The Death of Dugina
On Saturday night, the war in Ukraine came to the outskirts of Moscow: A Toyota Land Cruiser traveling on the Mozhayskoye Highway near the village of Bolshiye Vyazemi exploded in a massive fireball, killing the driver and sole occupant, Darya Dugina. Dugina, 29, was the daughter of the Russian mystical philosopher, ultranationalist guru, and occultist crank Aleksandr Dugin, sometimes described as Vladimir Putin’s “spiritual guide” or even “Putin’s brain”—and it seems highly likely that her father was the intended target of the blast.
Who was behind the assassination and what it means may not be known for some time—if ever. But it is worth digging into what we do know, and considering the important questions that remain unanswered, so that we might better understand both Dugin’s sinister and enigmatic reputation and the deadly muddle of Russia in 2022.
Dugin’s life and career is a rabbit hole. (See my profile of him from April.) At 60, he has been, over the years, a dabbler in Satanism and a Russian Orthodox holy warrior; a self-proclaimed champion of “Russian fascism” and a “conservative” political philosopher; a college dropout and a department head at Moscow State University. His works include a bizarre 1997 essay extolling a cannibalistic serial killer as a practitioner of “Dionysian sacraments” and a treatise on “geopolitics,” published in the same year, that quickly became a textbook at Russia’s top military and police academies and at some elite universities. Observers who have tried to figure him out have described him both as a terrifying zealot and as a huckster whose zealotry may be a postmodernist act. The one thing that unites Dugin’s many faces is hatred of Western liberalism and belief in a Russian imperial identity.
Serious Russia watchers such as Mark Galeotti of the Prague Institute of International Relations generally scoff at the “Putin’s brain” moniker, arguing that Dugin’s influence on the Russian autocrat is greatly exaggerated. There is, in fact, no evidence that the two men have ever met or that Putin has been influenced by Dugin and his work, though Dugin has indisputably had close ties at various times to high-level members of the Putin-era political elite. It is also a fact that his writings anticipated the “Novorossiya project” of using Eastern Ukraine as the beachhead of a revived Russian empire—and, while it would be a vast exaggeration to describe him as the architect or mastermind of this project, it is a known fact that he advised the pro-Russia insurgents of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.”
The life story of Darya Dugina, Dugin’s only daughter from his second marriage (to philosophy professor Natalia Melentieva), has some mysteries of its own. Meduza, the Russian news site in exile, reports that until a few years ago Dugina, who graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in philosophy in 2014 and then got the equivalent of a master’s degree with a thesis on Plato, apparently kept a distance from her father’s views. “Her father had no influence on her whatsoever,” a male friend who preferred to remain anonymous told the site. A female college friend, Viktoria Skuibedina, said that she may have even tried to “run away from home.”
Yet by the end of the decade, Dugina was fully her father’s daughter (despite using the pseudonym Darya Platonova, presumably derived from her interest in Plato). In a 2021 YouTube interview, she declared that it was “a great honor to be the daughter of such a man” and that she was “proudly carrying the banner of being a daughter.” In addition to serving as Dugin’s press secretary, she was a hardcore activist in his “Eurasia movement” and a speaker at its events, as well as a writer for pro-government outlets and a pundit with regular appearances on Kremlin-controlled broadcast media.
Having once described Ukraine on Russian television as a “cordon sanitaire” separating Russia from Europe, Dugina enthusiastically embraced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. On her Telegram channel, she wrote:
Last night I was walking along a deserted Moscow street, and far away a Russian flag was billowing on a building. And a quiet rustle: the Russians are coming. Woman’s intuition is a powerful thing. For some reason, this quiet and this flag caught my attention. A slogan in my head: “Empire, be!” I woke up, and there was empire.
In mid-June, Dugina went to Mariupol to tour the Azovstal plant where the city’s Ukrainian defenders took their last stand. On her return, she enthused in a post on VKontakte, the Russian analogue of Facebook:
For me, Novorossiya [i.e., Eastern Ukraine] is a space of philosophical meaning. It is Russia’s empire-forming space, and it is thanks to this frontier horizon that we exist as Russia: What’s more, an unvanquished Russia, a Russia risen against the totalitarian liberalism that is being imposed all over the world. . . . It is there that the right attitudes toward life and death, toward self and other, have been constructed; it is there that the meanings of our empire are being formed. . . . One must go to Novorossiya to learn what life is, to learn how one should live, to learn what the breath of empire is and what empire is. . . . It is created to awaken us.
In an appearance on Russia’s state-controlled Channel One, Dugina asserted with a straight face that what Russia was actually doing in Mariupol was “trying to reclaim the peaceful population from death.” It turns out, however, that she wasn’t talking about literal death: “Death is the loss of community,” she explained, with a reference to the nineteenth-century German Romantic poet Novalis. “In Ukraine, this community, this unity of the people, was lost; a whole bunch of groups appeared with an aggressive ideology, with absolute Russophobia.” What Novorossiya really needs, she concluded, is “the introduction of ideology.” Oh, and tribunals for the “Nazis” and “non-humans” fighting for the Ukrainian side.
On other occasions, Dugina claimed that the killings in Bucha were staged in order to “convince the Western public of the Russians’ bloody crimes” and that Bucha was chosen for this purpose because of its name’s similarity to the word “butcher” in order to implant the trope of Putin as a butcher in people’s minds.
On the very last day of her life, Dugina appeared on an online propaganda show to claim that the “special operation” in Ukraine was the “final nail in the coffin” of Western “liberal totalitarianism”—which, she asserted for good measure, was seeking to reduce the world’s population through environmentalism, gay rights, and the COVID vaccine.
As with her father, some people who knew Dugina questioned the authenticity of her public persona. “Maybe she really completely adopted her father’s ideas,” her former friend Skuibedina told Meduza. “Maybe she just kept playing the role of Dugin’s daughter.”
On August 20, the father-daughter duo went to the Traditsiya (Tradition) festival, an art and culture event with a nationalist bent, where Dugin spoke and his daughter appeared as a special guest. Dugina reportedly drove them both to the festival site—the Pushkin Museum and Park in the town of Zakharovo—in the Toyota Land Cruiser, which was apparently registered in her name. She was also reportedly going to drive Dugin back to Moscow; but at the last minute, he got into a different car for the return trip. The explosive device was evidently planted in the museum parking lot where security cameras had been (according to some reports) disabled two weeks ago.
Given these circumstances, it seems very likely that Dugin was the intended target. Or perhaps the bomb was intended to kill both father and daughter.
But why, and who was behind it?
Official Russian sources quickly suggested that the Ukrainian government was to blame. The head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Denis Pushilin, wrote in a Telegram post, “Vile bastards! The terrorists of the Ukrainian regime were trying to kill Aleksandr Dugin and blew up his daughter… in a car. Blessed be Darya’s memory! She was a true Russian girl.” Kyiv denied any involvement.
Other theories quickly began to circulate. Independent Russian journalist Sasha Sotnik reported, citing an anonymous source, that Dugina had “stolen money the Kremlin had allotted to finance the presidential campaign of Marine Le Pen in France.” (Dugina, who had studied in France during her academic career, had in fact been in contact with Le Pen.) Others speculated that her death was a false flag operation with the goal of galvanizing the Russian public’s anger and channeling it in support for the war.
Expatriate Russian journalist Yulia Latynina wrote:
I don’t know who murdered the daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, a marginal but highly visible fascist who went around without security. But I believe it will be followed by a Great Terror, just like Fanny Kaplan’s attempt on Lenin’s life or the murder of [Party official Sergei] Kirov.
A week ago I asked: “How will Putin respond to the strikes on Crimea?” It looks like Putin has no way to respond outside Russia and will respond with massive domestic terror. And if he doesn’t, others will do it for him.
The murder of Dugin’s daughter is not senseless. It will launch a wave of retaliatory terror just like Kirov’s murder [in 1937]. As for the prehistory of this murder, I will not speculate about it because there are too many possibilities.
To complicate things further, Ilya Ponomarev, an anti-Putin former member of the Russian parliament who is now based in Kyiv, has said that Dugina’s death was the work of an anti-Putin underground group calling itself the National Republican Army which contacted him several hours before the bombing. The group’s statement, which Ponomarev read on Ukrainian television, does not mention Dugina or her father, though it does say that the group intends to strike at war propagandists, as well as government officials and pro-regime business owners. However, Ponomarev says that the people who gave him the statement also told him to expect an attack and provided enough details that their involvement was not in doubt. But is this an actual underground group—or part of a disinformation effort designed to draw attention away from the real culprits?
“The fact that security cameras were disabled suggests that it’s an inside job,” Victor Davidoff, editor of the dissident site New Times, told me in a Skype interview. Davidoff is convinced that the assassination targeted Dugin, not his daughter, and was likely a sign of an internal war between Kremlin “clans”—or, as he put it, “Kremlin towers”: for instance, the FSB versus military intelligence, to which Dugin is rumored to have ties. Davidoff also believes that this points to some serious trouble in the regime’s upper echelons: “How can the empire hold on when such things are happening on the inside?”
So far, however, all of this remains in the realm of speculation.
The only thing we know for certain is this: a woman in the prime of life died before the eyes of her father, who was apparently in the car behind her. A widely circulated video shows a man who appears to be Dugin standing in the middle of the highway watching the conflagration in a daze, clutching his head. Dugin has been reportedly hospitalized.
“Dugin and his daughter were forging ideological weapons for this war,” wrote Russian dissident and historian Aleksandr Skobov—who nonetheless added that one could feel “human sympathy” in this situation and expressed his own dry condolences. Still, Skobov wrote that while his personal convictions would not allow killing ideologues and propagandists, he could not condemn such killing by others—not during a war that has “already killed tens of thousands and mangled the lives of millions.”
The idea that violence can be an appropriate retribution for words is generally repugnant; but surely one exception is full-time propaganda for war crimes. One may think of Dugina cheerfully explaining that mass murder in Mariupol was a way of “reclaiming people from death,” or of her father telling an interviewer that mothers who have lost their children in war zones will get a full explanation “once we have liberated Ukraine.” Whether it was genuine zealotry turned back on its preachers or a cynical fascist role-play turned real, there is something karmic about violent death coming for those who have made a career of justifying inhumanity.