Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
She is not subject to common measure;
She has a unique dignity —
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In Russia, one can only believe.
Fyodor Tyutchev, a father of Russian poetry, was both a lover of the West and a Russian nationalist. He was not alone in his belief that his vast homeland of bleak winters and horizons of golden grain, defied simple understanding—or that, whatever Russia was, its definition was somehow tied up in perpetual, circular conflicts such as "East versus West" or "despotism versus humanism." As one clique of rulers after another has attempted to impose its own vision of order, an additional characteristic of the Russian people becomes clear: their capacity for endurance in the face of inscrutable, harsh fates. As Tyutchev wrote, "In Russia, one can only believe."
Putin’s Russia certainly demands endurance. Putin, like Tyutchev, believes that Russia is a unique civilization with its own narrative, and must therefore follow its own path. His vision for Russia looks to aspects of Russia’s past in order to construct Russia’s future.
He evokes imperial ideas of Russia through terms such as "Novorossiya," he advocates for traditional social beliefs by passing laws against homosexual "propaganda," he has a close relationship with the Orthodox Church, and he has formed an economic union with Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, countries that belong to the distinct geographic and cultural entity that is "Eurasia." Putin’s tendency to look backwards in constructing Russian identity, instead of forward—to a decisively European, liberal-democratic Russia, for example—is in tension with what Western leaders hoped Russia would become in the 21st century.
To understand this departure from Western expectations, it is necessary to become familiar with the work of a man named Alexander Dugin. Dugin, until recent years a fairly obscure proponent of a doctrine he calls "Neo-Eurasianism," is enjoying attention in today’s Russia, as well as the favor of Moscow’s implicit endorsement of his beliefs.
Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism encompasses imperialism, anti-Westernism, traditionalism, nationalism, and relativism under one heading. In the 1990s, such a set of beliefs was dismissed as a fringe theory held by eccentric right-wingers. Today, however, Neo-Eurasianism is part of mainstream Russian political discourse. Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory, written in 2012, presents a toned-down, respectable (so-to-speak) version of his earlier work. While the Kremlin does not explicitly endorse Dugin’s thought, Putin’s rhetoric and actions closely mirror Dugin’s vision for Russia. Dugin’s theory justifies Putin’s worldview and illuminates the strategic logic behind Putin’s actions and rhetoric.
Dugin begins The Fourth Political Theory with the statement that mankind has moved past modernity. In the 20th century, liberalism, the "third political theory," won out against the first two political theories, fascism and communism. Yet, he argues, liberalism will no longer dominate in the 21st century. A new political theory is needed to fill the ideological void: the "fourth political theory"—formulated by Dugin.
However, this philosophical theory—an unappetizing stew of watered-down Heidegger and Nietzsche—seems to be only the means for decidedly political ends. It provides a framework for the intellectual destruction of liberalism and the sidelining of its greatest champion, America, in order to justify a new world order that facilitates Russian greatness.
Dugin believes that the forces of liberalism have up to now crushed all attempts at Russian self-definition. "Liberalism has gone global and become the only possible political system," he writes. He sees America as the driver of a "global dictatorship" that claims the right to decide "who is right and who is wrong." Other cultures, Dugin says, "have an American future or no future at all."
He rejects the Western idea of history as irreversible, unidirectional and America-centric: "The USA considers itself to be the logical conclusion and peak of all Western civilization." America takes the unidirectional idea of history and uses it to place the entire world on one "broad-based scale that could be the common ‘destiny’ for all societies," thus creating a "global concentration camp."
Dugin also rejects the Western conception of freedom, which he says is "the most disgusting form of slavery." This freedom, conceived of as freedom from coercion or constraints, destroys all forms of collective identity. The individual in postmodernity is free from "any kind of limits, including reason, morality, identity (social, ethnic, or even gender), discipline, and so on."
Instead of a world defined by the American ideas of progress, history, and freedom as freedom from coercion, Dugin proposes a pluralistic world order, simultaneously defined by relativism and "Tradition." He shakes off the Western idea of universal, inevitable history in an attempt to reconstruct reality through the fourth political theory.
Dugin denounces the idea of civilization as the singular opposite of barbarism; for him, multiple civilizations may co-exist. The values of these civilizations will vary, as will each civilization’s conception of history and time. The values of one civilization cannot be proclaimed superior to the values of another, and each civilization maintains its identity, subject to no value system but its own.
While insisting that there are no transcendent values and that history is subjective, Dugin tells supporters of the fourth political theory to defend "the ideals and values of ‘Tradition.’" He defines Tradition as "a set of transcendental metaphysical principles which lies at the heart of all authentic religions"—as something "eternal and invariable" within man. He considers himself to be a traditionalist—someone who rejects the contemporary world and modernity in their entirety.
Dugin does not explain how the fourth political theory synthesizes Tradition and relativism—how values can both be radically different from culture to culture, and yet also appeal to something "transcendent." He simultaneously argues for freedom to, the sort of freedom that Isaiah Berlin associated with totalitarian regimes, and relativism, which requires freedom from. Freedom to would argue that one is free when one’s soul is in proper order: for example, when one has enough willpower not to give in to an addiction. Freedom from would argue that one is free when one is not constrained from pursuing one’s ends, whatever these ends may be.
If Dugin’s understanding of freedom turns out to be conducive to totalitarian politics, his notion of traditionalism turns out to be quite radical. He invokes Tradition in order to reject modernity and construct a theory for postmodernity. His approach is not conservative: he commands his followers to uproot the existing system and replace it with another. For him, repair is a waste of time. He prefers destruction and the creation of an ideology—if he is a traditionalist, he is one who, ironically, would have been at home in the Reign of Terror.
Some of Dugin’s criticisms of modernity and liberalism are fair—and have been made by others before—but his solution to these problems is self-contradictory. Most glaring is the way in which his attempt to break out of the mindset of modernity only buries him further in it, trapped in relativism and the hubristic idea of man as the creator of values.
These contradictions may not matter to him, because the point of The Fourth Political Theory seems not to be addressing the flaws of modernity or liberalism, but the construction of ideological support for Russia’s political rise, not to say the rise of Putinism in Russia.
Dugin’s work shows us that Putin’s conception of Russia as a unique civilization is not a harmless attempt at self-definition. It is an attempt to justify a postmodern world free from American influence. The only defense America—and the West—have against such a doctrine is to mount an objective defense of the superiority of Western principles.