Strongmen Destroyed, part 2: The Names of Evil

Denys Bakirov, 27, is a lecturer at the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine who currently works as a researcher at Metamoderna in Sweden. When war broke out on February 24th, his village north of Kharkiv right on the border with Russia was occupied by the Russian Army. Denys was forcefully deported from Ukraine to Russia. There he was interrogated by the FSB. Later, he managed to escape from Russia and now lives in Sweden.

He has a BA in Mathematics and Computer Science, specializing in Game Theory; a MA in International Economic Relations, specializing in Migration and Diaspora Studies; a PhD in Philosophy, specializing in the history of interaction between education and politics; and he worked as a diplomat in the embassy of Ukraine in The Hague, Netherlands. He has a passion for gardening, specializing in the evergreen forests.


The Fascism of Realism: Abstraction of Violence

Vladimir Nabokov spent the 1930s in Germany. His 1936 story Tyrants Destroyed distils the essence of the Nazi regime by revealing the link between obsession with willpower and obsession with land. He describes the fictional ruler who gnaws his way into power thanks to ‘that deaf, focused, gloomy, and deeply self-conscious will, which in the end moulds a triumphant monster out of a mediocre man’[1]. The ruler has a myopic belief that willpower alone is enough to break and refashion the fabric of social and material reality as one sees fit, at one point he suffers from toothache and he promises to ‘overcome his teeth’ by sheer exercise of will. But what’s interesting is this: this ruler is obsessed with farming. At one point he awards an old lady with the highest state honour for victory in the contest of growing the largest pumpkin. He even introduces an ‘agricultural hymn’ as the national anthem. Why does Nabokov connect worship of willpower with—of all things—farming? The reason is simple. There is a tight correlation between agricultural success and hardwork that goes into the cultivation of land which indulges our illusion that “we reap what we sow”, that teaches us to think that our success is of our own making, that we are self-made and self-sufficient, while teaching us to forget the ecology of loves, cultures, and material environments, that precedes and creates us. Before farming emerged, hunter-gatherers humbly relied on the gifts from wild nature. Farming taught us to see nature as a passive instrument of our will. Farming taught us to think that possession of land is merited by all the hardwork they’ve put into it. We turned wilderness into pasture or arable land and wild animals into livestock or workers to graze or plough the land. We colonised patches of wild nature—wild plants and wild animals—were enslaved as property of the humans. Once our environment was privatised by various individuals, everyone became afraid that he’ll be left without resources that began to seem very scarce, and started trying to secure some of the resources for himself. People began to protect their property from rival claimants by any means necessary. The war for scarce resources, geopolitical struggle for Lebensraum (Ger. ‘Living space’), began to escalate out of anyone’s control—to the extent of people beginning to enslave other people and create unnatural societies based on slavery as model of relationships. These unnatural societies are the product of the feedback between the tyrant and the popular will. Because, in absence of politics, popular will cannot be articulated past ‘the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion’, natural desires and appetites mutate into passions, and since the passions arise from competition, the ruler has no choice but to appease them by imprisoning himself within the geopolitical logic of a zero-sum-struggle for scarce land against threatening foreign rivals. This is why Nabokov’s fictional ruler uses a fortified prison as his palace—‘this tyrant calls himself a prisoner of people’s will’.[2] Why does geopolitics resemble a prison?

In his 1937 novel Gift, Nabokov describes geopolitical thinking as a ‘clichéd’ and ‘trivial’[3]: ‘the world Shchyogolev created came out as some kind of collection of limited, humorless, faceless and abstract bullies, and the more brains, cunning and circumspection he found in their mutual activities the more stupid, vulgar and simple his world became’… ‘France was afraid of something or other and therefore would never allow it. England was aiming at something…’[4]. Nabokov was able to see how the geopolitical presumption of a zero-sum struggle for scarce Lebensraum as the ultimate context of all human affairs turns us into ‘bullies’ by locking our imagination into a scarcity mindset, a mindset that provides us with a seemingly ‘realist’ excuse for violence against all sorts of threatening others: ‘There is no avoiding war: it can only be postponed to the advantage of others’.[5]

But what if there is a way to avoid war? In his memoir Speak, Memory!, Nabokov discards the idea that the world is a creation of the struggle for scarce resources because it teaches humans to live an inhumane form of life: ‘Struggle for life” indeed! The curse of battle and toil leads man back to the boar, to the grunting beast’s crazy obsession with the search for food’.[6] Nabokov countered it with a different outlook, the ‘excess mindset’, that restores the primordial understanding that life ultimately is an undeserved gift by insisting that we are spoken into existence. It is the inability to see life as the gift of language is what makes the geopolitical lens vulgar and clichéd, makes it astoundingly unimaginative and uncreative. Geopolitics narrows our attention on securing our domination, our free will to do what we choose with the passive stuff like land before our rivals take it from us, but distracts our attention from our freedom to create laws under which we can intensify our cooperative responsiveness to the gifts that land has to offer. The geopolitical outlook is uncreative because it locks people out of legislative conversations in which new social worlds are created—it distracts our attention from imagining new vistas of creativity that tap into new vistas of excess. And since we can avoid war only if we have faith in the excess in which we all can partake, the geopolitical lens gives us a hard time imagining a possibility of lasting peace. It leads to a life where people fight for their share in what is already there, to a life that is essentially just a living out of a cliché, life that partakes in only one kind of excess—the spiral of violent revenge.

“Tolstoy said that patriotism is the last refuge of villains. Today, in my view, we should replace ‘patriotism’ with ‘geopolitics’”[7]. So says Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who sold his medal for $104 million (true story) and donated the money to the Ukrainian children refugees. Geopolitics is the only meta-narrative that tyrants allow to propagate because it diverts national attention from domestic problems to foreign affairs. Leaders adjust propaganda’s lenses to geopolitics when there is no democratic support for what they’re doing. I want to be precise in what I mean when I say ‘no democratic support’. It is not the approval ratings or plebiscitary acclamation. During his whole reign Putin relied on genuine popular support, of which the polls and election results are proof, but never allowed people to develop their opinions. People could check boxes on multiple choice questionnaires, but with such an inarticulate expression of will, passions remain easily manipulated with the propaganda toolkit. This I believe is the warning of where not to tread that recent Russian history ought to teach us: Democracy is more than listening to the people’s opinion, it depends on educating people into those whom Shalamov described as politiki, into citizens who can verbalise their will to the extent of genuinely shaping decisions that legislate the context of their lives, articulating themselves to the degree where policy undertaken in their names genuinely reflects their will—not just choosing between options, but shaping which options are available. Democracy, in essence, is communal self-examination—thinking in public, persistently asking “What do we truly want?”, “Is this how we would really love to live?’ and persistently making authorities answer to it. Statecraft is to be examined and judged in light of the forms of life that are desired by the people. The unexamined society is not worth living in because the absence of communal self-examination leads to dictatorship.

Geopolitics is precisely what allows communities to avoid self-examination. Geopolitics permits us to not pay attention to the actual forms of life. It allows people to stay within the ‘echo chamber’ of certainty and never be disarmed by confrontations with the apparent facts on the surface of the world. Notice how today’s Russian official war apologists distract people’s attention from both the ‘facts on the ground’ and ‘gut feelings’ by using a geopolitical lens that narrows attention to issues of territory, one resource of zero-sum nature: ‘Russia’s main interest in this war is neither cities nor people, but the land’, pushing Russian borders farther from Moscow, so as to secure total invulnerability of Putin’s regime. Putin does not want Kharkiv, my home city, but he repeatedly stressed that he would not tolerate the risk of having foreign nuclear warheads within a 7 minute reach of Moscow. ‘Russia doesn’t need Mariupol. Russia needs another supply corridor to Crimea. Russia doesn’t need Odessa. Russia needs another sea outlet’[8]. War apologists implore us to “take the geopolitical situation into account and see that Russia was left with no choice but to react to the encroachment of foreign powers on its sacrosanct sphere of influence!”. By making it seem that Russia was totally bereft of all negotiatory faculties, totally reactive, talk of geopolitical necessity permits decision-makers to shed all responsibility.

In this regard, John Mearsheimer and other acolytes of the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy are in fact idealists. It is just that their ideal is grim: humanity stuck at the impasse of imperial power struggle. They think that the emphasis on the self-legislative rights of all nations is just moral posturing, a distant echo of what the ideal world should be. But one may just as well argue that it is the ‘realists’ who are out of touch with the reality of progress towards international relations that are less defined by power struggle and more by creative cooperation. For example, they are out of touch with the anti-colonial resolve of Ukrainians, with the fact that people who defend their freedom will always shatter the neat predictions of military analysts upon which the ‘maps’ of the balance between great powers are drawn. And since “when we make peace with the idea that ‘might makes right’ we only help the mighty”[9], the ‘realists’ only help imperialists like Putin. From their perspective, it doesn’t matter what Ukrainians self-legislate. The floor has to be given to the interests of great powers. It does not bother them that these security interests are often dictated by dictators. In one of his prison letters, Navalny says that, in the long run, any nation’s security interest, including Russia’s, is to be a democracy. For a very simple reason—democracies actually don’t go to war with each other, democracies don’t pose a threat to each other’s security because it is in no people’s natural desire to go to war. Sadly, from the ‘realist’ perspective, Navalny’s voice does not count because he is just a political prisoner—he’s not in power.

We shouldn’t let Putin define Russia’s security interests because the only interest of his regime is to stop democracy. “What threatened Putin was not NATO expansion, but the democracy expansion”[10]. We have to understand that long before the talk of ‘national interests’ and ‘spheres of influence’ we’ve already walked the walk of appeasing the people who can’t let go of their power and use the talk of ‘national interest’ as a guarantee of their personal security—which for them means forever staying in power. Putinverstehers perpetuate the idea of Russian innocence because it was left without a choice—but to accept this is to let every tyrant justify violence with the mythology of national interest: ‘the Russian foreign ministry claiming Russia will be “forced to take retaliatory steps” if Finland joins NATO’. No, it will not be “forced”, in the same way that Russia was not “forced” to attack Ukraine. This decision appears “forced” only if one accepts the whole set of ideological and geopolitical assumptions that sustain Russian politics’[11].

But for the ‘realist’ there is no difference between democracy and autocracy. The ‘realist’ equivocates all ‘great powers’ and then asks us to listen to every last one of them. At the end of the day, it is a recipe for the appeasement and subservience to the bullies, for an international order based on balance of power between the strongest empires. Putin wants to build an international order like this—where strong states do things at will but disguise it by the sacred ‘security interests’ which they define according to their caprice. He had established the new axis of autocracy[12] that includes India’s Modi, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, China’s Xi, and infiltrates even well into NATO and Turkey. This is why ‘realism’ plays into the hands of imperial ambitions. Putin points to the double standards of Western policy when it falls short of its espoused ideals, but Putin wants an order where there will be no ideals to fall short of, a world without hypocrisy. Yet today we must learn to think of hypocrisy as a good thing because the world where hypocrisy is impossible is a very dark place. “Yes, the liberal west is hypocritical, applying its high standards very selectively. But hypocrisy means you violate the standards you proclaim, and in this way you open yourself up to inherent criticism – when we criticise the liberal west, we use its own standards. What Russia is offering is a world without hypocrisy – because it is without global ethical standards, practising just pragmatic “respect” for differences. We have seen clearly what this means when, after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, they instantly made a deal with China. China accepts the new Afghanistan while the Taliban will ignore what China is doing to Uyghurs – this is, in nuce, the new globalisation advocated by Russia. And the only way to defend what is worth saving in our liberal tradition is to ruthlessly insist on its universality”.[13]

The problem is not power itself, but its arbitrary exercise. The West’s ‘sphere of influence’ is postcolonial (rather than simply ‘colonial’) because it is not imposed at will—in contrast to the fundamental disregard to human rights and life by the autocratic regimes, the West presents a form of life that people aspire to emulate, providing the individual with a space, time and silence for growth: be it Swedish spacious public spaces, German observance of recreation on Sunday, or Swiss laws of silence, be it the flamboyance of ‘American dream’ or the normcore of ‘Nordic minimalism’. This is why many nations voluntarily choose to be integrated into the West. This self-determination principle, inscribed into international law, is what is being threatened by Russia’s recent transgressions. If the international law does not function properly, empires (nations that have problem with recognising their borders) will simply impose their will on the weaker nations because empires don’t recognise them as subjects of politics. But if all nations are given voice, there is a chance of creating legislative communication on the planetary level and then abstracting violence to that level.

Can we break the sovereignty of strong states just like in the past we broke the sovereignty of strong individuals? In the past, we managed to abstract violence to the level of the state—to the legislative communication between citizens—and from that level to enforce it onto the lawbreakers. We abstracted violence to polity, allowed the police to apportion violence onto the brutes, bandits and bullies—and called it justice. We said to them—“You cannot act with impunity, you have to attune your conduct to the laws that are conducive to the common good”. And now wherever, say, domestic abuse takes place, police can intervene and punish the abuser. The household is not a sovereign order unto itself with the man as a sole dictator of moral judgements, the local arbiter of good and evil. The human rights legislation does not recognise the right of the strong to impede on the liberty of the weak.

However, having abstracted sovereignty to the level of the state, we must not stop there. Today, when bandits and bullies come to power in the state, they use the image of foreign threat to usurp power forever—to take on the colonial expansion and incite the police against their political enemies whom they target as foreign agents—and to market all of this as defence of sovereignty. Today we are gradually degrading into the state of international relations where the sovereignty of stronger states allows them to impede on the freedom of weaker ones and justify it by the talk of ‘national interests’. If powerful enough, nation states are allowed to act arbitrarily. We have confined thieves and thugs to the prisons, but fail to deal with the thieves and thugs who come to power and weaponise the state to bully and steal.

Today, to abstract sovereignty above the level of nation states, we have to stand up for the sovereignty of all countries, their right to self-legislate. First, consider Ukraine—the only nation that agreed to give up the world’s third largest arsenal of nuclear warheads and that, because of it, is now painfully aware of its reliance on the family of interdependent nations. Second, consider Russia—the nation whose unrivalled nuclear capacities allow it to be the vanguard of contemporary neo-colonialism.

Putin sees dominance as the only legitimate model of personal and international relations: “In order to claim some kind of leadership—I am not even talking about global leadership, I mean leadership in any area—any country, any people, any ethnic group should ensure their sovereignty… There is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called”.[14] In Putin’s view, there are two categories of state: The sovereign and the conquered, and Ukraine should fall into the latter category. ‘Russia’s strategic plan is to profit from global warming: control the world’s main transport route, plus develop Siberia and control Ukraine. In this way, Russia will dominate so much food production that it will be able to blackmail the whole world. This is the ultimate economic reality beneath Putin’s imperial dream’.[15]

The reason Putin’s imperial ambition ‘should be unconditionally rejected is that in today’s global world in which we are all haunted by the same catastrophes, we are all in-between, in an intermediate state, neither a sovereign country nor a conquered one: to insist on full sovereignty in the face of global warming is sheer madness since our very survival hinges on tight global cooperation’[16]. Putin’s neo-colonial obsession with strength and weakness is out of place in the twenty-first century where the strong and the weak are equally interdependent in the face of global challenges.

Perhaps there was a way to prevent Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine—a bilateral ‘divide-and-rule’ meeting between the US and Russia. This is what Putin wanted all along since he took office in 2000. It would have saved Ukraine from the insufferable toll of pain and death, but it would have reshaped international architecture in a manner that would have made planetary cooperation all but impossible. As things stand now, the resolve of the Ukrainians to self-sacrifice for the sake of anticolonialism—the right of a nation to self-legislate—has reanimated the ideal of the international community in which every country is endowed with the dignity of an inter-independent (independent and interdependent) self-legislator.

Today, the true Russian patriots must support Ukraine because Ukraine is the key to saving Russia from suicidal imperialism. Zbigniew Brzezinski repeatedly claimed that Russia could only part ways with its imperial habits if it were willing to surrender its claims to Ukraine: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire”[17]. By limiting our attention to the struggle for imperial ‘spheres of influence’, geopolitics distracts us from the history of outgrowing zero-sum relationships. Geopolitics is a reductive perspective that does little justice to the long history of breaking zero-sum dilemmas. Democratic politics frees us from this zero-sum optic and allows us to renegotiate our relations with our rivals so as to become collaborators who find ways in which our environment is actually not so passive and who can hence share in the excess it has to offer more intensely.

To not see the difference between democracy and autocracy is fail to see social development over the axis of time. This is why ‘realism’ is a clichéd worldview—it attends only to the present status quo; it is interested in making great powers avoid war, but does not attend to the growth into such international relations in which every nation can pursue the policy under conditions of freedom and sovereignty. ‘Realist’ concern for preserving status quo so as to avoid escalation by not provoking the unnecessary violent reaction from the powerful is important, but it has to be incorporated within the wider history of growth into relations where brute force does not have the last word. Since democracy presumes the exchange of critical perspectives, the painful process of acknowledging errors, it poses a unique threat to the dictators—people whose authority is based on the myth that they don’t make mistakes. The acknowledgement of errors is exactly what the tyrants cannot stomach because to do so is to show weakness, and, in the strongman’s ‘system of coordinates’, weakness is precisely what shouldn’t be shown. “The weak”, as Putin is keen on reminding us, “are beaten”.

The Fascism of Putinism: The Failure of Definition

The insistence on the primacy of division into the strong and the weak, masters and slaves, is the essence of fascism. Russian officials often point fingers at Ukrainian neo-pagan neo-Nazis, but what makes you a Nazi is not the surface insignia, but the worship of will (at the expense of morality and truth, as discussed in the first essay).

Granted, Putin’s Russia does not have an explicit theory of the supremacy of the white or Russian race, but its exceptionalism is based on an arguably even more dangerous premise—the memory of shared suffering. Not of the kind that says “Never again!”, but of the kind that seeks vengeance and says “We can repeat it!”. Russians simultaneously believe in their absolute innocence because they have been victimised and in their absolute power because they have been victorious. This blend of innocence and omnipotence makes for a very poisonous compound—it has led Russians to cling to their identity in a very uncritical way, to a fundamentally fascist stance of ‘us-theming’ and ‘othering’ all that is strange—no matter if it is a swastika or a rainbow flag. “This kind of reception of the cross [of victimhood and victoriousness] becomes little more than a somewhat magnifying mirror of my condition—and a mirror also for my self-approval, my defining of a secure and righteous position over against the other. Self-pity, leafing into the pleasure of knowing the impregnable moral armour of innocence: this is indeed how the cross can be made the ego’s servant”[18].

If society is a political conversation, then the political purges of the 1930s broke Russian society. And when there appeared a chance to go through a therapy through the means of a renewed political conversation, the above-mentioned fusion of fantasies about innocence and omnipotence expiated Russia from the necessity of coming to terms with the traumas of its past, from the necessity to take responsibility for the errors of the political lineage in the wake of which Russians received their newfound freedom. Inability to name the evil that was visited upon them in the 20th century led to inability to notice the same evil perpetrated in their name, to take responsibility for the Great Terror, which in its own turn led Russians to repeat it anew.[19] Russians turned their past into a weapon because they were not able to (literally) come to terms with it—to define it correctly.

Plato strongly emphasised the importance of the search for correct definitions. He believed that the practice of definition keeps statecraft in touch with reality. Correct definitions allow people to let language govern their lives, that is, to create laws that are conducive to the common good because they are written from the perspective of society as a whole (remember that Aristotle called society koinonia, which simply means communication). In contrast to this, when people use definitions that are expedient to them, language becomes the instrument of private will, one more tool of coercion. In the Soviet Union, the right to define was in the hands of the authorities, who reduced the definition of fascism to the primitive geopolitical practice of ‘us-them-ing’. Not able to define the fascism they faced in the 20th century, Russians were left without a working definition of what brought them so much suffering, of the evil they saw with their own eyes. And it meant that the authorities had an extremely powerful and cynical tool for psychological coercion—they could mobilise the populace by exploiting the shared trauma of wartime terror.

‘Soviet anti-fascism… was a politics of us and them. That is no way to define fascism. After all, fascist politics began, as the Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt said, from the definition of an enemy. Because Soviet anti-fascism just meant defining an enemy, it offered fascism a backdoor through which to return to Russia. In the Russia of the 21st century, “anti-fascism” simply became the right of a Russian leader to define national enemies’[20].

The failure to define fascism made Russians miss the warning of Matthew 5:39, ‘resist not evil’: having defined themselves in primitive opposition to fascism, Russians did not grow beyond the essence of fascist zero-summism. This is how evil perpetuates itself: you “look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye”[21] and then you base your identity on being its adversary, you invert the flavour, but preserve the substance. Russians talked at length about fighting fascism only to themselves become fascists. This is not rare. Today, Republicans justify gun ownership by saying that they are afraid of tyranny, while it is their party that holds conventions in the viciously illiberal Hungary of Victor Orban. By focusing on (perhaps real) problems in our opponents, we become mere reactionary copies of what we were supposed to fight against, we turn ourselves into what frightens us in our enemy. The optics of ‘us-them-ing’ is what makes fascism evil. It is not just that this optics is evil; the evil is this optics. Evil is the vision that sees evil everywhere.

Russians en masse never reckoned with similarities between German Nazism and their own Bolshevik crimes—if there was such reckoning, they would have recognised themselves reflected in fascism as if it was a mirror. But reflecting and thinking are incommensurate with the fascist exaltation of willing.

Real thinking is nothing less than love because it requires letting the other be other, letting the other evolve in accord with her very own nature. It is the search for the correct definitions through the critical exchange of perspectives, letting the other define and name herself instead of imposing my definitions on her. It presupposes the mind-bending and heart-breaking process of coming to terms with the strangeness of reality, its otherness in relation to my beliefs and hopes, acknowledgement of errors and persistent work of repentance. Willing, on the other hand, is all about having enough power to impose my arbitrary choices on the other. ‘Fascists calling other people “fascists” is fascism taken to its logical extreme as a cult of unreason. It is a final point where hate speech inverts reality and propaganda is just pure insistence. It is the apogee of will over thought. Calling others fascists is the essential Putinist practice’[22].

Russia began to espouse the primacy of the will on the international scale. The only ‘others’ which Russia condescends to speak with are the powerful actors on the world stage: US and China, Germany and India, those on whom it is not so easy to impose will. Russians wanted these powers to divide the world into their respective ‘spheres of influence’ so as to secure one piece of the ‘pie’ for Russia according to her merit as a military and monetary force. Because it presupposes that the countries that constitute this partitioned ‘pie’, ‘those on whom the will is imposed’, are devoid of wills of their own, geopolitics does not leave any room for democracy. To promote this geopolitical logic Russia was inseminating populist sentiments all around the globe—so that the ‘master’ nations could not help but to carve the world map into imperial ‘spheres of influence’ over the ‘slave’ nations, over the passive land and people who are unlucky enough to dwell there. It was an offer to re-colonise the world.

And this is where the fluid definition of fascism came in handy—the fascists were able to distract everyone from their fascism by pretending to be profoundly anti-fascist. And whom did they label as fascist? Behold a comical acrobatic stunt: the fascists were now those smaller nations that refused to bow down to the ‘strong’. The Russian definition of fascism itself became fascist. That is, arbitrary in the sense that those who decide, the arbiters, are the powerful. The powerful states simply designate their enemies as fascist. And the worst fascists are the weak states that dare to pursue independent policies, to self-legislate, to profess democracy. The Kremlin hated countries like Ukraine the most because their freedom puts the order based on violence in question, because their democracy renders violence obsolete and meaningless. And there you have it: “Ukrainian fascists!”

The Fascism of Paganism

The book that had a formative impact on the key ideologue of Putin’s war on Ukraine was the 1928 Pagan Imperialism by Julius Evola[23]. I am of the strong opinion that not enough is made of the deep link between fascism and paganism. Why do the fascists have this pervasive adoration of heathen symbolism, of polytheist power-gods? Because paganism was the first worldview that presented power as the highest ideal. Heathens, be it Greeks, Nordics, or Slavs, had many gods who all somehow personified various crafts and skills which empower people to impose their will—but at the top of the hierarchy of gods, which is the same thing as the hierarchy of values, was always the god of war, wrath, and will, god who personified sheer dominance by throwing arbitrary thunderbolts—be it Zeus, Wotan, or Perun.

Earlier in this essay I described the silovik ethos by using the chronological sequence of ‘hiding’, ‘lying’ and ‘killing’ that led people to fall into paganism. If we’ll see that ‘hiding’, ‘lying’ and ‘killing’ have indeed become the core of Russian policy, one may in a sense argue that Russia has become paganised.

Siloviki turned hiding into secrecy. You will recall that the thing Putin and his siloviki detest most is the democratic idea of personal agency, the idea that ‘ordinary’ citizens can be subjects of politics, of the process where people can face each other and renegotiate the laws by which they live. The siloviki realised that they had to distract social attention from genuine politics because genuine politics would have instantly turned the country against their thiefdom. The way to do this was to divert all attention from the political discourse on the desired forms of life to the geopolitical drama of imperial struggle. Geopolitical mythology proved to be very useful because it provided siloviki with a rationale to declare discussion of discrepancies between desired and actual forms of life in Russia a treasonous activity of foreign agents who have to be silenced.

To be contrasted by the form of life people dream of living is the tyrant’s worst nightmare. This is why Navalny was poisoned, imprisoned, and silenced (Navalny jokes that authorities had put him into an aquarium so as to muffle his voice). At the same time, Russians, entranced by the mythos of geopolitics, began to see the world as the place of secrets and conspiracies, the place where political debate means and leads to nothing, but only prevents ‘us’ from ‘winning’, where debate only destabilises the state machinery behind which all must rally.

In this political reality, the Russian people is a formless mass, passive but impassioned on demand, “alternating between passion and passivity”[24], locked into a gridlock of consumerism: passionate regarding their private choices between options predetermined by the government, but too passive to articulate a sustained any critique of governance.

In Putin’s Russia policymaking is concealed from the people. Decisions are made in secret and then presented for the plebiscitary acclamation. “Time and again Putin has publicly demonstrated that he in principle does not understand what a discussion is. Especially a political discussion—there should be no discussion between the lower rank and the upper echelon. And if the subordinate dares to question things, then he is an enemy”[25]. Gryzlov, Putin’s first parliament speaker infamously said in 2003 that “parliament is not the place for discussions”. “Independent information, available online from a dwindling number of sources, is impossible to find without an unaffordable outlay of time, energy and know-how”[26]. The only information ‘within walking distance’ is ushered by the TV propagandists whose very tone and manner of speech indicate disregard for the natural exchange of questions and replies. Their certainty comes from their belief there is no truth except that which is expedient to the powerful. And this leads to lying.

Siloviki turned lying into a kind of rape of language. It is not that Russian propaganda presents an alternative picture of reality, the peculiarly incoherent worldview it offers is but a by-product of its much more sinister main task—to deny that there can be any coherent picture of reality at all. Gideon Rachman describes how, upon visiting Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov in 2008, he noticed on Peskov’s screen the mantra from Orwell’s 1984: “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”. Rachman assumes that Peskov was poking fun at him and other journalists, but I suggest that Peskov was also educating himself on the postmodern regime of post-truth, one which the Russian regime would prove itself most adept at navigating in the years to come.

Postmodern sleights of hand allows Putin’s regime to slip out of democratic control. When logical consistency of language is no longer an aspiration, when it becomes a mere tool which the powerful be stupid not to use to his benefit, when language itself is made impotent and reduced to an instrument of power, everyone loses power except those who are already in power. Because of the ennui from politics, many Russians gladly accepted a truncated zone of private responsibility, say, in matters of financial success. Their citizen efficacy dwindled because they couldn’t see connection between personal experience and governance—propaganda instilled them with the sense that in the world run by secret conspiracies there is no truth available for inspection by the citizens. The authorities no longer have to yield to what is correct and factual, they don’t even have to try to pay respect to the coherence of their lies. They just have to fill the public discourse with noise to the effect of making people believe that “All is not so straightforward!” “We’ll never know the whole truth!” “If the President made this decision, there must have been a reason for it!” “The owls are not what they seem!”

Russia also uses this postmodern cynicism to justify its imperial aspirations. If there is nothing except attempts at power grab and any rhetoric is a veneer for that, it is appropriate for Russia to react against the encroachment on its fictional ‘sphere of influence’—she’s left no other choice. If all perspectives are just someone’s power grab, then other perspectives don’t have transcendent supremacy over ours. There is no way to adjudicate different perspectives. Which is why there is no purpose in arguing, dialogue, even politics as such. Whereas the ‘politics of correct definition’ unleashed the true meaning of words to govern the polity, freed the power of language to shape decision-making, today’s Russian propaganda insists that there be no correct correspondence to reality at all, that language is inherently impotent to do justice to reality. [27] Which means that if we have a controversy with regard to our perspectives, it is of no import how sound our arguments are, all that matters is whether we walk the walk of backing our talk with the one argument ‘to rule them all’—the argument of brute force.

Since authorities no longer yielded to what is true, no longer cared of whether what they say resembles reality, they were able to argue anything they wanted with the help of circular reasoning: “We’ve begun the war so that war doesn’t begin!” “We attacked you so that you don’t attack us!” Circular definition that comes to the opposite of the natural meaning of the word is what I call the ‘rape of language’, it is the anti-definition. In today’s Russia, words are not what they mean. War is not war. You go to jail for seven years if you think otherwise [Link:].

In this way any action could be defended by a simple paranoiac explanation that “if we didn’t do it, it would have been done to us”.

It was a country-wide inception of the Machiavellian principle which Putin describes as his main takeaway from childhood on the streets of Leningrad: “If it looks like the fight is coming, make sure to strike first!” And this leads to killing.

Siloviki turned killing into a cult of death. When Putin became president, Pugachev, the choreographer of his enthronement, told him to choose the place for his burial—so that Putin will know that his mortal fate is connected to the fate of the land and Pugachev will know that this land to be in the right hands. But Putin was afraid to think of death. For him, he said, “life has just begun”. One may suspect that this refusal to come to terms with one’s vulnerability, to remember death as the guarantee that one’s identity is not everlasting, returns as an obsession with the idea of inflicting death on others, with the power to kill.

Long before the invasion, Putin had centred Russian ideology around the cult of war. He has turned previously solemn remembrance of the price paid for victory over fascism on May 9th into a celebration of military might, the spectacular display of Russians as quintessentially heroic—long suffering but victorious. Special because of their unsurpassed ability to kill.

I challenge you to watch some of the parades Putin had put together in celebration of the Victory Day—these are the clearest contemporary examples of the worship of your own might which prophet Habakkuk identified with pagans, “guilty people, whose own strength is their god” (Habakkuk 1:11). By offering war as a glue for national identity and territorial conquest as a model of growth, Putin effectively forced Russia to linger in its cultural growth, to be stuck at a lower stage of development. Think of why we can easily imagine a very popular or academically successful highschooler becoming a very unsuccessful adult. Whereas the ‘losers’ among highschoolers will gladly learn to play by the different rules and will become successful in a new kind of game, why would the ‘winners’ give up on a game in which they were so successful? Why would a popular teenager give up on bullying, telling greasy jokes, and acting upon notions of shame, honour, strength, and instead focus on becoming a responsible participant in the boring routine of adult relationships? Why would a diligent pupil leave the comfort zone of cramming and instead engage in more creative and subversive ways of getting things done? In a way not so dissimilar to these examples, spectacular victory in the Second World War and a miserable defeat in economic competition in the time of peace, has led Russians to ask themselves a question: “If we were so good in the game of war—why should we quit playing it?”

Russia has a cult of the dead. In recent years, the parades were complimented by the marches of the so-called ‘immortal regiment’ whose participants carry pictures of relatives or friends who fought during the Second World War with the aim of venerating and ‘immortalising’ the memory of the veterans. It is as if Russia is a Valhalla that hosts the souls of brave soldiers. In recent years, the state TV has been filled with seemingly joyous talk of the final annihilation, reduction of the world to ashes. This is the Pagan idea of Ragnarök, the final battle and the triumph of death. One of its most colourful displays are Russian Orthodox priests blessing a nuclear missile called ‘Satan’ (a symbolism that has precedent, of course, in North Korea). Satanism, in this sense, is not some group of human rights and social justice activists playing with the imagery of the devil (I’m thinking of the Satanic Temple) or the groups of hermetic youths playing with the imagery of paganism (though both are symbolically inadequate and ridiculous if you ask me), rather, satanism is this—idolatrous adoration of your own weaponry. Since Russians began to believe in their own power, the army, it gave them the illusion that Russia has the right to become the arbiter above moral principles of international law. If there is a threat of real neo-Pagan neo-Nazism in the 21st century, it stems from the Silovik Revolution, not from Azov soldiers with the kolovrat[28] tattoos. In its arbitrary treatment of the law, of the individual, and of political debate, the language in general, the essence of Putin’s regime is the triumph of the will over the word.


The Fascism of Neoliberalism. The Danger of Outsourcing Moral Judgement to the Market

If the essence of the Russian regime is the triumph of will over the word, it was able to take on the West because there a different sort of triumph happened—of wealth over the word, of capital over politics. The outsourcing of moral judgement to the market made the West vulnerable to the corrupting influence of Russian money.

Earlier I argued that Russian liberals erred in their expectation that capitalism will save Russia from tyranny because the siloviki used the very mechanisms of capitalism to subvert democracy and install tyranny. In this chapter I’ll argue that the same mistake was committed by the liberal West. The liberal strategy of integrating Russia into the global economy had backfired because the insatiable appetites of the Russian elite had made it impossible for them to operate under the same transparent laws as everyone else.

The Western world order is premised on the liberal idea of infinite economic growth. The idea that all economic actors who play by the rules of a free market economy can be shareholders of the ever-growing profits from global trade. It was the image of excess that promised the possibility of prolonged planetary peace: Pax Americana. It had many flaws that were visible even before the Russian invasion—the fact that mutual enrichment has been skewed to serve the interests of the ‘first world’ countries, the fact that infinite economic growth is impossible on the planet with finite resources and the fact that this system can always be violated by the actors who don’t abide by the rules. Ironically, these problems are connected—the actors who take most comfort in the fact that the resources are scarce are the same actors who use it as an excuse for the destruction of domestic democracy and assault on the foreign foes. It is Russia that puts the nail to the coffin of neoliberal order.

Unable to integrate his kleptocratic regime within the (comparatively) fair rules of Western order, Putin decided to subvert it from within. The money and power stolen from the colonised Russians were to be weaponised against the West. And since the West had put economics over politics and had outsourced its moral judgement to the market, it proved to be very vulnerable to the corrupting effect of Russian cash streams—frankly, there wasn’t much of what money couldn’t buy. ‘The weakness of Western capitalist system, in which money ultimately outweighed all other considerations, left it wide open for the Kremlin to manipulate’[29]. In effect, Putin made the West sign a Faustian contract: selling democracy, the soul of society, for the power that came with Russian cash. Seeing through the hypocrisy of Western elites, he became extremely cynical: “Putin laughs when he’s told of [western] values…”, says Dmitry Muratov, “because he had bought sixteen of first-tier Western politicians—a couple of chancellors, a few prime-ministers, a few presidents—to chair the boards of his state companies, putting them on millions-of-dollars annual payrolls… Putin doesn’t believe in their values because he sure knows their value”[30].
Not many people heeded Andrei Illarionov’s warning that “Western companies are actually building long-term relations with those forces in Russia that are destroying the very pillars of modern society: a market economy, respect for private property, democracy’’[31]. Not many people heeded Robert Amsterdam’s advice that “Western leaders must take a realistic and long-term view of the implications of appeasing the Russians on such issues of fundamental human rights and the rule of law… If not, those presently in power in Russia will take Western double-standards as a licence for impunity. To deny, dismiss or discount the gravity of the consequences is to turn a blind eye to the lessons of history”[32].

And then it was too late. ‘Instead of Russia being changed through its integration into Western markets, it was Russia that was changing the West… Instead of bringing Russia into line with its rules-based system, slowly the West was being corrupted. It is as if a virus was being injected into it’[33]. Putin used Western economics to corrupt Western politics. And Western politics has lent itself to corruption—there were no mechanisms whereby the moral judgements could have been put in the way of Russian cash streams. Money simply ‘spoke louder’ than words. To undermine Western democracies, Russians decided to inflate the legitimate concerns of many Westerners that neoliberal economics enriched international conglomerates at the expense of the local working classes whose living standards were corroded by the flows of immigrants and use of the labour overseas. Soon, all across the EU, through official channels like Gazprom and through the black cash slush funds, the old networks of KGB clientele were being reloaded so as to influence local policy.

The idea was to fracture the West from within by funnelling money to its populist movements. Russians were funding the populists on both right and left ends of the spectrum with the eye to narrow national attention on their private or national interests as if they necessarily were in an irreconcilable zero-sum struggle against the interests of their fellow countrymen or foreign countries. The US against NATO, the UK against the EU, the EU nation against another EU nation, the poor against migrants. Trump, Brexit, Orban, Le Pen.

Putin’s Geopolitical Turn

Catherine Belton argues that Putin’s geopolitical turn happened in 2004. It was the year of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.[34] It became a useful scarecrow to mobilise Russians against what was presented as West’s imperial power-grab cynically disguised as a pro-democracy protest.

You can hear the vocabulary of geopolitical zero-summism creeping into Putin’s speech: “Russia has been unable to fully understand the complexity and the dangers of the processes at work in our own country and in the world [read: Russians are ignorant of the secret struggle of mythical geopolitical forces]… We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten [ultimately, it is about the strong and the weak] … We must create a much more effective security system [we have to attain invulnerability] … Most important is to mobilise the entire nation in the face of the common danger [Us-Them-ing]… There are certain people who want us to be focused on our internal problems [since we’re besieged by the external threat, internal critique is nothing less than treason], and they pull the strings here so we don’t raise our heads internationally [so we don’t bully other countries]”[35].

Putin began to turn Russia into a ‘Shchyogolev country’ [Nabokov’s sad dictatorial character, as discussed earlier in this article] of his fantasies, a country cursed to be a bully surrounded by bullies, albeit with the difference that, in contrast to the geopolitical musings of an emasculated white émigré, Putin’s fantasies were reinforced by his sycophantic retinue and propaganda.

Because the security services, afraid of sounding critical, have stopped reporting news that did not fit into their president’s worldview, Putin has gradually been settling into the world of such bully-countries where Russia has to assert its rightful dominant position. “Cut all the ‘democracy’ bullshit”, I imagine Putin saying, “there can be no motives other than to bully, to assert dominance. Only the weak don’t do it. And Russia will never be weak again”.

In Ukraine, that Russia’s imperial ambitions were threatened. Security men’s power was based on falsification and fabrication of the political landscape at home and colonial expansion abroad. Thus the revolution that was Ukraine’s response to the falsification of the elections threatened them in both respects at once—they feared that Ukraine would slip out of their ‘influence sphere’ and that a similar popular uprising would topple their power in Russia.

The Kremlin had put money into propaganda that presented all revolutionary movements as proxies of foreign foes, as their imperial power-grabs. They considered the idea that social arrangements can be rearranged through instruments of civil society or social resitance blasphemous. Order can only be imposed from above, via the sacrosanct vertical of power.

In response, Putin decided to use Russian gas as a lever for coercing Ukrainians. The gas scandal of 2005-2006 gave him the opportunity to use the extreme amounts stashed in the trade structures like Rosukrenergo and local structures of organised crime to corrupt, control and coerce Ukrainian politicians. “Ukraine was the training ground for Russia’s undermining of the EU”.[36]
In 2007 Putin openly voiced his discontent with the West’s refusal to guarantee Russia an exclusive mandate to lord over a ‘sphere of influence’ that would include all the border states and more. It was a regular practice in the 1990s for the organised crime groups to make deals the police with regard to taking control over certain patches of territory where all businesses would have to pay them tribute (say, the bandits of Solntsevskaya syndicate were handed over the whole areas of Moscow like Solntsevo).

Racketeers were famous to justify their racket by the need to protect the entrepreneurs from certain dangerous competitors. The same is true of the organised criminal group which takes control over the whole country and its inhabitants under the pretext of protection against certain foreign enemies: it declares itself a defender of national interests.[37]

Isn’t it the case that today’s autocrats act in the same manner as the racketeers of the 90s? They enslave local people under the pretext of providing protection against the more dangerous racketeers from the foreign countries. Their power is based on the myth that there can be no other means of adjudicating contradiction except war, the myth that language is impotent, the myth that your enemy understands no argument but force. As in the timely play Drakon by E. Schwarz, the people who suffer under the yoke of the power-hungry dragon because they cannot be persuaded out of their delusion that they need their dragon to protect them from certain foreign ‘dragons’.

Putin wanted to make the same deal with the ‘world policeman’, the US, so as to delineate Eurasia as his ‘sphere of influence’, his fiefdom. In this regard, ‘realist’ school of international relations only plays in the hands of such ‘dragons’ that justify their tyranny as defence of mythical ‘national interests’ against the infringements of the ‘dragons’ overseas. This belief in the inevitability of dragons, belief that they’re somehow inscribed into the fabric of reality, is the myth that feeds all autocratic regimes. ‘Realist’ school presumes that dragons in power are a natural state of affairs, whereas in fact it is an unnatural and unfortunate deviation from humane politics.

However, the White House was more willing to listen to the self-legislative voice of the locals, the vox populi expressed in revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and various Arab nations. It is sometimes speculated that the events of the Arab Spring angered Putin. President Dmitry Medvedev supported the UN resolution that allowed NATO to topple Kaddafi’s regime in Libya —which may have led to Putin’s subsequent decision to suspend Medvedev and become a President again in 2012.

In 2014, another revolution occurred—the Revolution of Dignity. At its core, it was Ukraine’s response to the violent beating of protesting students. Again, two pillars of the Russian regime were threatened at once. First, the secrecy of decision-making because Ukrainians were willing to die for their dignity: the right of every human to be a self-legislating subject of democratic politics. Second, the closedness of the public square for the voicing of discontent and violence as a means to deal with discontent. One after another, the pillars of Putin’s regime were crumbling down in Ukraine—and the Kremlin feared that the Russians might take notice that an alternative to their form of life is possible. “Any western move by Ukraine, especially so soon after the political backlash that greeted Putin’s return, posed a serious threat to Putin’s KGB men” (Page 384). This time, Putin decided to act—to annex Crimea. After it happened, Putin’s plebiscitary approval surged to more than 80%. Geopolitics became the favourite word of the Russian elite because it justified and strengthened their hold on power.


At Rest Only In War

Once Putin realised that his Russia cannot and ought not to be integrated into the Western world order, he decided to destroy this order from within. His strategy of corrupting West’s politics through economic means led to, among many other things, the election of Donald Trump, an old client of KGB patronage. But Putin also needed to provide a ‘positive programme’ upon which to build a new kind of world order. It was to be the order based on coercion and conquest, violent imposition of will, because Putin realised that the only contest in which Russia has the upper hand is that of war, the only game which a nuclear state without a competitive economy stands a chance to win. It was to be the order where ‘master’ nations bully ‘slave’ nations that are unlucky to find themselves within the imperial ‘spheres of influence’.

In October 2022 Putin will celebrate his 70th anniversary. As someone obsessed with legacy, he must revel in the fact that by the twenty second year of his reign he has achieved almost all of his wicked aims: the levers of democratic efficacy are destroyed: independent media silenced, elections rigged, judges corrupted, civil society annihilated, opposition discredited, public square closed, debate abolished. EU, UK and US politics are polarised and penetrated by populists, NATO is almost dysfunctional, ‘brain dead’ as says Macron. Across the globe, copypaste ‘strongmen’ leaders look up to him as to their role model. Geopolitical order is being questioned. China is an ally. Russian economy, although controlled by Putin’s incompetent friends, is doing fine because extraction of raw materials does not require a visionary skillset. A genuinely powerful army is built. Imperial control over Belarus and Kazakhstan is strengthened. The only fiasco of his legacy is Ukraine—a glaring example of a different, democratic lifestyle and governance right at the Russian border, inhabited, as he sees it, by a bit strange but essentially fraternal ‘Little Russians’. A country whose 2004 and 2014 revolutions have uttered a resolute “No!” to the style and essence of the Russian regime: to manipulations and falsifications in 2004, to violence and corruption in 2014.

During the pandemic Putin became even more paranoid, making himself all but totally isolated from the outer world, including from the advisers and aides who should have briefed him on the current state of affairs. Instead, it is speculated that he maintained close contact only with a handful of most loyal men, his friends from the KGB cohort—who also happen to be old guard of Cold War zero-summism. Putin was excommunicated, excluded from the free and truthful exchange of perspectives that would have grounded him in reality and became hostage to his narrow perspective, reinforced in the echo-chamber of his sycophantic coterie that couldn’t provide him with the critical feedback that is necessity for the sanity of a finite mind. During his first term in power, Putin balanced between the Yeltsin era liberals (Pugachev, Chubais, Kasianov) and the siloviki (Patrushev, Ivanov, Bortnikov). Gradually he began to rely on siloviki more and more simply because they were telling him what he wanted to hear. Siloviki were the masters of flattery and adulation because for them the truthful exchange of information was never as important as serving their own lust for power. And since ‘when language decays, possible views of the world disappear’,[38] Putin became a prisoner of a very limited view of reality. He, to put it mildly, wasn’t allowed to ‘see the whole picture’. At the end of the day, Putin’s decisions were no longer grounded in reality—they were grounded on the palaver of courtly clowns—“Yes sir, Ukrainians long to be liberated by you”, “Yes sir, Russian army is incredibly well-prepared”, “Yes sir, it will take up to four days to conquer the whole of Ukraine”. The decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022 was made by the man who was least informed and competent to make it.

The Bronze Age is not yet over. It is the playing out of God’s playful curse that humans “will become like gods”. Finite humans revolted against their finitude, their circumstances and environment, the nature within and nature without, in hope of subjugating it and attaining godlike invulnerability and immortality. But the only thing they attained was slavery, subjugation of fellow humans. The price which rulers paid for attaining arbitrary power over slaves was the deterioration of the quality of their communication. Since the rulers are not gods but mortals and since to stay in touch with reality mortals need sincere critical feedback from one another of which the only instrument is politics, the exchange of contradictory opinions with regard to the decisions that shape communal life, because of all this, rulers who exert arbitrary power, who are feared to be critiqued, fall out of touch with reality.

Yet there is one thing they understand perfectly well—their authority rests on war. If there is neither war nor threat of one, there is no need for them. War fosters dictatorship because its time-constrained context justifies concentration of decision-making in the hands of a dictator whom no one dares to contradict. The time for contradiction is simply not there. War calls for simple, essentially heroic traits: resolve, courage, valour, risk-taking, will, power, and the will to power.

The people who are distinguished solely by their strength will artificially put the world in such conditions where strength is the only argument, conditions in which they stand to gain the authority—they will start wars. In the normal democratic conditions, such people are kept in their place—in service of intellectual deliberation. But in Russia, the healthy hierarchy of law-making and law-enforcement was turned upside down. Without the necessary check of democratic politics, siloviki were able to degrade society to the relationships of pure dominance, the state of war—because only in the state of war the dominating faculty of humans, the freedom to own, becomes totally free. In the slang of the Russian army, soldiers are called ‘property’. They are stripped of personhood, they can’t participate in the questioning of whether the commands by which they live are correct or not.

The silovik revolution led to war because only in war power based on the logic of war is redeemed. Only war can justify the enslavement of the domestic populace. Once siloviki had clung to power, Russia was stuck in the spiral of enslavement and war—within the ontology, call it Thrasymachian or Nietzschean, where the freedom of will is exciting and the freedom of legislation boring, where peace is slavery and war is freedom. But Homeric epic myths and subversively cynical philosophies only take us so far. They excite as long as they remain on paper. Once they break out into the real world of real politics, all hell breaks loose.

Privation & Empire

The distinction between two kinds of freedom—political freedom and freedom of will—has been a leitmotif of this study. Another way to think of it is to think about the difference between growth and conquest. To be free means to grow in accordance with one’s nature. Animals are always free—they grow into their natural niches, instinctively adapting to the changes in their habitat. They’re not clinging to their established identities—whenever it happens, whenever a literal or figurative ‘cell’ refuses to die, it becomes cancerous and brings death to the whole organism. In the case of self-aware animals like us, natural growth requires acceptance of the transiency of identities, acceptance of the need to change: “We are in time, and thus what we are we must grow into”. Human growth requires making peace with the inevitability of lack, with the fact that what we lack can only be provided by the other, and with the fact that to get what we lack from one another we must negotiate—we must help each other discover and develop our unique gifts which we have in excess and exchange these gifts with each other. And since we can find out what our respective gifts are only by talking to each other, by reasoning together, in this sense, thinking and loving are one—they are the constituent instruments of humane growth, of change through exchange of perspectives, becoming other to yourself by letting others be other to the extent of changing your mind and breaking your heart. For the humane growth to happen, meeting what is strange and other has to be the occasion for learning. This learning is what I mean by politics, the process of reciprocal self-emptying, our only chance to “have life, and have it abundantly”[39]. Our natural niche is the evolving self-legislating community, creation of new social worlds based on increasingly intense participation in the abundant agency of the environment.[40] For humans to grow naturally is to grow into increasingly political life.
Alas, where there is the awareness of transiency, there is also the awareness of death. To accept the need to change is also to accept the inevitability of death. And this is what makes us different from the rest of nature—“for us there is always the possibility of failing to grow as we should”[41]. Human sin, human fall from nature, is the choice to refuse to grow because growth reeks of decay and death. Self-conscious beings run the danger of refusing to think of their destiny in terms of growth because they are painfully aware of the causal link between growth and decay, ageing and death. Thereby we opt out for the illusion of self-sufficiency, defence of what we already are and conquest of what we need to feel secure. We choose to halt growth in time and instead opt for spatial expansion. Human sin is this confusion of growth with conquest, colonising patches of our environment for the purpose of turning them into the ‘guarantees of security’, tokens of invulnerability and immortality. Thus, when we focus on securing the already known resources, instead of being an occasion for learning,  any meeting with the other becomes a meeting with a potential rival and an occasion for war. In which case politics degrades into the practice of identifying your enemy—that is, becomes fascist.

With regard to nation at large, it halts growth if its ruler refuses to let go of his ‘throne’, refuses to remember that he is transient, not indispensable—if the continuity of succession is broken and the nation clings to the one identity, to the one self that refuses to transfer power and die. From that point on, for a nation to grow would mean throwing off his yoke through a revolution, a ‘change of mind’ on a national scale. Hegel once identified thinking with revolution: just as thinking casts away erroneous ideas so does the guillotiné cut off the heads of those stuck in power. And if the nation is not allowed to grow as it ought to, that is if the idolised idiots are not questioned and tamed in the public square (Think of how Boris Johnson was ousted by the public uproar, how he was fined by the police for violating the quarantine rules. This is utterly unimaginable in today’s Russia, although it could have been imagined in 1990s, when Yeltsin was under fire from media, criminal investigation by the chief prosecutor, and general discontent of the people.), a nation becomes an empire and displaces accumulated hatred overseas—instead addressing it to the usurpers, people start to address the cry “Off with their heads!” to the foreigners. Wherein the contest of internal politics gets asphyxiated, therein it overflows overseas as the geopolitical conquest.

The ruler who wants to stay in power forever can’t tolerate the notion that there can be any politics—any opposition with an alternative vision of how the country should be governed. The ruler has to ensure that there is no room for the public articulation of the form of life by whose standard his governance can be judged, that there is no politics. But since he still has to ensure some support in order for the system to operate smoothly, he has no choice but to somehow rely on the people who never get a chance to articulate their will into a ‘name’ which they can lend to their representatives as a right to act in their names. In short, the emperor has to rely on people’s feelings and desires that, in absence of the space for political articulation, become insatiable, irrational and self-destructive passions. And since people are most impassioned by struggle and war, to mobilise popular support, the ruler has to indulge people by entering into a feedback with the worst passion—the appetite for imperial conquest. Politics would have kept their concrete personalities, their names, in touch with policies undertaken in their names, but the unnatural passionate feedback spirals out of anyone’s conscious control and imprisons both the citizens and the ruler on the path toward the waging of war, the choice that this particular Ira or Igor or Inna or Ivan would never had consciously chosen, but who were given neither time nor silence to think and speak, to make their distinct opinions heard—because the politics was reduced to plebiscitary acclamation—all that is heard within is unintelligible screaming—after all, acclamation comes from Latin “to scream loudly”. People became possessed by the suicidal pattern of escalation. In the documentary by Andrei Loshak you can hear people’s voices crack and change when they start to reproduce inhumane talking points that justify imperial aggression.[42]

Today’s Russia is the most advanced plebiscitary democracy—the system in which the will of the people is connected with decision-making not by communication, but through plebiscitary acclamation. It is the opposite of representative democracy—of the system where the ladder of representation is held together by communication. Hence all the levels of representation are shattered—discarded as ‘elitist’.

And since there is no transcendent standard of rationality (since language is not god) which can judge the popular will, it becomes a god unto itself, a sovereign. But sovereignty still has to be exercised somehow. Since different perspectives, wills, cannot be judged by the standard of rationality, all that is left is the argument of force. Thus sovereignty gradually concentrates in the hands of the most powerful. Thus only one link of representation remains—without any intermediate levels of representation—the direct link between the ruler and the popular will. But since they exist on utterly different planes of reality, because of their radical discontinuity, opposite sides of power-relation between which there can be no communication, they’re linked only by wordless feedback of passions. Therefore, the ruler has no choice but to appease the worst passions, passions that demand blood—or else people will choose an even more populist ruler.

The regime based on plebiscitary acclamation is the product of the lack of faith in language’s ability to represent reality, in the ability of political representatives to act in the names of those whom they represent. From this perspective, representation only fabricates popular will which has to stay pure. Will can be expressed (Russian for ‘voting’, vole-izyavlenie, means exactly this, the expression of will), but not disciplined, not educated into an intelligible image (Russian for ‘education’, obrazovanie, means shaping into an ‘image’, obraz). If there is no language to ensure the continuity of representation, responsibility disappears—no one has to make their decisions intelligible to others.

Plebiscitary acclamation links privation with empire. If citizens constrain themselves to the private domain and only engage in voting they forsake their political responsibility to elaborate on their unique viewpoint so that they can truly lend their names to the policies that are undertaken in their names, if there is a chasm between citizens and decision-making, politics degrades into unintelligible feedback between inarticulate popular will and imperial conquests. Across the world we see politics degrade into populism. To end this degradation, we have to stop thinking that the popular will is sovereign. It has to be subordinated to language—to the abstract conversations that do justice to the intricacy of modern society. If this happens, it would mean that we’ve gone through the politik revolution.


In this chapter I tried to name the pivotal kinds of unnatural governance, of regimes based upon coercion. Imposition of will takes different forms—if strong individual uses brute force to compel others to recognise him as divine, it is paganism; if powerful nation uses its technologically advanced army to compel weaker nations to give up self-legislation and recognise her as sovereign, it is imperialism; if the Fuhrer uses geopolitical propaganda to impassion the popular will to consume the other, it is fascism; if the capitalist conglomerate uses market incentives to subjugate public square to the imperative of profit, it is neoliberalism, if the siloviki put pagan faith in power, imperial expansionism, fascist “us-them-ing” in service of their lucrative state-capitalism in which they secured all the entreprises through political coercion, then use neoliberalism to buy influence in the West and go on imperial conquest of the neighbouring country, all the while being justified by Western ‘realists’, it is Putinism.






[1] Vladimir Nabokov. (1936). Tyrants Destroyed. [Rus. Istreblenie tiranov]. Chapter V.

[2]  Vladimir Nabokov. (1936). Tyrants Destroyed. [Rus. Istreblenie tiranov]. Chapter IX.

[3] Russian word poshlost stands for a mix of English ‘platidious’, vulgar’ and ‘clichéd’. Nabokov translated it as ‘artistic triviality, banality, lack of spirituality and sexual indecency’.

[4] Nabokov, Vladimir. (1963). The Gift. [Written in Russian as Dar during 1935-1937] G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Pages 171-172.

[5] Niccolo Machiavelli. (1513). The Prince. Chapter III.

[6] Vladimir Nabokov. (1964). Speak, Memory! Page 617.

[7] Dmitry Muratov is an editor of Novaya Gazeta, a zine specialising in the defence of human rights. Interview with Dmitry Muratov. Link:           0.

[8] Anatoli Ulyanov. (2022). Why do Russian occupiers wipe cities off the face of the earth and arrange ‘Buchas’? Link:

[9] Timothy Snyder in the interview with Sean Illing on Vox Conversations. Episode: The fight for Ukraine –– and democracy. Link:

[10] Michael McFaul. Closing Statement in the Munk Debate on Ukraine.
Link: Munk Debate on Ukraine – Michael McFaul Closing Statement

[11] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). We must stop letting Russia define the terms of the Ukraine crisis. The Guardian. Link: .

[12]William A. Galston. (2022). The New Axis of Autocracy. Germany and France are weak links as the West faces an alliance of China and Russia. February 6, 2022. Wall Street Journal. Link:
Caroline Mimbs Nyce. (2021). The New Axis of Autocracy. November 16, 2021. The Atlantic Daily Newsletter. Link:

[13] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). We must stop letting Russia define the terms of the Ukraine crisis. The Guardian. Link: .

[14] Vladimir Putin. (2022). Meeting with young entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists. On 9th of June, 2022. Link:

[15] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). Pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine. Link:

[16] Slavoj Zizek. (2022). Pacifism is the wrong answer to the war in Ukraine. Guardian. Link:

[17]  Jonathan Masters. (2022). Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia. Link:

[18] Rowan Williams. Resurrection. Page 71.

[19] Memorial organisation worked at providing legal assessment of the crimes of the Soviet regime but was liquidated in December 2021.

[20] Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion

[21] Matthew 7:3

[22] Timothy Snyder. (2022). We Should Just Say It. Russia is Fascist. New York Times International Edition. Friday, May 20, 2022. Opinion.

[23] Also translated as Heathen Imperialism. It was the first book which Dugin had translated to Russian, as Yazychesky imperialism in the 1990s.

[24] Farida Rustamova. (2022). Putin rules Russia like an asylum. The New York Times International Edition. Wednesday, May 25, 2022

[25] Anna Politkovskaya. (2004). Putin’s Russia.

[26] Farida Rustamova. (2022). Putin rules Russia like an asylum. The New York Times International Edition. Wednesday, May 25, 2022

[27] Alexandr Dugin explains this view to a British journalist:

[28] Slavic swastika.

[29] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 497.

[30] Dmitry Muratov. Link:

[31] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 359.

[32] Robert Amsterdam. (2006). ‘Rosneft IPO Represents Nothing But the Syndication of the GULAG’. Financial Times.

[33] Catherine Belton. (2020). Putin’s People. Page 352.

[34] Actually by three. There was also an immensely important arrest and trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. A lot can be said about it, but the limits of this essay simply cannot allow me to start on this one. So we will pretend that nothing happened.

[35] Vladimir Putin. (2004). Address delivered in the aftermath of the Beslan attack. September 4, 2004.

[36] Belton, Catherine. 2020. Putin’s People. Page 343.

[37] Yaroslav Shimov. (2022). Don’t Think of Putinism as of Political Regime. It is Banditism With Ideas. Meduza. Link:

[38] Rowan Williams. (2000). The Truce of God. Page 56.

[39] John 10:10

[40] Nabokov saw this interdependence as the ground of real freedom and personhood: “Now I saw them… in a natural harmonious relationship with their native environment. It seems to me that this acute and somewhat pleasantly exciting feeling of ecological unity, so well known to modern naturalists… that only here, along this line, paradoxically there is a possibility to synthesise of the idea of personality and the idea of community”

[41] Rowan Williams. (2000). The Truce of God, page 41

[42] Andrei Loshak. (2022). Disconnection. (A documentary).Link: