“They wanted fascism in Russia and they got it” (by Oleg Orlov, Memorial Italia)

Memorial Italia publishes the following text by Oleg Orlov, co-chair of the Memorial Human Rights Center, winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. The original text was published by Mediapart blog whom we thank for granting the rights. The translation is by Luisa Doplicher. Written a month before Memorial received the Nobel Peace Prize, Oleg Orlov, a Russian dissident and co-president of the Memorial Human Rights Center from Moscow, describes in this text a Russia where people are reduced to zombies and where state propaganda, by denying the very existence of the Ukrainian people and their culture, it presents the clear symptoms of fascism. This text is the first in a series born from the collaboration between the Club de Mediapart and a network of dissidents from present-day Russia.

The bloody war unleashed in Ukraine by the Putin regime does more than perpetrate the mass murder of the inhabitants and the destruction of the infrastructure, economy and culture of that wonderful country. Nor is it just a violation of the very foundations of international law.

It is also a major blow to Russia’s future.

The dark forces that, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, dreamed of total revenge and gradually took over Russia – those that never tired of stifling freedom of expression, repressing civil society and annihilating an independent judiciary – have been celebrating their victory for the last few months.

You might ask yourself: but which victory? After all, on the fronts of Ukraine, things are not going well for the Russian troops. True, but inside Russia those same forces have definitely won.

This war has delivered the whole country into their hands. They have long wanted to shake off any brakes. They do not wish for the return of the communist system, although some of them say they are in favour. They appreciate the hybrid system that has been established in Russia over the past twenty years: half feudalism and half state capitalism corrupt to the core. Yet, something was still missing…

What? The impression that the system was finished. Now it is. Now they can proclaim openly and without shame: “One people, one empire, one leader!”. Without the slightest shame.

In short, they wanted fascism and they got it.

The country that thirty years ago distanced itself from communist totalitarianism has fallen back into another totalitarianism, the now fascist one.

Many people disagree with me: “But where do you see fascism?”. Where is the mass party that founded the system and is superior to the state itself? Does it seem to you that United Russia (Putin’s party, Ed), a bunch of bureaucrats, might look like him? And where are the mass organizations that support all young people?

For one thing, initiatives to zombie young people and create organizations that frame them ideologically certainly don’t slack off. Furthermore, fascism is not only Mussolini’s Italy or Nazi Germany (among other things, today in Russia it is common practice to oppose “good” fascism to “bad” Nazism); there was also Austria before the Anschluss, Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. Each fascist regime had different and specific characteristics. And the Russia of Putin’s last years will certainly be included in this list.

There are various definitions of fascism. In 1995, at the request of President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Academy of Sciences drafted the following: “Fascism is an ideology and practice which assert the exclusive superiority of a given race or nation and proclaim hatred ethnicity, justify discrimination against members of other peoples, deny democracy, affirm leader worship, use violence and terror against political opponents and all kinds of dissidents, and justify war as a means of resolving international conflicts” .

In my opinion, what is happening in Russia fully corresponds to this definition. Russia is contrasted with the present, past and future of the surrounding states (especially European ones); the superiority of Russian culture is affirmed (where the adjective should not be understood in an ethnic sense, but in an imperial sense); the very existence of the people, language and culture of Ukraine is denied… all this is now the basis of state propaganda. As for denying democracy, affirming the cult of the leader and suppressing dissidence, there is nothing to prove, it is something that catches the eye…

Whose fault is it that Russia has become fascist? The simplest answer would be: Putin’s. It cannot be denied that his responsibility is considerable; however, there are many other people who, perhaps unintentionally, paved the way for him.

The masses aspired to the empire, to the strong man, to the myth of Stalin. Opinions traceable both “at the top”, among the elites who run the country (public employees, security forces, deputies, managers of public companies and oligarchs) and “at the bottom”, among the poorest. Among those who have Mercedes, yachts and castles, and among those who don’t even have a bathroom at home. However, Putin’s autocratic system denies all rights to all.

The former were not interested in fighting the arbitrariness of this system; under a different government they would never have had the material advantages they enjoy. But to compensate for this deplorable lack of rights, something was needed in return: the impression of having absolute power over their “enemies”, of being able to escape, at least in this area, any control… except that of the Chief. They wanted to consider themselves a class of new aristocrats, elected by history and by Providence to lead the country. But they found a few spanners in the works: the poor remnants of freedom of expression, investigative journalism in its various forms, human rights activists and killjoys who managed to bring people to the streets every now and then. And also some members of the elites who thought differently and wanted to keep some semblance of liberal legality in the administration of the country.

The second group, the people “at the bottom” of the hierarchy, did not believe at all in the possibility of having the upper hand in a possible confrontation: their own very hard life and what had happened to their parents and grandparents was enough to confirm this.

Those who benefited from the brief interlude of relative democracy in the 1990s were burned by it: everything around them changed, choices had to be made in the first person and in difficult circumstances, which was unusual and unsettling. These people have passed on their fears to their children: changes are always for the worse. One must always count on the authorities, on the superiors. At most, petitions and complaints can be written to be forwarded to managers.

These people may not be the majority, but they make up a significant group; Russian civil society has proved incapable of providing them with the space and tools they need to fight for their rights. I also believe that human rights activists themselves have sometimes assumed a paternalistic attitude… When someone turned to us, we didn’t treat them as a fellow fighter, but as a “customer”; we tried to help him, but we seldom tried to explain to him what the goals of that fight were.

As a result, the “clients” received free help, went back to their lives, and in the following elections the people indicated by their superiors voted again. They compensated for deprivations and lack of rights by feeling part of something big, a cog in the enormous machinery of an empire that was reconstituting itself.

Putin’s regime met some similar needs, but not quite yet.

War was therefore a great unifying goal. After so many years, an old slogan was reborn: “Everything for the front, everything for victory!”. The opposition has been swept away, the little freedom that remained has been eliminated, pronouncing terms like liberalism and democracy in public without adding a dirty word has its risks. The “top” and “bottom” of the hierarchy came together in an ecstasy of patriotism and…hatred of an independent Ukraine.

Sure, ecstasy doesn’t involve the majority of Russians, far from it, but many recognize themselves in it.

Until recently, however, out of an instinct for self-preservation, the majority simply preferred to close their eyes to what was going on. “Protesting is dangerous, nothing can be changed, and blabbering about our own excesses in Ukraine will only keep us up at night and depress us.” It’s better to pretend to believe what they say on TV and actually try to believe it for real.

A behavior that is probably the most widespread in any fascist regime.

A tiny minority tries to fight back. A movement that opposes war and has its political prisoners, its heroes.

Activists continue to defend human rights almost underground: they provide legal means to avoid mobilization and recruitment, draw up lists of political prisoners, get lawyers for them, provide legal and humanitarian assistance to refugees from Ukraine and make sure that can reach Europe.

However, it is inevitable that the defense of human rights will be overturned, in a country where the law no longer exists. Today the Russians who deal with it are in the same position as their Soviet-era dissidents, their predecessors. Trying to make yourself known to the Russian and foreign public becomes a primary objective. The Russian dissident Sergej Kovalev, a great defender of human rights who spent ten years in the gulags, had this motto: “Do what you must and go as you go”; today it is more true than ever.

How long will all this last in Russia?

Who can tell…

The future of our country is being decided on the fields of Ukraine.

If the Russian troops win, fascism will definitely take root in Russia. And viceversa…

Over the past month, the aforementioned “ecstasy” has slowly begun to fade into general bewilderment: how is it possible that our army, large and invincible, is defeated on all fronts?

Hangovers are always heavy. And they can be serious.

A lot depends on the countries of Central and Western Europe. It is natural for any sane person to prefer peace to war. But peace at any price? Europe has already tried to keep the peace by trying to appease an aggressor. We all know the catastrophic result of those attempts.

Furthermore, a victorious fascist Russia will inevitably become a serious threat to the security of its neighbors and of all of Europe.

“They wanted fascism in Russia and they got it” (by Oleg Orlov, Memorial Italia)