Against Russia

By far the most popular blog post that I have so far written was Putin’s Philosopher, about Ivan Ilyin. Some readers asked for more on the same subject, so here is a translation of an essay he wrote in 1948 entitled ‘Against Russia’. My aim is not to endorse what Ilyin writes, merely to illustrate a mode of thinking which probably resonates strongly among some Russians today. The translation is mine.

Against Russia by Ivan Ilyin, 1948.

Wherever we Russian national émigrés are dispersed we should remember that other peoples do not know us and do not understand us, that they fear Russia, do not sympathize with it and are happy to seek it weakened it every way. Only little Serbia instinctively sympathized with Russia, but without knowing or understanding it; and only the United States is instinctively inclined to prefer a united national Russia as a safe counter-pole and as a loyal and solvent consumer of its goods.

In other countries and among other peoples, we are alone, misunderstood and unpopular. This is not a new phenomenon. It has its own history. M.V. Lomonosov and A.S. Pushkin were the first to understand Russia’s distinctiveness, its peculiarity from Europe, its ‘non-Europeanness’. F.M. Dostoevsky and N.Ia. Danilevsky were the first to understand that Europe doesn’t know us, doesn’t understand us, and doesn’t like us. Many years have passed since then and we have experienced and confirmed for ourselves that these great Russians were perspicacious and correct.

The first reason why Western Europe doesn’t know us is because the Russian language is alien to it. In the ninth century Slavs lived in the centre of Europe; from Kiel to Magdeburg to Halle, beyond the Elbe, in the ‘Bohemian forest’, in Carinthia, Croatia, and in the Balkans. Germans systematically conquered them, slaughtered their ruling classes, and having rendered them leaderless in this fashion, denationalized them. Europe itself drove the Slavs to the east and the south. And in the south the Turkish yoke subjugated but did not denationalize them. This is how the Russian language became alien and ‘difficult’ for Western Europeans.

The second reason why Western Europe doesn’t know us is because Russian (Orthodox) religiosity is alien to it. From time immemorial Rome controlled Europe, through first the Latin language and then the Catholic religion, which adopted the basic traditions of the first. But Russia adopted not Roman but Greek tradition. ‘The Greek faith, different from all others, gives us our special national character’ (Pushkin). Rome never responded to our soul and our character. Its self-confident, imperious, and cruel will always repelled the Russian conscience and the Russian heart. Greek faith we adopted without distortions but so much in our way that one can speak of its ‘Greekness’ only in a conditional, historical sense.

The third reason why Western Europe doesn’t know us is because the Slav-Russian contemplation of the world, of nature and of man, is alien to it. Western Europeans are driven by will and reason, Russians above all by their hearts and imaginations and only after that by will and reason. Consequently the average European is ashamed of sincerity, conscience and goodness as ‘stupidity’; the Russian, by contrast, expects above all goodness, conscience, and sincerity from people. European legal consciousness is formal, callous, and egalitarian; the Russian is informal, good-natured, and just. The European, brought up by Rome, despises other peoples (including Europeans) and wants to rule over them. The Russian has always enjoyed the natural freedom of his country’s expanse, the freedom of its stateless existence, and the dispersed nature of its population; he has always been ‘amazed’ by other peoples and only hates invaders who come to enslave; he has valued spiritual freedom over formal legal freedom, and if other peoples haven’t bothered him, then he has not taken up arms and not sought power over them.

Through all this, a great difference has developed between Western and Eastern, Russian culture. All our culture is different, is ours, because we have a different, distinct spiritual make-up. We have completely different churches, different church services, different goodness, different bravery, different family life; We have completely different literature, different music, theatre, art, dance; not the same science, not the same medicine, not the same courts, not the same attitudes to crime, not the same sense of rank, not the same attitudes to our heroes, geniuses, and tsars. And yet our soul is open to Western culture; we see it, study it, know it and, if there is something to it, make it ours; we speak its languages and value the work of its best artists; we have the gift of sympathy and transformation.

Europeans don’t have this gift. They understand only that which is similar to them, but then distort everything to conform with their own way. For them, the Russian is foreign, disturbing, alien, strange, not attractive. They look down at us proudly from above and consider our culture either worthless or some sort of great and enigmatic ‘misunderstanding’.

Thirty years of revolution have changed nothing. So, in mid-August 1948 the so-called ‘ecumenical church movement’ held a conference in Switzerland at which 12 important Swiss priests and pastors (of the reform church) were chosen to attend the ‘worldwide’ congress in Amsterdam. And what then? ‘Brotherly’ sympathy for Marxism, for the Soviet church and the Soviet Union dominated at the congress, while it ignored national Russia, its Church, and its culture. They didn’t consider Russian culture, spirituality, or its religious life. For them, Marxism is ‘theirs’, European, acceptable; and so the Soviet communist is closer to them than Serafim of Sarov, Suvorov, Peter the Great, Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, and Mendeleev.

The same thing then happened at the ‘worldwide’ congress in Amsterdam, where a remarkable jumble of Christianity and communism prevailed.

And so, Western Europe doesn’t know Russia. But the unknown is always fearful. And Russia, because of the size of its population, its territory, and its natural resources, is enormous. An enormous unknown is always considered an existential threat, especially after Russia showed Europe the glory of its soldiers and the genius of its commanders in the 18th and 19th centuries. From Peter the Great onwards, Europe has feared Russia; since Saltykov (Kunersdorf), Suvorov and Alexander I, Europe has been afraid of Russia. ‘What if this massive threat from the east moves westwards?’ The two world wars have strengthened this fear. The world politics of the communist revolution have turned it into an incessant worry.

But fear is degrading, and so people conceal it with contempt and hatred. Ignorance, fed by fear, contempt and hate, fantasizes, rants, and fabricates. It is true that we saw German and Austrian prisoners of war return to Europe from Russian camps dreaming of Russia and the Russian people. But the majority of Europeans and especially their democratic ministers feed on ignorance, are afraid of Russia and continually dream of weakening it.

Western Europe has feared Russia for 150 years already. No service rendered by Russia to Europe (the Seven Years War, the struggle against Napoleon, saving Prussia in 1805-1815, saving Austria in 1849, saving France in 1875, the peacefulness of Alexander III, the Hague Conventions, the sacrificial struggle with German from 1914 to 1917) counts for anything in the face of this fear; none of the nobility or selflessness of the Russian tsars has stopped this European ranting.  And when Europe saw that Russia had become a victim of the Bolshevik revolution, it decided that this was a victory of Western civilization, that the new ‘democracy’ would dismember and weaken Russia, that it could stop fearing Russia and that Soviet communism meant ‘progress’ and ‘peace’ for Europe. What blindness! What a mistake!

Europe’s fundamental attitude to Russia is that it is an enigmatic, semi-barbaric ‘void’; it needs to be ‘evangelized’ or converted to Catholicism, ‘colonized’ (literally) and civilized; if necessary, it can and should be used for trade and for Western European objectives and intrigues; nevertheless, it is always necessary to weaken it. How?

By dragging it at an inconvenient moment into destructive wars; by not allowing it access to the seas; if possible, by dismembering it into small states; if possible, by reducing its population (for instance, by supporting Bolshevik terror, which was the policy of Germany from 1917 to 1938); if possible, by sowing revolution and civil war (as in China); and then by installing international agents in Russia, by stubbornly imposing Western European forms of republicanism, democracy, and federalism which the Russian people cannot stand, by political and diplomatically isolating it, but insistently exposing its ‘imperialism’, its imaginary ‘reactionary nature’, its ‘lack of culture’ and its ‘aggression’.

We should all understand this and never forget it. Not in order to respond to our enemy with hatred, but in order to accurately predict events and not to surrender to the sentimental illusions so characteristic of the Russian soul.

We need sobriety and vigilance.

There are peoples, states, governments, churches, secret organizations, and individuals who are hostile to Russia, particularly Orthodox Russia, and even more Imperial, undivided Russia. Just as there are ‘Anglophobes’, ‘Germanophobes’, and ‘Japanophobes’, the world has an abundance of ‘Russophobes’, enemies of national Russia, who have promised themselves to crush it, humiliate it, and weaken it. We must never forget this.

Consequently, we must vigilantly and soberly measure whomsoever we speak to and whomsoever we address, by measure of his sympathy and intentions with regard to a united, national Russia, and should not expect any salvation from the conqueror, any help from the partitioner, any sympathy and understanding from the religious seducer, any goodwill from the destroyer, or any truth from the slanderer.

Politics is the art of knowing your enemy and rendering him harmless. Whoever is unable to do this should stay out of politics.

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12 thoughts on “Against Russia”

  1. Very interesting post, again. It reads as if it could’ve been printed yesterday, with some minor edits.

    Some will, of course, claim that this reflects a persistent strand of paranoia in Russia’s perception of the world; merely a way of defining itself against a perceived external threat. But even if we accept this more or less dismissive attitude, we would need to ask: isn’t it possible that the sheer persistence of this paranoia, in itself, suggest some grounding in reality, i.e., the presence of an actual external threat? Conversely, is it really possible that this “paranoia” is strictly internal to Russian thought, i.e., merely and purely some feature of Russian self-identity, etc.? Why does this perception arise again and again, in other words?

    My sense is that: it may well be paranoia, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely unfounded and/or that there are no good reasons for it. Ilyin points to certain structural features (e.g., geographic causes) of external/Western hostility towards Russia, which are obviously interesting and worth careful consideration. It is indeed possible that given Russia’s location in terms of both its history and its physical presence, it is bound to be – to some extent at least – a perpetual “enemy” of the West, given the West’s own geo-historical location-development. There just might be something to the notion that Russia has never really been seen as a “fellow colonizer” in the Western tradition, i.e., an equal amongst imperial powers, but rather as a potential subject of colonization (more akin to India or China, Africa or perhaps even the First Nations of North America).

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    1. My only comment is that one needs to understand what an absolutely huge country Russia is and its neighborhood.

      The last slave raids in to Russia were (if I am not mistaken) at the beginning of the 20th century. Defending such a vast territory, first from more or less Russia city states and even then as a unitary whole has been a fundamental aspect of Russian identity.

      Once they substantially mastered their frontiers, they pushed outwards, only to be met by fear from Europe who liked to manage things between themselves, hence the Crimean war, the continued subjugation of Christians in the Balkans under the Ottomans. Juust to make this abundantly clear how little the rest of Europe gave a damn about their fellow Christians, then the Ottomans were on the verge of bankruptcy in 1856, the British and French saved it by setting up the Ottoman Bank* and essential putting it on a ‘modern’ financial footing. it kept the Ottoman’s going for another 60 odd years if you include the withdrawal of British support and Germany supplanting them (whilst the Armenians were being slaughtered in ever greater numbers).

      As the band Sparks says in their most famous hit song – ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’.

      Balance of power and all that.

      * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_Bank

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  2. Really enjoyed your Ilyin piece – can you please put a link (if you have one) to the Russian version of “Against Russia”?

    Thanks much!

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      1. Paul,

        Thank you So much for taking the time to direct us to this Russian source.

        Love it. Can’t beat reading in the original, but I do very much support your putting this material on the web in English. More, more…more…

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  3. New to this site-and especially interested in what makes us humans tick. An excellent article – and Russians viewing the world with their hearts first and their reason second is a very big difference.

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