The making and unmaking of Putin’s Rasputin
Last week a bomb was planted under a car in Moscow. Daria Dugina, a columnist for Tsargrad TV (a conservative, Orthodox, pro-Putin, media outlet), was the victim — though no one was quite sure why she was a target.
Daria was an erudite young woman and, from the Kremlin’s perspective, ideologically sound. She was an apologist for Russia’s war in Ukraine and sanctioned by both Britain and the United States.
Barely had the fires from the explosion been put out before Russian security services knew who to blame. It was the Ukrainians that did it.
Taking its cue from the security services’ brand of evidence-free speculation, it now seems the entire world has an answer to the question: “Who killed Daria Dugina?”
Daria was best known as the daughter of Alexander Dugin — a suitably bearded philosopher who promoted the Orwellian idea of the empire of “Eurasia” with its capital in Moscow. Dugin was behind his daughter, in a separate car, when the bomb exploded, leading many to assume that he was the target.
The strange, unsettling murder of Daria has created, or perhaps refreshed, curiosity about her father. As a Russian, albeit in exile, it has been hard for me to reconcile what I read about him in western media with the rather more obscure figure he is in Russia.
Profile writers in the West describe a man who provides the intellectual underpinnings of Putin’s imperial worldview, including his decision in 2014 to annex Crimea. Already back then he was described in the magazine “Foregn Affairs” as “Putin’s brain.” Putin himself — in this interview with TV presenter and Putin acolyte, Vladimir Solovyov — echoes almost to the word Dugin’s thoughts on a revitalized Russosphere.
But Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a Russian political scientist, says that we should not confuse cause and effect.
“It’s not that Putin had no intention to take over Ukraine and annex Crimea,” he told me, “and then picked up Dugin and abruptly changed his mind.” Instead, Krasheninnikov appears to be arguing, it’s the other way around — that Putin had made a decision and then started looking around for justifications. Dugin’s ideas are not that original, this argument goes; they just happen to effectively express the Kremlin’s nationalism and confidence in Russia’s imperial destiny.
But now, rather surreally, the Western and Russian versions of Dugin are beginning to merge into a kind of super myth. He is not quite the backstage Rasputinesque master manipulator as imagined by the West. Nor is he the marginal figure with a taste for the occult as imagined by younger, hipper Russians who cannot identify with him.
Instead, the death of Daria Dugina has made her father the new face of a Russia being pushed ever further to the right by a war of attrition.
At Daria’s funeral on Tuesday, Leonid Slutsky, deputy of the State Duma, chanted: “One country, one president, one victory!” The parallels seemed obvious: “One people, one Reich, one Führer!”
Alexander Dugin too made his standard ideological pitch, a rabble-rousing ideologue out of central casting. To me, it seemed like he was in denial. This was a man who had lost his daughter to a war he craved.
He may or may not have sowed the wind but he certainly reaped the whirlwind.
IN GLOBAL NEWS
There is no growing “threat” to press freedom in Central American nations such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The threat has now been carried out. Press freedom in these countries is dead.
There are so few journalists left in Nicaragua to persecute that the president, Daniel Ortega, is going after the Catholic Church. He is arresting critical clerics. Pews in churches, where occasionally dissidents can still speak, are empty. And seven radio stations affiliated to the Church were shut down. Well over a hundred journalists are languishing in Nicaraguan prisons. There are no newspapers currently being printed in the country; and many journalists for “La Prensa,” frequently described as one of the oldest newspapers in the Western Hemisphere have decamped to Costa Rica to produce a digital version that almost no one in Nicaragua can actually see, given the restriction on VPNs. In Guatemala too, editors and reporters are being arrested and charged with money laundering, surely intended as irony when most of the journalists who earn the government’s ire do it because they report on the government’s corruption and cronyism. “Enemies of the independent press,” is how a Salvadoran journalist described Central American governments in a Spanish-language op-ed in the Washington Post. “We are the targets,” he wrote.
As for Costa Rica, where so many Nicaraguan journalists are taking refuge and continuing to cover their country — the new president has just called the press the “enemy.”
Central America is at the sharp end of worrying attacks on the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In Southeast Asia, repressive laws like sedition, lese majeste, and defamation are routinely used to arrest activists, journalists, opposition politicians and critics in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesia too is currently in the process of drafting laws that effectively criminalize free expression and enables authorities to define what counts as journalism and what is gratuitous or false.
In India, with its supposedly garrulous press, the BJP government is notorious for keeping mainstream news channels on a tight leash. It also appears interested in content moderation on social media. Among the many embarrassing revelations to emerge from the allegations made by Peiter Zatko, former head of security at Twitter, is that the Indian government insisted on having an agent with direct access to user accounts on the company’s payroll.
And if you can’t shut up journalists through legislation and intimidation, just get a crony capitalist to buy out your critics. NDTV, arguably the last mainstream news channel that was consistently critical of the Narendra Modi government, is trying to ward off a hostile takeover by an arm of the Adani Group. The conglomerate is run by Gautam Adani, who has risen at extraordinary speed from relative obscurity to becoming the fourth richest man in the world. The Adani Group bought out a company that owned 29% of NDTV, triggering a clause that permits them to bid for a further 26% which would effectively cede control of the station to one of Modi’s closest allies. In May, India was ranked 150th out of 180 countries in this year’s edition of the Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders.
Should the takeover succeed, critics might legitimately wonder if there is a threat to press freedom in India, or if, like in much of Central America and Southeast Asia, the free press is on life support.
This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior editor Shougat Dasgupta. Liam Scott contributed to this edition.