Category Archives: Ideology

Moscow conference

At the start of September I spoke at a conference in Moscow dedicated to exploring the current tensions in Russia-West relations. Paul Grenier has now produced an excellent summary of the conference proceedings for The American Conservative. You can read it here.

Conference participants raised a lot of really interesting ideas. I don’t agree with them all, but I thoroughly recommend Paul Grenier’s piece to you all, so that you can decide for yourselves. On top of that, his analysis raises a host of questions for future consideration:

  • Is there an ideological/philosophical divide lying at the root of current Russia-West tensions? In my own presentation, I suggested that perhaps there is: Russia and the West seem to have very different conceptions of what constitutes a ‘rules-based international order’. If this is the case, then our current difficulties are rather deeper than many people imagine and can’t be resolved simply by compromising over certain material interests. Instead, they require us to find some way of reaching philosophical agreement – not an easy task.
  • But is agreement even possible? Boris Mezhuev’s idea of ‘civilizational realism’ rests on an assumption that it isn’t, and that the only way for Russia and the West to live in peace is to recognize each other as separate civilizations, in effect to agree to disagree.
  • Is there any way that the West would ever ‘agree to disagree’? Western liberalism is essentially universalistic. I have my doubts that it could ever accept ‘civilizational realism’ as this would mean accepting that Western liberalism is not applicable to all. That puts us in an impasse: Russia and West appear to be philosophically divided; they can’t reach agreement, but they also can’t agree to disagree. I have to admit that I’m not sure how we get out of this.
  • Is the answer to be found in some sort of ‘post-liberal politics’? Is the only solution to our problems a re-imagination of what it means to be liberal, as James Carden suggests? Does it require a disassociation of globalization from Westernization, as Nicolai Petro says? Richard Sakwa raises an important issue, in explaining that the West doesn’t truly believe in dialogue. Globalization to date has largely been about spreading Western standards and modes of operation; it hasn’t involve a genuine exchange of ideas between different parts of the globe. Do we need, then, to abandon liberalism, as Adrian Pabst claims? (If we do, I’m not sure that we are capable of it.)

As I said in the conclusion of my own presentation to the conference, we don’t have any great answers to these questions, but at least conferences like this help us define what the questions are. It’s an important first step. Many thanks to Paul Grenier for  organizing our  meeting in Moscow, and to him and The American Conservative for making our deliberations available to a wide audience.

Interview with Egor Kholmogorov

When in Moscow a few weeks ago, I met the Russian conservative thinker Egor Kholmogorov. Unfortunately, my interview of him was cut short after only about 5 minutes, but I was able to record an impromptu talk he gave at the conference we were both attending. So, below are the transcripts of both the short interview and Egor’s speech. In both of these, he explains his philosophy of ‘offensive isolationism.’

kholmogorov
Egor Kholmogorov

Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book on Russian conservatism and want to ask you to comment on several things that you have previously said. For instance, you say that Russia is an island and you speak of the necessity of Russian isolationism, but at the same time you talk of the strategy of ‘offensive isolationism.’ Can you comment on this apparent contradiction?

Egor Kholmogorov (EK): The point is that strategically, in terms of culture, as a civilization, as a state, Russia is interested in isolation. That is, as much as possible it shouldn’t intervene very much in world affairs. It shouldn’t be continually supporting the global balance by means of interventions in far away lands, especially as these are taking more and more absurd forms. An example is the geopolitically-founded intervention in Syria. Now Russian Muslims are demanding that Russia should punish the regime of Myanmar. But Myanmar is completely irrelevant to the majority of Russian citizens. But there’s a problem connected with the fact that what we now call Russia came into being in 1991 in rather an absurd manner. Russia as a subject of international law was decidedly smaller than Russia as a historical fact, as a historical territory, as a territory inhabited by Russians. Consequently, in our current objective circumstances, isolationism is impossible as we are under continual threat. American tanks are in Estonia, 100 kilometers from St Petersburg. NATO military bases might appear in Ukraine. Thus Russia is currently obliged to attack or counter-attack in some way, because it is objectively threatened.

Continue reading Interview with Egor Kholmogorov

Interview with Alexander Dugin

On 31 August, I interviewed Alexander Dugin in Moscow. Below is my translation of the interview.

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Alexander Dugin.

Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book about Russian conservatism and wanted to talk with you as a well-known Russian conservative. In the West, many people talk of a ‘conservative turn’ in Russia. Do you think that this is the case?

Continue reading Interview with Alexander Dugin

Double standards again

One of the interesting aspects of the research I am conducting into the history of Russian conservatism is the contemporary resonance of texts written 100, 150, or even 200 years ago. My point here is not to express approval or support of what was written, merely to say that, if you change a few names, much of it could be written today. As a means of understanding contemporary Russian thinking, some of these older texts are quite insightful.

Take for instance Nikolai Danilevskii’s 1869 book Russia and Europe, the 2013 translation of which by Stephen Woodburn I have just started reading. As early as page one I could not but notice the contemporary relevance. Danilevskii complains of Europe’s double standards. Why, he asks, did Prussia’s and Austria’s flagrant aggression against Denmark in 1864 fail to arouse any sense of indignation among Europeans, whereas Russia’s earlier war against Turkey (notionally in defence of Christians) generated immense moral outrage and the creation of the coalition which defeated Russia in the Crimean War. Substitute the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or any other example of American or British aggression) for the Prussia/Austrian invasion of Denmark, and substitute Russia’s current war in Syria for its earlier war against Turkey, and you can see that, in Russian eyes at least, not much has changed in the past 150 years. For some reason, a double standard applies when moral judgements are made about Russia and the West.

To illustrate the point, here are some key excerpts from Chapter 1 of Russia and Europe, starting on page one.

[P.S. I am thinking of starting a regular feature which would involve the weekly publication of extracts from other Russian conservative texts chosen for their contemporary relevance (and, I stress, not as a mark of approval). I think this could be educationally useful as well as providing a good springboard for political discussion and getting feedback on my research. My previous translation and publication of Ivan Ilyin’s ‘Against Russia’ got a lot of readers, so maybe these would too. It would be good to know if there is any interest.]

  Continue reading Double standards again

Quotations, quotations

I don’t like to keep returning to the same topic, but The New York Times leaves me little choice. A few months ago I wrote a piece denouncing a lecture by historian Timothy Snyder which, roughly speaking, proposed the following thesis: Vladimir Putin has quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; ergo Putin is a fascist. Today Snyder repeated his thesis in an op-ed entitled ‘How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election’. In this he argues that, with Ilyin as his philosophical guide, Putin is trying to ‘discredit both elections and their observation’ and thereby ‘bring down democracy everywhere’.

According to Snyder, ‘Mr Putin has relied on Ilyin’s authority at every turning point in Russian politics’. This is clearly an enormous exaggeration given that Putin has quoted Ilyin a grand total of five times in the 16 years that he has been in power. Furthermore, Snyder’s description of Ilyin’s views is decidedly one-sided. He writes, for instance, that ‘Ilyin believed that individuality was evil’. Now I confess that I haven’t read everything that Ilyin wrote, but I’ve read a reasonable amount, and I have yet to come across anything which would suggest such a conclusion (see the quote below about soldiers being individuals). Moreover, Snyder errs in saying that Ilyin’s critical views of formal democracy could justify undermining democratic procedures in foreign countries. Ilyin was actually of the view that in some countries, such as Switzerland and the USA, formal democracy worked well. He made it clear that, even if he didn’t want Russia to follow their example, he was very happy for other countries to do things the way they did. The political system of each country had to match that country’s specific form of legal consciousness, he insisted.

But Snyder’s errors on those points are not what I am most interested in challenging. Rather, what exercises me is the assumption underlying his argument, namely that if someone quotes somebody who at some point said something else which was distasteful, then the person doing the quoting obviously shares that distasteful opinion in full.

To show why this is wrong, let us consider somebody else Putin has cited: the Slavophile thinker Konstantin Aksakov. Does Putin share all Aksakov’s views on everything? Surely not. There is the Konstantin Aksakov who supported centralized state power. But there is also the Konstantin Aksakov who was something close to an anarchist. There is the Aksakov who backed autocracy. And there is the Aksakov who opposed serfdom and was a fierce proponent of free speech. Which Aksakov is Putin?

Take some other examples. Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, but he was also at one point a member of the Nazi Party. Many philosophers continue to cite him and make use of his ideas. It would be ridiculous to claim that they are all Nazis. The jurist Carl Schmitt has become increasingly popular in academic works in the past decade. He too was a member of the Nazi party. But it would be preposterous to call all the legal scholars who cite him fascists.

So, let us look at which of Ilyin’s sayings Putin has actually referred to. There are as follows:

25 April 2005:

The great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote that, ‘State power has its limits … The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness, and convictions. It cannot regulate scientific, religious, and artistic creation. … It musn’t interfere in moral, family, and everyday life, or except in extreme necessity restrict economic initiative.’

10 May 2006:

The well-known Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin said that the calling of soldier is a high and honourable title and that the soldier ‘represents the national unity of the people, the will of the Russian state, strength and honour’.

23 January 2012:

It is this special quality of Russian statehood that was outlined in Ivan Ilyin’s works: ‘Not to eliminate, not to suppress, not to enslave other people’s blood, not to stifle the life of different tribes and religions – but to give everyone breath and the great Russia…to honor all, to reconcile all, to allow everyone to pray in their own way, to work in their own way, and to engage the best in public and cultural development.’

26 June 2013

As the famous philosopher Ivan Ilyin said, ‘The Russian army will never forget the tradition of Suvorov, which maintained that the soldier is an individual’.

4 December 2014:

I will cite here Ivan Ilyin: ‘Whoever loves Russia should desire freedom for it; first of all freedom for Russia itself, its international independence; freedom for Russia—as the unity of Russian and all other national cultures; and finally, freedom for Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of religion, the search for justice, creativity, labor, and property.

Professor Snyder thinks that these quotations make Putin a fascist. I cannot imagine what definition of fascism he is using to draw this conclusion. In 1990 the New York Times admitted that Walter Duranty’s reporting was some of the worst it had ever printed. Given what the newspaper is publishing nowadays, Duranty is facing some stiff competition.

Russia, shield of Europe?

In a post last week, I commented that some modern-day Slavophiles ‘claim that it is precisely by refusing to fully endorse “Western values” that they can save Western civilization from itself’. This sparked one comment which read, ‘I wouldn’t claim that exactly none have this sort of a messianic vision, but it must be very few. They sympathize with the western conservatives of course, they lament their decline, they see them as natural allies – yes, but I don’t think they regard themselves as saviors of their civilization.’ With this in mind, I was intrigued by an article I read this week by Dalarna University’s Maria Engström. This was published in 2014 in the journal Contemporary Security Policy, and is available free online here.

Entitled ‘Contemporary Russian Messianism and New Russian Foreign Policy’, the article introduces readers to the concept of ‘Russia as Katechon, as the world’s shield against the apocalyptic forces of chaos’. Katechon is a Greek word meaning ‘that which withholds’. The idea dates back to St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. According to Engström:

St John Chrysostom interprets Paul’s words as a reference to the Emperor and his power that withholds and protects the world from the advent of the Antichrist. In this teaching, the Roman Empire is an antithesis of Anomia [lawlessness] and will exist until the Second Advent, restraining the chaos. … Already during Ivan the Terrible’s reign it was specified that the two enemies of Moscow as the Katechon are the external Antichrist, that is, all lands beyond Muscovy, and the internal Antichrist, which is no less dangerous than the external one. Internal resistance to the State under certain circumstances and especially during unstable periods is now interpreted as an indulgence to the powers of Anomia and chaos. This eschatological view becomes a constant of Russian history and the Russian understanding of the State as the Restrainer.

Engström explains that in Imperial Russia the idea of Katechon eventually came to imply that Russia was the shield which protected Europe from chaos. Thus Pushkin wrote of Russia’s ‘special destiny’, which included saving European civilization from the Mongols. Similarly, Alexander Blok wrote in The Scythians that, ‘We’ve held the shield between two hostile powers – Old Europe and the barbarous Mongol horde.’ Later in time, Russia was the Katechon which saved Europe from Napoleon and Hitler.

According to Engström, while the general concept is an old one, the use of the actual word Katechon in Russia is very new. The word entered Russian political philosophy following the translation into Russian in the 1990s of the work of controversial German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). In the process, it has undergone an evolution. In addition to the idea of defending Europe militarily, it has now acquired a spiritual sense – that of Russia being Europe’s ideological shield, defending against the influence of liberal Western values. The West, says Engström, is:

described in terms of Anomia (relegation of Christian values, forcing the majority to adopt the opinions of the minority, destabilization, and chaos). The rhetoric of spiritual mobilization, of Russia’s responsibility for the fate of the world, and of the ‘burden of the Russian people’ is becoming dominant once again as it was many times before during tragic periods in Russian history. … The new conservative doctrine is very anti-Western, but it is not a denial of Russia’s European identity; rather it is an argument for Russia’s true European Christian identity that got lost in the bureaucratic body of the European Union.

Some Russians go on to conclude that their country can only fulfil its messianic role as Katechon by propagating an alternative ideology to that of the decadent liberal West. The Russian constitution’s prohibition against an official ideology is thus mistaken and should be repealed.

This is all fascinating stuff. But I part ways somewhat with Engström when she says that this type of thinking has an important influence on government policy. This is especially true of the theory that Russia should be an ideological Katechon, protecting Europe against moral chaos. As I noted in a previous post, Vladimir Putin has recently repeated his own opposition to the idea of any sort of state ideology beyond ‘patriotism’. This hardly suggests that he sees himself as engaged in a deep ideological struggle with Western liberalism, let alone as leading a mystical charge to shield the West from the consequences of its own decadence.  More broadly, as I explained in yet another recent post, Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and Syria supports the conclusion that Russian foreign policy is mostly Realist in orientation and focused on defending national interests not on promoting any ideology or set of values.

Imperial Russia

Much has been written in the last couple of years about Russia’s ‘conservative turn’. On the whole, I haven’t been impressed, but I did quite like an article I stumbled across today by Moscow-based American academic Christopher Stroop which was published last month in The Public Eye magazine (which describes its mission as being to ‘challenge the right-wing’ and its ‘threats to human and civil rights’). Entitled ‘A Right-Wing International’, the article describes the leading role which the Russian Orthodox Church has played in the World Congress of Families (WCF), an organization ‘dedicated to what [its members] call “the natural family”.’

Stroop depicts the WCF as the product of a complex mix of Russian and American influences. It emerged out of discussions between Russian sociologists Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov and conservative American activist Alan Carlson, who was strongly influenced by Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who taught at Harvard. According to Stroop, Sorokin taught that, ‘absent absolute values grounded in unchanging religious truth, human morality will decay and society will descend into chaos’. Sorokin drew on the writings of earlier Russian thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev, Ivan Ilyin, and Sergei Bulgakov, who all maintained that in the absence of belief in God, people would come to idolize the state. The result would be tyranny. Berdyaev, says Stroop, ‘believed in a particular Providential calling for Russia … in which a spiritually renewed Russia would have an important role to play in reviving the Christian roots of European civilization’. It is this idea, Stroop claims, which now inspires the Russian Orthodox Church and some Russian political leaders.

Stroop warns that the ‘idea of a special role for Russia in the world’s moral progress … [can] all too easily play into a sense of Russian exceptionalism: a sense that Russia represents a morally superior civilization.’ Berdyaev, Bulgakov, and others sought hard to avoid this, but ‘With or without claiming inherent moral superiority, there is a clear claim here that Russia has a spiritual mission to enlighten other nations. Historically, this claim is rooted in Slavophilism.’ Stroop adds:

The Russian discourse of moral mission and the superiority of Christian values to those of the ‘decadent’ West has played a key role in the resurgence of social conservatism in post-Soviet Russia. It should be noted that this discourse is essentially imperial; Russian concerns about morality have never been only about Russia, but have always been bound up with considerations of the role that Russia should play in the wider world.

I agree to some extent. As I have pointed out before, Slavophilism drew on German Romantic claims that nations could only contribute to humanity by following their own path and drawing on what was best in their own culture. Paradoxically, Slavophiles wished to distance themselves from the West, not in order to live in splendid isolation but precisely in order to be able to contribute something to the West. In the same way, some of their modern successors claim that it is precisely by refusing to fully endorse ‘Western values’ that they can save Western civilization from itself.

Yet to call this ‘imperial’ is going a bit too far. ‘Imperial’ implies the imposition of a set of ideas or a form of government by an alien central authority. I do not see any indication that modern Russian conservatives have any such thing in mind. Their idea is not to create a ‘right-wing international’ like the old Communist International. At the heart of the philosophical tradition Stroop describes is a recognition of the value of diversity. The basic claim is that Russia is different, and should be allowed to do things differently. That in turn means that others are different too and should also be allowed to do things differently.  It is no surprise that many of those who are now called ‘conservative’ in Russia are resolutely opposed to what they believe are the modern manifestations of imperialism, such as globalization. Theirs is in many ways an anti-imperial philosophy.

Given the declared mission of The Public Eye magazine, it would seem that Stroop’s use of the word ‘imperial’ is meant to sound some sort of alarm about the threat Russia poses to human rights in the West. I think that this is unnecessary. At the end of the day, most Russians are far more interested in being left alone by the West to do things their own way than they are in converting the West to their own point of view.

Democracy ≠ Liberalism

Conspiracy theorists who imagine that the world is run by Freemasons, Zionists, or the Illuminati have it all wrong. The people really pulling the strings are graduates of St Antony’s College, Oxford, many of whom have infiltrated the foreign ministries of countries around the world. Being a member of this global conspiracy, I received this week the college’s annual newsletter, ‘The Antonian’. An article by Dan Healy, the Director of St Antony’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre, entitled ‘Irreconcilable Foes? LGBT Russians and their government?’, looks at ‘the roots of the 2013 law banning “propaganda among minors for non-traditional sexual relations”.’ It contains an interesting lesson about Russian democracy.

Healy explains that the roots of the legislation ‘might be found in the early 2000s, when conservative-nationalists and religious lobbyists in the Duma began calling for such a law. … The Russian MPs’ crude early versions of their ban on “propaganda for homosexualism” were rejected.’ Rebuffed nationally, conservatives moved their campaign to the local level. According to Healy, by 2012, ‘Local authorities around the country had enacted their own versions of “gay propaganda” bans and from Novosibirsk the Duma received a formal request for a national ban.’ At this point the Kremlin finally abandoned its opposition, perhaps because President Vladimir Putin had himself become more conservative and/or perhaps because the government recognized the public mood and wanted to score popularity points.

Normally, the Western press casts the blame for the 2013 law on Putin personally. What I find interesting about Healy’s description is that it shows something rather different. The Kremlin initially resisted the policy, but in the end succumbed to perceived public demand. This reveals: first, that Russia is perhaps more democratic than people make it out to be; and second, that democracy in Russia does not necessarily equate with liberalism.

Nowadays, people in the West assume that more democracy equals more liberty. I think that in the longer term that does tend to be true. But not always. Often, the elites who govern Western democracies are more liberal than many or most of the people they represent, as seen for instance with opposition to the death penalty and support for immigration. Also, some of the more important advances in human rights have come not from legislatures, but from the courts – in other words, from the non-elected part of constitutional systems. If governments in Western countries accurately reflected the desires of their peoples, they might well be much less liberal than they are.

Americans often forget that their founding fathers were actually rather suspicious of democracy, which they felt would lead to mob rule and was thus injurious to liberty. They therefore devised a semi-democratic, semi-monarchical, constitution. Similarly, 19th century Russian liberal conservative thinkers believed that only an autocratic government could bring about liberal reform – democratic governments would in practice prove to be reactionary. I don’t think that they were entirely right about that, but as the example above shows, they weren’t entirely wrong either.

In a 2004 letter, imprisoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote that, ‘Putin is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is still more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of our country’s population’. If Putin is now less liberal, that means that he has become closer to the people he represents, not the opposite. A recent article by the University of Copenhagen’s Matthew Del Santo highlights this:

Mikhail Remizov, director of Russia’s Institute of National Strategy, shares this view, saying in a recent interview: ‘Russian democracy must by definition be conservative, populist, nationalist and protectionist’. Until 2012, he said, the conservatives ‘who really enjoy the sympathies of the majority of the nation occupied the place of an opposition. Real power remained in the hands of the neo-liberal elite that had run the country since the 1990s’. This has now changed. ‘Putin is falsely presented as a nationalist’, said Remizov. ‘In a Russian context, he’s a sovereigntist. But in general, the agenda of the Kremlin today is formed by the opposition of the 2000s: the conservative, patriotic majority.’

None of this is meant to say that democracy is a bad thing; it has many advantages above and beyond its capacity to deliver liberal reform. Not least of these advantages is improved accountability. Rather, the point is that Russia’s government consists of a curious mix of democratic and non-democratic elements, and Healy’s article draws our attention to the uncomfortable fact that some of the aspects of Russian behaviour that we in the West don’t like are due more to the former than to the latter.

More on ‘Putin’s philosopher’

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.