Marlene Laruelle: Russian society is very different from its regime

Andrea Pető in conversation with Marlene Laruelle about illiberalism studies, whether Russia is fascist, the nature of Russia’s illiberalism, as well as its conservative softpower.

Marlene Laruelle is a Director and Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University. Dr. Laruelle is also Director of the Illiberalism Studies Program. Dr. Laruelle received her Ph.D. in history at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures (INALCO) and her habilitation in political science at Sciences-Po in Paris.

The conversation was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Andrea Pető: You have an impressive list of publications in a field which is usually not a field for women scholars: foreign policy, energy policy, security, illiberalism. How did you end up in this field? How do you cope with different personal and institutional hurdles of neoliberal academia?

Marlene Laruelle: My original training was in political philosophy and I have always been interested in studying the rights, which I define as the inner driver of my research. I like being challenged intellectually and trying to comprehend them in a scholarly sense. Actually, policy and security issues were not my personal choice, I had to make it for professional reasons. I arrived in the US about ten years ago and I had to find a way to create my small niche – you can imagine that political philosophy is not something you can sell easily. Thus, I had to move to the more established foreign-policy issues. 

As you were mentioning neoliberal academia, I really feel I am living in a very neoliberal academic world – not only because I am in the US, but because I am not a tenured professor, but what is called a research professor, meaning that my salary is entirely secured through grants. Which implies a whole bunch of conditions that have to be fulfilled, including many ethical issues when carrying out research in this sort of neoliberal framework. This is very challenging.

You belong to this small – but increasing – number of scholars like myself, who love to read those right-wing/illiberal writers and intellectuals and to think through their minds. Ten years ago my work was considered as a fringe work, a career killer, and by now suddenly it is in the mainstream and several colleagues invented themselves as researchers of illiberalism and populism. How can you explain that surge in research? Is this a Hegelian “cunning of reason”- to influence the reactive research agenda instead of thinking of something new?

I’ve had a similar experience. I remember I was always criticized for working on the fringes, on the crazy ones nobody cares about, not being connected to the main social sciences. It was all reversed quite rapidly a few years ago. I believe the explanation lies more in the positionality of academia: our colleagues are mostly progressively-oriented, people who did not want to recognize the changes occurring in our society. These changes were already visible twenty years ago, but they were seen as fringe, as something not worth studying. And I see those limitations, for instance here in the US during Trump election: some of my colleagues could not believe what was happening, because they did not want to see the other side of American culture. While for me, as a foreigner, it was obvious that some aspects of American culture and politics are deeply conservative and illiberal. It is all about how we combine our positioning as scholars with our positioning as citizens. Sometimes, the citizen side does not allow us to look at what is actually happening in our society or, on the contrary, there are periods when that side pushes us to study things as populism and illiberalism.

Yes, “illiberalism” is such an elusive term. You are also the editor of a new handbook on illiberalism. How do you define that very vague or loose term and do you think this offers a good framework for scientific scrutiny?

Contrary to populism, illiberalism is bringing back the discussion to what “liberalism” is. The concept of populism is not able to trigger such a debate. But I agree on the vagueness of the term, especially when it is used as a noun.

In our ongoing work for the Oxford Handbook on Illiberalism we are trying to bring some clarity on the concept. To my own personal definition, illiberalism is the byproduct of liberalism – especially of neoliberalism. It is a  new ideological universe, ery fluid and context-based, still with some degree of coherence: it proposes solutions that are both majoritarian, nation-centric, favouring traditional hierarchy and cultural homogeneity; and it calls for shifting from politics to culture, which I find very post-postmodern. I believe it is an interesting term that we have worked around, not to use as a negative label, but to understand why we see this sort of a backlash against various expressions of liberalism – from politics to culture. We have a very broad agenda, sometimes overlapping with the research done on populism more globally.

Then your research is set around illiberalism, by reading the works of those who are often ignored, but the other pillar is connected to Russia and its imperial conquest. Can you connect your research to the current tension between Russia and Ukraine? Is this really a beginning of a new Cold War, as some analysts are forecasting?

I see two trends that are interrelated yet different. First,

Russia is a post-imperial nation and has still a lot of difficulties in projecting itself as a nation state, both at home and in relation to its neighbours. Of course, Ukraine is not just “another neighbour” to Russia, thereby it is difficult for the latter to do nation-building without including Ukraine as one element of its identity.

Secondly, on a more geopolitical dimension,

there is a feeling of insecurity of Russia as a state which is cultivated by Putin through associating it to the security of the regime itself. Thus, there have been a series of misunderstandings between the West and Russia, about how the Cold War ended – such as who won, what rules were agreed for its aftermath and so forth. 

Here Ukraine has become the center of tensions, because its geopolitical orientations are embodying either the success of the West in deciding what will be the security structure of Europe today or its failure implying a partial Russian success.

What we see in Russia’s demands is not only the issue of Ukraine joining or not NATO: more globally, it is about reshaping Europe’s security architecture in a way that would make Russia feel more secure by pushing the US away. Thus, the status of Russia in this post-cold war period, especially in Europe and in its triangle with the US, is something that Russia wants to shape according to its needs and fears.


I do not like the historical reference to the Cold War, for nowadays things are more fluid both ideologically and strategically. Although we are no doubt living a new period of tensions, which I do not believe will end soon, the Cold War was a time of neat black-and-white views. On the contrary, current dynamics are very much fluid and liquid: it is more difficult for countries to navigate the contemporary world than it was in the Cold-War era.

You were mentioning historical analogies, such as the one with the Cold War, but you also wrote an interesting book about the relationship between Russia and fascism. Are historical analogies useful or they are signalling intellectual laziness to understand fundamentally new, contemporary phenomena? What are the limits of using historical analogies?

I believe that historical analogies can help people capture something that is happening. However, scholarly speaking they are a form of intellectual laziness, as you were mentioning. To me, labelling someone or something as fascist when referring to any expression of illiberalism and populism is a form of intellectual capitulation. It is avoiding to understand why liberal democracies are indeed weakening from inside or challenged from the outside; so to say, it is avoiding discussing the structural reasons that make liberal democracy weaker. This is not a good strategy, for we need to discuss the grievances expressed by those who are supporting these illiberal leaders. That is why labelling Putin, or Erdogan, Orban or Trump as fascist is a reductionist thinking that does not help find solutions to the issue.

I believe that this kind of inflation in labels we have seen over the last few years is the result of the ideological fluidity in which we live. This fluidity is creating feelings of insecurity, because of which people feel the need to bring back old-style doctrinal boxes that are easy to fill. And the notion of fascism is clearly easy to use as well as a very powerful dichotomy between good guys and bad guys. There is nothing more polarizing than identifying someone as the worst regime on earth, such as the Nazi regime. Paradoxically, we do not know yet where the good is, but we are quite sure about what is the evil. Therefore, we find easy to label illiberal trends as fascism.

What I try to demonstrate in the book is that, by labelling Russia as fascist as several public intellectuals do, we are refusing to capture why Russia has become illiberal. And we tend to exclude that country from the international scene, which I believe is intellectually wrong as well as dangerous policy-wise.

It would be much more constructive to understand Russia as an illiberal regime and to comprehend what makes it so strong today. This would be working on our weaknesses instead of labelling the other as the absolute enemy.

There is one element of soft power that I find interesting: neopatrimonalism, introducing a new terminology instead of the liberal-legal terminology as in the case of domestic violence, gender violence – or other cases I could list. Russia also pioneered in supporting home schooling and creating a new social bonding outside the state while at the same time it supports influential transnational organisations like the World Congress of Families transmitting these ideas globally. How do you explain these developments and do you see the trajectory of these alternative concepts and values?

Russia is indeed become a key player in the transnationalisation of illiberal subculture. But the US has been the main driver in the exportation of culture wars, since at least a decade: home schooling, gun culture, abortion, anti-vaxxers, climate change; all things that were much more developed in the US than they were in Russia. However, Russia has now become now very visible.

Russia became illiberal very early if compared to other Central and Eastern European countries, for it had a very violent encounter with liberalism in the ‘90s. This explains the backlash that we see in Russia right now.

Furthermore, the fact that Russia had to rebuild a soft power is another key aspect. This power cannot be universalistic as communism had been. Russia has built what I call a “niche soft power” that is speaking to a very specific audience, the goal being to destabilize the kind of obviousness of the Western-style liberalism. Thus, Russia is using the illiberal narrative as the key soft power with Western audiences – especially those who are disillusioned with liberalism. We should not forget that, when Russia speaks to Latin America, it speaks with a more Soviet-leftist style, or with a more Muslim-oriented narrative when it speaks to the Middle East. It is like a chameleon, with the capacity to speak different languages, being nevertheless a leader in this sort of illiberal narrative. Indeed, the way the Russian regime is built offers large rooms of manoeuvre to the so-called ideological entrepreneurs – those people who operate in the grey zone of Putin regime and who can build ideological (but also financial) empires for themselves. That is where we would find all the Russian figures that have been connecting with these culture warst, such as pro- family groups or the European far right.

It is fascinating to see Russia as an echo-chamber of what is happening in our society. I do not think Russia is creating things from scratch. And it does not always win this soft-power battle.

I always use the interesting example of the relationship between Russia and Poland: both governments share many illiberal values and the promotion of a sort of conservative, family-centred tradition, as well as the same attitude towards national sovereignty; yet they are totally opposed to each other geopolitically.

This is to say that Russia does have some soft power to influence some illiberal audiences, but that is not sufficient to create solid geopolitical partnerships.

I also find fascinating how the Russian society is quite creative and innovative in creating illiberal contents. I believe that is a relevant lesson we have to learn as scholars: civil society can develop in a very illiberal way – not necessarily liberal. Of course, in the specific Russian case we can also say that such a creatively-illiberal civil society has been co-opted and used by the regime as ideological export.

I believe that you argue very convincingly that Russia’s soft power is strongly connected to illiberalism, which Russia manages as a chameleon that can use different arguments ad hoc. But I would also argue that the way Russia builds its soft-power anti-equality, anti-gender movement somehow serves as a glue for otherwise not-harmonizable concepts and values. Listening to your answer, however, there seem to be not much hope for Russia to get out from its illiberal period. Do you think that there is an “other Russia”? What are the chances that the system built up by President Putin will collapse soon? 

I am both optimistic and pessimistic, to be fair. I am optimistic because there is a Russian society that is very different from the regime, which exists beyond-and-below the regime and is extremely lively from a cultural perspective: some parts of Russian culture are very innovative, creative, globalised and progressive – and it is blossoming right now in arts, literature, cartoons, music. Indeed, this is one of the paradoxes of the Russian regime: we can see that the young generation is becoming very active in terms of urban activism, environment, charity, crowed-funding, gender equality and so on; I believe this may progressively penetrate state institutions.

On the other hand,

I am pessimistic regarding how the regime itself could change or collapse. I do not believe it can collapse, or be transformed byrevolutionary opponents such as Navalny, because change will be resisted by violence by the security services. I believe that the day when there will be a post-Putin Russia it will nevertheless remain a difficult partner for the West.

Perhaps it will be much easier to deal with, but we should not be hoping for a Russia with which we can totally get along.

In other words, I believe that in the future we will see a more polarised Russia: a potentially more illiberal state will be conflicting not only internationally, but also at home against the other Russia I was describing earlier.

The conversation was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

In collaboration with Giancarlo Grignaschi

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