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Freedom

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

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Two views of Russia

Two recent editions of academic journals provide very different views of modern Russia and its political system. According to one, Russia is a ‘fascist’ state, whose rulers ‘show an utter contempt for Russia’s people’. According to the other, Russia’s government and people broadly share the same priorities; the government pays close attention to the wishes of the people, who in return see the government generally, though not overwhelmingly, positively.

The first assessment comes in a special edition of Communist and Post-Communist Studies devoted to the topic ‘Between Nationalism, Authoritarianism, and Fascism in Russia: Exploring Vladimir Putin’s Regime’. Edited by Canadian-Ukrainian scholar and vocal Putin critic Taras Kuzio, it contains articles not only by Kuzio himself but also (among others) by Rutgers University’s Alexander Motyl and the author of the Window on Eurasia blog, Paul Goble, both of whom are well known for their hostility to the Russian government.

Motyl’s contribution is entitled ‘Putin’s Russia as a Fascist Political System’. Motyl proposes that ‘Putin’s Russia may legitimately be termed fascist.’ To make this argument, he examines various definitions of fascism and then creates his own, calling fascism ‘a popular fully authoritarian political system with a personalistic dictator and a cult of the leader’. The rest of his article consists of an effort to show that all these features exist in Putin’s Russia.

The centrepiece of Motyl’s thesis is his claim that Russia has evolved from a ‘soft’ authoritarian state into a ‘fully authoritarian’ one. One can certainly argue that political opposition in Russia is constrained. Nevertheless, opposition exists and is tolerated. It didn’t, and wasn’t, in fascist regimes, such as 1930s Italy or Germany. In Russia, people hold rallies denouncing Putin and his ‘regime’. They publish books saying the same thing. They appear on radio and television. They make their hostility to their government clear on the internet. That is hardly compatible with ‘full authoritarianism’, let alone fascism. (Can you imagine Mussolini permitting such things?) Motyl’s thesis is well wide of the mark.

Rather better is an article by the University of Arizona’s John P. Willerton, entitled ‘Russian Public Assessments of the Putin Policy Program: Achievements and Challenges’, in the new journal Russian Politics, which has just produced its second edition.

Willerton avoids making moral judgements about Putin and his government, and limits himself to a study of how the Russian people assess their government’s performance. He notes that, ‘However one judges the state of the Russian polity, whether as some sort of “hybrid regime” or a returned “soft” authoritarian state, there is no doubt that Russian public preferences matter for the country’s political life, and elites – including Vladimir Putin – are well aware of this. … There is considerable evidence that Putin and his team are highly concerned about public opinion.’ Having been in power for 15 years, Putin and those around him need to perform well and fulfill public expectations in order to avoid ‘policy weariness’ and possible ‘mounting public impatience.’

As a first step, Willerton describes the policy priorities established by Putin in various areas. These are: ‘efficient state institutions’, ‘quality of social services’, ‘protection of people’s rights and freedoms’, ‘higher standard of living’, ‘provision of goods and services to the public’, ‘revitalization of cultural life’, ‘promotion of traditional families’, ‘fight against crime and corruption’, ‘ensuring social justice’, ‘returned trust to institutions’, and ‘protection of Russia internationally’. Using data from opinion polls, Willerton finds ‘a high correspondence between Putin and public assessments as regards what are important policy matters.’ In short, the ‘regime’ and the public care about the same things.

However, ‘the public’s assessments of the Putin team performance in addressing these eleven policy concerns is much more mixed.’ Russians rate Putin’s foreign policy highly, but their assessments of achievements in domestic policy are ‘middling … in some cases modestly good, while none can be described as failing.’ Russians think that the government is doing reasonably well in ‘providing goods and services necessary for the people’ and ‘efficient state institutions’ but less well in providing ‘better quality of social services’ and in fighting crime and corruption. Given the regular complaints by foreign commentators about increased government repression, it is interesting that Russians give their leaders an ‘above average’, though not ‘high’, rating for protecting their rights and freedoms.

The government can be reasonably satisfied with these results, Willerton suggests, but adds that there are some causes for concern. While the public’s top priorities are a higher standard of living, better social services, fighting crime, and ensuring social justice, it rates the government’s performance slightly lower on these matters than on those which it considers less important, such as more efficient state institutions and protecting the traditional family. Also, Russians rank Putin much higher than other than political actors, although everyone associated with the current ‘regime’ (e.g. the United Russia party and the Cabinet of Ministers) does much better than opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, who is rated very negatively. Willerton concludes:

The Russian public shares the same policy priorities as the governing Putin team, and that public offers a basically positive assessment of the performance of that team in implementing those policy priorities. The Russian public expresses strong confidence in Vladimir Putin himself, who appears as a paramount leader who stands above his team associates and the institutions – governmental and nongovernment – which they lead. The public’s confidence in those associates and institutions, however, is restrained, suggesting acceptance rather than enthusiasm. Meanwhile, if the public’s reaction to Putin critic Aleksei Navalny is any indication, elements strongly opposed to the Putin team’s efforts enjoy little support from the Russian mainstream.

Bandwagon of errors

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.