Vladimir Putin has frequently tried to legitimize his invasion of Ukraine by invoking the idea of a religiously tinged civilizational clash: Eurasia against the West. For Putin, Moscow is the “third Rome,” the spiritual and cultural inheritor of the legacy of the Roman and Byzantine empires, the center of a distinctly anti-European dominion, one powerful (and authoritarian) enough to withstand the perceived threats of liberal modernity, multiculturalism and progressive values.
The notion of an independent Ukraine, in this view, is a fiction propagated by the “secular authorities” of the decadent West. Instead, to the Russian president, Russia and Ukraine exist in “spiritual unity” — not only because of their shared Orthodox Christian faith but also because both peoples claim the lineage and cultural ancestry of “Ancient Rus,” a medieval, Kyiv-centred federation. The idea of “spiritual unity” hints at a mystical strain in Putin’s thinking. Indeed, he appears to see his imperial war as an earthly manifestation of a wider, mythic battle between traditional order and progressive chaos. To understand that mysticism — to understand the ideas underpinning the assault on Ukraine — we must look to one of Putin’s most profound influences: the far-right occult writer and philosopher Alexander Dugin.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Dugin, often termed “Putin’s Rasputin” or “Putin’s brain” by the international press, is — as the Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle has also suggested — the de facto author of Putin’s Ukrainian strategy. Although he holds no formal position in government — rather, he is a sometime academic and former chief editor at Tsargrad TV, a network known for its fervent support of both Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church — and has been perpetually cagey about the specifics of his relationship with Putin, his language and rhetoric have long been adopted by the Kremlin. As just one small example, his 2013 and 2014 uses of the term “Novorossiya” (New Russia) for territories of Eastern Ukraine that Russia wished to claim were reflected shortly afterward in Putin’s propagandist language supporting the occupation of Crimea. For anyone who has read Dugin, the echoes of his thought in Putin’s recent speeches about Russia’s supposedly proper place in the world have been unmistakable, and uncanny.
Born in 1962 to a high-ranking Soviet family (Dugin’s father was a military intelligence officer), Dugin came to national prominence in the 1990s as a writer for the far-right newspaper Den. A 1991 manifesto serialized in Den, “The Great War of the Continents,” laid out his vision of Russia as an “eternal Rome” facing off against an individualistic, materialistic West: the “eternal Carthage.” In the early 1990s, he co-founded the National Bolshevik Party with controversial punk-pornography novelist Eduard Limonov, blending fascist and communist-nostalgic rhetoric and imagery; edgy, ironic (and not-so-ironic) transgression; and genuine reactionary politics. The party’s flag was a black hammer and sickle in a white circle against a red background, a communist mirror image of a swastika. The party’s half-sincere mantra? “Da smert” (Yes, death), delivered with a sieg-heil-style raised arm.
His breakthrough work was the 1997 book “The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia,” which was so wildly popular that supermarkets placed it at their checkout counters. It set out a playbook for dealing with the West that seems by now all too familiar: using disinformation and soft power to “provoke all forms of instability and separatism” within the United States, including by stoking racial and political tensions, while bolstering nationalism and authoritarianism at home.
Continuing to balance his intellectual work with more hands-on politics, in 2002 he created the far-right Eurasia Party, which was “welcomed by many in Putin’s administration,” the Russia analysts Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn write in Foreign Affairs. They also note that he forged “strong ties” with Sergei Glazyev, a leader of the patriotic political bloc Rodria and now Putin’s top aide on “Eurasian integration.”
Dugin and his followers have been involved in several key moments in Russian imperial expansion. He was active in the disputed Ossetian regions during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and collaborated with separatist activists in Ukraine in 2014. In 2009, notes Cathy Young in the Bulwark, he was appointed chair of the international relations section of the sociology department at the prestigious Moscow State University, although he was later pushed out — under disputed circumstances — in 2014, possibly as a result of incendiary comments calling for the mass slaughter of Ukrainians (“Kill them, kill them, kill them”). He remains a ubiquitous commentator on Russian television, a situation that could not exist without Putin’s endorsement.
Reading Dugin’s work broadly, his goals are straightforward: the restoration of a powerful, authoritarian Russian state and the internal dissolution of Russia’s enemies, particularly the liberal West. As Dugin argued in “Foundations” and its 2009 follow-up, “The Fourth Political Theory,” the contemporary world order had to be understood as a pitched battle between the forces of “human rights, anti-hierarchy, and political correctness” represented by the “Atlantic” Americans and Europeans, and the distinctly “Eurasian” Russian culture, which was still capable — unlike the sclerotic West — of honoring the mainstays of human life: “God, tradition, community, ethnicity, empires and kingdoms.”
Yet Dugin’s vision of Russian restoration is about more than a geopolitical order. Dugin openly subscribes to a strain of explicitly occultist, reactionary thought known as Traditionalism. Although Traditionalism often ahistorically claimed an older lineage, it can be roughly dated to a network of reactionary artists and writers living in and around Paris during the twilight of the 19th century. A heady blend of dandies and decadents, reactionary Catholics and surrealist Satanists, penniless aristocrats and pretenders to titles, this circle was defined by its alienation from, and rejection of, what it saw as the problems of liberal modernity, in particular its spiritual desiccation and its abandonment of the (often racial and gendered) hierarchies that supposedly defined the world order of a half-imagined, mythical past. The circle was defined, too, by its passion for all manner of the occult — a blend of sincere interest in the magical arts and a thoroughly avant-garde desire to shock. What the world needed, these figures argued, was a return to the old world: a world of honor, of order, of authority, of people who understood that some were naturally sovereign and others enslaved.
Influenced by these figures, foundational Traditionalists such as the Frenchman René Guénon (1886-1951) and the Italian fascist-mystic Julius Evola (1898-1974) turned these intellectual currents into a (somewhat) coherent narrative. The world had once been hierarchical and pure; now, we lived not in an age of mythic heroes but rather in the “Kali Yuga” (a term borrowed loosely from Hinduism): an age of chaos and mediocrity. The natural order of things — in which everyone knew and respected their natural and social function — had been overturned by the false promise of democracy. “Nobody any longer occupies the place that he should,” Guénon lamented. But a secret truth, available to occult initiates and handed down to those spiritual aristocrats wise enough to transcend their era, could spell a resurgence of past glory.
Dugin has been open about his Traditionalist leanings. He came to intellectual maturity as part of the Yuzhinsky circle, a Guénon-obsessed mix of neo-Nazis, punks and Satanists. One of his first publications was a Russian translation of Evola’s book “Pagan Imperialism.” He has described political correctness and liberalism as harbingers of the Kali Yuga, and glowingly referred to the Eurasian order as “the spiritual order that penetrates all levels of reality, both subtle and coarse, soulful and corporeal, social and natural.” For Dugin, as for all Traditionalists, the culture war is a cosmic battleground: a jihad against a liberal order explicitly coded as demonic.
Dugin’s influence — and that of the Traditionalists more broadly — is not limited to Russia. As the historian Gary Lachman has noted, in Hungary, far-right leader Gábor Vona has engaged a Traditionalist spiritual adviser, Tibor Baranyi, and contributed a foreword to a publication of Evola’s “Handbook for Right-Wing Youth.” In Greece, the Golden Dawn party includes Evola on its reading list. Traditionalism, too, has underpinned far-right movements in the United States. Nina Kouprianova, former wife of the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer, has translated Dugin’s work into English. And, as scholar of the far right Benjamin Teitelbaum extensively reported in his 2020 book, “War for Eternity,” Donald Trump’s sometime adviser Stephen K. Bannon has frequently alluded to his interest in Traditional ideas.
The notion that global politics is underpinned by the visions of occultist mystics may seem like something out of a Dan Brown novel. But, from at least the 19th century, reactionary movements have contained a powerful spiritual streak: attempts to re-enchant what they see as alienated modernity through the promise of secret wisdom and purifying bloodshed — an apocalypse that presages a return to a more pristine state of being. As Dugin told “60 Minutes” in 2017, “We need to be free and liberated, not only physically as a state, as a people, but as well [a] revival of Russian logos, of Russian spirit, of Russian identity that is much more important.”