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Nasty, Repressive, Aggressive -- Yes. But Is Russia Fascist? Experts Say 'No.'

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (left) and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler arrive at the four-power conference in Munich, Germany, on September 28, 1938.

Over the last few years, President Vladimir Putin's government has carried out an increasingly relentless crackdown on dissent at home that has seen most independent media shut down or exiled, opposition political movements declared "extremist," and tens of thousands of disaffected Russians fleeing a country in which fear is on the rise.

And on February 24, Putin launched a massive military invasion of neighboring Ukraine, seeking to justify the move by falsely claiming that the country was ruled by "Nazis and drug addicts" bent on genocide against ethnic Russians there.

Many critics have suggested Russia's claims that Ukraine is a fascist state are best seen as a projection of the situation inside Russia itself. Rutgers University political scientist Alexander Motyl wrote in March about the label "fascist" that "Putin's brutal invasion of Ukraine suggests that a reconsideration of the term's applicability to Russia is definitely in order."

However, leading scholars of historical fascism and authoritarian regimes told RFE/RL that, although Putin's Russia outwardly resembles fascist regimes in many ways, it is not a fascist state. And the distinctions between classical fascist dictatorship and Putin's system, they say, can shed light on how Russia is ruled today.

'The Nearest Analogue To Fascism'

Russia under Putin "is clearly a closed and repressive dictatorship," said Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University's Barnard College who studies populism and fascism. "But there are lots of different kinds of dictatorships, of which just one."

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at a stadium in Moscow on March 18.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at a stadium in Moscow on March 18.

Stanley Payne, professor emeritus of history the University of Wisconsin and the author of numerous books on European fascism, said Putin's Russia "is not equivalent to the fascist regimes of World War II, but it forms the nearest analogue to fascism found in a major country since that time."

Among the characteristics Putin's Russia manifests that mirror fascism are historical revanchism and the embrace of hypermasculine authority -- "the macho cult of Putin" -- said Maria Snegovaya, a postdoctoral fellow in political science at Virginia Tech and a visiting scholar at George Washington University's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies.

Maria Snegovaya
Maria Snegovaya

In addition, like Adolf Hitler's Germany, Snegovaya said, Russia has experienced a version of "Weimar syndrome," a shorthand term for the sense of dislocation, isolation, and loss of status that Germany experienced after World War I and that Russia endured following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The further development of both countries was driven in part by the ability of leaders to manipulate a powerful mixture of anxiety, nostalgia, and resentment.

"Anti-Westernism and revanchism have become more pronounced" over the last five years, Snegovaya said, and these ideas are "much more consistently promoted by the state" in the media, cultural affairs, and the schools.

Roger Griffin, professor emeritus of modern history at Oxford Brookes University in Britain who studies the socio-historical and ideological dynamics of fascism, agrees that both Germany after World War I and Russia after the Soviet collapse experienced "humiliation and loss of identity."

Revolution Or Reaction

But historical fascism is a fundamentally revolutionary ideology, founded on the idea that the present system is decadent and bringing about the collapse of civilization, a collapse that forms an existential threat to the "nation" or "organic race," Griffin explained.

"The core myth is that this organic culture needs to be reborn in a new order that cannot be democratic because democracy by definition is pluralistic," he added. Fascists seek to destroy the old system entirely and remake society. Fascism is "a revolutionary form of nationalism."

Roger Griffin
Roger Griffin

Although Putin espouses a similar "core myth," he is a reactionary politician who is not trying to create a new order "but to recreate a modified version of the Soviet Union," Griffin said. He manipulates the trappings of the proto-democratic system he inherited -- "hollowing them out" but not rejecting them.

Hitler, for example, engineered the adoption of the notorious Enabling Act of 1933 to give himself absolute dictatorial authority, including the authority to ignore the Weimar Constitution.

Putin, on the other hand, rose to power in 1999 and 2000 largely riding on the anxiety of the Second Chechen War by pledging to defend and guarantee the Russian Constitution. When Putin's second presidential term ended in 2008, he steered Dmitry Medvedev into the highest office and became prime minister, simultaneously maintaining power and the fiction of a democratic Russia before returning to the Kremlin in 2012. When he needed to extend his power beyond the end of his current term in 2024, he engineered a vote on amending the constitution to "nullify" his first four terms and pave the way for two more.

"The Putin regime...has been developed almost exclusively by the state in a traditionally Russian manner," historian Payne said. "It is not the product of any revolutionary movement or ideology -- fascist or otherwise. It has developed the characteristics of what some political analysts have called a 'mafia state,' though under centralized personal dictatorship."

Activists holding placards depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler demonstrate in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin.
Activists holding placards depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler demonstrate in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin.

"The Putin regime is a centralized, right-wing, authoritarian dictatorship, much more reactionary than revolutionary," he said, adding that Russia's "weak economic and demographic base" seem like "more a declining than a rising power."

By contrast, Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies who studies comparative fascism, said in a recent interview with a Ukrainian YouTube channel that "fascist leaders want to create a new world order, a new empire, a new nation. They want the rebirth of their own nation through war, through imperialist expansion."

Genuine fascists in Russia like the recently deceased Vladimir Zhirinovsky and self-styled philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, both of whom have been mere attributes of Putin's political system rather than central to it, "describe in their writings a completely new Russia" controlling parts of the world that were never under tsarist or Soviet domination, Umland added.

"Most importantly," Snegovaya said, "[Putin's Russia] lacks a vision of the future. Russia complains about the existing international order and Russia's place in it, but it does not have any alternative vision."

'Alone At The End Of The Table'

Another key difference between Putin's Russia and classical fascism is the lack of mass mobilization.

Fascist regimes "came to power on the basis of a very large mass movement, a political party, a large number of associated -- what we would call today -- civil society organizations," said Barnard's Berman. "And that is just not the way that Putin came to power."

"This is not a mass regime that came to power or operates on the basis of mass mobilization," she explained. "Like most dictatorships, Putin would rather his people be demobilized."

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler is welcomed after crossing the Czechoslovak border into Sudetenland on October 3, 1938.
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler is welcomed after crossing the Czechoslovak border into Sudetenland on October 3, 1938.

Berman added that the image of a fascist dictator like Hitler or Italy's Benito Mussolini that sticks in the mind today is of "a leader in front of a mass audience of people who are in a kind of state of ecstasy" and who feel "a sort of direct connection to the leader."

"This is not who Putin is," she concluded. "It is not just that he is not charismatic. I mean, the image that we have of him in our minds now, for better or worse, is him sitting alone at the end of the table."

Payne offered a similar view, saying that radical, revolutionary dictatorships strive for mass mobilization. "A more conservative, right-wing, neo-traditionalist dictatorship is not interested in much mobilization, but in discouraging mobilization," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attends a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) attends a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 7.

In Putin's Russia, "the mobilization capacity is not there," Snegovaya said, adding that Russian society is "extremely passive and atomized." Moreover, Russia is a post-totalitarian society that has "already had a very bad experience of mobilizing around big ideas."

As a result, Russian society passively accepts Putin's revanchist ideas because they "feel good [and] nicely explain all the troubles people face."

"But it is not a society that is willing to actively embrace these ideas," Snegovaya said.

Mass events in Putin's Russia are typically carefully orchestrated with vulnerable state-sector workers filling the rows and trash bins filled with flags and banners as soon as the speeches are over.

"Putin did not come up as a charismatic leader," Payne noted. "He came up as an apparatchik. He is a product of the Russian state, which has tried to turn him into a more charismatic figure. But he is not someone who has built a dynamic and charismatic movement in the fascist style at all."

Payne added that he thinks Putin spoke out publicly against sending conscripts to fight in Ukraine because "he is so uncertain about his base of support."

The experts who spoke with RFE/RL offered a variety of non-fascist models that shed light on Putin's Russia and are perhaps more useful, in part, because they entail less historical baggage.

Oxford Brookes historian Griffin mentioned World War II-era Japan, saying that like Putin's Russia, it "emulated fascism in many ways, but was not fascist." Instead, it "weaponized" Japan's feudal traditions to pursue imperialist ambitions. He added that he continued to view Putin within the framework of "illiberal democracy," along with Hungary's Orban or India's Narendra Modi.

"They don't seek to destroy the previous system, but they hollow it out and use it," he said.

Sheri Berman
Sheri Berman

Berman compared Putin's Russia to Germany before World War I, which she described as a "weakened regime" that responded by promoting "an increasingly virulent form of nationalism" to instill in Germany the fear of domestic and foreign "enemies."

"This is a pretty standard trick in a dictatorship's playbook," she said, because they need some way to justify themselves despite the lack of legitimacy that a democratic system or even an ideology like Soviet communism offers.

However, Berman cautioned, resorting to that trick can be dangerous, as such nationalism can "overwhelm an existing politician or existing regime type."

"That is how we moved from a conservative dictatorship in [pre-World War I] Germany through the Weimar interlude into laying the groundwork for the type of appeals and the type of mobilization that the Nazis had in Germany," she said.

The best comparisons are found closer to home, Payne argues. Putin's political system is "more a revival of the creed of Tsar Nicholas I in the 19th century that emphasized 'Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality' than one resembling the revolutionary, modernizing regimes of Hitler and Mussolini."

"Look at Nicholas I or Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible," he said. "There is a long lineage of this stuff going way back in Russian history. You don't have to bother about someone like Hitler or Mussolini."