Cornell University Press

The Label of Fascism and the New World Order

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In two months, Europe will celebrate the seventy-sixth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. As in the previous years, we can forecast a new wave of memory wars between Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states on one hand, and Russia on the other, around the celebrations of May 8-May 9. The current memory fight is a struggle to define the future of Europe, and it is the key question of Russia’s inclusion or exclusion that draws the line of divide.

Who is the ‘fascist’?

What is at stake in these memory wars is the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War: Did Moscow win the war in 1945, and thus should be celebrated for the huge human cost of this victory? Or did it contribute to the start of the war by signing the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact of 1939 that allowed it to occupy parts of Poland and Finland and annex the Baltic states? Could the Soviet Union be responsible for both taking advantage of an agreement with Hitler in 1939 and being victorious against Nazi Germany in 1945?

These memory wars all have at their core the notion of “fascism” and a desire, first, to identify who the fascists were during the war—the Soviet Union, which cooperated with Berlin in 1939–1941, or the collaborationists on all occupied territories? Second, who are the new fascists advancing a revisionist interpretation of the Second World War today: Putin’s Russia or the Central and Eastern European countries?

In my latest book Is Russia fascist? Unraveling propaganda East West, I explain that “fascism” has become one of the strategic narratives of the current world order. By labeling ideological opponents as fascist, both Russia on one side, and the defenders of the liberal world order and Central and Eastern European countries on the other side, frame their own vision of the world, identify adversaries, and position themselves on the moral high ground.

Russia and the symbolic landscape of fascism

The book deconstructs systematically the arguments advanced to label Russia as a fascist country by, for instance, Timothy Snyder or Alexander Motyl, or by some Russian opponents to Putin like Garry Kasparov. This label conveniently overlooks the many other concepts used by social sciences to define Russia’s political and cultural features that make “fascism” a largely irrelevant analytical category. Yet, Russia offers a great case study to contribute to the discussion on fascism by refining some of its concepts. Because the Putin regime took the lead in a new moralist International and has developed very early an illiberal ideology, it also constitutes a unique ground for a better-refined discussion on why today’s illiberalism should not be labeled fascism.

Out of the array of core components that qualify a regime as fascist, Russia displays only one: a developed paramilitary culture directly supported by state institutions. This militia realm is both broad and diverse, including powerful security services and law enforcement agencies, private security companies (PSCs), historically rooted Cossacks; youth military training; far-right militias; new Orthodox vigilante groups; and ethnic militia such as the Chechen Kadyrovtsy. Moreover, Putin’s personal patronage of martial arts such as judo, sambo, and MMA, as well as biker culture has contributed to nurturing an aesthetic inspired by fascism. The militia culture has relegitimized a traditional form of masculinity shaped by bodily training, male camaraderie, a sense of sacrifice for the nation, the ability to accept pain, and, in some cases, the idea of regeneration through violence.

‘Fascism’ or the fight for defining Europe’s boundaries

The current polemics around fascism should be understood as the epitome of the difficult dialogue between Russia and the West. Mastering the label of “who is fascist” thus decides what ideal Europe should be. If Russia is fascist, then Russia is to be excluded from Europe and portrayed as its antithesis, the constituent other of all the values embedded in the notion of Europe: liberalism, democracy, multilateralism, transatlantic commitment. If, on the contrary, as Moscow declares, Europe is once again becoming “fascist”—if the ideological status quo over the 1945 victory is contested—then Russia points out a way for the “real” Europe: Christian, conservative, geopolitically continental, and nation-centric, to recover. The current fight to identify who is fascist is thus a struggle to define the future of Europe, and Russia’s legitimacy or lack of to be part of it.

*Featured photo: Kremlin, Moscow, Russia. Credit: Michael Parulava.


Marlene Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at The George Washington University. She works on Russia’s ideological landscape at home and its export abroad.

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