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Putin’s New Martyr for the Russian Cause

The Kremlin has turned a dead propagandist into a symbol of the war—and a call to kill more Ukrainians.

By , an investigative editor at Meduza.
A portrait of Darya Dugina is displayed near her coffin at a ceremony at the Ostankino television complex in Moscow on Aug. 23.
A portrait of Darya Dugina is displayed near her coffin at a ceremony at the Ostankino television complex in Moscow on Aug. 23.
A portrait of Darya Dugina is displayed near her coffin at a ceremony at the Ostankino television complex in Moscow on Aug. 23. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

I used to hang out with a few acolytes of Russian political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin in Moscow in the early 2000s, long before he gained notoriety as a far-right, nationalist ideologue. They and I went to the same concerts and shared a preference for esoteric British underground bands, such as Coil, Current 93, and Death in June. Back then, these young Dugin followers struck me as harmless dorks more committed to psychedelic drugs than building a neofascist Russian empire from the Atlantic Ocean to the Far East, as their ideology—called Eurasianism—envisions. Their 1930s-style Blackshirt outfits were cringeworthy but not too alarming; actual Nazi skinheads roaming Moscow’s streets were a much more evident threat to me and my friends.

Now, however, it’s clear that Eurasianism was not a phase to grow out of like Goth makeup or nose piercings. This week, unvarnished fascist aesthetics were on full display at the wake of journalist Darya Dugina, Dugin’s daughter and fellow Eurasianist, who was assassinated on Aug. 20 in a car bombing near Moscow. The Kremlin, never in a hurry to uncover other high-profile killings, immediately blamed a Ukrainian plot and pushed its unlikely narrative across all the usual channels. At the wake, honor guards and pallbearers wearing red-and-black armbands stood at attention. Lapel pins brandished the “Z,” the semi-official symbol of Russia’s invasion, whose strokes come uncomfortably close to a swastika. Speakers demanded merciless retribution for “the blood of the martyr.” And to top it all off, the leader of Russia’s far-right Liberal Democratic Party, Leonid Slutsky, finished his eulogy with a slogan carrying eerie echoes of 1930s Berlin: “One country! One president! One victory!”

Eurasianism, as espoused by Dugin and his followers, is too eclectic to fit into a neat ideological category. It combines vast imperialist appetites with vicious hatred of the West and an openly fascist embrace of authoritarianism and Russian supremacy. Because it idealizes Russia’s people as a unified mass, it has elements of left-wing collectivism too; it also elevates Russian Orthodoxy to a heavenly mandate for the Kremlin to liberate Eurasia from those they consider Western heathens. For Eurasianism is anti-Western—and especially anti-American—at its core: The Eurasian Youth Union’s “catechism” states that the United States “is the beginning and end of our hatred.” The movement’s view of the United States as an empire of corruption and degeneracy has won them sympathetic ears among Western right-wing populists and far-left political parties. In fact, Dugina was actively cultivating relationships with European politicians for the Eurasian movement at the time of her death, meeting with associates of Kremlin-friendly far-right leaders, such as France’s Marine le Pen and former Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

I used to hang out with a few acolytes of Russian political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin in Moscow in the early 2000s, long before he gained notoriety as a far-right, nationalist ideologue. They and I went to the same concerts and shared a preference for esoteric British underground bands, such as Coil, Current 93, and Death in June. Back then, these young Dugin followers struck me as harmless dorks more committed to psychedelic drugs than building a neofascist Russian empire from the Atlantic Ocean to the Far East, as their ideology—called Eurasianism—envisions. Their 1930s-style Blackshirt outfits were cringeworthy but not too alarming; actual Nazi skinheads roaming Moscow’s streets were a much more evident threat to me and my friends.

Now, however, it’s clear that Eurasianism was not a phase to grow out of like Goth makeup or nose piercings. This week, unvarnished fascist aesthetics were on full display at the wake of journalist Darya Dugina, Dugin’s daughter and fellow Eurasianist, who was assassinated on Aug. 20 in a car bombing near Moscow. The Kremlin, never in a hurry to uncover other high-profile killings, immediately blamed a Ukrainian plot and pushed its unlikely narrative across all the usual channels. At the wake, honor guards and pallbearers wearing red-and-black armbands stood at attention. Lapel pins brandished the “Z,” the semi-official symbol of Russia’s invasion, whose strokes come uncomfortably close to a swastika. Speakers demanded merciless retribution for “the blood of the martyr.” And to top it all off, the leader of Russia’s far-right Liberal Democratic Party, Leonid Slutsky, finished his eulogy with a slogan carrying eerie echoes of 1930s Berlin: “One country! One president! One victory!”

Eurasianism, as espoused by Dugin and his followers, is too eclectic to fit into a neat ideological category. It combines vast imperialist appetites with vicious hatred of the West and an openly fascist embrace of authoritarianism and Russian supremacy. Because it idealizes Russia’s people as a unified mass, it has elements of left-wing collectivism too; it also elevates Russian Orthodoxy to a heavenly mandate for the Kremlin to liberate Eurasia from those they consider Western heathens. For Eurasianism is anti-Western—and especially anti-American—at its core: The Eurasian Youth Union’s “catechism” states that the United States “is the beginning and end of our hatred.” The movement’s view of the United States as an empire of corruption and degeneracy has won them sympathetic ears among Western right-wing populists and far-left political parties. In fact, Dugina was actively cultivating relationships with European politicians for the Eurasian movement at the time of her death, meeting with associates of Kremlin-friendly far-right leaders, such as France’s Marine le Pen and former Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

Dugina’s so-called martyrdom has a lot more value to the Russian state than her life ever did.

Dugina, born just eight years before Vladimir Putin first became Russia’s president, at first seemed to show little interest in her father’s ideology. Her former college friends recall her as an exceptionally bright philosophy student, and she would later adopt the pen name “Platonova” in honor of the Greek philosopher. When she fully embraced Eurasianism later, she became its voice as her father’s personal press officer, leader of the Eurasian Youth Union, and the movement’s envoy abroad.

Dugina’s father is often styled as “Putin’s brain” by the Western media—but in Russia, he’s little known. By all accounts, Putin has never met him personally or quoted his works. (Putin’s favorite ideologue appears to be openly fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who died in exile in 1954—even if Putin only quotes Ilyin’s blander statements about Russian greatness.) The only official Russian institution that carries “Eurasia” in its name is the Eurasian Economic Union, which has no direct connection to Dugin’s ideas. Photographs of Dugin’s lecture on “traditional values,” which he held only a few hours before his daughter’s death, show only a few dozen people huddled in front of a small tent.

For all his notoriety in the West, Dugin lacked the connections and influence to hang on to his academic job in the sociology department at Lomonosov Moscow State University, which fired him in 2014 after he exhorted Russians to “kill, kill, kill” Ukrainians on a pro-Kremlin YouTube channel. Given the normalization of genocidal anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Russia today, it’s doubtful the statement would be a firing offense now—more likely, the person doing the firing would come under suspicion. Back then, it was not yet an acceptable behavior for a state university professor.

Dugina’s so-called martyrdom has a lot more value to the Russian state than her life ever did. She is being woven into an elaborate narrative that, in a typical case of psychological projection, attempts to paint Ukraine, not Russia, as a terrorist state that murders unarmed civilians—in this case, so the narrative goes, a young woman who publicly celebrated her patriotism for Russia. Not only did Putin send his personal condolences, but he also posthumously awarded her the Order of Courage, which is normally given only to military and security personnel for particularly selfless acts. The Russian security service’s claim barely a day after the assassination that the culprit is a Ukrainian mother traveling with her 12-year-old child—conveniently leaving her identity card behind as a clue—beggars belief.

Putin’s propaganda machine has turned Dugina—and vengeance for her death—into a cause. There is little in her biography that would explain the volume and ferocity of all the calls for bloody revenge that her death has inspired. On pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, there are now photos of military vehicles and artillery shells meant for Ukrainian targets inscribed with Dugina’s name. News anchors and pundits on Russian television are openly calling for murdering not only Ukrainians but also any Russians who refuse to worship Dugina as the martyr the Kremlin insists she is. In life, Dugina never got even a small fraction of this attention. She represented an obscure movement that could barely muster a couple dozen people to its rallies. In Russian public life, she was a C-list television personality repeating Kremlin talking points, such as the allegation that the Russian massacre of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, was a staged event.

In death, Dugina became what Putin himself once called a “sacred sacrifice.” As propaganda fodder, her corpse now serves as a national symbol of one’s highest patriotic duty—and of the Ukrainians’ supposed perfidy. Naturally, there can be no excuse, only ruthless punishment.

It is not the first time a “sacred sacrifice” has been used for this kind of propaganda. In 1930, a communist carpenter killed a small-time Nazi thug, Horst Wessel, in Berlin. The latter was immediately stylized into a martyr for the Nazi cause by Joseph Goebbels, who would later become the Third Reich’s propaganda minister. When the Nazis took power in 1933, Wessel was made into a national hero. Towns and streets bore his name, concentration camp inmates had to bow their heads when he was mentioned, and the “Horst Wessel Song” became part of the German national anthem. The Kremlin may or may not give Dugina the full Wessel treatment. But the propaganda benefits of her martyrdom status for a cruel and sadistic regime is already apparent.

In hindsight, I should have recognized Dugin’s young acolytes 20 years ago for the menace they really were.

Alexey Kovalev is an investigative editor at Meduza. Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev

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