Who wants to be Mussolini? Right-wing populism Russian-style


First published at Canadian Dimension.

The repeated failures of the Russian army, combined with scandalous events such as the appearance of Ukrainian drones over elite suburbs of Moscow, caused something akin to patriotic hysteria among the supporters of the war. Everyone understands that events are developing in way that not only threatens military defeat, but also serious internal political upheavals. Now the question of how to avoid political change in Russia under these circumstances is becoming the main focus for the conservative-minded segment of society.

Two popular leaders of the patriotic public who contrived their own initiatives are Igor Strelkov, who became famous during the 2014 conflict in Donbas, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC). Not only do they have no sympathy for one another, but they openly express mutual hatred. Strelkov sees himself and is seen by his supporters as the last warrior of the empire, a kind of knight or even Don Quixote of the Russian national cause. For his supporters, Prigozhin looks like a corrupt businessman who uses the war for personal enrichment, a mercenary who recalls the Landsknecht of the late Middle Ages. Of course, their mutual antipathy can be also ascribed to personal reasons, yet there is something much more significant at issue.

At first glance, they both stand for the same thing. Both do not hesitate to criticize the military, blaming it for numerous failures. Both are very cautious about President Putin, even if, from time to time, they allow themselves, without referring to him by name, to express their dissatisfaction with the way he leads the country. Both believe that it is necessary, despite everything that is happening, to continue fighting, although both are well aware of how hopeless everything is. Both are determined to preserve the existing system, but on the condition of restoring order and punishing the “fatted elite.”

, The fundamental difference between the ideas of the left and the propaganda of the right-wing populists is that the left, without idealizing the current elite, locates the root of evil not in its depravity or venality, but in the system itself, in the structures and social relations that need to be changed. The position of the left was very well formulated by Bertolt Brecht in The Good Person of Szechwan. In that play, the owner of the company is a very good and caring woman who now and then has to do evil deeds because the logic of the system requires it. These evil deeds are carried out by her double, which, unfortunately, she herself is forced to be—contrary to her own nature and her own desire.

Whereas for the left, the problem rests with the system, with relationships and rules, for the right, the problem lies with people. This is why reprisals against specific people always strike right-wingers as the most reliable and effective solution. In fairness, many of the leftists, who seized unlimited power, behaved in a similar way, but this only confirms the appeal and prevalence of the conservative-authoritarian cast of mind.

Right-wing populism, which makes a show of bringing down thunder and lightning on the heads of the corrupt elites, does not call for changing the system, carrying out structural reforms, or even revising the rules of social and political life. Its logic dictates that the corrupt elite should be replaced by the “right guys” who are ready to take care of the people. Such populism is completely conservative in essence and its rapid rise stems from the fact that the system is in crisis and they are trying to preserve it by means of such perverse methods. Attempts to change the system are perceived as destabilizing. And from the point of view of the ruling elites, they really are. However, when they find themselves in a state of extreme desperation, the elites are inclined to support bold initiatives, no matter how extreme.

It is in this regard that many commentators are already comparing Yevgeny Prigozhin with Benito Mussolini and predicting a March on Moscow, redolent of the March on Rome organized by Il Duce in 1922. At that point, Italy was in a fever: the factories were on strike, the workers’ councils had seized the enterprises in Turin, and the left opposition in parliament was directly challenging the monarchy. Sharply critical of the old elites in his discourse, (in keeping with the spirit of the times), Mussolini compelled the king to appoint him head of government, after which he directed his blows not against the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and corrupt officials, but against socialists, communists, anarchists and other leftists, at the same time destroying democratic institutions. Yes, the old elites had to make room, giving up some of their seats in power to petty-bourgeois upstarts, street thugs and thieves in black shirts. But the system survived, and with it, the same old elites. To borrow a phrase from Herbert Marcuse, Mussolini managed to carry out a “preventive counter-revolution,” suppressing the revolutionary processes before they could really unfold.

For their part, Strelkov and his comrades, who created the Club of Angry Patriots (CAP), regard as inevitable the turmoil that will ensue once the hostilities are over and, having gathered their strength, they want to “nip it in the bud.” The CAP’s writings refer to Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety, but the position of the authors is more reminiscent of General Kornilov and his failed putsch of 1917, directed against the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky, which hastened the Bolsheviks’ ascent to power. The tsarist general tried to “put things in order” by stopping the revolution, which was already on the rise. Thus, he not only failed in his aim, but actually strengthened the radical tendencies in society.

The Jacobins and Bolsheviks were able to overcome the turmoil because they represented radical needs, that is, they did not merely advocate systemic changes, but also put them into practice. What appeared to conservatives as turmoil was in fact a revolution. And overcoming the chaos generated by the collapse of the old regime is possible precisely at the price of the final liquidation of its remnants. To adopt the language of conservatives, turmoil, if it has already erupted, can only be curbed from within by implementing an agenda for change.

From the point of view of Strelkov and his comrades, Prigozhin is himself one of the factors of unrest. Rather than preventing trouble, he is a troublemaker. He undermines the credibility of institutions, impugning the leadership of the army and the army itself and, moreover, he belittles the state by presenting his private business as a force that can take its place. Recently Prigozhin’s mercenaries even exchanged fire with Russian Army units and took an army colonel prisoner. They also exchange threats with Putin’s Chechen warriors, openly expressing the desire to kill each other. This definitely doesn’t help Russia’s military effort. Prigozhin does not even respect the Russian language, substituting criminal jargon for political discussion.

In Italy in 1922, Mussolini, having staged a conservative coup, succeeded in suppressing the imminent revolution. But to do so, he had to fight the already fully formed leftist forces, rather than the corrupt elite that he so harshly criticized. The current situation in Russia is not comparable: there is no organized mass protest, and the need for change— even if it is certainly overdue objectively—is inchoate and remains unformulated in the mass consciousness. So Prigozhin’s “preventive counter-revolution” has no opponent. In this context, it becomes a destabilizing factor. The ruling bureaucracy and its domestic capital would rather seek salvation by negotiating with their Western opponents and approachable internal opponents. It remains to be seen how this will end and what processes will eventually be triggered. The outcome may be completely different than the people in whose hands power and property are concentrated would wish. But it will happen later.

Prigozhin was clearly too hasty with his statements. It is unlikely that he will be able to reproduce the victory of the young Mussolini. But in the event of a descent into the much-feared “troubles,” Strelkov and his ilk actually threaten to replicate the fate of General Kornilov. And they are unlikely to welcome this prospect.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a professor at the Moscow Higher School for Social and Economic Sciences. He is the editor of the online journal and YouTube channel Rabkor. In 1982 he was imprisoned for dissident activities under Brezhnev and later faced arrests both under Yeltsin in 1993 and under Putin in 2021. In 2023 the authorities declared him a “foreign agent” but refused to leave the country, unlike many other critics of the regime. His books in English translation include Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (Pluto Press 2007), From Empires to Imperialism: the State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation (Routledge 2014), and Between Class and Discourse: Left Intellectuals in Defence of Capitalism (Routledge, 2020).