Vladimir Putin recently shocked a lot of people with an unscripted denunciation of Lenin. This should not have come as such a surprise. Although Western commentators often describe Putin as an ex-KGB agent keen to restore the Soviet Union, in reality he has repeatedly made it clear that he regards communism as a failed model of development which brought Russia mostly harm. You can’t be a fan of both Ivan Ilyin and Lenin.
What interests me is the specific reason Putin gave for denouncing the former Soviet leader. According to Interfax (with a little help in translation from my research assistant Oxana):
Vladimir Putin spoke sharply about the ideas and actions of Vladimir Lenin in an exchange with Mikhail Kovalchuk … who recited Boris Pasternak’s poem ‘High disease’, in which the author analyzed the October Revolution. The poem went: «As I saw him in waking life, I thought, I thought, I thought endlessly what right did he have to be so bold and speak on everyone’s behalf».
«The answer was: he ruled the minds and through them, he ruled the country», continued the poem, which Kovalchuk used to suggest that academia should be able to rule the minds in particular areas.
«I agree that minds should be managed. The important thing here is to make sure that these ideas yield good results, as opposed to what Vladimir Lenin ended up with. Because at the end of the day, these ideas led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were a lot of ideas like autonomy, etc. They laid an atomic bomb under the building named Russia and it went off. And suddenly no need for any world revolution. That was the extent of Lenin’s management of ideas» — said Vladimir Putin as a closing remark of the meeting.
It is clear from this that Putin blames the collapse of the Soviet Union on the federal system introduced by Lenin after the revolution. In Putin’s eyes, it seems, Russia is rightly a multinational but unitary state. The loss of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is highly regrettable, and the concept of ‘autonomy’ is to blame.
Now compare this to a speech given by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on 22 January to mark Unity Day (Den’ sobornosti). In his speech Poroshenko said,
Sobornost’, dear compatriots, is a unitary state structure. It is a categorical prohibition of the import of ideas of federalism which are destructive and unacceptable for Ukraine. Sobornost’, at the end of the day, is when at the decisive moment of colossal trials, like now, right and left, conservatives and liberals, cosmopolitans and nationalists, put behind them any type of ‘ism’ which divides them, and stand side by side for the sake of Ukraine.
As a historian, I find his emphasis on sobornost’ curious. Poroshenko claims to lead a government dedicated to Westernization. But sobornost’ is the essence of Slavophilism, which is normally seen as standing in direct opposition to Westernization. The concept’s originators, Ivan Kireevsky and Aleksey Khomiakov, viewed sobornost’ as encapsulating the sense of spiritual community which supposedly distinguishes collective-minded Russians from individualistic, atomized Westerners. If sobornost’ really is the quality which Poroshenko seeks for Ukraine, he’s not actually a Westernizer at all.
And, then there is Poroshenko’s statement about federalism. We are often told that Ukraine has made a ‘civilizational choice’ to reject Russia and Putin, and all that they supposedly stand for. In fact, it seems as if Putin and Poroshenko are in absolute accord about what a state should look like.