for an unusual group that met in one of the hotel’s conference rooms on a Saturday afternoon last October. Among them were aspiring revolutionaries of the British and French far right and Russian neo-imperialists.

They were sworn to secrecy. Organisers gave out a telephone number to call on the day of the meeting, directing participants to a theatre just off the Tottenham Court Road. From there they were escorted on foot to the hotel.

The precautions were considered necessary because of a threat of disruption from anti-fascist campaigners: Aleksandr Dugin, the guest speaker, is a Russian nationalist guru who has expressed admiration for the Nazis and wants to extend the Kremlin’s sway into western Europe.

To the uninitiated he might sound like a crackpot with his talk of a “Eurasian empire” stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon, like the neo-Stalinist superpower in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Yet Dugin’s star is rising. It may come as some surprise in the West, but his ideas are well on the way to being incorporated into a new, official ideology emerging in Moscow. His thinking helps to explain why President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in February, as well as giving a clue to what may come next — none of it good.

“Ukraine is just the first step,” says Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian academic in London and expert on the far right. He attended the Dugin talk under an assumed name after being given the secret telephone number by a friend and paying the $A40 entrance fee.

“For that we didn’t even get a snack or a drink,” he complained. But the audience was treated to a classic rant from one of the Kremlin’s favourite ideologues.

Dugin, with his long beard and melancholic expression, bears all the signs of the Slav prophet in the tradition of Grigori Rasputin, the mystic monk who advised the Romanovs, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the novelist and critic of Soviet totalitarianism.

His talk that day was entitled The End of the Present World (The Post-American Century and Beyond). In it, he outlined what he called a “fourth political theory”, after communism, fascism and liberalism, which he claimed to have invented.

It is called Eurasianism, a dogma inspired by fascism and Stalinism that is intended to answer Russians’ nostalgia for empire and yearning for a strong national identity.

In the Eurasianist view, the motherland is threatened by a western conspiracy known as Atlanticism to which it must create a bastion of “Eurasian” power.

Conflict will always exist between Russia and America until one is destroyed, says Dugin. To save itself, Russia must develop its unique civilisation and an empire including not only former Soviet states but much of the EU.

Britain would be spared — the Eurasianist world map puts it in decadent America’s backyard where it is not a target for occupation.

Experts on post-Soviet Russia debate the significance of Dugin. Some regard him and other nationalists spreading their ideas through television channels in Moscow as actors in a carefully choreographed piece of political theatre.

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Putin encourages them to spout their extreme views, the experts say, so that when he takes to the stage he appears moderate.

The way this Kremlin puppet show works was demonstrated last Thursday when a woman stood up on cue in Putin’s press conference and asked when he was going to take back Alaska. Putin made clear that he was not about to march on America. But hardly anybody believes he will content himself with Crimea.

A video promoting Eurasianism shows Dugin pointing a rocket launcher at the sky. In the background is a thundering soundtrack of Russian hymns and threatening heavy metal. His followers are seen carrying black flags emblazoned with a logo of arrows bursting outward.

To some he is a clown. But he has friends in high places — he even holds a professorship at Moscow State University, the Russian equivalent of Oxford or Harvard.

“He has become part of the establishment,” said Andreas Umland, a Kiev-based German academic and Russia expert. “There are people in the highest echelons of power who protect him.”

There is no evidence that he has developed a Rasputin-like sway over the Russian leader, but he claims to have moved in Kremlin circles for years and is one of several radical nationalists whose fortunes have soared of late under Putin’s conservative pivot.

Their influence is already being seen in Putin’s “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet states that will come into being next year. It may fall short of a new Soviet empire — it is billed by Russian officials simply as a customs union and Slavic version of the EU — yet Dugin and friends see in it the seeds of a grander ambition.

Moscow these days is seeing a resurgence of overlapping ideologies. On the one hand there is nostalgia, shared by Putin, for the days of the Soviet empire: in March, he reintroduced a Soviet-era system of sports competitions for workers and government officials. The nostalgia is also expressed in the popularity of packaging emblazoned with Soviet symbols, the public apparently convinced that food quality control was stricter in Soviet days.

Putin seems just as much taken, however, with tsarist grandeur — he is said to have built a sumptuous palace dripping with gold trimming on the Black Sea.

Another ingredient in this toxic brew is the radical nationalism of the far right: Sergei Glazyev, an economist and founder of the extremist Rodina, or Motherland party, was once on the fringes of politics. Now he works in the Kremlin. He is the adviser in charge of Putin’s Eurasian Union.

He is also a friend of Dugin. The two belong to the Izborsk Club of ideologues, set up by Alexander Prokhanov, a newspaper editor advocating the restoration of the Soviet Union, if necessary by force.

Prokhanov speaks of a “strong ideological mutation” under Putin, whose government he contrasts with that of Boris Yeltsin, the president in the 1990s. “In Yeltsin’s time I was seen as a monster by the regime, a character out of hell,” he said. “I was under threat of arrest. Now I am regularly invited to Kremlin events.”

Another member of the Eurasianist gang is Dmitry Kiselyov, a popular television host and director of a media conglomerate. He is famous for proclaiming on air that Russia is the “only country in the world capable of turning the United States into radioactive ashes”.

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He took Putin’s campaign against homosexual rights to chilling extremes by saying that gay people who died in car accidents should have their hearts cut out and incinerated.

It is a measure of Russia’s authoritarian drift of late that figures such as he and Dugin have been thrust into the mainstream.

Annexing Crimea appears to have been the first example of Eurasianism in action, unleashing the biggest crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

In what may be the second act, armed men in eastern Ukraine, whipped up by the relentless Kremlin propaganda machine and led, in some cases, by members of Russian special forces, have seized government buildings, stormed police stations and torn down the country’s flag.

They, too, want to be part of Russia. Will Russia step in, as it did in Crimea, on the grounds that it must protect its citizens abroad?

A divided EU and an American president, Barack Obama, who is regarded in Moscow as weak, seem incapable of offering much resistance. Limited sanctions, including travel restrictions for certain Russians close to the Kremlin and the freezing of some overseas assets do not appear to have troubled Putin any more than threats from John Kerry, the US secretary of state, to bar him from the G8. America was reportedly on the verge of sending troops to Poland yesterday.

The presence of 40,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, meanwhile, and Putin’s reference on Thursday to “New Russia” — the tsarist term for eastern and southern Ukraine — have done little to persuade Ukrainians that the Kremlin is about to back down.

Swarming with men in military fatigues, Kiev is abuzz with ominous chatter about an imminent Russian invasion. It is widely assumed in Ukraine that a “de-escalation” agreement reached in Geneva last week between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and America will swiftly unravel. Can the West do anything to stop Putin?

Years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, called Ukraine the key piece on the “Eurasian chessboard”. Hannah Thoburn, a Washington-based expert on Eurasianism, explains: “If you have Ukraine, the Eurasian union moves a little further west and puts it right on the border of the EU. Russia desperately wants to have Ukraine.”

Throughout history Russia has been plagued by an identity crisis. “Slavophiles” and “westernisers” have argued endlessly about whether Russia is part of Asia or Europe. The debate is exemplified in symbols such as Russia’s two-headed eagle, one head looking to the east while the other is turned to the west.

Eurasianism, the happy compromise, was not invented by Dugin, as he claims, but was developed in the 1920s by Russian exiles as an alternative to bolshevism and the decadent West. The downfall of the West was imminent, they believed, and Russia’s day as the world’s dominant power was about to dawn.

Dugin’s followers believe that too, but with a new twist: he has written that Russia needs to bring in an “authentic, revolutionary and consistent fascism” to win the war with the West. Is this where the country is heading?

There has been talk among Moscow’s beleaguered opposition politicians of a “Nazification” of the elite through the installation of Putin loyalists in key posts in academia and the media, which has evoked comparisons with Hitler’s Germany; and if a new hybrid is about to emerge from the ideological cauldron, it is almost certain to play on the idea of Russia as a bulwark against western decadence with its stand against gay rights.

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There are growing fears for the future of Russia’s democratic institutions as Putin seeks to carve a hero’s name for himself in history.

Dugin and his nationalist friends are fans of the French Nouvelle Droite, whose leader, Alain de Benoist, has been accused of espousing fascism and once proclaimed: “Better to wear the helmet of a Red Army soldier than to live on a diet of hamburgers in Brooklyn.” He was one of the speakers last year at the Bloomsbury Hotel.

The biggest round of applause, however, was reserved for Dugin, who was cheered when he reminded listeners that Putin’s muscular diplomacy had saved President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from an American-led military intervention.

Dugin boasts of having been “in close contact with the Kremlin, and with those in the Kremlin who make decisions” for the past 15 years. He has claimed that Putin, who has led Russia as president or prime minister since 2000, embraced a version of his anti-American ideology because it served his domestic interests.

“Anti-Americanism has become the main ideology, the main world view among Russians,” Dugin said. “And now, after Crimea, we have passed the point of no return … there will never be another ‘reset’, ever.”

According to some observers, though, Putin, a former KGB officer, is not intent, like Dugin and other fundamentalists, on world domination — and is certainly not about to send his tanks against NATO.

“Putin just wants the good old times back,” said Umland. “He wants a KGB-controlled society that he understands. Not a revolutionary new society.”

Under this argument, Putin acted in Crimea because he knew that the West was too weak to stop him. It paid off — his popularity rating has soared as Russians rejoice in the return of a territory that they have for long considered their own.

“The people in the Kremlin are ruthless and corrupt but rational and not fanatics,” added Umland. “If the West had behaved differently over Crimea and made clear that there would be a major price to pay for annexing it, they would not have done it.”

What is Putin’s next move?

Ukraine has said it will wait until after the Easter holiday to dislodge the armed, pro-Russian separatists from government buildings in the east. This may be the trigger for Russian intervention. Transnistria, a small breakaway state in Moldova, west of Ukraine, where Moscow’s troops are already stationed, could be another target.

Putin may also want to bring pressure to bear on the Baltic countries with cyberattacks and disruption of trade. This would be intended eventually to push these former Soviet states back under the boot of the Kremlin.

In the end, though, nothing should surprise us.

“Two months ago it would have been hard to imagine that Russia would occupy the Crimea,” said Shekhovtsov from London. “Now everything is possible. The post-Cold War era has crumbled. The West should wake up to facts.”


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