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24 August 2022

What the murder of Darya Dugina means for Russia

If there's one thing we know for sure, it's that it will cause future violence.

By Katie Stallard

In the hours before Darya Dugina was murdered in a car bomb attack near Moscow on 20 August, her father, the Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin, called for a “substantial” transformation in Russia. The entire country must be mobilised to fight “to the end” in Ukraine, he insisted, in a war he views as a civilisational struggle against the West. He said the Kremlin must wake up to the scale of the challenges it faced. “Let the old regime bury its dead,” Dugin wrote on social media. “A new Russian time is coming.”

His 29-year-old daughter was killed later that evening as she left a nationalist cultural festival on the outskirts of the Russian capital, where Dugin had delivered a lecture. Russian officials said an explosive device was attached under her car and detonated by remote control. Numerous critics of Vladimir Putin have been murdered during his two decades in power, but such attacks on supporters of his regime are rare. Dugina’s assassination was reminiscent of an earlier time in Russian politics during the 1990s, when powerful factions battled for influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is still unclear whether Dugina or her father was the intended target. Family friends have said that they had planned to travel home together, but at the last moment he took a different vehicle. Footage circulated by Russian media outlets appeared to show Dugin standing, distraught, in front of the burning vehicle. In a statement, he said his daughter had been “brutally killed by an explosion in front of my eyes” and called for vengeance in the form of victory in Ukraine.

Dugin’s influence on the Russian president has been overstated. He is not, and never has been, “Putin’s brain”. Nor, despite his wild hair, long grey beard, and the reputation for mysticism he has cultivated, is Dugin “Putin’s Rasputin” – the modern incarnation of the “mad monk” who wielded influence in the court of the last Romanov, Tsar Nicholas II – although this is surely a role he would enjoy. Rather, Dugin, who is 60, is an ultranationalist philosopher, and a highly effective self-publicist, who has helped to popularise the idea of Eurasianism for a contemporary Russian audience. This is a world-view that has periodically complemented the Kremlin’s priorities. Specifically, Dugin promotes an expansionist vision of Russia as a distinct civilisation that is destined to rule over the entire Eurasian landmass and roll back liberal Atlanticism. He has been urging Russia to invade Ukraine for decades.

[See also: Are sanctions still hurting Russia?]

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Eurasianism is not Dugin’s idea. The concept originated among Russian émigrés in the 1920s who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. It returned to prominence in the 1960s thanks to the historian Lev Gumilyov, who inspired Dugin’s interest in the subject. Dugin had links with the military hardliners who tried to overthrow the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the failed coup of August 1991. He later developed the ideas that would become his bestselling 1997 book The Foundations of Geopolitics while delivering fortnightly lectures to the Russian General Staff Academy, the senior staff college of the armed forces. He deliberately set out to write a “how-to manual for conquest and political rule in the manner of Niccolò Machiavelli”, explains Charles Clover in his study of Russian nationalism Black Wind, White Snow.

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Foundations became a set text for officers at the General Staff Academy and it sold out in Russia in four print runs. Dugin later founded the website Geopolitica, and his writings became popular with the American far right. His Eurasianist philosophy and his disdain for Ukrainian sovereignty suited Russia’s initial dismemberment of the country in 2014 and he was featured heavily on state media outlets. He has helped to recruit volunteers to fight in Ukraine and urged them to “kill, kill, kill” Ukrainians.

His daughter was a well-known nationalist commentator herself, appearing regularly on Russian state television. She had also been sanctioned by the US and the UK for her role in spreading disinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After her death, Putin awarded her the Order of Courage, and within 48 hours of the attack, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed to have solved the case. The agency said that a Ukrainian woman, with her 12-year-old daughter in tow, had assassinated Dugina, and then escaped to Estonia. Conveniently, it also claimed she was linked to Ukraine’s notorious Azov regiment.

Yet senior Ukrainian officials have denied any involvement. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, dismissed the FSB’s explanation, suggesting the murder had been commissioned in Russia instead. “Vipers in special services started an intraspecies fight,” he wrote on Twitter. This is by no means impossible. Putin has faced criticism from far-right nationalists in Russia, who point to failures in the Russian military offensive, while Dugin has publicly urged the Kremlin to escalate the war. Car bomb attacks on separatist leaders in the Russian-held regions of Ukraine in recent years have been blamed on Kyiv, but many analysts believe they were more likely to have been carried out by the Russian security services to rein in perceived troublemakers.

In the 1990s violent crime was a feature of life in major Russian cities, where businessmen took to travelling with machine-gun-toting bodyguards. By contrast, Putin has long cast himself as the guarantor of a stable Russia, the man who put an end to the violence and the chaos that ruled before. At a minimum, he will exploit this assassination to go after his enemies at home and perhaps to escalate his war in Ukraine. But if we are now witnessing the beginning of a new elite power struggle in Moscow, its consequences will be felt far beyond Russia’s borders. The one certainty is that Dugina’s death will be followed by more violence.

[See also: Russia is still underestimating Ukraine]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars