While Western pundits denounce Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, it’s clear that there is some support for Putin in the former Soviet state. The latest figures show overwhelming opposition to Russian military intervention throughout most of the country, but those polled in eastern Ukraine—where pro-Russian forces have been seizing official buildings and holding journalists and military observers captive—are notably less opposed to the presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil.
This surge of Russian nationalism has presumably gone down pretty well in the Kremlin, and it’s also bound to have pleased the man who was recently labeled the “brain” behind Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin is head of the Department of Sociology of International Relations of Moscow State University and an advisor to Sergei Naryshkin, a key member of Putin’s United Russia party. He’s also spent the past couple of decades advocating the restoration of the Russian Empire through the partitioning of former Soviet republics—an expansionist ideology that some have suggested is part of Putin's own agenda.
“We will have a new Cold War,” said Dugin when I spoke to him over the phone. “But maybe not so cold—maybe hot this time.”
In 2008, before war broke out between Russia and Georgia, Dugin proclaimed: "Our troops will occupy the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the entire country, and perhaps even Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which is historically part of Russia anyway.” Of course, Dugin’s vision has already partly become reality, but he doesn’t want the expansion to stop at Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
As a founder of Russia’s Eurasia Party—and, unsurprisingly, a leading advocate of Eurasianism—Dugin’s political outlook is one based around anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism, and a return to Russian imperialism. The Eurasianism ideology, developed among the Russian émigré community during the 1920s, regards Russia as having closer links to Asia than Europe or the rest of the West. Dugin wants to see the formation of a new Eurasian empire that will include every state from the former Soviet Union, as well as extending into other Asian countries.
Through the creation of this new global force, Dugin says, Russia would ultimately be at the helm of a new world pole, creating a superpower that would match America's influence. “It is very important to regard what is going on in Ukraine in this context,” he told me. “It is not Russians against Ukrainians—it is the defender of multi-polarity, in Putin and Moscow, against the ideas of uni-polarity, represented by America and the West.”
While Dugin argues that Eurasianism is an ideology that differs from the communism of the Soviet Union or the national socialism of Nazi Germany, he spent our conversation making me think otherwise. The ideologue, who is known for his proximity to fascism, believes that Russia is currently undergoing a “conservative revolution” that will see any liberal traits extinguished and a new ideologically-driven land emerge under Putin. This shift will deliver a centralized state where the Russian population will be under the ultimate control of the government and have many of their civil liberties removed, much like life during the rule of the Soviet Union.
As for the future of the people themselves, Dugin added: “I think that the new Russian identity and ideology will be constructed on the basis of people as the central political reality—not ethnic or racial, but the people as a community." By this, he means a society where individual freedoms are ignored and everything is organized for the glory of the state—effectively, a return to totalitarianism. This idea, he admits, is based upon the construction of the state under Nazi Germany.
Dugin also believes that this conservative revolution will coincide with a cultural revolution, one that will see the elimination of all liberal elements of Russian culture. He added that Putin is already implementing this transformation, pointing out that he focused on acquiring more power during the first half of his rule, until the point where he had minimized opposition as much as he could.
Now, Dugin claims, the president is becoming more ideologically motivated—the anti-gay laws he passed last summer coinciding perfectly with the notion of a conservative revolution. The jailing of three Pussy Riot members, his aggression in Crimea, and the arrest of Greenpeace activists at the Prirazlomnaya oil rig also highlight Putin’s efforts to stamp down his authority.
“I think that the changes will be very swift and very quick here, and in some years’ time I think Russia will be completely different from the one it is now,” Dugin told me.
It’s clear that Putin is making some bold moves, but homophobic legislation and activist bashing is a far cry from the Russian expansionism and return to totalitarianism that Dugin hopes for. His hope that Iran, Turkey, and even China might ally with Russia in this Eurasian expansion seems a little far-fetched, while the dream of his conservative ideology eventually taking hold of other European countries—marking “an end to American hegemony and the end of the domination of the West”—is just plainly unrealistic. But that doesn’t stop his optimism: “The appearance of the new multi-polar world is something that is going on before our very eyes,” he said.
For Dugin, the realization of these ambitions would prompt a reawakening of the Russian spirit, which he says was lost in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The Russian Spring is the very important [awakening] of Russian self-consciousness,” he said. “It was confirmed ideologically and conceptually by Putin’s [speech on television], and it [would mark] a return to our cultural identity.”
So is Dugin just a radical idealist, or is there any real chance that his ideas will come to fruition? Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst at Foreign Policy, recently noted that, “Since the early 2000s, Dugin’s ideas have only gained in popularity. Their rise mirrors Putin’s own transition from apparent democrat to authoritarian.”
Anton Shekhovstov, a fascism scholar, also remarked that Dugin’s ideology was picking up traction, claiming that “his ideas are taken seriously by people who are close to Putin.”
Furthermore, looking at some of Putin’s own statements over the past few years, there are occasions where his worldview has appeared reminiscent of Dugin’s. In his 2005 state of the nation address, for example, he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Then there's the proposed Eurasian Economic Union (EAU)—an alliance of post-Soviet states that Putin suggested could be “capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world,” eventually rivaling the EU, China, and the US.
Along with Putin, the presidents of both Kazakhstan and Belarus have already signed an agreement that sets the target of establishing the Eurasian Union by 2015, and Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have all expressed interest in joining.
It seems far more likely that forging closer economic and political bonds with EAU members will be the route Putin takes to implement his Eurasian vision, rather than replicating the aggression we’ve seen in Ukraine throughout other former Soviet states. That said, it’s clear that recent events in both Russia and Ukraine fit in with Dugin's radical ideology—and, for now, the only person who knows definitively how the next steps of the Russian revolution will play out is Putin himself.