The phrase that Russians are fascists has already become a cliché in Ukraine. How objective is it now to call Russia a fascist country?
They are the closest state to fascism since Nazi Germany and Italy [in times of Benito Mussolini]. In Russia, it is even tougher than in Italy, with all this Russian ultra-nationalism.
Fascist parties and movements exist always and everywhere. The question is whether the government creates the conditions for them to have a decisive influence. Putin succeeded.
How does a state become fascist? How did Russia do it?
A special kind of nationalism is needed here. To convince people that you were once great. That once you were a military empire — and then you were humiliated. This is what Hitler once said: “Germany was great, had colonies in Africa, but we were humiliated at Versailles. Our empire was taken from us, and our people in other countries and former territories faced genocide. We need a strong ruler to come and restore our empire. To show that we are a big powerful player. And Iʼm ready to do it.”
Putin behaved the same way. He even said that if Russia does not regain its greatness, it will destroy the world.
Also, often in countries that become fascist, there are many economic problems. And nationalism, this feeling of power, can replace food — you will draw your happiness from this feeling, or from the awareness of yourself as a German or a white American. After that, you say that representative democracy is evil. That it allows the existence of LGBT people and the like, that the state is weak because of democracy. Fascism appeals to conservative, religious people who would not call themselves fascists. He tells them: we will protect you from your children becoming gay, from someone destroying your churches. And they often call all their opponents communists. And they get votes. Sound familiar, right?
Yes, and not only in relation to Russia.
Right. In my book "How Fascism Works" I paid a lot of attention to Hungary and India. [Viktor] Orbán won the last elections, in particular, by promising to restore Greater Hungary ― like, as Ukraine falls apart, they can take some part of it. That is, Orbánʼs victory was secured by the Trianon Agreement [due to which Hungary lost 70% of its territory]. And what heʼs building in the country is bringing it closer to fascism.
India is an interesting case, it is actively moving towards fascism too. The countryʼs ruling party, the BJP, has effectively merged with the RSS movement, for which Hitler is a model. The RSS ideologue said that India should do to the Muslims what Germany had done to the Jews. And now journalists are not allowed in the predominantly Muslim state of Kashmir, no one knows what is happening there. So India is a democracy for the "ruling race". Many Indians would prefer to end the Muslims and become a great nation of Indians. In short, it has its own specifics, but there is also a lot in common with Russia. Putin is popular in India.
You described the dictatorʼs steps. And how should society be transformed for the success of fascism? What should be taken from it, what should be given?
It is necessary to take control of the education system and erase the history — so that people have a false idea about it, that they think that other countries unfairly humiliate them. And the crimes of the past must be erased. The Soviet Union erased the Holodomor, it was not mentioned in history lessons in schools, just like the Holocaust. The Union claimed that the Germans threatened all the peoples of the USSR equally. The Soviet monument in Babyn Yar mentions only "Soviet citizens" as victims. No one recognized the crime of Katyn, where 21,000 Polish intellectuals were killed. They erased the memory of the crimes of the Gulag. And for democracy, it is very important to remember the bad things your country has done. In order not to think: oh, we are the best people on this planet, and no one appreciated this. Everyone is bad, there is no nation that did not commit crimes during its formation. Think of the USA and you will immediately find a lot of examples.
In short, yes, it is necessary to convince the society that your culture is extraordinary and it is under threat. Then emotions will take over. Uncertainty about the future and a weak economy will only help: you will feel that you have nothing but a national identity. Russians are poor, they have nothing but the feeling of being Russian — and they are ready to die for it, because there is nothing else.
We all could watch in real time how these processes unfolded in Russia. As an expert on fascist regimes, did you see any similarities between the formation of fascism in Russia and what previously happened in other countries?
Nazi Germany is the closest example. The only difference is that for the Germans, everything was based on race, while the basis of Russian fascism is language and culture. And now we know that linguistic and cultural nationalism can also lead to genocide.
In fact, anything that can divide people into groups can become the basis for genocide. Do you remember the genocide in Rwanda? Until the 1950s, Tutsis and Hutus did not exist, they were one people, divided by the Belgians. They spoke one language, practiced one religion — and this is in Africa, where every country has a lot of languages and religions. And there was seriously nothing there that could be used as a weapon [to sow enmity between countries]. But the genocide happened.
It is ironic that the Russians, who were once rightly regarded as the victors over fascism and who now practice fascism, call their war "anti-fascist."
It is necessary to pay attention not to words, but to ideology. Putin can say that he is a liberator — but he is closer to Hitler than to Brezhnev, to Peter I than to communists. And this is an important argument in favor of why the Russians should not leave a single piece of Ukrainian land. For the same reasons why it was not possible to leave, for example, Warsaw under the Nazis.
Now Putin is talking about Ukrainians like Hitler was talking about Jews. He says that there can be no Ukrainians, only Russians, and that all Ukrainians are actually Russians. This position means that he is going to get rid of everyone who speaks the Ukrainian language. That is why all this delusion of the West about territorial concessions must stop.
There were several moments in your lectures when you said that nationalism can be bad or good, and Ukraine is an example of a good one. Why is it so?
Ukrainians have a democratic identity — this is good. You tend to change leaders. You have self-criticism — and I feel it perfectly at my lectures in Ukraine. Bad nationalism is not self-critical, it is about the thesis that "Ukrainians have never done anything bad." Also, the basis of good nationalism is respect for national minorities. It is obvious that the Russians do not have this. They use their national minorities as cannon fodder, especially those with a non-European appearance. Russia is a colonial state with the priority of the white man.
After the start of the full-scale war, the Ukrainian artist Oleksiy Radynsky wrote a series of texts "The Case Against the Russian Federation". There he claims that Russia is essentially a colonial state of white settlers that practices mass oppression of minorities. As, in fact, the USA. And in this context, he mentions the Russian statement that Kyiv is the place where Russians come from. Russia is descended from Ukraine in the same way that the United States is descended from Britain. Which, however, means that Ukraine is partially responsible for the creation of this monster.
At one of the lectures, you said that in fascist states, underprivileged groups are treated simply as labor force, as tools. But arenʼt tens of thousands of Russian soldiers just tools for the Russian leadership?
Yes, fascism involves turning people into things. Where life has no value, and people are just disposable objects for use. That is why the situation in Ukraine, where you protect the life of each of your fighters, is valuable. This is an important democratic act.
But who does Russian regime protect, in the end?
As in the Soviet Union, everyone suffers there. But Putin still tries to keep some group of Russians isolated from external troubles. For example, Moscow practically doesnʼt feel the war.
Back to your question about good and bad nationalism. Look at Germany after the war. Germans say: "Our national value is tolerance." To some extent, this makes sense. You can combine your national character with such qualities as democracy, tolerance, and self-criticism. Americans are self-critical: if an American tells you that there is no problem with racism in the United States, you will probably think that there is something wrong with that person. Ukraine also has controversial pages of history. There was a pogrom of Jews in Lviv in 1941. There was mass violence against Poles. It should be recognized, it should be talked about. The more actively society recognizes that it has problems, the healthier it is.
But in your lectures, the term "defensive nationalism" sounded, when freedoms become fewer and this is justified by the need to survive, to resist during an attack.
Yes, although I am not a fan of this phenomenon. India has defensive nationalism, North Korea too. Israel is now sinking into fascism. And this is a very important example that is interesting to think about. No one denies that the Jewish people suffered. However, it turns out that suffering does not make you virtuous. Doesnʼt make you a good person. You cannot use suffering to justify bad treatment of others.
Ukrainians have suffered terribly throughout their history. But having a victim position is very dangerous. I think this is one of the points that should be paid special attention to after the war is over. But so far, it seems to me, Ukraine maintains democracy and tolerance as well as possible.
After what possible changes in Ukrainian society would you stop being such a supporter of Ukraine? What could be an alarm bell?
If the oppression of LGBT representatives intensified here, macho-nationalism hostile to women would develop. If many people will start saying that the real Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians. Or that the time has come for a "strong hand".
Look at the Nayyem family: I know Mustafa, Masi and Mariam. If I am not mistaken, this family is especially known for its patriotism and devotion to Ukraine. They love Ukraine very much — both Mustafa and Masi devote almost every second of their time to it. At the same time, they are migrants from Afghanistan. And if something changes with this balance, it will be an alarm bell.
By the way, Mariam assists me in the course on fascism and imperialism that I am studying at the Kyiv School of Economics, and she has seriously influenced me intellectually. We met in the USA, where she said that Ukraine is an anti-colonial country. And that this course would be needed here. She also pointed out certain problems that concern Ukrainian society and to which special attention should be paid.
If this is correct, can you tell what problems she was talking about?
Our views were similar. But Mariam said that in Ukraine they do not know the basics of African anti-colonial literature. They donʼt know Césaire, they donʼt know Fanon — one of the most quoted intellectuals of the 20th century. And that it should be changed. She also said that the new Ukraine should be pro-Ukrainian and anti-racist. So that it does not happen that only if you are an ethnic Ukrainian, you can be considered a real Ukrainian. I am not here because I am delighted with Stepan Bandera. But because Ukraine has a spirit that I consider beautiful, and if it wins, then the values that I believe in will also win.
We will talk about values at the end, but now letʼs talk about culture. In Ukraine, people are worried about the fact that foreigners are very fond of Russian culture. Like, “great Russian literature”, “great Russian ballet”. All this culture has not prevented Russians from becoming the monsters they are now, but it helps them convince foreigners of their humanity or uniqueness. You assure us that it only seems so to Ukrainians, and "Tolstoyevsky" no longer inspires piety in the West. Why do you think so?
Great Russian culture? Well, come on. I have never been to a city where young musicians performed Russian music. But there are rappers in every city in the world. Because dark-skinned American culture is popular, and Russian culture... Well, which writers in Russia in the 20th century or after the Second World War became really famous throughout the world? Solzhenitsyn? But in a limited way. Which universities in the world are considered cool? Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, Wisconsin. No Russian. Even small American universities are better than their biggest ones.
Look at South Korea. Itʼs making great movies now, and its culture is so vast and influential that Russian is dwarfed by comparison. Even Pushkin is no longer needed by anyone in the world. In the West, only experts know him. Currently, there are two famous Russian writers — Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. That is, someone from the 19th century, which has already ended, by the way. And these are all imperialist writers who are not relevant for the current time.
I understand why there is this feeling in Ukraine. And those who are engaged in, for example, the history of Eastern Europe, also have it — for example, Timothy Snyder often tells me about this. But this is an imposed myth of greatness. Because if this is really a great culture, then, Russians, whatʼs new? Whereʼs your hip-hop-level cultural phenomenon? Whereʼs the jazz? Whereʼs the rock and roll?
It is interesting to learn about your attitude towards the USA, which you also actively criticize. You are Jewish and your family comes from Poland, right?
My mother is from Polish Jews, she was born in the Gulag, in Novosibirsk. She was one of two members of that branch of the family who survived, because the Nazis killed all six of her aunts and uncles, all her cousins. My father grew up in Berlin, he left Germany in July 1939 when he was seven years old. His father was the main cantor of the synagogue, which gathered around itself the largest Jewish community in Germany. My great-grandfather and great-grandfather sang in the Vienna Opera, they were the first Jews there. So, on the one hand, I come from a very elite German Jewish family, and on the other hand, they were originally from Poland. Let me show you my family tree. This is probably one of my best works…
And my grandmother saved 412 people from the German Sachsenhausen concentration camp, pretending to be a German social worker. She had fake passes. Then she wrote a book about it and starred in an episode of the American TV show This is Your Life — it was one of the first times when the Holocaust was discussed publicly. Here is the TV show, please take a look…
You also mentioned in your lectures that you was married to a Kenyan woman.
Yes, she is half Kenyan, half Kikuyu, and half African American. So my children are blueish, Black Jewish.
And you repeat that first and foremost you are an American. Despite the fact that you actively criticize the United States.
Iʼm just trying to be a good American. I am critical of my country, trying to make it better. I am aware of its problems and constantly talk about them. Proud of our achievements, the civil rights movement, music, culture, sports — people all over the world play basketball. Everyone knows who Martin Luther King is. And how we fight for democracy against our own version of fascism.
White supremacy, that is, the advantages of the white race. Especially in the southern states. In the state of Mississippi, 38 percent of the population is black. How much power do black people have in Mississippi? None.
What do you love about the USA?
I like that our country is physically beautiful. I love New York, many other cities. I appreciate the fact that it accepted my parents from Europe. In Europe, the Jewish people have always been oppressed, Hitler destroyed us. Jews are not oppressed in the USA. Therefore, it is difficult for me not to be grateful to the United States. Both of my parents, fleeing Europe, swam past the Statue of Liberty. And Europe has always meant trauma for us. Jews once made up 11% of Polandʼs population. Now they simply disappeared, being Polish means being Catholic, and the symbol of solidarity there is the [Christian] cross. In the USA I can be a Jew freely and proudly. At the same time, my country has also done many very bad things. It initiated wars in Vietnam or Cambodia, was involved in the death of about 50 million people, intervened in the democratic countries of South America — and that is why the Soviet Union is still loved and considered a blessing in that hemisphere. Tim Snyder and I teach the course "Mass Incarceration in the Gulag and the USA", where we compare life in the USA today with the Soviet Union.
What is your purpose?
To make the world a better place for my children as well as for everyone else.
You think as a parent?
No, no. To make the world safe for national minorities, to which my family belongs. And because of this, I cannot help but visit Ukraine. I spend my time fighting fascism and for democracy. Itʼs a cliché, but some clichés are also true.