Wednesday, 8 April 2015

In Review: Putin vs Putin by Alexander Dugin

In a rather strange twist of fate, it turns out I went to university with someone who now works at Arktos Media. A while ago, I got a message from her asking if I'd be interested in reviewing the new Dugin book, Putin vs Putin. Alexander Dugin is someone I was, of course, very much aware of, and I approached the opportunity to delve a little into his world with curiosity and, to be honest, trepidation.

What an odd, odd book this was to read. It is constructed from several years of work assembled thematically (I assume). As these individual papers were often written years apart, the experience of reading the book is a very disjointed one. Further to that, Dugin has written much of it with the (understandable as these were all originally published in Russian) assumption that the reader will already be largely aware of most of the events and individuals he's discussing. To the credit of the fine folk responsible for editing and translation, the copious footnotes are able to resolve this, but having to work through long lists of Russian names at the bottom of almost every page to figure out who Dugin is attacking or praising is a laborious task.

It was not a fun read. Indeed, considering its short length, it took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to read it, with many pauses in which I fled to read more accessible books, or made serious in roads into equally strange but somewhat more palatable books. A serious problem was that it was consistently substantially more interesting when it wasn't actually talking about Vladimir Putin. The digressions Dugin takes to discuss the various competing schools of radical conservatism, his geopolitcal theories, his defence of Russian Christian nationalism and, of course, his robust assertions of Tradition and the Fourth Political Theory are all compelling and fascinating (though I think it a good idea to state at this point, just to avoid any ambiguity, I do not agree with him), while his long discussions on what Putin's actions mean, what the people around the President want, and so on, and so on, became rather tedious. This tedium was likely more to do with, as I've said above, the unfamiliarity the reader is likely to have with many of the individuals that Dugin devotes his attention to. Only a student of contemporary Russian politics is likely to be able to follow the paths that Dugin takes around these people and events.

However, the single biggest problem with the book is that it simply shouldn't exist in the format it does. Like I said, this is put together from over a decades worth of separately written pieces of work. As such, this book should have been compiled in one of two ways, either as an anthology of these pieces with notes on the context of the writing of each one (perhaps with Dugin's comments on whether or not he still agrees with the position presented in each piece), arranged chronologically, or thematically maybe; or, these original texts should have been taken as the substance for a new, original work, in which Dugin would chart how his opinions on Putin and the Russian situation have shifted over the years. In so writing, the repetitions and contradictions could have been easily resolved through simple editorship and contextualisation. It seems that (I imagine this is the fault of the editors or publishers of the original Russian edition) the book is attempting to be the latter, but this wasn't properly or fully executed.

As to whether or not it's worth reading: with hesitation, I would say 'yes'. How much the reader's life is likely to be enriched by the experience, I cannot say. Probably reasonably little. This being said, the book is a valuable reminder that the liberal order is not as secure as many of us, myself included, would like to believe. A substantial number of very powerful people consider our paradise to be their hell. That is the hard lesson of the 21st Century for the West, and Dugin seems to almost delight in it.

Some final words. Dugin's shifting portraits of Putin are confounding, as the picture blurs frequently into something new, but that is indeed exactly the point. Putin, Dugin concludes, is a sheer pragmatist. He is the ultimate postmodern politician, he is a liberal and reformer and a moderniser and an imperialist and a patriot and defender of Christendom, all at once, depending on the time of day. This pseudo (super?) position is emphasised by the apparent lack of personality of the man. What can we say about Putin's character? Nothing. All we can speak of are his deeds, which are rarely enough to satisfy Dugin's vision of a new, masculine and sacred Russia, a vision it is by no means clear Putin shares any more than it is politically expedient for him to share. Because of this emptiness, Putin can become Dugin's almost-messiah and the West's monster without necessarily really being either.

Despite all this, I could not ever quite shake the thought from my head that Dugin failed to entertain one important possibility: is Putin maybe simply in it for himself?

For some, power is an ends in itself.