In his book of correspondence with the noted French writer Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies, the French journalist, activist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy wrote on present Russia: “Not only does this Russia inspire no desire in me, it fills me with horror. I’d go so far as to say that it frightens me because I see in it a possible destiny for the late-capitalist societies. Once upon a time, during your postwar ‘glory days,’ the middle class was terrorized by being told that Brezhnev’s communism was not an archaism restricted to distant societies but rather a picture of our own future. We were wrong: it was not communism but postcommunism, Putinism, that may be the testing ground for our future.”
How true! That Putinism is far from the madman’s follies whose mention would suffice to prove the political and moral superiority of European values, is obvious to anyone not devoid of the sense of reality. Lion Feuchtwanger, André Gide, or Jean-Paul Sartre, that is, European writers and thinkers, infatuated with the Soviet Union as a rival civilization to the West (as Ernest Gellner once put it so aptly), are all old news. And the real and hot news about the Kremlin’s new apprentices in Europe is not only about Gerhard Schroeder and what Edward Lucas termed the schroederization of the European political classes, but rather about the new disturbing phenomenon.
The former Soviet Union was a Shakespearean tragedy. The Second World War and the defeat of the Nazis unthinkable without heroism and sacrifices of Russians, Ukrainians, and other nations of the former USSR provided the Kremlin with a historical-political narrative which partly softened the horrors of Bolshevism and Stalinism. After all, wasn’t it the USSR which dealt a mortal blow to the Nazis and which had the greatest burden of WWII? After Stalin’s death, a certain modus vivendi between the West and the USSR was worked out, and to equate Nazism or Fascism with the USSR, no matter how tempting it was to do after the Holodomor and all other horrors of Stalinism, was the last thing that European or American academics and journalist would have done.
The USSR won much sympathy and support from Europe’s and America’s Left in terms of their shared critical attitude to the iniquities in their societies, not to mention such core sensitivities of the Left as the working class people and their exploitation, down-and-out in big industrial cities, etc. Present Russia with its image in the West as a country of tycoons with their luxurious mansions in France and Spain as well as its billionaires so admired in London City as cash cows would have appeared in the old days of the USSR as the worst kind of nightmare, if not as a series of political cartoons in a Soviet magazine published with the aim to poke fun on the bourgeoisie of the West.
In addition, great Russian poets, actors, film and theater directors have greatly contributed to the sense of the tragedy of Eastern Europe: whereas the USSR has richly deserved the immortal pen of Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Leskov or Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin for its grotesque political life publicly depicted as genuine democracy and freedom, the geniuses of the 20th-century Russian culture, such as Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitry Shostakovich, Grigory Kozintsev, and Andrei Tarkovsky, have become the best antidote against the portrayal of Soviet Russia as a country of barbarians. It was a continuous tragedy of the nation whose politics was sinister, devilish, posing an existential threat to the entire world, yet whose magnificent culture was the best redeemer from the moral and political disaster created by the aforementioned state. Modern Russian culture appears to have been the best antidote against the tyrannical state of Russia and its political barbarity.
And now for something completely different: in Putin’s Russia, we have a farce, instead of a tragedy. The murderous and unbearable banality of corruption, cleptocracy, mafia state and political gangsterism is concealed there by a program of the defense of every single Russian soul all over the world as well as by a revisionist state which walks in the disguise of the supreme Russian political agency that is bound to restore the unity and indivisibility of all “historic” Russian lands. This is far from plain nationalism and chauvinism; Vladimir Putin’s speech on the 18th of March in the Kremlin was a sheer copy-and-paste version of the Sudetenland speech of Adolf Hitler in 1938: the concept of the Russian World (Third Reich) went hand in hand with the idea of the necessity to restore Russia’s political influence and presence everywhere where the tiniest Russian minority lives.
The specter walks in Europe – the specter of Fascism. No matter how difficult the political hangover will be for the EU and all those pragmatic, cynical, banal and shameless ways with which it used to proceed with Russia for the sake of its gas and oil interest, this is a fact that can no longer be denied. To defeat the new Fascism will take an immense amount of the concentration of courage, political will and commitment not only in the West and Ukraine but in Russia itself as well.
The most disturbing aspect of this horror story is the Kremlin new useful idiots whom it has found in Europe successfully fishing among far Right and populist politicians. Andrei Piontkovsky once made a joke describing the Kremlin’s apprentices before the Second World War as a sort of collective Feuchtwanger. This time we need a different metaphor, as the new apprentices of the Kremlin and its Master today happen to be the leaders of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Jobbik, le Front national (FN), and the like. This is the New Fascist International with its headquarters in Moscow.
History repeats itself twice: first as a tragedy and then as a farce. Q.E.D.