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Foreign Affairs | 20Sep2015 | Anton Barbashin & Hannah Thoburn, [2] Kirillova

Putin's Philosopher

Ivan Ilyin and the Ideology of Moscow's Rule

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.

Ilyin was unknown to the wider public before Russian filmmaker and conservative activist Nikita Mikhalkov brought him back from the abyss in the early 2000s. But ignominy was the best place for Ilyin to hang his historical hat. Never a deep or clear thinker, he was not truly an academic or philosopher in the classical sense, but rather a publicist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Russian nationalist with a core of fascistic leanings.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Free Russia | 24Sep2015 | Ksenia Kirillova

Main Features of the Russian Mentality

In this article, I will attempt to reflect the main characteristics of the contemporary mentality of a majority of Russians who have provided the foundation for the widespread support of the aggressive policies of the authorities. I will also try to identify the reasons underlying certain traits as well as their consequences.

1. One of the essential characteristics that distinguish the average Russian in recent years is the blurring of moral principles and norms. Such disregard for moral and legal norms has developed gradually and has been incorporated into the public consciousness at a minimum over the past few years through a variety of trends. I will outline only the most striking examples of these different trends:

1.1. Tolerance for the phenomenon of corruption. The paradox is that Kremlin propaganda has not particularly tried to hide the extent to which the vertical power structure built by Putin is riddled with theft and lawlessness. However, the propagandists have focussed on the idea that representatives of the liberal opposition are just as likely to tend towards corruption. In this way, the Kremlin-controlled media has managed to convince the population that there is no reason to «exchange one set of thieves for another», and that stealing is the norm for Russia, that any person who comes to power will invariably steal.

1.2. Discrediting democratic values. Putin has done everything possible so that the very terms «liberalism» and «democracy» produce a kind of conditioned reflex in Russian society: phobias and associations with coups, violent revolutions, rampant crime, bloodshed, death, and anarchy. In this way, propaganda has succeeded on the one hand in entirely discrediting and debunking the values of lawfulness and freedom, and on the other hand, it has created in the Russian consciousness an irrational fear of people with democratic views both at home and abroad.

1.3. Discrediting the truth as such. Back in December of 2014, «The New York Times» published an op-ed entitled «Russia’s Ideology: There Is No Truth». The author points out that when people with a Soviet mentality who were accustomed to “doublethink and dual faith” came to power, they created a society in which pretense triumphed, with fake elections, a fake free press, fake free markets and fake justice.

Gradually, as a result,  over the 15 years of Putin’s rule, Russian society has reached the limit of its moral decay. It is precisely this moral relativism and irrational fear that have provided the basis for the imposition of the contemporary «Crimea is Ours» movement and for the «hybrid war» in the Donbass.

It is worth noting that there is no study on the moral and ethical characteristics of the average Russian, or on the moral category of «norms». The main creative forces in Russian culture, the people who set the moral tone for national ethics and the creators of the most powerful literary works and ideas were persecuted: some were subjected to forced labor and exile, and others, in the 20th century, experienced the inhumane conditions of torture and labor camps. These people truly went through hell and were not broken by it. Their experience is a feat that could not be repeated by the average person.

The consequences are manifold.  On the one hand, there is a certain apoliticism on the part of most of the population relating to issues of domestic policy. Russians are convinced that «politics is a dirty business» and, for this reason, one must avoid politics: they are convinced that «everyone steals» and that that is just the way it is, so that any attempts to achieve change are senseless, since fair judges and honest bureaucrats and policemen simply do not exist. This attitude is at the origin of the characteristic Russian lack of trust in the opposition, which is labeled as «the same kind of thieves who want to get their hands on the money». It also explains the high degree of infantilism among Russians in matters relating to the fate of their native city, or even their own fate.

On the other hand, people who think in this way are characterized by the acceptance as norms of behavior of any and all forms of amoral behavior by the authorities. Depending on the situation, such behavior may be interpreted as a necessary evil or even as a courageous act required to «protect their own interests». Many Russians are sincerely convinced that the governments of other countries act, in the same way, and that if they don’t, it is only because the Russian authorities have cleverly «outplayed» them.

2. As if to compensate for the high degree of political apathy in domestic policy, a majority of Russians show a certain loyalty to the authorities on foreign policy. This phenomenon can be explained by the following reasons:

2.1. In Russia, the support systems never developed that would have allowed individuals to become relatively independent of the state. Even in the 1990s, which was a period marked by freedom, the inviolability of private property did not develop, nor did an independent judiciary or the very culture of respect for the individual. Almost every person comes face to face with Russia’s lawlessness and then makes vain attempts to find the truth and break through the wall of corruption. As a result, even the most «patriotic» Russians understand deep down that in their country, anything at all can happen to anyone at all. The only guarantee, though not an absolute one, of escaping this rule is being loyal to the state, and being sufficiently active in demonstrating this loyalty so that the state knows who you are. The Russian sees no other way of protecting him or herself.

2.2. The authorities consider any kind of protest to be revolutionary. Anyone who has had to deal with corruption has practically no way to defend his or her interests through conventional means. If such a person resorts to any form of protest, he or she is automatically branded as being among the ranks of «enemies and traitors».  Of course, being labeled as a member of the «fifth column» and pitting yourself against the entire society is possible for an ideologically motivated person who has clear convictions and who is ready to stand up for them, but it is not possible for the average person who is facing injustice. For most people, it is easier to inform on your neighbor and in this way to ensure yourself the protection of the state and its help in solving your problems, than it is to be categorized among the ranks of the unreliable and disloyal.

2.3. Instead of the actual vulnerability of the individual to the arbitrary actions of the authorities, propaganda offers Russians the illusion of self-importance, which lends passion to geopolitics. The lies propagated on the government-controlled television stations fully satisfy the average person, because they give him or her the impression of taking part in meaningful. large-scale events.

2.4. The artificial creation of extreme conditions on account of an «external enemy». Russian propaganda has for a number of years actively suggested that any dissatisfaction with the authorities will end in a sea of blood. Then, having inculcated this fear in people, Putin firmly linked the guarantee of  any possible stability to his person.

As a result, people have almost unconsciously developed a certain linkage: that Putin offers the only opportunity to ensure the normal existence of the country in extreme conditions. Accordingly, militant propaganda about external enemies artificially creates the very effect of extreme conditions, which triggers the association that has been induced: Putin is the only one who can save the country.

One consequence is a sharp decrease in critical thinking on foreign policy issues and an unconscious desire on the part of Russians to believe in propaganda despite the obvious, since the media create a comfortable picture of reality and the illusion of being protected -- by  the «strong leader» -- from problems which they see no possibility of influencing themselves.

3. A necessary attribute of the artificially created extreme conditions has been the growth in military hysteria and the constant need for both internal and external enemies. The Russian authorities have created the image of an enemy in the eyes of public opinion in the following ways:

3.1. The direct effects of propaganda. Here follows an overview of the main strategies and methods used to obtain the desired results:
1). Weakening of critical thinking.
2). Creating the image of the enemy.
3). Linking all internal problems to external factors.
4). An emphasis on consolidating society in the face of a military threat.
5). Creating the image of Vladimir Putin as the only leader capable of withstanding the military threat.
6). Preparing for the inevitable hardships of «wartime».
7). Creating an image for the West of a united Russia ready for war.

3.2. It is possible to identify an indirect mechanism to divide society not only by setting separate groups of people against each other, but also by claiming the incompatibility of identities, meanings and values which could easily co-exist in one person. For example, the propagandists have successfully managed to posit as being in opposition to one another the terms «liberal» and «patriot», inculcating in Russians the idea that «a liberal cannot be a patriot».

These processes yield a number of consequences for Russian society:

There is more than ever a high need for «enemies», both for justifying the hardships that are being experienced, and in order that people may take part in immoral activity simply through passively approving of it.

In fact, war is the main element which provides the opportunity for the authorities to influence society in contemporary Russia. It is with the help of war that the image of the enemy is being created and that a cult of personality is forming around Putin: it is war that underpins the consolidation of Russian society, and it is war that explains the hardships which are only destined to grow given the Russian economic crisis. This means that the Kremlin has finally found itself caught in a trap: it cannot stop the war, nor can it turn off the destructive television channel.

- A majority of Russians are characterized by a differentiated consciousness, with a clearly expressed group identification in which the boundaries between groups are very strictly delineated. As a result, such a person, when deprived of the usual freedom of self-definition and development, becomes very easily manipulated. He or she is already trapped in the clearly defined clichés of his or her social group and is unable to go beyond these limits, which are arbitrarily conditioned.

- As is the case with the discrediting of democratic values, Russians have a phobia of certain terms and categories, and of certain groups, such as liberals, supporters of joining the European Union, ethnic Ukrainians, Americans, etc. This makes it quite difficult for members of these groups to communicate with the average Russian.

4. Nostalgia for the Soviet past -- and, as a result, «imperial syndrome». The following reasons can be identified to explain these two phenomena:

4.1. Since the Russian authorities have successfully created the illusion that Russia is a besieged fortress, surrounded by enemies, a majority of Russians support «restoring Russia’s influence» in the territory of the former USSR; they genuinely believe that, given the hostility at Russia’s doorstep, the country requires a buffer or protective zone, or some other kind of layer between itself and its «enemies».

4.2. Despite their totalitarianism and aggressive attempts to regulate all spheres of society, the current authorities do not offer society a model of a desirable future or any kind of possible paradigm for development. The distinguishing feature of contemporary Russian ideology is that it is devoid of any actual content. No specific content is given to the ideologically-charged concepts of the «Russian world», «Russian civilization», or the «special path of development». This may be the first time in world history that we observe such a phenomenon -- the appearance of a farcical ideology, a quasi-ideology containing only superficial, declarative elements.

As a result, in place of the Soviet myth about the «bright future», Russians are left with only an idealized past. Russians have idealized the model of the Soviet Union. Many Russians really believe that it is still possible to return to the USSR, but they have no concrete idea of how to achieve this goal in reality. For this reason, many Russians are either nostalgiac for the past and idealize it, with the myth serving as a justification to approve the militaristic, expansionistic policies of the authorities, or they believe that the mythologized USSR already exists in the present, and they are ready to defend it from imaginary enemies.

4.3. The idealized image of the USSR gives people hope that they will be protected not only from external threats, but also that they will be protected in domestic policy, through guaranteed employment and social benefits and services, even if of low quality, and a guaranteed paycheck -- in short, a social allowance, which is not dependent upon personal efforts, abilities and achievements.

4.4. The Russian yearning for the grandeur of the imperial past is not to be brushed aside. The history of Russia is truly the history of an empire dominated by Russian culture and within which, especially during the existence of the USSR, the national identities of the other constituent republics were suppressed. Imperial Russia was always characterized by collectivism, the search for a «special path» and detachment from the rest of the world, weak development of individual consciousness, etc. Accordingly, many Russians were pained by the disintegration of the empire and the refusal by the peoples who had formed it off the dominant Russian influence.

The consequences of these processes are not only the unconditional approval by the overwhelming majority of Russians of the expansionistic policies of the authorities, but also the idealization of other destructive and aggressive phenomena from the Soviet past: repression, informing on others, persecution of dissidents, the imposition of a mandatory ideology, etc.

Free Russia Foundation has asked Ksenia Kirillova, a Russian journalist, and contributor of the “New region” newspaper  to analyze the main characteristics of Russian general mentality and the ways the Kremlin is playing with it.