Tag Archives: Ivan Ilyin

Against Political Slander

We live in an era in which political slander appears to be a common tactic. American politics seems especially toxic, with Donald Trump and his detractors trading insults on an almost daily basis. But the problem spreads far beyond the USA. An example is the ongoing campaign in the United Kingdom to undermine Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by labelling him as ‘Anti-Semitic’. And as everybody who follows Russia studies will know, if you dare to contradict the prevailing narrative which depicts Russia as the source of all evil, you are only too likely to find yourself denounced as a Russian ‘Trojan Horse’, ‘Putin proxy’, or ‘Kremlin agent’. Following on from my last post, therefore, I thought it worth translating another piece out of the latest volume of Ivan Ilyin’s works, namely an August 1939 article entitled ‘Against Political Slander’, which you can find below.

Originally published in German in the Neues Winterhurer Tagblatt in Switzerland, where Ilyin was living after having fled Nazi Germany, it’s notable for a couple of reason: first, for the manner in which the supposedly ‘fascist’ Ilyin passionately defends Swiss democracy and describes himself as a ‘democrat’; and second for its subject matter – political slander – which he depicts as dangerous for any democratic system. ‘If anybody tells an honest worker, who speaks out for justice and the honour of his profession, that because of this he’s “a paid agent of the International”, then this is stupid and vile slander’, writes Ilyin. It’s a message which is remarkably relevant for our times, and one which our modern ‘defenders of democracy’ would do well to heed.

 

Ivan Ilyin, ‘Against Political Slander’ (Switzerland, 29 August 1939)

Yes, the contemporary world engages in slander! That’s not to say that slander was unknown in former times. Humans have always been only too human. But still, slander didn’t become a method, or more precisely it wasn’t raised to the status of a political method in the way that it has been in the past decade. It’s impossible to remain silent about the great dangers involved.

Wherever slander appears, it exerts a harmful and destructive influence all around. For it consists of hate and envy; it is the product of these baneful passions. It’s the lie that passes off as truth. It consciously insults and yet demands revenge. In short, it’s the direct enemy of peace, equilibrium, and mutual trust.

Precisely for this reason slander has a very harmful influence on democratic society. No democratic order can exist in the spirit of slander; it is imperceptibly undermined, it is castrated over and over again, rots and comes closer and closer to death. Anybody who doesn’t understand this or disputes it, really knows nothing about the essence of democracy.

A democracy is not only a ‘multiplicity of independent people’, but much more, it’s a unity of many and independent co-citizens, a unity despite their numbers, a unity which derives from plurality. Try to forget about this unity or to neglect it, and democracy falls apart, like an armful of brushwood which has fallen out of your arms. Democracy does not mean ‘every man for himself’, but ‘all together’; it rests not on centrifugal forces striving to distance themselves from the centre, but on the force of mutual attraction. The people in authoritarian states are united by the corresponding state. We, democrats of the Swiss Confederation, must unite on the basis of voluntary self-discipline, and on the principle of belonging to the Confederation we must unite in a communion of free men who trust one another. If we let this slip, we will turn into dust and worthless garbage. And so we must take care of everything which eases our national – and I mean national, not counterfeit international! – cohesion, and must avoid everything which unjustly and incompetently divides us. Throughout our history this has always been the primary requirement of the state, and now more than ever before. The general situation in the world and in particular its anti-democratic essence requires us Swiss to withstand this experience and present to the world an example of true national community.

A honourable democrat should display respect, justice, and correctness in all his relations with loyal co-citizens who truly and unconditionally stand on the side of the people and the country, and who in good conscience obey the country’s democratic constitution. This is the first manifestation of a healthy democratic spirit. By contrast, all shaming, all unobjective backbiting, and all slander, break and crush these principles of our existence. Hatred – including class hatred – is blind and unjust. We must not profess it; otherwise the demon of ‘alienation’ will triumph. From the earliest times envy has been the father of every hatred and civil war. We must pacify it. We don’t have to respond every time we’re contradicted, to every honest criticism, to every patriotic-democratic word which has been properly expressed, to the commentary which contradicts the truth, to crude blackening or vilification. What are most reprehensible are premeditated efforts to bespatter the pure convictions of inconvenient third parties with caustic remarks designed to sow suspicion, in the hope that ‘some mud always sticks’. This is the method of the imperialist, the ill-intentioned destroyer of peace.

Slander is unjustified suspicion; suspicion incites mutual distrust – distrust at first of the unjustly slandered, then of the lying slanderer, and finally of public speech and of politics in general. For every individual citizen of the country ceases to be able to distinguish truth from lies, honest criticism from slander, and so becomes disinclined to believe anybody or to participate in anything. Who benefits? Only our enemies: the open and secret enemies of democracy, opponents of the Swiss character and independence, enemies of peace and humanity!

We mustn’t beat about the bush: the use of political slander to undermine political opponents and people who defend an alternative political point of view by means of unfounded suspicions, is impermissible, anti-democratic and fatal. Anybody who makes use of it can in no way pretend to the honourable title of true and reasonable democrat.

If anybody tells an honest worker, who speaks out for justice and the honour of his profession, that because of this he’s “a paid agent of the International”, then this is stupid and vile slander. But if a democrat who is loyal to his Fatherland points out to the worker the incontrovertible fact that the ‘United Front’ – or as it’s also called, the ‘Popular Front’ – was dreamt up by the Third International to dissolve and destroy all democracies, and one hears the objection that the person pointing this out is a ‘brownshirt’, i.e. someone who rejects and secretly despises our country, then is political slander, which has been consciously and deliberately turned into a method, and must be stigmatized. Or if the Bundesrat, whose name enjoys respect not only in Switzerland but in all Europe, of if an officer of high rank is daily called a ‘disguised fascist’ because he faithfully and obediently supports the 300-year tradition of our country’s neutrality, then this is base slander, serving only one goal – systematically castrating the Swiss way of life and the needs of the state. It is a conscious lack of objectivity, an intentional dissolution of the trust which needs to exist in a genuine democracy, not only between citizen and citizen, but also between citizens and institutions, and vice versa. It is false, poisonous and fatal. It must stop.

For me, the honourable name of co-citizen is inviolable. It is a treasure which I must preserve. It is a pure voice in the political choir of my people. We democrats are not allowed to act like evil little children who run around in the night defiling decent citizens’ doors or smashing their windows.

We have a responsibility to be pure and dedicated to our Motherland. The politics of slander and suspicion are not Swiss politics. And our politics do not need imports.

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

Continue reading Freedom

Book review: The road to unfreedom

Timothy Snyder doesn’t like Donald Trump. Really, really doesn’t like him. He fears that under Trump, American (and also European) democracy may collapse into some sort of nasty fascist tyranny. And he wants us all to know who is to blame for this terrible state of affairs, so that we can defend ourselves against it while there is still time. And who is to blame? You know the answer, of course. It’s Russia.

Snyder explains all this in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. You will have to excuse me. This is going to be a very long review. Snyder is quite a high profile intellectual in the United States. He’s doing a tour of the country, selling this book, and giving talks and media interviews. I doubt that many Trump supporters will read his book, but a fair number of middle class, liberal intellectuals will, and no doubt many of them will suck it all up, not realizing that they’re being conned. For that reason, The Road to Unfreedom requires a detailed response. Unfortunately, there’s so much wrong with it that I can’t adequately deal with it in just a few lines. So, it’s going to take a little time. Please bear with me.

snyder book

Continue reading Book review: The road to unfreedom

How not to write history

Timothy Snyder is at it again. In a long article published this week in The New York Review of Books, Snyder expands on the thesis he propagated in a much shorter piece for the New York Times a while ago, namely that the way to understand the policies of the Russian state is through the works of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that this is super scary because Ilyin was a fascist. Some of Snyder’s ideas are decidedly odd (e.g. that Ilyin’s influence explains the war in Ukraine!), but I don’t want to get into a huge argument with him on the details of his essay, because I’m sure that interpretations of what exactly Ilyin did or didn’t write, or did or didn’t mean, aren’t of vast interest to the general public. Suffice it to say that Snyder and I seem to be reading a completely different Ilyin, and my previous complaints on this subject (made here and here) still stand.

Instead, what I want to address is a broader issue – how should one write history? And to answer this question, I’ll use the example of Russian conservatism, both because Ilyin was a Russian conservative and because I’ve just finished writing a book on the subject.

It seems to me that when writing about a subject like Russian conservatism (as with just about anything), there are two approaches one can take. The first seeks the approval of a large audience, for which it requires a simple overarching and almost certainly exaggerated thesis. For this reason, it seeks to avoid contradictions and paradoxes, and tries to fit the past into the straightjacket of some pre-conceived narrative or ideological precept. It sees the past not as something to be studied in its own right for its own sake but as a tool for contemporary political, economic, or social struggles, and therefore imposes interpretations designed to further a specific contemporary agenda. The second approach, which as a professional historian I consider the correct way, isn’t particularly interested in attracting a mass audience. Instead, it seeks accuracy, balance, nuance; it accepts that things are complicated and that there’s no simple narrative one can transplant onto the past; it seeks truth and tries to understand the past on its own terms; while it can never achieve absolute objectivity, it tries to avoid using the past as a tool for the present.

One might consider these approaches, broadly speaking, as being ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’. These are, of course, extremely simplified models, but as long as one takes them as types rather than as rigid descriptions of reality, they serve a useful analytical purpose. So, let us see how they might work in a given case – the history of Russian conservatism.

Imagine that you want to write a book on Russian conservatism which is going to attract attention, hopefully sell rather more copies than the average history of political philosophy, and if you’re lucky perhaps make your name by getting you space in popular, but highbrow, journals such as The New York Review of Books. How would you go about it?

First, develop a clear overall thesis which fits with the current zeitgeist. In the case of Russian conservatism, that’s easy. Tell everybody how scary it is and shape your whole book accordingly. And let’s be frank, a subject like Russian conservatism gives you lots of good material. In the first place, you have a cast of characters who can easily be manipulated to look decidedly odd. So cherry-pick the eccentricities and play them up. It will enable you to make the book entertaining as well as informative, with readers agasp at these crazy people you describe. The likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Konstantin Leontyev will give you plenty to play with. Next, focus on their more extreme and reactionary ideas – throw in some anti-Semitic comments, for instance. Play up all the really kooky stuff – there’s lots there (Lev Gumilev’s weird beliefs about cosmic rays as the source of passionarnost’, for instance). And skip over everything which complicates the simple story you are spinning. Make Russian conservatives out to be foaming in the mouth nationalists and haters of the West. Ignore all their statements about their admiration of the West. Make them out to be authoritarian and anti-liberal. Ignore all they say about the limits of authority and their repeated stress of the dignity of the person and the need for freedom. Talk about Russian messianism and imperialism. Ignore the isolationist strand in Russian conservatism entirely. You’ll be able to find lots of juicy quotes to justify your thesis. Then link it all to modern Russia and Vladimir Putin; argue that the latter has inherited all the worst attributes of Russia’s conservative heritage. And bam! You’ve got a best seller. People will love it. It will be lively, contentious, hard hitting, and allow readers to feel that they’ve found the key to understanding Russia.

It will also be total rubbish. The past isn’t that simple. This approach cherry picks the past to suit a personal and political purpose. The second approach is different. Imagine that you want to write a history of Russian conservatism which is as accurate as possible. What do you do? You look at all sides of conservative thought. You study its nuances and complexities, its contradictions and paradoxes. And in the process, you discover that there isn’t a simple narrative which encompasses it all. If there are two things in Timothy Snyder’s article with which I agree they are when he says that in Ilyin’s work, “it is easy to find tensions and contradictions,” and that, “Ilyin’s vast body of work admits multiple interpretations.” That’s true of Russian conservatism as a whole. So, a thorough study of the subject would require one to examine all the tensions and contradictions, all the multiple interpretations. That’s going to make the result somewhat complex, and perhaps rather hard to follow. It’s also going to require the historian to ditch most of the salacious material which makes the first kind of history so fun to read. The result is going to be something which is perhaps rather dry. Many might even find it boring. Academics might pick it up, but it’s unlikely to inspire a mass audience and certainly won’t get you published in The New York Review of Books.

I’m not at all averse to political polemics. Nor am I averse to writing in an entertaining way. I’ve done my fair bit of both. But there’s a difference between writing an article for the Spectator, which must be both polemical and entertaining, and writing a piece of serious academic research, which must be accurate and sober. Approach one is fine for an op-ed; it’s not for a work of scholarship. And this is why I object to Snyder. He admits that Ilyin’s work is full of tensions and contradictions and subject to multiple interpretations, but he then just ignores all of those, and instead takes a single interpretation and runs with it. Moreover, it’s a very extreme interpretation. To make it work, he picks only those bits of evidence which suit his purpose and fills out his analysis with salacious allegations (Ilyin was a fan of psychoanalysis, had peculiar ideas about sexual perversion, was rabidly anti-Semitic, etc.) Balance and complexity are entirely absent. He has a thesis, and he’s going to fit everything into it regardless. Moreover, this thesis has an overtly political purpose. Snyder isn’t writing in order to understand the past; he’s writing about the past in order to shape people’s understanding of the present (specifically, to accentuate readers’ fears and dislike of Russia). To do that he has to distort the past to make it fit his purpose. This is an abuse of history. Or more accurately, it isn’t history; it’s propaganda.

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.

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.

Book Review: Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine

My recent post on Sergei Lavrov’s article provoked a discussion about whether it matters whom politicians cite. French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff has written a small book entitled Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine [Inside Vladimir Putin’s Head] based on the principle that it does.

Given how many people have written articles claiming to know what Putin wants or what he is thinking, it is surprising how few of them have bothered to go through all Putin’s speeches to find out what it is that he has actually said. Eltchaninoff has trawled 15 years of Putin’s pronouncements to discover which philosophers the Russian president has cited and to locate ideological statements. He has also interviewed a number of Russians who have taken part in the country’s ideological debates, such as philosopher/political activist Alexander Dugin, outspoken priest Vsevolod Chaplin, writer Alexander Prokhanov, and political philosopher Boris Mezhuev. He proposes that Putin is of more philosophical bent than commonly imagined.

By examining Putin’s speeches in depth, and using them to make a serious analysis of Putin’s ideological preferences, Eltchaninoff’s book breaks new ground. It contains much interesting material, and I certainly learnt a lot from it. In that respect, its contents are a valuable addition to our knowledge of Russia’s leader.

That said, I have some strong doubts about Eltchaninoff’s analysis of Putin’s philosophical sources. Eltchaninoff’s conclusion is that Putin is above all an ‘imperialist’ and an ‘arch-conservative’. But to reach this conclusion he has to treat some sources differently from others. Eltchaninoff dismisses as unimportant or irrelevant quotations from philosophers whom Putin has cited whose work doesn’t support his conclusion. Meanwhile, he puts a lot of emphasis on things other philosophers wrote which could support the conclusion, even when the things in question are not what Putin was quoting. The result is misleading.

Eltchaninoff mentions six main thinkers whom Putin has cited: Immanuel Kant, Konstantin Aksakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Konstantin Leontiev, Ivan Ilyin, and Lev Gumilev. He deals with the first three very differently from the last three.

Eltchaninoff discusses Putin’s references to Kant, and in particular Kant’s essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’, in the context of his liberal, pro-European discourse in the early 2000s. But he doesn’t allow himself to conclude that Putin is, or indeed ever was, liberally-inclined or pro-European. Eltchaninoff notes that when speaking in Kaliningrad or Berlin, Putin said that Russia was part of Europe, but when speaking in Asian cities he said that Russia was Eurasian. The citation of Kant was, therefore, just a diplomatic ploy, an example of Putin’s ‘pseudo-liberalism’.

As for Aksakov, Eltchaninoff considers Putin’s mention of him to be irrelevant. Aksakov, he notes, was a ‘first generation Slavophile’, but these Slavophiles were not imperialists; Putin is an imperialist; therefore, we cannot draw any conclusions from Putin citing Aksakov! Instead, Eltchaninoff says that Putin is closer to ‘second generation Slavophiles’ such as Nikolai Danilevskii, and proceeds to provide a long explanation of Danilevskii’s beliefs. But as far as I know (and Eltchaninoff doesn’t produce any evidence to the contrary), Putin has never cited Danilevskii.

Putin’s mentions of Berdyaev are similarly regarded as meaningless. Eltchaninoff remarks that the concept of freedom was at the core of Berdyaev’s philosophy. Putin is, as we all know, against freedom. Thus, it follows, according to Eltchaninoff, that Putin simply doesn’t understand Berdyaev. If he did, Eltchaninoff says, he wouldn’t have cited him.

Leontiev, Ilyin, and Gumilev receive very different treatment, with Eltchaninoff taking care to emphasize the anti-Western and illiberal parts of their philosophies. He segues neatly from Leontiev to the so-called ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’ Carl Schmitt (to whom Putin has never in fact referred), thus creating the impression that Putin has fascist tendencies, while ignoring the fact that Schmitt is quite popular nowadays with a whole array of entirely non-fascist Western thinkers.

Eltchaninoff describes Putin’s references to Ilyin as ‘a manner of avoiding fascism while coming very close’. Like many other commentators, he draws attention to the positive statements Ilyin once made about fascism and to his repeated calls for ‘dictatorship’, while ignoring those things Ilyin said about the need to limit state power and the importance of personal freedom. And yet, it is precisely those latter points that Putin has cited, not the former.

As for Gumilev, Eltchaninoff provides some interesting information about Putin’s knowledge of his works, but fails to provide context for all the citations. When speaking at Kant University in Kaliningrad, Putin cites Kant; and when speaking at Lev Gumilev University in Astana, he cites Gumilev. Eltchaninoff believes that the latter cancels out the former, but not for some reason vice-versa. If Putin quoting Kant is merely ‘pseudo-liberalism’, could not Putin quoting Gumilev be ‘pseudo-Eurasianism’?

Having finished his survey of Putin’s speeches, Eltchaninoff comes to the conclusion that, ‘The philosophical sources of Putinism, however diverse they may be, all rest on two pillars: the idea of empire and an apology for war. This is the common core of Sovietism, Ilyin’s ‘White’ imperialism, Leontiev’s conservatism, Danilevskii’s panslavism, and Eurasianism.’

There are two major problems with this conclusion. First, the thesis that Putin is pursuing an empire by means of war is highly debatable as a matter of fact. Second, the interpretation of Putin’s philosophical sources as being united by empire and war is also highly debatable. Sustaining this interpretation requires one to ignore several of the most important sources and to be highly selective in one’s use of those sources which remain. After all, Putin’s citation of Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ hardly fits Eltchaninoff’s conclusion.

Overall, this book is, as we academics like to say, ‘an original contribution to the literature’ on Russia’s president. But I am unconvinced that it really tells us what is going on ‘inside Vladimir Putin’s head’.