February 24 will mark the second anniversary of Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Although Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial power made the invasion possible, it’s still unclear to many observers why the Kremlin’s leader took this fateful decision. One of the more persuasive explanations is that since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, his domestic and foreign policy increasingly has been shaped by Eurasianism. It’s a socio-political movement animated by the idea that Russia is a distinctive civilization, neither European nor Asian, rooted in absolutism, and aligned with China and the Global South in opposition to Western liberal hegemony.

According to a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Eurasianism displaced Russia’s halfhearted movement toward liberalism in the early post-communist era and “achieved the status of a semiofficial ideology. Putin uses Eurasianist phrases, the army’s general staff assigns a Eurasianist textbook, and popular culture has embraced its ideas and vocabulary. … Eurasianism, like Stalinism, carries the banner of anti-imperialism, claiming to unite the world under Russian leadership in order to liberate it from Western cultural colonialism.”

Although Eurasianism is more than a century old, its most prominent Russian exponent in recent decades has been the far-right philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. His variation on Eurasianism emphasizes Russian patriotism and Orthodox faith, and sees the country as locked in apocalyptic combat against America and its values including liberalism, capitalism, and modernism. Dugin has harbored a particular animus against independent Ukraine, which he sees as having betrayed the Russian linguistic and cultural world of which it is an inseparable part. He called for a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine months before it took place in 2014 and has insisted that Russia must wage war against Ukraine even more ruthlessly. 

Alexandar Mihailovic, in his recent book Illiberal Vanguard: Populist Elitism in the United States and Russia, examines Dugin and other leading far-right Russian intellectuals alongside corresponding figures in the United States, such as Steve Bannon. Mihailovic, a professor emeritus of comparative literature and Russian at Hofstra University notes similar patterns among illiberal intellectuals in both countries, particularly in their approaches to gender, race, and national memory. In this podcast discussion, Mihailovic explains that although there are some personal connections between Russian and American ethnonationalists, they are more united by the shared notion that conservative intellectual elites should lead their respective countries in the direction of populist authoritarianism and empire.


Alexandar Mihailovic: When I speak of the illiberal vanguard, I’m talking about traditionalist and authoritarian intellectuals who are attempting to maintain or fashion a kind of relationship with state power without being absorbed by it completely.

Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to be joined today by Alexandar Mihailovic. He is professor emeritus of Russian and comparative literature at Hofstra University, has been a recurring visiting faculty member at Bennington College in a variety of fields including comparative literature, film studies, theology, and Eastern European culture. He has also taught at Williams College, Columbia, and Brown. And he’s the author of numerous books including 2023’s Illiberal Vanguard: Populist Elitism in the United States and Russia, which should be available in paperback in 2024. Welcome, Alex!

Alexandar Mihailovic: It’s good to be here, Geoff.

Geoff Kabaservice: Great to have you with me. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Alex and I are old comrades from the Yale Russian Chorus. And for those listeners who may not be familiar with this venerable cultural institution, it’s a singing group founded in 1953 by Denis Mickiewicz, who was born into a Russian family in Latvia, lived in a displaced persons camp in the aftermath of World War II, and eventually made his way to Connecticut where he enrolled at Yale as a graduate student in the Yale School of Music. And as legend has it, he showed up one day at a meeting of the Yale Russian Club with two bottles of vodka and a guitar, and convinced the group that learning through singing could be a more entertaining path to Russian fluency than mere language study. And Denis is still alive in his nineties, and is an emeritus professor at Duke University.

I sang with the chorus throughout my undergraduate and graduate school years. And the repertoire we learned included not only Russian sacred and secular music but also pieces in Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, and other languages from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. And the Chorus has given rise to offshoot groups including, let’s see, the Slavyanka Russian Chorus in San Francisco, the Kartuli Georgian ensemble in New York State, Iveria (another Georgian group) in Boston, men’s and women’s Georgian choruses in Paris, and probably a lot more I’m leaving out. I’ve taken part in any number of alumni reunion concerts, and I was back in New Haven in September for the Chorus’ seventieth anniversary performance, which was a great occasion. Alex, would you like to add anything about the Chorus and your experiences in and impressions of it?

Alexandar Mihailovic: When I came to Yale in the early ’80s to go to graduate school in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, I didn’t know about the Yale Russian Chorus at all until I went to their anniversary concert. And I was completely blown away by the power of the music. This is music that I actually already knew, some of it from when I was growing up and I went to Eastern Orthodox services in a Serbian and Russian church; it was a kind of a mix of both communities.

And the thing I need to add here that’s interesting about the Eastern Orthodox Slavic churches is that the language that you hear in the liturgy and in the songbook is essentially a kind of a unifier, because it is different, distinct from the languages in the vernacular that are spoken by the different communities that are attending services. And there are different reasons for this. The language that is spoken and sung in Orthodox churches is Old Church Slavonic, and this is the earliest recorded Slavic language. Enough of it is comprehensible by different people especially in the South Slavic and the East Slavic communities — East Slavic being Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and the South Slavic being Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia — that it kind of serves as a lingua franca. But it’s also distinctly different from those vernaculars.

And so to hear that music in that language being sung by the Yale Russian Chorus, at that first anniversary concert in the early ’80s that I attended in Woolsey Hall, was really an eye-opener, because I had never heard so many singers performing that in one place at one time. And it had this absolutely staggering effect on me. I thought, “Wow, this is interesting. This is indeed a kind of a music that could be sung outside of churches.” And Denis, whom I met a few years later, really was a pathbreaker in bringing that to the fore.

The closest analogy that I can think of, Geoff, is what happened to Russian icon art in the end of the nineteenth century in the Russian Empire, or I should say Orthodox icon art at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia. This was art that everybody acknowledged the power of, but nobody thought of it as great art. They thought of it as basically tremendous monuments to culture and experience that had significant spiritual dimensions. And so what happens at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia is that you began to get some of these wonderful images and creations taken out of the space of the church; I don’t mean necessarily literally, although that did happen sometimes as well. Icons were then understood to be monuments of the human secular spirit and the undertaking of creative endeavor, as well as testifying to a community of believers over a span of hundreds of years — in some cases a couple of thousand of years, because some of the roots are very, very old and even pre-Christian in some ways.

So what Denis did was really bring that out into this different context. And for me, that struck me as absolutely fascinating, what he was doing. That was the hook that dragged me into the chorus. I remember very well the audition I had where Greg Burnside, who was then the conductor, asked me to sing anything that I wanted. And I sang a couple of verses from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in German. And I think I chose that… I pulled it out of my hat without really thinking of it, because that also has this element of being about spirit without necessarily being about religious experience, or being about both at the same time.

The last observation I’ll make in this regard is that we see in Russia right now something very peculiar, because there’s an effort to bring some of those works of religious art exclusively back into the church, as the church itself is being relentlessly — one might say even militantly — politicized under the current head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill Gundyaev, Metropolitan Kirill. So, for example, the fantastic Holy Trinity painting, a large icon by Andrei Rublev… For a long time it was in the Tretyakov Gallery. Now it has been taken back into a church and been placed within a church setting. And many conservators in Russia and other curators in the art world are frankly horrified by this decision, because it’s a somewhat physically fragile object and it needs to be in a particular climate-controlled environment, which you cannot have in a church. Russian Orthodox churches — or Orthodox churches in general, not just Russian but also worldwide — the issue is that the temperature is so variable because it’s either too hot or too cold. During the high holidays, you have many people who are attending, and so even in the dead of winter it can be almost uncomfortably warm. And then during the times when there are no services, it’s very drafty and can be very cool. 

So what Denis did was essentially show how this kind of art and this kind of creative expression can exist in multiple places. And that possibility is being in many ways foreclosed in the Russian Federation at the present, it seems to me.

Geoff Kabaservice: Tell me more about your interest in Russian culture as you were growing up.

Alexandar Mihailovic: My parents were immigrants from Serbia. They, like Denis, the founder of the Yale Russian Chorus, were refugees. They were not placed in displaced person camps, but they were essentially homeless during much of the war. My mother was on a hunger march for four years, often in the company of her younger brother. They were separated rather catastrophically at one point, and she ended up in an Axis-controlled internment camp in Croatia.

And my father was basically living hand to mouth. He walked across the Yugoslav-Italian border into Trieste, lived in barns, bummed for food, ended up in Rome, where he worked as a dental hygienist’s assistant living absolutely hand to mouth. And then he moved on to Paris and was able to apply for a scholarship to a medical school in Leuven in Belgium by pooling money with several other Serbian students; essentially they shared one scholarship, a scholarship for one student.

I was born and raised in Chicago, which has the largest Serbian community in the United States. The Russian community in Chicago is actually pretty small. The Bulgarian community is larger, for what it’s worth.

Geoff Kabaservice: I was actually just in Chicago last weekend, and I could attest that the Ukrainian population, on the other hand, is quite large, and there’s a whole section of the West Side known as Ukrainian Village.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Oh yeah. That’s a very interesting neighborhood. The Ukrainian community is huge. The Polish community is huge. In fact, at one point, I believe in the ’70s, Chicago was the second largest Polish-speaking city in the world after Warsaw in terms of numbers of native speakers living there within an urban setting. I think that’s probably no longer true. But in any case, I grew up bilingually, and I took some courses in Russian when I was in college at Columbia University. But I was very interested in this kind of, I suppose you could call it a more cosmopolitan perspective. I was majoring in comparative literature, and so bringing together the study of Anglophone literature with Russian literature.

And that contact between very different cultures always interested me. I pursued that to some extent in graduate school, although when I went to Yale, it was more along a specific course of study in regard to the Russian cultural and literary context. The minor I chose was Polish. I began to study Polish literature and art under Tomas Venclova, who was a great mentor for my minor. And my major advisor was Vladimir Alexandrov, who was also very supportive. Serbian and Russian were sufficiently different that Russian seemed exotic yet somehow in some ways familiar to me.

Geoff Kabaservice: I should add parenthetically that I too crossed paths with Tomas Venclova at Yale, who is one of the greatest Lithuanian poets of modern times. And there was a tremendous essay that he co-authored with Czesław Miłosz, because they both grew up in what is now known as Vilnius in Lithuania, but was part of the Russian Empire and a more Polish city back when Miłosz was growing up there as well. It’s a fascinating place where cultures come together.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yeah. Both sides of the family were essentially from Belgrade, which is not far in Serbia from Novi Sad, which is a very cosmopolitan area that actually also has, or had for a long time, a Carpatho-Rusyn community, Ruthenian community. And on my mother’s side, some family members were from Montenegro. So in any case, like many people, I come from different places in terms of my family history, and not just one place or a monoculture.

Geoff Kabaservice: In the interest of sharing, I suppose I should say something about what I found so interesting about Russian culture and history. Of course I was an undergraduate during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union loomed as our major adversary but also in some sense our mirror image, perhaps. And I was glad to see that you quoted in the book from Tocqueville’s passage, which once upon a time used to be known by a lot more American policymakers, to the effect that the two countries’ point of departure is different and their paths are diverse, but each of them seems destined by some secret providential design to hold in their hands the fate of half the world at some date in the future.

Alexandar Mihailovic: That’s a very meaty statement. And you’re right that it used to be much more familiar to people, or to policymakers and cultural historians, than it is now, which I find very peculiar given the fact that we’re in what’s arguably a new cold war. Yeah. I’ll leave it at that. We can come back to that point later.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I mean, it was paradoxically the enmity between the two countries that gave rise to a more widespread interest in its history and culture. And I was just impressed that the Russian cultural heritage was so rich, and its history so full of drama and tragedy. I read a lot of the Russian classics when I was quite young, the usuals like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Bulgakov. And I was also quite young when I read Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra, which is about the last czar and czarina. But I also read The 900 Days by Harrison Salisbury, which was about the siege of Leningrad, as Saint Petersburg used to be called, during World War II. And it was terrific and really intensely moving.

And then although my education in classical music is incomplete at best, I was really enthralled with the Russian composers like Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Prokofiev, Shostakovich… It’s a long list. And I could say the same about the Russian poets and painters and playwrights and filmmakers and rock musicians. And when I actually went to the Soviet Union, I was struck by its beauty and strangeness, frankly. And the same was true of independent Russia in its first years during the 1990s.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yeah. That was quite the time, I have to say, the mid-1990s. In the first half, in particular, of the ’90s, you really had a sense that nobody knew what was going to happen. I remember that from my visits there. And my friends had really changed quite a bit. Some of them became politically very different people. I keep in touch with them, even the ones that I politically disagree with. Most of them and I are still on the same page in terms of our core beliefs and our understanding of what’s going on in Russia right now and in the United States.

Geoff Kabaservice: I was still a teenager when I visited the Soviet Union, and I had a teenager’s interests, principally in rock and rebellion. But what really struck me about rock music in the Soviet Union was that Western bands like to talk about being edgy and underground, but playing the wrong kind of music could literally get you thrown into prison in the Soviet Union.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Oh yeah. 

Geoff Kabaservice: And I got interested in… Well, actually I did get interested in the folk protest music of someone like Vladimir Vysotsky, but I was really interested in that first wave of rock bands like Boris Grebenshchikov’s band Aquarium, Viktor Tsoi’s band Kino, Alisa, Strange Games… And later I particularly liked DDT and Korol i Shut and Gleb Samoylov’s various bands including Agatha Christie and The Matrixx.

Alexandar Mihailovic: You know your stuff.

Geoff Kabaservice: Heck yeah!

Alexandar Mihailovic: Many of the groups or most of the groups you just mentioned — Grebenshchikov, DDT, Alisa — are anchored in Saint Petersburg/Leningrad. This was a subject of my previous book, which was about this group called the Mitki: counterculture artists, satirists, and musicians from Leningrad and Saint Petersburg in the ’90s. Leningrad/Saint Petersburg had a different countercultural perspective or identity from their equivalents or counterparts in Moscow. They were more like hippie, kind of in the spirit of the early Beats: very playful, kind of anarchic, pranky, sometimes deliberately cultivating behavioral weirdness of a not necessarily or explicitly political kind. I’m 65 years old and I’m old enough to remember, in a certain way or here and there, the hippies, the ones that were in Chicago when I grew up. And they were really funny people. The whimsy, the element of whimsy and the lightness to it, that informed a lot of what’s going on in the rock world in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg.

Their counterparts in Moscow, I would say, are a little bit more rough. There’s a punk aesthetic, even coming from a time when punk didn’t really exist as a term. Of course in the ’70s in the UK and the US, there were already anticipations of punk, arguably. I mean, you certainly have it in, say, groups like the Velvet Underground. But what you have is this loathing of what they understood to be the navel-gazing and the individualism of the hippie movement, the frivolity of it, the political unseriousness of it, the submerged traditionalist values of those movements, or what they saw as the submerged traditionalist values.

And the Moscow people… I’m thinking now of Pussy Riot and others who are more contemporary. But if you trace their roots, you see that they’re often not even emerging from the music scene but from the art scene, in a way that’s very similar I would say to how a lot of punk came from the people coming from the art schools in the UK or the US — Andy Warhol’s studio and its cultivation of the Velvet Underground. There was a conceptualist orientation of it that was performative in this more shock-troop, épatage manner. In comparison with that orientation, artists in Leningrad and Saint Petersburg were much more gentle, and there was a love of this intimacy. 

This is a little bit of a digression, but I think it does speak to some of the bifurcations that we see in Russia right now in terms of responses to the invasion of Ukraine, the way in which certain artists who were formerly dissident have now at the very least a politically ambiguous stance towards things. And you could draw analogies, I think, to the United States, the way in which some members of the counterculture became completely absorbed into this kind of, broadly speaking, conservative world-building.

Geoff Kabaservice: So the book to which you referred is a book that came out five years ago, your book The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia.

Alexandar Mihailovic: That’s right. 

Geoff Kabaservice: And I actually remember having earlier come across the Mitki, I think it was in Solomon Volkov’s book on the culture of Saint Petersburg. He actually connected the Mitki to the Stilyagi, who had been the equivalent of the hippies, I guess, in Russia in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yeah. Volkov’s comparison is apt, but I think it’s a little bit more complicated. I’m not criticizing him here, please understand, because the book in which he discusses them and other cultural circles in Saint Petersburg/Leningrad is very good. But the Stilyagi in many ways… Think of it this way. There’s a kind of a counterculture, or an identity of counterculture, that embodies not just music but different forms of creative expression and dress. That’s super important, the sartorial dimension of being counterculture. And the Stilyagi on the one hand were very… There was a certain dandyism or refinement about them. They were real avatars of high style, but cutting-edge high style in fashion. Whereas the Mitki were kind of the anti-Stilyagi. They were the people who just dressed in whatever the hell they found lying around the apartment. It was a deliberate roughness.

Geoff Kabaservice: A lot of them dressed in ratty old cast-off sailors’ uniforms.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Right. And so there was a kind of uniform identity, both in the sense of military naval uniform and also a deliberate monoculture of taste as far as how people were dressed. The Stilyagi were a little bit more — which is in many ways more anchored or clearly anchored in Moscow — very much about pushing the boundaries of particular styles of dress, which is all about a kind of sartorial diversity or diversification of what you’re wearing. There’s a little bit of this in the whole mod scene in the first half of the ’60s in the UK, where the mods were counterculture but they dressed to the nines. They were very interested in Italian fashion, while at the same time they liked to throw on top on some of these incredible suits they had from Milan a military coat. So it’s creating these contrasts by virtue of this very extended choice of clothes that you put together in one place.

Geoff Kabaservice: My guess is that the Mitki’s consciously disheveled, unfashionable appearance is part of what accounted for their love/hate of David Bowie, who after all did come out of the mod scene and always was this incredible stylistic maven.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yeah, he was. David Bowie went through so many different phases. This is the other thing to bear in mind: he was very much a shapeshifter, and I think that many Russians would be baffled by that. And so that’s manifest in their love/hate response to his musical career and some of the things that he said. I mean, some of the animosity towards Bowie came from a statement which he made in the ’70s where he professed an admiration for Hitler’s Germany, which is something that is simply not tolerated in a Russian context because of the obvious horrible history of World War II and the Soviet Union, not just in the Russian Republic of the Soviet Union but also in Belarus and in Ukraine. Some of the war crimes committed by the invading Nazi army in Belarus were absolutely horrifying. In some ways the hatred of the Axis powers served as a cement for so many different cultural stances and identities in the Soviet Union. And when he made that statement, it was something that understandably made people very angry. 

But Bowie was a very protean character and restless in his creative endeavors in a way that reminds me of Miles Davis. People who love one segment of Davis’ or Bowie’s music and one particular part of their careers often hate what they did later or earlier. I’ll just leave it at that. 

Geoff Kabaservice: Speaking of musicians drawn to transgressive and dangerous movements, I must say I felt a bit deflated to read your new book on The Illiberal Vanguard and find one of my old musical heroes, Sergei Kuryokhin, playing a malign political role. I’d come across Kuryokhin through his work as a keyboardist with Aquarium, and I think also in his collaboration with Strannye Igry, but especially as an avant-garde pianist and composer. What I especially liked by him was his experimental opera Sparrow Oratorium: Four Seasons, which is vaguely about sparrows as predictors of urban ecological catastrophe, and it’s sung in this invented sparrow language. Kuryokhin also was the impresario of Pop-Mechanics, and I’m not even sure how to describe Pop-Mechanics.

Alexandar Mihailovic: I think I describe it as kind of a pantomime version of Monty Python on stage, in my book Illiberal Vanguard, where you have actors dressed in the uniform of law enforcement officers and soldiers — which is kind of a no-no already — and you also have on the stage sauntering geese and other animals running around, and Kuryokhin himself thrashing around in this kind of punk dance. Audiences were definitely taken aback by that. And there’s still a lot of discussion about what all of that means, what he intended it to mean. Now, Geoff, I would just like to speak a little bit about Kuryokhin and the comment that you made about his involvement in the right. 

Geoff Kabaservice: In 1995, just to set the table, Kuryokhin somehow or other brought Aleksandr Dugin to Saint Petersburg and convinced him to run for a seat in the Duma, which is one of the chambers of the Russian parliament, on the ticket of the fascist National Bolshevik Party.

Alexandar Mihailovic: He did. And the thing about it is that there’s still a lot of discussion about what exactly were Kuryokhin’s politics.

Geoff Kabaservice: And he died the next year at age forty or something like that, so he’s not around to tell us this.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yes, and he died very peculiarly of an extremely rare form of cancer, which was heart cancer, which somehow also entered into his whole mythology as somebody who was not completely of this Earth, of this existence. There are many Russians who knew Kuryokhin and worked with him who have said that he was either always a convinced Bolshevik or that he was at bottom a convinced cultural traditionalist. Now, you can bring in this whole notion of the horseshoe, the ideological horseshoe, to discuss this or make sense of it. And I just want to remind people what that is, although I’m sure many of your listeners already know. As Lucy Sante wrote in one article about William Burroughs many years ago, it’s the point where the far right and the far left blur and merge.

The division of opinion among many Russians who write about the ’80s and the ’90s in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg is that Kuryokhin was either far right or far left, or he was in that kind of shadow zone that Lucy Sante describes in regard to William Burroughs. I would say that it’s hard… Here I’m pausing because I have to give this some thought. It’s hard to say on the basis of any evidence that we have exactly what he thought politically. My discussion in the book Illiberal Vanguard: Populist Elitism in the United States and Russia about Kuryokhin and his involvement with Dugin tends towards the conclusion that Kuryokhin’s belief system, such as it was, was all about disruption, whether it be of the pieties of the left or the pieties of the right. 

And in the case of his involvement with Dugin, I think he was absolutely pranking him. There is one video you can find of him and Dugin, I think it’s in 1994, sitting next to each other on a political talk show, and the awkwardness of both of them sitting at the same table is palpable. Kuryokhin stares inappropriately, goggle-eyed at the camera, smirking while he repeats some of the earnest political statements of Aleksandr Dugin — such as “All that is secret will be revealed,” Tainoe stanet yavnim, which is from the New Testament. Essentially Dugin was somebody who was very interested in this conceit that the far-right message always has to have an esoteric dimension: “We’re telling you exactly what we feel, but if you really want to understand our belief system, you have to read very closely what we’re saying and read widely about the context from which we’ve emerged.” So there’s this notion of evangelism through the teaching of this deeper knowledge. I think Kuryokhin had no patience whatsoever with that kind of effort. It was all performative, it was all playful, it was all pranky…

Geoff Kabaservice: You do quote Dugin to the effect that Kuryokhin’s interest in his philosophy of Eurasianism was ironic at best…

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yeah.

Geoff Kabaservice: …and that he actually felt humiliated by the whole experience. And it could be that Kuryokhin’s performance was no more meaningful than Sid Vicious slapping on a swastika to upset audiences and the British media. But tell us more about Alexander Dugin, because people will have heard of him perhaps in the connection of his daughter, Darya Dugina, being assassinated in August of 2022, probably by Ukrainians, in a car bomb that might’ve been meant for her father. And it’s somewhat unusual, I think people would think, that someone who is basically a philosopher would be the target of that kind of a political effort. So tell us more about him and what he stood for and what his significance has been in Putin’s Russia.

Alexandar Mihailovic: I think the important thing to understand about Dugin is, first and foremost, before we get into a more detailed conversation about him, is that Dugin himself is not, for the most part, a significant influencer. He is not the Cardinal Richelieu to Vladimir Putin. He is not the secret advisor. None of that is true.

There are two things that are quite clear. One, that Dugin is a meme-builder. He’s highly skilled at that. I think reading Dugin’s writing and listening to his statements, what you realize is that he’s simply saying out loud what are essential presumptions or premises among the political elite in the Russian Federation. He is more explicit about those beliefs. He’s expressing them openly. He is a kind of a propagator. He is an evangelist. He is spreading the word. He is someone who is an aggregator of ideas that have been around for decades, if not a couple of hundreds of years. He’s doing an updating or popularizing of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s nationalism in many ways, which itself unfolded very much in response to events in Europe, particularly 1848, it seems to me, where he contrasted the false values of socialism — Western socialism specifically — with the real values or the more experientially substantial beliefs of Russian communitarianism.

We often speak now of capitalism and socialism being somehow at loggerheads with each other, and this is at the absolute center of the political divide. This of course is a very American perception of things in many ways. When we look at the larger canvas of world history, what you often see — and this is also true of the Global South — it’s not exclusively capitalism versus socialism. It’s competing notions of community that in some ways are symmetrical. And the rancor of the divide often has to do with the fact that these belief systems are actually quite similar to each other, and there’s a need to distinguish yourself from your political opponent in ways that clarifies your own position even more.

In regard to Dugin, he is somebody who is taking these ideas and trying to build up a theoretical edifice for them that makes sense. And he is somebody who verbalizes openly. Far from there being an esoteric dimension to what he writes, it’s actually all about making things completely explicit. What you encounter in foreign policy circles in the Russian Federation is often a reticence about, for example, what one really thinks Russian identity is in comparison to other ethnic groups within the Russian Federation. How is it distinct from those other identities? How do they overlap? All of that is kept offstage. What Dugin does is he openly brings to the fore what I would call the imperialist-neocolonialist dimension of Russian nationalism. And so he’s useful to study for understanding the beliefs that are unspoken but central to many policymakers in the Russian Federation. So that’s one dimension.

The other dimension is that he is influential in one particular policy matter, and that’s in regard to Ukraine. In 2014 — I mentioned this in my book — he openly advocated for invasion of Ukraine in a way that no policymaker in Yedinaya Rossiya, Putin’s party, dared to say. And in some cases they were clearly opposed to that whole endeavor. They thought it was nuts. “It’s one thing to oppose Maidan in Kyiv, the independence movement. It’s one thing to support the majority Russophone communities in Donbas and Donetsk and Luhansk. All that we understand. Perhaps someday they will be annexed by the Russian Federation and become a part of its territory. But invading Ukraine, bringing it back into some kind of vaguely pre-revolutionary Russian imperium?” People really did not want to openly advocate for that, although there are clear hints of that here and there in Russian policymakers’ statements.

And so I think that he was influential in that one talking point, in terms of concrete policy issues. He brought it to the fore. He made it something that people then had to make a topic of discussion. And as a result, I think Russian state policy began to be articulated in a very… Let me put it this way. It took a course. It took a course that ended with its logical conclusion that Ukraine needed to be invaded because it was a potential threat.

And very important in this regard is the notion of sphere of influence. The whole possibility of Ukraine entering into NATO is really just one subroutine of that whole idea of sphere of influence. Much more galling, from the perspective of Dugin and some people within Russia United, Putin’s party, is the possibility of Ukraine joining the European Union, because that’s really digging very deeply into the notion of the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation in a way that NATO arguably isn’t, or is more of a pie-in-the-sky or theoretical possibility than it is a reality.

Geoff Kabaservice: So there are certain resonances between Dugin and his perhaps indirect influence on Putin and Putinism, and, on the other hand, National Conservatism in this country and the ways in which it is trying to make an ideological construct out of Trump’s impulses, but also perhaps to justify even to Trump himself some of his actions. And so to get into this book, I want to ask just —somewhat overly broad questions perhaps — but what is the illiberal vanguard in both Russia and the United States? What makes them illiberal and what makes them a vanguard?

Alexandar Mihailovic: So here I think what’s important or kind of a paradigm is the notion of an intellectual elite. Here’s a particular person or a group of persons whose existence, as far as activity is concerned, is defined by making ideas rather than things. This is partly a definition that I’m drawing from Edward Said. And Edward Said is somebody whose [legacy], as you and the listeners on this show will know, is very contested because of his position on Palestine and the necessity for a Palestine that is independent from Israel, and not simply tending towards a two-country or two-state solution. But putting that aside for the time being, what Said was very notable for was fashioning this notion of the intellectual class as one that sees itself as a manufacturer, a maker of things — things that are no less powerful for being abstract rather than physical. So there’s a kind of tipping of the ontological scales. Because something cannot be tasted, cannot be necessarily touched, it doesn’t make it any less real.

And so he was very interested in this notion of the detachment of intellectual groups, and intellectuals in general, the sense in which they had at best a kind of ambiguous relationship with power. This is something that is very different, it seems to me, from many books that are written about intellectuals as a class or a group or identity. And here I’ll just cite very quickly the writing of Thomas Sowell and Paul Johnson. For them, what they argue is that the term intellectual only works within the context of the left. You don’t really have an intellectual class in terms of conservative, traditionalist, or free-market ideas. Obviously you have people who are highly articulate in talking about these ideas, but are they intellectuals? Paradoxically their understanding of intellectuals in some ways merges with Said’s. The intellectual is one that is always at a kind of ironic distance from orthodoxies, from networks of power.

When I use the term “illiberal vanguard,” I am talking about conservative, traditionalist… I hesitate to use the word conservative, because it doesn’t really work here. Conservatives are ultimately interested in conserving. I mean, just to give an example, at one of the earliest presidential debates that Ronald Reagan had, someone asked the question about conservationism. And Reagan came back right away and said, “Well, as a conservative, I’m of course interested in conservation.” He did not necessarily think of himself right off the bat as somebody who was disdainful of environmentalist concerns, which is one of the reasons why Reagan, in my opinion, did so well in that first election. And I did not vote for him. I voted against him. But giving respect where respect is due, he understood that there was a need for a coalition of American common sense that you don’t really see in much of the Republican Party right now, it seems to me.

I’ve gotten a little bit far afield, but when I speak of “illiberal vanguard,” I’m talking about traditionalist — I think that’s a better way of putting it — traditionalist and authoritarian intellectuals who are attempting to maintain or fashion a kind of relationship with state power without being absorbed by it completely. That is the best definition that I see for this movement.

Geoff Kabaservice: So what affinities do you see between someone like Alexander Dugin in Russia and people like, let’s say, Patrick Deneen in this country, the Notre Dame professor who was the author of Why Liberalism Failed, or Rod Dreher, the blogger who formerly was with The American Conservative, who has spent a lot of time, let’s put it that way, in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

Alexandar Mihailovic: Well, for starters, without addressing the matter of self-identity or self-identification of Dreher, Deneen, or Dugin, I will say that they share many of the same views. They believe in the importance of religion, or the indispensability of religion to any kind of morality. I think that’s quite clear in what those three people write. You cannot speak of morality without being a believer of some kind. Here Dugin, I think, oddly emerges as more ecumenical than Dreher and Deneen. Deneen is openly a kind of clericalist-conservative Catholic. Those of you who are interested in knowing what I mean, you should just Google that term “clericalist,” because we don’t have time necessarily to unpack all this immediately.

Dreher is somebody who sees religious affiliation and avowal as being essential to self-formation. Dugin, on the other hand, is interested in the idea of religion as being something that bolsters morality without defining it in specific doctrinal ways. And a Catholic like Deneen, a specific kind or style of Eastern Orthodox Christian that Dreher claims he is, would have no truck with that kind of notion — that there’s this notion, this understanding of tradition existing in general. So you can have a large tent with, say, conservative believers in Islam, in Judaism, in Eastern Orthodoxy, and there’s a baseline affinity that they all have with each other. I would say that this is something that is really not possible in the way those two Americans view things. So that’s one element of discussing the similarities as well as the divergences among those three people.

What is important for all three of them, it seems to me, is that they see themselves as evangelists. They’re spreading the word. Dreher is very interested in this notion of recovery of Christianity as a way of defining European identity. Deneen believes in some of the same things, although Deneen is kind of, it seems to me, caught up in a very specific understanding of natural law that is deeply Catholic, in a way. And here, what strikes me about his book, Why Liberalism Failed, which I discuss in my book, is that his writing in that book and some of his earlier work is very much a kind of diatribe. I’m not criticizing it when I say diatribe. It’s a principled diatribe of what he sees as the moral deficiency of Protestant modernity. His particular scathing comments about Francis Bacon — the philosopher, not the painter Francis Bacon — John Locke, John Stuart Mill, he describes all of these people as being in some sense advocates for untrammeled personal whimsy and free rein. And this is in many ways an understanding of Protestant modernity that comes from a very specific reading of Saint Augustine. I’ll just leave it at that.

Geoff Kabaservice: A figure who appears in your book is Yevgeny Prigozhin, who of course was no intellectual. He was a thug who became leader of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, and whose plane was blown out of the sky in August after his somewhat half-hearted coup against Putin that summer. But among his other enterprises, he had a media group called Patriot, and you wrote that this group clearly was “drawing upon the formulations of the Defense of Marriage Act that was initially advanced by the Family Research Council based in Colorado.”

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yes.

Geoff Kabaservice: And you wrote that “The replication points at the global conversions of conservative political action organizations. Patriotism is, it would seem, first and foremost a matter of standing up to the increasing hegemony of the cultural elites’ deracinated values, even if that means breaking bread with your counterparts across borders.”

Alexandar Mihailovic: Yeah.  I didn’t have a chance to discuss [Prigozhin] in detail when I wrote the book. I finished writing it, adding some points to it, in late 2022, obviously long before the head-spinning events that we’ve seen more recently and Prigozhin’s untimely death, which was not altogether a surprise. But I think the important thing about Prigozhin is that he too is an intellectual, or was an intellectual, in this way. I think this is the way to understand many of these figures, when we think of a vanguard — and here I’m using Lenin’s understanding of vanguard as in “revolutionary vanguard.” Because one of the things that is really striking about Marxist writing about the notion of the intelligentsia is its profound ambivalence. That ambivalence was in some ways made less strong by Lenin’s writing, because he saw the legitimacy of the intelligentsia as a body of people who are facilitators, who are teachers. And I think that’s very important. They’re messengers.

Prigozhin absolutely, even though he didn’t really write anything — aside from some public speeches or some statements he made on press conferences during a time that he was giving press conferences and speaking off the cuff — saw himself as a messenger and world-builder and teacher. That is what all these people have in common. And you don’t have to be that kind of a person, that kind of an intellectual, with a weighty portfolio of essay writing. This of course is made even more possible by the world that we live in now, the internet, with rapid propagation of people’s individual statements. The way in which, as Mark Twain put it, a lie can circumnavigate the world well before the truth puts its boots on.

And here, I don’t know if you’ve been following, Geoff, what’s been going on in Saint Petersburg with the conviction of the artist in Saint Petersburg, Aleksandra Skochilenko. Have you been following that?

Geoff Kabaservice: I have not, no.

Alexandar Mihailovic: So this has been printed up in several different news sources. It’s pretty interesting, some of the details are very interesting. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, she went into a chain supermarket outlet and attached to some food items tags indicating: “You are buying a product that is sold in a country that is invading Ukraine and destroying its population, particularly in cities such as Mariupol, resulting in catastrophic civilian death.” She was arrested for that. And the decision that was issued this week was that for this calumny against the Russian army, she will be incarcerated for at least seven years.

Just putting to the side the outrageous aspect of this [sentencing], I just want to point out one statement that she made in court that was very interesting, and it speaks to this whole matter of what is an intelligentsia. She was convicted under Article 207.3 of the new Russian criminal code, and this article specifically states that any slandering or false information about the Russian military is subject to criminal conviction. That’s the law that she’s been convicted under. But she drew a very interesting analogy: “Had I not been arrested, it would have been known only to one granny/babushka, a cashier, and a security guard at the Perekrestok store” — the chain supermarket that she did this at. “And according to the case files, two of these individuals were not impressed by this information.” People who saw the tag, they just didn’t care. “Please tell me: Do investigators distribute drugs among state employees when prosecuting under Article 228, which is all about drug conviction and drug trafficking?”

The analogy she’s drawing is between the passing of false information and the trafficking of drugs. And what she’s saying is that in some ways, information itself is morally neutral. Often it’s a matter of hermeneutics how we interpret that information. But the interpretations themselves can become viral. They can serve in some sense as being analogous to controlled substances. It’s a form of drug trafficking. And what she’s saying is that the Russian Federation, by labeling this information as undesirable, is engaging in an intellectual equivalent of drug trafficking.

And what’s significant here, it seems to me, is this notion of information as something that is never standalone. It always has to be packaged, it always has to be labeled, it always has to be interpreted. She herself was engaging in the labeling of particular grocery items at the store with messages that had nothing to do with the item to which she had affixed it. 

So what the illiberal vanguard does, and intellectual elites in general, is engage in the process of labeling and deliberate contagion. And that was my point of departure for this book. If we understand the far right in this kind of… Or not the far right, let me just back up, because some of these phrases are very slippery. If we understand the authoritarian right as engaged in the making of cultural objects, then we have to see them as being a group that is far larger than any educated elite. Almost anybody can be a member of this entity — even someone like Prigozhin, who was a complete political eccentric. He was a very strange bird. On the one hand, he understood himself as a traditionalist. On the other hand, he saw himself as having affinity with the criminal underclass in the Russian prison system, which he spent significant time in. He understood from that experience in the Russian prison system the importance of enforcement. You need enforcer figures, whether it be people who enforce ideas or enforce physical safety or mete out punishment within a particular setting. This is how he understands the Russian army, or understood. (I keep on speaking of him in the present tense, because it seems to me that these ideas are still very much there in the world that we live in.) At the same time, even though he respected the army as an enforcer and an entity that maintains order, he himself never served in the army and had contempt for its leadership. 

So you have this notion of the vanguard as basically a preserver of values — through act, through statement. This is how we need to see intellectuals now, it seems to me, and not just in terms of, say, writers who produce essays for journals as diverse or as different as (in the United States) The New Republic, New York Review of Books, The Nation, The American Conservative, National Review. We need to understand them in a sense that is wider than those people or, in Russia, publications such as Snob, which is very expressive of the urban elites of the Russian Federation, or of far-right newspapers such as Zavtra, “tomorrow.” We need to understand them as basically these constructors of memes, who are aware of themselves as constructors of memes, that have this ontological weight that is as significant as anything that is made by hand. Does that make sense? I’m sorry, I just wanted to elaborate upon this in a little bit more detail.

Geoff Kabaservice: It makes sense. I wish we had more time to get into this. In a way, the picture of Prigozhin you present is more terrifying than I’d actually given him credit for. Because although it seems like there’s a military regimentation that people on the right would like to push upon the society, in fact it sounds like you’re saying Prigozhin really wanted to push upon the society the absolute order of the prison in Russia, with its elaborately coded tattoos and its rigidly specified hierarchies and roles. And that is actually a much more apocalyptic and dystopic scenario.

But let me, as a final question, come back to you with a different figure. It’s easy enough to point to people like in the League of the South, this neo-Confederate organization that sees Putin as a defender of religion and race and order and natural hierarchies. There are probably some American equivalents to the Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers here, which are also having a very religious-based view of the way society ought to be organized.

But in some ways, the person in American politics who seems to have studied Russian and Soviet politics most closely is Steve Bannon, who’s always acted as someone who is not exactly Trump’s éminence grise but somebody who is also a theoretician of Trumpism, who has some influence over Trump even as Trump influences him. And what Bannon has, I think, consistently said that he sees himself as a Leninist — not somebody who is enforcing an order but somebody who is actually out to destroy an order, to destroy the state, and to overthrow the current elite as it exists — an anti-establishmentarian. So, how does someone like Bannon fit into your overall analysis of illiberal vanguardism in both the United States and Russia?

Alexandar Mihailovic: Bannon we would typically not think of as an intellectual, like Prigozhin. And yet it seems to me that he is, in this way that I’m discussing. How can I put it? Like Hephaestus in [Greek] mythology, he’s the fashioner, producer, maker, forger of powerful tools. It seems to me what all of these people have in common, and especially Dugin and Bannon — who by the way met once, as I discuss this in the book — what they have in common is this preoccupation with the notion of empire, the moral necessity of empire. The Catholic school that Bannon went to, for example, very much in its curriculum emphasized not just the Tridentine Mass, which one can respect: the beauty of Latin, the sonorousness of it, the way in which the English translations of so many liturgies in Islam and Christianity and Judaism, the English translations invariably sound so wimpy and so nothing.

But I think that that’s in some ways the least important part of Bannon. I think what’s really important, what really interested him in terms of Catholicism, was this notion of it as the conqueror of continents. And so the voyage of Columbus is basically seen as a Catholic endeavor. Dugin himself is very interested in the notion of an old-time religion as the builder of worlds that are both abstract and very concrete. They bring together both domains into one.

About two years ago, he made a fuss about converting to Old Belief, becoming an Old Believer in Russia.  I don’t have time to explain what that is. People can just Google it. Old Beliefs — starovery, staroe obryadchestvo in Russian — it’s basically an Orthodox tradition that defends the absolute inviolability of the original liturgical and biblical text. But for both Dugin and for Bannon, it’s all connected to empire. You’re building words with the Word, which cannot get corrupted.

And I think that there is this Lost Cause element that people don’t really talk about in Bannon’s statements and his general perspective on things. He was educated in Virginia in this very specific Catholic enclave, and this notion of the original values, the old values that had been forgotten or disdained or have been subsequently overridden by modernity, all of that is a really big part of Lost Cause mythology in some of the former Confederate states. And that’s something that’s not talked about a lot in terms of Bannon, but I think it’s actually quite important. So they’re both kind of, just to bring it to a close, nostalgists for empire.

Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. On that somewhat depressing note, Alexandar Mihailovic, thank you so much for talking with me today, and congratulations on the publication of your book, Illiberal Vanguard: Populist Elitism in the United States and Russia.

Alexandar Mihailovic: Geoff, thank you so much for this, your terrific questions, your comments. They got me thinking in new ways about this subject. And thank you for having me on your show.

Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at contact@niskanencenter.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.