Wednesday, August 3, 2016

By Umberto Eco’s Standards, Putin’s Russia is Already In Part a Fascist State, Russian Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 3 – In 1995, the Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco identified 14 characteristics of fascism in a paper called “Eternal Fascism.”  Using his list, Vadim Zhartun says that Vladimir Putin’s Russia fits in to the matrix Eco described and thus can be properly described as a fascist state, at least of the “lite” variety.

            But at the same time, the St. Petersburg analyst says, Putinism’s lack of any credible and sustaining national idea may be sufficient to keep it from becoming a full-blown fascist regime. Indeed, he suggests, it may put Russia on the way to collapse and dissolution in a manner like that of the USSR (

            Eco’s article, originally delivered as a talk at Columbia University, was published and has become something of a classic both because of his own experiences of living under fascism in Mussolini’s Italy and because of its utility for measuring threats to liberal democracy. (For Eco’s text, seeпризнаков-фашизма-умберто-эко).

            Zhartun considers each of the 14 characteristics Eco identified as part of a fascist state and explored the ways in which Russia corresponds to them.  In all but one, the congruence of Russian realities now and Eco’s signs of fascism is either complete or well on the way to becoming so:

1.      Forward is Backward.  According to Eco, fascists insist that everything necessary for human life was already discovered in the past and only needs to be properly interpreted by contemporary leaders.  Putin insists that Russia can find all it needs in the various pasts of Russia, which must be combined according to his formulas.

2.      Progress is Evil. Eco writes that “the new is not only not needed but is dangerous” in the minds of fascists who are prepared to rely on technical breakthroughs only to maintain or even restore the past.  “That the one is impossible without the other is not important” for them or for Putin, Zhartun says.  “In Russia today a medieval feudal society is being built,” using rockets from the Soviet era which unfortunately for it “have begun to fall from the skies more often than in the past.”

3.      Only Fools Think.  For fascists, members of the intelligentsia are “potentially dangerous” and thus must be marginalized and eventually destroyed.  For Putin, one of his most constant memes is the antagonism between the real people of the workplace and the “creative” ones who cause only trouble by protesting.

4.      He who is Not with Us is Against Us.  Fascists view any display of independent thinking as a betrayal and as a challenge to their efforts to stupefy the population.  Putin does the same.

5.      The Foreigner is the Enemy.  Fascists, Eco argues, “seek to unify society” by promoting fear and hatred of the outsider. Russia has a long history of doing the same, Zhartun says; but the way in which state television was able to transform Russians’ views about Ukrainians from a fraternal people to total enemies represents a breakthrough.

6.      Strength is with the Failures.  Fascists have always understood that those who are doing well are less likely to be mobilized against this or that outsider group than those who are not and who need that sense of hostility in order to feel themselves exceptional and superior.  Russians, especially since 1991, are among the latter and have in many cases managed to convince themselves that in the USSR, “ice cream was sweeter, everyone got a free apartment, and Stalin was an effective manager.”

7.      The Country is Threatened by a Worldwide Conspiracy. Fascists have always explained any shortcomings by pointing to the existence of an active and remarkably effective conspiracy of one kind or another. Again, Putin is using the same approach, the St. Petersburg writer says.

8.      Enemies are Simultaneously Strong and Weak.  Fascists invariably portray their enemies as strong so they can blame them for all their problem and “at one and the same time very weak so as to suggest that victory over them is inevitable.” Putin’s propagandists portray the US as capable of doing anything it wants but being so internally rotten that it is doomed to collapse.

9.      All Life is a Struggle. Most people want happiness, but fascists insist that the goal of life is “the uninterrupted struggle for a happy life.” Here Russia may fall short of the fascist definition: it has not unifying idea about what it is struggling for, although the Putin regime views struggle as the natural state of affairs and keeps casting about for new enemies.

10.  Plebes and Patricians.  “Fascist regimes are like a staircase, with the denizens of each step fearing those who are above them and dreaming of occupying their place” and with the top man viewing everyone below as his servants.  That is exactly the kind of system Putin has been putting in place.

11.  To Sacrifice Oneself is Beautiful.  Fascists insist that each individual must see as his highest goal the sacrifice of himself or herself for the good of the system. For Russians, there is already “the Cult of Victory, which organically combines within itself the cult of war, the cult of heroism, and the cult of ancestors, a three-for-the-price-of-one like for shampoo at a supermarket.”

12.  The Cult of the Real Man.  “Sooner or later, fascists arrive at the thought that they can and must get involved in sexual relationships,” Zhartun writes on the basis of Eco’s argument. “Any deviations from the norm are considered perversions and are persecuted,” with women reduced to second class status as bearers of children who will be future warriors.  Russia has been moving in this direction since Putin became president, although it has a long way to go.

13.  The Voice of the People. According to Zhartun and Eco, “democracy uses the will of the people to take decisions, while fascism uses them for justifying what it has done.” That makes any dissent a crime because “the leader is the only worthy expression and defender of the interests of simple people.” Putin’s much-ballyhooed “86 percent” support is an example of this tactic.

14.  New Speak.  Fascism destroys language in order to destroy thought, presenting the world in black and white terms with no opportunity for nuance or discussion.  And it abuses the language in another way: it refuses at least under current conditions to label itself fascist while denouncing everyone it doesn’t like as fascist.  That is very much part of the reality of Putin’s Russia, Zhartun says.

Given the close correspondence between Eco’s 14 points and Russian realities, the St. Petersburg analyst says it might seem entirely reasonable to predict that Russia will move toward being a full-blown fascist state. But the lack of an overarching idea and problems with the elite who have so many of their assets abroad make that less likely than some might think.

Instead, there are likely to be in the Russia of the future pale imitations of the fascist states of the 1930s, with small steps taking the place of larger ones, thus “instead of concentration camps, overly full cells” in detention facilities. Any efforts to go further will simply collapse of their own weight.

And consequently, Zhartun concludes, “it is possible that a certain moment everything will simply end as ended sometime ago the great, powerful, and indivisible Soviet Union.”

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