Putin’s philosopher

In his speech to the Russian parliament on 4 December, Vladimir Putin quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who died 60 years ago today. Putin supervised the repatriation and reburial of Ilyin’s body in 2005, and has laid flowers on Ilyin’s grave. He has quoted him several times before. Ilyin’s Our Tasks (Nashi Zadachi) was one of three books distributed by the Kremlin as recommended reading to regional governors and senior members of the United Russia party in early 2014. And on December 22nd of this year, members of the Duma, Federation Council, and Presidential Administration will meet in Moscow for a round-table discussion of his work. If Putin has a favourite philosopher, Ilyin seems to be the man. So who was he and what did he believe in?

Mikhail Nesterov, The Thinker: A Portrait of Ivan Ilyin, 1922
Mikhail Nesterov, The Thinker: A Portrait of Ivan Ilyin, 1922

Born in 1883, Ilyin studied law at Moscow State University and completed his thesis The philosophy of Hegel as a doctrine of the concreteness of God and humanity in 1916. Resolutely anti-communist, he was expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922 along with some 200 other intellectuals on the infamous ‘philosophers’ steamboat’. He then took up residence in Berlin, where he made contact with members of the exiled White army of General P.N. Wrangel, who nicknamed him Belyi (White) on account of the pure belizna (whiteness) of his opinions. Ilyin became the unofficial ideologist of the White Army in exile, and much of his work thereafter was as much political as it was philosophical, and was aimed at a wider audience than other philosophers.

Ilyin’s work covered a large variety of subjects, including the philosophy of Hegel, law, politics, the ethics of violence, the nature of the Russian nation, and the tasks incumbent on Russian émigrés. He was in many respects a religious philosopher, in that he regarded spiritual matters as more important than material ones. He believed that the Russian revolution was a product of the spiritual failings of the Russian people. Russia’s resurrection depended on the revival of the correct spirit, including a love of God, a love of Russia, respect for the law, a sense of duty and honour, and devotion to the state and the common weal rather than personal or party interests. It is difficult to reduce the writings of such a complex thinker to a few lines, but three themes stand out: gosudarstvennost’ (statehood); pravosoznanie (legal consciousness); and natsionalizm (nationalism).

  • Gosudarstvennost’. Ilyin was a firm believer in a strong state. Gosudarstvennost’ can be viewed in purely descriptive terms as meaning the system of government, but it is also a value-laden term. It implies a belief that the interests of the state should come first. In this sense it can be contrasted with obshchestvennost’, which is often translated as ‘public opinion’ but more accurately describes the liberal stratum of Russian society and its beliefs, and it can be contrasted also with partiinost’, the ideology of the Communist Party, which placed the interests of the party first. Ilyin believed that to view the state as a balance of competing material interests was profoundly mistaken. The state should work for the general good. To this end, it must be strong. In Russia, a weak state would result in anarchy. ‘Russian state power will be strong, or it won’t exist at all’, he wrote. Ilyin rejected federalism and demanded a unitary state, ‘dictatorial in the scope of its powers.’ He favoured autocracy, but one filled with ‘creative spirit … a dictatorial-aristocratic-democracy.’ The state should be absolute in those areas in which it had competence. But it should not have competence over everything. ‘At the head of the state must stand a single will,’ he wrote, ‘It cannot and should not regulate everything. The totalitarian state is godless.’ The state had to be bound by law and accountable to the people.
  • Pravosoznanie: A lawyer by training, Ilyin was a firm believer in the importance of law. One of Imperial Russia’s greatest failings was its undeveloped ‘legal consciousness’, that is to say its people’s sense of what was right and wrong and whether they should obey the law. One of the most important tasks of the autocratic state would be to develop the people’s legal consciousness until eventually it reached a level at which the people would become capable of self-government. Until then, however, attempts to impose liberal democratic forms of government would be disastrous. Thus, in The essence of legal consciousness, Ilyin wrote ‘The political structure and legal consciousness form a living, inseparable unity insofar as not a single reform is possible until a definite improvement in legal consciousness takes place, and any reform that is disproportionate to the state of popular legal consciousness will turn out to be absurd and ruinous for the state. The single true path to any reform is a gradual education in legal consciousness … in its idea the state can be reduced to self-government of the people. However, the sole and objective end of the state is so high and requires from the citizenry such mature legal consciousness that historically the people turn out to be incapable of self government. … Political philosophy must uncover the root of this divergence; state power must find the path to healing it.’
  • Natsionalizm: Ilyin was a nationalist. Love of country was a central part of his philosophy. Russians he felt, should put Russian interests first. This contrasted with the internationalist philosophy of the communists. Furthermore, every nation, Ilyin said, should develop in its own way. Thus the West had no right to tell Russians how to run their own country; conditions in Russia weren’t the same as in the West. ‘Western Europe, which doesn’t know Russia, has not the slightest basis for imposing any political forms whatsoever on us,’ Ilyin declared. At the same time, Ilyin’s vision of Russia was as a multi-national empire. He did not believe that every small nation had a right to self-determination. Ukrainian independence was anathema to him. But, precisely because Russia was a multi-national country, and precisely because each nation should develop in its own way, Russians should not seek to assimilate the minorities within the country but leave them to develop their own culture.

Although Ilyin initially hoped that the Nazis would prove to be allies for the Russian exiles against the Soviet regime, he was soon disabused on this notion and fell foul of the Nazi authorities after refusing orders to include anti-Semitic propaganda in his lectures at the Russian Institute in Berlin. In 1938 he fled Germany for Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life, dying there in December 1954.

19 thoughts on “Putin’s philosopher”

  1. Thank you – and forgive my abysmal ignorance: I’ve never heard of Ivan Ilyin. So your post was highly educational.
    This also does shine a light on what and how Putin thinks, given that some of Ilyin’s books seem to have become required reading.
    I do like it when someone teaches me something new!


  2. I echo Colliemum; this was a most educational post, and I hope there will be more on him; it felt like you were just getting started. I also had never heard of him, but the tenets of his beliefs seem indeed to reflect Putin’s personal philosophy. In my opinion the west will never break Russia while Putin lives, because he IS driven by love of country rather than personal material gain, and nationalism is for him an end in itself rather than simply a mask he puts on when he wants to court that demographic.

    An interesting subject very well presented – great job.


  3. I second Colliemum and Mark Chapman in saying this is an interesting post that sheds light on Putin’s values and thinking.

    The way I read Ilyin’s concept of statehood leads me to think there are some contradictions within and also between statehood and his nationalism in that he favours a strongly centralised and overarching political state and opposes federalism yet he also advocates for different groups within the Russian state to pursue their own group interests (some of which would conflict with one another and those of the centralised state). It would be interesting to know how Ilyin recognised and reconciled these paradoxes.


    1. I’m not sure that the contradiction is easily resolved. There are, to be frank, a lot of contradictory elements in Ilyin’s thinking, some of them quite deliberate, others perhaps not so. Not least, I think that the idea of an autocratic state which is limited and based on law just wouldn’t work in practice, as the contradictions between the autocratic and more liberal tendencies would be too great. Probably in the struggle between the two, the autocratic would win out most often.


      1. If by limited autocracy, Ilyin meant something akin to what exists in Singapore or Japan where there has been more or less one-party rule with variations (as in a succession of coalition governments, each made up of various parties most of which change from one government to the next but all ultimately dominated by the same party – which in Japan has usually been the Liberal Democratic Party), then such an autocratic government could exist.

        Even in the US, the position of President is potentially an autocratic one, notwithstanding the fact that the position has been abused in this way by various holders of the position. This is in part because the US Constitution can be and has been interpreted to give more powers (so-called “inherent powers”) to the President than what are actually enumerated in it. This chimes with the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution which gives US citizens rights that are not explicitly denominated in the Constitution itself, equivalent to saying that if something’s not actually outlawed, then it’s legal. This would be an example of an “autocratic” state which to some extent is limited in the sense of being based on law.


  4. I fully concur with the other comments: very interesting and very informative post.

    In one of the many strands of (often hyperbolic) criticisms of Russia, we’re told that it actually has no particular, and certainly no coherent, ideology as such; that, in fact, its belief system is premised on bald cynicism, and the view that “there is no truth”; that its politics (and presumably, its economics, etc.) are not conducted via reference to objective reality; that the populace is actually encouraged to have multiple identities (leading to a kind of political-cultural schizophrenia); that the motto “everything is PR” is predominant; and furthermore, that the Kremlin is busy exporting this cynicism to the rest of the world so that innocent, non-cynical people everywhere are thereby victimized by its particular brand of non-Truth … and so on.
    See for example here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/12/opinion/russias-ideology-there-is-no-truth.html

    One can only presume, but proponents of this line of criticism would likely say that Putin’s references to Ilyin and his apparent admiration of Ilyin’s philosophy merely reflect some propaganda ploy.

    What would your general impressions be in this regard? Does it make sense to say Ilyin is just another propaganda prop? (Are enough Russians even sufficiently aware of Ilyin to make him a useful PR tool/meme?) Or does Ilyin’s thought actually inform Putin’s concrete actions; does it actually lend some genuine coherence to Russian politics, etc.?

    Many thanks!


    1. Interest questions, CityZen. Ilyin is not well enough known for there to be some propaganda benefit from quoting him. The contradictory elements to his writings I mentioned lend him to be quoted by all sorts of people of different tendencies – Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has done so, for instance, which is odd given Ilyin`s anti-communism – and the same contradictory elements mean that it isn`t clear which bits of Ilyin those quoting him support. Is it the autocratic bit? the anti-totalitarian bit? both? And does the fact that Putin cites Ilyin mean that Ilyin has had some influence on him, or does it just mean that he finds him a useful source of suitable quotes? Ilyin is good that way because he often wrote for a non-academic audience. I think that the only way of finding out would be asking Putin himself.


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