The Ivan Ilyin bandwagon continues to gather passengers. The latest on board is historian Timothy Snyder, who delivered a lecture last week to the Watson Institute at Brown University in which he sought to explain Russian foreign policy through an analysis of the philosopher’s writings. The lecture promotes a familiar theme, namely: Vladimir Putin cites Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; therefore Putin and the regime he leads are fascist. Needless to say, I have a few problems with this, and Snyder’s lecture forces me to return once again to the topic of ‘Putin’s philosopher’, even though it means repeating myself somewhat.
Snyder begins his talk by saying that Russia’s problem is that it isn’t a real state, in that it has not worked out a system of succession of power. Instead, its leaders have deliberately chosen to falsify elections and leave Putin in power almost indefinitely. At the same time, Snyder sees the war in Ukraine as an effort to break up the Ukrainian state and prevent the European Union from becoming a state. To explain Russian behaviour, therefore, Snyder suggests that we need to find ‘an idea which is comfortable with the lack of a state’ (11.00 minute point in speech). That idea is ‘fascism’. Thus Snyder argues that it is no coincidence that the war in Ukraine has coincided with the revival of ‘a fascist geopolitical thinker’, namely Ivan Ilyin.
Next, Snyder relates favorable comments Ilyin made about Mussolini and Hitler, and after the Second World War about Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. According to Snyder (23.50 minute point), Ilyin ‘equates Jews and Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks and Jews, and therefore approves of Hitler’s discrimination against Jews’. Snyder says that Ilyin was (35.50 minute point) ‘a Eurasianist who says we’re all basically fascists’. The message he sends is that ‘we [Russians] are innocent’ and anything which goes wrong is always somebody else’s fault (mainly the West’s). (42.00 minute point)
My purpose here is not to defend Ilyin. I’m personally of a liberal and democratic inclination. Instead, my concern is the overly simplistic theme espoused by Snyder and others: Ilyin = fascist, therefore Putin = fascist, therefore we all need to be very scared.
In my last post, I said that the ideas of Eurasianism and Alexander Dugin were just several among many influencing Russian policy makers, and even then in a highly bowdlerized way. The same could be said of Ilyin’s ideas. It’s highly debatable whether Ilyin is really as influential as Snyder makes him out to be. But even if I’m wrong about that, Snyder presents only a fraction of what the philosopher’s ideas are all about.
It is indeed true that Ilyin said some positive things about fascism. But he was hardly alone in a lot of this. Winston Churchill, for instance, praised Mussolini in a 1927 speech, saying that fascism ‘has rendered service to the whole world’. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Italian Duce ‘that admirable Italian gentleman’. And David Lloyd George described Hitler as ‘a born leader of men, a magnetic and dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart.’ But we don’t generally call them all fascists.
Moreover, although he supported authoritarian rule, Ilyin was simultaneously a trenchant opponent of all forms of totalitarianism, which he described as ‘godless’. And contrary to Snyder’s depiction of Ilyin as an anti-Semite, the Nazis actually dismissed him from his job teaching in Berlin for refusing to preach anti-Semitic doctrine. In the end he had to flee Germany.
If Snyder is right that fascists are happy with a lack of proper states, then Ilyin can’t possibly have been a fascist since the establishment of a strong, law-based state was one of his most strongly expressed principles. Ilyin placed an extraordinarily high importance on the law and on the development of ‘legal consciousness’ (pravosoznanie), things which are quite incompatible with fascism (which Snyder admits is associated with ‘arbitrariness’). Ilyin also repeatedly said that the state must be limited, that it must not intrude into people’s personal lives, and that the people must enjoy freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and so on. Rather than saying that everything was somebody else’s fault, in his book On Resistance to Evil by Force Ilyin emphasized that those who fight an external evil have to accept that they are themselves partially responsible for it. Bolshevism, he wrote, was merely the external manifestation of the internal spiritual failings of the Russian people. He did not, as Snyder claims, say it was something imposed on Russia by the West (although he certainly viewed Marxism as a Western, not a Russian ideology).
Next, when you look at the bits of Ilyin which Putin has quoted, they are definitely not the more authoritarian ones. In 2005, for instance, Putin cited comments by Ilyin about the need to limit state power; and in 2014 he cited a statement by Ilyin about the importance of freedom.
In an article entitled ‘The Complex Legacy of Ivan Ilyin’, American scholar Philip Grier describes the philosopher’s thought as being often ‘paradoxical’. Snyder, however, seems to prefer simplicity to complexity, and so misrepresents both Ilyin and modern Russia. Clearly, Ilyin wasn’t a pro-Western liberal democrat, and if you think that Russia ought to be a pro-Western, liberal democratic nation, then Ilyin is not the philosopher for you. But it’s a step too far to go from there to saying that current Russian foreign policy is fascist in orientation.