Tag Archives: Putinism

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’.

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.

What Putin really really wants

Political commentators regularly line up to tell us ‘What Putin wants’ (see for instance this, this, and this). In the early years of Putin’s rule, analysts tended to the view that Putin was non-ideological, and that he was above all a pragmatist, perhaps even an opportunist. More recently, though, there has been a tendency to regard the Russian president as having become more conservative in his outlook. Yet, despite this, there have been very few serious efforts to attempt to understand his beliefs. For the most part, ‘What Putin wants’ is assumed to be self-evident, based on the particular commentator’s own attitude (normally very negative) towards the actions in question. Little genuine research is done to back up the assertions. In particular, the conservative ideas dominating much of contemporary Russian discourse remain understudied, as do their historical and philosophical roots. ‘As a result,’ I wrote in an article a few years ago, ‘Western commentators nowadays, lacking any knowledge of Russia’s conservative heritage, are unable to place contemporary Russian government within the correct intellectual context.’

A new book by veteran historian Walter Laqueur, entitled Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West, constitutes a rare effort to come to grips with the subject. Drawing on a solid knowledge of Russian intellectual history, Laqueur attempts to analyze the ideology guiding the current leadership of the Russian Federation, and thereby to answer the question ‘What is Putinism?’

Laqueur’s answer is that it isn’t fascism, but it is something close to it – a paranoid, nationalist, far right doctrine, made up of six components: ‘religion (the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, Russia’s holy mission, the third Rome, and the New Jerusalem), patriotism/nationalism (with occasional leanings towards chauvinism), geopolitics Russian style, Eurasianism, the besieged-fortress feeling, and zapadophobia (fear of the West).’ Underlying the contemporary search for Russian identity, Laqueur says, is a ‘conviction that Russia is not Europe and that there is a giant conspiracy to destroy Russia. Accompanying it is another set of beliefs that whatever went wrong in Russia is the fault of foreigners.’ Laqueur concludes that ‘Among the Russian weaknesses is the fatal belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories and strange ideas, such as neo-Eurasianism, neogeopolitics, confabulation, and zapadophobia, accompanied by an enduring persecution mania and the exaggerated belief in a historical mission.’ In these circumstances, a ‘retreat from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system seems … unlikely.’

To reach this conclusion, Laqueur embarks upon a potted history of Russian politics, and then upon a rather rambling examination of various other subjects including conservative and far right philosophy, demography, post-Soviet attitudes towards Stalin, and Russian foreign policy. The effect is somewhat incoherent, as the text leaps backwards and forwards in time and space and from topic to topic. But an overall theme does emerge, namely that a lot of Russians believe in a lot of really crackpot ideas.

In some respects, I agree with this. I share, for instance, Laqueur’s negative appraisal of Eurasianism. The reactionary pronouncements of some high-ranking members of the Russian Orthodox Church are also fair game. And Laqueur’s observation that Russian political culture has a paranoid streak is accurate. There are, however, some weaknesses in his thesis. In the first place, he doesn’t do a very good job of showing that the loopy rantings of far-right philosophers and historians really have an impact on how Russia’s rulers think, let alone prove that they have any impact on their behaviour. He says, for instance, that the Russian government’s current alleged support for Eurasianism (which I think in any case is much exaggerated) ‘has to do in part with their aversion toward Europe, which (they feel) rejected it, but it is also a reflection of the immense popularity of the ideas of Lev Gumilev’. But are the ideas of Lev Gumilev really ‘immensely popular’? I can’t say that I see any strong evidence for that assertion. Laqueur then goes on to say: ‘Putin and his colleagues believe that the long search for a new doctrine has ended and that in [Ivan] Ilyin they have found the prophet to present their much-needed new ideology’. But is that really so? I have suggested elsewhere that Putin is fond of Ilyin, but it is not clear how many others share his preference, and in any case Ilyin could hardly be said to be the sole source of the modern ‘Russian idea’, even if it could be shown that such a thing exists. It also makes little sense on the one hand to claim that modern Russia is Eurasianist in orientation and on the other hand to say that Ilyin is the country’s prophet, given that Ilyin most definitely was not a supporter of Eurasianism.

Laqueur does not appear to like the conservative trend in Russian thinking, and as a result emphasizes its negative side to the detriment of anything positive which might be found in it. One can see this in his treatment of Ilyin, which concentrates almost entirely on the favourable things the philosopher had to say about fascism. But there is more to Ilyin than that. Similarly, while it is true that contemporary Russian politics contains more than its fair share of crazy talk, not all Russian conservatives are loony conspiracy theorists. As Paul Grenier showed in a recent article, ‘anti-Western Eurasianism is part of contemporary Russian conservatism. But it is only one part.’  Russian conservatism, Grenier notes, is very varied, and its adherents contain many intelligent, creative, and in some instances even quite liberal people. It deserves a deeper and if not sympathetic, at least more empathetic, analysis than Laqueur is willing to give it.

Grenier comments that, ‘If we wish to understand Russia in something like its true complexity, we have to take the trouble to listen to it, to let it speak in its own voice instead of constantly projecting onto it all our own worst fears.’ Laqueur’s Putinism doesn’t do this. My worry is that rather than deepening its readers’ understanding of Russia, this book will serve only to convince them that Russians really are a bunch of crazies with whom no civilized conversation is possible.