A real Russian heart: Aleksandr Dugin, Vladimir Putin and the dangerous new Russian ideology

Wars are fought with bullets and missiles, but they are also fought to advance philosophies, and ways of life. Russia understands this – the West must, too.

Bucharest, Romania - April 05, 2017: Aleksandr Dugin, Russian political analyst, strategist, writer and philosopher, holds a press conference.
Bucharest, Romania - 2017: Aleksandr Dugin, Russian political analyst, strategist, writer and philosopher, holds a press conference. Credit: lcv / Alamy Stock Photo

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘end of history’ in the 1990s, Western conversations about international relations have tended to shy away from ideology. Long gone are the days of the Cold War, where power struggles could be framed as a debate between democratic capitalism and communism. Instead, it seems as though strategists and intellectuals would rather focus on material concerns or amorphous ‘liberal values’ independent from fundamental questions of political philosophy.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘end of history’ in the 1990s, Western conversations about international relations have tended to shy away from ideology. Long gone are the days of the Cold War, where power struggles could be framed as a debate between democratic capitalism and communism. Instead, it seems as though strategists and intellectuals would rather focus on material concerns or amorphous ‘liberal values’ independent from fundamental questions of political philosophy.

The problem is that rival regimes in ChinaIran, and Russia still view competition with the United States as an existential conflict between different ways of life. These regimes’ strategic decisions are very much informed by philosophical questions, and Western strategists would do well to understand this philosophic dimension of great power competition.

The war in Ukraine is an aggressively ideologised conflict. By understanding this dimension of the war, Westerners can better perceive the ideological stakes of Vladimir Putin’s invasion and better grasp the potential outcomes. For many Russians, this war is existential. They believe victory in Ukraine is essential to the survival of Russia as a civilisation. They believe they are advancing a new, universal political theory, upon which depends the salvation of mankind. As Western policymakers consider what ought to be done about the situation in Ukraine, they should prioritise discrediting the new Russian ideology. Allowing it to succeed in Ukraine will destabilise an international system that has promoted justice and prosperity for decades.

To understand this ideology, Western strategists should turn to one of its most articulate and dangerous proponents: Aleksandr Dugin. On the evening of August 20, 2022, the Russian journalist Darya Dugina was killed in an explosion. Several months later, the New York Times reported that parts of the United States intelligence community believe Dugina’s death was a political assassination, authorised by the Ukrainian government. Although a vocal supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in her own right, most intelligence assessments have concluded the real target of the attack was Dugina’s father, the radical philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

Many Western observers were surprised, shocked even, that the Ukrainian government would target a philosopher in the midst of a war for the survival of their nation – they considered it potentially escalatory or outside the normal bounds of war. Despite the near-deadly attack on Salman Rushdie, it is still difficult for many in the West to understand the security risk posed by an intellectual. The assumption seems to be that the words Dugin writes have little to do with the situation.

Regardless of whether or not their government authorised the attack on his life, however, Ukrainians are right to fear Dugin. For one, his writings and appearances in the media whip up popular support for the war in Ukraine. Dugin worked as chief editor of far-right television station Tsargrad TV for a time after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and he reaches tens of thousands via the messaging app Telegram.

Furthermore, the Kremlin’s decisions, especially about the war in Ukraine, increasingly resemble Dugin’s ideological goals. It is no exaggeration to call Dugin a prophetic political theorist – he is the man who best sees the philosophical significance of Russia’s geopolitical position and Ukraine’s challenge to it.

The Kremlin recognised the significance of the attack on Dugin and his daughter. Shortly after Dugina’s death, Russian president Vladimir Putin posthumously awarded her the Order of Courage. In his remarks, he described her as a ‘true patriot,’ and a ‘bright, talented person with a real Russian heart’. Putin and the Kremlin’s communications apparatus have attempted to tie the war in Ukraine closely to the kind of reactionary ideology Dugin and his associates have promoted for decades. In lionising his daughter, the Kremlin has given Dugin and his ideology its stamp of approval.

The ideological vision advanced by Dugin, and increasingly embraced by Putin, is nothing short of suicidal. It provides twisted justifications for nuclear brinkmanship, and it encourages other non-Western countries to challenge the global order America carefully constructed in the wake of the twentieth-century’s cavalcade of violence and tyranny. Dugin’s ideological position is complex, but understanding it can shed light on the future of the Ukraine conflict.

Dugin was born in Moscow in 1962, at the height of the Soviet Union’s power. As a young person, he steeped himself in the work of far-right thinkers such as Rene Guenon and Julius Evola, and became obsessed with fascist narratives of civilisational decline. Dugin was long attracted to cosmological visions of ideological conflict — especially that between the United States and Russia. He saw the Cold War as an eschatological battle between two fundamentally opposed ways of life.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dugin was not among those celebrating the end of a wicked and tyrannical regime. He believed that the collapse of communism was a ‘suicide’ and a ‘geopolitical catastrophe’, because it left the United States unchallenged as a cosmological empire. Unipolarity would permit decadent liberalism to reorder global society along its own principles, which Dugin deemed an existential, even ‘racist’ threat to Russian civilisation.

Rather than allowing for the ‘end of history’, Dugin set about doing everything he could to challenge Western ideas entering Russian society. In the 1990s he was involved as an activist with a ‘National Bolshevik’ party, seeking to combine aspects of fascist and communist systems in the hope that together these ideologies could revitalise Russia as a threat to the West. After some time, however, Dugin largely abandoned the field of practical politics for political theory. Dugin’s fullest statement of his ideology is found in his 2009 text, The Fourth Political Theory.

His thesis is a sort of crabbed Hegelianism; in Dugin’s mind, history is defined by the dialectical push and pull of ideologies. The twentieth century was dominated by three: liberalism, communism, and fascism. The twenty-first, he hopes, will be dominated by a Russia armed with a ‘Fourth Political Theory’, which can overcome the defunct ideas of the past.

Liberalism, for Dugin, is the product of narrow European eighteenth-century conditions. It is the ‘legacy of the Enlightenment’. He does not give credence to claims about human rights, the value of limited government, or even republican conceptions of virtue. All of these things may make liberal societies strong, but Dugin believes they can never be truly universal principles. Liberalism is the substance of modernity in the West, but it can never suit Russia.

Communism, Dugin says, is the first political theory to arise to challenge liberalism. In his mind, Marx and his followers accurately described the shortcomings of liberal capitalism – Marxism is a useful analytic tool, Dugin believes. But its historical materialism and seemingly bottomless faith in abstract historical processes left it vulnerable to the productive capacity of capitalist rivals. Marxism may have made Russia great, but it failed to keep Dugin’s motherland on top for long.

Fascism is Dugin’s third political theory. In some ways, he seems to believe it burned the shortest but the brightest. Dugin suggests that the first two political theories ganged up on the third and committed a kind of ideological ‘homicide’ in the Second World War. That left liberalism and communism to duel over the fate of humanity.

Though liberalism won at the end of the Cold War, Dugin remains unsatisfied with its account of political society. He finds liberalism’s basic assumptions too materialist and soulless. What is necessary, then, is a Fourth Political Theory, one that synthesises insights from liberal, communist, and fascist ideology into a stronger alternative.

Dugin finds something to admire in each of the three political theories. From communism, he takes the rhetoric of alienation. For Marx, capitalism alienates workers from their labour, but for Dugin, capitalism alienates the people from their tradition. From fascism, and especially the work of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, he takes a vitalist celebration of the human will and an authoritarian approach to government. From liberalism, he takes certain social technologies, such as market economics, which promote efficiency and prosperity.

The position he adopts is one of radical particularism. The three preceding political theories purported to be accounts of universal truths, good for human beings in all times and in all places. Dugin believes the Fourth Political Theory is able to adopt aspects of earlier political systems because it is highly relativistic. Global multipolarity is favourable because it means no truth-claim can assert itself universally.

The Fourth Political Theory, then, is meant to integrate the best of the three modern systems that preceded it, but is also an attempt to take political thought into new frontiers beyond earlier ideological formulae. Dugin presents the task of discovering and articulating the Fourth Political Theory as a kind of ideological or intellectual adventure:

There is only one way out – to reject the classical political theories, both winners and losers, strain our imaginations, seize the reality of a new world, correctly decipher the challenges of postmodernity, and create something new – something beyond the political battles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such an approach is an invitation to the development of the Fourth Political Theory — beyond Communism, fascism and liberalism.

What kind of knight-errant will embark on this quest with Dugin as a guide? Towards the middle of the book, Dugin posits that the Fourth Political Theory requires a ‘conservative revolution’ to be truly born, led by the kind of political figure who can put theory into action. One such ‘conservative revolutionist’ Dugin mentions is Osama bin Laden. His anti-Western persona is a sign that ‘the pre-modern (tradition), meaning a belief in those values that were gathered into a heap and taken to the junkyard at the very start of modernity, can still arise’. This praise for bin Laden is perhaps the strangest moment in The Fourth Political Theory.

Could Osama bin Laden – especially in his willingness to deploy suicide bombers – be the kind of creative adventurer the Fourth Political Theory needs to thrive? It seems almost as though Dugin hopes Putin’s Russia will embrace the ideological swagger, eschatological self-confidence, and anti-Western vigour of al Qaeda. Dugin seems to admire terrorism as one particular model of resistance against American claims of universal truth.

For a critic of the United States, Dugin also has a strange admiration for American neoconservatives. Dugin believes that their concept of an ‘American century’ shows that they – ‘more clearly than anyone else’ – appreciate the meaning of liberalism’s victory over the other political theories. Some internal domestic forces, such as Pat Buchanan-style paleoconservatives or certain leftist elements, may dispute neoconservative claims about America’s particular responsibilities. But Dugin says these internal disputes have little significance in the grand ideological sweep he is tracing; neoconservatives are right to ‘take the US not only as a national government, but also as the avant-garde of the liberal ideology’. Likewise, Dugin would like to see domestic disputes recede in his own country so that Russia can be the avant-garde of the Fourth Political Theory.

One senses that Dugin believes American neoconservatives ushered in an American century and used US power to advance the First Political Theory, liberalism. In reaction, he would like Vladimir Putin and his supporters to usher in a Russian century and use Russian power to advance a Fourth Political Theory.

Between 2007 and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Dugin openly criticised Putin for being too liberal and open to the West. This was the central theme of his 2012 book Putin Versus Putin. It is important to understand the nature of Dugin’s critique so as to see how Putin drove much closer to Dugin’s preferred agenda in the years since 2014.

Many of Dugin’s complaints about Putin’s pre-invasion policies stem from his perceived materialism. ‘There is no strategy [in the Kremlin] because there is no ideology and no common political philosophy,’ Dugin wrote. ‘The political elite live in the moment according to the interests of their clan.’

To forge this new ideology, Dugin believes Russian leaders must articulate a ‘national idea’ around which every policy can revolve. Dugin defines ‘national idea’ as ‘a moral embodied in a slogan’, and offers examples such as ‘integrity over atomisation, a unique historical development of the country, and a unique system of ethical values’.

Dugin was clear, however, that any such ‘national idea’ must be more than a marketing gimmick. It had to have the power of real ideology. He complained that ‘in Russia such a delicate thing as ideology is delegated to spin doctors, puppet masters and managers’. The reason for this is that Vladimir Putin underestimates the importance of the notion of an ‘idea’. In the lead up to the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Dugin was eminently concerned that Putin was not putting enough action behind his propaganda.

That said, even as early as Putin Versus Putin, Dugin saw reasons to believe Putin was moving closer to the Fourth Political Theory. He was especially appreciative of Putin’s efforts to bind the former Soviet countries together into a new Eurasian community to rival the European Union. ‘The Eurasian ideology that we are developing is not yet a consummate complex of ideas,’ he wrote, ‘it is an idea in progress.’ And the most important way to maintain progress was to spiritualise the economic principles behind Putin’s geopolitical moves. ‘Right now Putin is concerned with the material Eurasia, the material Customs Union, the material integration, and the material rebirth of Russia,’ Dugin said. ‘A physical Russia is being reborn. Or rather, Russia is not being “reborn” so much as it is returning to its natural state of being.’ The natural next step is to allow a spiritual Russia to be reborn, and take its place at the head of the global resistance to the US empire.

The foreign policy expert Angela Stent is one Westerner who understands how this ideological ‘global mission’ has shaped Putin’s strategic thinking. According to her, Putin has developed a ‘structured and elaborate’ set of ideas he can deploy as weapons against the West. Under his regime, the Kremlin has attempted to put itself at the head of a ‘conservative international’, with Russia presenting itself ‘as the bastion of forces that oppose revolution, chaos, and liberal ideas’. Dugin himself laid out such a project early in Putin Versus Putin:

Putin’s Russia is becoming more and more aware of her global mission – counterbalancing the unilateral domination of the ‘Rich North’ and building a fair world order which favours the interests and wishes of all countries and civilisations. Contemporary Russia does not have sufficient strategic potential to unilaterally balance the Western pole, like it did in the Soviet era. But it has enough energy, while remaining one of the most developed countries, to speak for all of those who have been humiliated and insulted.

By binding the interests of non-Western powers more closely together, Dugin hopes Russia can bring about a collapse of a unipolar world order. In his view, Putin may not have fully understood the importance of his policies to fomenting such an apocalyptic clash of civilisations – but he had already taken enough steps, Dugin hoped, that Putin would take an almost-inevitable step towards embodying the Fourth Political Theory.

Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy have asserted that Dugin and his Fourth Political Theory are little more than ‘operational tools in the informational and psychological aspect of the new warfare Putin waged in Ukraine’ and ‘political weapons put in the service of the state’. They believe that the Kremlin deliberately ‘turned up the volume’ on Dugin, increasing his prominence in the West and among patriotic Russians, only to ‘turn it down again when the time came and their part of the operation was over’.

When the latest edition of their book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, was published in 2015, this was certainly a valid thesis. In the years since, however, one can detect a major uptick in Duginist rhetoric in Vladimir Putin’s public speeches. Understanding the similarities between Dugin’s ideology and Putin’s rhetoric is essential to understanding the next stage of the war in Ukraine.

Putin’s first major anti-Western statement was his 2007 address to the Munich Security Conference. There, he came out as a proponent of multipolarity. ‘One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,’ he said. ‘This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?’ At Munich, Putin announced that he considers the US-led world order a threat to sovereignty and civilisation itself. ‘Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy,’ he concluded. ‘We are not going to change this tradition today.’

Many of the themes of the speech resemble Dugin’s ideas about multipolarity and the conflict between ideologies, especially insofar as Putin was critiquing the West. But nothing Putin said at Munich aspired to quite the lofty heights of a Fourth Political Theory or a New Russian Ideology. That would not come until well after the first invasion of Ukraine, as Putin prepared to invade a second time.

Seven months before Russian troops began the invasion, Putin published an essay titled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. In it, he outlines a broad justification for seeing Ukraine as merely a constituent part of a ‘Russian World’ – and a pretext for war. Putin begins the essay with a long, and somewhat bizarre, condemnation of the sixteenth century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the 1596 Union of Brest. Through this treaty, Putin claims, the ‘process of Polonisation and Latinisation began, ousting Orthodoxy’ from the lands that became Ukraine. To Putin, everything can be broken down into a dichotomy between Westernisers and Slavophiles. And much as the tsars had to carefully defend Eastern Orthodoxy from those who prefer more Western forms of Christianity, Putin feels that he must prevent Ukraine from embracing a non-Russian political theory.

The clearest influence of Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory on Putin’s essay is in his conception of Ukraine as an ‘anti-Russia’:

Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia. Inevitably, there came a time when the concept of ‘Ukraine is not Russia’ was no longer an option. There was a need for the ‘anti-Russia’ concept which we will never accept.

By choosing their own destiny, by deciding to become like the West, Putin believes Ukrainians reject their cultural heritage and the ‘Russian World’. Dugin might say that the Ukrainians were choosing to side with the First Political Theory, liberalism, against the Fourth Political Theory and Eurasia.

In a speech given the day Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Putin sounded even more like Dugin than in his essay half a year earlier. Speaking of Western attempts to support self-government in Ukraine, he declared:

[T]hey sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now.

When Putin had to justify the war, the first kind of rhetoric he reached for may as well have been quotations from The Fourth Political Theory. Even if he is not actively reading Dugin or being influenced by the philosopher, his public statements and rhetoric have been converging with Dugin’s own opinions and priorities for years now.

In his book Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, Dmitry Adamsky describes Putin’s ideological development as an attempt ‘to preserve nuclei of greatness from the [tsarist and Soviet] empire and to take it further’. In Adamsky’s analysis, Putin ‘needed a national idea that provides the ideological-spiritual staples to hold the country together. A mix of Orthodoxy, nationalism, and autocracy became such a unifying narrative’. Dugin’s ‘Fourth Political Theory’ anticipated the mix Putin has settled on – and insofar as it goes even further than Putin has gone, it can provide a guide to future developments which may occur.

The only way to truly understand a people is to understand their literature. To that end, one of Russia’s greatest writers – Leo Tolstoy – reveals something important about the relationship between Dugin’s ideology and Putin’s policies.

Tolstoy’s final novella, Hadji Murat, is a tale of the conflict between Chechen Muslims and the Russian Empire in the 1850s prior to the Crimean War. He depicts the war as a terrible clash of two great religions – Sunni Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy. But not every person caught in the clash is an earnest believer.

At the centre of Hadji Murat is a chapter told from the point of view of Tsar Nicholas I. The Tsar was widely remembered for his reactionary politics, especially his suppression of the 1825 Decemberist uprising. He believed that he was upholding Russia’s status as the ‘Third Rome’, a bulwark against lawless revolution in the West and barbarism in the East. But Tolstoy also displays the utter decadence of Nicholas I. Overweight, cruel, and a lecher, the Tsar is no good Christian king. He cannot even ascribe ‘any significance to the words he pronounced’ when he prays.

For Tolstoy’s Nicholas, Orthodoxy became a justification for personal greatness. ‘Yes, what would happen to Russia now if it weren’t for me?’ Tolstoy says Nicholas thought to himself. Elsewhere, the Tsar mentally compares himself to Napoleon. By embodying the great principle of the regime, Nicholas I imbues his life with greater meaning and his insatiable desire for power with a world-historical significance.

Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory plays the same role in Putin’s mind as the struggle for Orthodoxy against Revolution and Islam played in the Tsar’s. In both cases, this dangerous mix of personal ambition and political ideology impels the autocrats to pursue deadly imperialist adventures in Chechnya and Ukraine. Regardless of what these two Russian leaders personally believe, Tolstoy shows that ideological justifications take on a life and a motive force of their own – justifications become necessities. From the perspective of a Putin or a Dugin, the invasion of Ukraine is nothing short of an ideological necessity.

Given this climate of ideological necessity, Russia will carry on the war until the ‘anti-Russia’ in Ukraine is stamped out, or the New Russian Ideology is utterly discredited. The ideological forces behind Russia’s war will permit no other alternative. The question is, do policymakers in the West understand the philosophic stakes?

The authors of the 9/11 Commission Report wrote of the ‘cultural asymmetry’ which invited those terror attacks. To Americans, ‘Afghanistan seemed very far away’. But to al Qaeda, America seemed very close. In the Middle East, ‘America stood out as an object for admiration, envy, and blame’. Ordinary people in the region were regularly confronted with the implications of US might, whereas ordinary Americans rarely thought about Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere else in the region. In part, this ‘cultural asymmetry’ explains why so many Americans were shocked by the attacks. ‘In a sense,’ the Report says, the terrorists ‘were more globalised than we were.’

America has been left in a similar position with regard to the war in Ukraine. Dugin, Putin, and other proponents of the New Russian Ideology consider the conflict to be an existential assault on the heart of the West. The West, however, has largely failed to consider the ideological implications of the invasion. In a sense, the Russians are far more ideologised than the United States is.

In the face of the war, Western leaders need to do more to clarify the existential nature of the conflict with Russia. They need to explain to their constituents the tyrannical threat posed by a Russian victory in Ukraine. They need to demonstrate to neutral parties – especially India and African countries – that this kind of ideological revanchism is a threat to their prosperity and security as well.

Even more than facing down a threat, the West needs to fight for a promise. Through centuries of struggle, the West has arrived at a set of universal political truths. Our ancestors bequeathed us a definite sense of what a just society looks like. Principles such as limited government, the rule of law, and protecting human dignity are worth preserving against the efforts of those who would remake the international system.

Great statesmen in the West approached similar crises in the past with far greater philosophical clarity. Abraham Lincoln called the United States the ‘last best hope of the earth’. Winston Churchill spoke of the battle against the Nazis as a contest for civilisation itself. Ronald Reagan adopted an anticommunist rhetoric of freedom to motivate the West to win the Cold War, rather than merely contain the Soviet Union. Rearticulating the grand philosophical stakes of geopolitical conflict is essential for building support for the security investments the West needs to make.

Since the war in Ukraine began, polling has indicated Western support for the war effort is slipping. In the United States, for example, the percentage of the public that is willing to pay the cost of support has dropped considerably. At the same time, though, Ukraine needs bigger, longer-term commitments from NATO countries to actually achieve victory. Sending fighter jets, missiles, and other weapons to help the Ukrainian army drive Russian invaders from their land is essential for Western security – but Western leaders need to do a better job making the case for that kind of support in public speeches and media appearances, specifically by clarifying and the threat the New Russian Ideology poses to free government. The only way they can convince their constituents to support the kind of policies which will secure victory is by defining the philosophic stakes of this conflict.

In this war, military aid is not enough. Wars are fought with bullets and missiles – but they are fought for philosophies and ways of life. Aleksandr Dugin and Vladimir Putin understand this. It remains to be seen if their counterparts in the West do.



Michael Lucchese