Putin’s Rasputin

Journalist Amos Barshad meets with “Putin whisperer” Aleksandr Dugin to try to understand how a shadowy advisor exerts influence.

Amos Barshad | An excerpt adapted from No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World | Harry N. Abrams | 17 minutes (4,490 words)

 

In the lobby of a heavy-stone building in central Moscow, I’m greeted by a friendly young woman in a pantsuit who, she explains, is working “in the field of geopolitics.” She takes me to the security desk, where my passport is carefully, minutely inspected before I’m granted access. As we head upstairs the woman slowly whispers a joke: “This is what will save us from the terrorists.”

We walk down a long, high hallway that looks or bare or unfinished or forgotten, like maybe someone was planning on shutting down this wing of the office but never got around to it. There are linoleum floors, cracking and peeling, and bits of mismatched tile in the style of sixties Americana. Rank-and-file office clerks shuffle through, and no one pays attention to a faint buzzing emanating from somewhere near.

We stop in front of a heavy wooden door. Inside is Aleksandr Dugin.

The man is an ideologue with a convoluted, bizarre, unsettling worldview. He believes the world is divided into two spheres of influence — sea powers, which he calls Eternal Carthage, and land powers, which he calls Eternal Rome. He believes it has always been so. Today, those spheres are represented by America, the Carthage, and Russia, the Rome. He believes that Carthage and Rome are locked in a forever war that will only end with the destruction of one or the other.

In Western media, he’s become a dark character worthy of obsession. He quotes and upholds long-forgotten scholars with anti-Semitic leanings like Julius Evola, who critiqued Mussolini’s Fascism for being too soft. (Evola is a deep-cut favorite of Steve Bannon’s as well.) He’s been linked with ultra-right movements internationally, from supporters of Marine Le Pen in France to supporters of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Some read his writings hoping to suss out some linchpin of Russian domestic and foreign policy.

As the Russian American journalist Masha Gessen wrote in The Future Is History, her celebrated 2017 examination of modern Russia, “Dugin enjoyed a period of international fame of sorts as a Putin whisperer — some believed he was the mastermind behind Putin’s wars.” Others called him “Putin’s brain,” or even “Putin’s Rasputin.”

He sits at a plain desk, thick texts piled up in the bookcases behind him. His hair is brown and streaked with gray and parted floppily down the middle. He wears a dark-blue suit, no tie, and a lightly pinstriped shirt. There is a mole just to the left of his nose. His lips are buried in a big, bushy gray beard that, as Bloomberg once happily noted, “gives him a passing resemblance to the Siberian mystic who bewitched the last Tsar’s family.”

As the manifesto from one of the many political organizations he’d founded over the years once put it, Dugin’s worldview is “built on the total and radical negation of the individual and his centrality.” As one of his young followers once said, “Obedience and love for one’s leaders are traits of the Russian people.” And as Dugin himself once said, “There is nothing universal about universal human rights.”

From the second I walk in the door, he is locked and ready to engage. “Western Christianity and Western modernity and Western global elites try to oppose artificial intellect over the natural human liberty — that is a kind of a doom of the West that we rejected always.” He speaks in entrancingly accented, rapid English full of strange, unlikely phrasings rooted equally in the language of academia and his own far-flung and oblique obsessions — the occult, black magic, the hidden forces of history. He’s also really hung up on the West’s promotion of artificial intelligence. (Looking back now, I like to imagine that he was trying to tell me, if I’d only listened, that Skynet — the evil sentient world-destroying computer network from the Terminator series — was real.) If I let him, he’ll go on all day.

But I’m not here to get the stump speech, the full spiel. I want to know: How has he spread his message? How has he infected President Vladimir Putin — and Russia at large — with this worldview?

*

Aleksandr Dugin believes his influence is of a divine kind. And so he happily accepts the accusation of influence.

When I first ask him the question on influence he cuts me off, brusquely. I worry at first he’s going to end this conversation prematurely. Instead, he immediately monologues on the topic; it turns out he was cutting me off so that he could get to his turn to speak faster. “I could recognize that I am responsible for imposing my world vision over others,” he tells me. “And what excuse do I have for that? My excuse precisely exists in my own philosophy. I am not creator of the thought. It is a kind of angelic or demonic dialect that I’m involved in. I am but transmitter of some objective knowledge that exists outside of myself — beyond myself.”

The arc of Dugin’s life has been unlikely. In the eighties, he was an obscure, mild anti-Soviet dissident. In 1983, USSR authorities noted the trifling incident of Dugin playing the guitar at a party and singing what were, in his own words, “mystical anti-Communist songs.” He was deemed a real threat by no one. But in the nineties, after the fall of the USSR, he became a national figure.

His writings began to gain currency, primarily his major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, which became particularly popular with military elites. In 1993, he hosted the television program The Mysticism of the Third Reich, during which, as Gessen writes, he “hinted at a Western conspiracy to conceal the true nature of Hitler’s power.”

In The Future Is History, Gessen charts the rest of Dugin’s rise. How Moscow State University’s sociology department brought Dugin on board, implicitly legitimizing his theories with an elite institution’s stamp of approval. How every one of Russia’s national and international crises seemed to bolster him further.

Dugin believes his influence is of a divine kind. And so he happily accepts the accusation of influence.

In the summer of 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. Ostensibly, they were supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two Russian-leaning Georgian enclaves with long-held dreams of independence. Effectively, Russia had invaded a sovereign state. For years, government officials had been issuing Russian passports to Abkhazians and South Ossetians; now Russian forces had advanced deep into Georgian territory. This was the real deal, the Dugin-encouraged expansionist destiny. Russia once again had its guns cocked.

Dugin shined. Photos of him in South Ossetia circled. He stood in front of a tank, an AK-47 in his hands. As Gessen writes, that summer also “marked the first time he had seen one of his slogans catch on and go entirely mainstream, repeated on television and reproduced on bumper stickers. The slogan was Tanks to Tbilisi,” the Georgian capital. “Dugin had written ‘those who do not support the slogan are not Russians. Tanks to Tbilisi should be written on every Russian’s forehead.’”

From 2011 to 2013, the “snow revolution” — a series of peaceful protests against Russian election fraud — burbled in Moscow. The Russian government’s position was that the activists were paid agitators being supported by the US State Department. (As Putin declared in the early stages of the protests, “We are all grownups here. We all understand the organisers are acting according to a well-known scenario and in their own mercenary political interests.”) In the winter of 2013, Dugin spoke at a massive government-organized counter-protest in front of a crowd of tens of thousands.

“Dear Russian people! The global American empire strives to bring all countries of the world under its control,” he bellowed. “To resist this most serious threat, we must be united and mobilized! We must remember that we are Russian! That for thousands of years we protected our freedom and independence. We have spilled seas of blood, our own and other peoples, to make Russia great. And Russia will be great! Otherwise it will not exist at all. Russia is everything! All else is nothing!”

Internally, Putin answered the snow revolution with a crackdown. Externally, he answered with a show of force.

In 2014, again ostensibly answering the call of popular will, so-called “little green men” — Russian soldiers with no identifying insignias — took over the Crimean peninsula in the name of the Russian government. Crimea was a quasi-independent entity of Ukraine with a prominent ethnically Russian population. In the eyes of the international community, it was a brazenly illegal act. Once again, Russia was practicing expansionism.

Dugin was overjoyed. He had been pushing for a Crimean takeover since the nineties. He believed that it was just the beginning. Russia should go further and co-opt Eastern Ukraine (the traditionally Russian-speaking half of the country) as well. But for now, it augured great things. He saw it as a bolstering of the Russian sphere of influence. Eternal Rome was again strengthening itself.


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During one major televised interview, Putin explained the Crimean invasion by saying “a Russian person — or to speak more broadly, a person of the Russian World — thinks about the fact that man has a moral purpose. These are the deep roots of our patriotism. This is where mass heroism comes from in war.”

Now even Dugin’s literal phrasings were being echoed back to him. As Gessen writes, “The phrase ‘Russian World’ — the vision of a civilization led by Russia — was Dugin’s.” This was, effectively, the real-life execution of Dugin’s worldview.

Dugin did not talk to Gessen for her book. Possibly, he was familiar with Gessen’s place as an outspoken Putin critic and decided to stay away. I can only assume that Dugin agreed to an interview with me because he’d never heard of me before. I assume that he felt comfortable he would dominate the interaction.

*

“I believe in ideas that could well exist without man,” Dugin tells me. “Angels are ideas without bodies. I’m a believer. I believe in angels. I believe in God. I believe in Revelation. I’m Christian Orthodox. And for me, the existence of angels, as well as the existence of ideas, is the fact of experience — not only narrative.”

As Dugin sees it, he has stayed put, espousing these ideas that were given to him by the Lord. It’s the world that has moved around him. Sometimes it’s drawn to him. Sometimes it’s repulsed. “I put myself in the center of all the society of history. It’s not egocentric. It’s completely opposed to egocentrism. I put myself in the center of the world by precisely liberating myself from the individual. It is some other in myself that is the center.”

Are you following? He is at the center because his truth is the true truth. But he is also opposite the mainstream. He stands, alone, against a great force. “Mass media, education, politics, social relations, class, economy — that is society,” he says. “It is mechanicalized. A kind of social mechanics.”

Dugin, however, is part of something else — the “revolutionary elite that is coming to replace the elite.” He is counter-elite. And not only in Russia, but “on a global scale — I awaken these peoples. I’m awakening these collective consciousnesses. Using the term of Carl Gustav Jung, I transform these peoples from the sleeping mode to the waking mode. From the drunken mode to the sober mode.”

(He really does say the whole name: “Carl Gustav Jung.” In the course of our conversation, he also name-checks Vilfredo Pareto, Louis Dumont, Hegel, Heidegger, and Charles Krauthammer, almost always quoting them directly, almost always prefacing said quote with some variation of the phrase “In the words of . . .”)

He goes on: “That is the operation that I am leading. My influence is very special. I would say, a revolutionary kind. That is why I am called, by some American figures, the most dangerous man in the world. I would gladly accept that as labeled. I hope that it is true.”

His power and influence, he says, are of a slippery kind. “We could not measure for example, who is more popular, Michael Jackson or myself,” he says, chuckling softly.

I begin to believe that if I stay here long enough, he’ll keep inventing ways to emphatically gesticulate forever.

Because Michael Jackson, or pop music as a whole, exists in the mainstream — inside the traditional flow of information. And despite his history of television appearances, Dugin claims that “the traditional ways to promote ideas are completely closed” to him “and were closed from the very beginning.” Therefore, “in order to exercise, to fulfill this influence, I am obliged to seek, to search new ways. So I’m a kind of a, mmmm, metaphysical hacker. I try to find the backdoors of the program of globalization in order to make it explode.” His work, he says proudly, is a “a kind of terrorism.”

And despite this self-perceived singular place in the center of history, he says, “I’m not lonely Russian stranger. I am the most Russian man that we could imagine. I am Russia spirit. I am Russia!”

In conversation, as he makes his points, Dugin’s hands move constantly. Not just one or two swipes; it’s a wild, unceasing symphony of gestures. He swings an open palm, slams fingertips straight down on the tabletop, points an index finger in the air and his other hand’s middle finger straight down. The fingers and palms move in synchronicity and also alone, every single one on a mission. He interlocks and breaks apart and throws out his hands and brings them back together. Some of the moves he repeats. Some come just once. I begin to believe that if I stay here long enough, he’ll keep inventing ways to emphatically gesticulate forever.

His is a kind of intimate, anti-charisma. I realize that it’s the surety of his purpose that compels. As in so many other situations, pure, unadulterated bluster is carrying the day for Dugin.

“People like myself reflect the liberty of mankind. Man is an entity that always can choose. It can say yes to globalization and to this artificial intelligence, to the so-called progress, to the individualization — yes to the global agenda. But the man can say, ‘No, no! It’s not me!’ And that is the salvation of mankind. We need to liberate everybody. We need a global revolution. And I am conscious that I am fulfilling this role.”

*

I ask Dugin about a man he’s friendly with, to whom he’s often been compared: Steve Bannon. Is it correct? Are they some kind of analogs?

“As long as I understand Bannon, I think that the comparison could be legitimate,” he says. “Bannon suggested to Trump how to find the backdoor in the system. Absolutely, to be a kind of revolutionary — not from the right or the left, but a revolutionary against this world.” But “Bannon is a PR specialist dealing in ideology. I am a philosopher, trying to transmit through art, special art, my historical mission in front of Russian people.

“Maybe the difference exists precisely in the different nature of our societies. American society is much more based on public relations. Pragmatism. If something works, it is already accepted. Technical efficacy is much more appreciated than, for example, ideological coherence or truthfulness. In the political public relations, the propaganda is a means to trick people. I am not using ideology. I am used by ideology.”

Dugin is skeptical that Bannon ever had the mandate to be a true, pure ideologue. He recalls Trump once, way back on the campaign trail, skewering Bannon for reading too much. “I think that you cannot read too much. If you understand the weight of ideas, this accusation is a proof of some limited mind.”

Arguing his point, Dugin falls into a minor reverie. “So many beautiful texts!” he says. “So many profound authors and philosophers . . . so many languages! The real richness, the real treasury of human wisdom amassed is infinite. The only blame should be, you are reading not enough. If you always, reading, reading, reading, it’s nothing at all. Everybody of us should read more. More and more! If you think you read enough, you’re wrong! You don’t read nothing!” Before his fall from relevance, Bannon and Dugin did have interesting parallels. Like Bannon’s now-squandered power, Dugin’s lies in his ability to portray all world events as part of a plot he’s already seen. The sheer grandiosity of his speech is calculated to overwhelm. I know it all, he insists again and again, until the listener either accepts him as ridiculous or sublime.

But Bannon never had Dugin’s air of historicity. Intentionally or otherwise, Dugin has been able to cloak himself in dark mystery. Perhaps Dugin would prefer an example closer to home, then — Grigori Rasputin?

He’s not offended. Not in the slightest. Soberly, he analyzes the pairing.

“So. The figure of Rasputin is misunderstood. He had influence over our tsar, personal influence. He was against the modernization and Westernization. He was in favor of Russian people instead of the corrupted Russian elite.” So far, more than a few points of overlap between Aleksandr and Grigori. Certainly, Dugin is Rasputinesque.

But! “Rasputin wasn’t philosopher. He didn’t conceptualize anything. He’s a kind of hypnotizer, a kind of a trickster, something like that. So the comparison is a little bit limited. He built his influence on the personal charm and on his individual influence on the tsar. That was a very special case. This was person-to-person, without some ideology. Some philosophy.”

Who, then, is a closer peer or antecedent? For an answer, Dugin has to go beyond contemporary politics, beyond Russian history — and into the realm of the fantastic. “I compare myself much more to Merlin.” The great wizard Merlin, the mythical one, the son of an incubus. King Arthur’s advisor. “The image of the intellectual that is engaged in supra-human contemplation, in the secrets, that tries to clear the way for the secular ruler to create the great empire. “Merlin. The founder of King Arthur’s empire. That is my archetype, I would say.”

*

I ask Dugin, “What comes next?”

“Some of the ideas that I defended from the ages — they have won. They are accepted by the government and realized in the Eurasian union and Russian foreign policy and military strategy. The anti-modern, anti-Western, anti-liberal shift of Russian politics and ideology has been realized.”

But “the other half is not yet fulfilled. That is the problem. The second part of my ideas, of my projects, of my visions of the Russian future is still waiting. It is suspended, I would say. It waits it’s own time.”

The problem, says Dugin, is that Putin has not institutionalized the bits of Dugin that he’s borrowed. The Dugin worldview has not reached the point of “irreversibility.” Here, Dugin is critical of Putin: “He pretend to be the ruler, pragmatic and not controlled by nothing, including ideology. He pretend to be the absolute sovereign instead of being the sovereign fighting for the mission.

“It is a kind of simulacrum,” he says. “It is a kind of imitation. It seems more and more that it is a kind of very dirty play. A game they try to hijack. The real tradition, the real conservatism — they try to use that as tools and means for their rule.”

Where does the Rasputin end and the Rasputin’s subject begin?

He’s careful not to point fingers too directly. This is modern Russia, after all. “Maybe not Putin himself,” he says, “but the people around Putin.”

Fundamentally, Dugin’s disappointment is that Putin did not go far enough. That he did not push past Crimea and into Ukraine with the Russian Army. That he is not creating a “Russian world” beyond the borders of modern Russia — that he’s not birthing a new Russian empire. In Gessen’s analysis, this revealed the true nature of Dugin’s influence. Putin wasn’t being manipulated by Dugin’s ideology; Putin was borrowing it, for his own ends.

So was Dugin influential? Or was he a stooge? Again, that old question: Where does the Rasputin end and the Rasputin’s subject begin? Where do Putin’s own volitions end and where do Dugin’s prophecies begin?

One neutral observer might observe that Dugin’s dark influence was great once, but has waned now. Yet another might observe that it was always transactional.

But Dugin doesn’t have to control Putin, only and directly, to have influence on the culture. Igor Vinogradov, the editor of the magazine Kontinent, once said of Dugin and his disciples, “They are undertaking a noisy galvanization of a reactionary utopia that failed long ago — for all their ineptitude, they are very dangerous. After all, the temptation of religious fundamentalism . . . is attractive to many desperate people who have lost their way in this chaos.” That was in 1992. Since, Dugin has published endlessly and spread his missives incessantly. Both in English and in Russian, the Internet is rife with his manifestos.

Andreas Umlaund is a Ukrainian political scientist who has studied Dugin at length. Perhaps inevitably, Umlaund’s research into Dugin made Umlaund a target. As he explained to me in an interview from his home in Ukraine, Dugin’s minions write articles that allege that he is “an anti-Russian agent paid by the [US] State Department” and that he’s been “kicked out of universities for [sexual] harassment.” According to these reports, Umlaund says, “German officials were looking for me because I was involved in child pornography. Allegedly, I’m a pedophile!”

Umlaund’s greatest sin, in Dugin’s supporters eyes, was exposing Dugin’s explicit Nazi leanings. “I digged out these old quotes where he praises the SS and Reinhard Heydrich, the original SS officer responsible for the organization of the Holocaust. And they didn’t like that, because by that time Dugin had already become part of the Russian establishment. And these old quotes, from when he was still a lunatic fringe actor, were an embarrassment.”

I ask Umlaund what it’s like, being targeted as the number one nemesis of a man like Dugin. With historically informed equanimity, he shrugs it off. “This is not an unusual campaign,” he says. “Also in Soviet times, they were using pedophilia allegations against dissidents and of political enemies. It’s from the KGB playbook.”

Umlaund has continued his work, writing that the explosion of Dugin content, which begins around 2001, “has become difficult to follow. The number of Dugin’s appearances in the press, television, radio, World Wide Web, and various academic and political conferences has multiplied.” Dugin’s aim, Umlaund argues, is to “radically transform basic criteria of what constitutes science, what scholarly research is about, and to permit bodies of thought such as occultism, mysticism, esotericism, conspirology, etc. into higher education and scholarship that would bring down the borders between science and fiction.”

There’s a classic Simpsons episode that I love, “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment.” It’s from 1990, the early golden era of the show. It starts off with Homer spotting Flanders fussily rejecting a cable guy’s illegal, tantalizing offer: fifty dollars for bootleg cable. Sensibly, immediately, Homer drags the cable guy over to his own home and readily accepts. But as the man is finishing up his installation, Homer has a twinge of morality.

“So . . . this is OK, isn’t it?” he asks. “I mean everybody does it, right?” Coolly, the cable man hands him a pamphlet full of justifications for his actions (“Fact: Cable companies are big faceless corporations”). The evocative title: “So You’ve Decided to Steal Cable.”

It’s a wild oversimplification, to be sure, but the danger of someone like Dugin (and Bannon before him) is wrapped up in that pamphlet. You can make someone hate. But it’s easier to find someone who already hates, and to give them justification — historical, epic justification — for their hate. People naturally drift toward doing bad things. But they’d also love a pamphlet explaining why it’s all OK.

*

As Bloomberg has pointed out, in 2014, Dugin lost his place at the Moscow State University “after activists accused him of encouraging genocide. Thousands of people signed a petition calling for his removal after a rant in support of separatists in Ukraine in which he said, ‘kill, kill, kill.’” But he no longer needed an institution like Moscow State to have influence — he’d already become a prominent enough member of the establishment on his own.

During his time in the center of Russian politics, while the vagaries of the real world turned, Dugin tended to the ur-mission. Now, perhaps, he’s back on the outs of his country’s mainstream political thought. But his words have left his mouth and have been received. And he will continue talking and talking because he is playing a long, long game. “Some things are being realized that I have foreseen and foretold thirty years ago,” he tells me. “Now I am foretelling and foreseeing what should come in the future.”

As Dugin sees it, “The most highest point of American influence as universal power is behind us. Because America tries to go beyond the normal and the natural borders and tries to influence Middle East, Africa, Eurasia — and fails everywhere. America export chaos, bloody chaos. Everywhere America is, there is corpses. They have turned into a nihilistic force. The real greatness of America is not in continuation of this exporting of this bloody chaos.”

Dugin suggests that America ask itself some hard questions. Like “What is victory? What is glory? What is real highest position in history?”

Dugin’s vision is clear: America for Americans, Russia for Russians. And while Russia builds itself back up, it stays a closed society. “Being weak, we should stay closed from any influence,” he says. “From the West, from the East, from China or Islam or Europe or America or Africa, we should stay closed” — he bangs a fist on the table — “in order to return to our force.”

Through an open window, gray daylight pours in. Behind us, two women walk back and forth, mugs of coffee in hand, consulting texts and each other. They, presumably, are in the “field of geopolitics” as well. Here, in this room, in this massive building, Dugin quietly plots Russia’s revival and sends out his warnings to Russia’s enemies. The grand project rolls on.

America, declares Dugin, must follow the way of Trump into cynical and callow isolationism and avoid its once-upon-a-time fate as a shining beacon on a hill. Otherwise, Carthage and Rome will do battle. “When the United States tries to be unique, to be universal, a norm for all humanity — that creates the basis for inevitable conflict,” Dugin says. “Then the final war is inevitable.”

* * *

No One Should Have All That Power by Amos Barshad. Copyright © 2019 by Amos Barshad. Used by permission of Abrams Press, an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.

Amos Barshad was raised in Israel, the Netherlands, and Massachusetts. He’s a former staff writer at The FADER and Grantland and has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Arkansas Times. This is his first book.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky