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Putin's Philosopher
Mikhail Nesterov's portrait of Ivan Ilyin, 1921. (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

Putin's Philosopher

Anton Barbashin

In the last days of April, Russian television aired a 150-minute documentary about Vladimir Putin’s decade and a half as the leader of Russia. Shown around the anniversary of his first inauguration (May 7, 2000), the movie offered a blunt message: in the 15 years of Putin’s rule, he had saved Russia from the forces of destruction, both internal—Chechnya and the oligarchs—and external—insidious Western influence. He, the movie repeatedly reinforced, is the only thing holding the country together.

According to the film, moreover, Putin is not just a political savior: his leadership has also been important for the spiritual revival of Russia and its people. Fully six minutes of the movie were dedicated to a recounting of his work to repatriate the remains of White Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin.

His works were first promoted within the Kremlin’s inner circle and then quoted by various state officials throughout the second half of the first decade of the 2000s. Putin’s own interest in Ilyin became apparent after 2006, when he began to feature the philosopher prominently in some of his major addresses to the public. Vladislav Surkov, once known as the “Gray Cardinal of the Kremlin” and as the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, is also fond of quoting Ilyin, whose writings he has used as a tool to promote Putin’s idea of sovereign democracy. Putin assigned his regional governors to read Ilyin’s book Our Mission over the 2014 winter break.

Ilyin has also received a great deal of attention from seemingly polar opposite groups within Russian society. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church have referred to him as a “religious philosopher” and as someone who “preached about the spiritual renewal and rebirth of Russia.” At the same time, Ilyin was quoted by the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, as someone who “made a very significant contribution to the development of the Russian state ideology of patriotism.”

So, who is Mr. Ilyin?


Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin was born in 1883 to an aristocratic family in Moscow. After graduating from one of the best schools in the city with honors, he enrolled in a jurisprudence program at Imperial Moscow University (today Moscow State University). While at the university, he favored radical political views such as anarchism, but he eventually moved toward the center-right, becoming a protégé of one of the most active liberals of prerevolution Russia, Pavel Novgorodtsev. Unlike his mentor, he did not join the pro-tsarist White Army in its fight against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. He was nonetheless deported from Russia in 1922 as an enemy of the Bolshevik state, along with 160 other philosophers, historians, and economists who would become collectively known as “White Russians.”

For the ten years after his exile, Ilyin worked in Germany, scribbling anti-Bolshevik manifestoes and becoming deeply involved in the Russian intellectual émigré community. From 1927 to 1930, he edited the émigré journal Kolokol and was a lecturer at Berlin’s Russian Scientific Institute from 1923 to 1934. And like many of his fellow White Russians, Ilyin was interested in the idea of Eurasianism, which looked to geography to try to create an alternative to Bolshevism.

The radical evolution of his political views became noticeable in the 1930s, when he began to praise Hitler and Mussolini. In his 1933 article “National Socialism: ‘A New Spirit,’” he welcomed fascism as a rightful response to Bolshevism, supported Hitler’s right-wing aspirations, and bashed German Jews for their “sympathy” with communism until he was fired from the university under political pressure in 1943 and fled to Switzerland a few years later.

Ilyin argues that the Russian state—by which he meant the old Russian Empire and its geographic descendant, the Soviet Union—is a unique geo-historical entity tied together by the spiritual unity of the Euro-Asiatic nations. In his view, Hitler’s National Socialism, Mussolini’s fascism, and the Russian White movement were very similar and “spiritually close.” He described them as sharing a “common and united enemy, patriotism, sense of honor, voluntary-sacrificial service, an attraction to dictatorial discipline, to spiritual renewal and the revival/rebirth of their country, and the search for a new social justice.” An opponent of both Soviet communism and Western democracy, Ilyin envisioned a “special” path for Russia, based on the promotion of the Orthodox Church and traditional values that would bring about a spiritual renewal of the Russian people, who at the moment he believed were under the influence of Western political and social constructs.

Despite the horrors of World War II and the defeat of Germany and Italy, Ilyin did not reject fascist ideology. In 1948, he wrote about the mistakes that Hitler had made, but not about the flaws of his ideology. He still recognized it as a just and healthy national-patriotic idea, voicing his hope that Francisco Franco in Spain and António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal would avoid the mistakes that Hitler had made and succeed in their own quests.


Starting in the late 1940s, Ilyin refocused exclusively on Russia, its future, and its historic mission, a heady philosophical combination that would find its way to a man—Putin—whom the historian Timothy Snyder described as having “placed himself at the head of populist, fascist, and neo-Nazi forces in Europe.”

In his 1950 essay, “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World,” Ilyin predicted the fall of the Soviet Union and gave instructions on how to save Russia from the evils of the Western world. The 12-point essay seems to have in it every single propaganda cliché that Kremlin TV uses today.

As the Cold War took hold, Ilyin became increasingly convinced that the West was keen to see the destruction of Russia and would do whatever it took to achieve that internal fragmentation. This disintegration, he argued, would cause a long-lasting civil war within Russia whose negative consequences would reverberate around the world. Given the chance, meanwhile, great powers would inevitably try to annex parts of the Russian state and stimulate havoc, disorganization, and decay. Germany, he writes, “would move into Ukraine and the Baltics, England would bite off the Caucasus and Central Asia, Japan will target the Far Eastern shores.”

Once the West, particularly Germany, annexed Ukraine, it would use the territory to undermine the might of the Russian state. Like many other conservatives, he did not believe that there was such a thing as a Ukrainian nation; Ukrainians thus had no right to any form of statehood. Meanwhile, for Russia, the loss of Ukraine would be fatal and lead to the further dismemberment and disintegration of the nation.

As a warning to his fellow countrymen, Ilyin argues that during this process, the West would use the ideas of “democratization,” “federalization,” and “triumph of freedom” against Russia with only one purpose—to make it weak, so that it could be robbed blind. To be sure, he pointed to no specific examples or evidence. Ilyin argued that democracy is impossible in such a huge country as Russia, and the only possible power configuration is a “Russian national dictatorship.” In Ilyin’s eyes, it was impossible to unite the geographic, ethnic, and cultural diversity of Russia without a strong centralized power. It would be not a totalitarian dictatorship but rather an authoritarian one. It would be a state that would teach its people of “freedom” but limit it so that Russia would face not anarchy but order. Based on patriotism, and with a powerful leader at the top, such a system would protect Russia from revolutions and chaos.


And so, as Putin moved to remake Russia, he turned to Ilyin as both justification for and the hopeful promise of the direction in which he strove to take the country. Ilyin was most likely chosen because his works legitimized Putin’s authoritarian grasp on power, justified limitations on freedom, and provided an antidote to all Western criteria of freedoms, rights, and goals of the state. In essence, Ilyin gave a kind of legitimation for handing almost unchallenged power to the national leader—Putin—whose goal would be to strengthen the state and bring about its spiritual revival, promoting conservative values and norms.

In a 2006 speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly, Putin recalled “the famous Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin,” who, “reflecting on the foundational principles on which the Russian state should firmly stand, noted that a soldier has a high and honest calling. . . . We must always be ready to ward off potential external aggression and acts of international terrorism. We must be able to answer any and all attempts to put external political pressure on Russia, including those that aim to strengthen their own position at our expense.”

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 officially elected leaders of the West are, in fact, puppets of the world’s true rulers: businessmen, Masonic agents, and, often, Jews. These days, that phrase seems omnipresent in Russian discourse and state-controlled media.

Substitute “Jews” with “gays” and “Masonic agents” with “foreign agents,” and Ilyin’s views synchronize perfectly with Putin’s propaganda narrative: the collapse of the Soviet Union was hardly just, and Russians had been duped to believe in the promises of democracy that resulted in a decade of poverty, humiliation, and political impotency. Democracy did not work for Russia; the nation was corrupted by Western values and is under constant attack from those who would seek to dismantle it. The same is true for Ilyin’s distrust of democratic governance. The reasons that Ilyin gives as explanation for the West’s supposed hatred of Russia are voiced daily on Russian television: the West does not know or understand Russia, and it fears it. Most important, perhaps, it rejects Russian Orthodox tenets.

Like many of Russia’s current leaders, Ilyin promoted spiritual renewal under the auspices of the Orthodox Church. Although not particularly religious himself, Ilyin saw religion as intricately connected with politics and was horrified at the Soviet Union’s attempts to destroy it: “Demagoguery and deceit, expropriation and terror, the destruction of religion and life—were all done to bring about a ‘national flourishing’ of the Russian minorities, and in the West, the gullible and corrupt correspondents sang about the ‘liberation of nations.’” He believed that traditional values could guide the Russian nation to a successful future by uniting it into a more cohesive unit.

Putin, likewise, has spoken of the need for religious revival and the valuable role that the Orthodox Church plays. Says Putin: “The Russian Orthodox Church plays an enormous formative role in preserving our rich historical and cultural heritage and in reviving eternal moral values. It works tirelessly to bring unity, to strengthen family ties, and to educate the younger generation in the spirit of patriotism.”

Putin has thus forged ahead with giving Russians something to believe in, and he has turned again to Ilyin: “Freedom for development in economics, in the social sphere, in community initiatives—this is the best answer to the external restrictions, as well as to our internal problems. And the more actively citizens participate in the arrangement of their own lives . . . the greater is Russia’s potential.” Ilyin, of course, was not a fan of personal choice. For him, the word “freedom” meant something else. To explain, Putin continued, “In this regard, a quotation: ‘He who loves Russia should wish for her freedom; first of all for the freedom of Russia proper, her international independence and self-sufficiency; freedom for Russia—as the unity of [ethnic] Russians and all the other national cultures; and, finally, freedom for the Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of belief, the search for truth, of creativity, work, and ability.’”


Whether Putin and his team personally believe the ideas they so actively propagate does not truly matter. As they have done time and again, the Kremlin’s spin doctors have simply expropriated someone else’s works for their own propaganda purposes. 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. The truth has become malleable, yet Russians understandably err on the side of believing the information their government gives them. For example, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, only five percent of Russians believe that their country or the Donetsk People’s Republic had anything to do with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Russia’s citizens have been fed this toxic brew for years. When Putin’s regime eventually does come to an end, he has ensured that the rebuilding of Russia’s relations with Western, liberal countries will be a difficult task.

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