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Opinion: Russia’s ‘most dangerous philosopher’ Dugin is overrated

November 22, 2023 6:12 PM 6 min read
Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland
Analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs' Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies
Russian ideaologue Alexander Dugin attends an International Russophile Movement meeting in Moscow, Russia, on March 14, 2023. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
This audio is created with AI assistance

One of the favorite protagonists in journalistic investigations of deeper sources of Moscow’s recent foreign policies is the flamboyant Russian idealogue Alexander Dugin. Equipped with a long beard, sonorous voice, and extroverted personality, Dugin is a telegenic speaker who easily checks the box of an archetypical Russian philosopher. He can be different things to his various audiences – a modern Dostoevsky, a right-wing Trotsky, an Orthodox monk, a second Rasputin, or an alternative Tolstoy.

Yet, Dugin’s role in inspiring the Kremlin’s new aggressiveness, in general, and Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, in particular, is complicated. In contrast to how he is often portrayed, Dugin is neither a philosopher of intellectual novelty nor an ideologue with direct access to the Kremlin. He likes to pose as both and is promoted as a deep thinker with links to the Kremlin by his Russian and non-Russian followers. Oddly, some of his critics, too, take these claims at face value.

Dugin is an erudite polyglot who can express himself decently in several languages. He is well-read in social theory, esoteric literature, and normative philosophy. His political outlook accommodates a variety of approaches ranging from Samuel Huntington’s civilizationism to Aleister Crowley’s satanism, from far-left syndicalism to far-right traditionalism, and from staunchly reactionary principles to expressly non-conformist ideas.

He has been called everything from a conservative, Marxist, imperialist, fundamentalist, and geopolitician. Most of these labels are, in one way or another, apt yet by themselves also imprecise. When labeling his own ideology, Dugin invents new constructs like “neo-Eurasianism”  or “Fourth Political Theory,”  designed to intrigue readers in Russia and beyond.

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Dugin is, moreover, an engaging lecturer and interlocutor. In conferences, talk shows, and interviews, he comes across as clear-eyed, eloquent, and responsive. He frankly admits his extremely nihilistic position. Dugin openly calls for a worldwide anti-liberal revolution, constantly predicts the end of international order, and readily explains his total disgust for the West.

In the 1990s, Dugin even presented himself unashamedly as a fascist. He repeatedly praised representatives of German Nazism and its allies. Recently, though, Dugin has refrained from publicly expressing his sympathy for historical European fascism. He poses now instead as an “anti-fascist.”

Dugin and his think tanks’ output of texts over the last 35 years has been enormous. He and his entourage have published dozens of books in various languages and put out hundreds of statements in different formats across a wide variety of Russian and non-Russian media outlets, public venues, and social networks. The staggering quantity of Dugin’s statements – rather than their limited depth, questionable quality, and bizarre claims – have made him famous.

Dugin is now perceived across the world as one of the most noteworthy representatives of contemporary Russian political thought. His publicistic omnipresence, bellicist discourse, and rhetorical skills have led many observers to see him as a – or even the – mastermind behind the resurgence of Russian imperialism and Moscow’s anti-Western turn. During the last 15 years, Dugin has been labeled as, among others, “Putin’s brain” and the world’s “most dangerous philosopher.”

However, Dugin’s philosophical pronouncements and political ideas are merely Russian translations or reformulations of various older, non-Russian, anti-rational, and anti-individualistic philosophical discourses. Anyone familiar with classical geopolitics, integral traditionalism, international occultism, the German Conservative Revolution, French post-modernism, European New Right, and other alternative schools of thought will experience constant déjà vu when listening to Dugin.

Readers unfamiliar with these concepts may perceive him as an original Russian philosopher. Yet, what he proclaims as his own “neo-Eurasian” or “Fourth Political” theory is largely copy-pasted from disputed and marginal theorists and philosophers from abroad. Dugin’s hodgepodge of nihilistic fantasies, fascist dreams, and totalitarian plans contains little new for students of non-Russian ultra-nationalism, anti-democratism, and illiberalism.

A somewhat similar deception exists with regard to Dugin’s frequently alleged influence on Russian political decision-making. To be sure, some of the people around Russian President Vladimir Putin, like his long-time KGB associates Viktor Cherkesov and Vladimir Yakunin, have shown documented interest in Dugin’s writings.

In the past, some of Dugin’s most extreme statements previewed today’s rhetoric of the Kremlin’s propagandists. In 2014, Dugin called, in an infamous video presentation, on Russians to “kill, kill, kill” Ukrainians. In 2015, he asserted, “war is our homeland, our element, our natural and native environment, in which we must learn to exist effectively and victoriously.” Other older statements by Dugin appeared, at their time, as outrageous too, yet sound much less surprising today.

Nevertheless, the increasing congruence between the philosopher’s discourse and the Kremlin’s rhetoric, especially since 2022, should not be over-interpreted. A growing closeness is manifest yet insufficient to claim a straightforward causality between Duginist ideas and Putinist policies. In the past decades, Dugin has proven to have had a better pre-sentiment of where post-Soviet Russia is going than many academic researchers. He has been a prophet rather than an instigator of these tendencies.

What Dugin and his followers have contributed to since the 1990s is an increasing poisoning of Russian media and intellectual discourse with dualistic, conspiratorial, and doomsday ideas. Their stories about an age-old Western enmity toward Russia, the inevitable final battle between the traditional land and liberal sea powers, the alleged subversion of Russian society by evil foreign forces, etc., have indirectly contributed to the radicalization of Putin’s regime and policies. In doing so, Dugin and his followers have been assisted by dozens of other reactionary, fascist, racist, and ultra-nationalist Russian writers and commentators.

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Together, they have performed something similar to what the German so-called Conservative Revolution did during the Weimar Republic of the inter-war period. Rather than influencing parties, politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats directly, they have created an atmosphere in which violent internal repression and armed external aggression seem natural.

Few Russian decision-makers repeat Dugin’s ideas verbatim, and even fewer have read his books. Given Dugin’s earlier affirmations of fascism, only select Russian officials would admit to being impressed by him.

Notwithstanding, the Russian extreme right, as a whole, was able to make a crucial contribution to Russia’s anti-Western turn in 2007, intrusion into Ukraine in 2014, and large-scale aggression in 2022. Dugin and similar right-wing drummers have relentlessly voiced openly imperialistic, radically nationalistic, and paranoid anti-Western ideas over more than three decades.

When Putin announced his turn against the West 15 years ago, annexed Crimea almost 10 years ago, and started a large war nearly two years ago, many Russians did not need to be explained why Moscow supposedly had to do so. Russia’s extreme right, with Dugin as its philosophical patriarch, had already done so.

Editor's Note: This article was first published by The Moscow Times. The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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