MOSCOW – As Russia and the United States drifted last week toward a rupture over Crimea, the Stalinist writer Alexander A. Prokhanov felt that his moment had finally arrived.
“I am afraid that I am interested in a cold war with the West,” Prokhanov, 76, said in a lull between interviews on state-controlled television and radio. “I was very patient. I waited for 20 years. I did everything I could so that this war would begin. I worked day and night.”
Prokhanov is an attack dog whose career has risen, fallen and risen again with the fortunes of hard-liners in the Kremlin. And it is a measure of the conservative pivot that has taken place in Moscow in Vladimir V. Putin’s third presidential term that Prokhanov and a cadre of like-minded thinkers – a kind of “who’s who of conspiratorial anti-Americanism,” as one scholar put it – have found themselves thrust into the mainstream.
For centuries, Russian history has been driven by a struggle between ideas, as reformers and revanchists wrestled over the country’s future. Putin keeps a distance from the ideological entrepreneurs clustered around the Kremlin, leaving his influences a matter of speculation.
But it became clear last week, as the United States threatened to cut off Russian corporations from the Western financial system, that influential members of the president’s inner circle view isolation from the West as a good thing for Russia, the strain of thought advanced by Prokhanov and his fellow travelers. Some in Putin’s camp see the confrontation as an opportunity to make the diplomatic turn toward China that they have long advocated, said Sergei A. Karaganov, a dean of the faculty of international relations at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“This whole episode is going to change the rules of the game,” Karaganov said of Crimea, which is holding a referendum on secession today. “Confrontation with the West is welcomed by all too many here, to cleanse the elite, to organize the nation.”
Russia flexed its muscle in the U.N. Security Council on Saturday, using its veto power to quash a resolution proposed by the United States that declared the referendum illegal, with China, its traditional ally, abstaining. As a permanent member of the Council, Russia has the right to reject any council measure.
When he took power in Russia, Putin seemed intent on balancing the voices of strong-state nationalists and promarket liberals, among them the tycoons entrusted with Russia’s corporate empires. That balance flew out the window in 2012, and with the Crimean crisis the space for liberal dissent has been melting away, a process that accelerated Thursday when the Russian authorities blocked websites used by prominent opposition figures.
Prokhanov, for one, was flush with victory. His dingy office and tiny, extremist newspaper belie ties to Russia’s security services, which have long employed “agitators” to whip up support for their initiatives. His writing about the invasion of Afghanistan earned him the nickname “nightingale of the General Staff.” In 1991, he co-wrote the manifesto that was published to support an attempted coup by hard-line Communists who were opposed to Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms.
His views have been more or less consistent for years: that the Soviet Union should be restored, by force if necessary; that America “consumes country after country” and must be prevented from devouring Russia. As recently as 2003, his newspaper received a government warning for publishing material deemed “extremist.” But Putin’s recent return to the presidency, he said, has been accompanied by “a strong ideological mutation.”
Prokhanov, who speaks in rich, metaphorical Russian and has the slightly disheveled look of a beat poet, contrasted the present government with that of Boris Yeltsin, the president in the 1990s. “In Yeltsin’s time I was seen as a monster by the regime, a character out of hell,” he said. “I was under threat of arrest, and now I am regularly invited to Kremlin events.”
Another person who has been swept into the mainstream is one of Prokhanov’s former protégés, Alexander G. Dugin, who, in the late 1990s, called for “the blinding dawn of a new Russian Revolution, fascism – borderless as our lands, and red as our blood.”
Virulently anti-American, Dugin has urged a “conservative revolution” that combines left-wing economics and right-wing cultural traditionalism. In a 1997 book, he introduced the idea of building a Eurasian empire “constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy,” which he identified as Atlanticism, liberal values, and geopolitical control by the United States.
Building a Eurasian economic bloc, including Ukraine, became a central goal for Putin upon his return to the presidency. His point man on the project was the economist Sergei Glazyev, an associate of Prokhanov’s and Dugin’s.
Though a number of high-ranking officials around Putin have argued strenuously against this ideological shift, Dugin said that their influence had been waning steadily, and that the Crimean crisis left them no option but to “be quiet, or gather up their suitcases and leave Russia.”