Yale University professor Timothy Snyder has been making mild waves again this week with an interview in which he pontificated about linguistic policy in Ukraine. On the one hand, Snyder argued in favour of increased Ukrainization; on the other hand he proposed that instead of just repressing the Russian language the Ukrainian authorities should standardize a Ukrainian version of it, in order to distinguish Ukrainian-Russian from Russian-Russian. Personally, as someone who lives and works in a bilingual environment, I can’t quite see why we can’t just let live and let live,  and why it wouldn’t be better if people could live, work, and publish in whatever language suits them, especially in a country in which the population speaks (more or less equally) two languages. It’s amazing how self-proclaimed liberals and democrats seem so keen on measures which seem so obviously illiberal and undemocratic.

In Snyder’s case, however, it’s not altogether surprising. Readers may recall that he has been actively promoting the thesis that contemporary Russia is a fascist state which poses a deadly threat to the entire world. His logic is that the Kremlin has adopted as its unofficial ideology the writings of émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that since Ilyin was a ‘fascist’, that makes the Russian state fascist too. Several other authors have made similar claims. As I’ve explained on several occasions, it’s all nonsense. But there’s something about my character which always makes me doubt myself, even when I’m sure I’m right. Maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted something. You never know. And so, despite the fact that I’ve read a fair amount of Ilyin and yet to come to the conclusion that he’s a fascist, there’s a little voice which pops up and says, ‘Maybe you’re wrong; find more evidence.’

Fortunately, I’ve now had the chance to dig a little deeper. In Moscow a few weeks ago, I met up with Iury Lisitsa, who has edited 30 volumes of Ilyin’s collected works, and he kindly gave me a copy of the newly published volume no. 31 fresh off the printing press. It consists of op-eds written by Ilyin for émigré and Swiss newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, and as such provides a good tool for analyzing the philosopher’s political thought and for testing the ‘Ilyin = fascist, ergo Putin = fascist, ergo Russia = fascist’ thesis a bit further. So far, I’ve yet to read all 900 pages, but I’ve skimmed through most of it, and read some parts of it in detail. It’s interesting stuff.

ilyin book

What we see is Ilyin at his most, dare I say it, ‘liberal’. There isn’t a single theme running through all the pieces, but one which does crop up continually is freedom. Several articles are devoted specifically to the topic, while individual sections of others discuss it also. I’ve therefore decided that in order to knock all the fascist nonsense on the head, it would make sense to translate and publish a couple of these articles, which are included below. When reading them, bear in mind that according to Snyder, Ilyin’s ‘vision was a totalitarian one … We must cease to exist as individual human beings’; that ‘by law he meant the relationship between the caprice of the redeemer and the obedience of everyone else’; and so on. Bear in mind also similar comments by others, such as an article in Foreign Affairs magazine which claimed that, ‘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.’ And then, having read the articles below, ask yourselves, ‘Is all this true?’ ‘Does what I’ve just read fit any of it?’ ‘Would it really be so bad if this actually was the ideology of the Russian state?’ And finally, ‘How do they get away with writing all this crap?’

That last is an interesting question. The answer is perhaps that not too many people are interested in investigating the matter in sufficient detail to get to the truth. But some of us are – not because of any particular attachment to Russia, Putin, Ilyin, or anybody else for that matter, but simply because the truth is important. So here goes. Is Russia a fascist state? Read, and decide for yourselves.


Ivan Ilyin, ‘Freedom’ (Svoboda) (Originally published 13 January 1939)

Modern man doubts everything. Everything, not least freedom.  And doubting it, he loses it.

But we don’t doubt it. For we know what it means to us.

A man who lives in freedom doesn’t spend much time thinking about it, he lives in it, he enjoys it; he simply floats in its easy stream. It’s like air; when you breathe air, you don’t think about it. It breathes itself in; it quits our lungs all by itself, doing this every moment. You think about air when you don’t have any; when it’s poor, or impure, when you’re suffocating. Then suddenly, in a moment of terror, you think to yourself that ‘you can’t live without air’, that you’ve not valued it enough, that it’s completely necessary.

It’s the same with freedom; man can’t live without it, he needs it as much as he needs air. Why?

Because one can only love freely. Because love is sincere and indivisible, unforced and unhypocritical: it arises either freely, or not at all.

Because one can only believe and pray freely. For either faith penetrates to the deepest depth of the soul where the commands and prohibitions of other people cannot reach, where you yourself contemplate and believe – or it doesn’t arise at all. And prayer is like breath, like song, like a holy fire, which nobody else’s orders can bring to life.

Man thinks only freely, for free thought is independent thought. The freely thinking person can respect everybody else’s thought; however, he doesn’t let any inflated authority stop him from thinking.

Man can only comprehend freely; only a freely-held conviction is worth anything, for only such a conviction has the strength to profess something contrary to everything else, and to remain faithful unto death …

Man can be creative only freely – without hindrance, without order, without prohibitions – according to his own, secret motive, obeying and worshipping his own hidden sources of life.

To love, to believe and to pray, to think and research, to comprehend and be convinced, to study and create – are these not the most important things in life, do they not constitute the point of our lives?

So it is in reality. Everything that is true and great in life in some mysterious way arises from ourselves and thanks to ourselves. As far back as Aristotle, people have wanted to underline this.

Thus lives nature, thus arises love, thus people pray, thus art and science are created. One must eternally recognize that prescribed thinking is naked and stupid prattle; enforced love isn’t love at all; mandatory prayer, which doesn’t come from a full and free heart, doesn’t achieve anything. Without freedom, man is dead and empty, broken into pieces, insincere, powerless and helpless. He loses his healthy instinct and his living spirit; he quits the sphere of his life, which has been taken over by another’s compulsion, and establishes for himself a secret life in catacombs, where free motives are cherished and the free call of delight is worshipped.

So it is in every aspect of life, for instance in economics. Only free labour enables life and is productive; only uncoerced, voluntary and joyful effort has a truly beneficial influence. Coercion can’t replace freedom in anything. Any attempts to do so are hopeless, wherever they’re undertaken and regardless of the objectives they try to serve.

And anybody who doesn’t knows this will one day discover it himself and will be forced to understand!

Two great dangers lie in wait for human freedom: first, an underestimation of freedom – this completely unexpectedly leads to its rejection and betrayal; and second, the misuse of freedom, for it leads to disillusionment and to its loss. At some point, everybody and every people will live through a moment when they underestimate healthy and blessed freedom, and consequently lose it. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but a misfortune and a lesson – the path of suffering, patience, and deliverance.

He who loses his freedom but doesn’t notice it, will at first suffer until such time as he genuinely learns to feel its absence. Then, he will need some time to endure unfreedom, until he understands that he needs once more to fight to acquire freedom. And deliverance, the return to freedom, becomes possible only when he in some way learns not to underestimate freedom or to misuse it. Out of coercion there emerges an accumulation of strength which induces a passion for freedom, for reflection, a need for it and a desire for it; then there matures a will to struggle, to conquer, and most importantly an ability to hold onto the conquered freedom and to worthily ‘fill’ it.

For freedom is not something that you simply ‘give’ to others. No, one has to take it independently, genuinely preserve it, and fill it and sanctify it with worthy, living content. Otherwise it will be rejected and misused, and then history starts over once again.

Thus freedom is the spiritual air of mankind; and culture deprived of freedom is only a show of culture. But peoples advance only slowly towards true freedom. The history of mankind is a long road with many spirals, a road of endurance and deliverance.

And so, we don’t have any doubts about freedom; for we know exactly what it means for us. And we warn contemporary doubters not to underestimate freedom and not to misuse it.


Ivan Ilyin, ‘The Free Person’ (Svobodnyi Chelovek) (Originally published 31 July 1939)

The world today is divided into two large camps: for the free person and against the free person. We all see this, we all feel it. But these ‘for’ and ‘against’ are nothing new. They’ve existed for thousands of years. However, this division was never so obvious, so acknowledged, and so sharp as it is today, and never was this conflict so consciously thought-out or manifested in such enormous ways in real life. Starting with the rise of the totalitarian states – i.e. approximately from 1917, 1922, and 1933 – we can see clearly and precisely what the issue is.

A clash and struggle of two world views is taking place before our eyes. Politics, economics, and culture are the field of battle in this struggle. But the roots and sources of these worldviews must be sought and found much deeper, namely in the sphere of faith and religion. The totalitarian states’ hostile attitude to Christianity is not a coincidence and should not be taken lightly.

What do the opponents of the free person say? The state is a necessity and the goal; the person is only the means and the instrument. The main thing is the state; the person is secondary. The state should lead and instruct in every sphere of life; the person should obey and work. Freedom is inherent in the arbitrarily governing state, but not in the individual person, in whom is inherent only the misuse of freedom. The independence of the individual person is nothing other than a façade and a prejudice, an obsolete principle of ‘liberal’ times. What is important and necessary is the independence of the state; but not of every state as such, but just of this state, of ‘our’ state, the chosen one, chosen to be ‘world hegemon.’ It is the greatest good on earth, precisely in this totalitarian form, which will last a thousand years and which will gradually, either by world revolution or conquest, seize control of the entire world and create a new ‘world empire’ or, as is more softly said, create ‘peace on earth’.

What is the ‘free person’ who opposes this supreme good and wants to speak out against it? A promoter of profit and arbitrary rule, a source of disorder and anarchy, a living symbol of political and economic powerlessness. He knows nothing and can’t do anything by himself; he’s incapable of judging anything; what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s useful, what’s harmful, must be revealed to him by enlightening propaganda and must be subject to strict prescriptions. He must not even be allowed to develop for himself a suitable worldview, let alone put into action correct politics or economics. Like enormous clouds, the real, ‘only true’, masters of the earth tower over him: capital, heavy industry, all-pervading technology, the masses, the party, the radio screaming for hours in every home, the totalitarian police which threaten and oppress all. What can the so-called ‘free person’ want, what can he decide? He can either collaborate and swallow his words; or he can speak the unspeakable and they will crush him.

And now, how can we, the ‘others’, object to this? How can we contest it?

In only one way, the most important one: the free man himself!

Yes, the free man, who experiences no fear in the face of the passing ‘enormous clouds’ and the so-called ‘masters of the earth’. The free man, who created all the capital and built all the heavy industry, and who provides the technology with its most important purpose; who doesn’t lose himself in the stupefied and deceived mass of the people; who doesn’t allow the socialist or communist or heartless fascist bureaucracy to turn him into a supporter of the state; who doesn’t recognise the monopoly of the party; who isn’t impressed by the clamorous chatter of the radio; and who respects and values a healthy police service, but expects nothing good from the terrorism of ‘totalitarian police’. And this responsible and dedicated person, judicious in his freedom, must resist the totalitarian masters, whatever enormous title they give themselves in the future.

Above all, he believes in God and doesn’t wish to serve any earthly idol. These idols can be called ‘communism’ or ‘antisemitism’, ‘world revolution’ or ‘living space’. Without God and faith nothing true or viable can be built on earth, only the Tower of Babylon.

Second, coerced life and coerced labour are obsolete, and can’t be brought back. All history shows that the labour of the enslaved is economically unproductive and inferior; that the politically repressed lack character and lose their honour; that literature when compelled seems vulgar and pitiful, lacking in spirit, and dead; that one can’t prohibit religious convictions, nor can one command them. Life without creative initiative, without independence and freedom becomes complete slavery and the galleys. God save us from this!

And third, the greatest good on earth is not at all embodied in the state, and is not accomplished by the state. The state exists to regulate and encourage the free creation of man, and not to take it away. Every totalitarian state, communist, socialist or fascist, is a spiritually inverted, convulsively compressed, sick and false formation. And, most importantly, the spiritually inverted and false always becomes bankrupt and (sooner or later) collapses. Man is not a machine, but a living spiritual organism; and the laws of this organism must be respected and preserved. Whoever doesn’t do this is immediately and imperceptibly punished for his mistakes and for his breaches of the laws of nature. And his ‘successes’ are shortlived, as they are built on sand and swamp.

And so we stick by the ‘free person’!




38 thoughts on “Freedom”

  1. Meh. Even if you succeed with Ilyn, they’ll find some other reason why “Russia is a fascist state which poses a deadly threat to the entire world.” Or they’ll just state it as if it’s self-evident.

    It’s an axiom, not a conclusion. Like the “Carthago delenda est” thing.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Very possibly, but hopefully along the way we’ll have knocked some myths on the head and discredited a few pundits. One can but try, If I were to take your attitude, I’d just have to give up Russian studies and take up basket weaving instead.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. “…and discredited a few pundits”

        Sure. I have come to the conclusion that at this point the correct way to do it is with insults and sarcasm.

        But I do realize that it’s a matter of taste. So, never mind, all is well.


  2. I think it is a great idea to engage, or at least to try to engage, such people on the turf they have selected. But I doubt that the most prominent of those who you want to address will ever be convinced.

    Did you happen to see (in the 2 July issue of JRL) Max Hastings’ review of a recent work on Russia by the Cambridge historian Mark Smith? Hastings did not like the book, and that is OK, although I think his analysis was flawed. However, he revealed himself in the last few lines of his review when he talked about Russia as a declining Power (perhaps, but arguably so is the US), Russians as a sorrowful people (some will be), and as a country where a person cannot buy a good toaster. There are some things that you cannot find in Russia, but modern toasters ain’t one of them. So what was the point of saying something that anyone familiar with the country, that he apparently last visited 10 years ago, knows is wrong? Why would anyone, particularly Hastings, think that such an idiotic comment should be included in a serious book review in a leading newspaper (The Sunday Times)? I think that throwaway comment is extremely revealing.

    Sadly, I do not think it is possible to engage in rational argument with people like those whose thought process has become so warped by “Russia derangement syndrome” that reason and truth no longer matter. Hopefully, the vast majority of people are not so affected and your effort will reach them.

    I have to echo James — I always learn something new when I turn to this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Darn shame about Hastings, who has been spot on in assessing WW I relative to Russia.

      A media friend of mine just notified me of Mark Smith’s book on Russophobia. I hope it’s not lame like the recent Moscow Times/JRL propped piece on that subject.

      Concerning Russophobia, Andrey Tsygankov wrote a book on it.


    2. Hastings’ review was quite striking, in that he made it clear that he just wasn’t interested in listening to Smith’s message. I’m looking forward to reading Smith’s book, but it’s not out in Canada till mid-October. Expect a review on these pages some time after that.


      1. Hastings’ review was quite striking, in that he made it clear that he just wasn’t interested in listening to Smith’s message.

        Then why. Did he. Review the book. In the first place.
        You’re not obligated to agree with the author’s argument in the end, but still – hear them out.
        Perhaps he was commissioned?

        I’m looking forward to reading Smith’s book, but it’s not out in Canada till mid-October. Expect a review on these pages some time after that.

        I’m personally not too enthused about the “Russian-history-as-catalog-of-violence” angle (feels like the histories of *many* modern states could be characterized as such) or the perennial “where’s the democracy in Russia?” question. I’m cautiously optimistic about The Russian Anxiety, but fully expecting a fence-sitter a la Angela Stent’s Putin’s World.

        Better you tackle this than me, I guess. Looking forward to reading your review.


    3. Ben in Ottawa,

      (in the 2 July issue of JRL) Max Hastings’ review of a recent work on Russia by the Cambridge historian Mark Smith?

      Is IRL Johnson’s Russia List?

      The Review.

      Who is this Max Hastings? Crazy:

      Stargardt’s insight may be instructive for analyzing what is happening and is likely to happen in Russia today under Vladimir Putin in three ways. First, it explains why the Kremlin increasingly casts the struggle between Russia and the West now in apocalyptic terms, talking about supposed Western plans to dismember Russia.

      on a personal note, I start to understand reservations about JRL.


      1. Johnson publishes everything. That’s his point.

        The point of whatever may be ….

        I disagree. And considering legal barriers, like copyright. I am not sure there would be such barriers concerning Paul’s blog. …


    1. Citations for these:

      Ivan Il’in, ‘Svoboda’, in I.A. Il’in, Sobranie sochinenii: Novaia natstional’naia Rossiia. Publitsistika 1924-1952 gg. [Place of publication not provided] Institut Naslediia, 2019, pp.577-580.

      Ivan Il’in, ‘Svobodnyi chelovek’, in I.A. Il’in, Sobranie sochinenii: Novaia natstional’naia Rossiia. Publitsistika 1924-1952 gg. [Place of publication not provided] Institut Naslediia, 2019, pp. 632-635.


  3. Thanks for this, there’s no question but that you made your point.

    As to the other comments, no there isn’t any point in arguing with them — they hated Russia, they hate Russia, they will hate Russia because Russia is eeeevil!!! They didn’t like Putin until they heard of Ilyin; Mao Cheng Ji is correct.

    However, there are people who are looking away from the Party Line and that is the point of doing this. For example read attached. (Plug for Paul R, Cohen and myself) but I suspect there are many other examples, We’re here and we’re waiting for you. The other side is getting sillier and shriller by the moment and therefore, less convincing for all who aren’t already in full delusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Numerous others as well including:

      Much better than the recent establishment propped Moscow Times/JRL piece on Russophobia, which has two glaring shortcomings on what constitutes Russophobia and what’s especially bad about James Clapper’s bigoted remark.


    2. “However, there are people who are looking away from the Party Line and that is the point of doing this.”

      [slow sarcastic clapping]

      You know what prevents me from joining (not quite numerous to begin with) ranks of the hopefuls, admiring this article as yet another example of someone on the Other Side ™ finally “seeing the light” and joining the chorus of “amens” and “hallelujah”? Because this fine gent wrote for equally fine Media outlet going by the title “The American Thinker”.

      As the people with the memory capacity greater than the one of a goldfish might know, it was this outlet that shoot to stardom the one the only the great and dreadful Kim Zigfeld aka “La Russophobe”. The articles penned by zir are delightful. You don’t get that kind of “quality” these days. Even the most deranged Russiagaters, be they from the professional poli-MEDIA commentariat or Hollywoodish artistic intelligentsia, can barely compare to that – and Kim Zigfeld was one person Russophobic content factory. It was zir, who cemented The American Thinker anti-Russian bona fides and attracted similar minded authors producing equally Russophobic content to the joy and approval of their readership (check out the comment section beneath the original on the TAT site).

      And then Trump got elected. After certain ho-humming, TAT leadership decided that they had always been at war with Eurasia Eastasia. Pressitudes changing position at the first call from their john, quelle surprise!

      But, no, this is not a cause for celebration or becoming more hopeful. Reposing articles like that might be good for increasing someone’s sense of self importance (based on the fact that they were mentioned), but, ultimately smacks me of lack of self-dignity and akin to the post-Maidan Ukrainian exclamations that “весь свiт з нами!” at the barest pat on the back from the High and Mighty Westerners.


      1. Interesting. I had never heard of the publication before the piece I referred to.
        I wondered what had happened to s/he/it when the website stopped. I once (but only once) made a comment and was instantly called “unspeakable filth” or something equally calm and thoughtful. Much speculation about who s/he/it was but, let’s face it, s/he/it was only the forerunner of an enormous crowd.


      2. ecause this fine gent wrote for equally fine Media outlet going by the title “The American Thinker”.
        Yes, registered as something to be taken with heightened care ages ago, vs other conservative voices, by the way.


    3. As the author of the article linked, I hate to tell you that the examples of sanity in the conventional media are few — this furnished my motive for trying to call attention to the work of you rationalists.

      Part of the problem is that much of the pro-Russian material seems demented, such as the anti-Semitism on Russia Insider, which makes it difficult for sober commentary to break through.

      But my paranoia also grows about the U.S. military/industrial/intelligence/foreign-policy-elite community, which appears determined to foment hostility so as to keep the dollars flowing.


      1. The pro-Russian view is much more than Russia insider and JRL. Those thinking otherwise are either ill informed or dishonest.


      2. BTW, Patrick Armstrong and some others including The Duran have been critical of Russia Insider.

        You say the pro-Russian view has a demented side. In actuality, the anti-Russian perspective has demented aspects which are more favored in a good portion of Western mass media.

        As the constructively critical pro-Russian view (includes yours truly) is misrepresented or muted altogether.


      3. Mr. Delong.

        Are you at liberty to say, what possessed “The American Thinker” to employ Kim Zigfeld for so many years and what were the reasons to (rather abrupt) stop of their mutually beneficial arrangement? Also, do you understand, that the only reason you are allowed to utter some vaguely not-quite-anti-Russian (that’s what passes for “pro-Russian” these days) sounds, is because of the change of political situation in the US?


    1. Thanks for the link. I found Evans’ review of Bloodlands – very trenchant! I remember also a stinker of a review of Snyder’s ‘Black Earth’ in the New York Times – it was enough to convince me not to read the book.


      1. Thank you, I will need to search for that and read it. I also forgot this link, as Bartov’s critique is perhaps even more poignant than Evans as he is an area specialist.
        Still, while time consuming, and not altogether rewarding, I was wondering if you would be either willing or able to do a review of Bloodlands. Having read it, and also other works, it seems to me that Snyder has a respectability he perhaps does not entirely merit.
        It seems as though, at best, when describing the history of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s regime Snyder is very determined to write “on the one hand” and then completely forgetting to write “on the other hand”, instead skipping straight to “here is a judgement”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Prekrasno — I. Ilyin’s words on “Freedom” — which had you not sourced by whom and when written, I could well imagine written by that other “Putin philosopher”, N A Berdyaev. Perhaps it is a Russian “thing”…
    Curiously, in 1926 Berdyaev wrote a scathing review in Journal Put’ on I.Ilyin’s book, «О сопротивлении злу силою»
    Perhaps it is a matter of 13 years, or a different an approach upon intellectual fronts, or egos in the emigre world… I know little of I Ilyin otherwise, and even less of current commentators… And i realise that it is unseemly on my part to mention, that the Russian President Putin-recommended Berdyaev text, “Filosofia neravenstva”, a fiery tome, is currently available in English under title “Philosophy of Inequality”…



    1. Prekrasno — I. Ilyin’s words on “Freedom” — which had you not sourced by whom and when written, I could well imagine written by that other “Putin philosopher”, N A Berdyaev. Perhaps it is a Russian “thing”

      Yes, I ended up there too, for a pensive second:
      The Philosophy of Freedom (1911)

      On the other hand, I have to admit that the title immediately triggered a German esoteric. For some time close to the British Blavatsky circles:

      Is this an accident? Or let’s say would there be other French, British, Italian et al writers dealing with something like a philosophy of freedom around the time?


  5. Mark Smith’s book The Russia Anxiety is great. I have reviewed it for The Irish Times but my piece is behind a paywall just now,
    Geoffrey Roberts

    Liked by 1 person

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