FASCIST NARRATIVES - The underlying dynamics of the Russian invasion
An essay by Anna Fees, University of Trier
It has been debated a lot in previous weeks, if the Russian invasion of Ukraine might be or become World War III, or if this framing of doom and impending apocalypse is problematic in itself. While war is still raging on the battlefields of Ukraine, let us contemplate from a future perspective the hypothetical question of the exact date of when WW3 might have started. As in the case of WW2, it is difficult to pin an exact date.
Did WW2 start in 1939, when the allied forces of Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland, which is what is taught in German schools? Or was it in summer 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, as children in Russia and Ukraine learn? Or was it in December 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbour, when the war truly went global? Or might it not be worth to search for the roots at earlier stages, before the first bullet was fired? Might we point to 1937, the year of the Hoßbach memorandum, when Hitler outlined his plans for war in Europe, the same year that the Japanese launched their invasion of China? Might contemporaries have considered the coup d’etat of some reactionary generals in Spain in 1936 the first forebodes of the war?
Did WW3 start in February 2022 with the attack of the Russian Federation on Ukraine? Was it the 26th March, when US President Biden explained the war as a conflict between freedom and tyranny, liberal democracies and autocratic countries on the march? Or should we not look at earlier stages, again? If we move backwards in time, we pass the putsch of Mr. Lukashenko in Belarus, look into the mass graves of Syria, consider the Maidan revolution in Ukraine 2014, see civil unrest in Russia 2011 and wars, already, and always, wars in Chechnya, Georgia, in between another revolution in Ukraine and war in Chechnya again.
“Over the last 20 years, Russia has been transformed into the blueprint of a fascist country and society.”
It can be argued that this campaign is just the latest and the extreme manifestation of a war that was declared on the very idea of liberal democracy, freedom and life itself by Russia a long time ago. Nor is Ukraine likely to be the last country to be attacked, should it fall and have to surrender to brute force or should Western powers force Ukraine into a muddy peace deal with Russia.
If this is a path towards a new world war, as argued from different perspectives or not is probably not a priority question for the moment. But it is worthwhile to look into the underlying developments that have led to the moment. Over the last 20 years, Russia has been transformed into the blueprint of a fascist country and society. An ideology of victimhood, sacrifice, violence and war of conquest was developed, propaganda, terror and organisation utilized fully in line with the totalitarian playbook, as described by Hannah Arendt. The system is nowadays so deeply entrenched in Russian society that the fall of Wladimir Putin would not be sufficient to transform Russia into a different country, which sees itself as one country among others, not as an empire in the making.
“History is a fate and all that is left is for fate to be executed.”
Let us consider ideology first, and here Wladimir Putins’ speeches are instructive. When talking about Ukraine, he refers not to national interest or to decisions taken out of free will by either Russians or Ukrainians, but he contemplates history as a myth, as an instruction on how things need to be, no room for development and individual decisions left, and as a kind of law of nature. The future is nothing open, nothing that is negotiated between living humans again and again, from generation to generation. The future is pre-defined, the destiny is set by history. History is a fate and all that is left is for this fate to be executed. There is no room for freedom left, and this view is totalitarian to the core.
Some Viking slavers founded a trading post at the banks of the Dnipro river around the time that Charlemagne ruled over large parts of western Europe. This trading post later developed into a larger realm, with the rulers accepting Christianity as the religion of their lands. A few hundred years later, the successor principalities of this realm were destroyed by the onslaught of the Mongols and the remains incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian state. Again a few hundred years later, the rulers of an obscure northern town, Muscovy, gained pre-dominance over their neighbouring states by being the tax collectors of the Mongols, and keeping their share of the monies to fund the Muscovite state and army. This expansionist state of Muscovy finally turned on their Mongol paymasters, defeated them and over the course of a few centuries, kept conquering neighbouring states and territories, finally reaching the Pacific Ocean, the borders of the Chinese empire and, after successive wars with Sweden, Poland and Turkey, incorporating the lands of this former realm-turned trading outpost called Kyiv, and taking on the ancient name of the newly conquered people as the name of the new Muscovite Empire: Russia.
“The narrative of the brother nations of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine denies the individual human beings in these countries the freedom of choice and the freedom to act.”
Because of this name, and because it is supposed to always have been and therefore has to be so in eternity, the peoples of Russia and Ukraine in 2022 are supposed to be in fact one body politic, in the past, now and forever. However, peoples are not individual personalities. They are groups made up of individual human beings, negotiating their relationships with each other, shaping and re-shaping their group identity over time. The narrative of the brother nations of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine denies the individual human beings in these countries the freedom of choice and the freedom to act, in the name of history as myth and fate. If France claimed supremacy over Germany and Italy today, because the aforementioned Charlemagne used to rule these territories 1,200 years ago and resided in Aix-en-Chapelle / Aachen, which is now located in Germany, people would find the claim ridiculous. It is the same with Russia and Ukraine. This narrative of brotherhood is a key component of the Russian totalitarian ideology, and as such it must be challenged if both Russians and Ukrainians shall ever be free.
Let us consider language and images next: Wladimir Putin claims the need to “de-nazify” Ukraine. According to the President of Russian Federation, Ukrainians are insulted as drug-addicts, and he speaks about the search of a “Final Solution” for the Ukrainian question. The orthodox clergy of his country calls the war holy, and that the Russian army “was cleaning the world of a diabolic infection” in Ukraine. Opponents are de-humanized and have no right to exist, which is conspicuously close to what Victor Klemperer identified as typical of the language of the Third Reich, Lingua Tertii Imperii (LTI). The amalgamation of state ideology and church becomes clear in the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Kubinka, some 70 km to the West of Moscow, which was inaugurated on 22nd June 2020 (which is the date when Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941). The style blends Byzantine forms and Christian iconography with state ideology into a cult of war and death. The Cathedral is in military khaki tones, the ground made of metal from melted German tanks. Wall mosaics commemorate not just WW2 but also the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the war in Syria and the annexation of Crimea. Angels smile on the scenes of killing and death. Room is left for further mosaics commemorating wars yet to come. A mosaic showing Wladimir Putin himself was removed, it is said, because he does not like personality cults.
“Russian people have been conditioned to view the world through the prism of propaganda.”
The central theme of this militaristic cult set up by Russian leaders’ centres on the country’s role in WW2 and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Each year, this celebration is turned into a show of force, and the Russian people is prepared for hardship, sacrifice and war. Besides the “Z” symbol on display on Russian vehicles in Ukraine today, other visible symbols are historical reminiscences, ranging from Sovjet flags on contemporary Russian tanks to the slogan on a Russian helicopter during a previous military exercise “To Berlin”. Russian people have been conditioned to view the world through the prism of propaganda. Contemporary political events are framed in terminology related to and as a re-enactment of WW2.
However, while this totalitarian system is frightening, there is hope. What totalitarianism can achieve is to isolate and to inactivate people under its rule, to disconnect them from each other and to make them feel lost. The only action imaginable is violence in pursuit of the historically pre-destined mission. While the resulting horrors of the Russian ideology are visible to the world in the mass graves of Grozny, Aleppo and Mariupol, there is no mass movement supporting the war either. Individuals were thrown into isolation already, and no whipping-up of the public took place beforehand so there is neither mass resistance nor mass support for the war. On the other hand, not just the Ukrainian state and army are fighting Russia, but the whole population of Ukraine, each individual with his and her network is doing whatever he or she can to support the war effort.
"History is not a dark fate, and the future is full of possibilities."
The same is true at a global scale. We see that the people worldwide react. Today, the Russian government and its armies in informal alliance with the autocrats and certain elites of the world, bought or out of conviction, are battling the 44m people of Ukraine, their army and the civil society of the world. While German politicians were still trying to appease Russia, an outcry of the civil society in Europe forced them to change course and to support Ukraine with weapons and to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. While the Swiss government did not want to lose Russian monies, a crowd in Bern was cheering Mr. Selensky when he appealed to the Swiss people to close the Swiss financial system for Russian oligarchs. And it seems as if civil society is winning over autocracy. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt: History is not a dark fate, and the future is full of possibilities.