The warped mind behind Russia’s war


The warped mind behind Russia’s war

Alexander Dugin has endowed Putin’s brutal imperialism with an almost spiritual significance.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Long-reads Politics

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In 2014, a Foreign Affairs article described Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin as ‘Putin’s brain’.

At the time, it seemed a fitting epithet. The then 52-year-old Dugin was championing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and urging on the further conquest of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. Superficially, at least, he seemed to be uncannily in tune with the Kremlin.

There were countless other parallels emerging during the mid-2010s between Dugin’s thought and Russia’s political trajectory. He had long championed Russia as the leader of a Eurasian bloc, not dissimilar to the actual Eurasian Economic Union which came into being in 2014. He had consistently attacked the moral hegemony of the West, much as Putin started to do from his famous 2007 Munich Security Conference speech onwards. And in his 1997 doorstopper, the Foundations of Geopolitics, which was said to have influenced Russia’s military leaders, Dugin dismissed Ukraine as a meaningless entity, possessing no cultural or ethnic uniqueness – an assertion the Russian army was, by 2014, trying to prove in practice in Crimea and the Donbas.

Moreover, at points it has seemed as if Putin himself was merely echoing the long-bearded thinker, from his Dugin-esque talk of ‘fifth column’ conspiracies to descriptions of eastern Ukraine as ‘Novorossiya’ (New Russia).

Since 2014, Dugin’s influence over the Russian president seems only to have grown. Today he is conjured up as the ideological driving force behind Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, the dark Rasputin-like power behind Putin’s de facto throne. He’s ‘the Russian fascist who helped to convince Putin to invade’, ‘the man behind Putin’, the thinker who, in the words of the Washington Post, ‘has brought us here, to the brink of another world war’.

Not all Western observers are convinced of Dugin’s importance. They say his influence is vastly overstated, note his frequent criticism of Putin for being too liberal, and point to Putin’s greater intellectual debt to other (admittedly long-dead) thinkers – including religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, ethnologist Lev Gumilev, and all-round reactionary Ivan Ilyin. Dugin, according to this reading, is overhyped, especially over here in the West.

In search of some insight, I spoke to Benjamin Teitelbaum, whose brilliant War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right has done so much to illuminate Dugin’s thought and influence. ‘It’s wrong to say he’s “Putin’s brain”, that he’s sitting at the end of these gigantic tables, whispering [in his ear]’, he tells me. ‘But neither is it true that Dugin’s a blowhard who managed to beguile academic and journalistic commentators into thinking he’s significant when he’s really not.’

So where exactly does Dugin’s significance lie? ‘In the realm of narrativising’, Teitelbaum says, ‘in the realm of characterisation, and also in the deep intangible influence of literature spread to a large community over a long period of time’.

Dugin is significant then. Not because he exerts any direct influence on Putin. And not because well-thumbed Dugin tomes sit on Russian generals’ bookshelves. But because he has helped forge, as a leading part of an increasingly active nationalist intellectual milieu, something that Russia’s ruling elite has lacked since the fall of Communism: namely, a sense of national mission, of near spiritual purpose. To use Teitelbaum’s words, Dugin has ‘narrativised’ and ‘characterised’ Russia. Through his books, lectures and media appearances, he has told Russia’s leaders over and over again what Russia supposedly once was and what it should become again – not just a great power, but a spiritual power, a bulwark of tradition against the nihilistic, everything-goes liberalism of the West.

Russian soldiers fly their flag at a Russian army position just outside the town of Gori, Georgia, on 18 August 2008. (Credit: Getty.)
Russian soldiers fly their flag at a Russian army position just outside the town of Gori, Georgia, on 18 August 2008. (Credit: Getty.)

And as Russia’s relationship with Western powers has deteriorated, its leaders have become increasingly receptive to Dugin’s message. It has given them an alternative vision of Russia’s future, in place of the dashed liberal dreams of the 1990s and early 2000s. As Teitelbaum explains, ‘Putin experimented at the beginning of his rule with remaking Russia as a successful liberal, capitalist, pseudo-democratic state, very much following on the heels of Boris Yeltsin. And it didn’t work and so he tried something else… a conservative Russia that would stand for values, tradition, wholeness, collectivity [and often against] liberalism, change, progress and all these things. And Dugin, as one of the prominent voices in Russia, pushed that idea and it worked.’

The origins of Duginism

‘Tradition, wholeness, collectivity.’ In many ways, Dugin is an unlikely conduit for such ideas. Born in Moscow in 1962, the descendant of a long line of Russian military officers, Dugin was by all accounts a precocious, rebellious youth, who bristled against the stifling conformity of life in Soviet Russia. ‘The Communist Party owned all of us’, he was later to reflect. ‘[It] owned the mind, the spirit, the emotion, the body. Everything was under control, except one thing. The innermost part.’ (1) Perhaps in an attempt to liberate ‘the innermost part’, the young Dugin immersed himself during the 1980s in the dissident bohemia of Moscow’s notorious Yuzhinsky Circle. ‘They would have wild sex parties, and drinking binges that lasted for multiple days’, explains Teitelbaum. ‘Their interests were anything anti-establishment – rock music, drugs, alcohol and eventually mysticism was part of that as well.’

It was during this period that Dugin first encountered Traditionalism. This, as political scientist Marlene Laruelle puts it in a 2006 essay on Russia’s radical right, remains ‘Dugin’s main intellectual reference point and the basis of his political attitudes as well as his Eurasianism’.

Traditionalism is a relatively obscure school of thought that originated in the work of a French intellectual called René Guénon (1886-1951). The ‘tradition’ this thinking refers to consists of supposedly universal truths which are manifest in all the major world religions. It was Guénon’s contention that man had fallen away from the truths of revealed religion. As he argued in The Crisis of the Modern World (1927), the past three or four hundred years of modernity represented the very opposite of progress. They were a regression, a late stage in the spiralling decline through the Hindu ‘yugas’ – a version of Hesiod’s ages of gold, silver, copper and iron – towards a new dark age. Modern man, committed to rationalism and materialism, and now thoroughly estranged from the spiritual truth, was entirely lost.

Guénon’s deep disillusionment with modernity was far from unusual during the 1920s. Much of Western high culture at the time, from the modernist avant-garde to the dark imaginings of conservative revolutionaries, was shot through with a shared sense of moral, political and spiritual exhaustion. What perhaps separated Guénon from many of his contemporaries (though not all) was his solution – a turn towards non-Western culture, and the religions of the East, which he saw as being closer to ‘tradition’ and the truth.

Julius Evola, Guénon’s Italian follower and an unabashed Mussolini supporter, gave Guénon’s otherwise quietist philosophy a political urgency. Rather than seek solace in religions of the East, Evola called for a restoration of spiritual values in the West – and appealed, like many of his fascist contemporaries, to a hierarchical Medieval world as a vision of a future society.

It’s clear that the Traditionalist critique of modernity continues to resonate deeply with Dugin. Like Guénon and Evola (whose work Dugin has translated into Russian), Dugin sees the modern world, from the Enlightenment onwards, as a further fall away from the truth, a dark age. But, as Teitelbaum explains, ‘Dugin goes further… He adds a geographic element to the temporal distinctions between the ages.’

‘So the dark age [for Dugin] is in the West today’, says Teitelbaum. ‘And the opposite of modernity, as tradition, is incubated in the East. Therefore to fight against the dark age, we need to promote, in military, economic and political terms, the Eastern states against the West.’

‘That’s Duginism’, says Teitelbaum. ‘That’s Duginist Traditionalism.’

Dugin’s geopolitical vision

During the early 1990s, Dugin was still a relatively obscure figure on the anti-liberal fringes of the Russian political scene. Russia’s West-leaning politicians were then in the ascendancy, rapidly opening up Russian society and privatising vast swathes of hitherto state-owned industry and enterprise as part of a programme of so-called shock therapy. Dugin, meanwhile, was busy ploughing a quasi-fascist furrow, including a brief involvement in writer Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party – a wilfully provocative political grouping which combined Nazi symbolism with economic leftism and, at one point, claimed to have over 30,000 members. ‘Was it a serious political party or a social club? It’s hard to say’, says Teitelbaum.

Dugin began to be taken much more seriously with the publication of the Foundation of Geopolitics in 1997. Here he argued that the geopolitical forces shaping the world derived from a foundational conflict between ‘Atlanticism’ (seafaring states and civilisations, such as the US and Britain) and ‘Eurasianism’ (land-based states and civilisations, such as Eurasia-Russia). He then divided the world into four civilisational zones: the American zone, the Afro-European zone, the Asian-Pacific zone, and the Eurasian zone. It was ethnic Russians’ destiny – ‘as the bearers of a unique civilisation’, as Dugin put it – to play the leading role in bringing together and constituting Eurasia as a regional hegemon in the coming ‘multipolar world’.

To do so, he called for the cultivation and reassertion of Russian nationalism, which should employ ‘cultural-ethnic terminology, with a special emphasis on such categories as “Narodnost” and “Russian Orthodoxy”‘. Indeed, religion, as befitting his Traditionalism, was to the fore in Dugin’s argument. ‘Russians should realise that they are Orthodox in the first place; [ethnic] Russians in the second place; and only in the third place, people’, he wrote. Russian nationalism entailed the ‘churchification’ of Russians.

There was much that was clearly still Traditionalist in the Foundation of Geopolitics, from the call to Russia to return to its spiritual roots to the presentation of what amounted to an almost Manichean conflict with the Atlanticist West. ‘It was essentially all of the political aspects of his thinking stripped of the weird mysticism’, Teitelbaum tells me. And its effect was ‘to outline a vision for Russia’.

‘The nucleus of his significance and influence in the Russian state’, Teitelbaum continues, ‘rests on the Foundation of Geopolitics’. Indeed, so impressed was Igor Rodionov, a hardline defence minister under then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, that he made it assigned reading at the General Staff Academy – the main training institution for Russia’s military leaders. As Laruelle notes, by 2000, the Foundation of Geopolitics had already been reissued four times, and was recognised ‘as the founding work of the contemporary Russian school of geopolitics’.

So, at the end of the 1990s, when Russia’s post-Cold War relationship with the West began to fray markedly, Dugin’s star was starting to rise. In 1999, he was named an adviser on geopolitics to Gennadiy Seleznev, the speaker for the Russian State Duma. And, in 2002, he founded his own political party, the Eurasian Party, to promote his distinct geopolitical-cum-spiritual vision.

Alexander Dugin speaking at the New Horizon Conference in Beirut, 2018. (Credit: Mahdieh Gaforian)
Alexander Dugin speaking at the New Horizon Conference in Beirut, 2018. (Credit: Mahdieh Gaforian)

In 2008, when the Russian army invaded Georgia, on behalf of Ossetian militants fighting the West-leaning government in Tbilisi, Dugin came into his own. He appeared repeatedly on state TV, speaking sometimes from just within Georgian borders about the war, characterising and shaping its narrative. ‘He would be adding a story and meaning to what was otherwise just a power conflict, a power play between two states’, Teitelbaum tells me. And he was doing so according to his own distinct Traditionalist reworking of geopolitics. As Teitelbaum explains in War for Eternity:

‘That’s why Dugin was [in Georgia]. The conflict in the mountains wasn’t one between a state and a restive minority group, but rather between Russia and the West, between rooted Eurasia and the gallivanting Atlantic. Between Tradition and modernity.’

Russia’s war in Georgia – in part a response to NATO’s flirtation with its president, Mikheil Saakashvili – helped consolidate Dugin’s role as Russia’s storyteller. It enabled him to play on the growing antagonism between Russia and Western powers, promoting his geopolitical vision of Russia as a source of spiritual renewal, and the West as a source of moral decay. And it was a vision that was becoming ever more attractive to a Kremlin in search of a national purpose.

There have been awkward moments. In 2014, he effectively called for a liquidation of ethnic Ukrainians in the Donbas. ‘Kill, kill and kill’, were his exact words, which eventually cost him his job at Moscow State University. But that has done little to diminish the appeal of Dugin’s thought to sections of the Russian elite. Indeed, such has been his advocacy of Eurasianism over the past decade or so that he has become, in Teitelbaum’s words, something of ‘a mysterious diplomat’, frequently heading to Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, not to mention into the bowels of the European alt- and far-right, to open channels, cultivate relationships and even broker deals – as he did between Putin and Erdogan in 2015, after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Syrian border.

A very Western anti-Westernism

Dugin may have played a significant role in narrativising Russia’s geopolitical position, playing up its supposed civilisational, ethnic and spiritual uniqueness. Yet what is striking about this intellectual effort is the extent to which its substance and sources are resolutely Western. His geopolitical lodestars are: turn-of-the-20th-century Germans, such as Friedrich Ratzel and Nazi favourite Karl Haushofer; Sweden’s Rudolf Kjellen; and Britain’s Sir Halford Mackinder. And then there’s Traditionalism itself, which originally flourished, like so much of today’s critique of modernity, among Western intellectuals during the cataclysmic interwar years.

Indeed, Traditionalism is perhaps best understood as a particular expression of the broader ‘conservative revolution’ that erupted in Western Europe after the First World War – an intellectual opposition to both an insurgent socialism and a failed liberal capitalism, which in part fuelled fascism. Little wonder, then, that Dugin’s search for ‘new languages for talking about this deeper anti-modernism’, as Teitelbaum puts it, has taken him recently into the work of more mainstream conservative revolutionaries, such as Nazi jurist and poltical theorist Carl Schmitt, and, most notably, the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Indeed, Dugin’s 2009 book, The Fourth Political Theory, is effectively an ethno-nationalist tribute to Heidegger, with a few nods to Schmitt thrown in for good measure. Dugin argues that of the three major political theories of modern times – fascism, communism and liberalism – only the latter is still standing. Liberalism is therefore no longer a political ideology competing among other ideologies; it now appears as the only viable form of politics itself. Liberalism is now simply what is.

But there is an alternative, argues Dugin. He argues that liberalism is the product of a particularly Western way of being, a distinctly Western Dasein, to use Heidegger’s term. ‘Russian Dasein‘, as Dugin puts it elsewhere, ‘has a structure that differs from the structure of Western Dasein’. And this particularly Russian way of being, this uniquely Russian Dasein – spiritual rather than rational, collectivist rather than individualist, strictly hierarchical rather than democratic, etc – could provide the ground for the new, fourth political theory that will rival and roll back liberalism. This all depends on whether Russia decides to be true to itself, decides to become authentic, and reject Western values as alien, inauthentic. As Dugin puts it: ‘If Russia chooses “to be”, then it will automatically bring about the creation of a fourth political theory.’ He doesn’t name this theory, or flesh out its contents beyond grand generalities. But then he doesn’t need to – for this fourth political theory, this expression of Russia’s national essence, is, like Heidegger’s vision of authentic being, essentially a negation of what is: in Dugin’s case, a negation of the inauthentic West.

So Dugin is writing here, once again, of Russia’s distinct spiritual and political destiny. Its geopolitical mission. Its potential to offer an alternative to the decadent liberalism of the West. Yet he is doing so in terms of Heidegger, a Western European thinker whose work was shaped by a crisis – of Weimar democracy and of liberalism and capitalism more broadly – internal to the West. A thinker, that is, whose appeal to authenticity in opposition to the inauthenticity of life in Western society was generated by a sense of moral and ideological exhaustion within the West.

There’s a pattern here. The sources of Dugin’s critique of Western modernity, his attack on liberalism, rationalism, universalism and the rest, are never Russian. They’re consistently Western. They’re drawn from the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, from Nietzsche’s irrationalist assault on socialism and democracy, from the broader Modernist revolt against modernity of Heidegger and countless others. And later still, Dugin draws from postmodernism, and its rejection of universalism and truth. Indeed, as he told BBC Newsnight in 2016, there is no such thing as the truth, only perspectives. Hence he was able to claim that Russia has its own truth, in contrast to the West’s version.

Dugin’s recourse to Traditionalism or Heidegger or postmodernism shows that the source of Russia’s supposed opposition to liberalism – and even democracy and socialism – is not Russian at all. It’s a thoroughly Western counter-Enlightenment tradition, which reached its most intense expression during the crisis-ridden interwar years, and which has since taken the form of an ever-developing culture war.

And this reveals something important about not just Dugin’s thought, but also about the nature of the Russian nationalism he has played such a key role in promoting. In Dugin’s telling, Russia is fighting on behalf of the East against the West. In Dugin’s telling, Russia embodies tradition, spiritual truth and order against the soulless materialism, individualism and moral decay of the West. ‘This is about Tradition versus modernity. Security versus danger’, as Teitelbaum paraphrases it. ‘That is where Duginism lives.’

Yet what Dugin presents as a continuation of a long-running East-West culture war, a battle of ideas between Russia and the West is, it turns out, the product of a battle of ideas, a culture war within the West. Russian nationalism, Dugin-style, draws not on Russian strength, but on the longstanding turn among Western cultural elites against Enlightenment and modernity, from Nietzsche’s assault on Western nihilism to its latest iteration among the woke.

As Teitelbaum rightly says, that is where Duginism lives – in this conflict over, and reaction against, modernity. But it does so not as an expression of some authentic Russian spirit, but as a parasite, feasting on a crisis internal to the West.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

(1) Cited in War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right, by Benjamin Teitelbaum, Penguin, 2020, p41

Main picture by: YouTube.

Second picture by: Mahdieh Gaforian, published under a creative commonse license.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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