The Prophet of the New Russian Empire

By Yigal Liverant

Aleksandr Dugin calls for world war, and he's got the ear of the Kremlin.

On June 5, 2007, the Ukrainian government declared Russian intellectual Aleksandr Dugin persona non grata and banned him from entering the country for a period of five years. This exceptional decision was motivated by a series of inflammatory remarks made by Dugin and his followers about Russia’s various pro-Western neighbors, the Ukraine foremost among them. It was not long, however, before Kiev retracted its decision, fearing further deterioration in its relationship with the superpower to the east. Dugin, after all, is not merely a philosopher. He has influential friends in the Russian presidential cabinet and is associated with many leading politicians, as well as prominent academics and celebrities. And indeed, Ukrainian apprehension was justified by the events that followed: That very evening, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykola Zhulynsky and his family, who had arrived in St. Petersburg to visit the graves of their relatives, were deported by the Russian government. This retaliation had no mitigating effects on Dugin’s aggressive public campaign against the Ukraine. On October 12, activists from Dugin’s International Eurasian Movement sawed through the country’s national emblem—a statue of a trident situated on Mount Hoverla—and announced that they had thus "castrated” the Ukraine of its sovereignty. Following this ostentatious act of vandalism, Dugin was again banned from entering the Ukraine. This did not, however, prove to be the end of the affair. Authorities in Moscow were quick to show their support for the provocative thinker, and promptly deported Ukrainian political analyst Sergei Taran. The Russian Foreign Ministry left no doubt about Moscow’s motivations when it announced that Taran’s expulsion was a direct response to the Ukrainian ban.1
If nothing else, this seemingly bizarre series of incidents demonstrates the enormous influence Aleksandr Dugin has come to wield in his native Russia. A gifted and charismatic intellectual, Dugin is the author of sixteen books on philosophy and politics that profess an extremist worldview which combines authoritarian politics with an imperialist strategic agenda and a nostalgic longing for the glory days of the Soviet Union.2 Inspired by philosophers closely associated with fascism and Nazism, Dugin is an outspoken critic of capitalism, liberal democracy, and the bourgeois social order, which he identifies with his archenemy, the United States. Despite his radicalism—or perhaps because of it—Dugin is a favorite of the Russian establishment, a sought-after figure in the media, and a popular and oft-quoted political analyst.
Dugin was not always such a prestigious public figure. Barely a decade ago, he was at best a marginal player in Russian politics. During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s, Dugin was a relatively unknown intellectual who spread his doctrines among small circles of followers. His attempt to enter Russian politics and bring his ideas to the public through the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) ended in an embarrassing electoral defeat. It was only in the late 1990s that Dugin finally began to shed his image as a professional gadfly and mingle with senior government officials, finally emerging onto the national stage in the early 2000s. Not coincidentally, Dugin’s meteoric ascent from anonymity to fame took place alongside Vladimir Putin’s rise to power as Russia’s new strongman. Indeed, there is an undeniable connection between Dugin’s politics and the regime change led by Putin, a former KGB officer who has put an end to democratization in Russia and subjected it to a centralized authoritarian regime.
Dugin and his philosophy cannot, therefore, be dismissed as an insignificant episode in Russian intellectual history. On the contrary, they reflect the dominant trend in current Russian politics and culture, and their influence over the general public and decisionmakers in the Kremlin is only going to become stronger. If we wish to understand the zeitgeist that prevails in Russia today, it is essential for us to acquaint ourselves with this thinker, who expresses the innermost feelings of many of his fellow countrymen and their leadership. Dugin’s intellectual and political biography is, in many ways, a window into a nation and culture that many Western observers still regard as, in Churchill’s famous phrase, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
The strange rise of Aleksandr Dugin to the heights of intellectual and political prominence is inextricably linked to the recent history of Russia and the dramatic changes it has undergone since the collapse of communism. Unfortunately, these developments were, at least until very recently, of little interest to the rest of the world. The invasion of Georgia in August 2008, however, has now proven that the Russian bear, eulogized a mere two decades ago, was at best hibernating. During Putin’s term of office, Russia has become a strong and proud country once again. Its coffers swollen by high gas and oil prices, its population enjoying relative security and economic stability (admittedly threatened by the current global economic meltdown), its army winning encouraging—if not unexpected—victories in Chechnya and Georgia, Russia is swiftly regaining its power and influence in the international community as American hegemony erodes. In light of these achievements, the Russian public is willing to accept, if not agree to, Putin’s anti-democratic politics and the widespread corruption within his administration.
Things were entirely different in Russia a decade ago. Between 1991 and 1999, the Russian Federation was faced with the difficult, and perhaps insurmountable, challenges posed by democratization, an attempted transition to a market economy, the war on terror and organized crime, and the question of its new place in a unipolar world. Boris Yeltsin’s presidency was beset by political and economic crises: In 1991, prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, senior members of the Communist Party attempted a coup and failed; in 1993, Yeltsin, backed by the military, suppressed an uprising in the Russian parliament; in 1994, the First Chechen War broke out, lasting three years and taking a heavy toll on Russia; and in 1998, following a financial collapse in Asian markets, the ruble severely depreciated, the banking system crashed, and the government was forced to declare bankruptcy.
The economic liberalization led by Yeltsin’s administration was plagued by corruption throughout, and benefited two groups in particular: criminals, who flourished after years of living underground, and the handful of entrepreneurs generally known as the “oligarchs.” These men, some of whom had been apparatchiks during the Soviet era, successfully navigated the transition from politics to the business world. Their sharp political instincts, honed by years of negotiating the impenetrable Soviet bureaucracy, and close ties to government officials allowed them to take advantage of the sweeping privatization of Communist Party assets and become fabulously rich almost overnight.
Outside of these privileged circles, however, the vast majority of the Russian people suffered greatly. Instead of enjoying the fruits of reform, they were faced with hyperinflation, skyrocketing unemployment, loss of public property, and rising crime. Media outlets freed from the grip of government censorship bombarded the public with unfiltered and often distressing information. Moreover, the dissolution of the Soviet empire prompted a massive influx of Russian and non-Russian refugees from the newly independent republics, which the Federation was ill-prepared to absorb. On top of it all, indiscriminate Chechen terrorism made Russia’s already angry streets all the more dangerous.
Thus, the euphoria that followed the collapse of communism was quickly overtaken by disappointment, insecurity, and despair. The talented author Victor Pelevin described these sentiments in his novel, Homo Zapiens, published in 1999. The hero of the story, Babylen Tatarsky, a typical member of the Soviet liberal intelligentsia, drifts through a Russia marked by decline and decadence:
It was a very strange world. Externally it had not changed too much, except perhaps that there were more paupers on the streets, but everything in his surroundings—the houses, the trees, the benches on the streets—had somehow suddenly grown old and decrepit. It wasn’t possible to say that the essential nature of the world had changed either, because now it no longer had any essential nature. A frighteningly vague uncertainty dominated everything. Despite that, however, the streets were flooded with Mercedes and Toyotas carrying brawny types possessed of absolute confidence in themselves and in what was happening, and there was even, if one could believe the newspapers, some kind of foreign policy.3
The malaise Pelevin describes was caused, to a large extent, by Russia’s sense that it had lost the national greatness it once knew. The Soviet Union was not a worker’s paradise—in fact, it was quite the opposite—but it did give the Russian people a sense of order and stability. For many of its citizens, the ussr’s global reach and power were a source of pride. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the political, social, and economic crises that swept through Russia in its wake changed all that. Russians went from being the subjects of an awe-inspiring superpower to the citizens of a defeated country plagued by domestic problems and lacking any substantial international influence.
This humiliation was most keenly felt by the Russian military. The army, whose prestige had already been greatly diminished by the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, was almost in shambles: naval vessels were rotting in their docks, nuclear missiles were rusting on their launch pads, and fighter jets were grounded. Nonexistent morale, a shrunken budget, and a series of failures in Chechnya threatened to make Russia’s military a laughingstock to those who had once trembled at the mention of its name. The situation in the arms industry was even worse. Since the end of the Cold War, weapons sales had dropped worldwide, particularly in the Middle East. The factories that had once armed the Soviet superpower and its satellites were on the brink of bankruptcy.4 Things were no better among law enforcement officials in the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, and the police force. They felt betrayed by the Soviet collapse, and many of them resigned because of their minuscule salaries. Widespread corruption among those who stayed further lowered their prestige in the eyes of the general public, which had never held them in high regard. Tough times came even to the formerly omnipotent intelligence service: Between 1990 and 1995, its name and mission changed at least five times; it suffered from a brain drain, shrinking resources, and the loss of its deterrent power. Only after the creation of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1995 and its success in the war against Chechen terrorism was the service’s reputation somewhat restored, though it has never reclaimed the stature it enjoyed during the Cold War.
Russia of the 1990s was, in short, a mere shadow of the “Evil Empire” it once had been. Its traditional rival, the nato alliance led by the United States, was acting unimpeded, without any apparent regard for Russian interests or any fear of Moscow’s response. The military actions of America and her allies in Serbia and Iraq conveyed a profound disrespect for the Kremlin, which could do nothing but voice its opposition. This ongoing humiliation inspired a surge of nationalist rage, directed mainly toward the Ukraine and the Baltic states, which had unequivocally rejected their Soviet past and expressed their desire to be incorporated into the West. This was seen by the Russian public as an attempt to “jump ship”—an unforgivable act of betrayal by those who had once been their closest compatriots.
Overtaken by confusion, frustration, and nostalgia for its former glory, Russia was a breeding ground for xenophobia and nationalist discontent. Such impulses, which had long been repressed or recast into “acceptable” form by the old Soviet regime, began to emerge as a genuine political movement as an ever-increasing number of activists took up the war cry of their dishonored nation.5 The most brilliant and talented of them all was Aleksandr Dugin.

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