Revisiting the original Palaeolithic democracies to rethink the postliberal democracies of the future
by F. Xavier Ruiz Collantes
Why do we overlook the original democracies?
God created the world six thousand years ago. Human beings are not related to primates. There is no such thing as climate change. The first democracy emerged in classical Athens.
There are some important groups that continue to hold fast to certain beliefs, despite the availability of a mass of contrary evidence.
One such group is composed of many people interested in history, philosophy and political theories. While there is ample evidence that democratic principles were applied to power relations in Palaeolithic Homo sapiens communities tens of thousands of years, i.e., long before the Athenian democracy of antiquity emerged, a mainstream claim in history, philosophy and political theory discourses continues to be that democracy first emerged in Athens.
It has been documented, in the political anthropology and evolutionary anthropology fields, that the first political systems—those that have governed us for most of our existence on this planet—were democratic. The existence of these democracies, which I call the “original democracies”, is confirmed by two types of evidence. Firstly, in different parts of the world, hunter-gatherer communities that have survived in a form close to their original Palaeolithic form, organise themselves politically according to democratic principles, e.g., African peoples such as the Bushmen and Pygmies, Australian and New Guinean Aborigines, indigenous Amerindian peoples, etc. Secondly, Palaeolithic fossil records provide evidence of egalitarian and non-hierarchical societies. Considering just the Upper Palaeolithic, democratic hunter-gatherer communities lasted several tens of thousands of years; in contrast, non-democratic, authoritarian systems only began to emerge less than ten thousand years ago, during the Neolithic, with the consolidation of agriculture and livestock herding and a sedentary way of life.
The fact that many historians, philosophers and political theorists hold that democracy first emerged in classical Athens is certainly problematic, yet it is also very significant, because it reflects perceptions of our species derived from the epistemological bias of Western and contemporary culture, determined by extreme chrono-centric and ethno-centric perspectives that run very deep. Ultimately, such perspectives contribute to placing the contemporary white race originating in Western culture at the top of the evolutionary tree and legitimises its usurpation of the planet.
Numerous authors, however, when they write about democracy, also refer to Palaeolithic democracies, e.g., Federico Traversa, Kenneth Bollen, Pamela Paxton, Doron Shultziner and Ronald Glassman.  Those democracies of the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer peoples are called “Palaeolithic democracies” by Doron Shultziner, “community democracies” by Federico Traversa and “campfire democracies” and “clan and tribal democracies” by Ronald Glassman. I suggest that these democracies should preferably be called "original democracies”, first, because this term better reflects the importance of these democracies in the evolution of humanity, and second, because it establishes a chronological sequence going back in time, from modern democracies to ancient democracies to the original democracies.
The evolution to Homo sapiens: a journey towards democracy
Palaeolithic democracies, which emerged in all parts of the world settled by Homo sapiens, undoubtedly represent the most important cultural development of our species, first, because these democracies reflect almost all of human existence, and second, and more importantly, because these democracies have greatly shaped the natural and cultural tendencies of Homo sapiens.
Joseph Carroll  identifies four different power systems, reflecting periods from the emergence of hominids to the Homo sapiens of today: (1) alpha male domination; (2) Palaeolithic egalitarian and democratic systems; (3) despotic or authoritarian domination as emerged with the Neolithic; and (4) Western Modernity systems deriving from democratic revolutions.
Homo species split from the pan species about six million years ago . This evolutionary divergence reflected a journey to democratic communities from the alpha male-dominated despotic communities, typical, for instance, of current great apes species such as chimpanzees and gorillas. The evolutionary journey to Homo sapiens is, therefore, also a journey from despotism to Palaeolithic democracy. Broadly speaking, what we understand by a democratic system for organising and equally distributing political power within a community is specific to Homo sapiens.
Various factors led to the disappearance of the alpha male in Homo sapiens hunter-gatherer communities. The advent of lethal weapons meant that subjugated individuals could easily kill an alpha male; the need for cooperation in hunting and raising children generated a communitarian and egalitarian spirit; and the development of hypercognition and language meant that decision-making affecting a community could be based on open and joint deliberation by members.
The tens of thousands of years in which humans lived in Palaeolithic democratic communities has left deep marks on our species. These include the development of discursive capacities that enabled deliberation, negotiation and cooperation and also the burgeoning of a certain morality based on the principles of justice and equity. This morality, original, egalitarian and democratic originated in the Upper Palaeolithic, explains why present-day humans are largely repulsed by abusive coercion, non-legitimate power and arbitrary decisions deemed unjust. While humans have inherited (from the hominin species prior to Homo sapiens) a tendency to dominate others, they have also developed al sense of egalitarianism and anti-domination. Our social morality and politics operate within this contradiction.
For all these reasons, while we have a tendency towards domination over others, we also tend to reject domination over ourselves and others. The sense of democratic and egalitarian morality that beats in the heart of humans is largely due to the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens living in democratic and egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities of the Palaeolithic.
Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer communities, and later tribal societies, did not have a state, as this form of governance developed later from primitive chiefdoms and kingdoms. But the fact that there was no state did not mean that there were no politics and no social power systems. Circumscribing politics exclusively to societies with a state reflects chrono-centric bias. The original Homo sapiens communities clearly demonstrate that politics reached beyond the historical existence of the state.
The main problem in considering hunter-gatherer communities to be fully democratic is that, in those peoples that survive to this day, the most important decisions are generally made by adult males. While the exclusion of women would suggest a significant democratic deficit, it is no greater a deficit than that of classical Athens or even, until universal suffrage for men and women was finally introduced, of that of our liberal democratic societies.
Nonetheless, this issue has given rise to controversy, as important archaeologists and anthropologists, such as Lerna Lerner, Riane Eisler, and Marilène Patou-Mathis,  argue that women during the Palaeolithic had the same prestige and power as men and that this status was not lost until the Neolithic. As evidence, they indicate that the archaeological record does not unequivocally demonstrate that men had a superior status to women, and they further argue that the notion that Palaeolithic women were subordinate is simply a product of the andro-centrism that overwhelmingly dominated early archaeology and anthropology work. If women did indeed possess the same status as men, then those communities were truly democratic.
There is a fundamental problem in studying Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer communities from similar communities that have survived to the present day, namely, that, in recent centuries, many of the surviving communities have seen their original way of life contaminated, degraded or radically suppressed by other cultures and by domination exercised by other cultures, especially modern and Western empires. This is an accelerating process and, as time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain reliable data on the original political life of hunter-gatherer and tribal peoples. The domination and influence of states, empires and large business corporations, aided by the new technologies, today reach into all corners of the earth. The consequences for the original hunter-gatherer peoples is that they no longer preserve their original forms of life and culture.
Democratic systems in Palaeolithic communities
Democratic systems and decision-making bodies existed in both hunter-gatherer and mobile tribes, according to anthropological studies, which document organs of power such as community assemblies, functional leadership and community chiefs.
Space does not allow for an extensive explanation of the political organisation of hunter-gatherer communities. However, some brief considerations are necessary, because despite being limited and even reductionist, they can also be very illustrative.
Although the records that throw light on these early political power systems are drawn from peoples who have lived within their original systems until recently, in what follows the past tense will be used because those communities are assumed to have existed during the Upper Palaeolithic.
We can, for instance, point to the existence of “community assemblies”, which were meetings of all adults to discuss, deliberate and reach agreements on fundamental issues affecting their community’s future. All adult members of the community, men and women, participated in these assemblies, although, from some of the known present-day communities of hunter-gatherers and horticulturists, we can deduce that smaller and more formal assemblies were composed only of adult males. In many cases, the women stood around those smaller assemblies, actively participating and making their voices heard.
In hunter-gatherer community meetings, decisions had to be made by consensus, as the survival of small communities depended on cooperation between members. The search for consensus often meant that the assemblies were extremely lengthy, while no decisions were even reached if there was no unanimity. Community fusion and fission processes were common in hunter-gatherer communities, and, in cases of great conflict, the solution was for the community to split.
Persons who excelled in public speaking skills and persuasive strategies were important and acquired prestige in community assemblies. Kenneth E. Read,  in an article describing the political power system of the Gahuku-gama (an aboriginal people of New Guinea), provides an excellent explanation of individual communication strategies aimed at influencing community assemblies. In some hunter-gatherer peoples a group strategy that ensured that no one would try to put themselves above the rest was ridicule and laughter directed at people who used bombastic oratory to impress.
We can also distinguish individuals who could be defined as "functional leaders" or "task managers”, i.e., men or women who were expert or skilled at a particular task, e.g., hunting, warfare, healing, birthing, music, dance, various rituals, etc. Leadership was not a designated role; rather, roles were acquired by individuals who demonstrated particular knowledge, experience or skills. Leaders only had the authority as permitted by the community and only for the performance of their assigned tasks.
Although they held the most important political position in hunter-gatherer communities, chiefs were typically powerless. That is why they were a major source of surprise for the first Europeans who came into contact with these communities. Roberth H Lowie, who studied the chiefs of Amerindian peoples, such as the Ojibwa, the Dakota, the Nambikuara, the Barana, etc, concluded that chiefs did not have any coercive force to impose their decisions, nor had they executive, legislative, or judicial power. They were fundamentally peacemakers, benefactors and the conduit of community principles and norms. Fundamentally, they functioned as mediators and peacemakers in internal conflicts and resource providers to community members in need, and also provided periodic reminders of the norms and values on which member coexistence and community survival depended.  This figure of the powerless chief has been encountered in hunter-gatherer communities around the world. According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, the benefits of being a community chief were so few and the burden of responsibility so high that many refused to assume the role. However, what did motivate some individuals to assume the chiefdom was the associated prestige and a vocation to assume certain responsibilities for the community. 
The community chief was generally elected by the adult community members—men and women—and could also be removed by the community. An example is given by Claude Levi-Strauss in his explanation of the power system of the Nambikwara in Brazil: if the chief was egoistic, inefficient or coercive, the community dismissed or abandoned him.  In some tribes, while war chiefs acquired important executive powers, these could only be exercised in periods of war, and despite the associated prestige, they had few or no powers in peacetime.
It can hardly be argued that these hunter-gatherer communities—the original democracies—were not democratic, as argued by some authors. Karl Popper, for instance, stated that they were not "open societies" and were therefore undemocratic.  However, this argument is based on a liberal perspective: Popper essentially claimed that they were not liberal societies. Yet those societies were profoundly communitarian and egalitarian and, although they were not what we currently understand as liberal, they were in their way democratic.
Political theory and political anthropology
In the field of modern Western political theories, the tendency to overlook the relevance of the original democracies in the history of humanity is the outcome of the narrow perspective of our cultural tradition. What we call modern democracies are little more than two hundred years old, yet for some thirty thousand years, the original democracies organised the political power structures of Homo sapiens, with the resulting decisive impact on our evolution and on what we are today.
Instead of taking into account the reality of the original democracies, Western thinking has focused on establishing hypotheses—with little foundation in reality—regarding illusory states of nature and assumed contracts between individuals aimed at shaping a society and, further on in time, creating a state. Thus, instead of taking into account the key contributions of anthropology, Western thinkers have explored the contractarian ideas of authors like Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, and Kant, not to mention other more recent authors inspired by liberal contractualism, e.g., Rawls and Nozick.
Human society and its political power systems did not originate from a contract between isolated individuals, but from the evolution of societies and power systems of other Homo species from which Homo sapiens arose. Given that the evolutionary processes that gave rise to the first human societies are known, the contractarian origin myth—a device that legitimises liberal individualism—makes little sense, even as a mere logical hypothesis for reflection.
In their introduction to a classic overview of the political systems of African peoples, the anthropologists Meyer Fortes and Edward Evans-Pritchard argued that the teachings of political philosophy were of little help with ethnographic research into the political systems of African peoples as conducted by anthropologists in the field.  The philosophy, political and anthropological disciplines may be very different, but both philosophers and political theorists need to take anthropological data into account in their reflections.
Political principles of the original democracies
Two anthropologists in particular, in their reflections on the political systems of hunter-gatherer peoples, have developed important theoretical models: the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres and the US anthropologist Christopher Boehm.
Pierre Clastres, whose thinking has strongly influenced French theorists such as Claude Lefort and Miguel Abensour, drew a novel conclusion from his ethnographic studies of Amerindian peoples in the Amazon region in the 1970s, namely, that hunter-gatherer peoples were not people without a state. Rather, they acted against the state, i.e., their political power systems were designed so that no state would ever emerge. For this reason, communities always tried to ensure that their chief was a chief with little or no power, while the community as a whole and its assembly was considered to predominate over any other political power that might be established. 
As for Christopher Boehm, he concluded, from a detailed study of a large number of ethnographic works conducted in almost all continents, that the political systems of hunter-gatherer peoples were based on the principle of a reverse dominance hierarchy, in which the communities established formal and informal systems that ensured that a chief never achieved power, that no political body could coerce the community, and that no individual or group could prevent community members from freely making decisions on matters that concerned the community. Systems of control over the power of chiefs or leaders ranged from mild punishments, such as ridicule, to much more serious punishments, such as ostracism, banishment or even execution. For Christopher Boehm, the first genuinely human taboo was the taboo of dominance, and the first individual outlawed by the Homo sapiens community was the individual with aspirations to be the alpha male of the community. 
Both principles—Clastres’ society against the state and Boehm’s reverse dominance hierarchy—are valid, but neither has been applied to date to develop theories consistent with models of democracy. Of the two principles, I consider the reverse dominance hierarchy to be the more productive principle, among other reasons, because it allows us to think about forms of non-state domination of a community. If, for instance, we transfer this principle to modern societies, it would apply to the dominance of certain groups in our society, not only in relation to the control of state apparatuses, but also to the wealthy, religious leaders, private armed militias, excessively powerful corporations, and media and information and communication systems oligopolies, etc.
From my point of view, the reverse dominance hierarchy leads to a model of democracy that separates domination from management. In the original democracies, chiefs could exercise direction and influence but held little or no power; rather, it was the community as a whole, through its deliberative assemblies and other formal and informal decision-making mechanisms, which held power over itself, including over the chief, and also over alpha males aspiring to take power, who would be banned by the community. The reverse dominance hierarchy in original democracies allowed communities to freely take decisions over themselves without the interference and dominance of individuals and powerful groups. Adapting this principle to modern societies would lead to reflection on alternative models of democracy.
Why revisit the original democracies?
My focus on the original democracies is not intended as an exercise in historical or anthropological scholarship, but is grounded in two needs. First, we need to respect the remaining indigenous and aboriginal communities on our planet, as an enormous reserve of democratic culture, ancestral wisdom and human dignity. In recent centuries, their numbers have been greatly reduced, their communities have been annihilated, and their members have been enslaved and acculturated by Western imperialism and predatory capitalism. Second, we need to revisit the moral and political principles of the original democracies in order to be able to rethink our own democracies and our democratic projects for the future. For instance, I consider the reverse dominance hierarchy principle to be a very fruitful and interesting concept for rethinking the notion of democracy. I also believe that we could reflect on the notion of “people” in accordance with political characteristics of hunter-gatherer communities in defence of freedom and the power of the community as a whole.
Liberal democracy, the hegemonic form of democracy today, is clearly in crisis, among other reasons due to its increasingly diminished legitimacy in society. The fact that liberal democracy allows socioeconomic inequalities to grow to a disproportionate degree leads to the suspicion that elected politicians do not really represent the majority of voters, thereby reflecting a profound crisis of representation. Moreover, the alliance between liberal democracy and runaway capitalism and its fostering of senseless consumerism and unbounded economic growth is leading scientists and conscientious citizens to fear the planet and humanity are headed for ecological collapse.
An important task for political theorists today is to consider alternative forms of post-liberal democracy that lead to greater equality and freedom. Democracy, in sum, needs to be rethought. While republicanism, since the end of the last century, has developed a line of thinking that seeks to renew democracy by drawing on sources such as classical Greece, the Roman Republic and the Italian republics of the Renaissance, those sources are too close to our own culture; they are, in fact, where our political culture originated. We need, surely, to decentralise more, to seek inspiration in sources more remote from our habitual way of thinking—because, if our thinking is derived from what is familiar, then we will likely continue to think in the same way and devise broadly similar solutions.
Rethinking democracy by considering Palaeolithic communities has a number of advantages. Looking back to those cultures so foreign to us could bring us closer to alternative perceptions of the human power relationships, and so opens up perspectives lost to us. Furthermore, those different perceptions would not be fanciful or speculative but anchored in reality, and would reflect deeper and more specific aspects of our nature as a species. Palaeolithic cultures can show us that another way of being human and of being a community is possible because that alternative form of humanity lies in our own evolutionary roots.
It is not about appealing for the return to an idealised past, as this is evidently neither possible nor desirable, given the immense differences between the original democracies and modern urban and technologically advanced societies. Rather than some kind of futile anachronistic exercise, it is a matter of seeking new references that break with known modes of thinking. It is about looking forward, but considering what led to our present. And what led to our present is not only a few millennia of human authoritarianism and despotism, but also tens of millennia of egalitarian and democratic communities. Hunter-gatherer peoples may not have a written culture, but they do have a very rich oral culture—even if it is increasingly impoverished by the intrusion of Western culture. The myths that they keep alive are their means for formulating deep political thought; those myths also reveal their way of life and their governance and political systems. Undoubtedly we have much to learn from these original democracies, and much to reflect on and to rethink regarding their practices and the data and reflections of the anthropologists who have studied them.
 The Upper Palaeolithic dates to approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years ago.
 The Neolithic dates to approximately 10,000 to 5,000 years ago.
 See: Glassman, R. M. (2017). The Origins of Democracy in Tribes, City-States and Nation-States. Springer; Bollen, K. & Paxton, P. 1997. Democracy before Athens. Inequality, democracy, and economic development 13-44. Cambridge University Press; Traversa, F. (2011). La gran transformación de la democracia: de las comunidades primitivas a la sociedad capitalista. Ediciones Universitarias; Shultziner, D. (2007). From the Beginning of History: Paleolithic Democracy, the Emergence of Hierarchy, and the Resurgence of Political Egalitarianism Shultziner et al. (2010). The causes and scope of political egalitarianism during the Last Glacial: A multi-disciplinary perspective. Biology & Philosophy, 25(3), 319-346.
 Carroll, J. (2015). Evolutionary social theory: The current state of knowledge. Style, 49(4), 512-541.
 Pan species that have survived to this day are the chimpanzee and the bonobo. They are part of the family of the great apes (hominids), which includes humans, gorillas and orangutans.
 See: Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Harper Collins; Lerner, G. (1990). La creación del patriarcado. Editorial Crítica; Conway Hall; Patou-Mathis, M. (2020) L’homme préhistorique est aussi une femme. Allary.
[7 Read, K. E. (1959). Leadership and consensus in a New Guinea society. American Anthropologist, 61(3), 425-436.
 Lowie, R. H. (1948). Some aspects of political organization among the American aborigines. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 78(1/2), 11-24.
[9 ] Lévi-Strauss, C. (1967).The social and psychological aspects of leadership in a primitive tribe, in Cohen and Middleton, Comparative Political Systems. New York: Natural Historical Press.
 Lévi-Strauss, C. (1992). Tristes tropiques. Penguin Books.
 Popper, K. (1966) The Open Society and its Enemies. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
 Fortes, M., & Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (2015). African political systems. Routledge.
 See: Clastres, P. (1974). La société contre l'Etat. Minuit; Clastres, P. (1977). Archéologie de la violence: la guerre dans les sociétés primitives. Editions de l'Aube.
 See: Boehm, C. (2012). Ancestral hierarchy and conflict. Science, 336(6083), 844-847; Boehm, C. (2000). Conflict and the evolution of social control. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7(1-2), 79-101; Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.
by Katy Brown, Aurelien Mondon, and Aaron Winter
Discussion and debate about the far right, its rise, origins and impact have become ubiquitous in academic research, political strategy, and media coverage in recent years. One of the issues increasingly underpinning such discussion is the relationship between the far right and the mainstream, and more specifically, the mainstreaming of the far right. This is particularly clear around elections when attention turns to the electoral performance of these parties. When they fare as well as predicted, catastrophic headlines simplify and hype what is usually a complex situation, ignoring key factors which shape electoral outcomes and inflate far-right results, such as trends in abstention and distrust towards mainstream politics. When these parties do not perform as well as predicted, the circus moves on to the next election and the hype starts afresh, often playing a role in the framing of, and potentially influencing, the process and policies, but also ignoring problems in mainstream, establishment parties and the system itself—including racism.
This overwhelming focus on electoral competition tends to create a normative standard for measurement and brings misperceptions about the extent and form of mainstreaming. Tackling the issue of mainstreaming beyond elections and electoral parties and more holistically does not only allow for more comprehensive analysis that addresses diverse factors, manifestations, and implications of far-right ideas and politics, but is much-needed in order to challenge some of the harmful discourses around the topic peddled by politicians, journalists, and academics.
To do so, we must first understand and engage with the idea of the ‘mainstream’, a concept that has attracted very little attention to date; its widespread use has not been matched by definitional clarity or subjected to critical unpacking. It often appears simultaneously essentialised and elusive. Crucially then, we must stress two key points establishing its contingency and challenging its essentialised qualities. The first of these points is therefore that the mainstream is constructed, contingent, and fluid. We often hear how the ‘extreme’ is a threat to the ‘mainstream’, but this is not some objective reality with two fixed actors or positions. They are both contingent in themselves and in relation to one another. In any system, the construction and positioning of the mainstream necessitate the construction of an extreme, which is just as contingent and fluid. These are neither ontological nor historically-fixed phenomena and seeing them as such, which is common, is both uncritical and ahistorical. What is mainstream or extreme at one point in time does not have to be, nor remain, so. The second point is that the mainstream is not essentially good, rational, or moderate. While public discourse in liberal democracies tends to imbue the mainstream or ‘centre’ with values of reason and moderation, the reality can be quite different as is clearly demonstrated by the simple fact that what is mainstream one day can be reviled, as well as exceptionalised and externalised, as extreme the next, and vice versa. Racism would be one such example. As such, the mainstream is itself a normative, hegemonic concept that imbues a particular ideological configuration or system with authority to operate as a given or naturalise itself as the best or even only option, essential to govern or regulate society, politics and the economy.
One of the main problems with the lack of clarity over the definition of the mainstream is that its contingency is masked through the assumption that it is common sense to know what it signifies, thus contributing to its reification as something with a fixed identity. Most people (including academics) feel they have a clear idea of what is mainstream; they position themselves according to what they feel/think it is and see themselves in relation to it. We argue that a critical approach to the mainstream, which challenges its status as a fixed entity with ontological status and essentialised ‘good’ and ‘normal’ qualities, is crucial for understanding the processes at play in the mainstreaming of the far right.
To address various shortcomings, we define the process of mainstreaming as the process by which parties/actors, discourses and/or attitudes move from marginal positions on the political spectrum or public sphere to more central ones, shifting what is deemed to be acceptable or legitimate in political, media and public circles and contexts.
The first aspect we draw attention to is the agency of parties and actors in the matter. Far-right actors are often positioned as agents, either unlocking their own success through internal strategies or pushing the mainstream to adopt positions that would otherwise be considered ‘unnatural’ to it. While we do not wish to dismiss the potential power of far-right actors to exert influence, it is essential to reflect on the capacity of the mainstream to shift the goalposts, especially given the heightened status and power that comes from the assumptions described above. What we highlight as particularly important is that shifts can take place independently and that the far right is not the sole actor which matters in understanding the process of mainstreaming. A far-right party can feel pressured or see an opportunity to become more extreme by mainstream parties moving rightward and thus encroaching on its territory. However, a far-right party can also be made more extreme without changing itself, but because the mainstream moves away from its ideas and politics. The issues associated with the assumed immovability and moderation of the mainstream have led towards a lack of engagement with the role of this group. It is therefore imperative to challenge these assumptions and capture the influence of mainstream elite actors, particularly with regard to discourse, in holistic accounts of mainstreaming.
This leads on to one of the core tenets of our framework, which places discourse as a central feature with significant influence across other elements. Too often, discourse has been swallowed up within elections, seen solely as the means through which party success might be achieved, but we argue that it can stand alone and that the mainstreaming of far-right ideas is not something only of interest and concern when it is matched by electoral success. Our framework highlights the capacity of parties and actors from the far right or mainstream (though the latter has greatest influence) to enact discursive shifts that bring far-right and mainstream discourse closer or further from one another.
Problematically, we argue, discourse is often seen solely in terms of its strategic effects for electoral outcomes. While we do not deny its importance in this regard, we suggest that discursive shifts may not always be connected in the ways we might expect with elections, and that the interpretation of electoral results can itself feed into the process of normalisation. First, changes at the discursive level do not always lead to a similar electoral trajectory, nor do the effects stop at elections: the mainstreaming of far-right ideas and narratives (including in and as policies) has the potential to both weaken the far right’s electoral performance if mainstream politicians compete over their traditional ground or bolster such parties by centring their ideas as the norm. Whatever the case, we must not lose sight of the effects on those groups targeted in such exclusionary discourse. The impact of mainstreaming does not stop at the ballot box. This feeds into the second key point about elections, in that the way they are interpreted can further contribute to normalisation, either through celebrating the perceived defeat of the far right or through hyping the position of far-right parties as democratic contenders. Certainly, this does not mean that we should not interrogate the reasons behind examples of increased electoral success among far-right parties, but that we must do so in a nuanced and critical manner. We must therefore guard against simplistic conclusions drawn from electoral, but also survey, data which we discuss at length in the article. Accounts of the electorate, often referred to through notions of ‘the people’ or ‘public opinion’, have tended to skew understandings of mainstreaming towards bottom-up explanations in which this group is portrayed as a collection of votes made outside the influence of elite actors. Through our framework, we seek to challenge these assumptions and instead underscore the critical role of discourse through mediation in constructing voter knowledge of the political context.
Far from being a prescriptive framework or approach, our aim is to ensure that future engagement with the concept, process and implications of mainstreaming is based on a more critical, rounded approach. This does not mean that each aspect of our framework needs to be engaged with in great depth, but they should be considered to ensure criticality and rigour, as well as avoid both the uncritical reification of an essentially good mainstream against the far right, and the normalisation and mainstreaming of the far right and its ideas. We believe it is our responsibility as researchers to avoid the harmful effects of narrower interpretations of political phenomena which present an incomplete yet buzzword-friendly picture (i.e. ‘populist’ or ‘left behind’), often taken up in political and media discourse, and feed into further discursive normalisation.
This brings us to the more epistemological, methodological, and political reason for the intervention and framework proposal: the need for a more reflective and critical approach from researchers, particularly where power and political influence are an issue. It is imperative that researchers reflect on their own role in contributing to the discourse around mainstreaming through their interpretations of related phenomena. This is important in the context of political and social sciences where, despite unavoidable assumptions, interests and influence, objectivity, and neutrality are often proclaimed. Necessarily, this demands from researchers an acknowledgement of their own positionality as not only researchers, but also as subjects within well-established and yet often invisibilised racialised, gendered, and classed power structures, notably those within and reproduced by our institutions, disciplines, and fields of study.
by Taras Kuzio
The roots of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are to be found in the elevation of Tsarist imperial nationalist and White Russian émigré views, which deny the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. The Soviet Union recognised Ukrainians as a people separate but close to Russians. Russian imperial nationalists hold a Jekyll-and-Hyde view of Ukraine. While denigrating Ukraine in a colonial manner that would make even Soviet-era Communist Party leaders blush, Russian leaders at the same time claim to hold warm feelings towards Ukrainians, whom they see as the closest people to them. In this light, ‘bad’ Ukrainians are nationalists and neo-Nazis who want their country to be part of Europe; ‘good’ Ukrainians are obedient Little Russians who know their place in the east Slavic hierarchy and want to align themselves with Mother Russia. In other words, ‘good’ Ukrainians are those who wish their country to emulate Belarus. In practice, during the invasion, cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol that have resisted the Russian incursion have been pulverised irrespective of the fact they are majority Russian-speaking. In turn, the fact of this resistance means to Russia’s leaders that these cities are inhabited by ‘Nazis’, not Little Russians who would have greeted Russian troops—and who should therefore be destroyed.
Without an understanding of the deepening influence of Tsarist imperial nationalism in Russia since 2012, and especially following Crimea’s annexation in 2014, scholars will be unable to grasp or explain why Putin has been so obsessed with returning Ukraine to the Russian World—a concept created as long ago as 2007 as a body to unite the three eastern Slavs, which underpinned his invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Putin’s invasion did not come out of nowhere, but had been nurtured, discussed, and raised by Putin and Russian officials since the mid-2000s in derogatory dismissals of Ukrainians, and in territorial claims advanced against Ukraine. Unfortunately, few scholars took these at face value until summer 2021, when Putin published a long 6,000-word article detailing his thesis about Russians and Ukrainians constituting one people with a single language, culture, and common history. Ukrainians were a ‘brotherly nation’ who were ‘part of the Russian people.’ ‘Reunification’ would inevitably take place, Putin told the Valdai Club in 2017.
The overwhelming majority of scholarly books and journals have dismissed, ignored, or downplayed Russian nationalism as a temporary phenomenon. Richard Sakwa claimed Putin was not dependent upon Russian nationalism, ‘and it is debatable whether the word is even applicable to him.’ Other scholars described it as a temporary phenomenon that had disappeared by 2015–16. A major book on Russian nationalism published after the 2014 crisis included nothing on the incorporation of Tsarist imperial nationalist and White Russian émigré discourse that dismissed the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine backed by Russian nationalist rhetoric has led to many Western academics suggesting that the Russian forces have ended up—or will end up—with egg on their faces. Why they felt the need to take this angle has varied, ranging from elaborate political science theories popular in North America about the nature of the Russian regime to the traditional Russophilia found among a significant number of Euro-American scholars writing about Russia. As Petro Kuzyk pointed out, in writing extensively about Ukrainian regionalism, scholars have tended to exaggerate intra-Ukrainian regional divisions.  This has clearly been seen during the invasion, when Russia has found no support among Russian-speakers in cities such as Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odesa, and elsewhere. Furthermore, the prevailing consensus prior to the invasion among scholars and think tankers was eerily similar to that in Moscow; namely, that Ukraine would be quickly occupied, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would flee, and Kyiv would be captured by Russian troops. That this did not happen again shows a a serious scholarly miscalculation about the strength of Ukrainian identity, and an overestimation of the strength of Russian military power.
Nationalism in Putin’s Russia has integrated Tsarist imperial and Soviet nationalisms into an eclectic ruling ideology that drives the invasion. Putin, traditionally viewed as nostalgic for the Soviet Union, has also exhibited some pronounced anti-Soviet tendencies, above all in criticising Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin for creating a federal union of republics that included ‘Russian lands’ in the south-east, and artificially creating a ‘fake’ Ukrainian people. Putin’s invasion goal of ‘denazification’ aimed to correct this mistake by destroying the ‘anti-Russia’ nurtured by the West.
Both scholars and Russian leaders have been baffled as to how to understand and explain the tenacity of Ukrainian identity that has fought the Russian army to a standstill, and is now in the position of launching counterattacks. What is particularly difficult for Russian political leaders and media journalists to explain is how a people that supposedly does not exist (Ukrainians) could greet the ‘special military operation’ (Putin’s dystopian term for the invasion of Ukraine) not with bouquets of flowers but met it with armed resistance.
Instrumentalism: Russian Nationalism as a Temporary Phenomenon
Sakwa writes that ‘the genie of Russian nationalism was firmly back in the bottle’ by 2016. Pal Kolstø and Marlene Laruelle, along similar lines, write that the nationalist rhetoric of 2014 was novel and subsequently declined. Meanwhile, Henry Hale also believes Putin was only a nationalist in 2014, not prior to the annexation of the Crimea or since 2015. Laruelle concurs, writing that by 2016, Putin’s regime had ‘circled back to a more classic and pragmatic conservative vision’. Laruelle describes Putin’s regime as nationalistic only in the period 2013–16, arguing that ‘since then [it] has been curtailing any type of ideological inflation and has adopted a low profile, focusing on much more pragmatic and Realpolitik agendas at home and abroad.’ Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitefield write, ‘Putin is not a natural nationalist’ and ‘[w]e do not see the man and the regime as defined by principled ideological nationalism.’ Sakwa is among the foremost authors who deny that Putin is a nationalist, describing him as not an ideologue because he remains rational and pragmatic—which sharply contrasts with an invasion that most commentators view as irrational. Allegedly, moreover, there has been a ‘crisis’ in Russian nationalism. Other scholars, meanwhile, believed that Putin ‘lost’ nationalist support.
In reality, the opposite took place. Russian imperial nationalism deepened, penetrated even further into Russian society and became dominant in Putin’s regime during the eight years between the invasions of Crimea and Ukraine. Russian imperial nationalist denials of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians became entrenched and have driven the invasion of Ukraine.
Patriots and Conservatives - Not Nationalists
Scholars described Russian nationalists as ‘patriots’ and western-style ‘conservatives.’ In the same year that the constitution was changed to allow Putin to remain president until 2036, Laruelle writes ‘the Putin regime still embodies a moderate centrist conservatism.’ Petro, Sakwa, and Robinson analogously describe a ‘conservative turn’ in Russian foreign policy.
If contemporary British conservatives annexed part of Ireland and denied the existence of the Irish people, “conservatism” would no longer fully capture the ideology they represented. By the same token, the Putin regime’s annexation of Crimea and denial of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians has sharply steered Russian conservatism towards the conceptual centrality of imperial nationalism.
In their analyses, Sakwa and Anna Matveeva could only identify ‘militarised patriotism’ or elites divided into ‘westerners’ and ‘patriots.’ Following his 2012 re-election, Sakwa writes that Putin only spoke of ‘Russian identity discourse’ and Putin’s ‘conservative values’ which he believes should be not confused with a Russian nationalist agenda.
Sakwa has generally avoided using the term ‘nationalist’ when discussing Russian politicians. This created problems in explaining why a ‘non-nationalist’ Putin might choose to support a wide range of far-right and a smaller number of extreme left political movements in Europe and the US, ranging from national-conservatives, populist-nationalists, irredentist imperialists to neo-Nazis in Europe. Sakwa attempts to circumvent this conundrum by relying on a portfolio of euphemistic alternatives, describing these far-right and extreme left movements as ‘anti-systemic forces,’ ‘radical left,’ ‘movements of the far right,’ ‘European populists,’ ‘traditional sovereigntists, peaceniks, anti-imperialists, critics of globalisation,’ ‘populists of left and right,’ and ‘values coalition.’
Putin’s Imperial Nationalist Obsession with Ukraine
The Soviet regime recognised a separate Ukrainian people, albeit one that always retained close ties to Russians. The Ukrainian SSR was a ‘sovereign’ republic within the Soviet Union. In 1945, Joseph Stalin negotiated three seats at the UN for the USSR (representing the Russian SFSR), Ukrainian SSR, and Belarusian SSR. In the USSR, there was a Ukrainian lobby in Moscow, while this has been wholly absent under Putin.
Soviet nationality policy defined Ukrainians and Russians as related, but nevertheless separate peoples; this was no longer the case in Putin’s Russia. In the USSR, Ukraine, and the Ukrainian language ‘always had robust defenders at the very top. Under Putin, however, the idea of Ukrainian national statehood was discouraged.’ Although the USSR promoted Russification, it nevertheless recognised the existence of the Ukrainian language. For a decade prior to the invasion, the Ukrainian language was disparaged by the Russian media and political leaders as a dialect that was artificially made a language in the Soviet Union.
Russian nationalist myths and stereotypes underpinning the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine had been raised, discussed, and threatened for over a decade prior to the ‘special military operation’. When Putin returned as president in 2012, he portrayed himself as the ‘gatherer of Russian [i.e., eastern Slavic] lands.’ Ukraine’s return to the Russian World, alongside Crimea and Belarus, was Putin’s unfinished business that he needed to accomplish before entering Russia’s history books. Ukraine, as a ‘Russian land’, should fall within the Russian World and remain closely aligned to Russia. Ukrainians, on this account, had no right to decide their own future.
Russia sought to accomplish Ukraine’s return to the Russian World through the two Minsk peace agreements signed in 2014–15. Ukrainian leaders resisted Russian pressure to implement the agreements because they would have created a weak central government and federalised state where Russia would have inordinate influence through its proxy Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic.
The failure of Russia’s diplomatic and military pressure led to a change in tactics in October 2021. Early that month, former President Dmitri Medvedev, now deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, penned a vitriolic attack on Ukrainian identity as well as an anti-Semitic attack on Jewish-Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, ruling out further negotiations with Kyiv. Medvedev claimed Ukrainian leaders were US puppets, and that therefore the Kremlin needed to negotiate directly with their alleged ‘puppet master’—Washington. Meanwhile, Russia would ‘wait for the emergence of a sane leadership in Ukraine,’ ‘who aims not at a total confrontation with Russia on the brink of war…but at building equal and mutually beneficial relations with Russia.’ Medvedev was revealing that Russia’s goal in any future military operation would be regime change, replacing an ‘anti-Russia’ leadership with a pro-Kremlin leader.
In early November 2021, Russia’s foreign policy machine mobilised and made stridently false accusations about threats from Ukraine and its ‘Western puppet masters.’ Russia began building up its military forces on the Ukrainian border and in Belarus. In December 2021, Russia issued two ultimatums to the West, demanding a re-working of European security architecture.
The consensus within Euro-American commentary on the invasion has been that this crisis was completely artificial. NATO was not about to offer Ukraine membership, even though Ukraine had held periodic military exercises with NATO members for nearly three decades, while the US and NATO at no point planned to install offensive missiles in Ukraine. The real cause of the crisis was the failure of the Minsk peace process to achieve Ukraine’s capitulation to Russian demands that would have placed Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. After being elected president in April 2019, Zelenskyy had sought a compromise with Putin, but he had come round to understanding that this was not on offer. The failure of the Minsk peace process meant Ukraine’s submission would now be undertaken, in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s words, by ‘military-technical means’—that is, the ‘special military operation’ that began on 24 February 2022.
Russian Imperial and White Émigré Nationalism Captures Putin’s Russia
Downplaying, marginalising, and ignoring Russian nationalism led to the ignoring of Russian nationalism’s incorporation of Tsarist and White Russian émigré denials of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Marginal nationalism in the 1990s became mainstream nationalism in Russia in the 2000s under Putin when the ‘emergence of a virulent nationalist opposition movement took the mainstream hostage.’ The 1993 coup d’état against President Boris Yeltsin was led by a ‘red-brown’ coalition of pro-Soviet and far-right nationalists and fascists. The failure of the coup d’état and the electoral defeat of the Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov in the 1996 elections condemned these groups to the margins of Russian political life. At the same time, from the mid 1990s, the Yeltsin presidency moved away from a liberal to a nationalist foreign and security approach within Eurasia and towards the West. This evolution was discernible in the support given to a Russian-Belarusian union during the 1996 elections and in the appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as foreign minister. Therefore, the capture of Russia by the Soviet siloviki began with the Chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Primakov, four years before the chairman of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin, was elected president. Under Primakov, Russia moved from defining itself as part of the ‘common European home’ to the country at the centre of Eurasia.
Under Putin, the marginalised ‘red-brown’ coalition gradually increased its influence and broadened to include ‘whites’ (i.e., nostalgic supporters of the Tsarist Empire). Prominent among the ideologists of the ‘red-white-brown’ coalition was the fascist and Ukrainophobe Alexander Dugin, who has nurtured national-Bolshevik and Eurasianist political projects. In the 2014 crisis, Dugin, then a professor at Moscow State University, stated: ‘We should clean up Ukraine from the idiots,’ and ‘The genocide of these cretins is due and inevitable… I can’t believe these are Ukrainians. Ukrainians are wonderful Slavonic people. And this is a race of bastards that emerged from the sewer manholes.’
During the 2000s the ‘red-white-brown’ coalition came to prominence and Putin increasingly identified with its denial of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Tsarist imperial nationalism was integrated with Soviet nostalgia, Soviet traditions and symbols and historical myths, such as the Great Patriotic War. Since the mid 2000s, only five years into his rule, Putin spearheaded the rehabilitation of the White Russian émigré movement and reburial of its military officers, writers, and philosophers in Russia. These reburials took place at the same time as the formation of the Russian World Foundation (April 2007) and unification of the Russian Orthodox Church with the émigré Russian Orthodox Church (May 2007). These developments supercharged nationalism in Putin’s Russia, reinforced the Tsarist element in the ‘red-white-brown’ coalition and fuelled the growing disdain of, and antipathy towards Ukraine and Ukrainians that was given state support in the media throughout the two decades before the invasion.
Putin personally paid for the re-burial of White Russian émigré nationalists and fascists Ivan Ilyin, Ivan Shmelev, and General Anton Deniken, who called Ukraine ‘Little Russia’ and denied the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation. These chauvinistic views of Ukraine and Ukrainians were typical of White Russian émigrés. Serhy Plokhy writes, ‘Russia was taking back its long-lost children and reconnecting with their ideas.’ Little wonder, one hundred descendants of White Russian émigré aristocrats living in Western Europe signed an open letter of support for Russia during the 2014 crisis.
Putin was ‘particularly impressed’ with Ilyin, whom he first cited in an address to the Russian State Duma as long ago as 2006. Putin recommended Ilyin to be read by his governors, senior adviser Vladislav Surkov, and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. The intention was to use Ilyin’s publications in the Russian state programme to inculcate ‘patriotism’ and ‘conservative values’ in Russian children. Ilyin was integrated into Putin’s ideology during his re-election campaign in 2012 and influenced Putin’s re-thinking of himself as the ‘gatherer of Russian lands;’ that is, integrating Belarus and Ukraine into the Russian World, and specifically his belief that the three eastern Slavs constituted a pan-Russian nation.
Laruelle has downplayed the importance of Ilyin’s ideology, writing that he did not always propagate fascism, and that Putin only quoted him five times. Yet Putin has not only cited Ilyin, but also asked Russian journalists whether they had read Deniken’s diaries, especially the parts where ‘Deniken discusses Great and Little Russia, Ukraine.’ Deniken wrote in his diaries, ‘No Russian, reactionary or democrat, republican or authoritarian, will ever allow Ukraine to be torn away.’
In turn, Tsarist imperial nationalist and White Russian émigré denials of Ukraine and Ukrainians were amplified in the Russian media and in its information warfare for over a decade prior to the invasion. Ukraine and Ukrainians were mocked in the Russian media in a manner ‘typical in coloniser-colonised relationships.’ Russia and Russians were cast as superior, modern, and advanced, while Ukraine and Ukrainians were portrayed as backward, uneducated, ‘or at least unsophisticated, lazy, unreliable, cunning, and prone to thievery.’ As a result of nearly two decades of Russian officials and media denigrating Ukraine and Ukrainians these Russian attitudes towards Ukraine and Ukrainians ‘are widely shared across the Russian elite and populace.’ This is confirmed by a March 2022 survey conducted by Russia’s last remaining polling organisation, the Levada Centre, which found that an astronomical 81% of Russians supporting Russian military actions in Ukraine. Among these supporters, 43% believe the ‘special military operation’ was undertaken to protect Russophones, 43% to protect civilians in Russian-occupied Donbas, 25% to halt an attack on Russia, and 21% to remove ‘nationalists’ and ‘restore order.’
Russian Imperial Nationalist Denigration and Denial of Ukraine and Ukrainians
Russian imperial nationalist views of Ukraine began to reappear as far back as the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, when Russian political technologists worked for pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s election campaign, producing election posters designed to scare Russian speakers in south-eastern Ukraine about the prospect of an electoral victory by ‘fascist’ and ‘nationalist’ Viktor Yushchenko. This was when Russia revived Soviet ideological propaganda attacks against Ukrainian nationalists as ‘Nazi collaborators.’
Putin’s cult of the Great Patriotic War has been intricately linked to the promotion of Russia as the country that defeated Nazism in World War II (this is not true as all the Soviet nations contributed to the defeat) and which today is fighting contemporary Nazis in Ukraine, Poland, the three Baltic states, and beyond. Ukraine’s four de-communisation laws adopted in 2015 were despised in Moscow for many reasons. The most pertinent to this discussion was one law that equated Nazi and Soviet crimes against humanity (which contradicted Putin’s cult of Stalin) and another law that moved the terminology of Ukraine’s wartime commemorations from the 1941–45 ‘Great Patriotic War’ to ‘World War II’ of 1939–45.
One of the 2004 election posters, reproduced below, imagines Ukraine in typical Russian imperial nationalist discourse as divided into three parts, with west Ukraine as ‘First Class’ (that is, the top of the pack), central Ukraine as ‘Second Class’ and south-eastern Ukraine as ‘Third Class’ (showing Russian speakers living in this region to be at the bottom of the hierarchy).
Poster Prepared by Russian Political Technologists for Viktor Yanukovych’s 2004 Election Campaign
Text:Yes! This is how THEIR Ukraine looks. Ukrainians, open your eyes!
The map of Ukraine in the above 2004 election poster is remarkably similar to the traditional Russian nationalist image of Ukraine reproduced below:
Map of Russian Imperial Nationalist Image of Ukraine
Note: From right to left: ‘New Russia’ (south-eastern Ukraine in red), ‘Little Russia’ (central Ukraine in blue), ‘Ukraine’ (Galicia in orange), ‘Sub-Carpathian Rus’ (green).
Putin’s Growing Obsession with Ukraine Ignored by Scholars
Imperial nationalism came to dominate Russia’s authoritarian political system, including the ruling United Russia Party. Putin’s political system copied that of the late USSR, which in turn had copied East European communist regimes that had created state-controlled opposition parties to provide a fake resemblance of a multi-party system. In 1990, the USSR gave birth to the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union, becoming in 1992 the Liberal Democratic Party of the Russian Federation (LDPRF). Led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPRF repeatedly made loud bellicose statements about Ukraine and the West. The LDPRF’s goal has always been to attract nationalists who would have otherwise voted for far-right political parties not controlled by the state. In the 1993 elections following the failed coup d’état, the LDPRF received 22.9% - more than the liberal Russia’s Choice Party (15%) and the Communist Party (KPRF). Under Putin, these state-sponsored political projects expanded to the extreme left through the national-Bolshevik Motherland Party, whose programme was written by Dugin, and the Just Russia Party, which was active in Russian-occupied Donbas.
Putin’s authoritarian regime needs internal fifth columnists and external enemies. Domestically, these include opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny, and externally ‘anti-Russia’ Ukraine and the West. Changes to the Russian constitution in summer 2020 extended the ability of Putin to remain president for fifteen years, but in effect made him president for life. Political repression and the closure of independent media increased after these changes, as seen in the attempted poisoning of Navalny, and grew following the invasion of Ukraine. In 2017, The Economist said it was wrong to describe Russia as totalitarian; five years later The Economist believed Russia had become a totalitarian state.
A similar evolution has developed over whether Putin’s Russia could be called fascist. In 2016, Alexander J. Motyl’s article declaring Russia to be a fascist state met with a fairly tepid reception. and widespread scholarly criticism. Laruelle devoted an entire book to decrying Russia as not being a fascist state, which was ironically published a few weeks after Russia’s invasion. By the time of the invasion, all the ten characteristics Motyl had defined as constituting a fully authoritarian and fascist political system in Russia were in place:
Fascists rely on projection; that is, they accuse their enemies of the crimes which they themselves are guilty of. This has great relevance to Ukraine because Russia did not drop its accusation of Ukraine as a ‘Nazi’ state even after the election of Zelenskyy, who is of Jewish-Ukrainian origins and whose family suffered in the Holocaust. Indeed, civilian and military Ukrainians describe Russian invaders as ‘fascists,’ ‘racists’, and ‘Orks’ (a fictional character drawn from the goblins found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). After shooting and severely wounding a Ukrainian civilian, the Russian soldier stood over him saying ‘We have come to protect you.’ Another Russian officer said to a young girl captive: ‘Don’t be afraid, little girl, we will liberate you from Nazis.’
Putin and the Kremlin’s justification for their ‘special military operation’ into Ukraine was based on many of the myths and chauvinistic attitudes to Ukraine and Ukrainians that had been disseminated by Russia’s media and information warfare since the mid 2000s. Of the 9,000 disinformation cases the EU database has collected since 2015, 40% are on Ukraine and Ukrainians. The EU’s Disinformation Review notes, ‘Ukraine has a special place within the disinformation (un)reality,’ and ‘Ukraine is by far the most misrepresented country in the Russian media. Russia’s information warfare and disinformation has gone into overdrive since the 2014 crisis. ‘Almost five years into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Kremlin’s use of the information weapon against Ukraine has not decreased; Ukraine still stands out as the most misrepresented country in pro-Kremlin media.’
Since the mid 2000s, Russian media and information warfare has dehumanised Ukraine and Ukrainians, belittling them as unable to exist without external support. In colonialist discourse, Ukrainians were mocked as dumb peasants who had no identity, did not constitute a real nation, and needed an ‘elder brother’ (US, Russia) to survive. Such discourse was reminiscent of European imperialists when discussing their colonies prior to 1945.
Ukraine was repeatedly ridiculed as an artificial country and a failed, bankrupt state. Putin first raised this claim as far back as in his 2008 speech to the NATO-Russia Council at the Bucharest NATO summit. Ukraine as a failed state is also one of the most common themes in Russian information warfare. In 2014, the Ukrainian state allegedly collapsed, requiring Russia’s military intervention. The Ukrainian authorities were incapable of resolving their problems because Ukraine is not a real state and could not survive without trade with Russia.
Russian disinformation claimed that Ukraine’s artificiality meant it faced territorial claims from all its neighbours. Central-Eastern European countries would put forward territorial claims towards western Ukraine. Russia has made territorial claims to south-eastern Ukraine (Novorossiya [New Russia] and Prichernomorie [Black Sea Lands]) since as far back as the 2008 NATO summit and increased in intensity following the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Putin repeatedly condemned Lenin for including south-eastern Ukraine within the Soviet Ukrainian republic, claiming the region was ancient ‘Russian’ land.
Another common theme in the Russian media was that Ukraine was a land of perennial instability and revolution where extremists run amok, Russian speakers were persecuted, and pro-Russian politicians and media were repressed and closed. Ukrainian ‘nationalist’ and ‘neo-Nazi’ rule over Ukraine created an existentialist threat to Russian speakers. Putin refused to countenance the return of Ukrainian control over the Russian-Ukrainian joint border because of the alleged threat of a new ‘Srebrenica-style’ genocide of Russian speakers. Putin used the empirically unsubstantiated claim that Russian speakers were subject to an alleged ‘genocide’ as justification for the ‘special military operation.’ On 16 March, the UN’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, threw out the Russian claim of ‘genocide’ and demanded Russia halt its war.
Putin and the Kremlin adopted the discourse of an artificial Ukrainian nation created as an anti-Russian conspiracy. Putin said: ‘The Ukrainian factor was specifically played out on the eve of World War I by the Austrian special service. Why? This is well-known—to divide and rule (the Russian people).’ Putin and the Kremlin incorporated these views of Ukraine and Ukrainians a few years after they had circulated within the extreme right in Russia. The leader of the Russian Imperial Movement, Stanislav Vorobyev said, ‘Ukrainians are some socio-political group who do not have any ethnos. They are just a socio-political group that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century by means of manipulation of the occupying Austro-Hungarian administration, which occupied Galicia.’ Vorobyev and Putin agreed with one another that ‘Russians’ were the most divided people in the world and believed Ukrainians were illegally occupying ‘Russian’ lands.
These nationalist myths were closely tied to another, namely that the West created a Ukrainian puppet state in order to divide the pan-Russian nation. Russia’s ‘special military operation’ is allegedly not fighting the Ukrainian army but ‘nationalists,’ ‘neo-Nazis and drug addicts’ supported by the West. Putin has even gone so far as to deny that his forces are fighting the Ukrainian army at all, and has called on Ukrainian soldiers to rebel against the supposed ‘Nazi’ regime led by Zelenskyy—an especially cruel slur given that several generations of the latter’s family were murdered during the Holocaust.
The Russian nationalist myth of a Ukrainian puppet state is a reflection of viewing it as a country without real sovereignty that only exists because it is propped up by the West. Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns also depicted dissidents and nationalists as puppets of Western intelligence services. Russian information warfare frequently described former President Petro Poroshenko and President Zelenskyy as puppets of Ukrainian nationalists and the West. 
These Russian nationalist views have also percolated through into the writings of some Western scholars. Stephen Cohen, a well-known US historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, described US Vice President Joe Biden as Ukraine’s ‘pro-consul overseeing the increasingly colonised Kyiv.’ President Poroshenko was not a Ukrainian leader, but ‘a compliant representative of domestic and foreign political forces,’’ who ‘resembles a pro-consul of a faraway great power’ running a ‘failed state.’ Cohen, who was contributing editor of the left-wing The Nation magazine, held a derogatory view towards Ukraine as a Western puppet state, which is fairly commonly found on the extreme left in the West, and which blamed the West (i.e., NATO, EU enlargement) for the 2014 crisis, rather than Putin and Russia.
Soviet propaganda and ideological campaigns routinely attacked dissidents and nationalist opposition as ‘bourgeois nationalists’ who were in cahoots with Nazis in the Ukrainian diaspora and in the pay of Western and Israeli secret services. Ukraine has been depicted in the Russian media since the 2004 Orange Revolution as a country ruled by ‘fascists’ and ‘neo-Nazis.’ A ‘Ukrainian nationalist’ in the Kremlin’s eyes is the same as in the Soviet Union; that is, anybody who supports Ukraine’s future outside the Russian World and USSR. All Ukrainians who supported the Orange and Euromaidan Revolutions and are fighting Russia’s ‘special military operation’ were therefore ‘nationalists’ and ‘Nazis.’
Between the 2004 Orange Revolution and Putin’s re-election in 2012, Russian imperial nationalism rehabilitated Tsarist imperial and White Russian émigré dismissals of Ukraine and Ukrainians into official discourse, military aggression, and information warfare. In 2007, the Russian World Foundation was created and two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church were re-united. Returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin believed he would enter Russian history as the ‘gatherer of Russian lands’ which he proceeded to undertake with Crimea (2014), Belarus (2020), and Ukraine (2022).
The origins of Putin’s obsession with Ukraine lie in his eclectic integration of Tsarist imperial and Soviet nationalisms. The former provides the ideological bedrock for the denial of the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians while the latter provides the ideological discourse to depict as Nazis all those Ukrainians who resist being defined as Little Russians. Putin believed his military forces would be greeted as liberators by Little Russians eager to throw off the US imposed nationalist and neo-Nazi yoke, the artificial Ukrainian state would quickly disintegrate, and the country and capital city of Kyiv would be taken within two days. Russian troops brought parade uniforms to march down Kyiv’s main thoroughfare and victory medals to be awarded to troops. This was not to be, because Putin’s denial of a Ukrainian people is—put simply—untrue. The Russo-Ukrainian war is a clash between twenty-first century Ukrainian patriotism and civic nationalism, as evidenced by Zelenskyy’s landslide election, and rooted in a desire to leave the USSR behind and be part of a future Europe, and nineteenth-century Russian imperial nationalism built on nostalgia for the past.
Unfortunately, many scholars working on Russia ignored, downplayed, or denied the depth, direction, and even existence of nationalism in Putin’s Russia and therefore find unfathomable the ferocity, and goals behind the invasion of Ukraine. This was because many scholars wrongly viewed the 2014 crisis as Putin’s temporary, instrumental use of nationalism to annex Crimea and foment separatism in south-eastern Ukraine. Instead, they should have viewed the integration of Tsarist imperial and Soviet nationalisms from the mid 2000s through to the invasion as a continuous, evolutionary process that has led to the emergence of a fascist, totalitarian, and imperialist regime seeking to destroy Ukrainian identity.
 See Taras Kuzio, Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War: Autocracy-Orthodoxy-Nationality (London: Routledge, 2022).
 Vladimir Putin, ‘Pro istorychnu yednist rosiyan ta ukrayinciv,’ 12 July 2021. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66182?fbclid=IwAR0Wj7W_7QL2-IFInLwl4kI1FOQ5RxJAemrvCwe04r8TIAm03rcJrycMSYY
 Y.D. Zolotukhin, Bila Knyha. Spetsialnykh Informatsiynykh Operatsiy Proty Ukrayiny 2014-2018, 67-85.
 Vladimir Putin, ‘Speech to the Valdai Club,’ 25 October 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvY184FQsiA
 Anna Matveeva, A. (2018). Through Times of Trouble. Conflict in Southeastern Ukraine Explained From Within (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 2018), 182, 218, 221, 223, 224, 277.
 Richard Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest. The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 125.
 Pal Kolsto, ‘Crimea vs. Donbas: How Putin Won Russian Nationalist Support—and Lost It Again,’ Slavic Review, 75: 3 (2016), 702-725; Henry E. Hale, ‘How nationalism and machine politics mix in Russia,’ In: Pal Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud eds., The New Russian Nationalism. Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 221-248, at p.246; Marlene Laruelle, ‘Making Sense of Russia's Illiberalism,’ Journal of Democracy, 31: 3 (2020: 115-129.
 P. Kolstø and H. Blakkisrud eds., The New Russian Nationalism. Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
 For a full survey see T. Kuzio, ‘Euromaidan Revolution, Crimea and Russia-Ukraine War: Why it is Time for a Review of Ukrainian-Russian Studies,’ Eurasian Geography and Economics, 59: 3-4 (2018), 529-553 and Crisis in Russian Studies? Nationalism (Imperialism), Racism, and War (Bristol: E-International Relations, 2020), https://www.e-ir.info/publication/crisis-in-russian-studies-nationalism-imperialism-racism-and-war/
 See Petro Kuzyk, ‘Ukraine’s national integration before and after 2014. Shifting ‘East–West’ polarization line and strengthening political community,’ Eurasian Geography and Economics, 60: 6 (2019), 709-735/
 T. Kuzio, ‘Putin's three big errors have doomed this invasion to disaster,’ The Daily Telegraph, 15 March 2022. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/03/15/putins-three-big-errors-have-doomed-invasion-disaster/
 ‘Do not resist the liberation,’ EU vs Disinfo, 31 March 2022. https://euvsdisinfo.eu/do-not-resist-the-liberation/
 T. Kuzio, ‘Inside Vladimir Putin’s criminal plan to purge and partition Ukraine,’ Atlantic Council, 3 March 2022. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/inside-vladimir-putins-criminal-plan-to-purge-and-partition-ukraine/
 R. Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest, 159.
 P. Kolsto, ‘Crimea vs. Donbas: How Putin Won Russian Nationalist Support—and Lost It Again’ and M. Laruelle, ‘Is Nationalism a Force for Change in Russia?’ Daedalus, 146: 2 (2017, 89-100.
 H. E. Hale, ‘How nationalism and machine politics mix in Russia.’
 M. Laruelle, ‘Making Sense of Russia's Illiberalism,’126.
 M. Laruelle, ‘Ideological Complimentarity or Competition? The Kremlin, the Church, and the Monarchist Idea,’ Slavic Review, 79: 2 (2020), 345-364, at p.348.
 Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitefield, S. (2015). ‘Putin’s Nationalism Problem’ In: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and R. Sakwa eds., Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives (Bristol: E-International Relations, 2015), 165-172, at pp. 157, 162.
 R. Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015) and Russia Against the Rest.
 Robert Horvath, ‘The Euromaidan and the crisis of Russian nationalism,’ Nationalities Papers, 43: 6 (2015), 819-839.
 P. Kolsto, ‘Crimea vs. Donbas: How Putin Won Russian Nationalist Support—and Lost It Again’ and H. E. Hale, ‘How nationalism and machine politics mix in Russia.’
 M. Laruelle, ‘Making Sense of Russia's Illiberalism,’126.
 R. Sakwa, ‘Is Putin an Ism,’ Russian Politics, 5: 3 (2020): 255-282, at pp.276-277; Neil Robinson, ‘Putin and the Incompleteness of Putinism,’ Russian Politics, 5: 3 (2020): 283-300, at pp.284-285, 287, 289, 293, 299); Nicolai N. Petro, ‘How the West Lost Russia: Explaining the Conservative Turn in Russian Foreign Policy,’ Russian Politics, 3: 3 (2018): 305-332.
 A. Matveeva, Through Times of Trouble, 277 and Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest, 119.
 R. Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest, 125, 189.
 Ibid., 60, 75, 275, 276.
 Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men. Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), 87.
 Taras Kuzio, ‘Medvedev: The Russian-Ukrainian War will continue until Ukraine becomes a second Belarus,’ New Eastern Europe, 20 October 2021. https://neweasterneurope.eu/2021/10/20/medvedev-the-russian-ukrainian-war-will-continue-until-ukraine-becomes-a-second-belarus/
 Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow. The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016), 287.
 M. Laruelle, ‘The three colors of Novorossiya, or the Russian nationalist mythmaking of the Ukrainian crisis,’ Post-Soviet Affairs, 3: 1 (2016), 55-74.
 Mykola Riabchuk, ‘On the “Wrong” and “Right” Ukrainians,’ The Aspen Review, 15 March 2017. https://www.aspen.review/article/2017/on-the-wrong-and-right-ukrainians/
 Anders Aslund, ‘Russian contempt for Ukraine paved the way for Putin’s disastrous invasion,’ Atlantic Council, 1 April 2022. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/russian-contempt-for-ukraine-paved-the-way-for-putins-disastrous-invasion/
 Serhy Plokhy, Lost Kingdom. A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin (London: Penguin Books, 2017), 327.
 Ibid., 332.
 M. Laruelle, ‘In Search of Putin’s Philosopher,’ Intersection, 3 March 2017. https:// www.ponarseurasia.org/article/search-putins-philosopher
 S. Plokhy, Lost Kingdom, 326.
 Alena Minchenia, Barbara Tornquist-Plewa and Yulia Yurchuk ‘Humour as a Mode of Hegemonic Control: Comic Representations of Belarusian and Ukrainian Leaders in Official Russian Media’ In: Niklas Bernsand and B. Tornquist-Plewa eds., Cultural and Political Imaginaries in Putin’s Russia (Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2018), 211-231, at p.225.
 Ibid, 25 and Igor Gretskiy, ‘Lukyanov Doctrine: Conceptual Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Foreign Policy – The Case of Ukraine,’ Saint Louis University Law Journal, 64:1 (2020), 1-22, at p.21.
 T. Kuzio, ‘Stalinism and Russian and Ukrainian National Identities,’ Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 50, 4 (2017), 289-302 .
 Anna Oliynyk and T. Kuzio, ‘The Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity, Reforms and De-Communisation in Ukraine,’ Europe-Asia Studies, 73: 5 (2021), 807-836.
 Masha Gessen is wrong to call Russia a totalitarian state,’ The Economist, 4 November 2017.
 ‘The Stalinisation of Russia,’ Economist, 12 March 2022. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/03/12/the-stalinisation-of-russia
 Alexander J. Motyl, ‘Putin’s Russia as a fascist political system,’ Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 49: 1 (2016), 25-36.
 I was guest editor of the special issue of Communist and Post-Communist Studies and remember the controversies very well as to whether to publish or not publish Motyl’s article.
 M. Laruelle, Is Russia Fascist ? Unraveling Propaganda East and West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022).
 Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, ‘Putin's Militocracy,’ Post-Soviet Affairs, 19: 4 (2003), 289-306.
 Zelenskyy is the grandson of the only surviving brother of four. The other 3 brothers were murdered by the Nazi’s in the Holocaust.
 Yuriy D. Zolotukhin Ed., Bila Knyha. Spetsialnykh Informatsiynykh Operatsiy Proty Ukrayiny 2014-2018 (Kyiv: Mega-Pres Hrups, 2018), 302-358.
 T. Kuzio, Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War,1-34.
 ‘Putin fears second “Srebrenica” if Kiev gets control over border in Donbass,’ Tass, 10 December 2019. https://tass.com/world/1097897
 V. Putin, ‘Twenty questions with Vladimir Putin. Putin on Ukraine,’ Tass, 18 March 2020. https://putin.tass.ru/en
 V. Putin, ‘Ukraina – samaya blyzkaya k nam strana,’ Tass, 29 September 2015. https://tass.ru/interviews/2298160
and ‘Speech to the Valdai Club,’ 25 October 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvY184FQsiA
 ‘Putin references neo-Nazis and drug addicts in bizarre speech to Russian security council – video,’ The Guardian, 25 February 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2022/feb/25/putin-references-neo-nazis-and-drug-addicts-in-bizarre-speech-to-russian-security-council-video
 Stephen Cohen, War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2019), 145.
 Ibid., p. 36.