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Systemic Transformations and the Drift Toward Fascism in Russia

Alexander J. Motyl, Professor of Political Science; Deputy Director, Division of Global Affairs; and Co-director, Central and East European Studies Program, Rutgers University

Date & Time

Feb. 11, 2008
10:00am – 11:00am ET


All the post-Communist states of the former Soviet empire have experienced significant change in the last twenty years, but Russia's systemic transformations since Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika may be the most dramatic, said Alexander J. Motyl, professor of political science; deputy director, Division of Global Affairs; and co-director, Central and East European Studies Program, Rutgers University at a recent Kennan Institute lecture. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union moved from a totalitarian to an authoritarian system. For a time in the 1990s, Russia enjoyed a burgeoning democracy, only to embark under President Putin on a transition in the direction of fascism, Motyl contended. Although the current Russian system is not full-blown fascism, in Motyl's opinion it can be called "fascistoid"—that is, moving toward fascism. Motyl recognized the controversy of this characterization, but argued that fascism is a perfectly respectable social-science term to describe a particular political system, and that Russia today has a number of the features of a fascist system.

Motyl compared a range of definitions of fascism from social scientists such as Juan Linz, Robert Paxton, Michael Mann, Stanley Payne, and Roger Scruton. He said that all five scholars, despite disagreement on some points, more or less agree that fascism is hyper-nationalistic and vitalist; anti-democratic; elitist; centered on a supreme leader evoking vigor; and mass-oriented or collectivist. Motyl emphasized three points about the various definitions of fascism. First, there is a difference between a fascist movement out of power and a fascist system that is in power. Fascist systems, while repressive, are concerned with stability and use violence sparingly, whereas fascist movements use violence to mobilize and gain power. Second, the reason that fascist systems emerge should not be confused with the characteristics of such a system. That is, there is no reason to expect fascist systems to emerge the same way that others have historically done. Third, we cannot expect every example of fascism to be identical to other examples of fascism.

Motyl argued that Russia possesses many characteristics—a non-democratic and non-socialist political system; a hyper-nationalist, statist ideology; a hyper-masculine cult of the supreme leader; and an enthusiastically supportive population—of a fascist system. Yet does the combination of these characteristics mean that Russia is fascist? In some respects, Russia falls short of full fascism, Motyl acknowledged. Its party of power, United Russia, does not dominate Russian society and lacks a coherent ideology beyond promoting the glory of the Russian state and its people. Yet Russia is more than a basic authoritarian state, according to Motyl, and descriptive terms such as "patrimonial" or "tsarist" fail to adequately capture Russia's place along the spectrum of political systems. Evaluating whether Russia is developing a fascist system, Motyl concluded, can reveal how much, as well as the direction in which, Russia has changed, how stable a system it is, as well as future sources of instability.

Fascist systems, in their pursuit of centralization, encourage infighting among elites for power within the regime. When the supreme leader in such a system falters or leaves the scene, successor elites engage in cutthroat competition to assume the mantle of power. In Russia's case, suggested Motyl, a great deal depends on the role that Putin decides to play after his presidential term.

As prosperity grows, citizens under fascism will be increasingly less inclined to accept repressive rule. Putin's popularity is largely result of the widespread perception that he is responsible for Russia's national renewal from the humiliation of the 1990s associated in many Russian minds with "corrupt and weak democrats." However, Motyl observed, anger at past humiliations and consequent willingness to submit to unconditional authority is a weak foundation on which to build a state.

Finally, all fascist states scare their neighbors and provoke them to defend themselves against perceived threats. Fascism thus effectively creates the very enemies it invokes as its justification. Motyl suggested that aggressive responses from a fascist Russia to its neighbors' defensive stances would likely lead to overreach on Russia's part, resulting in foreign policy disasters that would expose the regime's relative weakness and thereby accelerate elite fragmentation and popular dissatisfaction. If this analysis is correct, Motyl concluded, a post-fascist Russia will probably enter an extended time of troubles, and could lead future generations of Russians to blame Putin for their misfortunes.


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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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