In the current crisis, the left needs a full and thorough understanding of Vladimir Putin and his aspirations for Russia. We have been troubled by some of the statements from the U.S. left concerning the invasion of Ukraine. 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 grateful descendants have demolished monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. This is what they call decommunization. Do you want decommunization? Well, that suits us just fine. But it is unnecessary, as they say, 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.
The difficulties among our left, however, are still understandable, given there are other major contradictions in this terrain. NATO’s expansion and press toward Russia’s border is a prominent one. The tension between the U.S. and the European Union regarding military expenditures in their respective budgets is another. Then there is the rise of pro-Putin right-wing populist parties in most European countries, with an echo in the U.S. right wing as well. 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. And in both Russia and Ukraine, there are class and democratic conflicts with corrupt oligarchs among 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 entered Russian elite circles as a KGB officer. Less well known are the circumstances of 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. The KGB told him to go to law school first, where he did well. After his KGB training, he was stationed in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to a mid-level position. When “the wall” came down and the USSR broke up, he was out in the cold. He made his way back to St. Petersburg, driving a cab to survive and hanging out in martial arts gyms, since he was reportedly good at judo. Along with sport and social solidarity, the gym crews also ran a lucrative drug trade, selling heroin from Afghanistan, among other contrabands. Putin used his money and connections politically, getting connected, first, to the city’s mayor, and later, to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. At every step, he brought his judo friends with him. 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 remain with him today as the core oligarchs in 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.
Under Yeltsin, the new Russian Federation was in considerable turmoil. 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 wreaking 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 brutally crushed the revolt in Chechnya. Putin gained a popular majority for himself, if not for the semi-gangster crew around him.
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 dismiss both, but parliament can only dismiss the prime minister. This shifts primary power to the executive, and Putin has made much use of it. After being elected as an independent, he oversaw the formation of his United Russia Party, which has always won solid majorities, partly because serious opponents have been jailed or otherwise forbidden to run. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) serves as a sizable but still second-place loyal opposition to United Russia, while the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) serves as a more secure backup to the otherwise dominant United Russia. The LDP, as many wryly note, is neither liberal nor democratic — nor is it much of a party. Its politics are a mixture of right-wing populism and a monarchism connected with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Putin, closely aligned with the church, embraces the right-wing populism of the LDP as well. But his “conservative” politics have deeper roots. Some might think that as someone who was both a KGB operative and trained through a USSR law school, Putin might have some underlying fidelity to Marxism. If so, they would be wrong. How so? Note that Putin, as a KGB officer, had intimate knowledge of how the USSR actually worked. Then in the Yeltsin period, he watched the sweeping theft and privatization of vast state resources by the top sectors of the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) elites and their criminal hangers-on. If he had any illusions, they quickly evaporated.
Putin took charge in 2000. A few years later, in 2006, he visited the Donskoy Monastery cemetery in Moscow. He placed flowers on the new graves of three prominent Russians he had reinterred there: Gen. Anton Denikin, philosopher Ivan Ilyin and writer Ivan Shmelev. 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 is the most obscure and most important today. 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. Rather, Eurasianists stressed, Russia was a unique civilization with its own path and historical mission: To create a different center of power and culture that would be neither European nor Asian, but have 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 Pew Research Center in 2017 published a study examining the trend of Europeans who favor right-wing populist parties being significantly more likely to express confidence in 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.”
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. Just about half of those who give positive ratings to the AfD and 46% who favor the Northern League say they are confident Putin will do the right thing 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 miscalculated in his invasion of Ukraine, not only in terms of underestimating Ukrainian resistance, but also in terms of the response by forces on the political right around the globe. Putin seems to have underestimated the force of national identity among those trying to assert national identities and sovereignties of their own that they see challenged. This has traditionally been a difficulty for forces on the far right internationally, i.e., how can one be an internationalist when one is a fervent right-wing nationalist? As 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. While she opposes NATO, 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 on 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 on Fox News has been carrying on in a similar vein with more half-baked notions. 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?”
So, what does this tell us?
For much of the left, exclusive opposition to U.S. imperialism is equivalent to being on the “right side” of history. This is frequently articulated in terms of the notion that the priority for the U.S. left must be opposition to U.S. imperialism.
The problem here is that, first, it ignores that the U.S. is not the sole source of global violence and oppression on this planet and, second, that there have been times when the U.S. left has had to focus elsewhere, e.g., support for the Spanish Republic in 1936 in the face of a fascist uprising and the intervention of Italy and Germany. This reality coexists with the fact that the U.S. had not ceased to be 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. But what is also underway is the positioning of Putin-led Russia as a pole for the global right. Opposition to socialism, for sure, but also opposition to constitutional rule as a whole.
A mistake made by several anti-imperialists, in the 1930s and early 1940s, was to see in Imperial Japan a savior from Western colonialism and imperialism. 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.
CORRECTION: This article was corrected on April 4 to clarify that “Ukraine has no national rights that Russians are bound to respect…” was not a direct quote from Putin.