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.
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’!