There are occasions when one regrets putting an idea out there, as everybody else jumps on the bandwagon but then gets it all wrong.
My doctoral thesis was a study of émigré White Russian military organizations in the 1920s and 1930s, especially the Russian Military General Union (ROVS in Russian). As part of my study, I wanted to work out what these émigré soldiers believed in, and since some of them quoted the philosopher Ivan Ilyin I decided to read his works. Later, when I shifted focus and began writing also about military ethics, it struck me that it would be interesting to pen an academic article about Ilyin’s book on the ethics of violence, On Resistance to Evil By Force. This article was then published in the Journal of Military Ethics, and it turned me instantaneously into a sort of Ilyin ‘expert’, not really because I knew that much about the subject but because almost nobody else in the West had either heard of Ilyin or written about him (the exception was Philip Grier, who has translated Ilyin’s thesis The Philosophy of Hegel as a Doctrine of the Concreteness of God and Humanity, and whose essay The Complex Legacy of Ivan Il’in remains, 20 years after it was published, far and away the best introduction to the subject available in English).
After Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, it struck me that there were certain similarities between his worldview and that of Ilyin. I therefore wrote an article for The Spectator in January 2004 in which I remarked that complaints that Putin was aiming to restore the Soviet Union were wrong – the Russian leader’s ideology seemed far closer to that of the Whites, such as Ilyin, than to that of the Reds.
As far as I can tell, this was the first article anybody anywhere wrote linking the two men. My aim was not to suggest that Ilyin had influenced Putin – in fact at the time I had no evidence that the latter had even heard of the former – but rather to point out that there were commonalities of outlook. Later, I learnt that Putin did indeed know Ilyin’s works, and so I felt that my argument had been justified. I therefore developed it further in a piece I wrote for The American Conservative in 2012, as well as in a post for this blog.
At this point, the idea took off, with my American Conservative article being cited in various other works, most notably Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s book Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. It has now become conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, as the meme has spread, it has become more and more exaggerated.
Whereas I wanted just to point out that Putin and Ilyin apparently shared some ideas about the nature of the state, now authors such as Walter Laqueur in his book Putinism, and Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thorburn, in an article this week in Foreign Affairs, are presenting Ilyin’s work as constituting an unofficial state ideology. This greatly over-inflates its importance.
These authors also focus entirely on what one might call the ‘scarier’ bits of Ilyin’s philosophy – his one-time admiration for elements of fascism and his belief that the Western world was irredeemably hostile to Russia – while ignoring other aspects of his thought, such as his emphasis on the rule of law and on the limits which must be imposed even on autocratic governments. The result is a distorted picture of reality.
Take, for instance, this week’s Foreign Affairs article. This says the following:
He was not truly an academic or philosopher in the classical sense, but a publicist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Russian nationalist with a core of fascistic leanings. … Ilyin was interested in the idea of Eurasianism. … In his view, Hitler’s National Socialism, Mussolini’s fascism, and the Russian White movement were very similar and ‘spiritually close’.
The article’s authors then link all this to Putin by quoting Timothy Snyder describing the Russian leader as having ‘placed himself at the head of populist, fascist, and neo-Nazi forces in Europe.’ Ilyin is thus portrayed as the ideologist of a modern fascist Russia. As the authors put it:
Always something of a conspiracy theorist, Ilyin introduced the Russian term mirovaya zakulisa (‘world backstage’), which he used to describe a conspiracy of Western leaders against Russia. In the broader sense, this term implies that the official elected leaders of the West are, in fact, puppets of the world’s true leaders: businessmen, Masonic agents, and, often, Jews. Substitute ‘Jews’ with ‘gays’ and ‘Masonic agents’ with ‘foreign agents’, and Ilyin’s views synchronize perfectly with Putin’s propaganda narrative.
‘Ilyin was most likely chosen [as ideologue] because his works legitimated Putin’s authoritarian grasp on power, justified limitations on freedom, and provided an antidote to all Western criteria of freedoms, right, and goals of the state,’ Barbashin and Thorburn conclude. ‘Through Ilyin, the Kremlin transmits what it sees as a proper ideology for today: a strong cocktail of uncompromising hatred for the West, denial of the European nature of Russian civilization, favor of dictatorial methods of governing, rabid nationalism, and a dash of conspiracy theory.’
These are strong words indeed.
In fact, while Ilyin did write a lot of material for a popular audience, he was more than a ‘publicist’. His thesis on Hegel and his book on the ethics of violence are serious works of philosophy. Nor was he a conspiracy theorist, let alone, as is suggested above, an anti-Semite. In fact, he lost his job lecturing in Berlin in the 1930s because he refused to teach anti-Semitic doctrines. Eventually, he fled Nazi Germany, an odd act if he was really a Nazi. Nor was he a Eurasianist. In fact, he rejected Eurasianism.
For sure, Ilyin was no Western liberal democrat. He was at heart a monarchist, and felt that post-communist Russia would be so intellectually and morally bankrupt that it would not be capable of sustaining a democratic order. Furthermore, he believed that Russia’s size required a centralized state to prevent centrifugal tendencies from tearing it apart. But allied to this was a powerful sense that government had limits. Above all, both rulers and ruled had to abide by the law. ‘The autocratic monarch’, he wrote, ‘knows the legal limits of his power and doesn’t pretend to rights which don’t belong to him.’ The autocrat could ‘give the people self-government, a constitution, and even parliamentarianism with responsible government.’ As Grier points out, Ilyin insisted that any state worthy of the name required a high level of legal consciousness (pravosoznanie) on behalf of both citizens and rulers. While he supported dictatorship, ‘Ilyin is equally clear that such a “dictatorship” would be justified in the long run only by its success in raising the moral, legal, and religious consciousness of the population to such a level that a state based upon the rule of law would become possible.’
Ilyin thus fits within the Russian tradition of liberal conservatism, albeit on the conservative end of the spectrum. This often appears to Westerners as a self-contradictory school of thought and indeed, as Grier points out, Ilyin’s writings do contain apparently contradictory elements. Because of this, it’s easy to pick outs bits and pieces and portray him in a slanted light. But taken as a whole, although Ilyin certainly didn’t promote democratic ideals of the sort we nowadays cherish in the West, he also wasn’t the evil, freedom-hater which Foreign Affairs suggests.
What this means is that if it really is true that Ilyinism is the ideology of the Russian state, then Laqueur, Barbashin, Thorburn and others are wrong in regarding this as proof that Putin’s Russia is turning in a fascist direction. And if they are right that Russia is moving that way, then it isn’t because of Ilyin; in that case, Putin’s ideology isn’t really Ilyinism but rather some form of bowdlerised version of it. Either way, the formula ‘Ilyin is “Putin’s philosopher”; Ilyin was a fascist; therefore, Putin is a fascist’ is well wide of the mark.