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Ian Garner and Taras Kuzio: Mariupol’s fate lays bare Putin’s fascist ambitions

Commentary

Nearly eight decades since the defeat of Nazism, the West again faces the spectre of fascism in Europe. Two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s regime—freshly victorious in the country’s latest sham election—is using the brutal destruction and rapid regeneration of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as a showpiece for a new, fascist Russia.

In an era when accusing opponents of “fascism” is commonplace across the political divide in the West, we as authors do not deploy the term “fascism” lightly. To do so risks devaluing the term. Yet by considering what fascism really is, and exploring the fate of Mariupol, we can show that today’s Russia really does have fascist ambitions.

Russia’s Fascism

Fascist states view the existing world as decadent, corrupt, and diseased—a far cry from their romanticized utopian past, when the nation in question supposedly lived harmoniously, cleanly, and with unimpeded international power (hence Adolf Hitler’s obsession with medieval German knights and national power). 

For fascists, the world must be transformed through violent, revolutionary action: the total destruction of the “disease” that has infected the nation. Fascist nations demand an enemy, for it is only through obliterating that enemy that they can rejuvenate themselves. Thus, in the fascist imagination, everyone from politicians to ordinary people is wrapped up in an existential battle to save the spirit of the nation. The end—saving civilization—justifies any means. And the evidence shows that ordinary Russians are buying into the state’s vision.

Of course, the promise of rejuvenation through destruction is absurd and illogical. It is doomed to failure, for it cannot resolve real social, political, or structural problems. One enemy must be viciously attacked and then another one immediately targeted. This most extreme of political systems, as the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco put it, therefore finds itself in a state of “permanent warfare.” 

It is increasingly clear that Putin’s Russia is a fascist nation. Barely a year of the 24 years Russia has spent under Putin has gone by without war: against Chechnya, against Georgia, against Ukraine, against ethnic and sexual minorities at home, and—of course—against the West. 

But Putin does not wage war for geopolitical reasons. He wages war because he hopes through conflict to regenerate his own nation. Putin, like the fascists Hitler and Benito Mussolini did 80 years ago, seeks to purify his own country through the destruction of Ukraine—a state that he views as both a false construction that has never and can never exist, and as a land of Russians deformed by exposure to Western decadence. 

Mariupol as the centrepiece

Putin is ready to obliterate Ukraine and Ukrainians to “cleanse” Russia. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in the horrifying treatment meted out to Mariupol, which was once a bustling city and regional hub in southeastern Ukraine. 

For two months during spring 2022, Mariupol’s civilians and buildings were subjected to a brutal military bombardment and campaign of terror. The city was all but destroyed. Estimates vary regarding the number of civilian casualties, but the death toll in Mariupol is nonetheless staggering, from nearly 10,000 to potentially many times that number. Many who survived were deported to Russia through filtration camps where they suffered torture and humiliation, and, in some cases, disappeared. They were forcibly separated from their children, tens of thousands of whom were sent to orphanages in Russia where they were put up for adoption by strangers.

Russian propagandists and politicians welcomed the destruction of Mariupol with glee, embracing the obliteration of both the city and its population. Russian state television egged on Mariupol’s destruction, describing Ukraine as “a cancerous growth that needs to be eliminated all the way to the border with Poland. We can’t allow even a small part of it to remain.” Vladimir Putin confirmed that destruction was a “natural and necessary self-purification of the society [that] will only strengthen our country.” Mariupol’s obliteration was not a regrettable strategic decision. It was healing a “cancer” and thus “purifying” Russia itself.

Today, Russia is attempting to recreate Mariupol and its residents as an idealized pastiche of the motherland. Eighteen months after the city’s capture, Putin met local schoolchildren via video link to mark the new school year in 2023. The Russian president invited Anastasiya, a teenage pupil from Mariupol, to speak. She anxiously read her lines: “My dreams, the dreams of every child in Mariupol and Donetsk, are becoming reality because we’ve become part of the great motherland, Russia, once more.” 

Anastasiya’s staged performance seems absurd, but it encapsulates Russia’s fascist ambition: the destruction of Mariupol is directly linked to the rebuilding of a greater Russian empire, with Putin following Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin into the hallowed annals of Russian history, and with ordinary Mariupolites finding their “dreams” are “becoming reality.” On the ground, every aspect of life in Mariupol is being transformed to write the city into Russian history—and to “purify” its inhabitants of their Ukrainian identity.

Since Mariupol’s destruction, the Russian state has poured billions of rubles into reconstruction. Vast new apartment complexes have sprung up at lightning speed. Russia’s state-owned media have hailed the destruction of Mariupol and the rejuvenation of Russia at every step of the way, relishing the chance to publish before and after images of the destroyed city and its newly rebuilt, improved self. 

That new Mariupol, though, is no ordinary city. The Russian occupiers have taken every opportunity to erase all traces of Ukrainian nationality and identity from it. Symbolically, one of the first acts the new regime undertook after seizing the city was to replace the large sign at the city limits, once decked out in Ukrainian national colours and written in Ukrainian script, with a new sign written in Russian and coloured red, white, and blue. 

Russian soldiers walk past a repainted city name in the colors of the Russian flag at the entrance of Mariupol, on the territory which is under the Government of the Donetsk People’s Republic control, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, June 12, 2022. This photo was taken during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. AP Photo.

Since then, symbols of Russian national identity, both tsarist and Soviet, have flooded the cityscape. Mariupol’s drama theatre, the scene of a particularly vicious bombing that killed at least a dozen people, was covered with billboards depicting Russian writers. New monuments to Russian military and religious heroes like Aleksandr Nevsky and the Metropolitan Ignatii have sprung up. A museum dedicated to Andrey Zhdanov, the Stalinist ideologue after whom Mariupol was named during the Soviet era, has been planned. Everywhere Mariupolites look, they find Ukrainianness obliterated and, in its place, signs of Russia’s glorious past. 

Again, Putin led the way in promoting these efforts—even traveling to the city on a rare visit to the front. On the Day of National Unity, which marks Russia’s military victory over Polish invaders in the 17th century, the president declared, “Mariupol is a very famous, ancient, one might say Russian city…of course, the people and their homes suffered terribly there…we need to rebuild housing, social infrastructure, kindergartens, libraries, theatres, and museums.” 

Putin, not surprisingly, forgot to mention Mariupol’s new inhabitants would be from Russia. A programme to entice Russians to move to Mariupol and Russify the town imitates the Nazi plan of Lebensraum, or “living space,” under which Germans would be encouraged to colonize lands inhabited by Slavs—albeit today Russians are attracted to Mariupol with the promise of cheap apartments and new opportunities in flashy YouTube real estate videos.

Those Ukrainian residents who remain are expected to reinvent themselves as Russians. Children are encouraged—and often forced—to participate in mandatory national patriotism classes, state paramilitary youth groups, and rituals that celebrate the so-called special military operation as following in the footsteps of their ancestors in the Great Patriotic War in fighting Nazis, this time in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda channels brandish children taken from Mariupol to Russia as evidence that Moscow’s war is saving the future of both Ukraine and Russia itself.

In Putin’s macabre dystopian world, Mariupol—and Mariupolites—had to perish so that Russia could be reborn. The state hails the “volunteers” who have rushed to assist in schools, on construction projects, and with humanitarian aid. “The city,” as one state journalist wrote to accompany a photographic tour of Mariupol, “has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.” Believe the Russians and Mariupol’s story is one of life, not death.

The cult of war

The cult of war has pervaded Putin’s nearly quarter of a century rule over Russia. Myth mingles with reality. The celebration of war, especially the sacrifices made in the Second World War, has become more religion than memorial. In this world, Mariupol is a modern-day “Stalingrad,” the city whose total destruction—according to the Russian myth—signaled the rebirth of Russia as a great power and empire. And, as with the Battle of Stalingrad, when dictator Joseph Stalin sacrificed a million of his troops before turning the tide, death is an essential precursor to new life. 

In the Russia of today, to borrow Orwell’s line from 1984, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Only destruction, in the Putinist faith, can bring about regeneration. But we know that this is an absurd, impossible promise. As the Kremlin drags its own people ever downward and continues its assault on Ukraine, it is obvious that war cannot rejuvenate Russia. 

Today, Mariupol may be hailed as the source of national spiritual energy. But tomorrow, another country, another neighbour, another ethnic group, or another minority at home must become the target for obliteration. As with the fascist regimes of the past, Putin’s regime will continue the dystopian cycle of destruction and regeneration until it is militarily defeated.

The Weekly Wrap: Pierre Poilievre’s working-class rhetoric is more meaningful than you think

Commentary

This week‘s edition of The Hub’s Weekly Wrap reflects on some of the past week’s biggest stories, including Pierre Poilievre’s rhetoric deriding the corporate class and championing the working class, political developments around the carbon tax, and what the ongoing revelations of the ArriveCan scandal tell us about the inherent limits of government.

Poilievre’s speech signals a fundamental realignment in Canadian politics

Pierre Poilievre’s speech last Friday to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade continued to generate a lot of discussion over the past week. It was a notable speech for various reasons, including as he himself noted, it was the first time that he’s addressed a senior business audience since he became Conservative Party leader just over 18 months ago. 

His dismissive comments about corporate lobbyists and strong support for the working class have prompted a lot of questions about what the speech might tell us about Poilievre’s politics and the positioning of a possible Poilievre-led government. For instance, Ginny Roth wrote this week for The Hub about its economic policy implications including the extent to which these populist impulses might conflict with Poilievre’s otherwise orthodox economic views. 

The speech must be understood as part of a broader trend within Canadian Conservative politics in particular and conservatism across the Anglo-American world more generally. It was an expression of a major political realignment. 

Within Canadian conservatism, it reflects a process that started under Stephen Harper’s leadership and has accelerated since his departure. The growing distance between the Conservative Party and the country’s business establishment is a marked departure from the politics of the Mulroney era. 

There are various factors behind it. One is quite practical: the elimination of corporate donations in the early 2000s has led to a decline in the voice and influence of business leaders. Second is a populist tilt in Conservative politics that manifested itself in the Reform Party and persists to the present in the modern Conservative Party. Third is a perceived leftward shift in the corporate community—particularly on issues concerning identity and sexuality—that makes it less of a natural ally to the Conservatives. 

But, as mentioned, these trends cannot be understood as a merely Canadian phenomenon. They’re part of a bigger story of a political realignment occurring across the Anglo-American world in which centre-right parties are increasingly home to working- and middle-class voters and centre-left and even progressive parties are now representative of the professional class. (We have covered the political realignment in various episodes of Hub Dialogues including with David Frum, Eric Kaufmann, Patrick Ruffini, and the late Ed Broadbent.)

Poilievre’s speech was an inherently realignment one. In particular, his message about the working class (“when I’m prime minister, my obsession—my daily obsession—will be about what is best for the working-class people of this country”) signaled that a prospective Poilievre-led government would consciously situate itself in these broader political trends. Like in Great Britain or the United States, the centre of gravity within Canadian Conservative politics is shifting from an entrepreneur to the wage earner. 

What’s interesting though about Poilievre’s realignment strategy is that it’s been part of a mostly orthodox conservatism. His overarching message is still generally about freedom and free enterprise. He hasn’t made major policy deviations from a basic conservatism framework with the exception of recently voting in favour of a legislative ban on replacement workers. 

It may be that a lot of these unconventional Conservative voters are mainly motivated by an aversion to the rise of identity politics on the Left and therefore have somewhat limited expectations from Poilievre and Conservatives on economic or social welfare policies. If so, it’s highly probable that his nods to “anti-wokeism” will remain a key part of his overall message and priorities. 

The upshot: political observers are right to characterize Poilievre’s speech as significant not merely because of what it conveys about him and his politics but also because of what it signals about bigger changes in Canadian politics. We’re going through a realignment. It will shape the next election and define our politics for the foreseeable future. 

Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, meets with Eliezer Fauni, a trailer mechanic, as he holds a press conference at Gardewine Transport in Winnipeg Friday, January 12, 2023. John Woods/The Canadian Press.
Trudeau’s carbon tax quandary

One of the biggest stories of the week is the growing opposition to the scheduled increase in the carbon tax from $65 to $80 per tonne on April 1. A majority of provincial premiers, including Newfoundland and Labrador’s Liberal Premier Andrew Furey, are now calling on the Trudeau government to suspend the tax hike in the face of ongoing affordability concerns. 

Prime Minister Trudeau and his government have resisted those calls (Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland called them a “net negative”) and rejected claims that their special dispensation for home heating oil late last year creates a fairness expectation for broader relief from the carbon tax. 

In light of these political developments, there’s been commentary in recent days about the causes of the carbon tax’s ongoing unpopularity, including the extent to which the government has mishandled the communications. The prime minister has also sought to make a policy argument that his government’s carbon tax (which uses price signals to influence business and consumer behaviour) is more market-based and less state-directed than the Conservative Party’s plan. 

There may be a communications challenge with the federal carbon tax but the chief problem isn’t that the government hasn’t spent adequately on advertising. It finds its origins back in 2015 when the Liberals weren’t fully transparent about their policy intentions. It may have avoided difficult questions in the election campaign but in hindsight, it laid the groundwork for the public’s disapproval nearly a decade later. 

In a major speech in Calgary in February 2015, Trudeau distanced himself from the top-down impulses of the National Energy Policy and instead committed to a bottom-up climate policy in cooperation with the provinces that could include carbon pricing (“We will set a national standard in partnership with provinces and territories, one that gives them the flexibility to design their own policies to achieve those targets, including their own carbon pricing policies”). The party’s platform used similar language. The clear implication was that a Trudeau-led government would support provinces that adopted carbon pricing but it was far from clear at the time that it would become a non-negotiable expectation. 

The consequence is that the 2015 election didn’t really litigate the Liberal Party’s carbon tax. How could it? The party’s policy, as presented during the campaign, broadly matched the Harper government’s own approach in which B.C., Quebec, and Ontario had carbon pricing and other provinces didn’t. If the Liberals had been straightforward that they intended to impose a national carbon tax with essentially no flexibility for the provinces, one cannot help but think that the 2015 election campaign would have taken on a different dynamic. 

As for the prime minister’s latest claims about the market orientation of the carbon tax, they’d represent a semi-persuasive argument, including presumably among conservatives who ought to generally favour market-based incentives rather than command-and-control regulations and subsidies, but that’s of course not what the Trudeau government has delivered. 

Carbon pricing (including both the consumer and industrial prices) represents something like 20 or 25 percent of projected emissions reductions over the coming years. Regulations and subsidies are doing most of the heavy lifting. Keep in mind that this a government that has announced billions of dollars in subsidies to essentially create an electric vehicle industry in the country and remains committed to a sectoral emissions cap for the oil and gas industry.  

The reality is that the Conservatives and Liberals broadly agree on climate policy with the major exception of the consumer carbon tax, which represents a small and declining share of emissions reductions. They’re both prepared to regulate and subsidize in order to reach the country’s emissions targets—in fact, given that the Trudeau government’s emissions targets are more ambitious than the Harper government’s, there’s a good case that it’s even more prepared to use regulations and subsidies than the Conservatives. 

One way to think about it is: the politics of federal climate policy is a version of the 80:20 rule. There’s a consensus, for better or for worse, on about 80 percent of climate policy and a disagreement about roughly 20 percent of it. 

We effectively have a bi-partisan consensus in favour of regulating and subsidizing our way to something approaching our climate targets. When we look back with hindsight, there’s a strong chance that this week’s mounting opposition to the carbon tax will be seen as having further solidified that consensus. 

Ottawa is too incompetent to be corrupt

This week’s parliamentary committee testimonies of the two principals behind GC Strategies, the company at the center of the ArriveCan scandal, focused a bit unexpectedly on the self-evidently fake testimonials on its website from government officials like the chief information officer or chief data officer of Canada. But these exchanges between Conservative MP Michael Barrett and first Kristian Firth and then Darren Anthony weren’t a digression from the main issues behind the ongoing scandal. 

They reflect the principal problem: federal procurement has become gamed by empty-shell companies—including ones specifically created to arbitrage affirmative action policies—who’ve stripped out significant margins for themselves and then passed off the work to others. 

The web testimonials convey the lack of seriousness and rigour inherent in the federal procurement process. It’s as if Firth and Anthony weren’t self-conscious at all that their rent-seeking would face much scrutiny from government officials. They knew Ottawa was an easy mark. 

Launching the company (which they admitted they named after the Government of Canada) in 2015, they pulled together some buzzwords about “visionaries” and “strategic thinking” and “value for money” and some equally banal bureaucratic job titles and that’s all they seemingly needed to do to win hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts and be named one of Ottawa’s fastest-growing companies within just three years. 

The whole episode seems to be shockingly simple. At least for now, there doesn’t appear to be evidence of government corruption. It’s rather a case of institutional ineptness and ultimately government failure. 

The fake testimonials should be understood as a symbol of Ottawa’s broader state capacity problem. If the federal government is prepared to award major contracts to a two-person company that cannot even be bothered to make its contrived customer endorsements semi-plausible, how much confidence should Canadians reasonably have about its ability to bring an end to the internal combustion engine or national poverty or any of the other incredible goals that it has set out for itself? The answer is virtually none. 

In this sense, Firth and Anthony may be the inadvertent faces of a renewed libertarianism—a rediscovered skepticism of big government—in the country. Their extraordinary testimonies this week should remind Canadians of the inherent limits of state action and the need for clear constraints on the size and scope of government. 

If so, the $19 million or whatever they ultimately received for the ArriveCan contract, may have actually been well spent. There’s a real testimonial to add to their website.