The Relevance of Russian Tradition

The Relevance of Russian Tradition

My first exposure to Alexander Dugin came via YouTube, when I discovered Vladimir Pozner’s 2014 interview with the controversial theorist.  Marred somewhat by cultural relativism, Dugin’s critique of Anglo-American empire nonetheless contained more depth than a year’s supply of the Washington Post.  Civilization cannot exist without a willingness to use lethal force on its behalf, observed Dugin, nor can any regime afford to tolerate active traitors in positions of power—and for all the Western moaning about Russian censorship, the liberal system has its own ways of neutralizing domestic criticism.  He also qualified his well-known anti-Americanism:

[I]f [Americans] go the way of isolationism or like some right-wing politicians—Ron Paul, Buchanan—suggest, they will simply transform instantly into either our allies or at a minimum into a power indifferent to us.

In response, Pozner—a kind of Russian Phil Donahue—appeared content to fall back on utterly predictable cant: Why would anyone say that the queer lobby aims to dominate us when all they want is decent treatment?  How can you speak of violence when Jesus was a pacifist?  My impression of Dugin was favorable, especially insofar as his opinions stood out against Pozner’s.

Dugin identifies with the Old Believers, a cluster of schismatic Orthodox groups dating to the 17th century and famous for claiming to preserve undiluted Orthodoxy.  The opera Khovanshchina portrays Old Believers who would sooner burn themselves alive than shave.  Surikov’s Boyarnyia Morozova depicts a defiant noblewoman clinging to the old forms even as she is hauled off in chains.  And Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago pays tribute to the Old Believers’ peaceful yet unyielding defiance of Marxism.  One way of reading Putin vs Putin, then, is as an attempt to express in a new way the long-standing Old Believer grievance regarding foreign innovations imposed on the Russian people by “xenomorphic elites”:

If Russians found out the true meaning of “liberalism” as professed by theorists like Hayek or Ayn Rand, they would lose their minds.  After finding out that liberalism opposes the state, the nation, the church, the Orthodox faith, collectivism, gender, and ultimately democracy itself, the Russian electorate would permanently refute the balancing formula of “patriotism plus liberalism” . . . For this reason, liberalism is proliferating throughout Russian political life gradually, in small doses, and is camouflaged.  Liberalism is a product of the West, so unacceptable to the Russian consumer that one must change the label before trying to sell it to us.  It must always be served slathered in some sort of edible sauce.  Liberalism is imported into the country disguised as “perestroika,” “democracy,” “efficiency,” “modernisations,” “humanitarian values,” or something of the kind.

Far from being a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, Vladimir Putin is in fact a realist, a Kissingerian, Dugin contends, and the aforementioned “patriotism plus liberalism” formula is the best way to characterize the calculated compromises of his first presidency.  Like Machiavelli’s and Hobbes’s, Putin’s political agenda has thus far had little in the way of substantive content, focusing instead on security, stability, and sovereignty.  The Russian president regards the state as “simply a ‘night watchman,’ ‘a lesser of evils,’ and a product of the ‘social contract’ put into effect so that ‘people don’t kill each other.’”  Admittedly, this position is preferable to the militant revolutionary ideology propagated by Western politicians.  Yet the public square abhors a vacuum; whenever the right fails to promote its own vision of man and the good life, the revolutionary left will quickly move in to fill the void.

Per Dugin’s analysis, then, Putin’s desire that Russia learn from the sophisticated West stands in tension with his wish to preserve Russia’s distinctive identity and restore her prestige as a world power.  Each inclination is manifested in Russian politics by respective liberal and nationalist factions.  No lasting truce is possible between these factions, because people whose overriding aim is “to liberate the individual from all forms of collective identity” cannot peacefully coexist with patriots.  The “balancing formula” is inherently unsustainable.

Though he prefers not to dwell on it, Dugin alludes to the possibility that the attractions of the West will win out, that Putin lacks the resources or even the will to thwart liberalism.  In this regard, other Russia observers have even raised Thomas Molnar’s concept of the “counterrevolutionary hero”—an archetypal figure who is not really counterrevolutionary, and who will inevitably disappoint right-wing followers drawn to his personality and mystique.  The anxious handwringing of liberals notwithstanding, it’s conceivable that Putin may in the long run prove their best friend by letting down the very patriotic base that elevated him to power.  The legacy of Charles de Gaulle comes to mind, as does Reagan’s.

Then again, liberals have put their cards on the table awfully soon, and may have backed Russia into a corner.  It would be foolish to continue appeasing Western elites who have time and again demonstrated an insatiable appetite for regime change—and whatever else one may say of Putin, he is no fool.  Hawkish rhetoric and overtly perverse policies on behalf of queer power may backfire, pushing the Russian state toward the pursuit of consciously and assertively antiliberal empire.  This is precisely what Dugin wants: If Western liberal hegemony provokes Russian-led counterhegemony, a multipolar, postliberal world system may arise.

Of course, it may be that the Western political class hasn’t miscalculated at all but instead knows, instinctively, that its own interests at home require big scary bogeymen overseas.  A new Cold War, explains Dugin,

will delay the irruption of liberalism’s inner nihilism and thus save it from its inevitable end.  That is why [Western elites] badly need Putin, Russia, and war.  It is the only way to prevent chaos in the West and to save what remains of its global and domestic order.  In this ideological play, Russia would justify liberalism’s existence, because that is the enemy which would give a meaning to the struggle of the open society, and which would help it to consolidate and continue to affirm itself globally.

Perhaps I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four one time too many, but this is one aspect of Dugin’s book I consider utterly convincing.  Holding up a Eurasian nemesis for a Two Minute Hate seems an excellent technique whereby our rulers could divert us from the absorption of our own homelands into a global Babylon.  With Dixie subjugated and Europe pacified, a new, more vigorous enemy must be identified, one that can seemingly justify the American Union’s permanent war stance.  There is the Islamic world, of course, but by itself it is hardly sufficient—ISIS can’t field nuclear attack submarines or fighter-bombers.  And the Chinese aren’t really convenient archenemies, either; they make all our stuff.

Despite its strong points, this book has some serious shortcomings.  While at times extremely thoughtful and precise, the prose is also in some passages deliriously rambling and jargon-laden.  Although “Neo-Gramscianists in international relations maintain that ‘Caesarism’ can be considered ‘sub-hegemony,’” we must remember that “‘Caesarism’ is doomed to ‘trasformismo.’”  Elsewhere, Dugin links Putin to

a mystical diary written by the Old Believer Anna Putina, consisting of famous ancient Russian hieroglyphs that contain a cryptic narration about the forthcoming secret destiny of Russia and the end of time.

For a writer who invokes the Old Believers’ mistrust of foreign innovation and calls for a return to “the full Orthodox tradition, to its sources, to the mystical Orthodoxy of Byzantium,” Dugin spends remarkably little time exploring Putin’s role from the standpoint of Russian Orthodox thought.  In fact, when he outlines at length the political formula he recommends for Putin, it proves to be almost entirely derived from 20th-century Western theorists.  To be sure, Ernst Jünger and Antonio Gramsci and Carl Schmitt are all significant figures, and anybody trying to make sense of modernity ought to be somewhat acquainted with their ideas.  Given Dugin’s stress on spiritual and cultural roots, however, it is extremely odd that the atheist metaphysician Martin Heidegger receives more attention from him than do Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Konstantin Leontiev put together.

I have grave doubts as to whether Dugin’s agenda truly perpetuates the political tradition of firmly grounded, militant Orthodox patriots like Ivan Ilyin.  Whatever becomes of Russia, it is that tradition—not European phenomenology—which will prove especially instructive and relevant to Western Christians during the trying times ahead.


[Putin vs Putin: Vladimir Putin Viewed From the Right, by Alexander Dugin (United Kingdom: Artkos) 320 pp., $29.99]