Fars Media Corporation via Wikimedia Commons

Putin’s Rasputin


ed simon is a staff writer for The Millions, a contributing writer for Belt Magazine, and a contributing editor at the History News Network. He can be followed at his website. This article is adapted from the History News Network.

Published March 15, 2022


Should Vladimir Putin’s barbarous war move beyond the borders of Ukraine into Moldova or even Finland, expect to become familiar with the name Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin. A former philosophy professor at Moscow State University, Dugin combined his obsessions with occultism and the neo-pagan philosophies of European fascists like Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist to derive his fervently nationalistic ideology of “Eurasianism,” which he promulgated in books with torpid titles such as Foundations of Geopolitics and The Fourth Political Theory.

Satanism and the Waffen-SS

With his disheveled dress and long beard, Dugin affects the appearance of an Orthodox mystic, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the infamous monk, Grigori Rasputin. In the West, a philosopher like Dugin expressing admiration for both Satanism and the Waffen-SS would be dismissed as a crank — proclamations that national greatness are to be found in a “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism” would not endear you to colleagues or the public at large. In Russia, however, Dugin is an adviser to high-ranking members of Putin’s United Russia Party. Even more disturbing, according to Foreign Policy, his 1997 Foundations of Geopolitics has been required reading for students at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for a generation.

Gestated in anti-communist right-wing activism during the waning days of the Soviet Union, indebted to a specifically anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment philosophical embrace of authoritarianism, irrationalism and hyper-nationalism, Dugin dreams of a reborn Orthodox Tsarist state surpassing the borders and spheres of influence that existed before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 — of a Novorossiya built not on socialist principles, but fascist ones. And if you want to know what the fascists intend to do, it’s wise to pay attention to what they literally say. 

Rootless Cosmopolitanism Versus Blood and Soil

In looking for an interpretive key to understanding Putin’s unhinged February 22 address on the eve of invasion, we’d do well to familiarize ourselves with the contents of Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics. He writes that “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning. It has no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness,” fulminating that Moscow must solve “the Ukrainian problem.” Sound familiar?

Understanding Putin’s motivations, actions and plans depends on a thorough comprehension of the sort of dangerous ideas advocated by an ideologue like Dugin, a man whom historian Timothy Snyder described as having “revived or remade Nazi ideas for Russian purposes.”

With pretensions to being a Russian version of the German existentialist Martin Heidegger and of serving the same political purpose as the Nazi theorist Carl Schmidt, Dugin posits that the global order is split between thalassocracies and tellurocracies, with the former being maritime nations defined by individualism and “rootless cosmopolitanism” and the latter referring to land empires rooted in a “blood and soil” nationalism. In the current day, Dugin defines the United States, the United Kingdom and the NATO alliance more broadly as a fundamentally “Atlantean” thalassocracy, while the continent spanning Russia and its future allies (willing and unwilling) as a “Eurasian” tellurocracy. 

As a dictum for the Eurasian order, Dugin is guided by the principle that the “nation is everything; the individual is nothing.” He zestfully prophesizes a coming apocalyptic conflagration between these two orders, with a new Russian Empire arising from those ashes. “In principle, Eurasia and our space, the heartland Russia,” writes Dugin, “remain the staging area of a new anti-bourgeois, anti-American revolution … the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.”

Understanding Putin’s motivations, actions and plans depends on a thorough comprehension of the sort of dangerous ideas advocated by an ideologue like Dugin, a man whom historian Timothy Snyder described as having “revived or remade Nazi ideas for Russian purposes.”
Cold War Misunderstanding

Popular depictions of Putin and the Kremlin are often filtered through a Cold War perspective, the sickle and hammer transposed into memes, or the misunderstanding that the Russian dictator is somehow a communist (by both his detractors and admirers). And it’s easy to see why, when Putin is on the record as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” 

Putin’s declaration evidences no sympathy for Marxist-Leninism or state socialism, however, but is rather a mourning for the loss of Russian territorial expanse and for Moscow’s hegemony throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. To say that we’re in a “Cold War” (albeit one that’s very hot in Kyiv) is to draw upon the wrong analogy. What the Kremlin currently seems to want isn’t a return to the USSR, but the creation of a New Russia, a reactionary, revanchist order to act against modernity itself. As Dugin put it in The Fourth Political Theory:

Everything is to be cleansed off … science, values, philosophy, art, society, modes, patterns, ‘truths,’ understanding of Being, time and space. All is dead with Modernity. So it should end. We are going to end it.

Russia is a state mired in oligarchical corruption. But to see financial incentive as the core of Putin’s desire is to dangerously misapprehend the nature of the current threat — to not take men like Dugin at their word. 

Understood not as a conventional leader, but as the de facto spiritual head of a Fascist International, Putin’s behavior crystalizes into focus. The reactionary anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia, the support of far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in Britain and Trump in the United States, the forced annexation of Crimea and portions of Georgia, and now the offensive in Ukraine, don’t make sense if we simply understand Putin as just another Russian autocrat.

In an interview about her book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, journalist and dissident Masha Gessen explains the “reason why the rest of the world was so slow to recognize the threat posed by both Hitler and Stalin was that what passed for ideology seemed preposterous,” but that “Putin isn’t that different.” In this context, I fear that “New Cold War” is an overly sunny analogy. No sane person would ever choose war, but whether or not it’s something we desire, war appears to have been chosen for us.

main topic: Geopolitics