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Mind Games: Alexander Dugin and Russia’s War of Ideas

Alexander Dugin, the Russian philosopher and political activist, has attracted sporadic coverage in English-language publications over the past year. He is an engaging figure—prolific, radical, bearded, equally at home in university seminars and posing with tanks in South Ossetia and eastern Ukraine. So adept at self-promotion that he is sometimes not taken as seriously as he should be, Dugin is the intellectual who has Vladimir Putin’s back in the emerging ideological conflict between Russia and the West. At home, Putin uses him to create a nationalist, anti-liberal voting bloc, while abroad Dugin is the lynchpin of numerous irregular networks of anti-liberal political resistance and sabotage. No individual better represents the tactics of the current Russian regime.

Dugin’s rise has been partly camouflaged by an intellectual biography that is complex and at times contradictory. An anticommunist in the 1980s, he worked closely with the remnants of the Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the mid-1990s, he became involved with National Bolshevism, a group of political parties that openly espoused a combination of communist economics and radical Russian nationalism. He has praised Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union while also supporting family and religious values.

Since the late 1990s, Dugin has organized his views into a geostrategic ideology and a complex political metaphysics known respectively as Neo-Eurasianism and Fourth Political Theory. The former posits an ongoing archetypal clash between land and maritime civilizations and holds that there is a struggle between, on the one hand, harmonious, land-based societies organized around history and tradition and, on the other, inherently liberal, “Atlanticist” “empires of the sea,” whose capitalistic drive abhors and undermines tradition.

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According to Dugin, while modern-day Atlanticists, led by the United States, have consolidated their position via international organizations and political hierarchies, their Eurasian opposition is disorganized and largely defenseless. This is because Atlanticism, by prioritizing individual liberties above all else, dissolves social bonds and obligations and devalues cultural legacy, thus destroying the very fabric that allows traditional societies to exist. Its hegemony is pursued by construing any opposition to its political or economic interests as an affront to freedom.

Dugin’s solution is for Eurasia to consciously become a Grossraum (“great space” in German), analogous in scope to the Atlanticist world. Within this Grossraum, Dugin proposes a complex distribution of power between a “strategic center” and various subdivisions, based on culture and history, known as “autonomies.” This center is responsible for basic economic and military coordination between the autonomies, which are otherwise left to organize their internal affairs in accordance with their own unique traditions. Thus there is room for a range of different political, economic, and social systems, though it seems clear that Dugin imagines most will adopt a basically conservative and corporatist structure.

Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory is based on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who argued that modernity is a kind of scientific objectification of the world, which only accepts cultural or traditional knowledge as long as it remains secondary to any objective inquiry. According to Dugin, this paradigm is fundamental to three of the most powerful political philosophies of modernity: Marxism, fascism, and liberalism. As a self-professed Eurasianist, he rejects all three, but believes that these ideologies still contain some useful elements, out of which he constructs their successor: the Fourth Political Theory. This theory does not base its understanding of history on class, race, or the individual, but on Dasein, Heidegger’s term for humanity.

For Dugin, the ideal (“authentic,” in Heideggerian terminology) basis for individuals and societies is tradition, so history must therefore be the history of traditions, with politics in a secondary role. Thus the conflict between Atlanticism and Eurasianism can be understood as the conflict between individualistic societies and societies of tradition. Conveniently, Dugin sees Putin’s Russia as a natural leader in the resurgence of the latter and in the formation of its Grossraum.

 

Dugin’s goal is to cultivate a Eurasian sociopolitical network to rival its American-dominated Atlanticist counterpart. The nodes of this network are diverse and numerous, aimed at exploiting the shadow side of liberal institutions and technologies.

One of them is the Russian system of higher education. Dugin is a professor in the sociology department of Russia’s flagship Moscow State University, where the list of courses he offers (mainly on geopolitics, philosophy, and the history of science) far outnumbers that of any colleague. He has also founded the Center for Conservative Studies, which converts academics around the country to his agenda. Dugin also lectures at the country’s Interior Ministry (i.e., police) academies, military schools, and other law enforcement institutions. These lectures are available online. In them, he presents an Atlanticist versus Eurasianist perspective, instructing Russia’s guardians of public order about the nature of the liberal-Atlanticist propaganda against which they must be immunized.

A prolific writer who has authored dozens of monographs and hundreds of essays, Dugin tours the country and the world lecturing on political philosophy. His objective is to attract like-minded thinkers from the international fringe, involving them in debates and panels that imitate the mainstream discourse that shuns and excludes them. He has been an influence on the so-called new right of Europe, including such parties as Germany’s National Democratic Party, the British National Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, and France’s National Front.

Dugin’s ideas are given added reach by a group called the Eurasia Youth Union, headquartered in Moscow, which broadcasts news and analysis via a website in Russian, English, Romanian, Serbian, and Ukrainian. The EYU has also supplied manpower for the separatist movement in Ukraine, its members fighting there under the banners of various Russophile armed groups.

Dugin has also been actively involved in the politics of Russia’s elite, serving as an adviser to State Duma chairman and key Putin ally Sergei Naryshkin. His disciple Ivan Demidov serves on the Ideology Directorate of Putin’s United Russia party, while Mikhail Leontiev, allegedly Putin’s favorite journalist, is a founding member of Dugin’s own Eurasia Party.

While claiming to be suspicious of the liberalizing effects of modern communication technology, Dugin utilizes it adroitly for his own objectives. Numerous websites that can be traced to him and his allies constantly cross-reference each other (for example, 4pt.su, which is devoted to the Fourth Political Theory, and Evrazia.org, which hosts Neo-Eurasianist content), creating a sort of feedback loop in cyberspace that rivals mainstream news and social networks and serves as an aggregator for political outcasts. Despite Dugin’s professed anti-racism, one of the consistent pathways to his area of the Internet is through American white supremacist media. He doesn’t denounce them because his tactics favor the empowerment of destabilizing agents everywhere, so long as their common enemy is the liberal order.

With its ad hoc, often anti-intellectual worldview, in which the manufactured fact is no less robust than the real one, the Internet is the perfect medium for Duginism. In particular, he has exploited the mechanism of instantaneous publishing on the Internet to retract or dissociate himself from controversial claims without harming their ability to propagate. In a notorious incident on his social network page, he posted the fabricated story of a Russian-speaking boy allegedly crucified in Ukraine by pro-Western militants and released a video in which he declared that the time had come to retaliate and “kill, kill, kill.” Flashing his academic credentials, he added soberly, “I say this to you as a professor.”

After an outraged petition condemning the story and the statement was started on Change.org, Moscow State University terminated Dugin’s contract, but almost immediately retracted its decision, blaming it on a clerical error. Dugin removed the story from his social network page, but by that point it had gone viral among Russia’s pro-war groups and achieved status as a nationalist war cry.

 

Although Dugin has stated, “I support Putin because he declares and fulfills the goals and ideals that are essentially mine,” it is, in fact, Putin who supports Dugin because of the pathways he creates in national and foreign policy.

At home, Dugin energizes a conservative intellectual and voter base, while abroad he reinforces political networks that are disruptive to Putin’s adversaries. Finally, synthesizing national and foreign policy, Dugin provides Putin with a Eurasian master narrative of Russia’s history—encircled and subordinated by Western liberalism—that provides a rationale and an imperative for expanding territorially at the expense of his neighbors.

The implications of Dugin’s views, his place in Russian society and government, and his relationship both to Putin and to movements and thinkers beyond Russia’s borders are significant. Though Dugin has sometimes criticized the insufficiency of the Russian strongman’s will, even calling him a “vacillating liberal reformer” and his realpolitik “liberalism,” there are signs that Putin believes in an international struggle that corresponds to Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianist vision. On January 1st, for instance, the Eurasian Economic Union came into existence. The founding members of this organization, which has Dugin’s intellectual fingerprints all over it, are Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; they will soon be joined by other states from the former Soviet neighborhood.

While the EEU fulfills the economic, political, and symbolic goals of Eurasianism, Putin’s agenda can change without seriously affecting Dugin’s mission. He has the diversionary task of filling ideological vacuums created around the world by suspicion and skepticism regarding the United States, the European Union, and other liberal powers. Dugin’s ideology already resonates with both high intellectuals and the conspiratorial fringe. His ideas seem tailor-made to exploit continuing economic stagnation, distrust of EU bureaucracy, anxiety at the continuing influx of immigrants, and, crucially, the anxiety of those immigrants themselves, who fear the assault on their traditions that comes as a part of their resettlement in the West.

Dugin is also obviously intent on maximizing the potential of his ideology through various political, intellectual, and social media networks. He has met with members of the French military who are critical of President François Hollande, the US, and NATO, discussing topics as diverse as preparations for the French intervention in Mali, cyber warfare, terrorism, and friction between China and the US. He has called for even closer ties between Russia and Iran, already united in their subjection to US-led sanctions and their support for Syria. But his crowning achievement is to have become the spokesman for a systematic anti-liberalism that has allowed Vladimir Putin to advance not as an unprincipled tyrant but as the representative of an international philosophy whose writ stretches from the backwaters of Russia to the capitals of Europe.

Andrey Tolstoy is a Ph.D. candidate in film and media studies and comparative literature at Yale University. Edmund McCaffray is a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University researching the influence of new media technologies on thought, culture, and politics.

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