The Russian media and Russian politicians from the top down insist time and again that it is their duty to confront fascism in Ukraine, and to protect Russian speakers in particular against its dangers. Fascism or neo-fascism are now principally terms of political abuse, but they have an ancestry. Does the label fit today’s Ukraine, and if so, are the Russians well placed to hang it around Kiev’s neck? Let’s consider fascism’s key attributes.
Fascist movements in power, or near it, have a readily identifiable leader. There is none such in Kiev. But there is in Russia, and a simulacrum in Crimea now as well. The self-proclaimed Sergey (“Goblin”) Aksyenov was installed by Russian-promoted violence and is protected by Russian forces and Russian-organized Russophone crowds. Aksyenov is of no independent account in Crimea or for the Kremlin.
The fascist leader of a country relies on personal charisma, making succession to the role impossible. Ukraine has had four Presidents, Russia in reality two, with power increasingly concentrated in Putin’s hands. Spending the best part of 15 years in the Kremlin, with the possibility of racking up 24 in total if he runs again in 2018, has inevitably had its effect.
Fascism depends on legends of betrayals that must be avenged. There are those in Ukraine with bitter memories of Russia, but so far they have remained an insignificant minority. Yet a litany proclaiming that the West has betrayed Russia and is bent on its destruction has been assiduously promoted by Moscow over the years, and with particular force since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May 2012. The collapse of the Soviet Union was in truth because of its inherent failings, not a Western stab in the back.
The Russians condemn Ukrainians, and those from the western part in particular, as extremist nationalists. But it is the Russians who claim the right and duty to protect the interests (as the Russian government sees them) of Russian speakers beyond Russia’s borders. Ukraine makes no comparable claims. There is a kinship here in the Russian doctrine with the supposition that ethnic, blood-based solidarity transcends international borders. That ties in with Putin’s flirtation with a prospective legacy as the gatherer of Russian lands. Russia’s occupation of Crimea has heightened the danger of popular support within Russia for such fantasies becoming a governing norm.
Fascism depends on internal enemies that must be constrained. The expulsion of Yanukovych was the end result of a process arising out of Ukrainian domestic struggles over the proper governance and future of the country, complicated by Russian pressures on Yanukovych and his then-supporters. Contrary to Russian propaganda, it was not fuelled by ambitions by one or another ethnic or language group to impose its will on the rest of the population. By contrast, Putin’s governance of Russia has become increasingly repressive since May 2012, and increasingly vigilant in its watch over perceived internal enemies of the status quo.
Fascism depends on continuous, simplistic, populist, and misleading propaganda. Those who were involved in the increasingly contentious struggle to resist Yanukovych’s attempts to impose his developing agenda had no means or evident wish to follow such a course. Nor have the new authorities in Kiev tried to muzzle the press, free speech, or the mass media. The Russian authorities have by contrast greatly increased their pressure on the Russian media to ensure that they follow a centrally dictated line, and they have insisted on a mendacious and malicious version of what has happened in Ukraine.
Fascism rests on mob rule, not laws. Mob rule guided by the leader of course, not mass protests outside his control. The unrest in Ukraine up until the overthrow of Yanukovych was a response to the then-President’s attempt to impose his will. The new Ukrainian authorities have not resorted to mobs in trying to construct a new future for Ukraine. Moscow has by contrast done all it can to inflame Russian speaking Ukrainians—and Russian “tourists”—with fear of Kiev and the promise of Russian protection against it. The violence in Crimea, orchestrated from Sevastopol, has been particularly threatening towards both ethnic minorities and Russian speakers who might question the worth of turning themselves over to rule by Putin. It was Yanukovych’s enactment of laws criminalizing public assembly, copied from a Russian blueprint, that provoked the end game for his rule.
Corporatism was at the heart of fascist tradition. There are oligarchs in Ukraine as in Russia. But the Russian ones are more tied to the state, and the role of state corporations in Russia is more considerable. It is the ambition of Ukraine’s new authorities to establish the principles of the rule of law, independently adjudicated and applying to political and business leaders as well as ordinary citizens. Whether they succeed or not, this is not a fascist agenda. Russia remains governed by opaque laws which do not bind its elite. Economic and social relations are governed by mutual “understandings” instead. Who you know counts for most.
“Fascist” has indeed become a crude political insult, and the term can be used to cover states ranging from Peron’s Argentina to Nazi Germany. But the charge of fascism carries a particular force in the formerly Soviet space. World War II is the one sacral achievement that must not be questioned in Russia. To suggest that there are those in power in Ukraine who attack its accomplishments or indeed seek to reverse them is to plug into anger. Hence its value as a weapon to the Kremlin. But the record shows that while it would be a stretch to describe today’s Russia as fascist, there are elements in its bloodstream that should disqualify Moscow from so slandering others.