Soviet anti-fascism, in other words, was an us-and-them policy. That is not an answer to fascism. After all, fascist politics begins, as the Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt said, from the definition of an enemy. Because Soviet anti-fascism was only about defining an enemy, he offered fascism a back door through which to return to Russia.
In 21st century Russia, “anti-fascism” became simply the right of a Russian leader to define national enemies. Real Russian fascists like Aleksandr Dugin and Aleksandr Prokhanov were given time in the media. And Putin himself drew on the work of the interwar Russian fascist Ivan Ilyin. For the president, a “fascist” or a “Nazi” is simply someone who opposes him or his plan to destroy Ukraine. The Ukrainians are “Nazis” because they do not accept that they are Russians and they resist.
A time traveler from the 1930s would have no difficulty identifying the Putin regime as fascist. The Z symbol, the demonstrations, the propaganda, the war as an act of cleansing violence and the death pits around the Ukrainian cities make it all very clear. The war against Ukraine is not only a return to the traditional fascist battlefield, but also a return to traditional fascist language and practice. Other people are there to be colonized. Russia is innocent due to its ancient past. The existence of Ukraine is an international conspiracy. War is the answer.
Because Mr. Putin speaks of fascists as the enemy, it may be difficult for us to understand that he could, in fact, be a fascist. But in Russia’s war against Ukraine, “Nazi” just means “subhuman enemy,” someone the Russians can kill. Hate speech directed at Ukrainians makes it easier to kill them, as we see in Bucha, Mariupol and every part of Ukraine that has been under Russian occupation. Mass graves are not an accident of war, but an expected consequence of a fascist war of destruction.
Fascists calling other people “fascists” is fascism taken to its illogical extreme as a cult of unreason. It is an end point where hate speech inverts reality and propaganda is pure insistence. It is the apogee of will over thought. Calling others fascists while being a fascist is the essential Putinist practice. Jason Stanley, an American philosopher, calls it “undermining propaganda.” I have called it “schizofascism”. The Ukrainians have the most elegant formulation. They call it “Ruscism”.
We understand more about fascism than we did in the 1930s. We now know where it led. We must recognize fascism, because then we know what we are up against. But acknowledging it is not undoing it. Fascism is not a position of debate, but a cult of the will that emanates fiction. It is about the mystique of a man who heals the world with violence, and it will be sustained by propaganda until the end. It can only be undone by demonstrations of the leader’s weakness. The fascist leader has to be defeated, which means that those who oppose fascism have to do whatever it takes to defeat him. Only then the myths collapse.
As in the 1930s, democracy is in retreat around the world and the fascists have mobilized to declare war on their neighbors. If Russia wins in Ukraine, it will not be just the destruction of a democracy by force, although that is bad enough. It will be a demoralization for democracies everywhere. Even before the war, Russia’s friends—Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Tucker Carlson—were enemies of democracy. Fascist victories on the battlefield would confirm that power does good, that reason is for the losers, that democracies must fail.