Putin’s favorite white philosopher

A rundown of beliefs espoused by Ivan Ilyin, Russia philosopher who most influenced the current Russia president

By Paul Robinson

In his speech to the Russian parliament on 4 December, Vladimir Putin quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who died 60 years ago. Putin supervised the repatriation and reburial of Ilyin’s body in 2005, and has laid flowers on Ilyin’s grave.

He has quoted him several times before. Ilyin’s Our Tasks (Nashi Zadachi) was one of three books distributed by the Kremlin as recommended reading to regional governors and senior members of the United Russia party in early 2014.

And on December 22nd of this year, members of the Duma, Federation Council, and Presidential Administration will meet in Moscow for a round-table discussion of his work.

If Putin has a favourite philosopher, Ilyin seems to be the man. So who was he and what did he believe in?

Born in 1883, Ilyin studied law at Moscow State University and completed his thesis The philosophy of Hegel as a doctrine of the concreteness of God and humanity in 1916.

Resolutely anti-communist, he was expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922 along with some 200 other intellectuals on the infamous ‘philosophers’ steamboat’.

He then took up residence in Berlin, where he made contact with members of the exiled White army of General P.N. Wrangel, who nicknamed him Belyi (White) on account of the pure belizna (whiteness) of his opinions.

Ilyin became the unofficial ideologist of the White Army in exile, and much of his work thereafter was as much political as it was philosophical, and was aimed at a wider audience than other philosophers.

Ilyin’s work covered a large variety of subjects, including the philosophy of Hegel, law, politics, the ethics of violence, the nature of the Russian nation, and the tasks incumbent on Russian émigrés.

He was in many respects a religious philosopher, in that he regarded spiritual matters as more important than material ones. He believed that the Russian revolution was a product of the spiritual failings of the Russian people.

Russia’s resurrection depended on the revival of the correct spirit, including a love of God, a love of Russia, respect for the law, a sense of duty and honour, and devotion to the state and the common weal rather than personal or party interests.

It is difficult to reduce the writings of such a complex thinker to a few lines, but three themes stand out: gosudarstvennost’ (statehood); pravosoznanie (legal consciousness); and natsionalizm (nationalism).

Gosudarstvennost’. Ilyin was a firm believer in a strong state. Gosudarstvennost’ can be viewed in purely descriptive terms as meaning the system of government, but it is also a value-laden term.

It implies a belief that the interests of the state should come first. In this sense it can be contrasted with obshchestvennost’, which is often translated as ‘public opinion’ but more accurately describes the liberal stratum of Russian society and its beliefs, and it can be contrasted also with partiinost’, the ideology of the Communist Party, which placed the interests of the party first.

Ilyin believed that to view the state as a balance of competing material interests was profoundly mistaken. The state should work for the general good. To this end, it must be strong.

In Russia, a weak state would result in anarchy. ‘Russian state power will be strong, or it won’t exist at all’, he wrote. Ilyin rejected federalism and demanded a unitary state, ‘dictatorial in the scope of its powers.’ He favoured autocracy, but one filled with ‘creative spirit … a dictatorial-aristocratic-democracy.’

The state should be absolute in those areas in which it had competence. But it should not have competence over everything. ‘At the head of the state must stand a single will,’ he wrote, ‘It cannot and should not regulate everything. The totalitarian state is godless.’ The state had to be bound by law and accountable to the people.

Pravosoznanie: A lawyer by training, Ilyin was a firm believer in the importance of law. One of Imperial Russia’s greatest failings was its undeveloped ‘legal consciousness’, that is to say its people’s sense of what was right and wrong and whether they should obey the law.

One of the most important tasks of the autocratic state would be to develop the people’s legal consciousness until eventually it reached a level at which the people would become capable of self-government.

Until then, however, attempts to impose liberal democratic forms of government would be disastrous. Thus, in The essence of legal consciousness, Ilyin wrote:

‘The political structure and legal consciousness form a living, inseparable unity insofar as not a single reform is possible until a definite improvement in legal consciousness takes place, and any reform that is disproportionate to the state of popular legal consciousness will turn out to be absurd and ruinous for the state. The single true path to any reform is a gradual education in legal consciousness … in its idea the state can be reduced to self-government of the people. However, the sole and objective end of the state is so high and requires from the citizenry such mature legal consciousness that historically the people turn out to be incapable of self government. … Political philosophy must uncover the root of this divergence; state power must find the path to healing it.’

Natsionalizm: Ilyin was a nationalist. Love of country was a central part of his philosophy. Russians he felt, should put Russian interests first. This contrasted with the internationalist philosophy of the communists.

Furthermore, every nation, Ilyin said, should develop in its own way. Thus the West had no right to tell Russians how to run their own country; conditions in Russia weren’t the same as in the West. ‘Western Europe, which doesn’t know Russia, has not the slightest basis for imposing any political forms whatsoever on us,’ Ilyin declared.

At the same time, Ilyin’s vision of Russia was as a multi-national empire. He did not believe that every small nation had a right to self-determination. Ukrainian independence was anathema to him.

But, precisely because Russia was a multi-national country, and precisely because each nation should develop in its own way, Russians should not seek to assimilate the minorities within the country but leave them to develop their own culture.

In 1938 he fled Germany for Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life, dying there in December 1954.

This article originally appeared here