For years, Russian propaganda has painted Ukrainians as nazi, neo-nazi or Bandera-nazi, accusing them of being nationalists. Despite their extensive use, few Russians actually remember what these terms mean. However, if they look closely at their meaning and Russian history, it actually turns out that Russians themselves are the culprits.
In this article we explain how much Putin’s regime has borrowed from its totalitarian predecessors.
The article is co-authored by the analytical center “VoxUkraine” and “History as it is”, a popular YouTube channel with unembellished and true takes on the history of Ukraine and the world
Propaganda and rewriting of history
In the nazi Germany, fascist Italy and communist USSR, totalitarian propaganda was ethatists all throughout. It aimed at creating a cult of a state, a powerful, strong, all encroaching state. In his “Doctrine of fascism”, Mussolini put forward a conception “Everything within the state! Nothing outside the state! Nothing against the state!”
Nazi Germany actively used the slogan: “One people, one state, one leader” (“Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”). Putin has built his Russia under the same principle. The Russian Federation is a federation only in its name. In reality it is a strictly centralized, unitary empire led by a non-alternative dictator who has been in power for 22 years, which practices swift and total russification of non-Russian (primarily slavic) peoples. For instance, there were officially 4.4 mln Ukrainians in in 1989 in Russia. The figure fell to 2.9 mln in 2002 and 1.9 mln in 2010. The extent of the russification is not surprising given almost no schools and media that use the languages of national minorities, as well as no social-political organizations and national cultural communities.
The German Nazi regime fed on the pain of the defeat in the First World War. It was the collapse of the German empire, partial loss of territory with its German-speaking population and the deep economic crises of 1918-1923 and 1929-1933 that paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power. He promised to “restore justice”, renew the lost imperial might of Germany and to return the lands occupied by the neighbours. He blamed Jews and communists for the defeat in the First World War (canalizing the German society’s aggression against them) and maintained the idea of Germany as a country “surrounded by enemies” (Germany surrounded by capitalist colonial empires, UK and France, as well as the jewish-bolchevique Soviet Union, the territory of which was destined to become the “living space” (lebensraum) for the Germans).
In a similar fashion, Putin’s regime has emerged on the basis of the traumatic experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter was seen as a heavy defeat and a universal humiliation (from this stems the particular hatred to the USA, NATO and the “collective West”, “Western values” and “liberal democracies”). As early as in 2005 Putin called the demise of the USSR “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the XX century” after which “tens of millions of our citizens found themselves outside of russia boundaries”.
The aim of Putin in his policy is the same as the aim of Hitler was – to renew the “lost greatness” of its state, to get back territories populated by russians, russian-speakers or loyal to russia people (here we see the major mistake of putin – he believed that the entire Ukraine was loyal to russia while the majority of even russian-speaking Ukrainians are in fact hostile to russia). In the same way as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, Putin prefers to “rely on the country’s own strengths” (autarky, self-sufficiency) and “a state surrounded by enemies” (economic sanctions and voting in the UNGA only support this narrative). This is a typical Nazi revanchism. The desire to compensate for the defeat in the Cold war.
In July 2021 we published a detailed analysis of the article “About the historical unity of russians and Ukrainians” published at the Kremlin web-site authored by putin. The article states that Ukraine was entirely created by the Soviet Union. Having checked all the statements of the article, we discovered that none of them is true. At the same time in russia the article is included into the mandatory topics for military-political studies in the army. As we understand now, the article was intended to “justify” the planned invasion into Ukraine that happened in six months.
In the same was as Nazi regime in Germany, fascists in Italy and communists in the USSR, Putin’s Russia has been actively developing the cult of its leader.
Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were at the top of the power vertical for a very long time (Hitler in 1933-1945, Mussilini in 1922-1945 and Stalin in 1922-1953). Thus they lost any sense of boundaries, and developed a strong feeling of being chosen by God, never making any mistakes and performing some great historical mission. Elections run at the time were without any alternatives. No one of the dictators had any serious competitors. Until their regimes existed, they could not be replaced by legal methods. Thus all three stepped down from the power Olymp because of their death (Hitler shot himself, Mussolini was executed, Stalin died).
Streets, squares and other objects were named after dictators. Their portraits were everywhere. They were always in the focus of media attention. Propaganda used such images as the dictator and the military, the dictator and children.
A distinguishing feature of the personality cult of the dictators was their highlighted masculinity and machismo. Propaganda painted Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and continues to paint Putin, as warriors, men of action, fanatical politicians who are ready to make radical steps, who will not feel sorry neither for the enemy nor for their own citizens in order to reach the goal. One can remember popular pictures of half-naked Putin.
A history doctor, a corresponding member of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences Laryssa Yakubova wrote about Stalin’s personality cult (but this also applies to the cults of Hitler, Mussolini and Putin): “The most dangerous…is its devastating impact on the basic values of recreation of society, mass dysplasia of consciousness that revealed itself in the mimicry of ordinary people as well as in turning into predators of entire professional guilds that worked for… the terror – physically and ideologically, in torture rooms, in press and in schools”.
We have to say that already in the early years of Putin’s presidency people were talking about the emergence of his personality cult. Thus, already in 2001 the BBC agency noted a wide variety of Putin’s portraits in an underground passage to the metro station (a usual place for petty trade in Russia). In 2014 the German newspaper Die Welt wrote that Putin’s personality cult began to intensify after the start of the war in the East of Ukraine and became even stronger after the occupation of Crimea. Die Welt also noted that the more isolated Russia becomes, the more Putin is preached.
In the same year of 2014, Espresso TV journalists collected “TOP-5 crazy things that fans of the Russian dictator do”. They provide the following examples: a lecture and a round table dedicated to the liaison of God and Russian president Putin (September 2014 in Moscow); the church of Putin’s witnesses that operates in Kstov rayon of Nizhny Novgorod oblast; a series of smartphones iPhone 5s with engraved Putin’s portrait and a quote from Russian anthem at the back panel (produced by jewelry brand Caviar); the action “I will tear for Putin” when girls were walking in T-shirts with this slogan and Putin’s portraits; dissemination of clothes with portraits of russian’s icon. People write songs about Putin, record videos about him, organize massive public events to honor and support him. And this is just a small part of what’s happening in Russian reality.
Wikipedia has a page «Putin’s personality cult which describes this phenomenon in detail. It provides the mythologies deeply ingrained by Russian propaganda: Putin is a “national leader”, Putin “brought together russian lands”, “A good guy”, «Putin is against oligarchs», «Russia won the war in Chechnya».
Letter Z was present on the insignia of the 4th SS-Polizei-Panzergrenadier Division which during World War II fought in France, USSR, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Germany. Division was involved in crimes against civilians. Thus, on June 10th, 1944 they burned the Distomon village in Greece killing 228 of its people (of them 53 children and 117 women).
Z stems from rune symbols, it is called Wolfsangel (Wolf’s hook). In different times it was a symbol of cruel and unrestricted tyranny, hatred, Nazis and Neonazis.
Inverted variants of Wolfsangel were placed on the insignia of the 2nd tank SS division “Das Reich” and 34th volunteer grenadier SS division “Landstorm Nederland” in which citizens of Denmark and Netherlands served. Both divisions were involved in mass war crimes against civilians. Thus, “Das Reich” together with einsatzgruppe B took part in Holocaust in Belarus in 1941, Landstorm Nederland – in Netherlands in 1944-1945.
Symbol V in Nazi Germany was used as an “old combatant chevron” that distinguished the oldest SS members. Only SS members that entered the Nazi party (NSDAP) before Jaunary 30, 1933, when Hitler came to power, had the right to wear it. Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, one of the biggest criminals of the Nazi Germany, wore it on its uniform.
Russians use Latin letters Z and V not only to mark their munitions but also as official symbols of the bloody war in Ukraine which they call “special operation”.
Letter Z is the most widespread. It was first noticed on Twitter before the war – on February 18 and 20. Letter V, as well as a triangle or square, appeared somewhat later. Sometimes letters on the vehicles are encircled.
Neither Russian nor foreign resources provide information about who invented these symbols and what exactly they mean. There were hypotheses that Z means troops that must go to the West (Zapad in Russian), V – to the East (Vostok in Russian) and triangle – to the South. Some “expert explanations” even speculated about the Ukrainian President’s initials – Z – Zelenskiy, V- Volodymyr, O (circle) – Oleksandrovych. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense found their own explanation for the rashist letters and asked Ukrainians to report when they saw enemy’s vehicles.
The first publication with the Z symbol at the official Instagram account of the Russian Defense Ministry appeared on March 2. Then these letters were played with in different slogans: «Z — За победу» (for the victory), «V — Сила в правде» (the strengths is in the truth), «demilitariZation», «Zа мир» (for peace), «V — Задача будет выполнена» (the problem will be solved), «Zа пацанов» (for our guys) etc.
There are no official explanations from the russian government on what these symbols mean but they are used by both russian officials and all the people who support russian aggression and “greatness”.
A few examples.
- On March 5th children’s hospice in Kazan organized a flashmob arranging their patients into the Z-shape. Later similar flashmobs using children were organized throughout the country.
- On March 6th at the World Cup in Dokha a 20-year-old Russian gymnast Ivan Kulyak who took third place came to the medal ceremony with the letter Z on his chest. The International Gymnastics Federation plans to disqualify him for one year for this.
- Telegram-channel of the russian radical Orthodox movement “Sorok Sorokov” renamed itself Zorok Zorokov.
- Automobile flashmobs placing cars in the forms of Z and V as well as automobile rides to support the russian army are gaining popularity.
- State agencies, civic servants, stars that support the russian government as well as ordinary people use these Latin letters for avatars in their social networks.
A columnist of Russian origin Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker: «Graphically, the “Z” is clearly closer to the swastika than to any prominent Soviet symbol, such as the five-pointed star, the hammer and sickle, or the red flag».
It’s really interesting why the Russian federation, which is constantly stressing its concepts of “russian world” and “Slavs”, uses Latin rather than Cyrillic symbols. This contradicts the mere ideology of Russian imperialism that is clearly “anti-western’, “related to the ground” and “Slavophile”.
Genocide of other nations
A distinguishing feature of totalitarian regimes is finding an “internal enemy” with further mass terror and genocide. Those who are impossible to break or enslave, are physically liquidated. This is done to liquidate any opposition, unite the society, canalize the aggression of the majority against the minority, to reach the maximum support of the government and absence of criticism of its actions.
Nazi Germany had a cult of superiority of the “Aryan race” above all others. “Aryans”, i.e. “clean-blooded Germans”, were considered “ubermensch”. At the same time there were “untermensch” – Jewish people, Romes, “mixed people”. Wannsee conference of January 20, 1942 proclaimed the need to kill those (about 6 million people were killed during the Holocaust). There were also mass killings of Romes, homosexuals or mentally disabled people.
An illustrative case: from the point of view of Nazi propaganda and Nazi world model even their strategical allies, Japanese, were of “lower race” (not Aryans). Thus when the Japanese army in 1942 attained an astonishing victory and captured Singapore (the main British base in Southeastern Asia), a pissed off Hitler (who at the same time was also at war with Britain!) forbade his foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to issue a congratulating communique.
Similarly in Putin’s russia there is a cult of superiority (greatness) of russian culture, language, history, army, economy, state tradition above all others. They also promote the narrative of lowerness, secondarity, provinciality and underdevelopment of other cultures, languages, traditions etc (among them Ukrainian). This narrative has been dominant among the majority of russian population since the time of the Russian empire and the USSR.
Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and other nations of former USSR republics were perceived by russians as “younger brothers”. It is enough to remember war crimes in Chechnya as a result of russian-Chechen wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009), in which, according to different sources, from 40 to 200 thousand civilians were killed. Don’t forget also about the genocide in Syria in which russian army participated. According to the Centre for documentation of war crimes in Syria, from March 2011 until November 2020 135 500 civilians were killed here.
In the exclusive interview to the European public broadcasters on March 21st, while commenting on the negotiations with Russia, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said an important thing: “Ukraine will not be able to implement an ultimatum. We will physically not be able to do this. We lost our people. I mean you need to kill us all, then the ultimatum will be automatically implemented”. In other words, russia’s ultimatum is about getting part of the Ukrainian territory. The aggressor doesn’t need Ukrainians, they need Ukrainian land, without people who, unexpectedly for the Kremlin, all are a great obstacle to its plans.
According to the data of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), 2421 civilian Ukrainians became victims from the start of the russian invasion into Ukraine at 4 am on February 24th until the midnight of March 20th. Of them, 925 people were killed and 1496 injured. The real numbers can be much higher. On March 21st, Azov battalion commander Denys Prokopenko said in his comment to CNN that there were 3000 civilian casualties only in Mariupol.
There, in the destroyed Mariupol, russians have deported at least a few thousand people into their territory. “We know that the captured Mariupolitans were driven to the filtration camps where occupants checked their phones and documents. After the check, some of them were sent to faraway regions of russia, the fate of others is unknown” – reported Mariupol city council. “What russians do today is very familiar to our older generations that eyewitnessed the atrocities of the World War II when Nazis captured people by force” – says Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko.
However, it was not only Nazis that deported people. One of the greatest crimes of the Soviet government (read – Russia) at that time was the deportation of Crimean Tatars. In 2015, Ukrainian parliament recognized deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 as a genocide. Of course, we also cannot forget a horrific campaign against Ukrainians – The Great Famine (Holodomor) of 1932-33, which took the lives of 4 million people.
Ignoring international law
Nazi Germany brutally violated the norms of the international law, bilateral and multilateral international treaties. It was the signing of the secret additional protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on August 23rd, 1939 that opened the door for the start of World War II. This document specified which countries and regions Germany could occupy and which would belong to the USSR. Of course, the protocol was signed without the consent of these countries.
Similarly Putin’s russia, having attacked Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, violated hundreds of international treaties.
Only one party was allowed in the Nazi Germany – NSDAP. In Stalin’s USSR – only the Bolshevik/Communist party. In the fascist Italy, only the National fascist party was allowed since 1928.
Putin’s Russia has a de-facto single-party system. Since 2003, the “United Russia” (Putin’s party) had a majority in the parliament, which later transformed into the constitutional majority (over 72% after 2021). There are no influential opposition parties. All other parties are either allies of “United Russia” or small and negligible, existing only for the purpose of a “mockup democracy” (Communist party, Liberal-Democratic party, “Just Russia”, “Apple” etc).
Close alignment of state and the church
This feature was especially characteristic of fascism. In Italy during the Mussolini regime a pietet for catholic church was propagated. In 1929 they signed Lateran agreements and created the Vatican city-state. The Pope Piy XI supported aggressive invasionary policies of Musollini.
In Putin’s russia Orthodox church of Moscow patriarchy is de-facto the servant of the state, it supports the aggressive external policy. Russian patriarch Kiril not only did not condemn the war in Ukraine, on the contrary – he supported putin’s ‘justification’ for the war. Kiril promotes the statements of russian propaganda that this is the war with discordants in the East of Ukraine, in particular those who do not agree with such freedoms as selection of gender identification.
Cementing the traditional gender roles
In the fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR there was a family cult. A man had to be “the breadwinner” for the family, a patriot who works for the good of the state and protects the country in the time of war. A woman had to realize herself first of all as a housewife, a mother and in some supplementary roles.
Propaganda promoted giving birth to the largest possible number of children – because the totalitarian state needed more new soldiers. Career opportunities for women were seriously limited or complicated. Homosexual relationships were criminalized.
In the Nazi Germany homosexuals (males as well as femals) were considered “defective”, “mentally ill” who had to be isolated with furter possibility to be physically destroyed (there is evidence that during the existence of Hitler regime at least 100 thousand of homosexual men were arrested). The regime perceived these people as “unnecessary” since they could not give life to new citizens – new potential soldiers and mothers.
In Putin’s russia in summer 2020 the Constitution was amended. Article 114 defines “a single socially oriented state policy in the field of preserving traditional family values”. Marriage is defined as the union of a woman and man. Besides, homosexuals are pursued in russia, and sometimes physically abused.
Total control over media
In all totalitarian regimes the state has unlimited control over the media. There is practically no private media. The state wants to maximally isolate citizens from alternative sources of information in order to completely control the agenda for them. We observe the same thing in Putin’s russia – independent media are destroyed, and social media are being shut down.
Unlimited impact of the enforcement services (police, special services)
In the Nazi Germany protection troops (SS) of the leading party and their subordinate structure – the secret police (gestapo) – had a complete control over the social life. Any opposition was cruelly and ruthlessly suppressed. Delations were very widespread. Investigation and court processes were implemented with multiple violations of human rights – humiliation of human dignity, psychological pressure, physical torture. Capital punishment, including public one, was applied en masse.
Similar situation was in the USSR, with even greater control over the society from the side of the KGB (that existed under different names in different times).
In Putin’s russia the Ministry of Interior and the Federal Security Service also have a huge control over the society. The protest is suppressed, participants arrested and jailed. There are precedents of convictions for posts, reposts and even likes in social media. And recently the deputy head of Russian Security Council and the head of “United russia” party Dmytry Medveded made a statement on the possibility to renew capital punishment in the country.
Blitzkrieg failures (conclusions)
As we see, the Putin’s regime did not invent anything new. His “new” is in fact something “old” not yet forgotten by history. Nazism, fascism, stalinism and rashism – are in fact the same things. Therefore the list of their common features can go on. We will add only militarization of the society, cult of an invasionary war, desire for blitzkriegs – quick victorious wars. Let’s look at the last thing in more detail.
One more common feature of all the dictators’ regimes is inability to adequately evaluate their own strengths. These regimes lack military officers who are brave enough to tell the dictator the real state of things, there are no independent media that can spot and discuss the problems in the military sphere rather than conceal them; they place little value on the lives of their soldiers and vehicles in order to reach the goal. However, Nazis/fascists/rashists don’t pay attention to it. Being convinced in their own exclusivity and might, they overestimate themselves and underestimate others.
Stalin’s USSR attacked Finland on November 30, 1939 – the war turned from blitzkrieg into a lengthy one, the Red Army bore huge losses, it was able to occupy only 10% of Finland’s territory and had to sign a peace agreement. Fascist Italy in summer 1940 attacked British colonies in Africa and in autumn of the same year it attacked Greece – and failed in both cases. Nazi Germany on May 10th, 1940 started the blitzkrieg in the West – it defeated France and Benilux but it could not win over Great Britain and it finally lost the war to it. On June 22, 1941 Germany started a blitzkrieg against the USSR – and failed as well.
Putin’s russia on February 24, 2022 started a full-scale invasion into Ukraine hoping to defeat it in a few days – a blitzkrieg fully failed. Apart from already mentioned prerequisites, blitzkrieg failed not lastly because of total corruption and nepotism, theft of budget money in russia at all levels, including military production and supplies. And this is perhaps the only thing that distinguishes putin’s rashism from Hitler’s Nazism or Stalinism: these last ones were much more ruthless to corruption and nepotism.
Military defeat will crash putin’s Nazi regime. Unfortunately, today Ukrainians continue to pay for this with their lives. However, it’s important to discuss today what will happen after Russia’s defeat. Denazification of Germany was performed by the allies in many spheres – legal, cultural, media, economic etc. Denazification of the USSR was never implemented – on the contrary, the Soviet Union was allowed to have Central and Eastern Europe as its sphere of influence. Putin’s russia now aspires to return this impact sphere. And it will not abandon its aspirations until it is fully demilitarized and denazified.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations