November 22, 2019

A Handbook on the Kremlin’s Useful Idiots

In 2017, the prestigious publishing house Routledge published a book by the currently Vienna-based Ukrainian author Anton Shekhovtsov.

Anton Shekhovtsov. Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir. Routledge, 2017. 294 pp.

Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir was scheduled to appear the following year, so the official date of publication is 2018. Shekhovtsov is one of the most renowned researchers of right-wing radicalism, modern fascism and Russian nationalism. In addition, he has thoroughly studied the hybrid warfare strategies of Putin’s Russia and the Kremlin’s connections with Western right-wing radical movements.

His monograph has received a lot of attention and reviews have been published in all kinds of reputable outlets, like the Financial Times. The book is the result of many years of research, which is evident from the impressive amount of detailed material it provides. Let me say in passing that the author not only analyses the development of Western right-wing radicalism and its connections with Russia, but also provides an overview of its main ideological views and how these have changed over time. This is a gargantuan task demanding great dedication, and only a few of us will read all the absurd or highly absurd theories that extreme right-wing ideologists have generated in the past hundred years.

The beginning of the book contains a surprise. It turns out that there were radical right-wing movements in Western Europe who sympathised with Russia and the Soviet Union even before the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern bloc it controlled. As a rule, the groups were marginalised even among their own social circles, but the fact that they even existed is noteworthy. The author claims there were various groups who are now called national Bolsheviks (some of them assumed this title themselves) in Germany after World War I up until the late 1930s. The German national Bolshevist ideology was based on the idea that an individual should be subjected to the interests of the nation, the economy should be fully nationalised, and Bolshevist Russia and Germany should form an alliance to stop the Entente from telling Germany what to do. Shekhovtsov states that, while even Lenin considered national Bolsheviks misfits, Russian Bolsheviks saw the opportunity to exploit them to undermine the unity of the West even back then. It is also interesting that there were both local communists and social democrats among the German national Bolsheviks, who found that the class struggle needed to be combined with nationalist propaganda.

After World War II, there emerged in Germany and Austria radical right-wing groups of neutralists who occasionally had very extreme views. Their objective was to create a large neutral Greater Germany (which would envelop the rest of the Europe in the long term) that would remain neutral in the power play between the US and the Soviet Union. However, since the USSR also supported the existence of a neutral Western Germany outside its sphere of influence, neutralist sympathies (and tentative contacts) veered towards Moscow. The book also shows how the KGB learnt to exploit Western dissidents in the 1950s, even though their ideas didn’t correspond to Soviet ideology. At the time, pan-European fascism emerged, disseminating the idea of a unified Europe opposing the US. “Pan-Europe” was supposed to involve the Soviet Union as a counterweight to the “Jewish” government in Washington.

It is curious that the idea of a common European home stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon, which has begun to spread again today, originates from the Belgian Jean-François Thiriart, who is considered the most important ideologist of pan-European fascism—his original slogan was a “Euro-Soviet empire from Vladivostok to Dublin”.

Russia formed direct ties with Western right-wing extremists after the Soviet Union collapsed. It is amazing how freely the leaders of Western European radical right-wing movements travelled to Russia in the 1990s to meet and network with the Russian political, cultural and economic elite, even researchers from the Academy of Sciences.

Shekhovtsov’s book lists several people who are currently prominent members of the Russian political establishment—for example Sergey Glazyev, now the president’s adviser on regional economic integration, but also Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov, who need no introduction. However, Aleksandr Dugin, creator of the Russian ultra-nationalist neo-Eurasianist movement, stands out on the list. Dugin is not so well known in Russia and his writings are not as widely disseminated as those of his eurasianist predecessor, Lev Gumilyov, but Dugin has been an important ideologist for certain circles of the government and military. It is claimed that his theories on geopolitical civilisation were compulsory teaching and reading material in Russia’s higher military education institutions. For some time, Dugin was described as Putin’s main ideologist, but the president simply threw him overboard when he no longer needed him.

When Dugin was dismissed from Moscow State University in 2014 because he demanded that Ukraine be drowned in blood, his career opportunities close to the powers-that-be petered out. However, Dugin is important because he imported to Russia the theories of well-known Western fascist ideologists such as Julius Evola and René Guénon.

A large part of the book is dedicated to analysing how the Kremlin uses Western fascists, neo-Nazis and radical right-wingers to legitimise its policies and in waging a hybrid war against Europe. The author claims they fell into the sphere of interest of Moscow’s spin doctors after the colour revolutions of 2003–5 and the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. The book offers no fundamental surprises to people who follow Russia’s activities, but it is interesting to read detailed descriptions and contextual analyses. Politicians who were often completely marginal at home spoke to election observers in the Crimea, in the puppet states of the Donbas, in Ukraine and at local and national elections in Russia. Predictably, they always had something positive to say. Everyone who has watched the news on Russian state television even once knows that the very same marginal activists and politicians often act as commentators on the shows and some of the them have achieved the status of geopolitical experts of sorts in Russia, cultivating conspiracy theories and spreading the message of the West’s continuing downfall. This is necessary to legitimise the Kremlin’s policies and their ideological bases to the domestic public. The author thoroughly covers the Kremlin’s relations with the France’s National Rally (Rassemblement national) and the Freedom Party of Austria. He also discusses Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is popular in certain circles in Estonia as well.

A recurring motif of the book is that Russia doesn’t really care about extremist ideologies. Moscow is happy when their views partly overlap, but is not bothered when there isn’t any common ground.

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