By Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has searched fruitlessly for a new grand strategy — something to define who Russians are and where they are going. “In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods — monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika, and finally, a democratic path of development,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Each stage has its own ideology,” he continued, but now “we have none.”
To fill that hole, in 1996 Yeltsin designated a team of scholars to work together to find what Russians call the Russkaya ideya (“Russian idea”), but they came up empty-handed. Around the same time, various other groups also took up the task, including a collection of conservative Russian politicians and thinkers who called themselves Soglasiye vo imya Rossiya (“Accord in the Name of Russia”). Along with many other Russian intellectuals of the day, they were deeply disturbed by the weakness of the Russian state, something that they believed needed to be fixed for Russia to return to its rightful glory. And for them, that entailed return to the Russian tradition of a powerful central government. How that could be accomplished was a question for another day.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom many of the Soglasiye still have ties, happened to agree with their ideals and overall goals. He came to power in 1999 with a nationwide mandate to stabilize the Russian economy and political system. Thanks to rising world energy prices, he quickly achieved that goal. By the late 2000s, he had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilization of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West — such as the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism — were popular in Russia.
True to Putin’s insistence that Russia cannot be judged in Western terms, Putin’s new conservatism does not fit U.S. and European definitions. In fact, the main trait they share is opposition to liberalism. Whereas conservatives in those parts of the world are fearful of big government and put the individual first, Russian conservatives advocate for state power and see individuals as serving that state. They draw on a long tradition of Russian imperial conservatism and, in particular, Eurasianism. That strain is authoritarian in essence, traditional, anti-American, and anti-European; it values religion and public submission. And more significant to today’s headlines, it is expansionist.
The roots of Eurasianism lie in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, although many of the ideas that it contains have much longer histories in Russia. After the 1917 October Revolution and the civil war that followed, two million anti-Bolshevik Russians fled the country. From Sofia to Berlin and then Paris, some of these exiled Russian intellectuals worked to create an alternative to the Bolshevik project. One of those alternatives eventually became the Eurasianist ideology. Proponents of this idea 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.
In 1921, the exiled thinkers Georges Florovsky, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Petr Savitskii, and Petr Suvchinsky published a collection of articles titled Exodus to the East, which marked the official birth of the Eurasianist ideology. The book was centered on the idea that Russia’s geography is its fate and that there is nothing any ruler can do to unbind himself from the necessities of securing his lands. Given Russia’s vastness, they believed, its leaders must think imperially, consuming and assimilating dangerous populations on every border. Meanwhile, they regarded any form of democracy, open economy, local governance, or secular freedom as highly dangerous and unacceptable.
In that sense, Eurasianists considered Peter the Great — who tried to Europeanize Russia in the eighteenth century — an enemy and a traitor. Instead, they looked with favor on Tatar-Mongol rule, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Genghis Khan’s empire had taught Russians crucial lessons about building a strong, centralized state and pyramid-like system of submission and control.
Eurasianist beliefs gained a strong following within the politically active part of the emigrant community, or White Russians, who were eager to promote any alternative to Bolshevism. However, the philosophy was utterly ignored, and even suppressed in the Soviet Union, and it practically died with its creators. That is, until the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia’s ideological slate was wiped clean.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 19, 2016. Alexei Nikolsky / Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters
In boosting Trump and funding fringe parties in Europe, Russia has helped construct a new kind of ‘Comintern’—and it’s even more effective than the Cold War version.
By Mike Lofgren
Oct 31, 2016 – One of the double-edged aspects of being a writer is that you can become known in all kinds of unlikely circles. That was what I was thinking when I pulled a large envelope out of my mailbox. The return address was Germany; the cover letter (in German) announced that I was the recipient of Compact magazine, and more oddly, requested that I should send an email confirming receipt.
The magazine itself, also in German, was about politics. A superficial look might suggest it was the anti-American manifesto of some fringe left-wing German group (“Heil Hillary! Candidate of US Fascism” reads one headline), but closer inspection revealed it came from the other end of the ideological spectrum.
A glance at a political profile of Jürgen Elsässer, Compact’s purported editor, discloses that he had been an extreme leftist who opposed German reunification and worked for Neues Deutschland, once the official newspaper of the East German Socialist Unity Party, the client Communist Party ruling East Germany in the interests of the USSR. Yet at some point in the 2000s, he migrated to the far right, and is now aligned with the new anti-immigrant party, Alternative für Deutschland. The prestigious newspaper die Zeit flat out calls Elsässer a Kremlin propagandist.
This year, the German public television network ZDF produced a documentary tracing the ideological and financial ties between Russia and extreme right-wing elements; among those elements was Elsässer. His own blogs show an over-the-top enthusiasm for the Russian regime, such as comparing Putin’s bombing of Aleppo with the Russian defense of Stalingrad. Whatever the realities of the situation in Syria, Russian intervention in the conflict hardly merits comparison with the decisive turning point of the Second World War.
There were other suggestions of Russian fingerprints on Elsässer’s magazine. It was printed on coated stock, with lots of photos and fairly high production values. Fringe parties generally can’t afford the production costs of this sort of thing—unless they are getting a bit of financial help. The editorial tone was a kind of unholy marriage between Breitbart.com and the Russian-funded website Sputnik, with a little Völkischer Beobachter thrown in for good measure (there was generous use of the term “Lügenpresse”—the lying press, a term popularized by the Nazis.) More to the point, it was written in the breathless, apocalyptic manner of the Soviet anti-NATO propaganda I used to see as a national-security analyst in Congress in the 1980s—with one exception.
Classic Soviet propaganda always treated Democrats and Republicans as essentially indistinguishable and interchangeable components of the bourgeois power structure, both equally worthy of denunciation. Compact, however, had several articles explicitly endorsing Donald J. Trump as an all-around swell guy, with one explaining how a President Trump would improve U.S. relations with Russia.
The propaganda message of this magazine crossed a threshold of sorts. The hacking of the Democratic National Committee that has been attributed to the Russians by the U.S. government is obviously intended to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, but the Russian government, and Vladimir Putin above all, have been careful to avoid being seen publicly praising or attacking either candidate.
Yet Putin, or at least his European allies, apparently see it as worth their while to spend money attacking Hillary and talking about Trump in terms so flattering that Caesar would have blushed, in a country whose citizens don’t have a vote in America’s election in any case. The Soviet Union’s goals in attempting to rouse the European (and above all, German) public against, say, NATO’s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s was straightforward and understandable, but why would an ideological ally of Russia puff up Donald Trump to a German public that cannot vote for him?
The strategy becomes more comprehensible when one acknowledges that Trump received the nomination of one of America’s two major parties, and, not long ago, was tied with Clinton in the polls. The message to nationalist and authoritarian-minded Germans is that Trump is a model: If, in the self-styled “greatest democracy in the world” the demagogic real estate mogul could have a decent shot at becoming president, then the right-wing fringe parties of Germany and the rest of Europe are not toiling in vain. If they work hard enough and employ the right themes, they can win.
Never in its wildest dreams could the old Soviet politburo have imagined it would get a U.S. major party candidate so congenial to its interests.
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Editor’s Note: We are quite aware that the author below is no Marxist. But his views on world affairs are always interesting, and have recently been taken seriously by both Obama and Sanders, but not Clinton. So with more than a grain of salt, he’s worth a read.
The American Interest
April 17, 2016 – As its era of global dominance ends, the United States needs to take the lead in realigning the global power architecture.
Five basic verities regarding the emerging redistribution of global political power and the violent political awakening in the Middle East are signaling the coming of a new global realignment.
The first of these verities is that the United States is still the world’s politically, economically, and militarily most powerful entity but, given complex geopolitical shifts in regional balances, it is no longer the globally imperial power. But neither is any other major power.
The second verity is that Russia is experiencing the latest convulsive phase of its imperial devolution. A painful process, Russia is not fatally precluded – if it acts wisely – from becoming eventually a leading European nation-state. However, currently it is pointlessly alienating some of its former subjects in the Islamic southwest of its once extensive empire, as well as Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, not to mention the Baltic States.
The third verity is that China is rising steadily, if more slowly as of late, as America’s eventual coequal and likely rival; but for the time being it is careful not to pose an outright challenge to America. Militarily, it seems to be seeking a breakthrough in a new generation of weapons while patiently enhancing its still very limited naval power.
The fourth verity is that Europe is not now and is not likely to become a global power. But it can play a constructive role in taking the lead in regard to transnational threats to global wellbeing and even human survival. Additionally, Europe is politically and culturally aligned with and supportive of core U.S. interests in the Middle East, and European steadfastness within NATO is essential to an eventually constructive resolution of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
The fifth verity is that the currently violent political awakening among post-colonial Muslims is, in part, a belated reaction to their occasionally brutal suppression mostly by European powers. It fuses a delayed but deeply felt sense of injustice with a religious motivation that is unifying large numbers of Muslims against the outside world; but at the same time, because of historic sectarian schisms within Islam that have nothing to do with the West, the recent welling up of historical grievances is also divisive within Islam.
Taken together as a unified framework, these five verities tell us that the United States must take the lead in realigning the global power architecture in such a way that the violence erupting within and occasionally projected beyond the Muslim world—and in the future possibly from other parts of what used to be called the Third World—can be contained without destroying the global order. We can sketch this new architecture by elaborating briefly each of the five foregoing verities.
First, America can only be effective in dealing with the current Middle Eastern violence if it forges a coalition that involves, in varying degrees, also Russia and China. To enable such a coalition to take shape, Russia must first be discouraged from its reliance on the unilateral use of force against its own neighbors—notably Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States—and China should be disabused of the idea that selfish passivity in the face of the rising regional crisis in the Middle East will prove to be politically and economically rewarding to its ambitions in the global arena. These shortsighted policy impulses need to be channeled into a more farsighted vision.