Leonid Bershidsky

Why Russian Nationalists Are a Big Target for Both Sides

As the father of daughters, I can’t bear to imagine what far-right philosopher Alexander Dugin must be going through after his daughter, Darya, was blown up in a car bombing on Aug. 20. I suspect the video of Dugin grabbing his head in despair at the scene of the killing, and his tears as he delivered the eulogy, tell more about his inner state than the grandiloquent statement put out on Dugin’s behalf by his financier friend and backer Konstantin Malofeev: “Our hearts thirst not merely for revenge or payback. That’s too petty, too un-Russian. We only need our Victory. It’s on Victory’s altar that my daughter has laid her young life.”

Yet the statement — and the similar content of the eulogy — is hardly beside the point. Darya Dugina’s assassination, blamed by the Kremlin and the Russian special services on Ukraine and by Ukrainians on the Kremlin or on Dugin’s enemies inside Russia, spotlights the only force in Russia that supports Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with a sincere passion: the Russian nationalist community, of which Dugin is a prominent member and in which his daughter also was active. Without the nationalists’ ardor as the driving force, the invasion would have been a purely mercenary enterprise; without the body of text they have created since the 1990s, Putin, the lifelong political opportunist and mobbed-up economic operator, would hardly have found the words he uses today to justify his late-career bid for imperialist glory.

Dugin, variously described as “Putin’s brain” and a “Nazi clown,” doesn’t fit either cliche. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Russian intellectuals and their Western followers liked to mock the marginalized ultranationalists who aired their exotic beliefs on obscure websites, seemingly without a hope in the world for money, power or influence, ever the only measures of success in Moscow. Then, after the 2014 Crimea grab — a move advocated by Dugin and his allies since the Soviet Union’s breakup — the search for the origins of Putin’s imperialist turn in the writings of nationalist philosophers became fashionable. The Trump-Russia paranoia post-2016 reinforced the trend, and polyglot Dugin’s outreach to nationalists across Europe, as well as his ties with parties the Kremlin appeared to be grooming as a fifth column in the West, began to look outright sinister.

Even beyond these ties and his longstanding dream of a Eurasian empire with Russia at its center, there’s good reason not to dismiss Dugin as a clown or a madman. Back in 2000, soon after Putin came to power — still as a relatively liberal heir of President Boris Yeltsin, a pro-Western politician who sought to befriend the US and entertained NATO membership for Russia — Dugin wrote in the nationalist newspaper Zavtra that KGB officer Putin’s ascension meant Russia would be ruled by a new KGB and proposed this program for this new era’s “Eurasian Project”:

“— pushback against American hegemony on a planetary scale in all strategic areas (including the economy, politics, culture, technology, etc.)

— the recreation of of a powerful, sovereign Eurasian State using the Russian Federation as a foundation for the strategic integration of CIS states [the former Soviet republics];

— the creation of a network of economic, military and political alliances with other great Eurasian powers;

— the mobilization-based development of Russia’s economy in the framework of a broad “customs union”;

— the political stabilization of Russia, moving to a Eurasian two-party system, the marginalization of extremism in the economic, national and social areas.”

If you can get past the verbiage, this is the plan Putin came to fall back on years later, after his attempts to integrate Russia into the Western world on his own terms failed. Dugin’s 1997 book, “The Foundations of Geopolitics,” reads like a more erudite rendition of Putin’s recent speeches.

It doesn’t mean Putin has been listening to Dugin all along — or, God forbid, that he’d ever acknowledge any kind of intellectual debt to the nationalist philosopher. That’s not the way Putin operates. Just as he co-opted liberal economics and values early in his rule, he is appropriating the rhetorical arsenal built up by the nationalists during their fringe years. Putin recognizes no copyright on ideas: If they fit his goals, they are his to believe in and to use.

Even now that Dugin’s earlier ideas — including the notion that Ukraine is an artificial non-state built up by the wily “Atlanticists” as a buffer against Russia — shape the Russian ideological mainstream, Dugin has not been showered with Kremlin favors, sinecures and money. His status as a political outsider resembles the fringe position of Igor Girkin (Strelkov), a retired colonel who helped start the war in Ukraine in 2014 and has been refused any role in the current “special military operation.” Strelkov and many others in the nationalist community — those who have volunteered to fight in Ukraine for ideological reasons, and the commentariat allied with them — consider Dugin a major Russian thinker, an intellectual leader of a great nation to which neither the Soviet Union nor post-Soviet Russia has done full justice.

The Kremlin, however, appears to want nationalist fervor without the nationalists themselves. They — and Dugin first among them — advocate a general mobilization, hardcore reprisals against liberals, a smaller role for non-Russian ethnicities in the war effort, a non-capitalist, planned, wartime-style economy. Going all the way with them would mean irreversible changes that Putin rejects as too radical, at least for now.

The nationalists’ passion is, however, a finite resource. They cannot be both exploited and marginalized forever. As conservative religious thinker Andrei Kurayev wrote on Facebook,

It is often said these days that radical patriots are more dangerous to the Kremlin today than liberals are. Dugin, with his intellectual kabbalah, could not become a popular leader. But he was clearly prepping Darya, the beauty, for the role of a Russian Marine Le Pen.

The simultaneous attraction and tension between the Kremlin and the ultranationalists could explain why the Kremlin might benefit from an indirect strike against a figure as central to the community as Dugin. A warning would be sent to those “patriots” who might hope to benefit politically from Putin’s war — and at the same time, nationalist fervor could be whipped up by blaming the terrorist attack on Ukrainians. The FSB, Russia’s domestic secret police, has done just that, pinning the murder on a Ukrainian woman, allegedly affiliated with Ukraine’s nationalist Azov regiment, who, according to the FSB, fled to Estonia after Dugina’s death.

Putin loyalists in the tame parliament immediately clamored for vengeance, some calling the murder an “attack against the entire Russian world.” Though Putin himself has refrained from such rhetoric, the official condolences he sent to Dugin and his wife show that the evidence-free FSB “revelations” and the accompanying outcry have his sanction. It is politically expedient to find a reason to accuse Ukraine, and Azov in particular, of terrorism: Ukraine is lobbying Western governments to have Russia declared a terrorist state, while Russia and its proxies are preparing for a massive show trial of captured Azov servicemen in occupied Mariupol, a plan that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said would render impossible any negotiations with Putin.

Both Azov and the Ukrainian government have denied their involvement in Dugina’s murder, saying they would never resort to terrorist methods to defeat the invaders. Ukrainian propagandists, meanwhile, have stressed that “crazy old man” Dugin wasn’t important enough to be a target — a notably different argument. But, like Russia’s security apparatus and its pro-war camp, Ukrainian society is not uniform in its understanding of the fight against Russia. It is not outlandish to suggest that some Ukrainians may well be trying to hunt down prominent Russian nationalists because these nationalists are even more invested in the war than Putin himself.

Putin ordered the invasion but has shied away from a general mobilization and a campaign of mass reprisals. Russia, a passive giant, has acquiesced to the attack on Ukraine, and poor, indebted and desperate men have hired on to fight in it. But for the nationalists — the likes of Dugin, Girkin and their allies both inside and outside the Russian military and special services — the invasion is the chance of a lifetime, a shot at reviving the imperial dream and a “Russian world,” a chance at a political comeback. They are the only force in Russia that matches Ukrainians’ motivation and resolve; they are this war’s heart. That both “official” parties to the conflict had strong reasons to strike at this force is telling — even if it turns out that neither the Kremlin nor the Ukrainians killed Darya Dugina.