Why Explaining Internal Strife in the United States through “Russian influence” is Lazy and Unhelpful
When you find yourself doing the same thing Putin and his propaganda machine does, you’re doing something wrong.
On 11-12 August, violent clashes erupted between the far-right Unite the Right movement and anti-fascist counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. One woman died when an alleged neo-Nazi sympathizer rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. There were numerous injuries and a major national crisis erupted in the United States resulting from and inspired by the rapid rise of white nationalist, neo-Nazi and other similar sentiments far to the right of the political spectrum.
As it often happens these days, numerous people on Twitter immediately jumped in, pitching the so-called “hot takes” — rapid, hastily weaved together series of tweets with often outlandish theories of what really happened. These instant experts, who have come to prominence in the wake of the Trump presidency, have carved out a niche for themselves by taking the most tangential or non-existent connection to anything Russian and “connecting the dots” or “just asking questions”. The most egregious example is Louise Mensch, a former UK conservative pundit (and sometime MP) now residing in the US. Mensch is the most extreme example of a Twitter-age conspiracy-mongering populist. But there are other people, with more credible credentials, who are also prone to demanding that “ties with Russia” (via individuals, events and institutions) be investigated.
Immediately following the events in Charlottesville, the writer and consultant Molly McKew and Jim Ludes of the Pell Center, among others, chimed in with their “hot takes”, repeating each other almost word for word: “We need to closely examine the links between the American alt-right and Russia.” These particular expressions (“links between X and Russia”, “ties with Russia”, “Russian connections” or “close to Putin/Russian government”) are, essentially, weasel words, expressions so elastic that they could mean anything — from actively collaborating with senior Russian officials and secretly accepting large donations from to the vaguest, irrelevant connections mentioned simply for the sake of name-dropping Russia in an attempt to farm for more clicks.
Almost every person of Russian origin involved in the Trump drama is “Putin-connected”, although in Russia that definition only applies to a tiny power circle of trusted aides and advisors, a select group of oligarchs running state-owned enterprises and close personal friends from before Putin’s presidency. The exaggerated tone of reporting often suggests something more far-reaching, coordinated and sinister than a loose collection of unconnected factoids.
So, what do “links between the American alt-right and Russia” actually mean? Much of the allegations of American alt-right’s “collusion” with Putin’s regime rely on the fact that Richard Spencer, a divisive figure in this already quite loose movement, was once married to a woman of Russian origin, Nina Kupriyanova. Their current marital status is unclear and, frankly, irrelevant. Kupriyanova, a scholar of Russian and Soviet history with a PhD from the University of Toronto, is also a follower of Alexander Dugin, a larger-than-life figure in contemporary Russian media and politics. Because of Dugin’s outsized presence in the western media where he is often, and quite erroneously, presented as “Putin’s mastermind” or “Putin’s Bannon”, this connection is often enough to be declared the smoking gun in the crowdsourced investigation.
Dugin has been many things to many people over his decades-long, zig-zagging career as an underground occult practitioner in the Soviet years: philosopher, lecturer, one of the founding fathers of a radical movement, public intellectual, flamboyant media personality. But he is not a “Putin advisor” and never has been. Although Dugin is a vocal fan of the Russian president, has repeatedly professed his loyalty to Putin and has orbited the halls of Russian power for more than a decade, he hasn’t accumulated enough influence to even keep a stable job.
In 2014, Dugin was fired from his position as a guest lecturer at the department of sociology of Moscow State University. Students and academic staff had complained for years about the “anti-scientific, obscurantist” atmosphere Dugin had created within the department (one petition filed by the students mentions Dugin “performing extrasensory experiments” on them during lectures). But the final straw was Dugin’s interview where he agitated to “kill, kill, kill” Ukrainians in June 2014 — the early stages of Russia’s war campaign in Ukraine. Both Dugin and his patron, the dean of the sociology department, were promptly fired after a major media scandal.
Later, Dugin was quite unceremoniously removed from his position as a host on Tsargrad TV — a right-wing, reactionary private network funded by “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeyev and launched with the help of a former Fox News executive. All mentions of Dugin’s show on Tsargrad simply disappeared from the network’s website.
Although Richard Spencer’s own writings for his Radix Journal do have visible Dugin inspirations, it’s inconceivable that Dugin has any significant influence on the American right. His teachings are just too eclectic, esoteric and over-intellectualised for an average American neo-Nazi who just wants to see more white faces around him. In fact, Dugin’s overarching idea of “Eurasianism” goes against the grain of “keeping America white and ethnically pure”: at its core is an obscure early 20th century Orientalist school of thought which accentuated Russia’s civilisational continuity with Mongolian and Turkic ancestors, as opposed to the spiritually alien West.
Russia’s conservatives of all shades of right have indeed been long cultivating links with their brethren to the west of Moscow — well before Putin appeared on the scene. These have been well documented by scholars of the far right such as Anton Shekhovtsov. After Putin’s onslaught in Ukraine, Russia, in dire need of new allies, intensified efforts to strengthen those links.
A trove of leaked emails released by the hacker group Shaltai Boltai (“Humpty Dumpty”) in December 2014 did indeed uncover a sinister plot to place Russia in the centre of a wide-ranging alliance of right-wing, far-right, pro-life, pro-”family-values”, hardcore Christian and other similar organisations in Europe and both Americas. But there’s little evidence that anything resembling the coveted “Black International” ever came to fruition. Only temporary, tactical alliances have been more or less successful, aimed at promoting shared common interests — such as Italy’s pro-Kremlin Lega Nord party lobbying for lifting EU’s sanctions against Russia — or values.
In the latter case, the dynamic is reversed: it’s not Russia influencing the West and exporting its values, but vice versa. It’s Russia’s parliamentary ultra-conservatives like Yelena Mizulina (now a senator) who have been inspired and supported by the American religious right.
Russia’s last public attempt to unite the European and American far-right ended in a major media scandal in early 2015 when the “International Russian Conservative Forum” in Saint Petersburg was widely criticised in the press. The forum’s Russian official supporters from the “traditionalist” Rodina (Motherland) party allied with the ruling United Russia were forced to withdraw their endorsement, and no further attempts to organise the forum have been made. Propaganda outlets like RT are quietly shedding commentators with far-right sympathies like Manuel Ochsenreiter or Richard Spencer mentioned above in an attempt to cleanse their image as a safe haven for Holocaust deniers and white power enthusiasts. Only a couple of days after Charlottesville, Russian authorities banned The Daily Stormer, a virulently anti-Semitic “alt-right” website, which had temporarily sought refuge on Russian web space after having been refused service in the US.
There is little to no evidence that any of the above had anything to do with the tragic events in Charlottesville. The resurgence of murderous, hateful ideologies in the United States is a home-grown issue. Young men with identical haircuts and matching, uniform-like attires chanting “Blood and soil!” in the streets of American cities are inspired and influenced by many things, but a bearded Russian mystic is hardly one of them. Attempting to explain internal strife in your country by “Russian influences”, hastily put together disjointed and exaggerated phenomena, is intellectually lazy. It distracts from getting to the root of the problem by offering quick, easy answers to complicated questions.
Ironically, it’s also a very Putin thing to do. Explaining Russia’s internal issues by blaming the West’s machinations is the Russian president’s shtick. When you find yourself doing the same thing Putin and his propaganda machine does, you’re doing it wrong.
Alexey Kovalev is an independent journalist living and working in Moscow. Follow him on Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev. This post first appeared on: