In mid-April, reports emerged of Kremlin plans to launch a major smear campaign against Russian opposition figurehead Alexey Navalny. Within days, an expensive-looking attack video had appeared anonymously on YouTube, comparing Navalny to Adolf Hitler. The Russian authorities denied any connection to the video, but few believed them. After all, branding opponents as fascists is the Kremlin’s trademark tactic, and has been for many decades.
Kremlin officials have been enthusiastically playing the fascist card against all manner of opposition since the height of the Cold War. When Hungarians rose up against Soviet occupation in 1956, Moscow branded the uprising “a fascist rebellion” before sending in the tanks. It was a similar story during the Prague Spring of 1968. Communist Party officials even referred to the Berlin Wall itself as “The Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”.
This trend has survived the Soviet collapse and continues in the Putin era. When Estonia sought to remove a Soviet WWII monument from Tallinn city center in 2007, the Kremlin media went into a frenzy about “Fascist Estonia”, sparking riots among Estonia’s sizable ethnic Russian population. Within days, Russia had launched what is now widely seen as the world’s first fully-fledged cyber war against the tiny Baltic State. This hybrid attack, containing disinformation and cyber elements alongside Nazi motifs designed to stir up an ethnic Russian minority, was an ominous harbinger of things to come.
The most infamous Kremlin accusations of fascism have traditionally targeted Ukraine. This did not begin in 2013 with negative Russian coverage of the Euromaidan protests. Ever since WWII, Moscow has sought to portray the Ukrainian independence movement as virtually indistinguishable from Nazi Germany. These efforts have typically highlighted the wartime Nazi collaboration of various Ukrainian independence leaders, while whitewashing the USSR’s own 1939-41 alliance with Hitler.
In the post-Soviet era, Kremlin media outlets first began actively labelling Ukrainians as fascists in 2004. At the time, Viktor Yushchenko was running for the presidency on a reformist ticket while promising to move Ukraine closer to the EU. In other words, textbook fascist behavior. The “fascist Ukraine” theme has remained a more or less constant feature of Russian propaganda ever since. It rose to new prominence in 2013-14 as the cornerstone of the Kremlin’s efforts to discredit the Euromaidan protest movement and justify the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Neither the abject failure of Ukraine’s far-right political parties in successive post-Euromaidan elections, nor the appointment of a Jewish Prime Minister have proved sufficient to debunk these fascism slurs. Russia has no other explanation for the loss of yet another former friend and ally.
Why is the Kremlin so fixated with fictitious fascist threats? It may be more out of necessity that choice. In the soft power battle of ideas that determines international competition in the modern world, Russia is virtually unarmed. It has no coherent ideology to place in opposition to the relative rights and freedoms of the democratic nations. There is simply no answer to the higher standards of living, longer life expectancy, and greater protections offered by the Western model. By playing the fascist card and reawakening the ghosts of WWII, the Kremlin seeks to distract domestic Russian audiences from these glaring shortcomings while avoiding awkward questions.
The fight against Hitler carries a uniquely emotive appeal for today’s Russians, who see themselves as the successor state to the Soviet Union and its 27 million WWII war dead. Putin has skillfully exploited these Russian sensibilities towards WWII. He has made the annual Victory Day celebrations the centerpiece of the Kremlin calendar, while transforming the Red Army triumph over Nazi Germany into the foundation myth of the modern Russian state. It now serves to overshadow the horrors of the Stalinist regime, with Soviet crimes against humanity written off as necessary preludes to the success of the coming war effort. Questioning the official narrative is regarded as heresy. This sacred status makes WWII a uniquely powerful propaganda weapon against anti-Kremlin dissenters. In this context, the glorification of the Red Army and the demonization of all opponents as fascists are two sides of the same coin. To side with the “fascist” is to desecrate the memory of those who gave their lives to defeat Hitler. This is not a particularly rational argument, but it is emotionally explosive when backed up by the full force of the Kremlin media machine.
There are some indications that this form of emotional blackmail may belatedly be losing its potency. The Navalny attack video, for example, disappeared from YouTube within days following a chorus of mockery and widespread hoots of derision. However, it is too early to declare that we have reached “Peak Fascism” just yet. The Kremlin simply has no alternative messages capable of energizing domestic audiences. In the absence of more recent national achievements, WWII looks set to remain the lodestar of the Putinist state for the foreseeable future, leaving the Russian public doomed to continue obsessing over Red Army heroes and phantom fascists until their country is able to compete with the modern world.